How historic tale cast its spell on film maker

It’s a story of injustice, hysteria and the power of superstition, spanning more than 400 years. No wonder documentary film maker John Worland became fascinated by the life and death of Essex ‘witch’ Ursula Kemp. Sheena Grant reports.

As cold cases go, they don’t come much more lacking in warmth than that of Ursula Kemp, who was tried and executed as a witch more than four centuries ago.

But that didn’t deter retired Essex policeman turned documentary film maker John Worland from investigating her life and death in a bid to unravel the truth about her tragic fate - and that of a skeleton first unearthed in 1921, widely believed to be her remains and used as a ghoulish sideshow and collection piece in the decades that followed.

The result of his painstaking research is revealed in a documentary, screened for the first time in Colchester last month, and widely acclaimed by academics and local history experts.

John first heard the story of Ursula Kemp when researching the 2009 film WitchFinder, which he co-produced and directed, based on the Manningtree witch trials led by ‘witchfinder general’ Matthew Hopkins in the 1640s.

You may also want to watch:

He was fascinated by Ursula’s tale and over the subsequent years dedicated hours to going through archives both locally and nationally, consulting experts and interviewing others with knowledge of the case. He even uncovered the original parchment document, written in Latin, convicting Ursula and condemning her to death after her 1582 trial.

But the film spends as much time unravelling more recent history as it does delving into that of centuries past, focusing on the skeletal remains treated with such indignity throughout the 20th Century before they were finally reburied in 2011.

Most Read

“I’ve always been less than certain that the remains first uncovered in 1921 were Ursula’s,” says John, “but whoever’s skeleton it was, I felt they had spent far too long above ground and should be returned back to their resting place.”

The remains were actually reburied after the 1921 exhumation in St Osyth, where Ursula had lived, but then dug up again in 1963 and bought by the museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, where the skeleton was exhibited for more than 33 years. It was then sold onto collector and artist Robert Lenkiewicz and became tied up in his estate after his death in 2002. John fought to get the skeleton released and after extensive examination of the bones and with the cooperation of the Parish Council of St Osyth, was able to re-bury the remains.

“The film documents a 16th Century travesty of justice and an example of how hysteria can have devastating effects,as well as reminding us that sadly this kind of discrimination and judgement still goes on today. It also examines hard evidence and beyond any hype reaches its own conclusion based on facts.”

And that, says Johnis what has made the most lasting impression on him. Although we may look back in horror at the witch-finding practices of past centuries we shouldn’t be too self-congratulatory about how far we have come since.

Witch-finding may be largely a thing of the past but discrimination, the hounding of individuals and the rush to find a scape-goat when things go wrong are as prevalent now as they always were, albeit in a different guise.

“In some cultures around the world, people still believe someone can be possessed by the Devil and in our own society, on social media, people make allegations against others, often anonymously. There is a lot of prejudice and bigotry about. It is part of the human condition to point the finger at others, particularly in hard times,” he says.

To understand the events that led up to Ursula Kemp’s trial - and that of 13 other women accused with her - one has to understand something about the 16th Century, when superstition and religion played a huge part in the lives of ordinary people.

Ursula Kemp, like many women of the time, made a humble living attending births, wet nursing babies and treating the sick with herbal potions and lotions. Unfortunately when her services were rejected by pregnant neighbour, Grace Thurlowe, in favour of another ‘midwife,’ an argument ensued. When the baby went on to die, it was suspected a curse had been placed on the infant. After that villagers began to suspect Ursula could treat or incur sickness and lameness at will and she soon became a prime target for the ‘witch hunter’, landowner and magistrate Brian D’Arcy.

“I think it is too strong to call her a midwife,” says John. “She attended births and did not mind if people ascribed some of their recovery to her supernatural powers. There was a great deal of belief in the supernatural at that time and your life was governed by how you were supposed to follow your religion. You had to revere God in a particular way and people had an absolute horror of falling outside the protection of the church. The Devil and his disciples were a very real belief.

“I am not saying Ursula was a particularly nice person. She was involved in a neighbours’ feud and in the two years leading up to the witch allegations, 18 people, including several children, did die in the village. In a community of 300 people that is a significant death toll. There were ‘fevers’ and people ‘languished and died’. Child mortality was horrifically high. Ursula was a handy scape-goat.

“Her main accuser was her neighbour, Grace Thurlowe. Grace had a son, who had some sort of illness, probably a fever. Ursula ‘cured’ him. She walked in and out of the door three times, made an incantation and he got better. Grace was expecting her second child, a daughter, and Ursula expected to be engaged for the birth and was put out when Grace gave the job to someone else.”

There was further bad feeling when Grace became ‘lame’ and Ursula gave her a ‘cure’, for which Grace did not pay. Grace’s lameness returned and when her three-month-old daughter fell out of her cot and died she went to D’Arcy to accuse Ursula.

