Thursday, November 01, 2018


Today is All Souls' Day and we reflect on last night's spooky goings on in Brentwood, Essex. Glowing pumpkins, spiky hats, furry spiders, weirdy wands almost sold out  in local shops as the witching hour approached. Children dressed as witches and wizards, devils and imps were tricking and treating as darkness fell - all fun during this proverbial evening.  
But witchcraft was no laughing matter a few hundred years ago in England.   Mere suspicion that someone was dabbling in the black arts could mean a death sentence. Medieval folk had long suspected that the Devil was carrying out his evil work on earth with the help of his minions. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII declared this to be the truth in his Papal Bull. This kicked off the big European Witch Craze, which lasted for nearly two centuries.
The hotbeds of the witch-hunts were the German-speaking lands, France and Scotland.  In 1645 England, notably Essex, was in the grip of witch-fever. Between 1560 and 1680 in Essex alone 317 women and 23 men were tried for witchcraft, and over 100 were hanged. In 1645 there were 36 witch trials in Essex. Some of them were held at Brentwood. At least half a dozen Brentwood women around 1575 were hanged, so the records tell us. All appeared to be old, lived alone, except for their companion cats.
Brentwood Assizes  (which used to be in the High Street) were where the trials took place. The three-gabled Assize House had been built under a deed of 1579 and sited where 84 High Street is now. Judicial luminaries such as the celebrated Chief Justice Parker became associated with Brentwood Assizes. The infamous Matthews Hopkins – known as the Witchfinder General – who tyrannised the Eastern Counties during his two-year search for witches - was known to have visited Brentwood. 
Trials were held here for local felons, some of whom received death sentences.  South Weald registers tell of seven people who had been hanged and were buried on the same day.  These heartless events often attracted huge audiences.  The condemned were taken by cart along the Ongar Road to Gallows Green, a point close to the triangle leading to Doddinghurst Road where the unfortunates met their end. In past centuries phantoms have been recorded around Gallows Green (shown on the 1777 Andre & Chapman map) but these days, the constant traffic flow would undoubtedly frighten them off.


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