Colchester and Mistley: “Wicked Spirits” and Old Knobbley

Another week, another witchy post! I’ve been wanting to see “Wicked Spirits? Witchcraft + Magic at Colchester Castle” since it opened back in July, so we rented a car a couple of weeks ago to make it happen. Whilst there (since Essex is a pretty significant drive from SW London), we also stopped by a couple more sites relating to the incredibly evil Matthew Hopkins and some of his victims. Essex has the dubious honour of being the county with the most witchcraft trials and executions in Britain, largely due to the zealousness of Hopkins, the self-styled “Witchfinder General,” who was responsible for the deaths of at least one hundred people, and possibly as many as three hundred, all in just a short two-year period.

 

We hadn’t been to Colchester Castle before, and we were pleasantly surprised to find it in the middle of a large park with lots of beautiful flowerbeds, including a rose garden containing a memorial to the victims of the witch trials. The Castle itself costs £11.25 to enter, which includes the exhibition. The museum is mainly about the Roman history of the area (“chester” in a British place name is usually a clue to Roman origins) through to the medieval period, with a small display in the dungeons about the Castle being used as a jail in the early modern era by that awful Matthew Hopkins. There is even a shadowy video projection with accompanying audio in one of the cells showing a teenage girl who was accused of witchcraft and was forced to implicate other witches, including her own mother, to save herself. It’s a horrible story, and listening to her sobbing and pleading was actually quite distressing.

The witchcraft exhibition was fairly small, but had been done in conjunction with the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, so had the quality of interpretation I would expect. It provided some background to the Essex witch trials (most of which were held during the turmoil of the English Civil War) and highlighted a few of the victims, including the very sad case of the unfortunately nicknamed “Dummy”, an elderly deaf and mute man who was accused of witchcraft in 1863(!) by the incredibly nasty-sounding Emma Smith, who decided to do her own “ordeal by water” on him by throwing him in a nearby freezing river with the help of her equally unpleasant friend Samuel Stammers, and beating him with sticks. He later died of pneumonia brought on by this trauma and Smith and Stammers were sentenced to six months of hard labour as a result, which doesn’t really feel like enough punishment.

On a less-depressing note, the exhibition also included impressive paper cuts showing different superstitions as well as cases full of items traditionally used in magical practices, like a mummified cat and some very cool witch bottles. Had to include a photo of the magpies too, since I love them so much!

But back to the depressing stuff, because that is the nature of early modern witchcraft (or at least of the witch trials), there was a list of names of everyone who died in Essex as a result of being accused of witchcraft, mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries, but as we have seen, one poor man in the 19th century as well, which filled an entire side of a display case in not terribly large writing. There were also displays of the torture implements used to extract confessions – the use of most of these was not legal by Matthew Hopkins’s time, but that didn’t stop him from using other methods, such as sleep deprivation, to get the confessions he needed.

After the rather heavy subject matter, I was almost ridiculously pleased to see the fun display of witchy merchandise in the shop, which I absolutely cannot resist. I ended up getting a moon-adorned travel cup and a postcard of Matthew Hopkins and some demons (though obviously he’s the only real demon).

 

We didn’t linger in Colchester, since we knew we had a long drive home and we definitely wanted to visit Old Knobbley before we went. There is a three mile “Walking with Witches” walk from the village of Manningtree (Hopkins’s base, so not a good place to be living in the mid-1600s) to Mistley that you can do if you’re so inclined, which includes QR codes to scan in order to view online art pieces, but we were feeling a bit too lazy for that, so we headed directly to the Village Hall carpark in Mistley to see the sites we were most excited about, namely Old Knobbley. Old Knobbley is a lovely eight hundred year old oak tree that may have sheltered some of the accused “witches” as they hid out in the woods from Hopkins and his gang. If you wander through the trails at the back of the playing field, you’ll encounter him eventually – everything we saw online said you’ll know him when you see him, and that is indeed the case, as he is the biggest and knobbliest one. There is also a pond nearby that is allegedly haunted by the ghost of Matthew Hopkins in full witch-hunting regalia, and I am glad to say we didn’t see him, as I probably would have crapped my pants, but I did get spooky vibes down there, and also tripped over and twisted my ankle a bit, which I’m totally blaming Hopkins for (I would DEFINITELY have been one of his targets). If you do the full walk, you can see the pub in Manningtree where Hopkins was meant to have plotted against his victims, as well as a bridge where the accused were thrown for their “swimming trials” (i.e. drowning, since they were tied to a chair), in addition to a few other sites.

There are plenty more witch-related sites to see in this area, because it was such a prominent and dark part of Essex’s history, but this was all we had time for on a day trip in order to get back home at a reasonable hour. The countryside bits of Essex are surprisingly lovely (I spent a month in Romford back in 2008, shortly before I officially moved to London, which is…not so much), so I’d definitely like to come back and explore more, especially with all the autumnal colour out. The exhibition at Colchester Castle runs until 6th January, so there’s still time to see it if you’re interested, and make sure you visit Old Knobbley too – he’s worth the trip!

5 comments

  1. Depressing, but interesting, and important to remember these terrible events. Sad to say, Scotland is way up there in numbers of executed “witches”. I’ve volunteered to do a Story Cafe event about it next year for the Women’s Library.

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