The bewitching of Anne Gunter : a horrible and true story of deception, witchcraft, murder, and the King of England
- James Sharpe.
- New York : Routledge, 2000.
- 1st Routledge hardback ed.
Where to find it
- Call Number
- BF1581 .S517 2000
Perkins & Bostock Library — Stacks
- Call Number
- BF1581 .S517 2000 c.1
- Call Number
- BF1581 .S517 2000 c.2
NC State Libraries
D. H. Hill Jr. Library — Stacks
- Call Number
- BF1581 .S517 2000
In 1604, 20-year-old Anne Gunter was bewitched: she foamed at the mouth, contorted wildly in her bedchamber, went into trances. Her garters and bodices were perpetually unlacing themselves. Her signature symptom was to vomit pins and "she voided some pins downwards as well by her water or otherwise.." Popular history at its best, "The Bewitching of Anne Gunter" opens a fascinating window onto the past. It's a tale of controlling fathers, willful daughters, nosy neighbors, power relations between peasants and gentry, and village life in early-modern Europe. Above all it's an original and revealing story of one young woman's experience with the greatly misunderstood phenomenon of witchcraft. James Sharpe is Professor of History at York University and the author of "Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in" "Early Modern History" and other works of social history.
- Preface p. xi
- Acknowledgments p. xiv
- 1 Anne's Story p. 1
- 2 Some Unexpected Consequences of a Football Match p. 14
- 3 Many Strange Tortures p. 43
- 4 Witchcraft p. 64
- 5 The Oxford Connection p. 90
- 6 The Witch-trial at Abingdon p. 115
- 7 Demonic Possession and the Politics of Exorcism p. 139
- 8 Anne Meets the King p. 169
- 9 Loose Ends, Tied and Untied p. 197
- Notes and References p. 213
- Index p. 231
Chapter One ANNE'S STORY ANNE WAS first interrogated on Sunday, 24 February 1606, at the Holborn Court of Gray's Inn. By then the Star Chamber no longer carried out the preliminary examination of defendants at its antechamber in Westminster. As Anne was being questioned she may well have imagined what was to come: sitting before the King s privy councillors or, if they were in a harsh mood, being made to stand before them at the bar in the `outer' part of the most notorious court in English history, the Camera Stellata , the Star Chamber. This `chamber' (in fact, two interconnected rooms) had originally been built more than three centuries earlier on an upper floor, facing the Thames, of the royal palace of Westminster. It had been successively improved, with ever more imposing decor, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, dead less than three years before Anne's trial. By the time of that trial those involved in the court's proceedings found themselves in a large room, among whose rich decorations the arms of the late Queen were prominent, as were the stars painted on the ceiling, from which the court took its name. The privy councillors, acting as a judicial body, heard and deliberated on cases as they sat around a large table, traditionally covered by a green carpet when the court was in session. Those brought before the court could hardly fail to be intimidated, placed as they were in a courtroom designed and furnished to overawe the subject and to emphasize the power of the law and the monarch who embodied it. By 1606 most of the court's business was transacted at the Star Chamber office in the Holborn Court of Gray's Inn. William Mill, the skilled administrator who became clerk of the council in the Star Chamber in 1587, had realized that the number of cases entering the court had grown so great that the paperwork could no longer be prepared in the busy antechamber at Westminster; he had subsequently moved the court's extensive clerical staff to this new centre of operations. Defendants and witnesses were questioned by one of the Star Chamber's two examiners, and their answers recorded by an underclerk. The record of Anne's interrogation, written down in the difficult hand of the clerk who noted so much of the evidence in this case, tells us nothing about how the questioning was conducted. We do not know if Anne was subjected to leading questions, to verbal bullying or to psychological pressure. We do, however, have the interrogatories, one of those sets of questions that, adjusted to the peculiar circumstances of each case, formed the basis of all Star Chamber investigations. Her answers to the matters listed in this document were formed into a more or less continuous narrative by the clerk, who doubtless modified her words as he wrote them down. There is no record of Anne having been represented by a lawyer, although she had almost certainly been coached in what to say and how to say it by the various great men who had taken an interest in her case over the past few months. Moreover, although the charges against her were laid formally in the name of the King's attorney-general, this Star Chamber case was instigated by the archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Bancroft, which may well have smoothed the way in which matters proceeded. But what must have helped most was the fact that Anne was an interrogator's dream, a freely confessing suspect. And however intimidated she must have felt