It had been a long time since the Professor had had guests in his little room, but it was a brand-new season (autumn, naturally) and he was once again hosting students for a lecture. And this was one that he’d been saving for just such a blustery autumn day.
“Wow, I love your hat,” Kate said, sipping at a mug of mulled cider.
“Thank you,” he replied, adjusting the black witch’s hat on his head. “That’s a jelly bean for you.”
“What, just for complimenting your stupid hat?” Ryan asked. He had not been given cider.
The Professor shrugged. “Flattery will get you jelly beans, Ryan. You’d do well to remember that.”
“I try not to remember anything from these little lessons,” Ryan said shortly.
“And that’s why you don’t have any trophies and I have two,” Kate responded. “I’m a good student.”
“Right you are. Now, who’s ready for today’s lesson?”
Kate waved her free hand. “Me! I’m ready, Professor!”
Ryan just sat back in his chair, clearly here for the long haul.
“Great! Glad to see both of you so excited. Now it’s time for the intro!
“Welcome one and all to another episode of Puppet History! Today we’ll take an ever-winding look at yet another chapter in the heavy, heavy book we call history while our guests ruthlessly compete for the coveted title of History Master. I am obviously your beloved host, The Professor!”
“Well, that’s a strong word,” Ryan muttered as Kate clapped.
“And today I’ll start out by asking you this: have your parents ever embarrassed you? Like, in public?”
“Oh my god, yes,” Kate said. “There was this one time, we were out and — on second thought, I think I might keep that one to myself.”
“Oh yeah?” Ryan asked. Kate was not exactly known for her self-censorship.
Kate ducked her head, cheeks heating. “Yeah uh. It was kind of a lot.”
“Well, whatever that was all about,” the Professor said, barreling on, “Anne Gunter’s life was probably a heck of a lot worse. She was born in 1584 in the town of North Moreton in what would now be present-day Oxfordshire, England. Well, maybe 'town' is a bit more than North Moreton deserves. There were probably about two to three hundred people living there at the time, which meant that it was more than a village, but a town? Probably not quite there yet.
“Anyway, Anne’s dad, Brian Gunter, was one of the richest men in North Moreton, if not the richest, and he sure acted like it. He was always getting into trouble and scrapping around with their neighbors, but he always seemed to get away with whatever he did. Hey, what can I say? That’s rich folk for ya.”
Ryan nodded. “I feel like that’s how a lot of really bad stories start. Just some rich guy getting away with murder.”
The Professor paused. That comment was probably getting a little ahead of things. “Well, luckily for us, this is a really good story,” was all he said. “A really fun one.”
“Oh?” Kate asked, sitting up in her seat.
“Yeah! It’s about… possession.”
“Oh!” she said again, this time not looking sure whether to be excited or a little trepidatious.
“You see, in the summer of 1604, when she was around twenty years old, Anne got sick. Real sick. At the time, doctors thought that maybe she was suffering from ‘the mother’, which was a euphemism for ‘hysteria’ in those days. And ‘hysteria’ is a euphemism for ‘a woman is feeling things that we don’t understand so we’re just gonna blame it on her uterus because those things really scare us’.”
“Wow, uh. Women’s healthcare wasn’t great back then,” Ryan said in the understatement of the century.
“Yeah,” Kate agreed. She feigned a little cough. “Oh, cough cough. What’s that doc? Just the old uterus acting up again? Jeez. That’s what you said last week when my arm fell off!”
“Sounds about right,” the Professor agreed. “It’s hard to know exactly what malady Anne was suffering from in the summer of 1604, but whatever it was, it returned in October of that same year. This time, physicians theorized that maybe it was the ‘falling sickness’, or what we now know as epilepsy. But we don’t have much information from that period, so we’re not sure exactly what was going on.
“What we do know is what happened from there. You see, Anne’s illness started to get weird. Real weird. Her fits grew stronger, and she would convulse wildly in her bed, her limbs twitching into positions that were called ‘unnatural’ by onlookers. She seemed to have supernatural strength during these fits, and when she came back down again, witnesses said that she was preternaturally heavy. Her clothing would tie and untie itself on its own and she was said to have knowledge of things going on in the village that she could not see. Perhaps most distressing to those who visited, Anne started excreting pins.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Ryan interjected. “Pins?” He was starting to look a little disquieted.
“And what exactly do you mean by ‘excreting’?” Kate asked.
“I mean she was throwing up pins!” the Professor said. “See if I try to be polite again! She was sneezing, peeing, and throwing up pins!”
“Like sewing pins?” Ryan asked.
“Sure were!” the Professor answered.
“So this was like — this was like real demonic possession,” Ryan said. For the first time in a long time, he was starting to look interested in the proceedings.
“Well, Anne’s doctors certainly thought so. Several doctors were brought in to examine her and in their expert opinions, Anne’s maladies were caused by…” He leaned forward and put on his spookiest voice. “Supernatural means.”
“Oooooh,” Kate said, sipping at her cider. “Spooky.”
“Really spooky,” Ryan said.
