Elizabeth Anna Halke married John Bull II on October 30, 1620 in Brabourne, county of Kent, England. John was twenty years old, Elizabeth was a few days shy of sixteen. They were eight generations of my grandparents ago.
Elizabeth was a popular name at the time. Our Elizabeth was named after her mother, and it turns out John Bull II’s mother was an Elizabeth as well. At this point I thought this experiment was turning into a Black Adder episode, but then I remembered. Queen Elizabeth died in 1603.
Elizabeth’s father was a William, as am I technically, and in the old folk songs William usually dies.
Over the past several months I’ve hitched myself to the tailcoats of various ancestors and engaged in a bit of time travel. To try and understand their connection to the divine, and in the process, examine my own feelings, to see I still carry any of the old beliefs, subconsciously or otherwise.
In this case, my question is what did my ancestors think of the witch hunts, and witchcraft in general at that time?
When it comes to genealogy, you look for certain guideposts, in my case, someone who connects my ancestors in America with those in Europe. Luckily for me, my namesake who brought the family name over did so as a convicted felon, sentenced to transportation and indentured servitude in the southern colonies. Which means his story is documented on both sides of the Atlantic.
The best tool for this is Ancestry.com, but I got lucky in that someone has already documented the fellow extensively with his own website. The research is so anal retentive, including descriptions of life in the times down to specific neighborhoods, that I knew instinctively we were related.
From his work I found John Bull II’s last will. One personal detail that stood out was his dedication admiration and love for his wife. I found that heartwarming. Apart from that, the will seems to be part appeal to Christ, pledging his undying fealty to the savior, and then the distribution of his funds. Which were considerable. In fact, he had more cash available then, even without factoring inflation over the past four hundred years, than I have in the bank now.
When I saw on the baptism record of one of his children he had listed for occupation “gentleman,” my modern ears found that pretentious.
John died in Brabourne in 1656, and Elizabeth followed in 1678.
That was it for the historical record. Then I got lucky.
When researching the Bull family in Brabourne, I came across a four star B&B, Bulltown Farmhouse. Dating to the 14th century. I contacted the owners, who were on vacation and said they’d send along info when they got back, in early November. I needed this article for the end of October, so I bugged the nice lady once more. She verified that yes, it was named after the Bull family who had lived there.
My own research had shown that the Bulls were in the area at least from the fifteenth century, till about the end of the seventeenth. After that they seem to have moved. So it’s a safe bet that this was the family home of my ancestors. Even if my direct ones didn’t live there, they were likely so jealous of those who did that it played a major part in their life.
The next step was to learn about this placed called Brabourne, four hundred years before I was born.
“BRABOURNE, a parish in the franchise and barony of Bircholt, lathe of Shepway, in the county of Kent, 6 miles to the E. of Ashford. It is an ancient place, and had once the privilege of a market. The land is partly laid out in hop-grounds, and the soil is wet and clayey. There is a large rabbit-warren at Brabourne Lees, near which are extensive cavalry and infantry barracks. The church is in the early English style, and is dedicated to St. Mary. A fine yew-tree, nearly 60 feet in girth, is mentioned by Evelyn as standing in this churchyard in his day.”
Transcribed from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland 1868
Brabourne is a village about five miles from the town of Ashford. Brabourne grew up around St. Mary’s church, and today this is East Brabourne. To the southwest lies Brabourne Lees, where some more of my ancestors hailed from. The Bulls appeared to have lived the north of Brabourne village center. This part is still more rural, with working farms.
A mile or so north of the family farm is The Devil’s Kneading Trough. From the top you have a spectacular view over the bowl shaped hillside, all the way to the sea. The legend has it that these dramatic hills which seem to rise up from nowhere were carved here by the devil. And if you walk around it seven times widdershins, and have a draught from the sacred spring, the old fellow will appear to you.
I knew in an instant, these are my ancestors. That’s exactly the kind of story I would have believed.
I felt a certain recognition when I saw photos of the Church of St. Mary in Brabourne. Which makes sense if you believe in inherited memories as likely several of my ancestors were baptized and buried in the churchyard, and church itself. It was built by the Normans in 1144, to replace a previous one, and still has many Norman features.
