WEIRD NORFOLK: Mr Meggs the Norfolk baker hanged for being a witch
- Credit: Wellcome Collection
He casts a dark shadow over East Anglian history and his reign of terror saw hundreds executed – the day the Witchfinder General hanged a male witch in Norwich
Witchcraft has traditionally been one of the few areas in a male-dominated world in which women have an upper hand. This, of course, was not the best news in the mid-1600s when Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins set about ridding Britain of a plague of witches, or rather persecuting innocent women whose greatest crime was to be unpopular. But what many people don’t realise is that it wasn’t just women who were accused, sent to trial and later hanged: it was also men. Most of those accused of witchcraft during Matthew Hopkins’ reign of terror were women – but around 25 per cent of those brought before the assizes court were men
According to a contemporary anonymous pamphlet, 20 witches were hanged at Norwich including a man: a baker called Meggs. Mr Meggs was a baker who was tried during Hopkins’ 1645 bloodbath and in The Discovery of Witches, the Witchfinder General says: “Meggs, a baker submitted himself voluntarily to be searched for marks which were subsequently found resulting in his execution.”
Scant detail survives of poor Mr Meggs, other than that he lived within seven miles of the city and was hanged at Norwich assizes after volunteering to be searched. He may, some believe, have been a relative of Margaret Mego, a widow who was accused on July 1 1645 of bewitching the possessions of Robert Bailey of Stratton St Mary, now Long Stratton. She, however, was found not guilty.
As the 17th century began, superstitious fear had taken a vice-like grip over Britain as religious communities began looking for answers to complex problems and found witchcraft to be a useful catch-all. Sickness? Witchcraft. Poor crops? Witchcraft. Family problems? Witchcraft.
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For the 300 years that preceded Hopkins’ witch trials, there had been sporadic hangings and drownings in the name of Heresy in Britain and in 1542, the Witchcraft Act outlined the punishment for sorcery: death. A second act in 1563 outlawed “conjurations, enchantments and witchcrafts” and promised to put to death anyone found to be using magic for evil purposes.
King James, after suffering what he believed to be an enchantment on a sea voyage, ordered the North Berwick Witch Trials which saw more than 100 people accused, imprisoned and tortured. In 1599 he wrote Daemonologie, a compendium on witchcraft lore, which detailed the procedures and justifications for persecuting accused witches. Five years later, the witchcraft act was changed again and broadened to include the commune of a person with a demonic familiar – in real terms, it meant a witch no longer had to be caught causing harm to another person, if they confessed to communing with a demonic familiar, it was enough to damn them. In 1612, the Pendle Witches – nine women and two men – were accused and tried for witchcraft to cause harm to animals, cause sickness to humans, cannibals and child murder. Nine were found guilty and sentenced to hang, one was found not guilty, one died in prison.
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Matthew Hopkins was born shortly after the Pendle Witch Trials, the fourth child of devoutly religious Puritans, his first job was as a clerk for a shipping company and he lived in the British Bible belt that had been the home of the first Pilgrims who set out for Massachusetts in 1620. As the mid-1640s beckoned, civil war raged, legal systems broke down, crops were poor after terrible weather, inflation bit at wealth and the country was looking for answers as to why life was so terribly hard. The answer was: witchcraft.
In 1644, Matthew Hopkins met John Stearne, a Puritan who claimed he had discovered a set of witches in Manningtree in Essex – the hunt had begun. With religious zeal, Hopkins tore through East Anglia invited by town councils to purge their streets of witches: fear spread across Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex as the stories of torture and persecution spread.
It was a man who would help bring Hopkins’ dark reign to an end, although the man in question paid with his life. During his rampage through Bury St Edmunds, Hopkins accused Reverend John Lowes, an 80-year-old minister who was unpopular in the town and therefore ripe for selection. Unpopularity was, in the Witchfinder General’s eyes, tantamount to witchcraft. Lowes was tortured terribly: the old man was poked and prodded until “teats” were found on his head and beneath his tongue. These spots, probably due to age and infirmity, were enough to see the Reverend “swam” in Framlingham Castle in Suffolk while being continually interrogated. Near to drowning, desperate and terrified, he admitted to having six imp familiars which he had ordered to sink a ship, killing 14 men. He later retracted the admission he had made while being tortured but it was too late: he was hanged on August 27 1645 with 17 other unfortunates.
In two barns made into makeshift gaols, a further 120 ‘witches’ awaited trial, many dying in the terrible conditions – people began to talk…the ritual torture and humiliation of a man of God was a step too far. Editorials in parliamentary papers began to condemn Hopkins’ methods and he was made to stop his “swimming” activities and by 1646, a Puritan cleric, the Reverend John Gaule, began to openly preach that Hopkins himself might be aligned with Satan.
Standing by Lowes, Gaule collected evidence of Hopkins’ torture and wrote a book called Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft in which he questioned the existence of imps and animal familiars and made a distinction between good magic and bad. He wrote: “Every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a hairy lip, a robber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice or scolding tongue, having a rugged coat on her back, a skull cap on her head, a spindle in her hand and a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspect but pronounced for a witch”
Hopkins fall from grace was spectacularly fast: not only did his popularity vanish, he began to fall under suspicion himself. He hastily retreated to Manningtree in Essex and wrote a self-justifying pamphlet in which he tried to explain his actions. Matthew Hopkins’ reign of terror saw almost 300 women and men sent to trial as witches which accounted for 60 per cent of all witch trials between the early 15th and late 18th century: more people died due to unjust accusations of witchcraft in two years than in the entire 100 years that had passed. He died at the age of 27 after falling ill from tuberculosis.
The witchcraft act was replaced with a new amendment that charged witchcraft as a form of con-artistry and labeled those that practiced as charlatans: this law was in place until 1951 when it in turn was replaced with an act that banned fraudulent mediumship (this too was discarded in 2008). But accusations and torture continued for many years and in 1863, Dummy the Witch of Sible Hedingham in Essex (an unidentified older man who was a deaf-mute who earned his living by fortune telling) found himself accused of cursing a woman in Ridegewll.
Taken by a drunken mob to a nearby brook and “swum”, he was severely beaten with sticks before being taken to a local workhouse where he died of pneumonia. After an investigation, the woman, Emma Smith, and her friend Samuel Stammers were charged with his death, tried and sentenced to six months of hard labour. As an aside, it is believed that the wraith of Matthew Hopkins appears close to his final resting place – he was buried in the churchyard at Mistleythorn as it was known then, but the church was later replaced and today only two towers remain.
Hopkins’ ghost, wearing a pointed hat, has been seen close to Mistley Pond under a full moon – what would he have made of that?
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