The St. Osyth Witches Had Their Bones Riveted

In Essex Countryside Magazine,

Vol 69, October 1962

By Eric Maple

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the shadow of cruel persecution overhung the whole of the eastern counties, particularly the Tendring hundred of Essex, bringing terror into the lives of those unfortunates who came under suspicion of witchcraft. Any family whose remotest ancestor had been charged with this crime was suspect, while those who practiced the minor idolatries of white witchcraft, healing and charming away warts, were always likely to come under the hammer of Puritan intolerance.

The village of St. Osyth, or Tosey to use the local pronounciation, suffered dreadfully during this reign of terror, when there were two severe persecutions, one in 1582 and the second in 1645, each of which supplied victims to the hangman.

Then with the decline of the Puritan power the terror receded and the dreadful incidents slowly faded from Essex memories, until in 1921 when this story opens the witch persecutions at St. Osyth had been reduced to merely something in the history books. On May 9, 1921, Mr. Booker, of St. Osyth, was digging for sand in his garden when his spade hit something hard. It was a human pelvis. He dug deeper and unearthed a skeleton, intact except for the fracture caused by the blow of the spade. It was lying with its head to the north. When it had been completely exposed it was discovered the bones were fastened together in a most remarkable manner, being joined by iron spikes, elbow to elbow, knee to knee and ankle to ankle, all the way down the body, almost as if those who had buried it were afraid that it might escape from the grave.

The skeleton was that of a woman aged between forty-five and fifty. There were two teeth missing from the lower jaw and there was a pronounced curvature of the spine, but it was otherwise perfect. The bones had been buried for some 300 years. All the evidence indicated that this was a victim of one of the great witch hunts of the seventeenth century, when it was customary to bury an executed witch in unconsecrated ground with her head pointing to the north. Shortly afterwards the skeleton, still in its shallow grave, was exhibited to the public as one of the St. Osyth witches.

Then a second skeleton was discovered at the foot of the first. This too was a woman buried with her head to the north and, like the other, securely riveted in all her limbs. There was considerable speculation as to what this strange form of burial signified – and then someone remembered.

Folk memories are very strange. Old beliefs may lie dorment in the inner recesses of the mind, slumbering like memories of early childhood, and then something awakes them and a secret that has been hidden for a lifetime comes to the surface again. Someone recalled a story heard long before, but forgotten, which told how, in the days of the witch hunts, it had been the custom to bury a witch bound fast in order that she should never rise from her grave after death and haunt her neighbours. In the absence of historical records, it is often impossible to reconstruct an event after the passage of 300 years, yet there is every reason to suppose that this old tradition supplies the solution to the mystery of the St. Osyth skeletons.

It is known from archaeological excavations that the dead of the Romano-British times were sometimes buried weighted down with boulders as if to prevent their return to the world of the living, while it is well known that one of the constant fears of primitive people is that the dead will walk again after death.

Additional confirmation comes from a more recent discovery. The Daily Express reported in March of this year that a woman accused of witchcraft in north Kenya had been bound tightly with loops of string round each leg, her toes and head. She died a week later of gangrene.

It would therefore seem that the discovery of the St. Osyth skeletons adds a further chapter to our knowledge of the witchcraft beliefs of the strange people of old Essex, but the vital clue was provided, it must be stressed, not by historical records, but by the equally important contribution of folklore and tradition.

Bearing in mind the elaborate precautions taken by the people of St. Osyth to keep their witches close prisoners in their graves for three centuries, I was intrigued to learn the other day that a gentleman from the west country actually proposes to dig them up and put them on exhibition in Polperro. I trust the witches will enjoy their new haunts and the people of Polperro their Essex ghosts.

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