“In March 1644 [Matthew Hopkins] had some seven or eight of that horrible sect of Witches living in the Towne where he lived, a Towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent Witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill, one of which this discoverer heard speaking to her Imps one night, and bid them goe to another Witch, who was thereupon apprehended, and searched, by women who had for many yeares knowne the Devills marks, and found to have three teats about her, which honest women have not: so upon command from the Justice they were to keep her from sleep two or three nights, expecting in that time to see her familiars, which the fourth night she called in by their severall names, and told them what shapes, a quarter of an houre before they came in, there being ten of us in the roome, the first she called was:
1: Holt, who came in like a white kitling.
2: Jarmara, who came in like a fat Spaniel without any legs at all, she said she kept him fat, for she clapt her hand on her belly and said he suckt good blood from her body.
3: Vinegar Tom, who was like a long-legg’d Greyhound, with an head like an Oxe, with a long taile and broad eyes, who when this discoverer spoke to, and bade him goe to the place provided for him and his Angels, immediately transformed himselfe into the shape of a child of foure yeeres old without a head, and gave halfe a dozen turnes about the house, and vanished at the doore.
4: Sack and Sugar, like a black Rabbet.
5: Newes, like a Polcat. All these vanished away in a little time. Immediately after this Witch confessed severall other Witches, from whom she had her Imps, and named to divers women where their marks were, the number of their Marks, and Imps, and Imps names, as Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Pecke in the Crown, Grizzel Greedigut, &c. which no mortall could invent…
Hopkins was in his mid-20s in 1644, and had just three years to live — though the manner of his death has long been unclear (his sidekick Stearns wrote that it was quiet, of a consumption; popular legend — more satisfyingly — says Hopkins was accused of witchcraft himself, and drowned during the test for it). His victims were almost all very poor, old, friendless women, physically tortured and browbeaten into confessing specific acts of devil worship that sprang largely from Hopkins’s own imagination. He battened, shrewdly, on feuds and violent dislikes (doubtless often mutual), within the villages willing to pay his substantial wage as witchfinder, during the brief (not brief enough) folk panic.
The Ash Tree appears to be the story of a witch and her revenge. Sir Matthew Fell gives fatal testimony at her trial — on the way to her execution, she promises that there will be “guests at the hall”, and there are, even unto the third generation!
Curiously perhaps, the first half of the tale is set a half century after Matthew Hopkins’s heyday, when the hideous craze was on the fade — the judges of the day largely disliked it, perhaps for its dangerously populist nature, perhaps its uncontrollable irrationalism, and increasingly worked to undermine it (trying Jane Wenham in 1712, Mr Justice Powell spiritedly and sarcastically note that there was “no law against flying”, and ensured she was reprieved; tin 1736 — the year after Sir Richard Fell succeeds to the Baronetcy in the story, though nearly 20 years before the first part of the tale catches up with him — George II’s Witchcraft Act entirely repealed James I’s statute of 1604). True, there were a handful of Suffolk trials in the 1690s — Suffolk being James’s own birth-county — but nothing on the scale of the ghastly cluster he depicts: “five or six more unhappy creatures, at Bury St Edmunds…”
I want to pick up on three elements in the story, one strong, one intriguing and one frankly peculiar — if not a flaw then something deliberate, but very hard to interpret.
The first is straightforward: James had a lifelong loathing of spiders, and very effectively carries this revulsion into his story — which has the valuable effect (for the story) of rescuing the idea of “imps” from posterity’s high cutification. Read the list above and we don’t seem that far from LOLkitans: Grizzel Greedigut! When we read of a woman with black cat named “Satan” we think aaaw, not ew or eeek. James returns us to the genuine terror-panic of the times (or 50 years before the times): that such creatures were not the ickle pets of the lonely and sad, but vile and malevolent pests. (Interestingly, Keith Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic argues that the whole thing of witches’ familiars is a peculiarly English phenom…)
(As a personal sidenote: I’m not especially frightened of spiders — I rather like them — and, as a consequence, seem to have edited the images in my head. The creatures I see at work on Sir Richard Fell’s head are leathery, brown and bulbous rather than leggy; James’s word “veinous” — do spiders have veins? — does a lot of work… These are laidly monsters; you are meant absolutely to apprehend them as such, Mr Modern and Blasé.)