in the Star Chamber office, her ordeal there was no worse than much that had happened to her over the previous eighteen months: indeed, the realization that she was coming to the end of a period of lengthy stress must have been a cathartic one. The initial weeks when she was simulating bewitchment were bad enough. Anne had lain on her bed in her chamber in her parents' house in the presence of an ever changing, ever growing and ever more diverse crowd of onlookers. At first her family and immediate neighbours had come, then doctors, clergymen and more distant relatives, and then a continuously widening body of interested parties, extending indeed to casual passers-by. Before them (for her father had been determined to make her supposed sufferings as public as possible) she had pretended to go into contortions and trances, writhe, foam at the mouth and, by sleight of hand, vomit foreign bodies, notably pins, and pass them in her urine. She had feigned insensibility while trumpets had been sounded near her, as swords had been flourished before her, and yet more pins had been stuck into her breasts and arms to `prove' her lack of feeling. All of this was stressful enough, but if only it had happened in a familiar place with, if only at first, mainly familiar people present. Even when she was taken to her brother-in-law Thomas Holland's lodgings at Exeter College, Oxford, the doctors, dons and clergymen who came to examine and to help the bewitched girl were disposed to treat Anne kindly; indeed, many of them were already known to her. But circumstances had subsequently forced her into less familiar surroundings and made her the object of more daunting people's attention. A few weeks after the trial of two of the women who were supposed to have bewitched her, Anne had been taken into the custody of Henry Cotton, the bishop of Salisbury, who, interested in one of the rare cases of witchcraft in his diocese, kept Anne under close observation and had her examined by local doctors. At about this time she was also lodged with (or, more accurately, kept in the custody of) Sir Giles Wroughton at Tidworth in Wiltshire. But the world really changed for Anne after her father made his unfortunate decision to bring her sufferings to the notice of King James. Meeting the monarch must have been an overwhelming experience for the girl, although from the first there is every indication that he treated her sympathetically. Her statement to the Star Chamber, however, suggests that she was very worried about being taken into the custody of Samuel Harsnett, the archbishop of Canterbury's chaplain and an important member of his middle management, a man with a formidable reputation as a sceptic in matters of witchcraft and as an exposer of the fraudulently bewitched. She stayed with Harsnett for a month, during which time she was medically examined by the physician Edward Jorden. Jorden had been involved in a well-publicized witch-trial in 1602, in which he had given medical evidence in favour of the alleged witch, arguing that her supposed victim, another young girl of good family, was suffering from a natural ailment. When Anne came before the Star Chamber she had already experienced some months of confinement, during which she had been subjected continuously to questioning and medical examinations. Unfortunately we know nothing of Anne's appearance. The court records give us no information. We do know that while under Bancroft's care in the autumn of 1605 she fell in love, probably for the first time in her life, with one of his servants, and at least one contemporary recorded that the love was reciprocated, and marriage envisaged. Given the capacity of the period's commentators on court affairs to make cutting remarks when they felt it appropriate, we may therefore surmise that Anne was attractive enough. She told the court that she was aged about nineteen at the time of her interrogation, although the parish register entry recording her baptism suggests that she was in fact twenty-one: surprisingly to the modern reader, people in Tudor and Stuart England were sometimes a little imprecise about their age. We know that she could read: she learned how to pretend bewitchment partly by consulting books about such matters, while her statement in the Star Chamber dossier ends with her firm, literate signature. She was conventionally religious. Some of the statements made while she was in her fits (where the sufferer's body turned temporarily into a battlefield between good and evil, and she was expected to voice godly sentiments) demonstrate this. Her sister Susan had some years previously married Thomas Holland, by the time of Anne's trial regius professor of divinity at Oxford University and a well-respected clergyman and academic. A man on that career track would not have risked marrying into an ungodly family. There is, in fact, nothing in either the Star Chamber records or in any of the other sources connected with her story to suggest that Anne was anything other than a normal young woman, an unremarkable daughter in a solid country gentry family, who found herself thrust into rather remarkable circumstances. Certainly the formal answers she gave to the charges