A Witch-Hunting Magistrate? Brian Darcy and the St Osyth Witchcraft Cases of 1582

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    In just a few short weeks, between 19 February and 26 March 1582, the small coastal town of St Osyth, Essex, became the centre of an outbreak of witch-hunting that saw fifteen suspected witches investigated, two of whom, Ursley Kempe and Elizabeth Bennet, were hanged. Almost immediately, some of the pre-trial materials were published in the pamphlet A True and Just Recorde (1582). These materials have been used to argue that Brian Darcy, the investigating magistrate, hunted witches out of godly zeal, perhaps as part of the earl of Leicester’s campaign against seditious Catholics in the county. Yet, as this article shows, he was neither a ‘contentious person’ nor a witch-hunter. There were genuine reasons why people felt compelled to accuse their neighbours of witchcraft that were rooted in a short-term mortality crisis in and around St Osyth, and fragile personal relationships which made Darcy receptive to their anxieties. Darcy was certainly credulous and played an important role in the examination of the alleged witches who came to his attention, but he did not hunt them out. He was a willing magistrate who reacted to a situation that arose because there existed authentic suspects, accusers with genuine fears and grievances, and local problems which made accusations of witchcraft seems plausible. The St Osyth witchcraft episode was not the product of one man’s actions.
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