Monday, April 23, 2012

Throwing at Cocks. What's that all about?

Bull and bear baiting at a specially constructed 'pit'

When I was going through the Norwich Mayor's court books for my studies, I must admit to being distracted by all sorts of entries that didn't really have much to do with my studies on male and female sexual control in late Tudor to mid Stuart times.  Entries like this one:

On the 17thFebruary 1654/5. The Court banned the... throwinge at cockes heretofore vsed by boys in this citty.

I suppose there was part of me thought that it might indeed be a reference to a sexual act!  After all young men and in particular apprentices were at the forefront of symbolic punishments of both men, women, prostitutes etc. long ago. Punishments like riding the 'Stang' and other forms of riding designed to humiliate both man and women.  They were more than happy to lead the indignant crowd if it meant that they could have a bit of fun at someone else's expense. A situation recognised and used by City elites,  although something paradoxically to be feared. You didn't want the young getting too distracted from their labours as I was getting distracted from my studies! It could be then that the Mayor and Alderman feared that the activity might lead to other riotous behaviour. I thought that this may be the reason for stopping them 'throwinge at cockes', although I still couldn't understand what exactly the act was and why they were doing it...

It could have been a violent and brutal activity akin to cock fighting & bear and bull baiting like that illustrated above - A pass time that as most know was still popular at the time. Certainly I pictured the cock being tied to a stake or tied down and probably stoned to death. Was this then an early modern example of animal welfare with the state attempting to dissuade idle youth from abusing our feathered friends? Highly unlikely when considering what was happening to bulls and bears. So perhaps it was linked to a seasonal custom - a ritual activity specific to the month of Feb. This might explain the crack down, because this was a time when increasingly the middling sort and above who controlled a City like Norwich were disassociating themselves from popular culture, especially that which involved any form of riotous behaviour. So many different explanations for the court entry, yet  I was none the wiser.

But good things come to those who wait, for a close friend of mine brought me a great book for Christmas; The Etymologicon, A Circular Walk Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, by Mark Forsyth (2011) which looks at "the glorious insanities of the English language", and which in truth has been sitting there some months waiting for me to get started on it. It's a fascinating book about the development of both words and phrases and which evolved from the authors blog, I finally picked it up the other day and right at the very start, what do I read, but that the phrase 'to pool their money' evolved out of a medieval French gambling game where people would put equal amonts money in a pot and then take turns hurling stones at a loose chicken, with the first person to hit the bird winning the pot. The French word for chicken is 'poule' and so they called it a 'game of poule' - A term picked up by the English in the 17th century becoming anglicised to 'pool', hence the pool of money in a card game.

More interestingly for me was that clearly not only the terminology, but also the game reached England and the Norwich authorities were simply trying to stop young men gambling. A major preoccupation of the court at that time. In this case 'boys' who were perhaps still too young to play at cards, dice and other games of chance in the alehouses or bowling alleys. The last thing they wanted was for them to 'waste their money wastefully',  to use a phrase of the time. Lack of money lead to crime and even more worryingly for the authorities an even greater demand on poor relief. It all comes under the title of 'ill' or 'evil rule' at that time; behaviour that the elite thought would incur greater costs for them. In other words they were more concerned with protecting the public purse than with the welfare of animals.

Fun and games in the alehouse

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Caged in

Norwich Guildhall
Site of one of the many sets of stocks in Norwich and also the 'cage'

When Agnes Leaman was ducked it was for the "abominable act of whoredom", although most women accused of adultery and fornication were whipped, so too the men who were caught with them. Duckings were relatively rare and most of them were reserved for women accused of scolding and brawling behaviour. Women like Alice Cocker who was set in the ducking stool for being a, common skold and a brawler and a women of disquiet amonst her neighbors and for that she did beat Ellen Dingle and Joanne Tymouth. It was a time when women were meant to be passive and bound to their home. As one contemporary writer, Edmund Tilney in his Flower of Friendship put it, It is the office of a husband to deal and bargain with men, of the wife to make and meddle with no man. And women who did not subscribe to that view were punished sometimes harshly. I say sometimes, because the treatment of Alice Cocker was exceptional. She was ducked not for the scolding; the arguing and insulting her neighbours, but for the physical violence she had used. In other words Alice was punished for extreme anti social behaviour and not just because she was a women who dared open her mouth.

