Weird Suffolk: The Brandeston Witch
PUBLISHED: 14:04 30 April 2018 | UPDATED: 16:20 30 April 2018
It didn't pay to be unpopular during the Witch Trials of the 1640s and in particular, it didn't pay to preach the Catholic liturgy at a time when doing so left you branded a "scandalous minister" or to be a Royalist in a Parliamentarian area.
At the height of the Civil War, 80-year-old Brandeston vicar John Lowes, who had preached at All Saints Church in the village for almost 50 years, was accused of witchcraft by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, who came from nearby Great Wenham.
After intense interrogation by Hopkins – which very probably involved him being bound to a chair so tightly he would have bled - the elderly vicar had his ‘confession’ tortured out of him – he was deprived of sleep for nights on end and then forcibly run up and down his cell until “he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did”.
In his delirious state, he confessed to a number of strange crimes, claiming that he had bewitched cattle and caused a ship to sink off Harwich harbour on a calm day, causing the loss of many lives – he said that he had worked in league with Satan and had committed “most heinous, wicked and accursed acts” with the help of six imps who visited him daily.
The graduate of St John’s College in Cambridge also confessed to bewitching Mary Cooke to death, attempting to poison a son of the local gentry, being the accomplished to a female witch who committed murder, raising storms, frequenting with familiars and imps and preaching 60 sermons after his covenant with the Devil.
A search was then made of poor Vicar Lowes to find the Devil’s Mark, which Hopkins claimed were the teats from which witches’ familiars – dogs, cats or other animals – could suckle.
Marks that were considered suspect included spots, pimples, boils or warts, meaning that few people escaped unscathed from the intimate search: the ‘teats’ were duly found on the crown of Lowes’ head and a further two were discovered under his tongue.
He was plunged into the moat at Framilingham Castle, where he stoutly refused to drown in the stagnant, and therefore his fate was sealed.
Despite retracting his confession as soon as he was out of the clutches of Hopkins and his henchmen, Lowes was sentenced to death at the assizes in Bury St Edmunds and was brought to the gallows on August 27 1645, protesting his innocence.
Alongside him, Anne Alderman, Rebecca Morris and Mary Bacon of Chattisham, Mary Clowes of Yoxford, Sarah Spindler, Jane Linstead, Thomas Everard and his wife Mary of Halesworth, Mary Fuller of Combs, near Stowmarket, Susan Manners, Jane Rivet and Mary Skipper of Copdock, near Ipswich, Mary Smith of Great Glemham, Margery Sparham of Mendham, Katherine Tooly of Westleton and Anne Leech and Anne Wright, whose origin is unknown, were hanged.
Before he died, and since no clergyman was permitted to read the burial service over a servant of the Devil, the old man recited it to himself beneath the gallows.
Many believe that it was Lowes’ own parishioners who sent him to his death – he had been accused of witchcraft in the past and it is thought that Lowes’ belief in the old traditions and his fear of change led to his flock turning against him and seizing the opportunity to remove him from their midst.
By the time he was arrested by Hopkins, he had already been the subject of several court cases, repeated petitions to the Archbishop of Canterbury to call for his removal and was mentioned in a pamphlet entitled A Magazine of Scandall in 1642, three years before his death.
Today, a tiny image of Lowes – considered by some as a martyr – can be found on Brandeston’s village sign, hanging from a gallows in front of All Saints, and a plaque commemorating his story can be found in the church itself, a reminder of a terrible crime committed in the name of God.