Author and historical consultant on witchcraft and magic

“Elizabeth Clarke, witch” – or was she?

Nov 28, 2023 | Blog

On 21st March 1645, a tailor from the Essex, UK village of Manningtree gave a statement to his local Justice of the Peace, Sir Harbottle Grimston of Bradfield Hall, accusing their neighbour Elizabeth Clarke of witchcraft. The tailor, John Rivet, likely walked the three miles from Manningtree across the flat fields south of the River Stour to Harbottle’s fine house. That spring day, he told the magistrate that he’d suspected Elizabeth of witchcraft for some time, and his formal accusation of her sparked the series of several hundred accusations commonly known as the “Matthew Hopkins” or “Witchfinder General” trials. Elizabeth is often portrayed as the “First Witch”, “Patient Zero”, the Tituba of Manningtree. But who was she?

Printed sources give us only tantalising scraps of information. A news pamphlet compiled by someone known as H.F. contains the text of John Rivet’s “information”, his statement to the magistrate about his suspicions. In it, John says that his wife has been suffering violent fits since Christmas 1644. On her behalf, John visited a “Cunning Woman” or healer in a neighbouring village to try to discover whether his wife was bewitched or not – and if so who was to blame. The seer told him that his wife was indeed “cursed by two women who were neere neighbours to this Informant [John], the one dwelling a little above his house, and the other beneath”. John concluded the witch who lived up the hill from him was Elizabeth Clarke, “alias Bedingfield”, because “the said Elizabeth’s mother and some other of her kinsfolke did suffer death for Witchcraft and murther”. This was enough to point the finger of suspicion, because witchcraft was thought to be an inheritable trait.

Sir Harbottle Grimston accepted John Rivet’s accusation and issued a warrant for Elizabeth’s “apprehension” or arrest by Manningtree’s constables, preparatory to questioning her himself. But first he authorised the conducting of an unusual experiment by local people, several of them pious men like Harbottle himself. After she had been arrested, Elizabeth was watched twenty-four hours a day for three days by these people, a team including the now well-known “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins and his friend John Stearne. Eventually Elizabeth confessed to witchcraft. She named her familiars – Jarmara, Sacke-and-Sugar, the soon to be famous Vinegar Tom – and told Matthew that she had been the devil’s lover. Satan had come to her “three or foure times in a weeke”, she said, staying with her “halfe a night together in the shape of a proper Gentleman”. “Besse” he would say as he arrived, “I must lye with you” and Elizabeth “did never deny him”. H.F.’s pamphlet tells us these details of her arrest, questioning and confession. His pamphlet also contains another nugget of information about her, noted as part of her examination by the magistrate on 25th March. This is that she had only one leg and was very poor.

Traditional accounts of the case based on this limited information have imagined that Elizabeth – whom perhaps we ought to call by her preferred name, Bess – was an elderly woman. This is the usual stereotype of the suspected witch, but in addition it would make Bess a likely companion for her fellow-accused “Beldam” Anne West, named by Bess as an accomplice in her witchery. “Beldam” was an insulting term for a very old woman, satirically suggesting that she was a “belle dame” or beautiful lady, ha ha. Once they had linked the two women as elderly friends, writers retelling the story of the witch-hunt went on to estimate Bess’s age: eighty, perhaps? That would mean she was born in the early Elizabethan era. If she was very old indeed, disabled by limb loss and living in wretched poverty, then scholars, novelists and scriptwriters reasoned that she was highly visible in her community as one of its most vulnerable and perhaps troublesome members. Here we see Bess as an abject crone, at whose examination inappropriate cougar fantasies emerged from her pained, wizened body.

Imagine my perplexity, then, when I noticed in Manningtree-with-Mistley’s parish register a baptismal record from 1643: “Jane Clarke (alias Applegate) daughter & bastard of Elizabeth Clarke (by Joseph Applegate) was baptized on the 12th daie of Februarie”. At first I was cautious: there must be several Elizabeth Clarkes, surely. But no, there was only one in the whole book. So if she was our Bess, she was a lot younger than we’d thought. And a mother. And accused by the writer of the parish register, Rector Thomas Witham, of fornication as well as bearing an illegitimate child. Bess shapeshifted as I re-imagined her: youthful enough to be fertile in an age of early menopause, sexually active in recent memory, perhaps actually seductive – eye-catching in a pleasant way, even as she faced down Harbottle Grimston, toddler on hip and balancing ably on her single leg. We don’t have to see her that way, of course – I’ve made some assumptions, pushed her image as far as I can away from Elizabeth the Beldam. But try it for a moment: what a different figure she cuts in history!

As it turned out, there was a lot more to discover about Bess Clarke and there still is. You can read more about her in my bookWitchcraft: A History in 13 Trials.

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The Witches of St. Osyth: Persecution, Murder and Betrayal in Elizabethan England

The Witches of St. Osyth: Persecution, Murder and Betrayal in Elizabethan England

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