“Oh, that’s right, Ryan,” the Professor said, tipping the brim of his witch’s hat back to peer more closely at him. “You don’t like possessions, do you?”
“Don’t love ‘em,” Ryan said, folding his arms over his chest. “I don’t mess around with demons, man.”
“Well, someone in North Moreton was. Y’see, back then in 17th century England, people believed that when someone was possessed, it was usually because someone else was doing the possessing. Demons could enter a person’s body on their own, but it was a lot more likely that someone nearby was directing them towards that person — and that someone was usually a witch. That’s right, baby! This is the story of the bewitching of Anne Gunter!”
And that, he thought to himself, would make a pretty good title.
“But what does her dad, Brian Gunter have to do with all this?” the Professor continued.
Kate gasped. “Was he the witch? Was he bewitching his own daughter?”
The Professor couldn’t suppress a little laugh. “Hahaha, no, no, Kate. People didn’t just go around accusing men of evil, or malefic, witchcraft. About 90% of the people accused of witchcraft in Western Europe in this period were women. So who’s the nearest woman who looks like a good candidate for witchcraft?
“To Brian Gunter, it looked like their neighbor, Elizabeth Gregory. She was a real nasty piece of work. Her neighbors, when testifying later on, called her ‘a devilish scold’, ‘a curser and a swearer’, and, mostly simply of all, ‘an unquiet person’. She was not invited to christenings, weddings, or childbirths, and she was said not to even attend church.”
“I don’t know, man, I kind of want to meet her,” Kate interjected.
Ryan nodded. “Yeah, she actually sounds pretty cool.”
“There were two other women that were accused of bewitching Anne as well, Agnes Pepwell and her daughter, Mary. Now Agnes was a known witch.”
“Wait, a known witch? They knew she was a witch?” Kate asked.
Ryan's eyebrows threatened to jump clear off his face. “What, they were just letting a known witch wander around town?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” the Professor said, nodding. “She was a poor and elderly woman, like so many accused witches of the time, and she was itinerant. She was known for wandering the town begging for food and getting pretty stroppy when people didn’t give her any. Moreover, her daughter Mary was born out of wedlock. Which like. Pretty big deal back then.”
“Whoa, yeah,” Ryan said.
“Now, Agnes Pepwell didn’t even deny that she was a witch! But she hadn’t been hurting anyone, really, so people mostly just ignored her and tried to stay on her good side.”
“Until Anne,” Kate said.
“Until Anne,” the Professor agreed. “Now, Anne herself accused these three women, saying that she saw them cursing her in a dream. But though a dream is a good start, the villagers needed actual evidence before they would believe that Elizabeth, Mary, and Agnes were the culprits. So get ready! It’s time for your first history question!”
“Oh!” Kate said, sitting up and grabbing her white board. Clearly, she’d been getting invested in the story.
“Now,” the Professor said, “how did one prove that someone was a witch?
A. Burn their roof
B. Scratch their face, or
C. Make them meet their victim face-to-face?”
Kate muttered softly to herself as she wrote, but Ryan actually seemed fairly confident as he scribbled down an answer.
“Time’s up!” the Professor announced. “What did you write?”
“Well,” Kate said, turning around her board, “I thought maybe C? I don’t know, maybe they had to have like this epic showdown and the witch would start glowing or something.”
“And you, Ryan?”
“I think it’s a trick question,” Ryan said, turning his own board around. “I think it’s all three.”
“Ohhh,” the Professor said, “someone knows quite a bit about demonic possession! Two points to Ryan!”
“What?” Kate asked, pouting. “The very first question was a trick question? That’s not fair.”
“That’s true,” the Professor said. “It’s not. Anyway! Yes, all three of those methods were known ways to prove that someone was a witch. It was said that if you forced a witch to meet with her victim, scratched her face until it bled, or burned a bit of thatch from the roof of her house, her control over her victim would slip temporarily, which would prove that they were the one bewitching them. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what happened. Every time they burned a bit of thatch from the witches’ houses, Anne would improve. And Brian Gunter had a headache once that he said was cured by scratching Elizabeth Gregory’s face until it bled.”
“Jeez,” Kate said. “Was he sure that it wasn’t just a headache?”
“Yeah,” Ryan said. “Kind of sounds like he just wanted to scratch up Elizabeth Gregory.”
“Well, you might be right about that, Ryan,” the Professor said. “Because you see, there was bad blood between Brian Gunter and Elizabeth Gregory! That’s the tie-in! That’s why he’s important!
“History question number two! Why was there such bad blood between Brian Gunter and Elizabeth Gregory?
A. Because she was a witch
B. Because she owed him money
C. Because they got in a fight over a football match.”
Ryan sputtered a little. “What? Oh right, I’m really mad that the Packers beat the Cowboys, I’m gonna demonically possess your daughter. That sounds real.” He turned around his board. “It’s gotta be B.”
Kate nodded. “I also wrote B.”
“Hmm, well, let’s see,” said the Professor. He brought the curtains down in front of him with a bit of an unceremonious thump, and in his place, a bunch of 17th century noblemen took the stage.
