Blacksheep Sunday: Witches, witchcraft and bewitchment – Part 2

Part 1 of this story of witchcraft in early-modern Essex can be found here: Witchcraft and witches.

1566 Pamphlet detailing the trial of Agnes Waterhouse of Hatfield PeverelJ Phillips, The Examination and confession of
certaine wytches at Chensforde

Above is an image from the 1566 pamphlet of the trial of 63 year old Agnes Waterhouse of Hatfield Peverel.  She was the first woman to be executed under Elizabeth’s 1563 Act against Conjuracions Inchantments and Witchecraftes.  Hatfield Peverel is an Essex village about 19 miles away from Great Dunmow.  Throughout Henry VIII’s reign, the (nameless) vicar of Hatfield Peverel was often documented in Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts when Great Dunmow’s church paid out money from their funds in order to support an obit in Hatfield Peverel.

There were two sets of husbands and wifes accused of witchcraft in the Elizabethan era in Great Dunmow:  Alice & John Prestmary (1567), and Richard & Joan Prestmary (1578).  The calendars of the Assizes and the Queen’s Bench Indictments containing the Prestmary trials have survived and are now held by Essex Record Office.  These contain the only surviving official records of these two cases.  The authorities did not directly accuse John Prestmary of witchcraft and so isn’t named in any of the Assize trials.  However, as will become clear in this post, there is enough circumstantial evidence to support my theory that he must have been involved in some way with his wife’s actions.

The Prestmarys of early-modern Great Dunmow have not been comprehensively researched by other historians.  This is probably because it was previously thought that there was no other surviving evidence regarding the Prestmarys, such as contemporary pamphlets.  Contemporary pamphlets are much used by historians as resources to be analysed for the causes, consequences and responses to witchcraft in early-modern England.  Two such pamphlets are: The Examination and confession of certaine wytches at Chensforde (1566) and  The apprehension and confession of three notorious witches. Arreigned and by iustice condemned and executed at Chelmes-forde, in the Countye of Essex, (1589).   Therefore, with such limited sources available to historians for their research, this is perhaps why the Prestmarys have not been comprehensively documented in the secondary literature before now.

However evidence regarding the Prestmarys have survived in the form of Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts and the town’s 1523-4 Lay Subsidy returns.   Part 1 of this story discussed the surviving 1567 legal documents around Alice and John Prestmary.  To recap the official documents:

  • On the 1st February, Alice Prestmary of Great Dunmow, wife of John Prestmary, bewitched Robert Parker’s son, Edward ‘putting him peril of his life, so that his life is despaired of’.(1)  At her trial at the Brentwood Assizes on 13 March, she pleaded not guilty but was found guilty.  However, she died of ‘a fever’ (possibly gaol fever) in Colchester gaol on 7 May, which, according to the official Inquisition into her death, was a ‘visitation of God’.(2)
  • On the same day as the bewitchment of Edward Parker, the inquest into Alice’s husband’s suicide took place.  John Prestmary, aged 60 years old, had hanged himself from a walnut tree in his garden on 30 January.  Two days later, 1 February, his inquest took place.(3)

Suicide in early-modern England would have been considered an act of ‘self-murder’ and only something that could have occurred if the Devil himself had been involved. It is very likely that the inquest into John Prestmary’s suicide took place somewhere in the town of Great Dunmow itself.  It cannot be coincidence that John Prestmary killed himself on 30 January and a two days later, his wife had bewitched a neighbour’s child.  The official records are silent on the events  in Great Dunmow so we can only guess at what had taken place during that January.  Had Joan, the newly bereaved wife, attended her husband’s inquest?  Did she blame the Parkers for the death of her husband?  Was the mutterings and ramblings of a grief-stricken old woman taken to be the curses and incantations of a witch?  Had there been a neighbourly dispute between the Prestmarys and the Parkers resulting in John’s suicide and Alice being tried as a witch?  The official records are silent on all of this.

