The ultimate fate of those found guilty of witchcraft was normally death by hanging.  The traditional place of execution at Bury St. Edmunds was a hill ouside the town's northern limits called Henhow, situated on what later became known as Shirehouse Heath.  This was probably the ancient site where the Danish "Thing-how" or Assembly met.  The first Shirehall was erected here when the courts of the Liberty of St. Edmund were moved from their ancient site at Cattishall, Suffolk by the order of Edward I in 1302.  The site seems to have been abandoned and a new Shirehall - that in which Amy Denny and Rose Cullender were tried - was erected in Bury St. Edmunds during the mid-16th century.  However, the ancient Henhow remained the site of execution.

To be hanged in the 17th century was a horrible and brutal thing - no thought was given to the so-called "scientific", humane approach to hangings which attended executions in later centuries.  The gallows was not permanent, but erected specifically for the occasion.  The execution was always public, and those to be executed knelt or stood at the foot of the gallows while the executioner placed the noose (usually referred to as the "halter") around their necks.  A ladder was then placed against the cross-beam of gallows and the executioner would sling the first victim across his shoulder and climb the ladder.  He  then tied the other ender of the halter to the cross-beam and then unceremoniously threw the unfortunate victim to her death.  Often death was NOT instantaneous or even quick.  The victim would kick and twist at the end of the rope as she slowly strangled to death - often urinating and defaecating as she choked . . .  . sometimes a well-meaning friend or executioner would actually swing on their legs of the victim  as she hung - hopefully hastening the end!!

At times the method of hanging would show certain refinements in that the victim would stand in a horse-drawn cart beneath the gallows - the halter was placed around her neck and then the horse was whipped forward . . . .

The wood-cut above (which I've "adapted" from an original) shows a typical execution.  One of the "witches" has just been hanged. The other stands terrified with hands clasped in prayer at the foot of the gallows. The executioner is checking his handiwork from the ladder.  To the left the bell-man or crier is calling out the details of their crimes; on horseback beside him are two magistrates to ensure that the letter of the Law was enforced - whilst two "wards" or guards look on dispassionately . . . Normally at most executions there was a clergyman in attendance, but not for the witches . . . they had to pray for their own souls . . . .

The illustration is based on one depicting the execution of witches published in England's Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade, by Ralph Gardiner [London, 1655]


the awful reality . . . . .
The ignominous injustices meted out to "witches" who were found guilty of "crimes" they did not commit, continued beyond their execution.  Often the body of the unfortunate victim was returned to her home town and buried in unconsecrated ground close to the site of her "crimes" as a salutory lesson to all.  The corpse was usually pinioned in the grave with stakes, metal pins or large rocks.  This was to prevent the unfortunate victim's rising on the day of judgement and was also thought to stop her ghost from walking.

The photograph above is of one such victim - thought to be the mortal remains of Ursula Kempe of St. Osyth, Essex, England.  This skeleton was unearthed earlier this century close to the site of her house in St. Osyth.  Ursula Kempe and a number of other women were executed as witches at Chelmsford in April 1581.  Her body was clearly pinned to the ground with steel pins through the joints . . . . .

According  to local tradition, during road-widening operations last centuries a similar body was uncovered at the foot of the cliff in Lowestoft - close to the property of Samuel Pacy . . . could this have been the mortal remains of Amy Denny or Rose Cullender . . . . .  .