Documents from the Rye witchcraft 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 an accessory. Anne was already regarded with suspicion by many of the magistrates. An outspoken puritan, she was hostile to the established leadership of the town, and her skills as a 'cunning woman' or healer were seen as double-edged by some people.
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 as regards treasure hunting, but more ominously, the possibility that Anne was responsible for the death by witchcraft of the former Mayor, MP, and the town's wealthiest citizen, Thomas Hamon. When the trial was held, Susan was condemned to hang, but reprieved temporarily because she was pregnant. Anne had meanwhile absconded out of the magistrates' jurisdiction, so could not be tried.
This was far from the end, and over the next two years more investigations were made to build a case against Anne herself, which came to a final trial in 1609. A number of witnesses recorded suspicions that Anne had caused deaths or harm in their households; others to broader ill-feeling in the town against the mayor and aldermanic bench, made up principally of the wealthier and more conservative citizens. A sub-plot of political and religious conflict can be detected beneath the ostensible subject of the investigation, going back several generations. As the investigations and trials continued, the case became entangled with a further conflict between the special privileges of Rye, as a Cinque Port with extraordinary powers vested in its aldermen as magistrates, and the increasingly centralised national legal system, subordinate to the King and Privy Council. Eventually, Anne was acquitted by a local jury. Susan was later freed from prison under a general pardon.
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This website consists of transcripts of the original manuscript documents collected for the case which are held at East Sussex Record Office (visit ESRO at the Keep, Falmer), and the British Library Department of Manuscripts. These consist of interrogatories (lists of questions), examinations of suspects, evidence of witnesses, and letters - amounting to about 20 thousand words in all. Their contents are a mass of criss-crossing threads and stray anecdotes, containing not only valuable material for the study of witchcraft 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
An outline of the investigation
The witness statements which begin with the initial examination of Susan, give different, often conflicting, views of events. The magistrates' interrogatories implicitly attempt to knit the statements into a credible case, also including matters not given in the statements.
Susan recounts her meetings with spirits, which start during a bout of illness. She has seen and had conversations with them in her home, the town streets, and the countryside, where she has seen the Queen of the Fairies; also provided food and other things they requested. Much of this interaction involved her neighbour Anne Taylor, for whom Susan has become a go-between with the spirits. Anne gives her, different, version of her involvement with the spirits. She and her husband have also seen apparitions of a different kind in nearby windows. The husbands of both women also testify. Further questioning of Susan suggests a link between the spirits and the death of former mayor Thomas Hamon. Her sister and an employee of George Taylor's are questioned about treasure. Susan is questioned again, specifically connecting Anne with the deaths of mayor Hamon and her own children.
In December, Susan is convicted of consorting with spirits and imprisoned. Anne avoids trial by fleeing to Kent.
Others are questioned on various details, including the illnesses and deaths of people Anne has had dealings with. Anne (now returned and in prison) is questioned again about the whole of Susan's evidence so far, but she denies almost everything. Fellow prisoners recount Susan's direct allegations of witchcraft against Anne, and efforts by Anne to get Susan to recant
Anne is brought to trial on 5 Dec., but refuses to plead. (The penalty for refusal is pressing to death, but this is not applied: cf Rye Spirits p.143) Government lawyers are present, as the case has raised issues concerning local legal powers. The trial is aborted.
Dec 1608-June 1609
Further witnesses describe experiences of Anne's and her mother's actions, often in their roles as healers, in connection with spirits and apparitions. Anne's mother is questioned, but she denies the accusations, Witnesses make further accusations of killing by witchcraft and recount personal and property conflicts between the Taylors and other people.
In June Anne is brought to trial again and acquitted.
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The repository references for the documents transcribed here 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
Images by kind permission of East Sussex Record Office, and Rye Museum Association (for the image of Thomas Hamon on this page).
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The peculiarities and particular value of these documents are discussed here:
And here is information about how they have been edited for this edition:
Flexible Search Tools
This online edition is designed to make it easy to find your way around the 78 sheets of manuscript by searching a version of the text in which the punctuation and spelling - archaic and variable in the original - is modernised and standardised. (A version with the original punctuation and spelling is also provided, below the modernised version). 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 documents is provided, from which you can choose a term.
Alternatively, if you are interested in a particular subject (such as illness or food), you can search for that. Lists of the terms included in each subject category are shown in the subject category list. Click on the button below for more information about searching:
You can also read the documents from the beginning of the investigation in chronological order (which is not always the same as the numerical order of the manuscript references at ESRO):