As in the famous Salem witch trials in America 100 years later, dramatised by 20th Century playwright Arthur Miller in The Crucible, the accused lost no time in accusing others in a desperate attempt to save themselves and so it was with Ursula Kemp, pointing the finger first at fellow St Osyth resident Elizabeth Bennett, one of 13 other women eventually implicated in her ‘witchcraft’.

“Ursula was told if she confessed she would be treated leniently,” says John. “D’Arcy even got Ursula’s eight-year-old son to give evidence against his mother, which wasn’t particularly unusual. Her son said she had four familiars - called Piggin, Jack, Tiffin and Titty. In classical witch trials pets were often seen as imps, or familiars, that you send out to do your dirty work for you. If you had a black cat and it was seen near a neighbour’s house where something bad happened, it could be seen as your ‘familiar’.

“The co-accused were desperate to save themselves and started slandering each other. The evidence wouldn’t pass the first hurdle today but it was such a superstitious time that by saying a few words, you could implicate someone. It was unbelievable how flimsy it was.”

Much of the impetus for the trial came from D’Arcy but John is uncertain of his motivation as he had shown no interest in witch-finding until then.

“Normally, around this time, there were be about four prosecutions a year in Essex for witchcraft, so the numbers involved in St Osyth were really quite exceptional,” he says. “Overall, Essex leads the way in witch trials. In Hopkins’ time (the 1640s) there were 112 executions for witchcraft - of which 82 were in Essex.”

According to the archives both Ursula and Elizabeth Bennett, along with a third villager, named Alice Newman, were tried at Chelmsford Court on March 29, 1582. Although held in Colchester Castle and tried in Chelmsford it wasn’t unusual for women accused of witchcraft to be hanged in their village and then buried in local unconsecrated ground.

“A trial of 14 women was unprecedented and a subsequent pamphlet D’Arcy wrote about is is the longest in witch-finder history,” says John. “Much to my amazement the trial documents are still there. I found them on parchment, all written in Latin, in the National Archives in Kew. That archive threw up a couple of anomalies and made me realise that much of what had been written about the case previously was not quite right.”

Crucial to John’s research were two skeletons discovered in 1921 in a garden in St Osyth. Both bodies bore the marks of nails having been driven through the bones – a common practice during 16th Century witchcraft executions, which was thought to prevent the spirit rising.

Although both were badly damaged (one beyond any use) the bodies were clearly not near a burial ground and Mr Brooker, having some knowledge of the history of witches in the village, decided to cash in by arranging visits from local people. Only the house burning down in an unexplained fire in 1932 halted the interest in what was then believed to be the body of Ursula Kemp and the remains were reburied at the site.

More than 30 years later redevelopment prompted the second exhumation of the skeleton but this time there was little interest in it becoming a local attraction and the bones were sold to the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, owned by witch and pagan Cecil Williamson, who promised he would safeguard ‘Ursula’ and not allow her exploitation again.

Williamson later sold the museum but ‘Ursula’ was not included in the sale. Her last ‘owner’ was the artist and eccentric Robert Lenkiewicz, who had a fascination for witchcraft and the occult. Lenkiewicz kept Ursula on display in his library along with the embalmed body of a local tramp. When he died, heavily in debt, the St Osyth skeleton became tied up in the wrangles of his estate.

John negotiated to have the remains released by the trustees of Lenkiewicz’s estate and from then he began to explore the process of what he and many others believe is the right end to Ursula’s journey – a peaceful reburial back in St Osyth, which took place last year.

“One of the biggest problems I had to grapple with was were the remains first dug up in 1921 actually those of Ursula Kemp,” says John. With the help of carbon dating and the input of experts John can prove that the remains reburied last year are those originally exhumed from St Osyth in 1921, they are the bones of a 16th Century St Osyth resident but probably not those of Ursula Kemp.

“We did find evidence of nails,” he says, “but I believe those nails were put in to enhance the witch story. From documents in the National Archive we found that all the women were brought back to Colchester Castle after their trial and most were alive six months later but Ursula’s name is missing from the list. I suspect that because she was thought to be the ring leader she was hanged at Chelmsford and her remains thrown in a pit, although there is no record of it.”

Of the 14 accused women only two were executed - Ursula and Elizabeth Bennett. More than half were acquitted, an outcome more common than many people realise.

“I suspect Ursula was publicly hanged,” says John. “It would have been a slow death by asphyxiation. We don’t know what happened to her son. One of two people say they are descended from her but we don’t know for sure.”

John’s says his film is actually more about the 20th Century than the 16th.

“It is just such a powerful story. The human interest thing fascinated me. I love local history and I believe it is important to keep telling our stories, however much we might be tempted to sweep them under the carpet. If we don’t we will lose them.”

The skeleton for so long thought to be Ursula was reburied in unconsecrated ground in keeping with how it was found originally and John believes that is a fitting end to the story.

“The documentary puts a lot of things right that were wrong,” he says. “I don’t have every answer but I am happy with that.”

To find out more or to purchase the DVD of John’s 50-minute film vist

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter