St. Osyth Witches

Rev. Steve Hulford

The village of St. Osyth, near Brightlingsea, Essex, suffered more than most communities in Essex during the witchcraft hysteria that swept East Anglia. Surviving records from the 1582 trial held in Chelmsford, indicate that fourteen women from St. Osyth were charged with Witchcraft. Of these, ten were charged with 'bewitching to death' which carried the death penalty.
The trial, presided over by local magistrate Bryan Darcy, appears to have been brought about by local quarrels and vendettas. At the heart of the affair was Ursula Kempe, an impoverished local woman who made a living as a nursemaid and midwife, and had a reputation for removing spells from those who thought they were being attacked by black magic.
Witnesses swore that Ursula Kempe had cured Davy Thorlowe, of illness, using incantations but had later taken offence when the boy's mother, Grace Thorlowe, had refused to use her as a nursemaid for her daughter. When the baby girl fell out of her cot and broke her neck, Kempe was suspected of using witchcraft. Ignoring the rumours, Thorlowe asked Kempe for treatment for arthritis and Kempe suggested a method that she had learned from an old Wise Woman.
Thorlowe refused to pay Kempe's charge of one shilling, upon which her condition worsened.
At this point, Grace Thorlowe decided to make a complaint to the authorities. At Ursula Kempe's ensuing trial Bryan Darcy persuaded Kempe's illegitimate eight year old son Thomas Rabbet to testify about his mother's activities as a Witch, and then offered her clemency if she admitted her guilt. Kempe accepted the offer, and confirmed her son's account.
Ursula Kempe testified that she kept four Familiars, two cats called Titty and Jack, a toad called Pigin and a lamb called Tyffin. She claimed to feed them on white bread or cake, beer and drops of her own blood. The black cat called Jack had caused the death of Kempe's sister in law, while the lamb had caused the death of the Thorlowe baby. Kempe then went on to name other women, who she claimed were also Witches.
Alice Hunt, Alice Newman, Elizabeth Bennet and Margery Sammon, were then brought to court and not only did they confess to being Witches but also named Joan Pechey, Agnes Glascock, Cicely Celles, Joan Turner, Elizabeth Ewstace, Anis Herd, Alice Manfield, Margaret Grevell and Alice Hunt's sister, Anne Swallow.
At the end of the trial, two were not indicted, two were discharged but held in prison on other charges, four were acquitted, four were found guilty but reprieved, only Ursula Kempe and Elizabeth Bennet were sentenced to hang.

In 1921, two female skeletons were discovered in St. Osyth, both had iron rivets driven into their knees and elbows, a common method of stopping Witches rising from the grave. They are believed to be Kempe and Bennet.