The Ipswich Witch. Why Mary was burned to death on Rushmere Heath

Was Mary Lackland truly an evil woman or the victim of a perfect storm of paranoia, sexism, grudges and a powerful elite erasing its critics? STEVEN RUSSELL hears the tragic story of The Ipswich Witch

You wouldn’t want to live in Suffolk in the 1640s if you were old, poor, the subject of grudges by neighbours, and flew close to the flame by criticising the rich and powerful.

It could end badly – and, in the case of Mary Lackland, did. She was burned to death for being a witch. Allegedly. She’d faced a clutch of charges, ranging from the murder of her husband (the crime that technically allowed her to be burned, for petty treason) and other people to “wasting” the bodies of enemies and nourishing evil spirits.

But was this harrowing end more about the fact she posed a threat to the vested interests that controlled the political, commercial and religious life of 17th Century Ipswich?

As David Jones puts it more poetically in his book, “Somewhere, in that nexus of interests and rivalries which criss-crossed her world like a series of live electrical cables, lay the causes which destroyed her”.

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Mary’s story had long fascinated him. He tells the EADT: “When I was a young man I travelled widely in Nepal and India. My Tibetan landlady in Darjeeling told me a detailed story of how she had herself been bewitched by her aunt, who turned herself into a bird, and what had been done not only to protect her but to reform the aunt.

“When I was privileged to become the keeper of human history at Ipswich Museum in 1974 I became aware of the various stories relating to witches in Ipswich and worked with collections containing witch bottles, mummified cats and beams from old Ipswich houses carved with monstrous screaming women in chains.

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“I could not help but wonder what was behind all this. Why did a society act on this shared nightmare and how did they begin to wake up?

“The more I looked at this one story, that of Mother Lackland, the more the details did not add up. Why was she, of all the witches in England, punished so severely? Why were other witches accused with her found not guilty or given trivial punishments? Why was she accused of events which had happened years before? Why were her accusers not the relatives of her victims but people connected with the establishment of the town? Why were no more witches executed in Ipswich after her death?

“This aspect of the book is the equivalent of a detective story and I have tried as much as possible to recreate the troubled little world of Ipswich in which it took place.”

While the scenarios he presents are speculative, all are plausible – a frightening thought.

The book starts with an account of that day in late August, 1645, when Mary (who must have been about 70) and Alice Denham were taken from the town prison to Rushmere Heath. The former was burned to death, the latter hanged.

“It had been around 100 years since the last execution by burning had been carried out in the town,” writes David. “Then, the burnings had been for heresy but now the executions were for the dreaded crime of witchcraft...”

Though no-one would have known it, this was the last time anyone was executed for witchcraft in Ipswich.

If a pamphlet called The True Informer can be believed, there were at least 38 “witches” held in Ipswich, “all of which (except one) by the testimony of the town-Searchers, confesse that they have one or two paps on which the Devill sucks”.

Mary’s trial would have been held in the Moot Hall, looking over the Cornhill. The accused were not allowed lawyers. Effectively, a judge was supposed to act as defence lawyer. “This might have been acceptable with an assize court at which career judges from outside the area presided, but in the Ipswich Court, where the justices in cases like this were drawn from the tight little group of oligarchs that had brought the case in the first place, it was little more than a very bad joke.”

Mary was tried on August 2, 1645 – along with other defendants, many of whom were cleared. Not her.

Mary’s execution “marked a watershed in belief and practice. It did not take place in a vacuum, but is clearly related to the largest ever outbreak of witch trials in England – those associated with the activities of the famous Matthew Hopkins, the ‘Witchfinder General’, and his associate John Stearne.

“These two are never mentioned as being directly involved… but the Ipswich trials were backed by the interest group behind Hopkins at exactly the same time.”

The town, prosperous thanks to textiles and the coal trade, was “an obsessively controlled and recorded community”. Twice a week the great and powerful – including the bailiffs and 12 portmen who helped rule Ipswich – paraded to the church of St Mary Tower to hear t he town lecturer.

He was paid by the town to preach three-hour sermons on Wednesdays and Fridays. “Sermons were supposed to guide the lecturer’s flock, especially the council, for they bore the heavy task of ensuring that Ipswich followed the heavenly blueprint contained in the Bible and interpreted for them by the lecturer,” says David.

Lecturers’ sermons were part of a plan. “They had determined to make Ipswich into a ‘holy city’ full of the sober hard-working devout. The town council paid them to suggest policy, and so that’s what they did.

“One of their very first acts was to protect the poor from themselves by outlawing the stuffing of hose with wool in 1570. Perhaps they thought that, rather than the poor insulating their legs with wool or hair, they should keep warm by working faster!”

Meanwhile, there was tension over the political, religious and economic control of Ipswich – between, for example, the common council and the portmen, the town council and its admiralty courts against maritime Harwich and landowners along the banks of the Orwell, and between the council and the bishops.

It didn’t make for a stable community. In fact, writes David, “Two decades before the Civil War, relations between the rulers of Ipswich, the Crown and its bishops had pretty much broken down.”

