WEIRD NORFOLK: The tale of the ‘witch’ that got away in Upwell
- Credit: Ian Burt
Accused of murdering children and entertaining evil spirits, the case against Ellen Garrison looked bleak: but perhaps Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins had met his match in a Norfolk woman.
In the village of Upwell, the rumours had flown from house to house for decades: Ellen Garrison, it was said, was a witch, just like her mother before her.
Close to the Isle of Ely and Littleport, where Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins was born, Upwell like the rest of East Anglia in the late 1640s was bewitched by witch hunts. On August 1 1646, Ellen, wife of thatcher Robert, was accused of bewitching two of Robert Parsons' children, who subsequently died and for entertaining evil spirits. In March 1646, butcher Robert Parsons had agreed to sell Ellen a pig subject to his wife's approval but when his wife Katherine did not approve, Goodwife Garrison flew into a rage, banging the table and swearing Parsons would regret his decision. And, lo and behold, he swiftly did.
Within hours, Katherine felt "tormented all over" by a pricking and tearing at her skin and, believing it to be the work of a witch, ran to Ellen's house to apologise. Ellen came for her pig but the Parsons continued to pay the price of insulting her: within weeks, four of their bullocks had died and two of their children fell terribly ill. Helplessly, Robert and Katherine watched as their seven-year-old and 23-week-old weakened and eventually faded away. As they buried their little ones, their grief quickly grew into an all-consuming fury and they called on Hopkins for help. He sent a constable to arrest Ellen - and soon neighbours queued up to condemn her to Judge John Hobart. She had, it was said, been practicing curses for many years - and there was more.
Anne Clarke, a midwife at nearby Outwell, examined poor Ellen and testified her "teats" were of "an extraordinary nature" while Richard Denton of Upwell, a blacksmith, told of a curse that had befallen him. He said the village constable, along with Denton and three other men had visited the Garrison household with the intention of pressing one of Ellen's sons for the army. Ellen had not reacted well, unsurprisingly, and had uttered a curse in the direction of the five and within weeks, they claimed, all had lost a cow. Other evidence was just as compelling (if you lived in the 17th century, had been whipped into a witchcraft frenzy and had an overactive imagination). Matthew Hopkins saw a beetle run round Ellen's chair, for example, and then a cricket - he had warned onlookers to expect a visit from the witch's imps, but hadn't specified that Satan's henchmen would be insects easily crushed by a boot.
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Hobart sent Garrison to prison at Ely on September 22 1646 and a trial was arranged which followed another on September 24, attended by Hopkins in King's Lynn. Nine accused witches stood nervously as their case was heard - in addition to Hopkins, recorder Miles Corbett was present, a man who had been the scourge of accused witches in Great Yarmouth the year before. Grace Wright, Cecily Taylor, Katherine Banks, Emma Godfrey, Dorothy Griffin, Thomasine Parker, Dorothy Lee and Lydia Browne, all widows, were charged with witchcraft, along with a man, a labourer called Thomas Dempster. All nine pleaded not guilty, Hopkins gave evidence in person against Dempster, Taylor and Browne - it had the hallmark of a trial which would lead to nine deaths, but…that was not to be the case. Of the nine, six were acquitted, one was judged unfit for trial and two were convicted: Wright and Lee were hanged in Tuesday Market Place, victims of a mania which followed Hopkins like plague, but the Witchfinder General's word had been questioned. Two days later, Ellen stood trial in Ely alongside two other women accused of witchcraft, Ann Green and Ann Disborough. Green and Disborough were acquitted and when it came to Ellen, the murdercharge was thrown out on a technicality and on the second charge she was acquitted: another disastrous result for Hopkins and the beginning of the end for the witch hunter.
Meanwhile, Ellen returned home: and her accusers were forced to face her every day. Awkward.
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