Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 30 July 2021

Essex witchesfree

(act. 1566–1589)

Essex witchesfree

(act. 1566–1589)
  • Marion Gibson

Essex witches (act. 1566–1589)

woodcut, 1589

© Lambeth Palace Library, London, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library

Essex witches (act. 1566–1589), are known from four surviving pamphlets published between 1566 and 1589 describing the lives, and in some cases deaths, of one man and thirty women who were accused of witchcraft in Essex and prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act of 1563. In this period witchcraft was punishable by hanging if a witch was convicted of killing a person, or if he or she committed a second witchcraft offence of any kind. Witches were not burnt in England, and lesser witchcraft offences were punished by imprisonment and the pillory. Because survivals of early modern Essex trial records are among the most numerous in England, and because of the higher than average number of contemporary pamphlets published on Essex cases, the county's witchcraft prosecutions have received more attention than those of most other areas and statistical analysis as well as individual biography is possible.

Early witchcraft trials, 1566–1579

Over the period covered by the pamphlets some 430 people were prosecuted for witchcraft offences in the home counties, which formed the home circuit for judicial purposes, with a peak between 1580 and 1589. Essex, one of these five counties, accounted for nearly 60 per cent of home circuit prosecutions for witchcraft and between 1570 and 1609 fifty-three Essex witches were hanged as against a total of sixty-four executions across all the home counties. This was a high proportion, even allowing for the fact that only about a quarter of the total indicted were actually found guilty and hanged. Accusations were most common in eastern and central Essex, although local episodes of witch accusation could occur anywhere. Many Essex people clearly believed strongly in witchcraft as a threat to them, as a source of healing or divining magic, or as a power which they themselves had come to possess. Women were particularly likely to be accused, often of inheriting their powers or sharing them with other female family members or friends (nearly 90 per cent of all indicted Essex witches were women), and many confessed the accusations to be true. Some may have been convinced that they could and did curse their neighbours, others said they practised only healing magic, while a third group denied all involvement. Some people seem likely—from the pattern of their narratives—to have invented confessions and denials out of mixed motives including, sometimes, a belief that producing any kind of coherent narrative would lead to clemency. Their accusers were equally likely to create an unnaturally neat fiction about the witches out of a combination of incoherent events and unverifiable beliefs about their lives. It is therefore hard to decide, or to find a reliable methodology for assessing, which elements of their stories represent factual and verifiable life events and which are retrospective rationalizations based on fantasy or fiction confabulated under pressure. Both these types of experience represent, however, a biographical reality for the pamphleteers who immortalized these Essex people.

All the villagers are shown in the pamphlets as ordinary people who have been tempted into the felony of maleficent witchcraft for a variety of reasons. In 1566 Elizabeth Frauncis (c. 1529–1579), from Hatfield Peverel, told pre-trial questioners that, aged twelve (at least twenty-five years earlier, the narrative suggests) she was given a white-spotted cat named Satan by her grandmother, Eve. She renounced God and his word and was told to give her blood to the cat. Later she asked the cat for sheep, and to procure her a rich husband. Unfortunately, when the cat prevailed upon her to have sex with the favoured man, he had not married her, and she told the cat to kill him. Fearing pregnancy, she asked the cat for help with abortifacient herbs, and then at its insistence attempted once again to win a husband by what the pamphlet labels 'fornication'. In this attempt she succeeded, but later marital unhappiness prompted her to kill the resultant child, and to lame her husband, whom trial records name as Christopher Frauncis. Her story was printed in The Examination and Confession of Certaine Wytches at Chensforde in the Countie of Essex (1566). It suggests that Elizabeth Frauncis felt guilty about sexual events in her younger life, and that, when interrogated on suspicion of witchcraft, she confessed those matters which were on her conscience, rather than the expected punishable acts of harmful magic against neighbours. Equally, the fact that one of her questioners was a churchman may mean that the focus on sin rather than crime in Frauncis's story was his rather than exclusively hers. Assize records suggest that she was not formally charged with any of the matters she confessed—the trial at Chelmsford concentrated on the bewitchment of a child, to which Frauncis pleaded guilty. She was sentenced in July to a year's imprisonment, with four pillory appearances, as the penalty for a first, non-fatal offence. In August 1572 Frauncis was tried again as a witch, for what is rightly described in the assize records as her second offence. However, the indictment had to be redrafted: when tried in March 1573 for the same offence and found guilty she escaped death (the penalty for a second offence) and was imprisoned and pilloried again (the penalty for a first offence). In April 1579, however, her luck ran out and she was tried, convicted, and hanged for killing a neighbour, Alice Poole, by witchcraft. She pleaded not guilty, but had confessed to the offence in a pre-trial examination which appears in the second Essex pamphlet A detection of damnable driftes practized by three [actually four] witches arraigned at Chelmisforde in Essex (1579). Frauncis said that she killed Poole, with the help of a dog spirit, because Poole refused to give her yeast—a far more petty motivation than the grand lusts of her first confession thirteen years before.

