1566: Agnes Waterhouse, the first witchcraft execution in England

On this date in 1556, Agnes Waterhouse became the first known woman executed for witchcraft in England.

“Mother Waterhouse” came accused as the matriarch of a whole clan of hags in the Essex village of Hatfield Peverel. Our record for events, a pamphlet titled The Examination and confession of certaine wytches at Chensforde [Chelmsford] in the countie of Essex: before the Quenes Maiesties judges, the xxvi daye of July, anno 1566.,* gives us Mother Waterhouse accused a sorceress along with her daughter, Joan (eventually acquitted), as well as Agnes’s sister, Elizabeth Francis. By accounts they had come by their necromancies via the guidance of a “hyr grand¬≠mother whose nam was mother Eue of Hatfyelde Peue¬≠rell.”

Tudor England had thus far been spared the witch persecutions that were multiplying on the continent, and even here the accusations ultimately invoked the supernatural as the means for actual material injuries: to sicken and kill both livestock and people.

Both Agnes Waterhouse and Elizabeth Francis confessed to a wide array of crimes, facilitated by a feline familiar unsubtly christened “Sathan”; a neighboring child gave evidence against Agnes. Elizabeth Francis would not be executed as a result of this trial — she faced new charges that would hang her in 1579 — but she directly copped to doing murders via the cat. We excerpt below from the “Examination and confession” pamphlet but as rendered into easier-on-the-eyes modern spellings, found here:

she desired to have one Andrew Byles to her husband, which was a man of some wealth, and the cat did promise she should, but that he said she must first consent that this Andrew could abuse her, and so she did.

And after when this Andrew had thus abused her he would not marry her, wherefore she willed Satan to waste his goods, which he forthwith did, and yet not being contented with this, she willed him to touch his body, which he forthwith did wherefore he died.

Item that every time that he did anything for her, she said that he required a drop of blood, which she gave him by pricking herself, sometime in one place and then in another, and where she pricked herself there remained a red spot, which was still to be seen.

Item when this Andrew was dead, she doubting [fearing] herself with child with Satan to destroy it, and he had her take a certain herb and drink which she did, and destroyed the child forthwith.

Item when she desired another husband, he promised her another, naming this Francis whom she now hath, but said he is not so rich as the other, willing her to consent unto that Francis in fornication which she did, and thereof conceived a daughter that was born within a quarter of a year after they were married.

After they were married they lived not so quietly as she desired, being stirred (as she said) to much unquietness and moved to swearing and cursing, wherefore she willed Satan her Cat to kill the child, being about the age of half a year old and he did so, and when she yet found not the quietness that she desired, she willed it to lay a lameness in the leg of this Francis her husband, and it did in this manner. It came in a morning to this Francis’ shoe, lying in it like a toad, and when he perceived it putting on his shoe, and had touched it with his foot, he being suddenly amazed asked her of what it was, and she bade him kill it, and he was forthwith taken with a lameness whereof he cannot healed.

After “fifteen or sixteen years” she traded the little agent of chaos to her sister for some cakes, and afterwards the cat did Agnes’s will instead.

when she had received him she (to try him what he could do) willed him to kill a hog of her own which he did, and she gave him for his labor a chicken, which he first required of her and a drop of her blood. And this she gave him at all times when he did anything for her, by pricking her hand or face and putting the blood to his mouth which he sucked, and forthwith would lie down in his pot again, wherein she kept him, the spots of all the which pricks are yet to be seen in her skin.

Also she sayeth that another time being offended with one father Kersey she took her cat Satan in her lap and put him in the wood before her door, and willed him to kill three of this Father Kersey’s hogs, which he did, and returning again told her so, and she rewarded him as before with a chicken and a drop of her blood, which chicken he ate up clean as he did all the rest, and she could find remaining neither bones nor feathers.

Also she confessed that falling out with one Widow Gooday she willed Satan to drown her cow and he did so, and she rewarded him as before.

Also she falling out with another of her neighbors, she killed her three geese in the same manner.

Item, she confessed that because she could have no rest (which she required) she caused Satan to destroy the brewing at that time.

Also being denied butter of another, she caused her to lose the curds two or three days after.

Item falling out with another of her neighbors and his wife, she willed Satan to kill him with a bloody slice, whereof he died, and she rewarded him as before.

Likewise she confessed that because she lived somewhat unquietly with her husband she caused Satan to kill him, and he did so about nine years past, since which time she hath lived a widow.

Also she said that when she would will him to do anything for her, she would say her Pater noster in Latin.

Latin! And here perhaps we find a hint — for details on the background and specific context of this prosecution are not to be found — that the shocks of the Reformation were one root of events. As Kate Dumycz observes

Mother Eve perhaps started practising her “craft” in the second half of the fifteenth century … a time when, although the existence of witchcraft was acknowledged and people consulted cunning men and women, there was no witchcraft act on the Statute books … this family would have lived through great upheaval that affected all parts of England because of the Reformation. Christopher Marsh comments that many rituals of the Catholic Church (such as charms, sorcery, enchantments) were banned in 1559 and this ruling was a “broader campaign to destroy the credibility of traditional religion by exposing its alleged superstition”. Rosen remarks “Bitterness, resentment and pain that can no longer be discharged through familiar religious channels will almost inevitably be turned upon others; and in their delusions, such women were aided by the learned and by the religious terms in which they continued to think.”

Agnes Waterhouse leaves us a tantalising clue about contemporary attitudes towards religion and those who practised outside the State dictated religion “she was demanded what praier she saide, she aunswered the Lordes prayer, the Aue Maria, and the belefe, & then they demaunded whether in laten or in englyshe, and shee sayde in laten, and they demaunded why she saide it not in engly[sh]e but in laten”. [note: this interrogation occurred during Agnes Waterhouse’s repentant gallows speech, not during the trial -ed.] So, Agnes Waterhouse at least, practised some of the “old ways” and perhaps had not converted to Protestantism and therefore operated outside the beliefs and “norms” of her society. Rosen comments that between 1534 and the time of this trial “there had been eight major religious changes requiring oaths from teachers, ministers and public officials with four total reversals of religious practice enforced by law and death sentence”. … Agnes Waterhouse’s ability to say her prayers in Latin would have been compulsory during Mary’s reign and yet a few years later this factor was used against her as an indication that she was practising witchcraft and thus, as a witch, was unable to say her prayers correctly in English.

Whilst it has long been established by modern day historians such as Keith Thomas that “in England witchcraft was prosecuted primarily as an anti-social crime, rather than as a heresy” Agnes Waterhouse’s case shows that religion must have played a small but significant part in her neighbours’ belief that she was a witch although she was executed as a murderer rather than a heretic.

Agnes Waterhouse, Joan Waterhouse, and Elizabeth Francis were the first of nine women (plus one man) from Hatfield Peverel prosecuted as witches between 1566 and 1589.

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