The Awkward Squad in 16th century Lion Street [Rye, Sussex]
Many years ago, in the days when dogs and pigs roamed the streets of Rye [Sussex], and makeshift privies leaned up against houses, a family of butchers and troublemakers named Bennett lived in the house now occupied by the Tourist Information Centre1 in Lion Street. Three generations of them—stretching throughout the 16th century and into the 17th. The last member of the family was believed by some to be a witch. She was a sharp-tongued woman, and probably voiced the opinions of some other less outspoken malcontents, in a town whose affairs were troubled by religious and economic upheaval. Unlike the many old and outcast women often accused of witchcraft, this one was no helpless scapegoat.
A Robert Bennett first emerges from the mists of history in the 1530s, when he and other religious radicals stirred up trouble by complaining to Thomas Cromwell, Secretary of State, that the Vicar observed the old saints’ days that had recently been abolished by Henry VIII. Supporters of the Vicar—who included some of the more substantial merchants—fought back by accusing their opponents of ‘heresy’, and hoping for help in repressing these disorderly people, who, they said, were of very simple and … small substance, rude both in their communication and behaviour. Artisans and butchers were indeed well-represented among them (and they formed a significant faction in the politics of the town). The views attributed to them were certainly earthy and sometimes abusive, including:
he had rather have a dog sing for him than a priest
the mass was of a juggler’s making
our lady being the mother of God was a sinner in this world as we be
Cromwell was then, however, pushing forward the Reformation on the King’s behalf, and the Protestantism that he was working to impose had much in common with the radicals’ views. They wanted direct communication with God—bypassing priests and saints—and rejected the rituals characteristic of traditional forms of piety. In the event, Cromwell overlooked the offensiveness of the radicals, and it was the Vicar who ended up in prison.
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In the ‘40s and ‘50s the butchers and artisans benefited from a dramatic increase in trade passing through the port of Rye, and the consequent explosion of population in the town. Robert Bennett was one of those who prospered, and he bought the house in Lion Street around this time, together with the three neighbouring houses, and even some farmland outside Rye. It was probably him who replaced the open hearth in the middle of the hall floor with fireplaces and chimneys, and also inserted a first floor (vestiges of soot from the earlier fires still remain on the rafters, where the smoke had to find its own way out through a hole in the roof). Many people improved their lifestyle in this way during the 16th century (made possible partly because of the declining price of bricks). At the back of his house was a slaughterhouse, and the house also had, unusually, drains (perhaps to wash away the detritus of slaughter).
Robert’s status in the town became substantial enough for him to be made a jurat [alderman], and receive the ultimate honour of being chosen as one of the sixteen Barons of the Cinque Ports who, following tradition, carried a silken canopy on four silvered staves over the new Queen, Elizabeth, at her coronation in 1558. When Robert wrote his will a few years’ later, its preamble resonated with the confidence that he is one of God’s elect:
trusting assuredly to be saved by the merits of Christ’s passion, and to be raised up again at the day of judgment with the righteous people: and this I protest before all the whole world, to be my faith.
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The next generation of Bennetts, however, reverted to their radical roots after their father’s death. His sons Robert junior and John (butcher and tailor respectively) were repeatedly hauled before the mayor and jurats for fighting and abuse. They were the angry young men of the town—nobody else was quite such a problem. Yet Robert had a sense of righteousness. When questioned about a night of illrule —when he and others went on a drunken rampage around the town attacking some property belonging to their political enemies—and asked to swear on the Bible that he would speak the truth, he refused such a ritualised test of his honesty, as he believed good Protestants should:
but promised before Master Mayor and the jurats uppon his faith, and swore, laying his hand upon his breast, by the Living God, that he would say the truth, as well as though they should swear him upon a book
He was fined 6s 8d, and they were all bound over to keep the peace.
Robert junior and John were outcrowd. Neither brother had a place on the common council—never mind the aldermanic bench. They became poorer as the prosperity of the town declined in the last quarter of the 16th century, although when John (the tailor) died in 1579 he could still boast some rich clothes—a doublet of changeable taffeta, gaskins (baggy breeches) laid with velvet and blue lace, and black paned hose guarded with velvet (slashed trunk hose decorated with bands of velvet).
By the 1590s, most people in the town were suffering from the decline of trade, and Robert junior was heavily indebted when he died in the plague epidemic of 1596—a ‘P’ next to his name in the parish register indicates his fate. The family would have been shut up in their house with food and water left outside the door. His son John also died that winter, but, rather miraculously, the women of the family—old Widow Bennett and her daughter Anne—survived.
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Both these women were traditional healers or ‘cunning women’. They administered medicines, ointments and lotions to their sick neighbours, and Widow Bennett was known outside Rye for her cures for toothache. In their garden they grew much sage, which was used as a cure for—among other illnesses—the malaria (‘ague’) that was endemic in Rye and the surrounding marshes. No charms in garbled latin, mind you, nor use of saints’ relics—being good Protestants they rejected such methods as superstitious nonsense. Had their skills in healing helped these women survive the plague? Or did their neighbours suspect that witchcraft was responsible?