Agnes Waterhouse (1501/2–1566), Frauncis's neighbour and probably her sister, confessed far more conventional witchcraft offences in 1566 than she did. Waterhouse received the cat, Satan, from Frauncis in exchange for a cake, she said, and used him against neighbours who had angered her, asking him to kill hogs, a cow, and geese, to harm brewing and dairying, to kill a neighbour, and, nine years previously, her own husband. She turned the cat familiar into a toad because poverty forced her to use the wool on which he slept. In July 1566 Waterhouse pleaded guilty in court to killing William Fynee (no mention was made of the more sensational murder of her husband, or the confessed property offences) and she was hanged at Chelmsford on 29 July. She said at her death that she had been a witch for fifteen years, and added that she had always prayed in Latin. The pamphlet emphasized the illegality and ungodliness of this activity, suggesting again the influence of churchmen on some of the confessions of witches, and the thin lines between residual Catholicism, deliberate recusancy, and the practice of secret magical rites with a perceived Satanic tint.

The third witch to be tried at Chelmsford in July 1566 was Joan Waterhouse (b. 1547/8), Agnes Waterhouse's daughter. She began her pre-trial examination by denying any knowledge of witchcraft, although she said that her mother had attempted to teach her 'this art'. However, shortly afterwards she began to confess that she had tried out the familiar spirit, Satan, in her mother's absence, and used him to punish a neighbour's child, Agnes Browne, for uncharitable acts towards her. Browne is shown in The Examination and Confession as giving sensational evidence against both Joan and Agnes Waterhouse, and it seems likely that her stories played a large part in bringing both women to trial, along with Frauncis. She said that she had been 'haunted' by a black dog with an ape's face which had asked for butter, played in the milkhouse, and finally attempted to kill her with a knife which he said belonged to Agnes Waterhouse. Browne was counselled by a clergyman during her alleged experiences, rather as if she were a possession victim, and she had the backing of the pamphlet which treated her as a star witness. However, Joan Waterhouse was acquitted and Browne's credibility in court must therefore be in doubt. Other felonies and witchcraft cases at the 1566 summer assizes went unreported.

Witchcraft was usually thought to have occurred where disputes arose between victim and suspect, followed by misfortune. The second Essex pamphlet illustrates this well. It contains accusations against four women, Elizabeth Frauncis and three others. The first was Elleine Smith (d. 1579), of Maldon, tried and hanged at Chelmsford in April 1579 for killing a child. She had quarrelled with a number of people, including her stepfather, John Chaundeler, when he asked her for money which her mother had given her. Smith's mother, Alice Chaundeler, had been executed for murder by witchcraft in 1574 and her daughter was probably assumed to have inherited her witchcraft as well as her money, especially since John Chaundeler died strangely after their quarrel. Smith was also believed to have hit the child who died and sent a dog spirit to attack her, and to have attacked with a toad spirit a neighbour who refused charity to her son. Her son, as was often the case, also accused his mother of keeping familiar spirits. Margery Staunton of Wimbish, described in the same pamphlet, was refused charity by nine households and was seen to resent this—after which misfortune overtook the households. She escaped punishment because her indictment was wrongly drafted. Finally, Alice Nokes of Lambourne allegedly injured a man who stole gloves from her daughter, and attacked a horse because the ploughman would not speak to her. She was hanged for murder by witchcraft, an accusation not mentioned in the pamphlet.