However, we can establish is that there had probably been some form of neighbourly dispute or ill-will between the Parkers (the accusers) and the Prestmarys (the accused).   The evidence discussed below shows that both the Parkers and the Prestmarys were established families in Great Dunmow for at least 40 years before the 1567 trial.

The accused: the Prestmarys of Great Dunmow
That John Prestmary was recorded in the legal records as being about 60 years old is crucial to constructing more background information about him.  Taking his age-range to have actually been between 50 to 70 years old, this would give him a (wide) date of birth of between 1497 to 1517.  Therefore, by the time of the 1523-4 Lay Subsidy and the first parish-wide church collection of 1525-6, John Prestmary would either have been too young to have paid the Lay Subsidy tax in 1523-4, or he was a young man in his twenties.

A John Prestmary is not recorded in the 1523-4 Lay Subsidy returns(4) but he is in the 1525-6 parish collection for the church steeple.  In the parish collection, John Prestmary was recorded as living in the Bishopswood Quarter (an area to the south of the parish) and contributed 4d towards the church’s steeple.  As has been discussed in previous posts, 4d was the equivalent of one day’s wage for a labourer and this was the amount that the majority of parishioners paid towards their church’s new steeple.   There were no other ‘Prestmary’ families recorded in either the Lay Subsidy or the collection for the church’s steeple.  As John Prestmary was not levied in the Lay Subsidy returns, this could mean that:

    • He was a pauper and therefore exempt from the tax.  Or,
    • He was too young to pay the tax.  However if this was the case, where (or with whom) was he living?  No-one with the Prestmary name was recorded in Great Dunmow as paying the 1523-4 Lay Subsidy. Or,
    • He was not a local man but had arrived in Great Dunmow sometime between 1523 and 1525.  According to Peter Higginbotham’s excellent website on English Workhouses, part of the Origins of the Old Poor Law (1601), was the statue passed in 1495: The Vagabonds and Beggars Act (11 Henry VII c.2), which stated

‘Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid.’

My interpretation of this Act is that if John Prestmary was a pauper from another parish, and that parish was in the Hundred of Dunmow, he would not be returned to the parish of his birth.  (This earlier Act was slightly different to the later 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor (the Old Poor Law), when a pauper would have been sent back to the parish were they were born.)  I have not yet searched the Lay Subsidy returns for the other towns and villages in the Hundred of Dunmow. If I can’t find him listed elsewhere on other villages’ Lay Subsidy returns for the Hundred, then it is credible that he was a pauper and so exempt from Henry VIII’s tax.

At the moment, my  evidence does point to John Prestmary being a pauper in the 1520s and so was exempt from paying the Lay Subsidy.  However, he did pay the church’s unofficial tax: the levy for the church steeple – as seemed to have been the case with many other pauper donors.   Of course, the John Prestmary recorded in the 1525-6 parish collection may not be the same John Prestmary who killed himself in 1567: the former could have been the latter’s father.

Prestmary evidence from within Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts is as follows:

  • 1525-6 John Prestmary of Bishopswood Quarter contributed 4d towards the church’s steeple.(5)
  • 1527-9 John Prestmery of Windmill Street contributed 2d towards the parish collection for the new bells. (6)  Windmill Street is in the middle of town about a mile away from Bishopswood Quarter (Windmill Street’s modern day name is Rosemary Lane/The Downs.)
  • 1529-30 Richard Prestmary contributed 1d towards the collection for the organs. (7) It is interesting that John Prestmary was not documented in this collection for the organ.  This was the 3rd (and final) parish-wide collection conducted by the church.  However, this collection recorded approximately 20 less names than the first collection and 10 less names than the second collection.   There had been a devastating outbreak of the lethal sweating sickness in the late 1520s which had claimed many lives within England (it almost claimed the life of Anne Boleyn).  So this could account for the drop in the total number of contributors to each collection but it doesn’t explain why John Prestmary’s name was missing.  As the list of contributors to the parish collections only documented the heads-of-households, it is possible that John Prestmary (and family) were living with Richard Prestmary at the time of this collection.
  • John Prestmarie paid church rent of 10s – an amount that was for two years rent owed at the Feast of St Michael (Michaelmas – September) during the 5th and 6th year of either Edward VI’s reign or Mary’s reign (either 1551-2 or 1557-8).(8)  For John to have paid rent at 5s per year means that by this time, he was certainly more effluent then he had been in the 1520s/1530s.