“Hey!’ one said to the other. “That was a goal!”
“It was not!” said the other, pushing at the first. “You’re a liar!”
“And you’re a cheat!”
The two proceeded to start pummeling each other until a third man intervened. “You’re both wrong!” he said, bopping them both on the head. “You’re unconscious!”
The curtain came back down, and then rose again, revealing the Professor breathing hard and adjusting his hat. “See?” he said. “A footie match.”
“Ohhh…” Kate said, crossing her arms and looking disappointed.
“Wait,” Ryan said. “Is this, like, American football or British football or…”
“It was neither, really,” the Professor said. “Football back then was a pretty loosely-defined sport that usually ended up in a brawl. It was so bad that several villages outright banned the sport because of how much damage was done in the vicious fighting that pervaded it. North Moreton probably wished that it had — the two men that Brian Gunter hit with the pommel of his dagger during that fateful day both died not two weeks later, in 1598.”
“They died?” Ryan asked. “I thought this was a soccer match!”
“Yeah, death wasn’t too unusual in football back then!” the Professor said. “And Brian Gunter, being the richest man in town and all, was able to convince everyone that both of them had just coincidentally died of natural causes right after he gave them both a lil blunt force trauma.”
“Wow… I guess rich people really can get away with murder…” Kate murmured.
“And you’ll never guess who those two men were!” the Professor said.
“Some people related to Elizabeth Gregory, I’m guessing?” Ryan asked.
“You’d be right about that,” the Professor said. “Both John and Richard Gregory were family members of hers. In fact, when villagers went to her house to try and force her to meet Anne in order to prove her innocence, she said, and I quote, that Brian Gunter ‘was a murdering bloodsucker and that the blood of the Gregorys should be revenged upon the blood of the Gunters, and she would have blood for blood’.”
“Wow,” Kate said.
“Not uh. Not making herself look too innocent, is she?” Ryan mused.
“No, not really. It was because of all this bad blood that Brian thought that Elizabeth was involved, and then when Anne named all three witches after seeing both them and their familiars in a dream, he was convinced.”
“Their familiars?” Kate asked, perking up. “Like a lil black cat?”
“Well… Not exactly. According to Anne, Elizabeth Gregory’s familiar was a black rat with a swine’s face and boar’s tusks named Catch. Agnes Pepwell’s was named Sweat and was like a mouse with an old man’s face and beard. Finally, Mary Pepwell’s was a whitish toad named Vizitt.”
“Ewww!” Kate said.
“Catch, Sweat, and Vizitt...” Ryan mumbled. “Sounds like a bad band name.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that…” the Professor said, starting to wish he’d booked a different band. “But the point is, people were pretty convinced that they knew who was responsible for Anne’s bewitching. Matters just got worse when another woman, Alice Kirfoote, husband of Brian Gunter’s associate, Nicholas Kirfoote, starting exhibiting symptoms much like Anne’s. She, too, named Elizabeth Gregory as her aggressor. It was at this point that Brian Gunter started gathering evidence.”
“Brian Gunter, being a rich asshole, had a lot of friends in high places. His son-in-law was a clergyman at Oxford who had a lot of connections with gentry and those in academia. Soon, a veritable litany of learned men were coming in and out of the Gunter household to see Anne’s afflictions. But it wasn’t just the highborn that Brian was trying to get to pay witness to his daughter’s struggles. Brian was also known to drag various villagers out to his house to watch Anne’s contortions and pin-spitting. In fact, one neighbor told the judge that he’d been asked to come look at Anne so often that he’d taken to locking himself in his house when he saw Brian Gunter coming so he wouldn’t be asked out to the Gunter household once again.”
“Oh my god, really?” Ryan asked. “Can you imagine? ‘Oh, here comes old man Gunter again. Better hide! He might make us look at his possessed daughter again and everyone’s tired of that!’.”
“Well, I mean. I don’t think I’d want to go watch a lady puke up pins all day,” Kate said.
“Me neither,” said the Professor. “But it was a popular pastime for quite a while. It wasn’t unusual to have an entire roomful of people clustered around Anne’s bed as she suffered. And all those people were called on to testify at the trial.”
“And they all believed it?” Ryan asked. “That Anne was possessed?”
“Almost all of them!” the Professor replied. “There was one man, Thomas Hinton, that was pretty skeptical. Hinton, a member of the local gentry, took it upon himself to test Anne’s possession, and well. This is where things started to get murky. According to Hinton, he glimpsed a knife in Anne’s hand when her clothing started to untie itself. And when he tested her so-called psychic abilities, he found that she could be pretty easily fooled. Her preternatural knowledge seemed to be based more on what she could sneakily find out herself than any real demonic possession. So when the trial finally made it to court, Hinton was one of the few witnesses to testify against Anne and her father.”
“The assize trial itself, when it finally arrived, was kind of a shitshow. Brian Gunter insisted that his daughter be present during the proceedings, something that was typically unheard of during trials about possession, and as soon as she came into the room she fell to the floor in fits. The judges did the best they could to carry on questioning witnesses while Anne was rolling around on the floor screaming, but it was difficult.
