Manningtree Witches 1645

When I first began to think about the current body of work, I was in the throes of a big house move but once that was over, I began to look at the area that I had moved to. Despite being only about 10 miles south of where I had been living it is a different county, not an area I knew very well, and it felt very different. I began by looking at the characteristics of the area and things it is known for. One of these is Matthew Hopkins and The Manningtree Witches. The book of that name had been published earlier in last year. I came across a website whilst internet researching called ‘Snapping the Stilletto’, (Snapping the Stiletto: Campaiging for Equality) . They were about to start a creative writing project to revisit the Manningtree Witches and to celebrate the lives of the poor, targeted women that had their lives taken away from them.

I thought it would be helpful to join the zoom meetings and perhaps get to know more about the local area. I am not a creative writer and voiced my lack of experience and my reluctance to get involved. However, by the end of the first session I had got ‘drawn in’ and had a named woman to develop.

Ducking Stool

There is very little known about Anne Leech. She was a poor widow from Mistley, and the mother of another of the accused ‘witches’, Helen Clarke. Anne was searched for ‘witches’ marks’, probably ‘watched’, and interrogated.  She was the first person to mention meetings of alleged ‘witches’ at Elizabeth Clarke’s house. Anne was found guilty of murdering Richard Edwards’ baby son John by witchcraft. She was executed in Chelmsford in July 1645. That was about all the factual information I had to go on but I do know that Anne Leech, alongside the other persecuted women, suffered inhuman hardship, appalling trauma, torture and abuse and showed remarkable strength.

In those times, any lonely old woman who kept a pet or used healing herbs, risked a terrible fate and partly through fear, villagers could often be relied upon to act as witnesses to evil goings on. In the Manningtree area, the names of the same group of “women searchers” regularly appeared on the original indictments. The witchfinder relied on “discovering” the witch-mark, a spot on the body insensible to pain and using the infamous “swimming” test which meant binding the suspects limbs together and lowering them into the village pond. The logic was simple, God’s pure water would reject a witch, causing her to float, while the innocence of those who sank and drowned would assure them of a place in heaven. The torturing of witches to obtain their confession would be sleep deprivation, the use of tight restraints to induce cramps and starvation diets. The sentence of death when it came, was by hanging.

All participant writers ended up needing to write about a second woman so that all the 36 women could be included. The goal of the project was to record our stories and for them to be put on QR codes around the town. The presentations are raw and emotional giving the listener a viewpoint to reflect upon. As a participant it felt good to be able to name, acknowledge and celebrate the lives of the 36 courageous women and bring balance to history of the Manningtree ‘witches’ where many myths exist.

 If you are interested in finding out more about following the trail and accompanying digital artwork of this fascinating project, check it out here  here

During my research I thought about life in the 1600’s and imagined how my life and Anne Leech’s may have some parallels and about the many differences between us. She would have trodden some of the ground that I tread and had somewhere she could call home near to mine. As I progressed with my own artwork research I went on a different line of enquiry, but I still think of Anne and how lucky I am in comparison.

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