In 1634, lecturer Samuel Ward was accused of raising fears about a return to Catholicism ? his motive, it was claimed, to promote emigration to New England.

“Sometimes, Ipswich must have felt a very different place to the beautiful view from Stoke Hills on a sunny day – threatened and cut off, and claustrophobic within its earthen ramparts, with its gates shut.”

There was disease. “To the Puritan lecturers of Ipswich there was no doubt that the plague was a divine punishment upon the town, and they demanded that everyone search their hearts to see in what way they had angered God.”

There were threats from the sea.

“It is rarely appreciated that, at this time, Suffolk and other parts of the East Coast were in the front line in a naval confrontation between England and the Catholic powers of France and Spain.”

From bases in Belgium and France, “privateers licensed by Spain harassed all North Sea fishing, and trade with Holland and Zeeland. In order to counter this threat the Landguard Fort was to be built at Felixstowe, but this represented yet another burden on a hard-hit community”.

There was that descent into civil war.

“The same group of men trying Mary Lackland were also terrified of secret Royalist malignant plots, and they all feared the possibility of divine punishment.”

Another factor: those self-appointed witch-finders Hopkins and Stearne, who had “clearly run into some difficulties in Essex but still had very powerful backers and they now had been invited to work in Suffolk.”

Very quickly, about 30 suspects were arrested and held in Ipswich. Many more were under guard in Bury St Edmunds. Perhaps as many as 300 were involved.

“The speed at which such large numbers of accused witches from all over Suffolk were identified and investigated by Hopkins and Stearne cannot be due to their own unsupported efforts. They must have had heavyweight backing somewhere in the background and must have been working to prepared lists of suspects.”

David looks at the factors likely to have been at play, such as “a fear of the feminine”, poverty, and quarrels.

“A farmer or successful cottager experiencing a run of bad luck had the alternatives of either believing it was God’s punishment for his lack of charity to the poor, or that God was punishing him for his secret sins, or that he was an innocent victim, unjustly being attacked by a wicked witch.

“A series of witchcraft accusations, a trial and an execution could actually release the tensions of decades and resolve them in acts of cathartic vengeance and violence.

“The witch was the human sacrifice that allowed the village community to continue to exist. The community could carry on believing in its goodhearted neighbourly ways, rather than face its own failure of compassion.”

David presents possible motivations. One is that Mary was simply a threat to vested interests.

She and her neighbours might well have been given spinning wheels by the Christ’s Hospital charity to help them eke a living.

It’s conjecture, but perhaps Mary emerged as the head of a group whose houses were in the way of the expansion of Christ’s Hospital lands. “They know whether or not they have been paid fully for all the spinning they have done on the wheels paid for by the hospital.”

“Officers of Christ’s Hospital or beneficiaries of borough charities were to give evidence against her.” David adds: “Amongst those also owning neighbouring property were John Ward, the minister of St Mary Key who gave evidence against her, and Richard Grimston, who was an attorney in the court that convicted her.”

Almost immediately next door is a house built by George Dameron, whose relative has been involved in the transport of child apprentices to the New World. “When people ask why there are no beggars in Ipswich, Mary Lackland knows.”

The theory builds. “She has been listening eagerly to sermons for years. She has gathered other poor women and a few men around her for Bible readings” – which might have included passages exhorting Christians to care for the needy and act justly.

David ventures: “Authority is rightly worried when the poor read such verses to each other.”

More speculation: Perhaps she tackled town lecturer Matthew Lawrence in public, “asking by what authority does he levy tithes on the poor. He does not rebuke the obvious corruption and injustice of the town council, which has failed to provide for widows and orphans, giving contracts for bad food and inferior clothing to their friends, profiting from unpaid labour, being behind the spiriting away of poor children”.

Perhaps he demands to know by what authority she accuses him. “She answers that she speaks through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

“Lawrence replies that she has condemned herself; that she speaks through the inspiration of spirits which can be of many sorts. She warns him that he stands in danger of divine punishment for his persecution of the innocents and God’s true saints, those like herself. There is a stunned hush.”

That week, Lawrence’s son falls ill and dies.

What happens after Mary’s execution adds weight to David’s theory. In Ipswich – a heartland of Puritanism – no more witch trials were held until the Restoration. There was “definitely a series of politically-based changes of policy going on”, though it’s hard to say exactly what.

Records suggest the careers of 10 leading figures ended in 1645-1646. The witch-hunting project was being shut down quickly. “The only possible explanation is the victory of the Independent faction over the Presbyterian faction…”

On reflection, he reckons the tragic story “is one of a society that fell into persecution, but also of a society that, through basic common humanity and a refusal to become intoxicated with a convenient fantasy, managed to retain a level of decency”.

He tells the EADT: “The recent history of Europe in particular and the wider world in general is full of examples of societies which have tried to create heaven on earth by destroying minorities accused of impossible crimes, or whose very existence causes all the problems dividing the society. It is just as full of examples of people withstanding these forces, but often this process of resistance to and recovery from mass killings is less studied.

“This struggle is still with us.” n The Ipswich Witch is published by The History Press at £12.99.

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