Late witchcraft trials, 1579–1589

Individual and inter-household quarrels, but also the dynamics of spiralling accusations and ruthless questioning, played a major part in the biggest English witchcraft case of the period, described in W. W.'s A true and just recorde of the information, examination and confession of all the witches, taken at S. Oses in the countie of Essex (1582). In February and March 1582 Brian Darcy, an Essex JP and witch-hunter, questioned thirteen women and a man from the villages of St Osyth, Little Clacton, Thorpe, Little Oakley, and Walton and sent them for trial at Chelmsford. The process began modestly enough when a St Osyth servant of Darcy's relative Thomas Darcy, third Baron Darcy of Chiche, complained that a woman whom she had been consulting as a magical healer, Ursley Kempe (d. 1582), had killed one of her children and made herself and another child ill. Kempe confessed several attacks on villagers and accused neighbours Alice Newman, Elizabeth Bennett (d. 1582), Annis Glascock, and Alice Hunt of witchcraft. She was in turn accused by other informants, including her brother, who said that Kempe had killed his wife for calling her a whore and a witch. Kempe's illegitimate son told the magistrate that she kept spirits, and Newman was described as working in partnership with her, using the same spirits, although she refused to confess anything. Although convicted of the same three offences of murder, Kempe was hanged at Chelmsford in April 1582 while Newman was imprisoned until released by general pardon in 1588—an unusual punishment. After Brian Darcy falsely promised favour to those who confessed, Bennett pleaded guilty to keeping spirits and using them to kill her abusive neighbour and his wife, and was hanged at Chelmsford in April 1582. Glascock apparently confessed nothing, but died in prison (inquest date 11 November 1582) after being convicted of three murders and reprieved. Hunt was acquitted of murder and of killing cows, despite the evidence of her eight-year-old stepdaughter that she kept spirits. Meanwhile her sister, Margery Sammon or Barnes, confessed to the keeping of spirits and incriminated Hunt's next door neighbour, Joan Pechey, saying that she had killed John Johnson, the collector for the poor, for giving her insufficient charity. Newman was also accused (by other informants) of his murder but nobody was formally charged. Pechey refused to confess but died in prison (inquest date 11 November 1582) despite supposedly being discharged without trial. Barnes apparently evaded trial, only to be indicted for keeping spirits in 1583. She was acquitted.

Accusations were also taking place in adjacent villages. Cicely Selles and her husband, Henry Selles, of Little Clacton, were accused of witchcraft by a wealthy neighbour, Richard Ross, and by their own children. Ross also accused them of damaging property and of arson. Henry Selles was not tried, while his wife was acquitted of arson. She was, however, convicted of murdering the son of a neighbour whose daughter had also suffered mysterious illness, supposedly at her hands. Both Selleses died in gaol (inquest dates 31 January and 8 March 1583) after being tried again, with their son Robert Selles, for arson against Ross. This makes it likely that Ross was the force behind their prosecution, especially as they were also accused of, but not charged with, attacking his maid and farm, and killing a child of one of his workers (despite the reluctance of the child's mother to accuse Cicely Selles). Witchcraft accusation could be a way of expressing a more deep-seated hatred—even a feud—here. Alice Manfielde of Thorpe and 55-year-old Margaret Grevell were accused of various offences: impeding farm work by magic, arson, and murder. Manfielde, despite a fulsome confession and further incrimination of existing suspects, was charged only with arson, and was acquitted, while Grevell was acquitted of killing a man whose wife had refused her charity. Elizabeth Ewstace, aged fifty-three, was accused of murder and of causing illness in animals and humans, but was not brought to trial. In Little Oakley, Annis Herd was accused of murder by the parson of Beaumont, but, being charged only with harming animals, was acquitted. Her illegitimate daughter accused her of keeping spirits, and other neighbours described misfortunes which had struck after they refused her charity. Finally, in Walton various accusations of harming animals and causing wind damage were made against Joan Robinson, a comparatively wealthy woman, but were apparently dismissed. The prosecution petered out as accusations became less and less grave, the assize of March 1583 approached and prosecutions were surprisingly unsuccessful in a number of cases.