“Moreover, Brian’s case was not as ironclad as he’d hoped. Not only was Hinton testifying against them, the Kirfootes had dropped out altogether as soon as they heard that there’d be a court case.”
“What? So like… did Alice just stop being possessed?” Ryan asked.
“Unclear,” the Professor responded. “All we know is that they wanted no part of any legal proceedings. Those two things, combined with some rather uninspiring testimony from both Brian and Anne, turned the eight-hour hearing into a bit of a debacle.”
“Now, before I tell you what happened next, here’s another history question! What were Anne’s odds in this court case? In other words, what percentage of witchcraft trials in seventeenth century England actually ended in execution?
Ryan sighed heavily as he looked at his board. “Well, I may not know a ton about the history of witch trials, but I know that a lot of innocent people died,” he said. “So as much as I hate to say it, I’m gonna guess C, 75-90%. History’s just brutal.”
Kate nodded. “I thought sort of the same thing, but maybe a little less brutal? I went with B, 50-75%.”
The Professor nodded. “Uh-huh, uh-huh. Well, I’m very happy to tell you that you’re both wrong! The answer is A! In the years between 1588 and 1597, of the 89 people accused of witchcraft in the southeastern assize courts, only 18 were executed. And between 1598 and 1607, only 16 of the 39 accused were put to death.”
“Wait, there were only 39 people accused of witchcraft in southeastern England over an entire decade?” Ryan asked. “That doesn’t seem right.”
“Well… not exactly. There were three important factors about the English court system that kept these numbers so low in England specifically. The first was that, well, going to court cost money. Most villagers who wanted to accuse their neighbors simply couldn’t afford to bring their case in front of the assize courts, or district courts, that were prevalent in the day. The second was that assize judges were often extremely well trained and well educated, so they could be real sticklers for solid evidence, something that was difficult to procure in a witchcraft case. They also weren't allowed to make judgments in the same region that they lived in -- so they could make impartial rulings without being swayed by local politics. The third, and probably most important thing, was that English courts had forbidden the use of torture, which greatly reduced the number of confessions and accusations that were typically tortured out of accused witches.”
“But, like, other people were still accused of witchcraft, right?” Kate asked. “They just didn’t go to court?”
“Yeah, sure, like Agnes Pepwell. Sure, she’d cursed some livestock, but she’d done nothing so serious that anyone was willing to go through all the effort of taking her to court. And fun fact, she’d fled long before this point, so it’s really just her daughter and Elizabeth Gregory who are on trial right now.”
“Good for her!” Kate said.
“Yeah, I’d flee, too,” Ryan added.
“Oh, for sure, for sure,” the Professor agreed. “But what to do if you have a witch problem and you can’t get to the courts? That sounds like a history question to me! Would you:
A. Shun them from society
B. Consult another witch
Ryan laughed. “Yeah, just move. Fuck this shit, I’m out!” He paused. “That’s definitely what I’d do, anyway.”
“Yeah, I know. You’re a real scaredy-cat when it comes to those demons,” the Professor agreed affably.
“You should be, too!” Ryan insisted. “You shouldn’t mess around with demons!”
“Shouldn’t mess around with genies, either, but that never stopped me,” the Professor muttered.
“What was that?”
“Nothing! Anyway, what’d you guys put?” he asked.
“I put C,” Ryan said, holding up his board. “If you’re being harassed by demons, the best thing to do is to move.”
“See, I put B,” Kate said.
Ryan scoffed. “Wait, you think the best answer to a witch problem is another witch? Isn’t that kind of like the old lady that swallowed the fly? Sure, you might get rid of the first witch, but then you have to deal with an even stronger witch on your doorstep.”
“But what if they’re a good witch?” Kate pressed. “There have to be some good witches, right?”
Ryan shook his head. “No way. If you’re messing around with the dark arts, you’re definitely a bad witch.”
Kate slumped down in her chair, clearly pouting. “I know some really nice witches.”
Ryan raised his eyebrows. “What, like — like modern witches? That’s totally different, that’s—”
“It may not be different,” she insisted.
“It’s definitely different,” Ryan said. “Professor?”
The Professor shrugged. “Hate to say it, Ryan, but she’s right. Point to Kate! Not only did villagers often consult good witches, or cunning folk, for help with lost items, misfortune, and love, but they also consulted them for help getting rid of bad witches. In fact, more than one university-trained doctor that assessed Anne told the Gunters that they should consider having a cunning man come and see her.”
Kate squinted. “I thought you said most witches were women,” she said.
“No, I said most accused witches were women. Cunning men were slightly more common than cunning women and other cunning folk, and they were pretty accepted in England during this time. In fact, that really made the church mad! They thought the same way Ryan does, that any witchcraft is by definition consorting with the devil! But most laypeople believed that cunning folk were not just useful but imperative in the fight against malefic witchcraft. They would never take one to court. No complainant, no fee, no trial!”
Ryan leaned back in his chair. “Huh.”
“See?” Kate said, a little smugly. “Told you.”