laid against her, dated 23 February 1606, were couched in entirely conventional terms. Anne confessed that under pressure from her father she had agreed to `feign and counterfeit herself to be bewitched', and more or less threw herself on the mercy of the court, deploying a rhetoric that was patently designed to strike a chord. She was now, she declared, `very penitent' and had `often upon her knees asked mercy and forgiveness at God's hands'. She pleaded with the court to `take consideration of the weakness of her sex, of her young years and that she was and is a child owing obedience to her father that commanded her, and having no means, but by her father's provision, to live, and how she hath suffered much torment and affliction in body and mind by this her offence of counterfeiting'. She had now, the document repeated, `grown to sorrow and repentance for the same' and `doth most humbly commit herself to the censure of the honourable court'. This statement was obviously calculated to have considerable impact. The story Anne told when she appeared in the Star Chamber office the following day, recorded as it was in nineteen pages of closely written foolscap, could not have failed to make an even greater impression. Anne began by going back to her original illness in the summer of 1604. The illness, she said, seemed to her to be `the disease called the mother', that is, hysteria, which the medical theory of the period held to be a characteristically female complaint, originating from disorders of the womb. At first, she insisted, she did not believe or claim that she was bewitched. It was her father, together with his neighbours Nicholas Kirfoote and his wife Alice, who developed this idea when the illness returned in October; they persuaded her to `counterfeit herself to be bewitched' and to lay the blame on Elizabeth Gregory, and Agnes and Mary Pepwell. Her father, she explained, had a long-standing grudge against the Gregorys because they held him responsible for the deaths, which had occurred a few years previously, of two members of the family, John and Richard Gregory. There was also a pre-existing enmity between Alice Kirfoote and Elizabeth Gregory. The hapless Pepwell women, especially Agnes, already had reputations as witches and were sucked into the accusation because their supposed complicity would lend credence to the allegations against Elizabeth Gregory. Anne recalled how a Mr Roger Bracegirdle, a physician, reinforced the growing rumours that witchcraft was at the root of her sufferings by telling her parents that further recourse to doctors was pointless, that her troubles were supernatural in origin, and that they should rather seek to help their daughter by consulting `cunning men', or good witches. Anne's problem now was how to fabricate a convincing simulation. Knowledge of the symptoms of witchcraft-induced illness and of demonic possession was widely diffused in the culture of the period: people knew what to expect and what to look for when confronted by an individual showing the signs of such afflictions. But Anne needed a more focused approach, and, as she told the court, this was in large measure provided by a lucky chance. Early in her sufferings concerned parties, presumably hoping to give her and her parents some idea of what lay ahead of them, had supplied her father with what Anne described as `the book of the witches of Warboys', as well as `some other books which she remembreth not'. Anne's `book of the witches of Warboys' would in fact have been a fairly lengthy tract entitled The most strange and admirable discoverie of the three Witches of Warboys arraigned, convicted and executed at the last Assizes at Huntingdon , which described the sufferings brought on by the bewitchment of a number of children of another gentry household, that of the Throckmorton family of Warboys in Huntingdonshire. This was one of the best known of the early English witch-trials and resulted (as the title of the tract records) in the execution of the three supposed witches in 1593. The case set a pattern for English witch-accusations that was to last into the early eighteenth century, a pattern that was taken across the Atlantic by English colonists to appear in an extreme form at Salem, Massachusetts, a hundred years after the original incident. Anne read this account and from it learned the names given by the Warboys witches to their `familiar spirits', those half-animal, half-demon beings that are so central to English witch beliefs, and applied those names to the `supposed wicked spirits' of Elizabeth Gregory and the Pepwells. She also learned from the book `the manner of the fits of Mr Throckmorton's children' and set about imitating them. It has long been suspected that trial pamphlets and similar literature helped spread ideas on witchcraft, but such striking evidence of so direct a connection between a printed account of one case and what happened in another is very rare. The techniques acquired from the Warboys book were supplemented by some basic trickery. Anne recounted how her parents told her of the superstition that if some thatch from the house of a suspected witch was burned, the afflictions suffered by the supposedly