Filmmaker John Worland has recently released new film about the so-called ‘witch of St Osyth’, Ursula Kemp reveals how local prejudice and petty disputes can have vast consequences that outlast generations.
In 1582 a fairly minor dispute in rural Essex, concerning the actions of a local midwife and herbalist, fed into the hysteria and paranoia that surrounded witchcraft at the time. This resulted in the trial of more than a dozen women accused of participating in the dark arts. Two of these women – Ursula Kemp and Elizabeth Bennett – were subsequently convicted and hanged. But their stories do not stop there. Award-winning documentary maker, John Worland, has uncovered the unfounded stigma and disrespect that has shrouded these women’s bodies from a decent burial for the last 430 years: certainly an historical talking point, but, more importantly, in our own day and age, a lesson to learn about the dangers of loose accusations and prejudice.
St Osyth, a coastal Essex village, had a population of around 350 people in 1582. Ursula Kemp, a widow, was one of its residents, eking out a modest living as a midwife and herbalist. During a period marked by a frenzy of witch-hunting rumours began to circulate of her having supernatural knowledge. However, despite this she was living a contented life. That was until she became involved in a dispute with a neighbour, Grace Thurlowe.
Blighted by recurrent lameness, Grace (already the mother of one boy – Davy) was expecting another child and Ursula hoped to be the one to deliver and nurse the baby. The expectant mother however decided to employ someone else and, moreover, blamed Ursula for her own physical frailties. Strong words were exchanged on both sides. Despite this squabble, when Davy fell ill six months later, Ursula tended him and he recovered.
In due course, Grace gave birth to the second child, a daughter. At three months old the baby fell out of its cradle, broke her neck and died. Ursula was blamed for this tragic accident. Clearly, not one to harbour grudges, Ursula returned to Grace, offering to cure her lameness for the sum of 12 pence. Grace’s condition improved, but when asked for payment Grace refused, claiming: “I am a poor and needy woman”. Ursula asked for cheese instead – Grace replied that she had none. From that time on Grace was lame again.
Based upon this sorry set of circumstances, Ursula Kemp was accused of witchcraft and 13 other women were implicated as co-conspirators in a coven of practitioners of the dark arts. The witch hunt took on a form of hysteria resulting in the execution of Ursula and her principal co-accused, Elizabeth Bennett. The details of their endings were never clearly documented. However, John Worland, while researching for his film, has uncovered vital new evidence. Moreover, he has managed to provide a respectful burial for Ursula as a gesture of reparation for what was, surely, a gross miscarriage of justice.
On the reburial of the remains in St Osyth in 2011 John Worland commented: “We will never know exactly who this individual was but I believe that the remains have represented Ursula Kemp, her 13 other fellow accused and myriad others who have fallen foul of rumour-mongering, spite and hatred through the years. Everyone will feel that the way these remains have been treated has been absolutely obscene and I’m just delighted to bring them back home and give them a decent burial and a final resting place.”
Ursula Kemp’s Place in Witch History
1545 The word occult first appeared in the dictionary meaning "that which is hidden or is beyond the range of ordinary apprehension and understanding"
1562 Elizabethan Witchcraft Act was passed during the reign of The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. It was an act 'agaynst Conjuracions Inchauntmentes and Witchecraftes'.
1563 Twenty years before the trial of Ursula Kemp, the Church re-enforces its rule as The Council of Trent, begun in
1545, is concluded. It is decided that tradition is to be judged co-equal to scripture as a source of spiritual knowledge, and that only the Church is to be considered as having the right to interpret the Bible.
1572 The religious fervour throughout Europe comes to a head on August 24 when about 3,000 Protestants in Paris are massacred. Across France within three days approximately 20,000 Huguenots are executed. Catholics across Europe rejoice and Protestants mourn and express anger.
1566 The first witch trials to appear in a secular court in England take place in Chelmsford, Essex. The first woman to be hanged for witchcraft was Agnes Waterhouse.
1579 The second Chelmsford witch trials.
1582 Ursula Kemp is accused of witchcraft in St Osyth. On March 29th at the Spring assizes in Chelmsford, Ursula along with 13 other women are tried of witchcraft. Ursula and Elizabeth Bennett are subsequently hanged.
1921 A Mr Brooker, a resident of St Osyth, was removing gravel from his garden when he uncovered two skeletons. One is believed to be that of Elizabeth Bennett; the other, Ursula Kemp. The remains quickly became a macabre tourist attraction.
1963 The remains were deliberately exhumed by a Mr Scolding who had sold the plot for re-development. The bones were sold to the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, Cornwall.
1999 Ursula’s remains passed into the hands of the eccentric artist Robert Lenkiewitz.
2011 After protracted negotiations John Worland secured the release of Ursula’s remains in order that she may be brought home, re-buried and finally put at peace. And in April 2011 a small group of people gathered at the unconsecrated part of St Osyth Cemetery for a private reburial ceremony.
You can find out more on Facebook by going to the Ursula Kemp page by clicking here.