Weird Suffolk: The Denham girl who executed as a witch for being too beautiful
The tormented spirit of a girl murdered as a witch who haunts Denham in the chains she was drowned in.
Think of a fairytale witch and you’re bound to picture an evil, aged crone, a midnight hag as ugly outside as inside: few in folklore put the “witch” into “bewitching”. But delve a little deeper and the idea of a beautiful witch able to lure men to do her bidding by means of her beauty is rooted in mythology – in Homer’s Odyssey, Circe bewitched shipwrecked men into her palace before turning them all into pigs.
In Denham near Bury St Edmunds, the beauty of a young girl in the 1640s led to her dreadful end when jealous villagers whipped into a frenzy by the nearby witch hunts sought their own rough justice. The girl, it is said, was so beautiful that she turned the heads of every man in the village, leading the womenfolk to accuse her of having more than natural beauty at her disposal – they said that she was practicing witchcraft.
In Bury St Edmunds, witch trials had been conducted since 1599 when Jone Jordan of Shadbrook and Joane Nayler were tried as witches. In the same year, Oliffe Bartham of Shadbrook was executed for “sending three toads to destroy the rest of Joan Jordan”.
By 1645, Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins was at large and on August 27, 18 “witches” were hanged at Bury and more than 120 more were imprisoned. To the backdrop of the wicked hunts, in Denham, mere beauty seemed too simple an explanation as to why the village men were all enchanted by one teenage girl. The 16-year-old was taken from her home and locked in St Mary’s Church (itself worth visiting to see the extraordinary tomb to Sir
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Edward Lewkenor and wife Dame Susan, who died of smallpox a day apart from each other in1605 and who are remembered in an elaborate monument featuring them and their eight children at prayer) on Barrow Road, it is said, close to Denham Castle, the remains of which can still be seen. Put to trial, she was declared to be a witch and shackled in chains before being hauled down to the road to a well close to the church where she was thrown in to see if she would sink or swim, a traditional punishment for an alleged witch. Of course, the girl drowned and the villagers reeled away in horror, realising what they had done: murdered an innocent. Vowing silence, the girl was buried at the meeting of a pathway and roads that formed a crossroad where she lay, it is claimed, for many years until workmen, digging up the road, discovered her skeleton still in chains.
The girl was removed to another graveyard where, the story goes, she was given the full Christian burial she had been denied back in the 1600s.
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Since the shameful execution and subsequent denial of a proper burial – crossroads were reserved for people who it was believed had no right to lie in consecrated ground – there have been reports of ghostly chains being heard dragging along the road from the church to the site of the old crossroads. When the noise from the chains ends, a luminous ball can be seen hovering just above the ground for five or six minutes before it fades away, just like the beauty of a young girl, snuffed out by envy before she could live a full and happy life.
Next week, we look at the spirits of nearby Denham Hall.
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