The second goes to James’s general view of ghosts: they are beings of extra-legal revenge, for crimes that go unpunished in the living and social-historical world; crimes that have gone unnoticed or (occasionally) are not even recognised as criminal in the living and social-historical world. The Fells — whose family name at least must make you wonder as to their upstanding goodness — are pretty sharply punished for something, by the spider-imps. Perhaps at Mrs Mothersole’s behest; perhaps rather on her hapless behalf…
I think the clues that Mrs Mothersole was wronged — the clues that, as so often in the Jamesian back story, this is a crime of property and theft — are multiply present and very rigorously ambiguous. Matthew Fell’s testimony is has no independent witnesses. He says he saw her as a hare; but the one time he confronted her, she was apparently just roused from sleep. Gathering sticks from a tree in yr nightie is not a capital crime, even when it’s not your tree and it’s on someone else’s land and you have a SICKLE. Unlike most accused witches, who were dirt poor, isolated creatures, Mothersole is well-off and fairly well-connected: meaning that she has significant material wealth which, in the absence of issue, would revert to the parish and the squire (that is, to Fell). Perhaps she was indeed a malicious person, capable of “poysonous Rage” and ugly threats — doubtless many of the historical “witches” judicially murdered were not especially lovable neighbours — but nothing that we see as objective reader-observers directly connects her to the imps. They are birthed of the ash tree of the title: if she worships the ash, perhaps the ash returned the favour.
(Sidenote on the ash in legend: Yggdrasill is the holy ash of pre-Christian Norse legend — Yggr being a name for Odin, meaning “Terror”, and Yggdrasill, “Odin’s Horse”, by rather tangled association combines the ideas that a gallows was poetically known as the “horse of the hanged”, and the ash being sacred as the site of Odin’s wisdom-seeking self-sacrifice by hanging… ) (However there’s not much of a hint of any of this in the story itself, except that Mothersole was hanged not burnt; witchlore said that witches hanged not burnt passed their evil gifts on to their children…)
And the third? Is the clumping great — and pointless? — coincidence that seems to mar the climax. Sir Matthew Fell’s vicar was one Crome, present on the discovery of Fell’s murder. Why on EARTH is it necessary for Crome’s grandson William to turn up in person, the very night of Sir Richard Fell’s terminus, complete with Crome the elder’s (not entirely to-the-point) writings on the earlier event? Well, it does keeps the “testimony” all in one social circle, as it were: if the Fells are tainted witnesses, it’s perhaps not irrelevant that the Cromes are friends of the Fell family, and hardly disinterested observers. And another family friend — the Bishop of Kilmore, with his seemingly inaccurate wealth of Irish peasant lore about the ash’s unluckiness — it is that declares the corpse to be that of a woman 50 years dead.
Crome the elder puts Sir Matthew’s death down to the Popish Plot, and considers headchopped Charles I a blessed martyr; Baronets were a Stuart innovation, associated with the Plantation of Ulster; it’s easy of course to make too much of elements in the telling that seem may perhaps be no more than passing descriptive context, but we shouldn’t forget that James’s professional expertise was text and its life in its context — he wasn’t just a bibliophile, he was a worldclass expert in the relationship of historical and antiquarian manuscripts to the world in which they were made. I think this means two things; one is that he never deploys these bits of narrative colour anachronistically or merely meaninglessly; two is that the full reach of the social setting they lead us to — these little invisible portals in the text, hidden doors we unwittingly pass — speaks to the unsettling sense of violence and retribution that stands in back of so many of his tales. What we have here (in Crome’s sermons; in Kilmore’s presence; in the Fell baronetcy) is a deftly precise if guardedly compact hint of a sketch of the clash of historical forces over some 150 years (from the start of the Stuarts to the mid-Georgian), encompassing Puritans and Catholics, the Civil War, the English in Ireland, and witches and bogles and land-rights…
It’s probably a mistake to assign a systematic theology of magic and justice to James: a horror story has, after all, to break with (or anyway play with) assumptions both rational and supernatural, about fairness and deserts, to be effectively scary. The law is based in reason, or wants to be seen to be — this is one reason why judges increasingly began objecting to the Witchcraft trials. The underlying threat of many of the stories is that, if crimes occurred that were somehow beyond the law’s reach (and in this case the hint is, I think, that Matthew Hopkins’s crusade was just such a crime), then revenge may also be extra-legal; undertaken by agents of powers beyond sublunary compulsion or control. And the menace is that (i) such crimes HAVE occurred, and our settled and pleasant state of life, yours and mine, is rooted in them; (ii) in which case, when revenge arrives, how do you know it won’t come straight, dear reader, at YOU dot dot dot.
And what if reading the tale is indeed the spell the wakes the dead and lets loose the beasts…