“So, in keeping with statistics, the assizes found against Brian and Anne and said that Elizabeth and Mary were free to go. They went back to North Moreton and started to rebuild their lives, presumably with some difficulty considering most of the village still believed that they had bewitched Anne. As for Anne herself, she was still displaying all the symptoms of possession and things were getting desperate. So here’s another history question, lightning round:
“What did Brian Gunter do next?
A. He accused a different neighbor of witchcraft
B. He gave up and moved away
C. He harassed the king.”
Ryan wrote something down, a bit thoughtfully. “Well, despite the fact that I would’ve moved away a long time ago, I said A, he accused a different neighbor. Someone’s gotta be doing it, right?”
Kate grinned. “See, I’m dramatic. I chose C just because I really wanted it to be C.”
“Hmm, yeah, I can see that. Well, let’s see what he chose!”
The curtain went down once again and rose to show Brian Gunter at a party.
“Wow, who’s that over there?” he asked the puppet next to him.
“Oh that? That’s uh, that’s the new king of England, James I. He was over ruling in Scotland for a while, but now he’s here? Ruling us?”
“Oh word, word. Let me just—” Brian situated himself right up next to the king. “So! King James! I hear that you’re suuuuper interested in witchcraft!”
“Wow, yeah, that is a total hobby of mine!” James said.
“What a coincidence!” the Brian puppet said. “I happen to know a really cool girl who’s been, like, bewitched and stuff! Do you want to meet her?”
And then the curtain fell.
The Professor popped up again, readjusting his hat and bag. “Wow! That’s some chutzpah right there!”
Kate clapped her hands together with a sort of manic glee. “He did it! He actually did it!”
“Wait, so like he literally just went up to the king at a party and was like ‘hey, you wanna see my demonic daughter’?” Ryan interjected. “That seems like a one-way ticket to the Tower of London.”
“It sounds wild, but it really happened. On August 27th, 1605, James I made a trip to Oxford University and he was heavily fêted by the administration there. Amongst all the academic lectures, plays, and dinners, Brian Gunter sidled in there and found a way to introduce the king to his daughter.
“King James I, you see, had a special interest in witchcraft. In 1590, while James was still the king of Scotland, an attempt was made on his life by witches. Now, the laws in Scotland weren’t like the laws in England. Torture was totally legal, especially if you were suspected of trying to harm the royal family. So between 1590 and 1591, between seventy and one hundred accused witches were questioned, tortured, and many of them executed. They were accused of conspiring together in a group of 300 so they could raise storms against the king while he was at sea, as well as poisoning his bedclothes. Quite a few of the court’s most powerful players were implicated in this scheme, and it created long-lasting ripples in the Scottish court.”
“Witches tried to kill the king?” Kate asked. “That’s crazy!”
“Well… They were found guilty of trying to kill the king. Whether there really was any kind of attempt on the king’s life is yet another question lost in the loving arms of that sweet, sweet mistress we call History. The fact was, though, that people certainly believed that there was an attack on the king and thereafter he was pretty sensitive about the whole witchcraft thing.”
“Makes sense, I guess,” Ryan said.
“No, it doesn’t!” Kate said. “That’s horrible!”
“King James got a real reputation as a witch hunter back then, especially after the witch statutes became stricter right after he took the throne in England. That said, things were a little more complicated than all that. James I absolutely believed in witches and he didn’t take too kindly to a perceived attempt on his life, but his interest in witches was highly academic. He quite literally wrote the book on the subject! (It was called Demonologie, of course.)
“Although he had a reputation as a witch hunter, James would eventually gain a reputation for proving the innocence of accused witches as well. He was more interested in the theories behind witchcraft than possibly anyone else in England at the time, and that made him ideal for finding holes in accusations of witchcraft and possession.”
“He knew what to look for, huh?” Ryan asked.
“Yep,” the Professor answered. “Like someone else I know, James spent way too much time doing research on weird supernatural things when he should have been doing way more important stuff!”
“And as for the witch statutes, many scholars believe that they were already in the process of being changed when James took the throne. To an accused witch, James I could be their greatest threat or their greatest savior. In one famous story, James rode into a village in Leicester himself and personally proved the innocence of five accused witches. But that wouldn’t happen until 1616. Right now, it’s 1605 and Brian Gunter doesn’t know that any of that is about to happen. He had just heard of a witch hunting fanatic in the royal family and hoped that he could sway him to his cause.”
“Something tells me that’s not going to happen,” Kate said.
“You’re right about that, because this is where things get weird!” the Professor announced.
“Things aren’t already weird?” Ryan asked. “A woman already got cursed over a soccer game.”
“But you know what would be even wilder than that?” the Professor asked. “If a man forced his daughter to pretend to be cursed so they could get their neighbor executed over a soccer game!”
”What?” Kate demanded.
Ryan’s eyes were huge. “Holy shit!”
“Shortly after meeting with Anne, James took a special interest in her case and placed her in the care of his friend, Richard Bancroft, who just happened to be the archbishop of Canterbury at the time. Bancroft, in turn, put Anne in the care of Samuel Harsnett, his chaplain. James, for his part, really just wanted to see what would happen when Anne was separated from her overbearing father.