Indeed most women accused of scolding were set in the stocks, just like any drunken and disorderly man might be. Either that or she would be set in the cage; literally a cage which as far as I can tell hung from the side of the guildhall. In 1657, Mary the wife of Thomas [was] ordered to be put in the cage for skoldinge and other misdemeaners by the space of one hower. Although in her case I think it must have been a close run thing between the cage and the duck stool, for as well as scolding her neighbours Mary's "other misdemeaners" included a violent assault on a woman called Sybil Chapman and her husband was ordered to pay five shillings to Sybil, for satisfaction of a battery committed upon her.

Most cases of caging women though were only for the very petty 'crime' of scolding and other verbal abuse. Women like Rebbeca Marsden who also in 1657 was, sett in the cage one whole hower for scolding and abusing Mr John Andrews Alderman.

Although I've played down the punishment of women again, there may be some still thinking that women had a hard time of it in Early Modern England, but remember that some men also made it into the cage for 'brawling' and there were other gendered punishments for men. Its also worth noting that for all the punishments aimed at women, they still had a voice. For I deal with realities of life in the past as shown in the court records and not the idealised version promoted by Tilney and many others. Real women like Margaret Caley who clearly had not read the advice of Edmund Tilney, or if she had she was more than happy to treat it with the contempt it deserved. For in July of 1621 it was reported that, Margaret Caley on Witsun Tuesday last past did revile and miscall Christopher Gyles and often tymes claped her hand on her backside, and badd him kisse there. Margaret was a women who clearly didn't know and didn't care about her place in Stuart society, although she was commited to the Bridewell house of correction for her rudeness.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Thomas Alyard-What a git!

Now, before I start this post I must point out that we know very little of many of the people who turn up in court records beyond what is written here. For that reason we must be careful not to make too many assumptions about their lives and be careful not to exploit them. In the case of Agnes Leman in earlier posts for example we we cannot even be sure that she was guilty of the crimes for which she was punished, nor do the records tell us her reasons for doing what she might have done! Just because Agnes appears in the Mayors Court of Norwich, it doesn't make her a bad person, a conclusion backed up by the fact that she does not turn up in the court records ever again. If anything it simply demonstrates that Agnes's was an act of desperation brought about by poverty and/or being involved with a dodgy husband! Certainly there is evidence that many women (And men for that matter) were in loveless violent marriages in Tudor and Stuart times and that often women would have to fend for themselves. And the evidence is that the authorities struggled to control wayward spouses, which takes us neatly to Thomas Alyard the subject of this post. And whilst I do believe we must be careful not to judge those who feature in the court records of long ago, this does not apply to Thomas, for after meeting him just a few times in the Mayors court sessions of 1620 I began to take a dislike to the man....

The first account of him comes in May of that year when he appears for... living dissolutely and is sent to Bridewell (House of Correction) and ordered and to support wife from earnings. But it is not just that Alyard spend all his money and refuses to support his wife because he is then later recorded as... wounding her and living dissolutely. Again he was sent to the Bridewell and set to work and... from his earnings there to pay wife 4s (Shillings) a week. On the 26th August 1620 Alyard was yet again committed to gaol then to Bridewell by order of the Sessions, because he was unable to find sureties and again to maintain wife out of earnings. He was not released until the following February.

