Weird Norfolk: The West Norfolk witches and how to break a curse

Witch bottles at the Bellarmine Museum at Swaffham. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Bellarmine bottles were often used as witch bottles. - Credit: Denise Bradley

From breaking curses to curing chickens, a grandmother who bewitched her own grandson to the reasons you should leave a witch at the doorstep, West Norfolk has a magical history.

While it’s easy to assume that such tales are from centuries-past, they were, in fact, taken from interviews in 1939, within living memory for many.

In a copy of Folklore magazine volume 50 of 1939, there is an article about the folklore specific to West Norfolk – we learn how to cure chickens (throw one on a fire, do not try at home), how to get horses to work (remove cursed straw from their waggon) and how to make sure your pig has lots of piglets (we’ll keep this one to ourselves).

The information was gathered for the publication by Mr R Crawford of Wiggenhall St Germans, a long-time resident of the village, although his stories refer to the very fringes of the county to the west.

There was advice about how to break a spell: “Take a stone bottle, make water in it, fill it with your own toenails and fingernails, iron nails and anything that belongs to you.

“Hang the bottle over the fire and keep stirring it. The room must be in darkness; you must not speak or make a noise. The witch will come to your door and make a lot of noise and beg you to open the door and let her in.

“If you do not take any notice, but keep silent, the witch will burst. The strain on the mind of the person when the witch is begging to be let in is usually so great that the person often speaks and the witch is set free.”

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Another of Mr Crawford’s tales was about a woman in Upwell had a terrible case of lice .

She asked her husband what could have caused the infestation: he told her that she had been bewitched: so she took immediate action.

She created her own stone bottle, as above, and hung it over the fire.

“The old witch came and begged to be let in. The old woman wouldn’t. At last her husband, who was in bed, shouted out: ‘Let the old devil go!’ That broke the spell.

“The next morning they saw the yard was full of water where she’d [the witch] been walking up and down.”

Another woman, Mrs English of Upwell, was able to break spells which had been put on cattle, tell you by means of cards who had cursed you and give you magical seeds to burn at midnight to rid you of bad luck.

Crawford also told a story about a man he’d known who had been born in around 1865 and was a carpenter in King’s Lynn, working with his father.

His grandmother asked if the boy could come and live with her and pay board. The account continues: “After he had gone to bed the first night he heard noises and mumblings in the kitchen. He wondered what was the matter, got out of bed and went to look down the stairs.

“He saw his grandmother and the baker’s wife together; the baker’s wife was asking her to remove a spell from her husband and the business, which had been a good one, but had recently fallen off.

“He saw his grandmother walking round a three-legged pot, mumbling and throwing things into it as she went around. He was scarfed and went off back to bed.

“Next day he went to work, but refused to go back to his grandmother’s to sleep. Sometime after she met him and asked him why he had left her. He gave her no good reason.

“She said: ‘I know why, and you’ll suffer for it’.”

The man became disabled and his whole family “suffered from the itch”.

Upwell has been associated with witchcraft for centuries.

Upwell village sign. Picture: Ian Burt

Upwell has been associated with witchcraft for centuries. - Credit: Ian Burt/Archant Library

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.

The Witchfinder 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.

An anonymous pamphlet documnets that 20 witches were hanged at Norwich by Matthew Hopkins. Source: W

An anonymous pamphlet documnets that 20 witches were hanged at Norwich by Matthew Hopkins. Source: Wellcome Collection - Credit: Wellcome Collection

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.

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 murder charge 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.