They were, unfortunately, rather too much given to predicting people’s deaths, for the peace of mind of their neighbours. In particular, Anne allegedly said of the mayor Thomas Hamon when he fell ill, that he was taken in such sort, and in such a bad day and ill hour, as he would never escape the same. Then there was their next-door neighbour, Master Clement Whitfield, gentleman. He said when his wife was ill that Anne and her mother could no sooner see any of my children, but they did enquire in what manner my wife did fare; they said they knew her disease, and that it would cost her her life. This must certainly have been alarming behaviour in people whom you relied on for cures! So alarming, indeed, that Master Whitfield’s wife started hallucinating:
my wife when she lay sick [did say] that Goody Bennett and her daughter Annis had bewitched her, and I could not persuade her to the contrary … for many times she did awake me suddenly in my sleep, and said to me,
“Look, husband, where Anne Bennett stands at my bed’s head, and she hath set me my time how long I shall live.”
Whitfield did not prosecute Anne for witchcraft when his wife died—he had moved out of the town by this time. But many on the aldermanic bench were very alarmed when mayor Hamon died suddenly of a stroke in 1607, at the age of 58. Nobody else in the town could now approach Hamon in either wealth or prestige, and his passing was symbolic of the recent decline of the town—he was possibly the last townsman to represent it as MP. His importance to the town is expressed in the memorial and accompanying verses put up by his wife in Rye church after his death. Was Anne, who had been so interested in his death, responsible for it?
There were other things about Anne that concerned the magistrates (i.e. the mayor and jurats). One of these was her recent marriage to a local Kentish gentleman, George Taylor (who came to live in the house in Lion Street). How had she managed to land such a husband when she and her mother were heavily indebted? It was sinister. Then there were the visions that both she and her husband saw on numerous occasions in the glass windows of the house opposite theirs—including a death’s head appearing like a skull newly taken out of the ground, as well as a vision of Thomas Hamon. They also saw a striking image of a woman in black, wearing a hat and a ruff, standing with a man in red—possibly the Taylors themselves being given supernatural authority to speak to the town. They invited the neighbours in to see the visions, but few of them could see anything.
These visions seem to have been linked in the Taylors’ minds with the impending Apocalypse. Many people at this period were fearful that the Last Days, as foretold in the Book of Revelation, were imminent. But few believed that the end of the world would happen before the end of the year, as George warned. Furthermore, Anne mentioned two angels, whose
coming was to cut off the wicked from the earth. And … [Anne] and her husband should see the angels hereafter
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No wonder the mayor and jurats thought Anne was dangerous—she plainly thought she had allies in high places. It is thus not altogether surprising that she was indicted for witchcraft at the December 1607 sessions of the peace (though not actually tried at this date, because she had escaped into Kent)—together with her tenant, Susan Swaffer, thought to be her accomplice. (Susan has her own very curious story).
In fact, Anne did find an ally in high places—on this earth rather than the next—in the person of Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. He tried to stop the magistrates trying the case at all. This was partly a result of George Taylor—a gentleman—pulling strings in the local patronage network. But Northampton was also undoubtedly furthering the interests of the government, as one of King James I’s three principal advisers in his Privy Council. James’ government continued the Tudor policy of extending its central authority over the furthest corners of the land, and challenging the privileges of the various ‘liberties’ within it—one of the most substantial of which was the semi-autonomous federation of the Cinque Ports. It was these privileges that, since time immemorial, had granted the mayor and jurats of Rye the right to try very serious offences, which would elsewhere have gone before the King’s Justices—giving these town councillors the power of life and death over their neighbours for felonies such as witchcraft.
Perhaps surprisingly, some of the King’s Justices—when consulted—upheld the right of the mayor and jurats to try the case. Another trial was held in Rye Castle in December 1608.
Anne stood at the bar, and when asked whether she pleaded guilty or not guilty, answered not guilty. The usual legal formula followed—the mayor’s sergeant asked her how she wished to be tried. To which the only acceptable answer was, by God and the country (i.e. trial jury). But she made no answer at all—standing long time mute and refusing the trial of the country—as the magistrates later told the Lord Warden.
The dramatic implications of her refusal would have gradually entered the consciousness of those standing around. The punishment for refusing to acknowledge the authority of the court as she had done was worse than being hanged as a witch, and just as inevitably resulted in death—being pressed to death beneath heavy stones.
It was not unknown for women to thus refuse, and even to suffer the ultimate punishment, but how could the magistrates inflict this terrible penalty when their right to try the case at all was being challenged? I suspect, in fact, that Anne had been put up to this strategy by certain prestigious lawyers in the court room, who were—most unusually—taking her part.
So this trial too was abortive, and the case was not finally settled until the summer of 1609. Then, finally, Anne was tried by a local jury—and found not guilty. The foreman of the jury this time was clearly a friend of hers, because after her acquittal, he stood surety in £50 for her good behaviour!
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Anne went on living in the house in Lion Street until her death in 1644, in the middle of the Civil War. She was poor by this time, with no mention in her will of her husband’s family or property (he had died some years earlier). But her executor—a cousin and butcher—was becoming prosperous by the time of the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. The slaughterhouse at the back of the house was still in use by his descendants2 in the following century.
This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Rye’s Own magazine, where it appeared in the December 2014 issue.
1 The house is no longer the Tourist Information Centre
2 Correction: it was used by butchers who were probably not his descendants