Already these records demonstrate the ineffectuality of the authorities of dealing with a man like Alyard because again he turns up in Bridewell in 1622 where he is held for lewd behavior until the 5th October when he was released from Bridewell into service.... Thomas Alyard beinge heretofore co(m)mitted to Bridwell for lewdnesys nowe ordered to be discharged and he ys reteyned w(i)th Will(ia)m Butler Cordyner (Leather worker/Shoe maker) for a yeare and ys to have for his wages for a dozen of bootworke xvjd (16pence) and for a dozen of flyers ijs (2shillings) and the said Butler promiseth to pay the said earninges wekely to the wife of the said Alyard. The fact that Alyard's wages are being paid to his wife show just how desperate they were to stop Alyard's dissolute ways in order to help his wife but more importantly to protect those who paid taxes towards poor relief! It also demonstrates just how low Alyard had sunk, because for a man to have his wife in charge of his finances must I think have been seen as humiliating. Although I doubt Alyard cared much about such things because his behavior simply got worse and in January 1623 he was one of group of men who admitted to drinking in 5 different illegal tippling houses on 5 consecutive nights. He was the most hardened,
and not all rest of group drank in all houses. And again on the 25th Jan, 8th Feb. 1623 Margaret Hott confessed that Thomas Alyard and a John Werne were drinking in her house and that later Alyard was drinking in the house of John Gowen with Watson.

Things are clearly going from bad to worse for Alyard because in May of that year it is recorded that... Thomas Alyard for dangerously vsinge the keep(er) of Bridwell ys ordered to remayne in the Bridwell till further order and in the meane tyme to be forthw(i)th punished at the post. For the first time there is mention of physical punishment for Alyard, because he is whipped at the post. But even this has little effect, because he is still linked to Bridewell in July 1623 when it's recorded that Alyard is... now allowed out of the Bridewell during the day to work at his occupation, but have to return to keeper’s custody at night. Normally an inmate of Bridewell would continue his trade inside the walls of Bridewell, but is Alyards being allowed out by day evidence of his good behavior or simply that the keeper of the Bridewell is scared of him and wants him out of the institution? The latter is more probable because Alyard is growing increasingly violent and on the 8th November 1623 it is recorded that.... Thomas Alyard beinge very dangerous to many p(er)sons ys ordered to be safely kept in the Bridwell till he shalbe of better behavio(u)r and this howse shall take order for his discharge.

Clearly, the authorities were at a loss to know exactly what to do with Alyard, because although a violent man, his violence must have been low level in that no one was permanently maimed or killed by him. Such actions would have led to more severe punishments. The authorities were stuck for a while, but then it was taken out of their hands, because on the 1st of December 1624 it was recorded in the Mayors Court that the Deputy Lieutenants of Norfolk had sent a warrant to the City of Norwich requesting that the Mayor and his Alderman impress (Force)100 men into service to fight for the country in Spain. And so it was the Mayor used this as an opportunity to rid the City of many a problematic person! For on a winters night one week later the Mayor and his Alderman were dispatched to their wards and parishes to impress anyone who was walking abroad that night without good cause. And the Aldermen were extremely successful in their quest because they managed to impress 128 from which the Lieutenants could take their choice and of which only eight were considered unfit or otherwise had good cause why they could not go!

The record is a detailed one and below the original order is a list of impressed men, their parish and trade and looking down the list near the bottom is one Thomas Alyard of St Gregories Parish, Cobbler (Shoemaker) And so it was Thomas at last got his comeuppance for his dissolute and violent ways, for Thomas Alyard is never heard of again!

* Some time later in 1633 there is a reference to a Widow Alyard in the Norwich Poor Rate
books, which may confirm that Alyard died fighting. Thanks to Colin Howey for this

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Scolds Bridle/Branks

The image above is taken from an account of Ann Bidlestone who in 1653 was, drove through the street by an officer of the same corporation [City of Newcastle] holding a rope in his hand, the other end fastened to an engine, called the branks, which is like a crown, it being of iron which is musled over the head and face, with a great gap, or tongue of iron, forced into her mouth, which forced the blood out; and that is the punishment which the magistrates do inflict upon chiding and scoulding women.

