The 'horrific and horrible' history of England's witch-hunting hotspot

Watch Russell Hookey's report on the East of England's dark past of witch-trials.

In 2023, witches are the villains of horror films or fancy dress costumes for Halloween parties, but for 16th and 17th century women it was a superstitious accusation which devastated their lives.

Witchcraft paranoia swept across post-Medieval England, with thousands of people - mostly women - accused of being witches.

The "horrific and "horrible" period of English history was seen prominently in the East of England, as neighbour turned on neighbour across the East Anglian counties.

Matthew Hopkins, the self-titled Witchfinder General, was born in Suffolk and lived in Manningtree in Essex.

Hopkins crusaded cross the region accusing women and the poor of reading from mysterious books, killing neighbours, and secret meetings - all of which were provided as evidence of witchcraft.

Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, on a sign in Manningtree, Essex. Credit: ITV News Anglia

In return, the infamous Witchfinder General received payments from towns for bringing the 'witches' to trial.

In Essex alone, it is believed more people were executed for witchcraft than any other county in England, with nearly 90% of all of those indicted in the region being women.

Alison Rowlands, Professor of European History at University of Essex, said: "Manningtree has gone down in the historical records as being the starting point for the East Anglian Witch Trials.

"They started in Manningtree and spread in the north-eastern corner of Essex, but then they moved out into other East Anglian counties.

"Suffolk's probably the worst affected during the East Anglian witch trials."

Colchester Castle, where many of the people accused of being witches were imprisoned. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Often those accused of witchcraft would spend months beforehand in awful conditions while locked in the dungeons of Colchester Castle's jail.

Ben Paites, of Colchester Museums, said: "Witch trials in Essex are some of the worst, most horrific deeds we can think of.

"It was a really horrible period. For anyone living on the fringes of society, at any moment you could be caught up in this craze of trying to find and execute witches, because the belief that they were real was so prevalent across the county."

For those in the East unfortunate enough to have been found guilty of being a witch, they were executed at South Primrose Hill in Chelmsford.

Between the 16th and 17th Century over 100 people were executed on the site, near Admirals Park where a memorial and oak tree now stands.

The witch trial memorial and oak tree at Admirals Park, Chelmsford. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The memorial was put in place thanks to local historian John Worland, who has campaigned for the victims of the witch trials to be given greater recognition.

Mr Worland also ensured a memorial stone was placed in Colchester Castle Park in 2018 and said: "The memorial is not just to those who were convicted, but all those were held on charges of witchcraft because around three-quarters of them were acquitted at trial.

"But they had to fit back into society, coming from small communities where about four or five people would give evidence against them.

"How do they fit back into the society? You don't get this information from the history books.

"These people had a horrendous time and it didn't finish when they were acquitted from the court."

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