WEIRD SUFFOLK: The spider invasion at Bury St Edmunds
Arachnophobics should perhaps look away now: today’s Weird Suffolk story is all about a plague of spiders in Bury St Edmunds
There’s something about spiders and their eight arched legs and the way they scuttle that leaves many of us paralysed with fear and revulsion. Of course our fear is largely unfounded, particularly in Britain but the terror remains – and stories like the one we are about to tell will not help in the slightest. In the autumn of 1660, in Bury St Edmunds, a strange parade began – countless red spiders began to walk purposefully as if towards a target.
The story first appeared in Mirabilis Annus Secundus, published in 1662 and was part of a list of “strange signs and apparitions” which, it was said, were appearing as a warning to everyone to obey the word of God. These included fiery meteors, strange clouds, an army of horsemen seen in the sky, drops of milk appearing on top of milk in pans, a strange fish washing up on the shore at Preston, “a very strange tide” at Dartmouth, “a mushroom growing up in a night to an incredible bigness” and, Bury’s spiders.
It quickly became apparent that the spiders, who appeared on September 6, were making their way to the home of Sir John Duncombe, a member of the late Parliament who had once been Chancellor of the Exchequer and later been knighted. The report said: “…as the people passed the street, or came near the spiders, to look upon so strange a sight, they would shun the people, and kept themselves together in a body till they came to the said Duncombe’s house, before whose door there are two great posts
“There they stalled, and many of them got under the door into the house, but the greatest part of them, climbing up the posts, spun a very great web presently from the one post to the other, and then wrapt themselves in it in two very great parcels that hung down near to the ground.”
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Sir Duncombe’s servants, realising that two huge spider webs filled with red marching spiders outside their master’s home was not entirely desirable, began thinking of how they could rid the residence of the plague. Their solution was swift and deadly: they gathered dry straw, laid it under the large swaying spider hammocks and promptly set it on fire, causing the instant death of thousands, if not millions, of spiders. The small matter as to why so many spiders had made their way through the town to reach a politician’s house was never explained. “All the use that the Gentleman made of this strange accident, so far as we can learn, is only this, that he believes they were sent to his house by some Witches,” the report continued.
It used to be believed that if a spider fell into a candle-lit lamp and was consumed by flames, witches were nearby. And of course in Bury St Edmunds, witches were a hot topic in the 1660s. A series of witch trials took place in the town between 1599 and 1694 with two specific trials in 1645 and 1662 becoming historically well known – the former saw 18 people accused of witchcraft executed in a day. Instigated by the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins and tried by one of the country’s most eminent judges of the time, Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, it is likely that Sir John would have known both men. Whether he was involved in the trials, an accuser or a supporter, we may never know – equally, we can only imagine what he might have done to incur the wrath of one in possession of the dark arts.
As to the spiders, Weird Suffolk’s research reveals no such spider that acts in the manner described in the UK or beyond, although there are creatures called ‘social spiders’ that cluster together and build communal webs. These larger webs mean larger prey: social spiders can kill birds and bats when they act as one, although possibly not a rich MP in Suffolk. On Beachcombings Bizarre History Blog a comparision with the Bury St Edmund spider invasion and the work of horror writer MR James is made and in particular his story The Ash Tree. In the 1904-published tale, the story is told of a witch taking revenge on a Suffolk family whose testimony had led to her death. Her modus operandi involved commanding a band of kitten-sized spiders that lived in an ash tree to go and kill the family heirs at Castringham Hall.
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Don’t have nightmares.