As you will see the case cited is not from Norwich, nor the accompanying image, although you will often see it used with reference to the branks. The reason I've used here is because I can't find an example from Norwich or Norfolk. The reason I can't find one from Norwich or Norfolk is because there is not one! This hasn't however stooped the local museum making a feature of scolds bridles in its dungeons tours and if you were to go there today you would be told that in every town and village in the county, a man whose wife nagged him could go to the local magistrate and ask for the bridle/brank to be put on his wife. If you go anywhere where they display punishments from the past you will hear much the same thing. But its simply not true, especially in Southern England. Its more likely that the punishment was more popular in Scotland and only really made it into Northern England during the various crisis of the early to mid seventeenth century; a time when insecurity led to much harsher and far less liberal forms of control by the authorities! The conflicts of the time also led to a much closer connection between the affairs of Scotland and England.. Certainly Dr Plot in his Natural History of Staffordshire (1686) noted that it was a rare punishment. He referred to it as, a particular artifice at Newcastle and Walsall for correcting of scolds and also that it was, scarce heard of, much less seen.

This does not mean that bridle may have been used illegally, but its unlikely because when other unruly punishments meted out by the community took place, it often resulted in litigation in the courts. Both men and women who for example were forced to ride the stang, (Meaning to be humiliated upon donkey or pole) would often take action against those who humiliated them. And its also worth noting that the cases of ridings against scolding or adulterous women also punished husbands for allowing their wives to misbehave. It is therefore unlikely that any man being nagged by his wife would admit it to the local magistrate or anyone else for that matter!

There is little evidence to suggest that the scolds bridle was a popular punishment and many of the surviving examples, collected by nineteenth century antiquarians seem to have been copies and the real thing collected from European penal institutions. These examaples would have been used on both men and women. Certainly in the case of Norwich the examples held in the Castle Museum are copies of examples from the north of England or even copies of copies! In the case of Norwich the ducking stool was the accepted punishment for scolds and even that was only used in extreme cases.

Its not that I'm saying that bridles did not exist as a punishment and that it was a harsh one at that, but like most barbaric instruments, their use has been overstated. If there is anything to be learnt about the scolds bridle is probably to do with the Victorian antiquarians like T. N Brushfield who 'rediscovered' them. Brushfield is said to have single handedly brought their existence to public notice and collected examples like the much decorated Manchester bridle (The fact that its decorated suggests it had a symbolic/ceremonial function not a literal one) And its probable that any bridles that can be traced back to the seventeenth century were never intended for use, but simply displayed as jokes and served a psychological function; to release the tension created by the gap between idealised good female behaviour and the reality. There is also the famous case of Ann Bidlestone noted above, for it too was popularised by Brushfield and this interest in bridles in the nineteenth century does I think say a lot more about Victorian thoughts and feelings on female behaviour than it does on the ideas and beliefs of men from three hundred and fifty years ago!

But enough of that, for there is another famous first hand account of a woman being punished in a bridle in the seventeenth century, which you can read below. Although again it is not a local example for there are none! And in the case of Dorothy Waugh cited below, she was punished in the brank for speaking out about Quakerism (then a minor sect) and also about the Mayor of Carlyle's cruel treatment of Quakers, and not because she was scold....

Dorothy Waugh, her testimony in, Cruell usage by the mayor of Carlile, one of seven Quaker testimonies that occur in, The Lambs Defence against Lyes. And a True Testimony given concerning thye suffering and death of James Parnell (1656)

Out of Egypt where thou lodgest, but after these words, he was so violent and full of passion he scarce asked me any more questions, but called out to one of his followers to bring the bridle as he called it to be put upon me, and was to be on three hours and that which they called was a steel cap and my hat being violently pluckt off which was pinned to my head wherebe they tere my clothes to be put on the bridle as they called it, which was a stone weight of iron by the relation of their own generation, and three barrs of iron to come over my face, and a peece of it was put in my mouth, which was so unreasonably big a thing for that place as cannot be well related, which was locked to my head, and so I stood their time with my hands bound behind me with the stone weight of iron upon my head and the bitt in my mouth to keep me from speaking and the Mayor said he would make me an example.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The number one brand..

One of the punishments that most people are aware of, but know little about is branding with a hot iron.

