The special value of these documents

The manuscripts in East Sussex Record Office are from the town magistrates' original investigations into the activities of Susan Swapper1 and Anne Taylor, recorded mostly by the town clerk. They do not tell a sequential story, but present an unordered collection of short incidents (from different points of view), and anecdotes. They are therefore particularly suitable for online searchability — more can be gleaned from them by using a tailored search utility than by simply reading them through. The reason for this disorder seems to be that the case reached court before a coherent narrative had crystallized in the minds of the witnesses and accusers.2

A merit of such unstructured materials is that the texts seem so fresh and alive — they are full of conversations, and incidental detail about the everyday life, concerns, medical practices and beliefs of people in Rye. Another - consequent on the lack of a storyline - is the considerable moral ambivalence evident in the documents. Even the spirits that are mentioned (mostly fairies) are sometimes helpful, sometimes vindictive, and the devil barely gets a look-in. This archive can be seen to be of much wider relevance to historians than those focusing only on the study of witchcraft, though it also has a very considerable contribution to make to the latter (see below).

These documents are also remarkable because nearly all the evidence (known as 'depositions') for criminal trials in England in this period was destroyed (probably to save space), and those that have survived — for the northern counties — are very brief. Otherwise such material, invaluable for the historian, survives only in the backwaters of the English legal system, such as the courts of the Cinque Ports, which included Rye.

Cinque Ports towns had anciently been granted various privileges by the government in return for helping to defend the country against invaders (in particular the French). One of these privileges was the right to try felonies in their courts, giving the mayor and aldermen of each town ('magistrates') the authority to inflict the death penalty on their neighbours.3

The legal process in a little town like Rye – only about 3 thousand inhabitants – was clearly very different from that administered in the Assize courts by the King's Justices, during their circuits around the country. Those justices would not usually have been familiar with the communities of those whom they were trying, whereas in Rye, the mayor and aldermen (known locally as jurats) not only knew those involved in the case very well, but included some of the principle accusers. It was presumably because local legal officials were so involved in the case that it reached court very quickly, while suspicions were still only loosely formulated (unlike most such cases, in which suspicions had often been circulating in their communities for decades before they became the subject of one or more indictments).4

The contribution of this case to the study of early-modern witchcraft

Investigating the interests of the participants suggests that this is a corruptly partisan case, yet there are reasons why it should be considered as an unusually informative source. The first reason concerns power relations in the town, and the second concerns how this case relates to other accounts of witchcraft cases in early-modern England.

Power relations in Rye

The aldermanic bench were by no means all of the same opinion that the two accused women were guilty of witchcraft, and the main accusers (of whom the wife of the mayor, Martha Higgons — also widow of the previous mayor — was the principal) did not have it all their own way. Differences of religious and political opinion between factions in the town came into play, and higher authority — in the person of the Earl of Northampton, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and a prominent member of the government — was drawn in through the local patronage network. He challenged the authority of the mayor to try the case — unsuccessfully.

Furthermore, the witnesses and accused people (there is not always a clear distinction between the two) were not necessarily overawed by the authority of the aldermanic bench, as they would have been at an Assize court. In particular, when old Widow Bennett, mother of Anne Taylor and the daughter of a shoemaker, was given her  examination/deposition to sign (or make a mark on if she had been illiterate), she wrote in her own handwriting a forceful rejection of the implications of her interrogators' questions:5

These words can be translated as "I have nothing to say to these distorted accusations [intorkest causes]; I know [ken] nothing. by me Anna Bennet".

Finally, since the authority of the magistrates was being challenged, the otherwise arbitrary power which could arise from their local influence was moderated, and due process had to be followed.

This case compared with accounts of other witchcraft cases in early-modern England

Until fairly recently historians have considered sensationalist and moralising printed pamphlets which were common at the time to have  been reliable accounts of witchcraft trials.6 The story which emerges from the Rye documents bears little relation to these, but much more to documents relating to witchcraft cases in the northern counties (for which, as mentioned above, brief evidence does survive). In particular

  • animal familiars, which appear frequently in the pamphlet accounts, are not mentioned at all in the cases from the northern counties, nor in the Rye case.
  • in the pamphlets, the power of witchcraft is attributed to these animal familiars, and rarely inheres in the suspected witch herself (usually a 'she'). By contrast, suspected witches in cases from the northern counties would often supposedly terrify their victims by appearing to them in spirit form (sometimes in the shape of animals), or by 'clapping' them on the shoulder or knee. There are a couple of examples of these powers supposedly being exercised in the Rye case (appearing in spirit and clap on the shoulder). Such powers are very rarely mentioned in the printed pamphlets (in one telling instance the accusation was said to be fraudulent).
  • in the pamphlet accounts the suspected witches are frequently portrayed as stereotypically poor, old and ugly, whereas this is not true in the Rye case, and much rarer in the cases from the northern counties.7

There is, therefore, much that is worth investigating in this case, in part because, rather than in spite, of its irregularities.

Annabel Gregory

1. The Swappers' real name was probably Swaffer, but the town clerk's version has been used in these searchable documents. Either he was unfamiliar with this local name (he came from Berkshire), or Swapper was a slightly mocking nickname (see A. Gregory (2013) Rye Spirits: faith, faction and fairies in a seventeenth-century English town, pp.6-7). They were, however, referred to by the name of Swaffer by local gentleman George Taylor in his letter to the magistrates, and his spelling has been retained in the transcript of that letter.

2. For a brief account of the story, see the end of the article "Poor, Old and Ugly?". The story is told from a different angle at the end of an article about Anne Taylor's forbears in "The Awkward Squad in 16th century Lion Street" (by A. Gregory) published in local Rye magazine Rye's Own (December 2014, pp. 20-22), and reproduced here. This version includes a brief account of Anne standing mute when asked how she would be tried, for which the legal punishment was to be pressed to death with stones. For a much fuller story, see Rye Spirits.

3. Cockburn, J.S. 1985. (ed.) Calendar of Assize Records: Home Circuit Indictments Elizabeth I and James I, p.11; Mayhew, G. Tudor Rye, Falmer, p. 91. Similar material does, however, survive for the prerogative courts, such as Star Chamber, and for the different type of cases heard in the church courts; Sharpe, J.A. 1999 Crime in Early-Modern England, 1550-1750.

4. Sharpe 1999, pp. 109-10.

5. For an interpretation of Widow Bennett's declaration, see Rye Spirits pp. 109-10.

6. Cockburn 1985, pp.98-100; Sharpe, J.A. 1996. Instruments of Darkness: witchcraft in England, 1550-1750, pp. 94-102.

7. Most of these points are discussed in the article "Poor, Old and Ugly?" by A. Gregory in History Today Vol. 66: 8 (August 2016), 41- 47, and reproduced here (with permission, and without the illustrations). The age of women accused of witchcraft in the early modern period is discussed in my posts on the Under the Hedge Blog – in (a) Europe and colonial America and (b) England.