Author and historical consultant on witchcraft and magic

“One Meggs a Baker” – a male “witch”

Nov 28, 2023 | Blog

On page 6 of his The Discovery of Witches (1647) the young English witchfinder Matthew Hopkins sneeringly recounts an anecdote about a Norfolk baker named Meggs. He’s using this man as an illustration of the behaviour of some of the people drawn into the 1645-7 witch hunt that Matthew and his friends led. People like Meggs, he gloats, actively sought out witchfinders in order to have their bodies searched for supposed demonic marks, signs that Satan had recruited them as witches. Demonic marks could include bloodied spots or teat-like growths that suggested animal familiars had been suckled by the witch, taking blood in return for their services in striking at, biting or frightening the witch’s victims.

In reality, the bodily marks were likely flea bites, warts, piles, partial uterine prolapses, moles or skin tags. Any of these might be identified as demonic if the searcher was medically inexpert and/or predisposed to find evidence of witchcraft. In an attempt to preserve decorum and ensure that searchers had a basic understanding of the anatomies they were inspecting, female searchers would examine the bodies of female suspects, while Hopkins and his fellow male witchfinders would search the bodies of men. This was no safeguard against error, however.

Hopkins discusses bodily searches during his defence of witchfinding in The Discovery of Witches, published shortly before his death as the witch hunt that he had helped to inspire faltered to its end. “Diverse”, he explains, meaning “some people”,

have come 10 or 12 Miles to be searched of their own accord, and hanged for their labour, (as one Meggs a Baker did, who lived within 7 Miles of Norwich, and was hanged at Norwich Assizes for witchcraft).

What could have prompted people like Meggs to submit themselves voluntarily to the merciless scrutiny of witchfinders? Who was he and where was the place from which he came? Can we recover anything more of his story – to understand his motivation, learn more about his life or simply to check Hopkins’ basic facts? Yes: wonderfully, we can.

When I visited Norfolk Record Office in April, I found an indictment that gives us further information about poor “Meggs”. His indictment – the formal charge brought against him in court – refers to him as “Henr Maggs”, immediately adding a forename and changing the spelling of his surname. “Henr” is a contraction of “Henricus” – much of the indictment’s text is in Latin – meaning that the accused was christened Henry. Henry Maggs’ indictment further tells us that he was “de Hempnall”, of or from Hempnall, a village about nine miles south of Norwich. It confirms that he was a “Baker”, giving us confidence that this man is indeed the person referred to by Hopkins. On 10th August 1645, the indictment asserts, Henry used “Witchcraft & sorcery” to attack a sow belonging to William Dunnett, also at Hempnall, so that the animal died ten days later. No other charges are recorded against Henry (or, to be clearer, none have so far been found) but when he was found guilty of this offence, the court clerk wrote “cul” (culpabilis or guilty) on the indictment and Henry would have been sentenced. Under the 1604 Witchcraft Act the punishment for killing a pig would have been a year’s imprisonment.

But it is likely that, in addition to this indictment, other charges were made against Henry. Perhaps these included the keeping and feeding of demonic spirits. The latter was a specific offence under the 1604 Witchcraft Act and it was a common charge made by the witchfinders of the 1640s, directly related to the finding of marks or teats on the body of the accused. If Henry was convicted of interacting with demonic spirits, then his punishment would have been death. Since Hopkins mentions in his account that Henry was searched for evidence of this crime and that apparent proof was found, it is sadly likely he was hanged at the end of the 1645 Assizes in Norwich, just as Hopkins reports.

However, there’s a lot more to be discovered about Henry Maggs and his community and I’ll be telling his story in my next book.

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

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