Tuesday, 24 March 2009

I'll set my kittens on you!

We went to Lavenham on the way back to Cambridge on Sunday. I haven't been to Lavenham for years and my son had never been here. We almost lived here before he was born. When we decided to move out of London in 1993 we were looking for somewhere to rent and looked at a place in one of Lavenhams ancient houses.

Goodness knows what it would have been like to live in such a tourist trap (although Cambridge is not without the odd visitor, come to think of it). Lavenham could easily be dismissed as twee and chocolate boxy, but it never feels that way to me. The architecture is just too extraordinary for that: the way the houses seem on the verge of collapse - as they must have done for hundreds of years. If it was in France or Italy, the same people who get snooty about somewhere like Lavenham would be raving about the colours and the textures and snapping away like crazy. Yes, Lavenham is a bit clean and neat and precious - but is that really so terrible?

Anyway Lavenham always has another association in my mind. As we walked into the market square in a lovely low evening light, I was reminded of the fact that this was the location for a witch being burned at the stake in Michael Reeve's grisly 1968 movie Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins.

Suffolk does seem to have had an historical obsession with witches. The witchfinders did indeed come to Lavenham. Hopkins' assistant John Stearne came here in 1645, welcomed by the firebrand rector, William Gurnall. One Anne Randall confessed to having familiars - one called Jacob, the other Hangman - which she sent to kill the horse of a man who had refused her wood and the pig of a man who had cursed her. Which might be a little bit chilling had these familiars not been in the form of...kittens. Yes - kittens. Aaaaaargh!

These demonic kittens didn't make it into to the movie, sadly.

And by the way, witches were not burned in England, though filmmakers refuse to accept this. We roasted heretics with periodic enthusiasm, but not witches. They were hanged (though they were burned in Scotland) and then only if they had been found guilty of maleficium - harmful magic used to bring about destruction or death.

I do know of one witch who was supposedly burned at the stake - Margaret Read in King's Lynn in 1590. Her heart is said to have leaped from her burning body, smacked against the wall of a nearby building (the place is still marked) and then bounced down the street to jump into the River Ouse.

But this is unlikely. The burning I mean. The bouncing heart, who knows? Some people think that the heart story should actually be attached to the story of a servant girl who was burned in King's Lynn - but not for witchcraft. She was burned for petty treason. She was found guilty of causing the death of her master and this (like the killing of a husband) was deemed to be a kind of regicide (the man being king of his house) and the punishment for a woman for this crime was burning. Right up until 1790, amazingly.

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