It was one of a number 'mutilations' available to the authorities to ensured the continued humiliation of the 'wrong doer' and also to allow the population some protection against persistent offenders. The idea being that even the healed injury would be very hard to hide. Other punishments included cutting off ears and even occasionally the slitting of noses, although this tended to be an unofficial punishment meted out by women, to women in cases of adultery. The severity of the punishment meant that it was often reserved for what were then seen as more serious crimes, such as sedition and blasphemy. The type of crime might also effect the type of branding...

Branding took place using different letters depending on upon the crime and included an 'S' for seditious libel. You get the idea! It also take place on different areas of the body.. Thus in 1620 in Norwich, when Thomas Draper formally of Nottinghamshire was found, wandering the cytty and seemeth to be a dangerous rouge, it was noted that, he hath been branded upon his shoulder, prior to being committed to prison.

Branding might also take place on the forehead or cheek, but more commonly on the palm between the thumb and forefinger and it has been suggested that this is the reason that why defendants in court have to raise their right whilst swearing to tell the truth. Thus earlier offences could be seen and taken into account.

All that said, not all agreed with the punishment at the time... In 1639, one of the City Whippers of the convicted, John Hastings was himself whipped at the post, by order of this court for the branding of John Beamont who was convicted of having two wyves, so slightly that the print ys not seene in his hand and he his punishment of six stripes given him by the said Beamont. Hastings the City whipper was to whipped by the very man he failed to punish! But the question is, was it just incompetence on the part of Hastings that he failed to brand Beamont properly or something else? It might be that Hasting didn't approve of branding, but that's unlikely and its more probable that Hastings sympathised with Beamont. This was a time of the 'World Turned Upside Down', with a proliferation of radical sects prompting all sorts of new and liberal ideas including polygamy (Having more than on wife) Certainly there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that polygamy was going on in Norwich although as with the case of Beamont it was never sanctioned by the civic elite. Taking that into account perhaps Hastings was also a follower of these new and exciting radical beliefs!

Whatever the case with Beamont and Hastings it was not a common punishment in Norwich and elsewhere and by the eighteenth century the authorities were often sentencing offenders to token cold brandings. This in itself might be a reaction to the fact that in the harsh eighteenth century officially and ideally the punishment was to be used for less serious crimes. This however didn't sit well with local justices and other authorities and as with many other punishments I could mention the new idea was not reflected by the reality, with those in charge in the localities using cold branding etc.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Taking Stock.

Woodcut taken from: A
statute for swearers and drunkards, or forsake now your
Follies, your book cannot save you, for if you swear and be drunke, the stockes will
have you.(c.1630, Pepys Collection)

The stocks were the most common form of punishment in all Tudor towns and cities and was used to punish the majority of petty offenses. The increased influence of Puritanism in the later sixteenth century led to an increase in statutes, many of which were aimed at governing the morals of the populace, especially swearing, drinking and gaming. Thus there was an increase in the use of the stocks.

There were many different sets of stocks in Norwich. A set near the Guildhall, facing the market. A set for each of the four Wards and also in the various institutions in the City Thus when two men called Gildenleve and Robinson were caught drunk they were set, in the stocks, in the street at the hospitall gate by the space of fower howers. It seems reasonable to assume that both were inmates of the this particular hospital and it was on the street to increase the humiliation.

This example stated that they should be held for four hours, but timings varied. Statutes stated that five or six hours should be the norm for drunkards, but as with most things in the past as well as now, the reality differed very greatly from the ideal. Thus in 1562, John Sparrow of Norwich plomer and Agnes Purdey wedowe wer taken in evell rule ar(e) commanded to the stockes for one howre. Evil rule mean sexual misconduct and so the five or six hours was needed for them to sober up. Instead one hour was seen as enough to cool their passions!

Such leniency was not always so obvious as in the case of Robert Bunsdale who was unfortunate enough to be caught drunk in 1632 when puritan fervor was at its height in the City, as the court record clearly shows... Robert Bunsdale beinge convicted by his own confession of being drunke for drinkinge at the cocke in St Giles and for swearing one oathe is ordered to the stocks accordinge to the statuate videlicet this daye five howers for drunkeness to morrowe, fower howers for drinkinge and one hower on Wednesday for swearing.