This all leads to the conclusion that by the time of the 1567 trial, the Prestmarys had been living in Great Dunmow for at least 40 years.

The accusers: the Parker families of Great Dunmow
Now onto the Parker family, whose child, Edward, Alice Prestmary was accused of bewitching.  This is harder to analyse and evaluate as there were so many Parkers in Great Dunmow between the 1520s and 1560s. Contributing towards the many parish collections were several John Parkers, a Richard Parker, two Robert Parkers, and a Mother Parker.  Because there were so many Parkers in Great Dunmow, their trades were recorded alongside the majority of their names.   Their recorded trades were fletcher, sawyer, butcher, tiller, labourer, tanner, brewer, and wheeler.  From a distance of 500 years it is impossible to determine if (or how) they were all related to each other.   However, it can be established that one of the John Parker’s almost certainly had at least two sons: Nicholas and Robert: ‘rec of Rbt Parker and Nycolas Parker for the buriall of olde Parker in the churche’(9).  The many Parkers of Great Dunmow were also recorded in the 1523-4 Lay Subsidy returns.

Therefore, by amalgamating the Parker evidence (from the Lay Subsidy returns, their trades, and the contributions to the various church collections) it can be shown that the various Parker families were certainly not amongst the poor of the parish.   Indeed, John Parker, the Fletcher, was extremely wealthy and, according to the 1523-4 Lay Subsidy was the richest man in the entire parish.  His burial, costing 6s 8d, within the church building itself (i.e. not outside in a grave in the churchyard) also indicates that he was one of the elite of the parish.  It was Robert Parker who accused Alice Prestmary of bewitching his son.  There were two Robert Parkers assessed in the 1523-4 Lay Subsidy:

  • one who was assessed as having land to the value of 40s (the thirteenth wealthiest man in the parish);
  • and the other who was assessed as having goods to the value of 20s.

Throughout the 1520s to the 1560s, various Parkers were recorded as helping out with church business:

  • John Parker who played the fool at Christmas and gathered in money from the merry-making parishioners,(10);
  • Richard Parker who sold 24 paving slabs from recently dissolved Tilty Abbey to be laid in Great Dunmow’s church(11).  (Is this the very first documented evidence of the infamous Essex man on the make with his equally infamous van?);
  • Mother Parker, widow of Thomas Parker, tenant of church land(12);
  • Parker who was paid by the churchwardens for destroying and removing the High Altar in Edward VI’s reign(13).
  • Several Parkers had been churchwardens, including Robert Parker, who had been one of the churchwardens prior to the start of the leather-bound churchwardens’ accounts, and then again in 1537-8 and 1538-9 (or was this the other Robert Parker?).

Whilst it cannot be pinpointed with any great certainity who exactly was the Robert Parker whose son was bewitched by Alice Prestmary, the evidence does establish that the Parkers had been in Great Dunmow for at least 40 years before the witchcraft trial of 1567.  Moreover, in such a small parish of approximately 160 households, most of the Parkers were probably related to each other and they were either relatively well-off or amongst the top elite of the parish.

The tensions of early-modern communities
Many historians of early-modern witchcraft have put forward the hypothesis that there were significant tensions within parish life during early-modern England.  If previously good relationships broke down between neighbours, often the cry of witchcraft was heard in the village.  There is also the premise that witchcraft accusations often resulted because of ‘charity denied’.  That is, Person A (normally a poor woman) requested charity or help from Person B.  Person B refused to help so Person A bewitched either them, their family or their livestock.  Or conversely, Person B having refused to give help or charity to Person A, then accused Person A of witchcraft to expunge their guilt at denying the needed charity.  Tensions between neighbours could be highly charged!