Atop the altar is a slab of marble, more than four hundred years old. It’s part of a tomb for Reginald Scott, who wrote one of the first rebuttals of the idea of witches, and the insanity of the trials, Discovery of Witchcraft. Scott, like some of my ancestors came from Smeeth, just a mile of two from Brabourne.
Since my purpose was to figure out what my ancestors thought about the witch trials and witchcraft itself, that gave me a bit of hope. We tend to see the villagers with their pitchforks shouting “burn witch burn” through teethless mouths as monsters. But in reality, they held the same beliefs as the most learned people in their society.
Why did my ancestors and their neighbors fear witches enough to slaughter innocents?
In 2007, archeologists in Hoo, Kent uncovered the skeleton of a teenage girl, whose head had been removed and tucked beside the body. She wasn’t buried in consecrated ground, and judging from the period – the 14th or 15th century, it was widely speculated that she had been executed as a witch. She was given a Christian burial in the village churchyard in 2009, with over 200 people attending the funeral.
Times have changed.
By the time John and Elizabeth Bull married, they likely knew quite a bit about the prosecution of witches in their county, which had gone on for over a century. To understand the people of this period, you have to keep in mind is that people believed in the literal existence of witches. They believed they were dealing with those who had sold their soul to the devil for powers and knowledge that could wreck your life. Or kill you outright. There was no defense, because they used the dark arts. The only defense was eradication.
This wasn’t a belief at this time, it was common knowledge. We know now that common knowledge is very common indeed, and rarely real knowledge. We didn’t know that then.
So my ancestors likely feared witches as much as anyone else. They likely took comfort in the slaughter of those poor unfortunates who were pronounced witches. After all, this was a violent time, which was made pungently clear in Ashford, about five miles from John and Elizabeth’s home.
Ashford is about 60 miles from London, with the ancient forest of Andredsweald, or Anderida if you prefer, encroaching from the east. Henry III bequeathed a charter for a livestock market in Ashford in 1243. It’s likely John Bull II brought his own bulls here to sell.
A century before him, a local man, John Brown had a verbal tussle with a priest whilst riding on a barge. The priest took offense, and named Brown as a heretic. In the middle of the night, in front of his family, John Brown was wrenched from his house and taken to Canterbury, He was held for forty days and nights, with no word going to his family of his situation, The situation was torture, which included hot coals to his feet. Though he refused to confess, he was sentenced to death and returned to Ashford. He was burned at the stake on Whitsunday evening 1517, in Martyr’s Field. Two more were burned in 1556, and their wives were burned in Canterbury, along with five other men.
King James declares a holy war on witchcraft
Theodore of Tarsus – a seventh century Archbishop of Canterbury wrote the church laws governing “diabolical divination” in the seventh century. These includes punishments for the crime, which included a year long fast on bread and water. Things were mellower then.
Henry VIII tackled witchcraft with new laws in 1542. Elizabeth followed suit in 1562 and 1563. But the one who literally wrote the book on witchcraft in England, Daemonologie, was King James I, who is also responsible for the Bible which bears his name.
Returning from his wedding, James and his wife had been caught in a storm at sea, the cause of which was traced to the North Berwick witches. One of the accused, albeit under torture, confessed to having caused the storm by tossing a dead cat bestrewn with bits of a dead corpse into the sea from a rowboat. Later she proved to the king that she was a witch by recounting conversations James had with his wife on his wedding night.
James saw this as an imminent danger, as he believed, suffering from an inflated ego, that the devil considered James to be Old Nick’s greatest threat. So James wrote Daemonologie in 1597, laying out the case for the existence of witches, how to find a witch and how they should be punished. The war was on, against an invisible enemy, which could be anyone. Or no one at all.
The English Civil War ran from 1751 through 1662. This was a tough time, lots of religious conflict and Kent was heavy with Protestant loyalists. It was hard to find a vicar in those days, so the parishioners ran their own spiritual lives. Which was even more dour as these were often Puritan fundamentalists, who were intent on keeping the populace very much in line. The populace it should be pointed out, was illiterate for the most part, and highly superstitious. Lack of education and superstition as we still see today is a dangerous combination.
