The retelling of history does not lend itself so willingly to the lives of women like Norfolk-born Elizabeth Bradwell. With scarce records surviving that allow us to trace her life, much of our understanding of Bradwell comes from the events surrounding her trial and execution as a witch at the Yarmouth assizes, in September 1645 (NRO, Y/S 1/2). Whilst her case, and the accusations levied against her are typical of English witch belief in their attack on maleficium – the practice of harmful magic, Bradwell’s story remains significant in its infusion of two different and traditionally separated stereotypes relating to witchcraft and demonic agency. Blending both English and wider European anxieties surrounding witchcraft, the tale of Elizabeth Bradwell transcends the intercontinental boundaries established by Keith Thomas in his study Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), who argued that demonic witchcraft, often involving notions of a diabolical pact and association with a heretical sect, was a belief confined only to wider European territories, never to reach English shores. Yet as Bradwell’s confession shall reveal, whispers of diabolical witchcraft, of blood-signed texts and demonic contracts lay at the very heart of early modern Norfolk. The Devil, it seems, rather than cavorting on the continent, was standing at the front door.
In the autumn of 1645, it was likely the Council of Great Yarmouth was frightened. Witches wreaked havoc in a world turned upside down, fractured by the conflict ushered in by civil war. Cursing their neighbours, distributing blasphemous texts and poisoning the land with sin and malevolence, it would have been clear to the Council that action was required. Conveniently, it was during this time that Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed ‘Witchfinder General’, scoured East Anglia, furiously hunting, interrogating and executing witches with brutal zealotry. Frantically summoning Hopkins, the Council of Great Yarmouth pleaded that he ‘discover and find out’ the witches that operated in the town. Following spiteful whisperings and pointed fingers, Elizabeth Bradwell, along with ten other accused witches, was captured and hauled in front of a court on the 10th September 1645. In the dock, Bradwell confessed to the performance of image magic – that being the creation of wax images in the likeness of her enemies for the purpose of their bewitchment and murder. Indeed, recalling how she thrust a nail into the head of a wax image that resembled a neighbour’s child, John Moulton, Bradwell is seen to have personified the early modern stereotype of the English witch – a malevolent, spiteful individual with a penchant for inflicting harm upon innocent children. By 1542 and at the behest of King Henry VIII, Parliament had passed an Act which decreed that to ‘use […] any Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to […] destroy any persone’ was a felonious crime and therefore punishable by death. By pleading guilty to this deed, Bradwell had sealed her fate and would soon swing upon the scaffold. Yet Elizabeth was soon to disclose something far darker to the court upon that day.
Recounting her trial in his tract published in 1693, Matthew Hale described how Bradwell admitted that she secured her diabolical gifts by signing, in her own blood, a contract given to her by the Devil. Historiography reveals that belief in demonic contracts, blood signatures and the Devil’s ‘black book’ of confederates were typically of European origin, emphasising the idea of an underground satanic army, working secretly in tandem to ensure the destruction of Christendom. Across the channel, the English witch was instead perceived a solitary figure, working alone but for the assistance of familiar spirits. Despite this, whilst Bradwell herself does not disclose notions of the diabolical sabbat, her allusions to the Devil’s book of confederacy clearly nods to anxieties of an underground satanic army. Indeed, her confession certainly caught the eye of both Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne, who later published a tract that addressed Elizabeth Bradwell and the alarming significance of her demonic compact.
Exactly why Bradwell admitted to such crimes remains unclear. How we, as historians, should respond to her confession is a marsh that is murkier still. Were these simply the ramblings of a confused old woman? Tragically, it is no secret that the Early Modern witch hunts claimed the lives of many whose minds were confronted by conditions modern thinking would now acknowledge as mental illness. Such individuals would have proven prime targets for zealots like Hopkins and Stearne, and whilst the application of torture to procure confessions of witchcraft was strictly prohibited in England during this period, we know that the Witchfinder was liberal in his implementation of sleep deprivation to secure the confession he desired. For Hopkins, such practices had already demonstrated their worth in Manningtree earlier that year, when Elizabeth Clarke was interrogated and coerced with sleep deprivation whilst being ‘watched’ for any communication with her alleged demonic familiars. Such delirium inducing methods evidently contributed to the fantastical confessions that soon followed Clarke’s interrogation, who declared with confidence that she had copulated with the Devil several years earlier and identified one of her demonic imps as ‘Vinegar Tom’. Testifying against Clarke at the very beginning of the Essex witch dragnet, Hopkins recalled that when asked if she was frightened of her demonic familiars, Clarke responded simply with “what, doe yee thinke I am afraid of my children?” Thus, whilst judicial authority enforced that English witches were spared the tortures endured by their Scottish and continental sisters, we can assume that Hopkins implemented methods such as sleep deprivation liberally to procure confessions that expediently complimented political and religious opinion on witchcraft. Indeed in 1604, Parliament had issued another Witchcraft Act which placed further emphasis on the diabolical characteristics of the English witch, bolstering the publication of King James’ Daemonologie (1597), who wrote feverishly on this subject owing to his constant fear of being subject to a satanical plot. Following his death, interest in diabolical witchcraft continued to bleed into the 17th century, popularised in literature such as The Witch of Newbury (1643) and in the stories of Prince Rupert’s demonic hound, Boy. Like Clarke, then, Bradwell’s defamation as diabolical agent thus evidently is seen to have satisfied both the broader political and religious inclinations of the day.
Irrespective of the accusations levied against her, Elizabeth Bradwell was no witch. A woman, yes, a mother or sister, perhaps, but certainly no witch. It is tragic that the only record that remains of Bradwell is that which condemned her to the gallows. So too is it tragic that, vilified as a demonic agent, Bradwell is likely to have been buried in an unmarked grave and simply forgotten. Yet by writing of her, and by acknowledging her suffering, we re-humanise Elizabeth. No longer the satanical servant signing blood compacts and dancing with the Devil, but rather a Norfolk-born woman, forsaken by her neighbours and swept up in a mass hysteria at the hands of her captor, Matthew Hopkins. Critically, her story is one that informs us of the transmission of English and European belief during this period, fuelled largely by the political and religious temperatures of the day. In contexts of witchcraft scholarship, the confession of Elizabeth Bradwell becomes a cautionary tale that warns us against the rigidity of the boundaries established by Keith Thomas in his 1971 seminal study. Her victimhood reclaimed, we remember Elizabeth Bradwell for the woman she was, unshackling her from the stereotype which led to her unjust hanging on 13th September, 1645.
Researched and compiled by Ben Nicholson.