To craft a witch

November 5, 1999

Anne Gunter vomited, sneezed pins and was racked by fits. Was she bewitched by a neighbour or abused by her father? James Sharpe unravels a 17th-century mystery.

Academic historians are a fairly unromantic lot these days, and few of them dream of discovering a cache of material that will allow them to tell an unknown or forgotten story. I certainly had no such fantasies until a chance discovery, made while researching another project, caught my imagination and sent me off on some fascinating historical detective work. The outcome was that I was able to reconstruct the history of what is probably England's best-documented witchcraft case.

In 1992, when I was in Oxford spending a term as visiting fellow at All Souls, I came across a booklet, published in 1938, in the Bodleian Library. It dealt with cases involving witchcraft that had entered that most notorious of English courts, the Star Chamber. The author of the booklet was one of the great pioneers of English witchcraft history, Cecil l'Estrange Ewen.

Ewen had an eye for the interesting, and among other cases he devoted ten pages or so to the trial of a young Berkshire woman brought before the Star Chamber for falsely accusing three other women of bewitching her. At that time I was regularly escaping the sybaritic atmosphere of All Souls to attend a Wednesday evening seminar at the Institute of Historical Research. The following Wednesday I got to London early, went to Chancery Lane (the records in question held by the Public Record Office were still located there) and ordered the relevant Star Chamber file. What I found there was astounding.

In the summer of 1604, Anne Gunter, aged about 20 and living at North Moreton, then in Berkshire, now in Oxfordshire, fell ill. Doctors were called, including some very experienced physicians from Oxford, but they advised her parents (her father was a gentleman called Brian Gunter) that her sufferings were probably supernatural. By that time Anne was showing all the classic symptoms of demonic possession or the witchcraft-induced illness that so closely resembled it: vomiting and sneezing pins, going into fits alternating with trances, suffering from bodily contortions. In her fits, she accused three women of bewitching her. One, Agnes Pepwell, had a reputation for being a witch and, probably sensing trouble, ran away. The other two, Agnes's illegitimate daughter Mary and Elizabeth Gregory, by most accounts the most unpopular woman in the village, were tried for witchcraft at Abingdon in March 1605 and acquitted.

There the matter should have ended, but Brian Gunter would not let it go. In August 1605 James I, king of England since 1603 and a man with an interest in witchcraft, was paying an official visit to Oxford University. Gunter had good connections with the university (his other daughter, Susan, was married to Thomas Holland, regius professor of divinity and rector of Exeter College).

Gunter took Anne to meet the king, probably in hopes of having the case reopened. But he miscalculated. James, in England at least, was as willing to demonstrate his expertise in matters of witchcraft by exposing fraudulent cases as by finding groups of malefic witches. And, to make matters worse for Gunter, at that time the upper reaches of the Church of England were extremely sceptical about demonic possession, witchcraft and related issues.

James passed Anne to Richard Bancroft, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who in turn passed her to his chaplain, Samuel Harsnett.

Within a month Anne was confessing that she had simulated possession at her father's direction to further a feud against Elizabeth Gregory. Her convincing symptoms were partly thanks to her reading of a tract that described the sufferings of daughters of another gentry family at Warboys near Huntingdon (three people had been executed for witchcraft in this affair). She also explained that bad feeling between her father and the Gregorys had begun in 1598, when Brian Gunter inflicted fatal injuries on two members of the Gregory family during a brawl at a football match. Anne and her father appeared before the Star Chamber, almost certainly on Bancroft's initiative, early in 1606. In the subsequent investigations roughly 60 witnesses were questioned, and their evidence runs to some 400 pages.

Brian Gunter had tried to buttress his case by using his contacts at Oxford to involve a number of dons, including some of the leading university figures of the period: the regius professor of medicine, a future vice-chancellor of the university, the first Bodley's librarian, and a doctor who was to become Shakespeare's son-in-law.

But the largest group of witnesses were villagers from North Moreton. Following this group through archives other than the Star Chamber file proved to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the exercise.

Using wills, manorial records, taxation records and local church court records, I was able to dig deeper into the village background of the accusations. Like so many parishes in the area, North Moreton had no resident lord of the manor but was, in effect, run by about five farming families, the Gregorys among them. Brian Gunter was an interloper, arriving in the village in about 1587, and was clearly a difficult man.

He had managed to get involved in litigation with the lord of the manor, and, a few years before the witchcraft case, had been the subject of another set of Star Chamber proceedings when the leading village families had united to complain of the violent and troublesome behaviour perpetrated by him, his sons and his servants. Twenty years later Gunter, by now an octogenarian, was taken to the Star Chamber by North Moreton's vicar, who claimed Gunter had led two riotous assaults against him and his wife.

As can be imagined, being daughter to such a man was not easy. Although it is easy to caricature parent-child relations as unremittingly harsh in this period, it was an age that, especially among the gentry, prized daughterly obedience.

Anne's account of what happened stresses how her father had forced her to simulate being bewitched and, to modern eyes, the relationship at times looks abusive. She was drugged, subjected to physical tests to "prove" her insensibility, threatened, sworn to secrecy and, on one occasion, pulled by her father from a neighbour's house where she had taken refuge and kicked and sworn at in the street. It is little wonder she became suicidal.

The richness of the material is amazing. Here we see witchcraft working itself out in a local context, but then entering the wider world of Oxford dons, visiting gentry and clergy (such cases always attracted attention), the bishop of Salisbury, who kept Anne under observation after the Abingdon trial, the young Scottish aristocrat Francis Stewart, then a student at Oxford who was rather taken with Anne when he met her, and, of course, King James himself, who wrote what was virtually a psychiatric report on Anne in a letter to his chief minister, the earl of Salisbury. The Anne Gunter affair shows how witchcraft, so often presented in terms of a simple story of oppression and bigotry, was a phenomenon that could evoke varied and sophisticated responses.

The archival materials used in this piece of historical reconstruction are housed in 12 different repositories, ranging from the Berkshire record office to the Huntington Library in California. It was, indeed, while researching this book that I experienced one of my most memorable moments as a historical researcher. I was leaving the Oxfordshire Archives in a state of considerable elation, having just stumbled across Brian Gunter's hitherto unknown will, when I found a Pounds 10 note in the gutter - you don't get many days like that.

What happened to Anne and her father? There, I'm afraid, the evidence becomes thin. We do not know the outcome of the Star Chamber trial: the relevant documentation was lost long ago. Brian Gunter went back to North Moreton, his fortunes apparently unimpaired, and died at Oxford (he may have been staying with his daughter Susan during his last illness) in 1628. There are suggestions from the period that Anne fell in love while she was in custody in the autumn of 1605 and married, with King James providing a dowry. I was unable to find evidence to support this story, and Anne does seem to disappear from history. But I am not so unromantic as not to hope that she did marry and live happily ever after.

James Sharpe is professor of history at York University. The Bewitching of Anne Gunter is published this month by Profile, price Pounds 16.99.

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