There is however other evidence that that the stocks could be a punishment of last resort and it could be commuted for a fine. Some drunks were given the choice of the four hours in the stocks or paying a 3 shilling and 4 pence fine. Those caught swearing an oath had the choice between an hour in the stocks or a 12 pence fine. You could be cynical and think that it was just another way for the Mayor and Alderman to line there own pockets, but it was not. Instead the money was put in a 'hamper' to be used for helping the poor. Thus in 1624 James Taylor was fined 12d for, swearinge by the name of God in the parishe of St Peter of Mancroft in the p(re)sence of Mr Maior. He was also fined another 3 s and 4d for, being drunk at the sign of the Cardinalles Hat in St Swithins. In the following court session it was ordered that, Francis Cocke Alderman of Westwymer was given the 3s and 4d to distribute and Mr Anguish, churchwarden of St Peter Mancrooft took responsibility for distributing the 12d in his Parish. The fine was shared between Parish and Ward.

Other interesting cases involve William Benthorpp who in 1564 was set in the stocks for, counterfetinge him selfe to be dume and desyving the Queenes lyege people. This is one example of many of the crackdown on vagrants and beggars, especially those who make false claims to be one of the 'deserving poor' who can't help themselves.

In 1606, Peter Pynfold of Bungay in Suffolk this day is sett in the stockes for cunnycatchinge and drunkeness. Cony/Cunny was an alternative name for rabbits, but was also at this time a slang term for a naive country person coming into town. Thus cunnycatching simply meant to con a country person!

Evidence from the Norwich courts show that the stocks could also be used to deal with some crimes that we still see as particularly bad today. And so in 1587, Priscilla Johnson to be put in the stockes for beatinge and misusing a little girl in her service. She is also banned from keeping children at home. The banning I think goes a long way to showing that people in the past were not so backward as we sometimes think.

I also like the example of James Lowe a laborer who in 1621, was this day sett in the stockes for buryinge a necessary (Having a poo!) in the castle dykes. The Old castle ditches were a virtual no go area at this time, because it was an illegal dumping ground for all kinds of waste. It also had its fair share of thieves and was used as a place to hang people as well. Again the punishment of James Lowe does at least demonstrate that the government didn't want filth in the City, although in truth they were fighting a loosing battle and there were repeated orders throughout the century to clean the ditches up. These usually occur at times of Royal visits, so read into that what you will!

Often it was ordered that those to be set in the stocks were to wear a paper on their heads. This meant a note detailing their crime. Papers stated crimes such as ill rule, evil behavior, disordered life, abuse of self and misbehavior. These were blanket terms used to detail all sorts of offenses from petty theft to drunkenness and sexual immorality. But it must be remembered that many of course could not read and so Norwich authorities came up with other ways of detailing the crime.. In 1587, John Frettesham for myching (Stealing) pieces of Sayes (A type of cloth) is sett in the stockes w(i)th a pap(er) on his hed and a piece of Saye abowt his neck. And in 1622, Will(ia)m Chapman for sellyng mustie otemeal ys sett in the stockes w(i)th halfe a peck of mustie meal by him.

And finally it is worth noting that the stocks was a well regulated punishment. Everyone has this picture of great crowds throwing rotten rubbish at those set in the stocks, but this is overdone. Firstly it would have been a waste of food in a time of high grain prices when food could be scarce. And those being punished were often violent people who wouldn't think twice about getting their revenge when let out! And the punishment was carefully regulated by the Mayor and his court as this evidence shows.. In 1563 two of the City constables, Roger Mayne and Symond Brechett found themselves in court for putting a millers man in the stocks without the courts permission and, only of ther owne rasshe hedes. In another case it could be the constables themselves who were lenient. I came across one who was punished for releasing an old vagrant early. In his deposition he stated that he could not sleep at the thought of the old man being left in the stocks on a cold night and so he got up, excused to young man keeping watch and sent the old man on his way!