This hypothesis of neighbourly tensions exploding into witchcraft accusations had happened in 1567 in Great Dunmow.  We will never know the precise details.  However, what can be ascertained is that two families, who had lived in close proximately to each other in a small rural town for at least 40 years, ended up in a neighbourly dispute that caused one man to commit suicide, the imprisonment of his nearly bereaved widow in terrible gaol conditions, and her death from a disease caught whilst imprisoned.  The Parkers, the richer and better connected family, had accused the Prestmarys, who were amongst the poor of the parish, of witchcraft.  John Prestmary’s suicide and Alice’s death in prison from a ‘visitation of God’ no doubt confirmed to the Parkers (and other parishioners) the guilt of this pair of witches.  Their deaths must also have conveniently obliterated any remorse that the Parkers might have felt at pointing the finger of accusation at their long-standing neighbours.

Death and burial of the Prestmarys
I have yet to examine parish registers (births, deaths, and marriages) for Great Dunmow for this period to find all the Prestmarys and the Parkers.  I would not expect to find any record of John Prestmary’s burial.  As a suicide, he probably was buried at midnight, in unconsecrated land in the darkest corner and most isolated part of the parish church’s large graveyard (probably the most northern part).  Alice, having died in Colchester gaol, would obviously not have been buried in Great Dunmow: her body was probably cast into an unmarked massive paupers grave within the castle’s grounds.

Digital images of the Great Dunmow’s parish registers are all online from the Essex Record Office’s website.  One day, when time allows, I want to look through them to see if I can find any more Prestmarys.  Unless, of course, any of my blog readers has already done so or could help me?  Searching the parish registers could give an answer as to how John & Alice were related to Richard Prestmary.

Richard and Joan Prestmary of Great Dunmow
In the next part of this series, I will consider the second Prestmary couple accused of witchcraft: Richard and Joan Prestmary.  To be continued…

Note on the Prestmary spelling
So far in the records I have seen the name spelt as below.  For uniformity my posts (unless quoting directly from primary sources) will use the most consistent spelling – ‘Prestmary’.

  • Prestmary
  • Prestmarye
  • Prestmery
  • Prestmarie
  • Presmary
  • Presmarye
  • Presmere
  • Presmere
  • Preistmarye
  • Prestmare
  • Preasmary

1) Calendar of Essex Assize File [ASS 35/9/2] Assizes held at Brentwood (13 March 1567), Essex Record Office, T/A 418/11/5.  This case is detailed in J. S. Cockburn (editor), Calendar of Assize Records: Essex Indictments, Elizabeth I (London, 1978), p52.  In Cockburn’s book, the citation is that the bewitchment took place on the 1st February.  The E.R.O. record implies that the date of the Indictment (i.e. the date she was charged of the crime) was 1st February.  I suppose it was possible that Alice was charged on the same day that the bewitchment took place.
2) Calendar of Queen’s Bench Indictments Ancient 619, Part I, (1567), Essex Record Office, T/A 428/1/14A.
3) Calendar of Queen’s Bench Indictments Ancient 617,Part I, (1567), Essex Record Office, T/A 428/1/12A.
4) Hundred of Dunmow: Calendar of Lay Subsidy Rolls (1523-4), The National Archives, E179/108/161.
5) Great Dunmow, Churchwarden accounts (1526-1621), Essex Record Office D/P11/5/1 – folio 4r.
6) Ibid,  folios 7r-9r
7) Ibid. folios 12v-14v.
8) Ibid, folio 42r.  Dating entries on this folio is extremely difficult.  Although this folio contains entries relating almost entirely to Mary’s reign, it was not written into the leather-bound churchwardens’ accounts until the first year of Elizabeth’s reign.  The clergy and churchwardens of Great Dunmow had been very lax in keeping their accounts formerly documented during the last few years of Edward VI’s reign and the whole of Mary’s reign.  Thus, the accounts for Mary’s entire reign were written retrospectively on this and the following folios in 1558/9 (i.e. during Elizabeth’s reign).  To add to this confusion, the 1558/9 scribe or churchwardens also mixed  up entries from the final years of Edward VI’s reign.  The entry for the John Prestmary’s rent states that the rent was for the 5th and 6th year but does not explicitly state which reign.  The preceding entry explicitly states Edward’s reign but the following entry states Mary’s.  So other entries on the same page cannot be used to fix the date of John Prestmary’s rent.  Hence the uncertainty of  about the precise date that he was tenant of church-land.  A later blog post will explain in more details the difficulties analysing the Edwardian and Marian accounts.
9) Ibid, folio 39v
10) Ibid, folios 29r-30r.
11) Ibid, folios 24v-28v.
12) Ibid, folio 42r.
13) Ibid, folio 40v.

