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The Bury St Edmunds witch trials - what do you know about this horrible history?

PUBLISHED: 20:00 04 October 2019

A 1876 illustration of the courtroom during the Salem Witch Trials.

A 1876 illustration of the courtroom during the Salem Witch Trials.

Bury St Edmunds today is a picturesque market town popular with tourists, but there is a dark period in its past.

Sisterhood is a new play by East Anglia born Jolie Booth that follows the East Anglian footsteps of self-proclaimed 17th century Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins Picture: SOFIA WILSONSisterhood is a new play by East Anglia born Jolie Booth that follows the East Anglian footsteps of self-proclaimed 17th century Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins Picture: SOFIA WILSON

In the 16th and 17th centuries women - and some men - accused of being witches were put on trial and executed in the town as witch hunts swept through Europe and the colonies in America.

In fact, one of England's largest witch trials took place in Bury St Edmunds in 1645 when 16 women and two men, all from villages in the surrounding area, were found guilty of withcraft.

The trial, facilitated by the self-styled 'Witchfinder General' Matthew Hopkins, saw all 18 executed in one day on August 27, 1645, said the Bury St Edmunds and Beyond tourism group.

It's estimated Hopkins' work led to around 100 executions across East Anglia.

Sisterhood is described as a Sisterhood is described as a "gentle but fearless adventure into the dark heart of patriarchal rule" Picture: PAULA FASH

Alex McWhirter, heritage officer at Moyse's Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, said the trials occurred in property near the Shire Hall building and the executions would have almost certainly occurred outside the town's precincts.

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He said: "Bury St Edmunds is intrinsically tied up with any history of witchcraft by its documented roll in both the trials and connection to similar beliefs in the latter new world.

"Most of this history, however, is archival documentation as you would expect from a 'belief system'. However, not entirely. "In Moyse's Hall Museum you can see physical items of preventative magic. Mummified cats found buried in a ritualistic style in domestic buildings of the 17th century, to bellarmine jars with their apotropaic, but obscure content.

Witchcraft exhibits at Moyse's Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds Picture: MARIAM GHAEMIWitchcraft exhibits at Moyse's Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds Picture: MARIAM GHAEMI

"More sinister perhaps is the witches' poppet, or wands, that must have belonged to someone who thought themselves capable of witchcraft."

The museum, run by West Suffolk Council, is the location of a new play, Sisterhood, by Jolie Booth that follows the footsteps of the Witchfinder General, who received ample pay for his services.

Every performance on the tour will take place at a location with a historical connection with Hopkins and accusations of witchcraft.

The play, likened to The Handmaids Tale "but with more hope", is also being published as a novel this autumn.

Witch-themed artwork designed by West Suffolk College students on display at Moyse's Hall Museum in 2016 Picture: GREGG BROWNWitch-themed artwork designed by West Suffolk College students on display at Moyse's Hall Museum in 2016 Picture: GREGG BROWN

-Sisterhood is being performed at Moyse's Hall Museum on Friday, October 18, and Saturday, October 19, at 7.30pm. For tickets call 01284 757160 or see here.

-For more information about the witch trials in Bury St Edmunds see here.

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