The desire to publish accounts of witchcraft cases did not, however, fade. In 1589 material from the pre-trial examinations of three more Essex women was published as The Apprehension and Confession of Three Notorious Witches. Joan Cunny [Cony] (c. 1508/9–1589), of Stisted, was accused of harming and killing her neighbours and causing a damaging storm. She confessed that she had learned her 'art' from a woman who had told her to make a circle on the ground and pray to Satan, at which invocation spirits would appear. She said she had done this twenty years previously, had given her soul to the spirits, taken them home and fed them, and afterwards used them to do various harmful acts. The pamphleteer said that Cunny had two daughters, Margaret and Avis, and two illegitimate grandsons. It was from one of these boys that some of the accusations against Cunny and her daughters came. Cunny was hanged at Chelmsford on 5 July 1589, while Margaret was imprisoned and Avis was sentenced to death, but was reprieved because she was pregnant. Joan Upney of Dagenham was similarly accused with her daughters. She too confessed to learning her witchcraft from a woman who had, this time, brought familiar spirits to her. This woman, named Whitecote, is probably Cecilia Glasenberye (also known as Arnold or Whitecote), a Barking woman executed for witchcraft in 1574, whose story featured in a lost pamphlet of that year and was reprinted in 1595 in A World of Wonders, a Masse of Murthers, a Covie of Cosonages. Upney blamed the spirits which Whitecote had given her for harming her neighbours, but was herself convicted of two murders and hanged. Alice Upney, presumably Upney's daughter, was discharged without trial. The pamphlet's final account is of Joan Prentice (d. 1589), who lived in the almshouse at Sible Hedingham, and confessed that she had a familiar in the shape of a ferret named Satan. She tried to resist his overtures, but let him suck her blood and then used him to harm her neighbours. She said that the ferret disobeyed her instructions to hurt a child and instead killed it, but this excuse did not save her from execution. Prentice was hanged at Chelmsford on 5 July 1589. She named two other women, Elizabeth Whale and Elizabeth Mott, whom she said used the same spirit, but they were discharged without trial.

Each ‘witch's’ story is subtly different, although there are linking themes, most of which became standard in witchcraft accusations and confessions. In some stories sexual motives meet malice to produce a potent and incredible village Medea: a woman who uses devil-inspired magic to enchant and kill in furtherance of her desires—or feels guilty because she wishes she had. In others poverty leads to begging, which, when refused, prompts designs of revenge on the uncharitable neighbour. Unneighbourly refusal to trade with the witch or less obvious economic or social injuries might equally be revenged. Some cases say more about the alleged victim than the witch: a strong imagination, mental illness, or unexplained disease, combined with naughtiness, teenage crises, or fear, produce a story of peculiar afflictions visited on the innocent by the malignant. Finally, questioners have a great influence over confessions by witches: leading questions were common, and the temptation to say what was expected in the hope of pleasing the magistrate or churchman must have been great.

There are exemplars of each of these life stories in all the pamphlets. Frauncis's sexual adventures are echoed in the fact that a number of the Essex witches had illegitimate children or were accused of causing harm to those who stood in their way sexually. In 1582 Pechey was accused of incest, while Cicely Selles's husband was alleged to have described his wife as a 'stinking whore'. The 1589 pamphleteer described Cunny and her daughters as 'living very lewdly … no better than naughty packs'. The most common story is, however, that of revenge for uncharity, or economic unneighbourliness such as theft or refusal to trade. At least two thirds of the Essex witches were involved in disputes with neighbours over such matters, and almost all had been insulted, attacked by or had quarrelled abusively with alleged victims. Most were relatively poor; where occupations are known, Henry Selles was an agricultural labourer, Sammon a servant, Bennett the wife of a husbandman, Hunt a mason's wife, and Glascock married to a sawyer. Many of the women were apparently single or widowed (although the convenient legal definition 'spinster' can be misleading here), and the witches accused in these pamphlets are almost exclusively female, mirroring (if exaggerating) the national male : female percentages, where 90 per cent of suspects might be expected to be women.


  • The examination and confession of certaine wytches at Chensforde in the countie of Essex (1566)
  • A detection of damnable driftes practized by three witches arraigned at Chelmisforde in Essex (1579)
  • W. W., A true and just recorde of the information, examination and confession of all the witches, taken at S. Oses in the countie of Essex (1582)
  • The apprehension and confession of three notorious witches (1589)
  • J. S. Cockburn, Calendar of assize records: Essex indictments, Elizabeth I (1978)
  • J. Sharpe, Instruments of darkness: witchcraft in England 1550–1750 (1996)
  • A. Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: a regional and comparative study (1970)
  • M. Gibson, Early modern witches: witchcraft cases in contemporary writing (2000)
  • B. Rosen, Witchcraft in England, 1558–1618 (1991)
  • M. Gibson, Reading witchcraft: stories of early English witches (1999)
  • J. S. Cockburn, Calendar of assize records: introduction (1985)


  • TNA: PRO, indictment files from assizes, ASSI/35


  • engraving, 1589, Lambeth Palace Library, London; repro. in Notorious witches [see illus.]