Notes about Great Dunmow’s churchwarden accounts
Great Dunmow’s original churchwardens’ accounts (1526-1621) are kept in Essex Record Office (E.R.O.), Chelmsford, Essex, D/P 11/5/1.  All digital images of the accounts within this blog appear by courtesy of Essex Record Office and may not be reproduced. Examining these records from this Essex parish gives the modern reader a remarkable view  into the lives and times of some of Henry VIII’s subjects and provides an interpretation into the local history of Tudor Great Dunmow.


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You may also be interested in the following
– Index to each folio in Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts
– Great Dunmow’s Churchwardens’ accounts: transcripts 1526-1621
– Tudor local history
– The Tudor witches of Essex

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4 Responses to Blacksheep Sunday: Witches, witchcraft and bewitchment – Part 2

  1. Marcus King says:

    This makes fascinating reading. I spent a lot of my childhood in Little Dunmow, and was confirmed at Gt Dunmow parish church where I was an altar boy. I am now a Suffolk churchwarden and love to research church history.

  2. the narrator says:

    Thank you. Using surviving churchwarden accounts, along with other records, certainly does open up the world of a small English parish of 500 years ago!

  3. Jane Waterhouse says:

    I live in New Jersey in the U.S. My sister and I are trying to trace the Waterhouse line of our family. We had been told they were from a Hatfield or Hayfield in the UK. My father, who recently passed away at the age of 89, always said that one of our ancestors was burned (he thought) as a witch and her familiar, a cat named Satan, survived. On a whim I Googled ‘Waterhouse burned as a witch’ and was directed to information about Agnes Waterhouse, a 63 year old, hung for being a witch—when I read that she was from a place near Hatfield, and that the cat, Satan, was mentioned in the trials, I knew that this couldn’t be a coincidence. I would appreciate if anyone could tell me more about the Waterhouse family in the Hatfield area. Sincerely, Jane Waterhouse

    • the narrator says:

      Wow! How amazing – you’re possibly descended from one of the most notorious witch families in Tudor England! Can I direct you to this post of mine? Here I discuss in great detail the Waterhouse trials.

      When you are looking into your family research of the Waterhouses, a couple of things to bear in mind:-

      1) There are several places called “Hatfield” in England – all located near each other in Essex and Hertfordshire. You are looking for a place called “Hatfield Peverel” in Essex. The Waterhouses lived in that village – which, even today (despite having a train station) is tiny – I drove through the village today.

      2) Tudor English witches were rarely, if ever, burnt. They were always hanged. This is because being burnt at the stake was reserved for heresy (ie being a heretic by going against the state-enforced religion of the time); or for treason. Treason also includes the strangely termed “petty treason” which was a wife murdering her husband; or a servant murdering his master. So, in theory, a witch could have been burnt at the stake if she had murdered her husband or master. But I don’t think any were in Tudor England. So a “witch” was always tried for the crime of murder, which, if found guilty, resulted in being hanged.

      This is the complete opposite to Scotland, where, I believe, but I’m not an expert in Scottish history, they were always burnt at the stake because in Scotland, witchcraft was always tried as heresy.

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