Rye Spirits: faith, faction and fairies in a 17th century English town

Annabel Gregory

Paperback 234 x 156 mm

ISBN: 978-0-9571080-0-4

320 pp. + 8pp col. section 20 B&W illus.

Available through any bookseller

Price £15.00

"This fascinating and important book ..."

—Robin Briggs, University of Oxford

"... a good story and a good history, well told."

—Marion Gibson, The Seventeenth Century

"In its sheer breadth and depth and detail ... Gregory's story has a European feel to it ..."

—Malcolm Gaskill, Continuity and Change

"This highly informative book ..."

—Brian P. Levack, Journal of British Studies

"Fascinating ... skilfully composed to engage non-specialist readers and draw them into the detailed research on which it is based ... writing is clear and refreshingly informal."

—Ben Burt, anthropologist, British Museum

Book summary

This book reconstructs the story behind a witchcraft case from the town of Rye in Sussex that is unlike any other recorded in England. The mayor was both judge and prosecutor—a combination made possible by his extraordinary authority, conferred by the charters of the Cinque Ports, to try capital felonies such as witchcraft. When the previous mayor died suddenly in 1607 and witchcraft was suspected, the bench collected a voluminous dossier of witness testimony. The survival of any evidence at all is unusual—most accounts of English witchcraft cases have to rely on printed pamphlets, the early- modern equivalent of today’s tabloid press. Perhaps because of this, the women accused of witchcraft in this case were far from the stereotype of popular legend.

This inchoate body of testimony brings to life the concerns and even the speech of inhabitants—enabling the author to give a richly detailed account of life in early- modern Sussex. It does not in itself, however, tell a clear story—which may explain why it has not been published before. Only when the author delved into the pre- history of the case did a story begin to emerge. This witchcraft case was revealed to be one episode in a series of conflicts which periodically, over a couple of centuries, rent the town into competing factions.

The course of the case was complicated by the intervention of the government, who apart from suspecting malpractice on the part of the Rye magistrates, saw an opportunity to challenge the privileges of this semi- autonomous jurisdiction.

The spirits of the title range from fairies playing pranks on the inhabitants of Rye, to angels announcing the impending apocalypse. They are also, perhaps, the ordinary people of Rye—independent spirits, many of whom have bit parts in this extraordinary story.


This fascinating and important book centres on an unusual episode in 1607-9 when two women who had been trying to find buried treasure with the help of spirits were tried for witchcraft. Annabel Gregory uses the skills of both a historian and a social anthropologist to reconstruct the very rich context, and explain how a Puritan housewife, with some marginal claims to be a healer, could ultimately be accused of bewitching the richest man in Rye to death. She turns the story into a wonderfully penetrating analysis of an early modern urban society, where economic decline sharpened political and religious factionalism, among people who were nevertheless bound together in their small and intimate community. Her account also casts a most revealing light on the interaction between magical and folk beliefs on the one hand, and formal Christian doctrine on the other.

Robin Briggs, University of Oxford

... a delightfully layered and deep picture of a community ... a pleasant, conversational read with something of the feeling of a novel. ... the author is keen to remind us of the reality and, indeed, the suffering of those whose lives she chronicles. ... Rye Spirits is a good story and a good history, well told.

Marion Gibson, The Seventeenth Century

... In its sheer breadth and depth and detail ... Gregory's story has a European feel to it, if only because English records are generally too sparse for such a reconstruction. ... Rye Spirits ... reaches deeply into the thicket of English religious and political conflict before the civil wars, demonstrating seamless links between the temporal and metaphysical worlds that shaped seventeenth-century mentalities; [and] reminds historians of witchcraft how important were the ... convoluted machinations of the politics of the parish.

Malcolm Gaskill, Continuity and Change

This highly informative book ... uses ... this well-documented case as a window into the economic, social and religious divisions that prevailed in the town. ... the enduring value of Rye Spirits is its contribution to our understanding of English religious culture

Brian P. Levack, Journal of British Studies

Fascinating … skilfully composed to engage non-specialist readers and draw them into the detailed research on which it is based. … Persons and events [are used to] introduce discussions of the historical and cultural context of the central witchcraft story, [which] is a most effective way of describing the society of the place and period … the style of writing is clear and refreshingly informal.

Ben Burt, anthropologist, British Museum