History: Brentwood in the grips of ‘witch-fever’ in the 17th Century

PUBLISHED: 17:00 31 October 2018

Brentwood Assize House. Picture: Sylvia Kent's Folklore of Essex

Brentwood Assize House. Picture: Sylvia Kent's Folklore of Essex

Sylvia Kent's Folklore of Essex

This week, historian and vice-president of the Brentwood Writers’ Circle Sylvia Kent delves into the borough’s spooky history.

Pumpkins, spiky hats, furry spiders, weird wands spill over the counters in local shops as Halloween has arrived.

Children dressed as witches and wizards, devils and imps will be tricking and treating on All Souls’ Eve - all with a sense of fun.

But witchcraft was no laughing matter a few hundred years ago.

Mere suspicion that someone was dabbling in the black arts could mean a death sentence.

Medieval folk had long suspected that the Devil was carrying out his evil work on earth with the help of his minions.

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared this to be the truth in his Papal Bull.

This kicked off the big European Witch Craze, which lasted for nearly two centuries.

The hotbeds of the witch-hunts were the German-speaking lands, France and Scotland.

In 1645 England, notably Essex, was in the grip of witch-fever.

Between 1560 and 1680 in Essex alone 317 women and 23 men were tried for witchcraft, and more than 100 were hanged.

In 1645 there were 36 witch trials in Essex.

Some of them were held at Brentwood. At least half a dozen Brentwood women around 1575 were hanged and one old chap - George Burre – was arrested in 1624.

All were old, lived alone, were somewhat eccentric and maybe owned a cat as a companion.

Brentwood Assizes (which used to be in the High Street) were where the trials took place.

The three-gabled Assize House had been built under a deed of 1579 and sited where 84 High Street is now.

Judicial luminaries such as the celebrated Chief Justice Parker became associated with Brentwood Assizes.

The infamous Matthew Hopkins – known as the Witchfinder General – who tyrannised the Eastern Counties during his two-year search for witches - was known to have visited Brentwood.

Trials were held here for local felons, some of whom received death sentences.

South Weald registers tell of seven people who had been hanged and were buried on the same day.

These heartless events often attracted huge audiences.

The condemned were taken by cart along the Ongar Road to Gallows Green, a point close to the triangle leading to Doddinghurst Road where the unfortunates met their end.

In past centuries phantoms have been recorded around Gallows Green (shown on the 1777 Andre & Chapman map) but these days, the constant traffic flow will undoubtedly frighten them off.

Happy Halloween!

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