September 2020 marked the 375th anniversary of the 1645 witch trials held in Great Yarmouth, which were overseen by the infamous Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Witch Finder General.

Although Witch Mania did not seem to affect the town as it did in other parts of the country, nevertheless 24 allegations of witchcraft were officially recorded over four centuries. Thankfully only seven resulted in convictions which led to execution.

Those accused of witchcraft were quite simply not the besom riding hags accompanied by a black cat riding pillion, as tradition would portray today, but those who simply did not fit in with the society of the day. Throughout history, people down on their luck were forced to turn to begging from neighbours to survive. Those whose political or religious beliefs clashed with others and people falling out of favour with their peers, were found to be at the wrong end of allegations of witchcraft.

In March 1582, Elizabeth Butcher and Celia Atkins were brought before the council at the town sessions accused of witchcraft. They were found guilty and the sentence was passed that both women were to be displayed in the town’s pillory every market day until they confessed their involvement, then they would be freed. It appears Celia confessed, but Elizabeth was sentenced to imprisonment only to be released upon her confession.

The following year Elizabeth was again brought before the town sessions, but again denied any attachment to the allegations. Once again, she was placed in the custody of the town’s gaoler and at the discretion of the town bailiffs was placed in the pillory until she confessed.

In April 1584, Elizabeth Butcher was brought before the court with another woman, Joan Lingwood. This time the court found both women guilty and they were to be taken to a site of execution at the north of the town. Parish records show that they were buried in St. Nicholas’ churchyard on the 18th April 1584.

The 10th September 1645 saw the largest witch trials to take place in the town. Allegations of witchcraft had increased since the beginning of the year. In August, it was decided by council officials to send for Matthew Hopkins to come and assist in the proceedings. Matthew Hopkins had been at the Bury St. Edmund’s Assizes, where he had discovered 18 alleged witches. Hopkins arrived in Great Yarmouth in early September. After investigation, two men and nine women were accused of allegedly being involved in witchcraft and were brought before the court. The accused were Marcus Pryme, John Sparkes, Elizabeth Fassett, Barbara Wilkinson, Alice Clisswell, Maria Vervey, Bridget Howard, Maria Blackbourne, Elizabeth Dudgeon, Elizabeth Bradwell and Joanna Lacey. The trials pronounced six of the accused women as guilty and they were sentenced to death by hanging. A few days after the trial Joanna Lacey was reprieved. The other five were taken to a site of execution at the north of the town. Parish records once again show the five women, Alice Clisswell, Elizabeth Bradwell, Elizabeth Dudgeon, Bridget Howard and Margaret Blackbourne as being buried in St. Nicholas’ churchyard on 29th September 1645.

For many, the reason why the alleged witches of 1584 and 1645 were recorded as being buried in the churchyard has been a mystery. Long tradition states that those condemned as criminals, including witches, would normally be buried in unconsecrated ground or at crossroads, where the spirit would be confused and not be able to return and cause mischief in a godly society.

In fact, Christian tradition records that the north side of a churchyard was only used for burial of outcasts and suicides. This statement included the unbaptised, excommunicated, strangers and vagabonds, including executed criminals and those accused of witchcraft. This was often referred to as burial without the sanctuary or to lie out of the sanctuary. Another old saying is that the devil walks in dark places; originally a reference to shadowy areas of a churchyard, especially the north side of a church. Burials were prohibited by the council from taking place on the north side of St. Nicholas’ Church until 1648, when the growth of the town’s population was causing a lack of burial space. In 1799, the churchyard was enlarged to Factory Road when the town wall and a gate east of the Minster were demolished.