I have decided to investigate the topic of the Essex witchcraft trials for my individual study, as it is an area of local history that has interested me since I began studying the Tudors for my A - Level history course. There has always been controversy over the reasons why the witchcraft phenomena took such a strong hold in Essex, and what the different reasons were behind why people were accused. During my study I hope to discover more about the factors which influenced the convictions of Essex witches , and to make my own conclusions as to why so many 'ordinary' people were accused and found guilty of being witches.
The first English Witchcraft statute was introduced in 1542 by Henry VIII. Few people were actually prosecuted under the law, which resulted in it being repealed in 1547. In 1563 the statute was re - introduced by Elizabeth I, only to be repealed and replaced with a still more severe charter by James I in 1604. James I was a staunch Protestant and was fiercely against witchcraft. So much so, that he was even personally involved in witchcraft trials in Scotland, making sure that those found guilty were punished for their heinous crimes.
It was in the reign of Elizabeth I that the witchcraft phenomena began in England. People were already being accused of witchcraft in Europe, and were being burned for their crimes. News of witchcraft and its evils soon spread to England, through the literature which was being read by the upper classes. It was not long before this information spread down to the lower classes of Tudor society. As this information gradually filtered through the country and it's different classes, so the witchcraft accusations began to be made against family and neighbours. These accusations reached fever pitch during the reign of James I which resulted in him increasing the severity of the Witchcraft statute, as previously mentioned. The county which experienced the highest number of witchcraft indictments was Essex which is shown by the fact that, between 1560 and 1700, 229 people were indicted for witchcraft in Essex, but only 91 in Kent, 52 in Hertfordshire, 54 in surrey and 17 in Sussex appeared before the Assizes for the same offence. There is no definitive answer as to why the number of indictments were highest in Essex, but it is possible that it is due to the fact that Essex was an extremely religious county, containing superstitious people who, when they learnt of the evils of witchcraft, were quick to believe what they were told and accuse those they knew.
Hanging was the punishment given for being convicted of causing death by witchcraft under the Statute of Elizabeth I. In the reign of James I, practising witchcraft was enough to cause a person to be hung. As a result of this, some 82 Essex people ended their lives at the end of a rope. During the reign of Elizabeth I, imprisonment was also used as a form of punishment, and at least 50 men and women are known to have died of 'gaol fever' (most probably the plague) while under sentence or awaiting trial at the Assizes.
During the years 1560 - 1680, somewhere in the region of 2300 people were involved in cases of witchcraft in Essex, either as suspect or victim. Of these, over 500 were prosecuted at the Assizes, Quarter Sessions or Ecclesiastical courts. This total however probably represents less than two thirds of all those believed to have actually been accused during the period. The most intense areas of prosecution were in the northern part of Essex, with one particularly violent outbreak at Manningtree. The towns of Chelmsford, Braintree and Halstead also had high percentages of witchcraft prosecutions. Mainly though, the prosecutions spread across the whole county. Of the 420 villages in Essex at the time, over half had at least one involvement with a witchcraft case. The main reason that out of all the counties in England, Essex had the highest rate of witchcraft prosecutions is mainly down to one man, the 'Witchfinder General' Matthew Hopkins. Hopkins established himself as a self - appointed witchfinder - general in the Essex parish of Manningtree in the mid - 1640's. Hopkins and his two assistants, John Stearne and Mary Phillips toured the villages of Essex, investigating accusations of witchcraft. In the space of little more than a year, Hopkins brought over 100 women, typically old, poor and physically unattractive to the gallows in Essex. The fact that the women he charged with witchcraft fitted so closely to people's conventional idea of what a witch should be like, doubtlessly did much to help him in succeeding with his many convictions.