“This hunch paid off. Over the course of a few months, James met with Anne repeatedly and each time she seemed healthier and more at home in the court. Finally, on October 10th, 1605, Anne confessed everything to King James I. After he had promised both her and her father leniency, Anne finally admitted that she had never been possessed at all. Her father had forced her to feign the symptoms of possession so he could put into play a plot to end the life of Elizabeth Gregory. He resented that she’d tried to take him to court over the deaths of her loved ones, and further resented that she still made noise about the injustices that he’d enacted against her.”
“She wasn’t going to take his shit lying down,” Kate said.
“No, she wasn’t. And that infuriated him. According to Anne, her father plotted together with Nicholas and Alice Kirfoote, who were also feuding with the Gregories, to get Elizabeth Gregory hanged for witchcraft. The Pepwells, unfortunately, were just collateral damage. Brian believed that implicating previously suspected witches as well as Elizabeth would make their case seem stronger.”
“And Anne just went along with this? She was okay with getting three innocent women killed?” Ryan asked. “Jeez.”
“The answer to that is a complicated one, and one that’s actually pretty sad. Anne herself really was suffering from some kind of ailment, and when she was initially told to start feigning symptoms, she refused. But her father, known for being a brute in the village, was one at home as well. At the upcoming trial, several neighbors reported witnessing Brian beating his daughter when she tried to argue with him, including dragging her back in the house when she tried to flee. According to Nicholas Kirfoote, ‘before Anne fell ill her father made very little reckoning of her and disliked her so much that being sick at Oxford and making his will would have bequeathed her only ten pounds for her portion’. She was an unexpected child that came many years after their older children, and it seems that she was resented for that.”
“Wow. Poor Anne,” Kate said quietly.
“It’s possible that Anne only agreed to the charade because she felt that she had no other choice. Unmarried young women at the time were largely at the mercy of their fathers until they went into the households of their husbands, and as we’ve seen, her father had very little mercy. It’s also possible that she was trying to finally earn the affections of her distant mother and father. It’s even possible that once she started the illusion, she came to enjoy the attention and power she gained through it. That said, it’s also very likely that by that point, Anne wasn’t exactly in her right mind. You see, along with physically and emotionally abusing her, Brian Gunter was also effectively poisoning his daughter in order to evoke symptoms of possession.”
“Holy shit, he was poisoning her?” Kate asked, sitting bolt upright in her chair. “What a dick!”
“Seriously. Really going for father of the year here,” Ryan added. He was fully invested in the story by now, arms crossed and a look of disgust on his face. <i>Got him again.</i>
“It isn’t entirely known what Brian was giving Anne, but we know that he burned brimstone under her nose, made her drink a mixture of ‘sack and sallet oil’, or vinegar and oil, and had her ingest a strange green tincture that she said made her incredibly ill and likely had an anesthetic effect, which was what allowed Brian to stick her with pins for his waiting audience.
“According to historian James Sharpe, ‘One suspects that, in her chamber in the North Moreton rectory, Anne's sense of what was happening to her as a result of outside forces, and what was being simulated, must have become very blurred.’ Poor Anne was in a bad way.
“But it wasn’t only poison that made Anne appear to be possessed. There was also the knotted clothing, the pins, the contortions, and the telepathic knowledge. How did a young, largely uneducated girl know how to feign possession so accurately that even the clergy and academics from Oxford were fooled? For another history point:
A. She read it in a book.
B. Her neighbor told her stories.
C. A mysterious genie took her under his wing and offered her forbidden knowledge in exchange for a life of servitude.”
“Huh. Yeah, I guess she couldn’t exactly google it back then…” Kate mused, tapping her market against her board.
“There was no Witchipedia back in 1604,” Ryan said, laughing quietly at his own joke.
No one else joined in.
“Time’s up!” the Professor said. “Whatcha got?”
“I chose B,” Kate said, turning around her board. “I think she probably heard stories from the other villagers. And her brother-in-law was some fancy clergy guy, right?”
“That’s right,” the Professor agreed.
Ryan turned his board around as well. “I chose A. I figure that there had to be books about witches back then, right?”
“Right you are! Point for Ryan! Quite a few books about witchcraft had been written by this point, including the famous Malleus Maleficarum. That said, most non-academics didn’t read those. They read short tracts or brochures that were now being printed in huge numbers in this period. These tracts often covered specific instances or trials, and the one that seems to have been most influential on Anne was an extremely popular tract of the time, ‘The most strange and admirable discoverie of the three Witches of Warboys arraigned, convicted and executed at the last Assizes at Huntingdon’. It was a tract that detailed a possession much like her own, where the children of an affluent family in Warboys displayed symptoms of possession and three local women were accused of witchcraft. Unlike Elizabeth Gregory, those three women had been executed.”
Ryan nodded. “Just like Brian Gunter wanted.”
“Dick,” Kate muttered.
