Friday 25th July 1645...
On the edge of town, we cross the narrow Treen Bridge on Springfield Lane, the steady flow of the Chelmsford River beating rhythmically below. The horse drawn cart we sit in rocks gently from side to side, mimicking the gait of the horses. I take a deep breath, the morning air cool in my nostrils; the scent of summer flowers mingles with the sour smell of faeces and the acrid smell of horseflesh. Riding past Town’s End point towards the High Street and a morning of witches’ executions, the muted echoes of people welcome us into Chelmsford. The High Street is just beyond the corner house. “Stop the cart, young Master Jones. ‘Tis a fine morn, I shall walk the rest of the way. I shall meet thee later by the gallows.”
He pulls to a gradual stop, my body moving forward as the steady pace is halted. I stand and carefully move to step down, holding to the sides of the cart to maintain balance. As my feet touch the dirt ground, I feel the rough road crack beneath my feet and small stones press sharply into the soles of my thin boots. I feel more than hear my old bones creak in protest as I straighten after such a long and arduous journey. Manningtree is over thirty miles away, a five hour ride by horse and cart. Master Jones drives onward, turning out of sight.
I look upwards; the rich blue sky is completely empty, the sun beating down on my head. I smile wistfully: it is a perfect day for an execution, but a sad one also. I do not want my friends to die and I shall miss them when they are gone. Poor Master Jones is to lose a sister…
I continue my journey on foot, mindful of the mess and the gathering crowds; the hangings and open market have made the road extremely busy. Bunching up my skirts, I avoid a fresh and steaming pile of horse manure. Quickening my pace to distance myself from the stench, I turn the corner at the bottom of Springfield Lane.
The low rumbling sounds transform into a cacophonous din. Men and women barter incessantly for supplies on the markets, St Mary’s church bell knells solemnly at the top of the High Street, the Blacksmith works with a loud resonant metallic clang; the continuous steady stream of the conduit channel flows through the town. The long and narrow shape of the High Street enhances the richness of the sounds as houses and shops seem almost crammed together, their heavy dark wood beams reaching further into the street to hang above the market stalls. The pale white washed walls of the houses gleam brightly in the sunshine.
The first of the market stalls stands in my path. The soft and clouded image of flying feathers and rich red plumage greets me at Poultry Hill, the clucks of caged hens and cockerels harsh in my ears.
Walking further up the street I rush to pass the reeking fish market, the strong scent of salt and rotting fish making my eyes water. Men and women line up at the stall, arguing over the inflated price of trout and the indecent quality of the products. Through my blurred vision, I see an angry woman handing a smirking, chiselled jawed trader a shining sixpence in exchange for a small wrapped package of foodstuffs.
A sharp warning from my right has me turning my head. Above the Leather market, a large woman hangs from an open glass window of Woolsack Inn, a rounded bucket in her arms. I watch in amusement as the shoppers and traders below her scramble for safety, hiding their merchandise away. A look of impatience crosses the woman’s features as she turns the bucket, a chamber pot full of excrement, upside down. The pungent aroma of stale urine overwhelms my nostrils. Even at the age of one and fifty, there is no getting used to it.
A young man, dressed in the plain brown doublet and breeches of a foot soldier, fails to escape the stinking onslaught of the chamber pot’s contents. A trickle of laughter in the watching crowd follows him as he hurries from the scene.
In my haste to move onwards, I narrowly escape a collision with a trader holding a large wooden crate filled to the brim with dirt covered potatoes. The earthy smell of soil and the rich scent of root vegetables act as a welcome relief to the stench of human waste. Several shouts from within the warmth and darkness of the Crane Inn coaching house bring with them the strong and fruity scents of ale and wine.
The heavy clangour of metal pulls my attention to the Blacksmith along the backstreet of the market. Thick plumes of glittering steam and dense smoke rise from within the darkened structure, glowing embers and bright sparks pierce through the blackness as the blacksmith works at his craft; I have to cover my nose and mouth at the suffocating smell of smoke.