Once again the evidence show that we cannot generalise about crime and punishment in the past, nor any other aspect of local history for that matter.....

Monday, March 23, 2009

Witch witch is witch?

On the 15th of June 1659 an order was made at he Norwich Mayor's court...
For as muche as Anne Carsey in prison vpon suspicion for a witch and there are many things w(hi)ch give great cause for suspicion. It is therfore thought fitt that m(istres)s Brooke, goodwife Wamsley goodwife Fann and others be desired to search hir the said Anne and certifie to the court

Ann Carsey was accused as a witch and a search ordered of her body. They were looking for witches marks; usually no more than a birthmark, perhaps on the inner thigh that would be interpreted as a third nipple on which she suckled her familiars (A cat, dog, ferret or some other animal) with her own blood. And in Anne's case they found one. For later that same month Anne's case was back before the court and...

Abigail Ram, Lidea Potter and Elizabeth Robinson (did) enforme that ther m(istres)s Brooke and goodwife Wamsley did vpon Wednesday last searche Anne Carsey in Prison, who is suspected for a witch and saye that they founde in hir privy P(ar)ts a thing like a teat w(hi)ch looked as if it had bene newly sucked and strange thinges hunge upon hir breasts like bladders.

It is of course highly unlikely that the women found what they claimed, although their evidence did result in Anne's death for she was one of many accused of witchcraft hanged in Norwich Castle ditches at this time. The court record is then is evidence of the witch craze that was sweeping the country at this time and being exploited by the likes of Matthew Hopkins, the Witch-finder General. But it was just that, a craze and this evidence of gross paranoia and subsequent executions should not be taken as evidence that our ancestors were nothing more than primitive, superstitious fools.

Certainly the evidence from the period tends to bring out the worst in us today and we feed upon misinformation about the time, often focusing on grisly details about witches being burnt and boiled alive. This did not happen and in England burning was a punishment reserved for those men and women who spoke heresy and for women who committed Petty Treason (The killing of ones husband) Now this of course would be of no comfort for women like Anne, for hanging was a cruel enough death especially for the many hundreds of innocent women and some men who fell prey to the hysteria of the time.

But it is a case of setting the accusations in the context of their time. England in the mid seventeenth century was a world turned upside down. The Reformation was still in full swing and over the course of the later sixteenth and early seventeenth century traditional forms of charity and hierarchical relationships were being swept away or at the very least challenged. In religious terms, this had seen a flowering of many religious sects by the 1650s, many of which challenged traditional codes of behavior as well as political status quo. These would have been worrying times for the leaders at all level of society and what better way to divert the masses than to scapegoat others for the problems of the time. Meaning quite simply that there were many things such as prostitution and even homosexuality that although illegal, were often tolerated in earlier times, until that is there was some crisis or other and a scapegoat/diversion was needed. And the same was true of witchcraft; for at other times it too was less harshly treated. Just look at the case of Ann Robson who came before the very same Mayor's Court in March of 1587/8...

This daye Anne Robson of Trowse next Norw(i)ch in the countie of this citie widowe for abusing the constables and threatining the towne that she will revengyd vpon the towne recyvyng rougues and l(e)wd persons into her howse thretening som that if they will not spend their monye in her howse she will make them dance naked in the howes and that by her black catt as she sayeth...

So here we have Anne Robson who is said to have threatened the whole of the city and some in particular with witchcraft. She is even accused of admitting to having a familier; a black cat (Popularly thought to have been given by the Devil) whom she drew her powers from. Clearly this is serious stuff and we might expect Anne to receive a harsh punishment for her 'crimes'. But no; for Anne is simply commanded to leave the city, or her children shall be whipped. A harsh punishment in some ways you might say, but remember that it is a punishment as much for threatening to maintain rogues in her house as it is for the accusation of witchcraft. In 1587, a time when 'masterless men' were said to be everywhere, wandering from town to town in search of charity, the illegal harboring of vagrants was a far greater concern to the Mayor and his Alderman than Witchcraft ever was!