In some cases labelling your political opponent a witch was all it took to have your opposition removed by the people. And once the people had a taste for blood, things took on a life of its own. During the eleven years of the war, there were 48 people tried for witchcraft in Kent. That broke down to 10 men, 14 widows, and 24 married women or spinsters. Those numbers don’t include the accusations that were handled by the townspeople themselves, without the formality of the courts, or the ones who didn’t survive the initial examinations.
The influence of the Witchfinder General spreads to neighboring Kent
“Goodwife Watts of Sandwich gives a young pregnant woman lodging in her home. The young woman suffers from strange and tormenting labour pains and Goodwife Hatch is thus called for. The baby born resembles a lump of flesh with deformed facial features, arms growing out of its shoulder with no joints, and fourteen toes on its feet; it dies and is buried in a church yard.”
Strange News out of Kent of a Monstrous and Misshapen Child. London: 1609,
Strange things were afoot in Kent during this era, and deformed babies were often a sign that the devil was at work in your community.
Folk Horror is a term used to describe certain films and literature which derive their terrors from folklore stemming from rural locations, primarily in Britain. One of top three films cited is The WItchfinder General, known also as The Conqueror Worm here in the states which starred Vincent Price as Mathew Hopkins. It’s a bit over the top, but actually a somewhat insightful portrayal of the horrors that southeastern England went through during this period, at the hands of this man.
Matthew Hopkins worked out of Suffolk, just north of Kent, going into villages, finding evidence of witchcraft and then rooted out the source. All for a price, which was twenty shilling per town, plus expenses. Working with a crack team of investigators, his efforts led to the death of more than 300 people from 1644 onward. It’s hard to say exactly how long, for Hopkins disappears into history, but he was believed to have died in 1647. Some accounts have him drowning from having undergone “swimming,” a method he used to determine whether a person was a witch or not.
Hopkins was responsible for 60% of all the known executions of witches in England, all crammed into a three year period.
The first line of investigation involved pricking. And though Hopkins was certainly a prick, it actually referred to the practice of sticking needles into suspect marks on the accused body. Such as a mole, a freckle or even the clitoris. The device they used had a spring loaded handle to maximize the pain. Because the mark of a witch could feel no pain. So it was essential to provide as much stimulus as possible to give the accused a chance to prove thier innocence.
Swimming was another test, and involved taking the accused to a river, stream or pond. They were stripped to their underclothes, thumbs tied to their big toes cross-wise, and tossed into the drink, tied with a rope so they could be pulled up if they sank. The good news was that if you sank, you were innocent, albeit likely drowned as well. If you floated, you were guilty. The rope tied around the waist could ensure that you floated, and if so you were pulled out to go to trial, and usually hung.
Hopkins techniques became the standard, popularized in a tract he wrote explaining his methods.
Widow Drewin of Sandwich, in the eastern part of Kent was accused as a witch and found guilty. After her execution, to add insult to fatal injury, her family was charged with the cost of her swimming, which was two shillings. Her possessions were sold to pay the cost.
England limited the forms of torture you could afflict on the accused, compared to Europe. In fact, Britain was in many ways mild compared to their continental counterparts. Whereas burning was popular in European countries, England limited executions for witches to hanging. Burning was reserved for traitors and heretics.
The truly unfortunates were those accused of both witchcraft and treason, which could land you a sentence of being drawn and quartered. Whenever people talk about the sorry state of the world, that’s the penalty I usually bring up to describe how far we’ve come as a civilization.
On the cruelty of the past
Drawing and quartering was just part of the creative punishments doled out to those involved in a plot again King Henry VI. Duke Humphrey was second in line to the throne, and Henry was already suspicious, when he got word that Humphrey’s wife, Eleanor Cobham had been advised by astrologers that the king would die by illness. When the king’s astrologers came up with a different prediction, Eleanor and several of her friends were arrested and charged with treason.
Eleanor denied the charges, but did admit to buying a potion from a well known witch, Mary Jourdemain to help with fertility. Which was an important trait for a trophy wife back in the day. Mary was lumped in with the others on treason charges, which made her eligible for burning. Which she was. A second prisoner died during interrogation. Another was hung, drawn and quartered.
People hear that a lot, but few actually know what it entails. For the squeamish, skip to the next section, for the following shows man’s inhumanity to man more clearly than almost anything else I’ve ever known.