I avoid yet another collision as I approach the top of the High Street, nearly bumping into a group of small children playing games, chasing one another up and down the street. The small boys and girls are no more than five years old, curls flying everywhere. As they rush past, their laughter makes me smile.
A solemn ring tolls in my ears. St Mary’s is just ahead, the courtyard just around the corner. The hangings draw nearer. I turn to join the gathering crowd in the courtyard, a large and cobbled space. The cage, stocks and pillory stand ignored in the background. The crowd, the audience, are intrigued with other things.
The accused have already arrived, restrained in pairs in the back of a large horse drawn cart; only the chaplain, his hands holding tightly to his bible, remains free of the chains. The women look thin and malnourished, dressed in the traditional condemned man’s clothing, a loose and long white linen robe. Their hair is matted beyond all reason, but their faces are clean and free of grime. I have arrived late; they are saying farewell to their families, the chaplain is whispering prayers and chanting psalms.
As I watch the women say goodbye, Mary Rhodes, my friend, embraces her husband and child. Her black hair is tangled, held back by a thin leather cord. She looks sad but unafraid; she looks at peace. A small tear falls down my cheek.
Master Jones is holding on to his sister, Frances, refusing to release her from his arms. The young maid is tired, black rims put her eyes in shadow. It is obvious that the girl has had no sleep; many of them look that way, tired and afraid. The light from the sun drains their skin of colour.
I make my way through the crowd, forcing my way to the front. When I get there, the imposing view of the gallows dominates my vision. A simple wooden structure, it looks rather like a swing. But where a child would sit and rock to and fro, a short and simple length of rope hangs still and solemn, despite the gentle breeze. A single ladder sits underneath.
They will be hanged one at a time; an afternoon of entertainment. My bones creak in protest. I ignore them; it will be a long time before I can sit. The executioner waits to the side, his black cloak sinister and oppressive. He will be a rich man by the end of the day. I breathe deeply through my nose to dispel the sudden sickness. I have to be strong.
There are only fifteen women in the cart; the others obviously perished in Colchester prison while awaiting punishment. There were many more condemned at the trial; an arraignment of thirty witches in total. Rebecca West’s confession saw to that. They renounced the Lord, she had said. They had carnal copulation with the devil, she had said, and forced her to do the same. Four were hanged three weeks ago in Manningtree; the chaplain declared that their evil had died with them and would again be vanquished today.
Though I am saddened and angered by what has happened to my friends, I confess to find myself relieved as well. Many women of my acquaintance have been sentenced to death for witchcraft, condemned because of the young girl’s forced confession. I give thanks to the Lord that I, despite my age and town’s position of cunning woman, have avoided suspicion.
Master Jones now stands beside me, his hands trembling. The church bell tolls again: it is time.
Mrs Wayt is the first. She is a Minister’s wife. She is hanged to send a message: not even the clergy are safe from the devil. Her eyes never leave the floor as she is pushed up the ladder, her hands bound. It would do no good for her hands to be free. The chaplain looks at the fair haired woman in complete disdain as the linen hood is placed over her head, the rope around her neck. The ladder is taken away. It is a quick death. Like a thick tree branch, her neck breaks instantly. Many cheer in delight at the loud snapping sound which emanates from beneath the hood. Her body is taken down from the gallows and placed to one side, in the shadows of the church.
Margaret Moone, a widow, is the next to approach the ladder. I watch in silence with the rest of the crowd as the woman struggles against her bonds. Her long red curls shake from side to side as she fights with the guards that drag her beneath the rope. As she reaches the ladder, her feet are freed from the manacles and with a loud and defiant shriek she turns towards the anticipating crowd, “No! The Devil will never see me hanged. He promised me so often!”
An anxious hush descends upon us as her declaration causes everyone to step away from the gallows. Fear ripples through the crowd, waves of panicked whispers surround me as I watch on in horror. Margaret stands firm against the tide of curses and suspicion, wailing at the top of her lungs, clutching her hands to her chest. Her sudden drop to the floor has us screaming in terror; has the Devil taken her?
