Between 1574 and 1645 seven women and one man were tried under the Witchcraft Act in this area, Hadleigh and its neighbours along the London Road, Leigh to the east, Benfleet the other way and down a hill, eight people: the first was Joan Allen who
who is led hurtfully into the biggest room she’s ever been in: the pieces are in place, the game can commence!
The judge commands all attentions his way; he clears his throat, then addresses us: “If we would call to remembrance the manifold mercies and innumerable benefits which the Almighty daily bestows upon us, in consideration thereof we are bound to withdraw our affections and dispositions from such detestable dealings as are detested of God, whose almighty commandments forbid them, and of man, whose laws are constituted to punish them as odious before the sight of God, whereon our earthly laws ground and consist, and therefore punish or cut off such lewd and filthy offenders who, by breaking the divine decrees of the Almighty, by the laws of man deserve to be condemned.”
Half the crowd are first-timers, they’re not sure if they should applaud. No-one risks it and the moment passes. Joan, filthy, is stood facing the jury, she cannot meet their eyes, anyone’s eyes. There’s a man on either side of her.
And a man in front of her: Justice of the Peace! Lord of the Manor! Magistrate: Judge: he also represents the Prosecution. He presents the hard facts: “Exodus chapter twenty-two, verse eighteen: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Now they can’t help it: that sweaty farty hall with its hammerbeam roof is rocked by applause, the floorboards are stamped joyfully upon.
The facts, harder: “Joan Allen, you did bewitch the baby William Rowles that the baby was deformed.”
Joan Allen emits some kind of noise. But then so does the crowd; Susannah Rowles has lots of friends.
“Feigning,” the Prosecutor continues, “the art of midwifery you did insinuate yourself into their kind household.”
“Quiet!” screams the constable who’s always screaming at her.
He tells her she cursed a cow too: “The aforesaid cow died.” He tells her she curdled the cream and made the butter melt in a stinking ooze. He tells her she has three nipples: and in her dream in the plaguey cell that night she does, she has a third nipple, she is so shocked to find it; then a fourth, a fifth, she’s nipples all over and everyone in the courtroom is sucking her, they hate themselves for that, they hate her for making them hate themselves so they bite, she wakes up, and when she remembers where she is it’s so much worse than when they were biting.
“The rye crops hereabouts,” the man is saying, he won’t stop saying, “were blasted last year, I suspected sorcery.”
“You deprive men of their Reason,” he’s telling her.
He has a big book, he relates what the Malleus has to say on the matter: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”
He’s telling her: she’s guilty of secret crimes too. “All their works,” he explains to the jury, “are works of darkness, therefore we may not always expect direct evidence.”
The Judge instructs the jury to find in favour of the Prosecution. He tells Joan a time, he tells her the day. “By God,” he doesn’t say aloud, “we will make you ugly.”