The hung part involved being hung by the neck, until you were almost dead. Then you were cut down and revived. The drawn part might involve then being drawn by cart to the place of execution. As you were pulled trough the streets, you were exposed to whatever vile substances the townspeople wanted to throw at you. Psychologically it must have been devastating, as shortly before these were likely your friends and neighbors.
When you arrived you were stripped naked, laid down and tied to the gallows. Some believe this is the part that was considered drawing. If you’ve seen Braveheart, you likely remember the end, where all you see is a variety of cutting implements and Mel Gibson’s face. What you didn’t see was the process started with castration. The genitals were tossed on a grill, which was to the side of condemned, so they could see and smell their own flesh cooking. Another blade was then inserted into the anus, and the curved blade sliced upwards, over the stomach but stopping before it hit the vital organs. The intestines were then added to the grill still attached. Depending on how long the executioners felt like working, eventually the quartering began. Which involved first cutting off both legs, and both arms. Usually by this point the condemned was dead. The final act was the removal of the head, though in some circumstances the trunk was quartered as well. Then the trophies sent off to various parts of the kingdom.
I asked my doctor once, how long a person could remain conscious through this ordeal. He pointed out that once the stomach was sliced open, the intestines have very few nerve endings. So you wouldn’t necessarily feel a lot of pain from that. The pain was more psychological, smelling yourself cooking. He also looked at me funny for asking.
You have to remember, this was an era where people believed that the threat of catastrophic bodily pain would deter certain activities. Today we like to think we’d stand up under torture, or die quickly. Those who had watched the process on their village green knew that the executed likely exhibited the full horrors of what was happening. After all, this is what the executioners were being paid to provide.
Punishment wasn’t about removing people from society. It was about making the biggest statement possible.
As for Eleanor, who was declared a witch by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Leeds Castle, she was sentenced to walk through London to three churches, candle in hand. A penance usually doled out to prostitutes. She was also stripped of her titles, divorced from her husband, and spent the rest of her life imprisoned in various castles. A woman from Kent chastised King Henry for his treatment of Eleanor, and was executed for her suggestion.
The stories that made my Kent ancestors believe witches were amongst them
To understand how my ancestors could believe that witches were multiplying in their midst, all you have to do is look at the history of the witch persecutions in Kent. Within a thirty mile radius of Braebourne, there was a considerable number of cases. These stories made thier was into the villages, and into the belief systems of the people. They didn’t know the details perhaps, but they knew witches had been hung nearby. Lots of them.
Even a sampling of cases from Kent, all within a day or two trip from Brabourne makes the point.
Dover got into the witch hunt mania in 1558, when Clement Baker, along with his wife were convicted for “their evil demeanour and behaviour.” For which they were banished from the area.
In 1575 at Westwell, Mildred Norrington, then seventeen years old said she was possessed by the devil. A public exorcism ensued, where she exhibited bizarre and violent behavior … wailing and gnashing of teeth. It took four strong local men to hold her down during the ordeal, but from it they learned that an elderly women named Alice kept in a bottle, a dog named Satan. Which she would release to attack Mildred. She was believed, and Alice was sentenced to hang, but evidence emerged that Mildred had faked the story, and Alice was spared.
Sandwich got into the act in 1631 when Goodwife Reynold was dunked in the pond and then hanged. Fourteen years later it happened again with Widow Drewin.
Town records of 1631 tell of Goodwife Reynold being “swum for a witch” and subsequently hanged, and in 1645 a similar fate befell Widow Drewin. About the same time in Coldred, Nell Garlinge was dunked and sank, proving her innocence with her death.
Another old woman near there was dragged three miles from her hut to Adisham pond at Nonnington, to be thrown into the cold water where she unfortunately floated. What happened next is related by Sir Charles Iggleston in his 1932 book “Those Superstitions,” “Yelling and mad with wrath, they pelted the poor old creature with stones until ‘a farmer called upon his men to rescue her’, but she died, and so her persecutors said she must be a witch!”
In Faversham, a man fell out of a tree and injured his butt. That caused quite a bit of laughter, which pissed the fellow off. In his anger he blamed Joan Wallingford, claiming it was witchcraft. She confessed and named three accomplices in the heinous act. Three were hung and one met an undisclosed ending.
