Introduction

Documents from the Rye witchraft trials, 1607-1609

the searchable text

In December 1607 Susan Swapper, wife of a humble sawyer, was brought before the town magistrates of Rye charged with consorting with spirits in pursuit of treasure. The punishment for such a crime was hanging. Her neighbour, Anne Taylor, wife of the gentleman who employed Susan's husband, was also charged as accessory. Anne was already regarded with suspicion by many of the magistrates. As an active and outspoken Puritan she was hostile to the established leadership of the town, and she was also known for her skills as a "cunning woman" or healer.

The case brought against the two women was based on investigations by the magistrates conducted over the previous three months. They were concerned to discover the details of the women's dealings with spirits not only in treasure hunting, but more ominously, in the possibility that Anne was reponsible for the death by withcraft of the former Mayor, MP, and the town's wealthiest citizen, Thomas Hamon. When the trial was held, Susan was condemned to hanging, but reprieved temporarily while she was pregnant. Anne absconded out of the magistrates' jurisdiction and did not appear. This was far from the end of the matter, and over the next two years more investigations were made to build a case against Anne herself, which came to trial in 1609. The resulting collection of documents - interrogatories (lists of questions), oral evidence, written depositions and letters - is a mass of criss-crossing threads and loose pieces of jigsaw which, nevertheless, contains not only valuable material for the study of withcraft in this period, but much incidental detail of the daily lives, habits, forms of thought and speech of the people of Rye at the time.

Start of the first examination of Susan Swapper

The collection of documents begins with the magistrates initial questioning of Susan. A transcript from the start of her evidence is shown in the sidebar (link here for mobiles; above it is an image of the highest-status victim of witchcraft in this case).

The documents presented here are transcripts of original manuscripts, which are held at East Sussex Record Office, and the British Library Department of Manuscripts. They consist of about 20 thousand words of examinations, evidence and interrogatories recorded for the trial of Susan Swapper and Anne Taylor for witchcraft in the town of Rye, Sussex, in 1607–09

Their titles are:

'Papers concerning the trial of Susannah Swapper and Ann Taylor for Witchcraft' East Sussex Record Office, RYE/1/13

'Correspondence between the corporation and Clement Whitfield ...' East Sussex Record Office, RYE 47/74/11

'The confession of certain persons concerning the spirits appearing at Rye' British Library, Harley MS 358 no.47 f.188

Fuller details of the origins of the documents, and the themes to be found in them can be read here:

Background to the documents

See how they have been edited for this edition:

Editing the documents

 


Flexible Search Tools

This online edition is designed to make it easy to find your way around the x-odd pages of manuscript by searching a version of the text in which the spelling, archaic variable in the original, is modernised and standardised. (The original spelling is also given along with the modern transcription). There is no need to guess what would be a suitable term to put in the search box, because a list of all the significant words in the diary is provided, from which you can choose a term. Alternatively, if you are interested in a particular subject - which may be referred to in various forms of words (such as excalamations or food), you can look this up in the subject category list.  Click on the button below for more information about searching:

Browse or Search

You can read the documents from the beginning of the investigation in chronological order - which is not always the numerical order given by ESRO - or you can use the flexible search tools described below:

Start of the documents