A guard leans cautiously over her body, checking for signs of life. His tanned skin pales to the colour of his breeches. Lily white, he motions to the executioner. The chaplain is praying, clutching at his bible, “May God have mercy on her soul.” Her body is taken to one side and the hangings continue, the crowd standing in wait.
Mother Benefield looks panicked as she is taken to the gallows. Her wrinkled face is scrunched up in terror, her tangled grey locks unmoving in the breeze. She screams and wails in protest, her fear enlivening the crowd. Most are pleased to watch her terror; Rebecca West’s confession named her the leader of the Devil’s wives, the Devil’s witches. Many around me hope that she suffers greatly, that her neck does not break. Her short drop on the gallows is followed by choked gasps for air as, beneath the hood, she struggles, slowly dying of suffocation.
Nearly twenty minutes pass before she is taken down, released from the noose. Her limp and lifeless body is dumped with the others. The executioner waves his hand, indicating to the guards, calling for the next prisoner.
Mother Goodwin is taken from the cart, one of the eldest women to be hanged. Unlike the woman before her, she is quiet and unassuming. Her aged face is nothing but an empty shell. There is no emotion displayed on her features. As she steps onto the ladder, her eyes flicker over the crowd. I shudder at her gaze; it is utterly bleak, devoid of soul and spirit. The hood is draped over her head, hiding her horrifying eyes and the noose is pulled tight against her throat. Her neck is long and slim; the thickness of the rope is thrown in to stark relief. When the ladder is removed, the noose is pulled impossibly tighter as she swings. It takes her only minutes to die.
The heat of the sun and the suffering of the women seem to invigorate the crowd. Time passes on, my bones beginning to ache in protest of my upright position. Jane Browne, Rachel Flower, Jane Briggs, Mother Miller and Mary Foster: they hang without incident, the bell of St Mary’s signalling the departure of their souls.
Anne West, the next to be taken, carries the knowledge that her daughter’s confession has put her here. I can only imagine the anger that she must be feeling. As she strides toward the ladder her bitter words “My daughter should be hanging with me,” resonate through the crowd. The hood is placed over her head, the noose about her neck. She does not wait for the executioner, dying on her own terms.
Elizabeth Clarke, the one legged hag from my home, requires assistance up the ladder. Her dance on the gallows is short. The church bell rings, the last sound that she hears. Mother Forman and Mother Greene pass in a violent sway of the noose pleasing the crowd immensely.
I stiffen as Miss Jones is led to the gallows. Frances cries as she climbs the ladder. She looks into the crowd, searching for her brother. Master Jones nods to her, his eyes glinting with unshed tears. A hood is draped over her head, the noose placed around her neck; every action seems to slow. The ladder is kicked away with a loud clatter and we watch in silent horror as she swings, coughing and choking helplessly on the gallows. Master Jones grips my hand tightly to stop himself from moving. The bell tolls as her last breath escapes her. The executioner adds her body to the growing line of corpses.
Mary Rhodes is the last. She walks unaided to the ladder, head held high in acceptance and pride. Her soft features are serene as they disappear behind the white linen hood. Draped around her neck, the noose is pulled tight against her throat. I cannot watch any longer, I can only listen: the strain of the rope, the creaking of the wood, the repetitive groan of the gallows, the coughing, the horrid, tortured gasps for air; the laughter of the crowd. I know she has gone when the sounds have stopped.
I can open my eyes now.
With her death the crowd disperses, with only family members remaining behind to bid and buy their relatives’ bodies. Surgeons gather close as well, wanting corpses to cut and slice. The executioner stands before the row of bodies like a guard as people begin to barter.
Everything belongs to the executioner.
Copyright © 2012 TL Spencer
Everything belongs to the executioner.
Copyright © 2012 TL Spencer