One for Hallowe’en, found by my roving reporter, Woodwose:
The diary – immortalised in the 1968 Vincent Price horror movie The Witchfinder General – tells of how 33 women were branded witches in a trial in the mid-17th century.
The trial was triggered by Matthew Hopkins, an English lawyer appointed by Parliament during the English Civil War to root out sorcery.
The journal tells of how young maid Rebecca West confessed to having sex with the Devil and to how she implicated her mother and others in witchcraft – condemning them all to the gallows – but saving herself.
The activities of Hopkins and the Essex Witchfinders took place between 1645 and 1647 and 112 people were hanged for witchcraft – often when they were forced to confess whilst being tortured.
The notorious episode was recreated in the controversial 1968 movie starring Price as Hopkins which was heavily cut by censors amid claims it was ”exploiting” sadistic violence.
Now the journal by 17th century Puritan writer Nehemiah Wallington has been opened up by a team from The University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library who are using cutting edge camera technology to photograph and ”digitise” the diary which is being kept at Tatton Hall in Knutsford, Cheshire.
Wallington was an eloquent and well-read writer who filled 50 notebooks in which he documented his own philosophies on life to keep himself sane. When he died in 1658 he left over 2,500 pages written on himself, religion and politics.
The witchcraft trials occurred at Essex after Hopkins exploited much folklore and storytelling about evil witches that were causing catastrophe and death. Local gossip would be directed against those who were a bit “odd” or perhaps were suspected of having “cunning” powers.
In March 1645, he was commissioned by the local magistrates to “question” a suspected witch, Elizabeth Clarke who was also physically examined for ”devil’s marks’ signs like warts, moles or bits of extra skin that were declared to be “teats” to give suckle to imps.
Under torture Clarke broke down and named several other women including Anne West and her daughter Rebecca. The women were detained and taken to the cells in Colchester Castle for questioning. Rebecca confessed and implicated her mother and others, thus saving herself from hanging.
In July 1645, the women from the Colchester cells were tried at the County Assizes in Chelmsford. With no legal representation and among scenes of chaos, all but Rebecca were found guilty. Fifteen were hanged in Chelmsford but four were taken to Manningtree and hanged on the village green. Nine were reprieved.
In the journal Hopkins – who died of tuberculosis in August 1647 – was referred to as the ”Gentle man” and Wallington wrote of how Rebecca confessed after seeing flames disappear when she became separated from her mother.
In the passage he wrote: ”Shortly after when she was going to bed the Devil appeared unto her again in the shape of a handsome young man, saying that he came to marry her.
”Asked by the Judge whether she ever had carnal copulation with the Devil she confessed she had. She was very desirous to confess all she knew, which accordingly she did where upon the rest were apprehended and sent unto the Geole [jail].
”She further affirmed that when she was going to the Grand Inquest she said she would confess nothing if they pulled her to pieces with pincers.
”Asked the reason by the Gentle man she said she found herself in such extremity of torture and amazement, that she would not endure it again for the world.
”When she looked upon the ground she saw herself encompassed in flames of fire and as soon as she was separated from her mother the tortures and the flames began to cease whereupon she then confessed all she knew.
”As soon as her confession was fully ended she found her contience so satisfied and disburdened of all tortures she thought herself the happiest creature in the world.”
The handwritten notebook is the only copy known in existence. Mansion and Collections Manager Caroline Schofield from Tatton Park said: “Nehemiah Wallington was an intelligent working man who achieved much in the face of such difficulty and exhaustion in daily life.
“He doubted his salvation to the degree that he suffered a mental breakdown and tried to take his own life.
“He began to keep his diaries in an effort to record his own sins and God’s mercies
She added: “The Wallington manuscript are of huge importance to scholars of the period.
“We hope to use the digitised images in a new interpretive exhibition in the mansion’s library.”