“Very much so,” the Professor answered, not bothering to specify which comment he was referring to. “In fact, during the ill-fated assize trial at Abingdon, Brian tried to force Elizabeth Gregory to say a spell out loud that would release his daughter from her control, just like what happened in the trial at Warboys. It was almost as if the two of them were following a script.
“Anne told James all about that, both in their private meetings and in the Star Court proceedings that occurred shortly after her confession. It was a much-attended trial that lasted for quite a while. Anne told how she’d been force-fed poison and how she’d hidden pins in her nose and mouth so she could sneeze them out. She said that she’d been poked with so many pins in her breast that her nurse had needed two handkerchiefs to wipe all the blood away. She also stated, tragically enough, that she had tried swallowing pins on one such occasion in the hope that it would free her from her life under Brian’s thumb. It was not the only time that Anne admitted thinking of suicide, but it was apparently her only attempt — which, given the extremely religious society she lived in at the time and suicide’s then-popular status as a mortal sin, showed just how very unhappy she’d been.
“A whole host of other witnesses were found as well. The Oxford clergy and villagers who still believed that Anne had been possessed. Her nurses, who'd believed even then that she’d been faking it. The clergy that had their doubts about the validity of Anne’s claims. They even managed to find Agnes Pepwell at some point and patiently sat through her testimony in which she insisted that she had cursed Anne and had in fact been a witch terrorizing the countryside for fourteen years. These claims didn’t hold much weight, considering Anne confessed to making it all up, but Agnes certainly enjoyed her time on the stand.”
Ryan blinked. “Wow.”
“I love her,” Kate said, shaking her head. “I love her.”
“Many strange and shocking details came out about the case throughout the course of this trial. One man stated that after apprehending Elizabeth Gregory for her first trial, he'd had terrible nightmares for weeks because he believed that she’d cursed him. Some neighbors stated that Anne had started demonstrating symptoms of pregnancy during the birth of Elizabeth Gregory’s child. And, though they were not tried themselves, at least two different cunning folk came up as having treated Anne using magical means. It was clearly a wild ride for everyone.
“After months of inquiry, a very tearful confession, and days of testimony, the trial at James I’s Star Court was over. But for our last history question — how, do you think, did everything turn out?
A. Anne was found innocent, but her father was banished from England.
B. Anne ran away with one of the Archbishop’s servants and James paid her dowry.
C. Anne and Brian were both found guilty and were imprisoned in the Tower of London.”
“Ohhhh, I want it to be B,” Kate said, leaning forward with her board against her chest. “I really, really want it to be B.”
“I don’t think it’s B,” Ryan said. “But I can’t figure out if it’s A or C. Like, she confessed, right? But the king did promise leniency…”
“Time’s a-tickin’, folks,” said the Professor. “What are your guesses?”
“A,” Ryan finally said. “I think that Brian got his just deserts. Or at least I hope he did. What a dick.”
“Mm, yeah,” the Professor said. “And you, Kate?”
“I think it’s A, too,” Kate said. “Even though I really, really wish it were B.”
“Well,” the Professor began, “at first none of those things happened. Before the court could make a ruling, they were distracted by a little thing called THE GUNPOWDER PLOT.”
“Oh shit, I totally forgot about that!” Ryan said.
“That’s right, before James could make a decision about Anne, Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament!”
Kate shrugged. “Yeah, I think that would distract me, too.”
“It was quite a while before the king could return his attention to Anne, and by then, public attention had died off quite a bit. The sources get very sparse here and the best we can really do is guess. But if we happened to, uh, be there ourselves, we might be able to make a very educated guess. So here’s what happened!”
The curtain went down and Kate gasped in delight. They’d get one more skit before the day was done.
The curtain rose to reveal two very well-dressed men. One, the king of England. The other, the archbishop of Canterbury.
“Wow, uh, so have you heard from Anne lately?” King James asked the other.
The archbishop shook his entire body, for he was just a puppet. “No, not yet. She kind of dropped off the face of the earth, or at least written history, after she married my servant, Asheley. It’s kind of crazy that they fell in love while she was staying with me, huh?”
“Yeah. It’s so convenient that some particularly misogynist historians years later might assume that you set her up with a guy who was just trying to get her defenses down! But that seems pretty unlikely, considering I gave her my written permission and a dowry and all.”
“That was really nice of you, bee-tee-dubs, James.”
“Yeah, I know. But it was really the least I could do after all those dang pins.”
And the curtain fell one last time.
Kate was too thrilled to speak for a moment, instead just covering her mouth with her hands and making vaguely incoherent squeaking noises. Finally, “They got married?”
“The historical record is a little unclear, but yeah, when Anne wrote her confession in a letter to the king, she also told him that she’d fallen in love with a servant to the archbishop and begged for both his leniency for her and her father, and his permission to marry. As best we can figure, the king gave both.
“While we don’t have the judgment from the court case, we do know that Brian Gunter never paid a fine and did go back to living and causing trouble in North Moreton. It seems highly likely that he was found guilty but that the king showed him leniency. He was shown a little less leniency when he showed up again at the Star Court several years later, this time for inciting two riots against a local clergyman. This time, he was fined, and a few years later, died in 1628 of illness.
