The threat to Agnes Byllinge was real, and deadly.
Witchcraft beliefs and accusations flourished as never before in sixteenth and seventeenth century England.
The first woman executed for witchcraft in England was another Agnes, Agnes Waterhouse from Hatfield Peverel in Essex. She was hanged in the market square two days after her trial in Chelmsford on 29 July 1566.
Agnes lived in an age when little was known of medicine for humans or animals. Folk lore, potions or natural remedies were the sole defence against illness. These days we can diagnose swine fever, foot and mouth disease but not then. People lived precariously, with low life expectancy and high mortality rates, especially of infants and children. It was a time when the burden of the poor, for centuries the collective concern of villages and communities and the wealthy, was first taken over by the state. The Elizabethan Poor Law was distributed to those in the worst of circumstances paid for by a tax on the local community. This caused resentment, especially against the large numbers of widowed women left, young and old, without any means of support, who’s behaviour and independence could threaten communities.
The increasing anxieties mixed with potentially deadly spiritual uncertainties. Of the rural poor, women somehow detached in any number of ways were eyed with suspicion by the community and became ready scapegoats.
As with the trials of Agnes Byllinge, an accusation of witchcraft revealed contemporary attitudes to misfortune and pain, methods of resolving inter personal conflicts and the treatment of social deviants.
It was a turning against a member of the community that was often fatal. As many as 600 women in sixteenth and seventeenth century England are estimated to have lost their lives, murdered in this manner.
A pamphlet describing the later trial of three women accused of witchcraft, found guilty and hanged on the gallows in Chelmsford, 1589.
WOMEN ACCUSED OF WITCHCRAFT IN THURROCK, ESSEX
Agnes Byllinge, South Ockendon, accused of witchcraft and incest, hauled before the Ecclesiastical Court in December 1583, and then again in January 1584.
Agnes refused to confess and was arraigned at the Assizes, Chelmsford in March 1584.
Other women accused of witchcraft in the locality over time:
Joan Knowlar, of West Tilbury in 1566.
Joyce Duckerell of South Ockendon in January 1580.
Margaret Lambe of South Ockendon in 1616
Agnes Gyll & Jane Curtis of Grays, Thurrock for quarrelling with each other, called each other whore and witch in 1602.
Anne Roberts of Little Thurrock in May 1610.
Susan Haveringe of West Tilbury in 1653.
LOCKDOWNS IN TUDOR TIMES
Lockdowns are nothing new. Tudor England suffered repeated outbreaks of bubonic plague. Laws were introduced to require infected households erect a bale of straw on a pole outside the dwelling. A person was required to carry a white stick to warn others if they ventured outside. In later years a cross was put on a house with infected people. The dead were buried at night and a plague bell rung for 45 minutes for the burial. The toll of the bell was to remind everyone to adhere to rules to prevent the spread of the plague. No one knew how to stop the disease or that it was carried by fleas on rats The Justice of the Peace administered the laws surrounding plague prevention at the time of the trial of Agnes Byllinge.