bewitched party were lifted. Accordingly, at pre-arranged times thatch from Elizabeth Gregory's or Agnes Pepwell's roofs was burned in a chamber of the Gunter residence adjacent to where Anne lay on her sickbed, and the girl would experience a convincing, if short-lived, recovery. `This practice,' Anne explained, `was a great means to persuade those that saw it that Mother Pepwell and Goodwife Gregory bewitched her.' There was another trick that required Anne, as was usual with the bewitched or possessed, to show second sight (her father, so she told the court, was compiling a notebook listing such occurrences: did he too have publication in mind?). So when some gentlemen came to the Gunter house to see the afflicted girl, who was in a separate room, Alice Kirfoote managed, in the course of general conversation, to find out how much money they had in their purses. This information was conveyed secretly by the older woman to Anne, who was then able to tell the gentlemen how much money they had about them. This, she told the court, `was made a great wonder'. But more was needed than a few basic deceptions if the accusations against the three women were to be brought to a successful conclusion. According to Anne's account, from an early stage her father attempted to make her symptoms seem more compelling by keeping her drugged. His first move in this direction was to have brimstone burned under her nose as she lay in her chamber. This treatment lasted for about a fortnight and, as Anne told the court, `troubled her exceedingly', choking her and making her sick. She begged her mother to make her father desist from this course of action, which she did. Then, `in the time of her sickness & troubles', her father gave her `sack & sallet oil with some other mixtures in the same '. When she drank this concoction `she was provoked to vomit & to tumble & to toss up and down & that the same drink so troubled her senses that she knew not what she said'. Her father made her take this drink `so often as he thought good'. Even more dramatic were the effects of a mysterious `green water' (the official interrogatories suggested this was some kind of herbal brew) that, Anne recalled, was first brought into her home by a neighbour, Robert Tadmarten. He was to bring further supplies once or twice more, although after this Anne's father learned how to make the drink himself, as he `had it always ready to give her when he listed'. This `green water' had a more violent effect than the sack and sallet oil. It sent Anne into `great rages', which were followed by `heavy dullness', followed in turn by a deep sleep in which the girl was insensible until the effects of the drink wore off. So profound were the slumbers caused by this mixture, which was usually administered when Alice Kirfoote and her sister were present, that on one occasion when Anne had taken the drink the bell of the parish church was tolled for her, as it was feared she was near to death. Anne told how her father normally gave her this `green water', often against her will, when strangers came to the house to witness her afflictions. He also administered it to her before her interviews with the King in the summer of 1605. But the abuse Anne suffered as she simulated her fits and trances went beyond being drugged. People allegedly bewitched or demonically possessed were usually subjected to a variety of tests designed to `prove' that their sufferings were genuine. These often took the form of demonstrations of insensibility. One of the most unpleasant experiments conducted on Anne was having pins (these quite apart from the pins she was supposed to vomit) stuck into her arms to demonstrate lack of feeling. She told how on one occasion Alice Kirfoote and her father stuck numerous pins into her arms and breasts. It was left to Alice (the task was obviously thought too immodest to be allocated to a man) to clean up the girl after this treatment, and Anne remembered that two handkerchiefs were needed to wipe away the blood. When the effects of the drugs administered to her wore off, Anne found that her breasts were so sore `that she could not well bring her arms together or lift them up without much pain', so that she `fell a weeping & asked Kirfoote's wife what she had done to her and why she had used her so'. The older woman's reply that `she had done nothing to her' was as unconvincing as it was callous. Anne was under terrible pressure during the ten months or so when she was forced to manufacture the symptoms of bewitchment on a daily basis: it is noteworthy that this pressure came overwhelmingly from her father and from Alice Kirfoote. Her mother's involvement was barely mentioned in the girl's evidence, except on that one occasion when she intervened successfully to prevent her daughter having to inhale the fumes of burning brimstone, while Nicholas Kirfoote, once the business had begun, seems to have faded into the background, making much less impression than his wife. Brian Gunter kept up the pressure by constantly forcing Anne to swear oaths to keep the plot against Elizabeth Gregory and the two Pepwells secret. Thus when she was about to be examined by a group of clergymen, among them the vicar