“As for the accused witches, they were free after the results of the Star Court and lived out the rest of their days until they found a natural death. Their lives had been scarred by the proceedings, and some even appear to have left North Moreton, but they escaped the noose not once but two times. Justice, in this case at least, prevailed.
“Anne’s fate is even harder to trace. Different historians from the period argue about the end of her story, but the most accepted version is that she and Asheley did get married. We have letters from the king approving their marriage and giving her a dowry and historians of the time seem to have generally accepted this outcome. Having a little personal knowledge of my own, I can confirm that Anne lived happily ever after, far away from her dumpster fire of a father.”
“Oh good,” Kate said, clasping her hands in front of her. “I’m so glad.”
“Yeah, your stories don’t usually have great endings,” Ryan added, shuddering at one particularly cannibalistic memory.
“Now just give me a few minutes to tally up the scores, and…” The Professor disappeared beneath the curtain to go count history points, leaving the two of them alone for a few minutes. Above him, he could hear the two of them talking.
“What a great story,” Kate said. “Royal intrigue, magic, scandal, romance…”
“And don’t forget the little rat-people!” Ryan said.
“Speaking of little rat-people!” the Professor said, shooting back out from backstage.
Ryan jumped much further than he would later admit, and it definitely was not a shriek that escaped him. Just maybe a little yelp of surprise.
“I almost forgot our musical guest! Please welcome Catch, Sweat, and Vizitt, The Familiar Trio!”
Three puppet familiars appeared onstage while he tallied points below. One was a black rat with a swine’s face and boar’s tusks, one was a mouse with an old man’s face and beard, and the last, clearly the lead singer of the group, was a whitish toad.
“Welcome to our show!” said the toad, “I’m Vizitt!”
“I’m Sweat!” said the mouse.
“And I’m Catch!” the rat finished.
The toad did a little pose. “And we’re… The Familiar Trio!”
“Hey Catch,” said Sweat, “don’t you think it’s unfair that we got blamed in all this?”
“Yeah!” Catch agreed. “We didn’t do nothing wrong! Just a little light cursing is all.”
Vizitt laughed, not happily. “Didn’t you know, boys? When a witch goes to trial, it’s always the familiar who ends up in the hot seat!”
”Some say the familiar makes the witch
Some say it’s innate
Unfair that all we do is enrich
But we’re still treated like dead weight!”
Vizitt was then joined by the other two for the chorus,
“A familiar’s work is never done
We’re the ones that make the clocks run
Without us, their magic’s just kitsch
It’s a hard life, serving a witch!”
Catch then stepped forward, taking his solo,
”All’s we did was curse up some pigs
Ruin a few crops
And they all flipped their wigs
Sayin’ they’ll kill so it stops!"
“A familiar’s work is never done
We’re the ones that make the clocks run
Without us, their magic’s just kitsch
It’s a hard life, serving a witch!”
Finally, Sweat took his turn.
”And then poor Anne got herself cursed,
They all looked our way
But another witch got there first
This time Anne wasn’t our prey!”
“But we got blamed anyway, didn’t we boys?” Vizitt asked.
“One more time, then!”
“A familiar’s work is never done
We’re the ones that make the clocks run
Without us, their magic’s just kitsch
It’s a hard life, serving a witch!
It’s a hard life, serving a wiiiiiitch!”
As they finished up their song, the Professor tallied beans. Ryan 3 and Kate 2. Well, that was nothing that a little creative accounting couldn’t fix.
“Okay!” he said as the band left the stage, “weren’t they great?”
“Sure,” Ryan said flatly. “Why not?”
“They were amazing,” Kate said, completely ignoring Ryan’s pessimism. She was awfully good at that.
“Great. Well, shocking absolutely no one, Kate is our History Master and has rightfully earned the coveted cup!”
“That sounds about right,” Ryan said, clearly knowing his place in the Professor’s audience.
Kate, though, was counting things up on her fingers. “That doesn’t sound—”
“I said, Kate is our History Master and has rightfully earned the coveted cup.”
“Um? Yay?” Kate asked, blinking in bewilderment as she went to retrieve her cup.
“Hush, you. Thanks for coming! See you next time!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ryan said as they filed out of the room. “Hey, can I have a jelly bean?”
“Nope. I rightfully earned them,” he heard Kate say from down the hall.
The Professor laid the other puppets back to rest as the clatter of footsteps faded away and he thought about what it was like to have all of history at his feet. He thought about the sun rising over Pompeii. The hanging gardens of Babylon. A smoky jazz cafe in the roaring 20s. Anne Gunter's wedding to a man that would finally treat her well.
And then he thought about having friends, for once, in his own time. In his own place. He wondered, not for the first time, if he’d have more of them if he’d just settled for what he’d already had all those years ago.
Well. The past was the past, and though he could visit it, he still wasn’t able to make a change.
The Professor put the last of his props away and then went to go get some cider of his own on this blustery autumn day.