The Penenden Heath witches were from the Maidstone area, about ten miles from John Bull and his family in Brabourne. Accused of everything from causing a blight on the crops, to murder by magical means, they were convicted. In an act strange enough to almost make one believe in witchcraft, one of the women said she had been impregnated by the devil and wished to be burned instead.
Writing in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology by Margaret Alice Murray, “Anne Ashby, alias Cobler, Anne Martyn, Mary Browne, Anne Wilson, and Mildred Wright of Cranbrook, and Mary Read, of Lenham, being legally convicted, were according to the Laws of this Nation, adjudged to be hanged, at the common place of Execution. Some there were that wished rather, they might be burnt to Ashes; alledging that it was a received opinion among many, that the body of a witch being burnt, her bloud is prevented thereby from becoming hereditary to her Progeny in the same evil.”
Despite the confessions, the judge wasn’t convinced and sent for a reprieve. It arrived too late, and the ladies were hung on Penenden Heath, which continued its gruesome tradition for executions. The last hanging took place on the heath in 1830, and the condemned man was later proven to be innocent.
Penenden is a Saxon word for a place associated with punishment.
The final execution for witchcraft in Kent happened in 1685. From that point on, witches were usually punished by imprisonment, along with being taken out and put in the stocks “the day after Ladyday, Midsummer, Michaelmas and Christmas for the space of six hours.” It was nice to get some air perhaps.
By the time that Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act in 1736, witches were seen and prosecuted as vagrants, charlatans and con artists. Being a witch didn’t become legal until 1951.
Would my Kent ancestors have condoned what happened to the innocents in the witch trials?
In a recent census, in the Ashford district, there were five people who listed their religion as druid, 159 were pagan and twenty five Wicca with one straight up witch. They were among the hundreds of people claiming ancient religions as their own in Kent.
The seeds for the transformation in belief stretch back to Reginald Scott, who wrote Discoverie of Witchcraft in 1590. He was dubious of the trials, considered the tests nothing more than torture, and believed that those who believed themselves witches suffered mental illness. Reginald was a neighbor of my ancestors, and is buried in the same church.
But did his influence rub off on John and Elizabeth Bull, and those of my bloodline that came before and after?
The line from John and Elizabeth to me is connected by a son, Thomas, who by his death was living in Surrey, just south of London. His daughter lived in Surrey to her death, but by the time her son came of age, he was living in London. As was his son, who got busted and found himself in the Virginia colony.
It’s possible that my ancestors fled Kent, or at least the countryside to escape from the madness that they witnessed and heard about their entire lives. But in all likelihood, they condoned the madness. It appears that they grew more conservative in their religion over time. They ended up in the same sects that brought the Pilgrims to the new world, not especially known for condoning witches.
The goal of this exercise was to get into the mindset of John and Elizabeth Bull. I don’t know enough about them to say for certain how they felt about the witch craze, but judging from their religious beliefs, it’s a safe bet that the common belief would fit the bill.
To understand their thinking, the first step is to dispense of a vital piece of modern knowledge … people who sold their soul to the devil for supernatural powers which they used on their neighbors without mercy or cause, existed. You have to believe they were danger to you, to your family and to your community. If left unchecked, people died.
We know now that’s not true. As certainly as John and Elizabeth knew that it was.
Since the enemy was invisible, you had to resort to extreme measures to find the truth. You might not know why a witch would float, but you knew that they did. You didn’t know the details that went on during an interrogation, but you knew that at the end, the people usually confessed.
In that day and age, if you wanted to prove a point, you did it with violence. Hanging, drawing and quartering, even burning alive wasn’t considered inhuman. It preyed on a very human fear … that of being hung, drawn and quartered or burnt alive. These are horrible ways to die. Done in front of your neighbors who are cheering the executioners on make it even more so. It was a common belief that this kind of thing reduced a person’s eagerness to break the law.
In short, my ancestors believed what they believed, because it’s what they were told to believe by those they trusted. By those they considered more learned, more intelligent. And by the King, who had the ultimate power over your life. And it simply made sense. When death was everywhere, killing an innocent was less important than ridding of your community of someone who could cause death on a larger scale.
They believed what they believed out of pure, blind fear. And fear makes behave like a pack of wild dogs.
The fear of witches spread like a wildfire. Kent was second in England in indictments only to the county of Essex. About this time, an ocean away there sprung up another county named Essex, which included a town called Salem.