of North Moreton and her brother-in-law Thomas Holland, Gunter took Anne into his study and made her take an oath `never to disclose any of those things which she had sworn to keep secret', an oath whose solemnity was emphasized when her father reminded her of it as the two of them kneeled together while receiving Holy Communion in their parish church a few days later. On another occasion, immediately before she was taken to stay at her brother-in-law's lodgings at Oxford, her father again swore her to secrecy, and Alice Kirfoote added that if Anne revealed anything `what she had sworn to keep secret', the devil would come and `fetch her away both body & soul'. Physical brutality was added to psychological pressure. Her father beat her several times when she refused to simulate fits, and there was one especially violent incident, also recalled by other witnesses to the case. Anne locked herself away in the house of a neighbour, Anthony Ruffin, rather than feign convulsions and comas yet again. Her father was so incensed by her rebellion that he threw her to the ground and `spurned' her, that is struck at her with the heels of his boots. William Field, a neighbour who was in the street near Ruffin's house when the incident occurred, said he saw Gunter drag his unwilling daughter out of the house on her stomach, crying out to her as she lay on the ground, `What, you scurvy harlot, will you not come home with me?' Perhaps Brian Gunter had never liked his last child, who came into his life when he and his wife were both in their forties, by which time they probably thought their days of child-rearing were through. A significant comment was made by Nicholas Kirfoote in his lengthy statement to the Star Chamber, a statement marked chiefly by his retreat from any past association with accusations of witchcraft launched by Brian Gunter. Kirfoote recounted that before Anne fell ill her father `made very little reckoning of her and disliked her so much that being sick at Oxford and making his will would have bequeathed her only ten pounds for her portion', information that had been passed on to him by one of Gunter's sons. Aspects of Gunter's behaviour towards his daughter appear abusive to the modern observer, while it is not over imaginative to see in Anne's attempts to comply with her father's wishes a desperate effort by an unloved child to gain her father's affection. The sorry business took a tremendous toll on Anne. One of the matters of greatest interest to the Star Chamber was Anne's vomiting of pins. Anne claimed that she was trained by Alice Kirfoote to hide them in her mouth before pretending to vomit them, and was insistent that her father played no part in this particular deception. But at one point she swallowed some of the pins, `hoping by that means to make an end of herself', since `her state of life was so odious and loathsome unto her'. Her despair was deepened by concern over what her friends would make of her when the dissimulations were revealed, and by messages she received `touching torment and torture that she was likely to endure with Mr Harsnett'. The consequence of all this was that `she gave herself over to a most desperate state of mind', and that she was `so weary of her life that she resolved to make an end of herself whatever became of it'. Her mental condition was corroborated by Alice Buckeridge, servant of that Anthony Ruffin whose door Brian Gunter kicked down when his daughter tried to hide in Ruffin's house. After this episode Buckeridge heard Anne say to Brian Gunter, `Indeed, father, afore I will have such a life with you I will take a halter and hang myself.' These sentiments would not have been voiced lightly in an age when suicide was a crime under English common law and, perhaps more importantly for a girl with conventional religious leanings, a sin of great magnitude. Living under such massive stress, Anne was slowly driven to acute despair. While she was questioned by the Star Chamber, Anne was held in Lambeth Palace, the archbishop of Canterbury's London residence, which often served as an ad hoc prison for political or religious offenders (heretics had been incarcerated there before trial in the Middle Ages, for example). At the end of the day's interrogation, the easiest way of conveying her back to the archbishop's palace, which was and is located on the south bank of the Thames opposite Westminster, was by ferry. It is easy to imagine Anne, exhausted but one hopes relaxed after giving her lengthy statement, crossing the river huddled in a cloak against the dank February air, an attendant or two with her as the ferryman rowed his craft. After her experiences that day, her mind might well have been running to the strange train of events that had brought her to her sorry condition, events that had begun in the small village where she had lived since she was a toddler. Copyright (c) 2000 James Sharpe. All rights reserved.
This item is about
- New York : Routledge, 2000.
- "First published in Great Britain in hardcover in 1999 by Profile Books Ltd."--T.p. verso.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -230) and index.
- xvi, 238 p. ; 24 cm.
- OCLC Number
- Other Identifiers
- LCCN: 99056590