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Bewitching of Anne Gunter: England’s Best Documented Witchcraft Case by James Sharpe

In 1999 I published a book entitled The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: a horrible and true Story of Football, Witchcraft, Murder and the King of England (Profile Books). This concerned the alleged bewitchment of Anne Gunter, aged twenty or so, the daughter of a gentleman called Brian Gunter, resident at North Moreton, then in Berkshire, since boundary changes of 1974 in Oxfordshire. Briefly, Anne fell ill in the summer of 1604, demonstrating symptoms which defied diagnosis. It was eventually decided that she had been bewitched, and suspicion fell on three women in the village: Agnes Pepwell, who had an established reputation as a witch, her illegitimate daughter Mary Pepwell, and Elizabeth Gregory, who although largely free from any established associations with witchcraft was apparently the most unpopular woman in North Moreton, regarded as an all-round troublemaker by her neighbours. More specifically, bad relations between Elizabeth Gregory and the Gunters can be traced back to 1598 when Brian Gunter inflicted fatal injuries on two members of the Gregory family in the course of a brawl engendered by a village football match. As Anne Gunter’s sickness continued, suspicions of witchcraft against the three women hardened. Agnes Pepwell ran away, but Mary Pepwell and Elizabeth Gregory were tried as witches at the Abingdon assizes in March 1605 (two of the first people to be accused of witchcraft under the new Witchcraft Statute of 1604) and acquitted.

Matters should, officially at least, have ended there, but Brian Gunter tried to re-open the case when James I, recently crowned king of England, and someone with a known interest in witchcraft, visited Oxford University in August 1605. Another of Gunter’s daughters was married to the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, and it was probably though this connection that Brian Gunter was able to set up a meeting with the king. This proved to be a terrible miscalculation on Gunter’s part. James referred the investigation of the case to a team drawn from senior members of the Church of England, who at that time were developing a very cautious approach to witchcraft accusations and the related matters of demonic possession and exorcism. The upshot was that Brian and Anne Gunter were tried at Star Chamber for malicious prosecution, and the relevant dossier provides the richest documentation available for any witchcraft case in England – the standard records of English witch trials, unlike those generated by some continental jurisdictions, are usually very terse and lacking in detail. What I want to do in this talk is reconsider the Anne Gunter case so as to present the audience with some of the perhaps unexpected complications which arise when a witchcraft case is studied in detail, and to examine how the course of a witchcraft accusation could be shaped by a variety of contexts: those of the community in which the initial accusations arose, the legal system under which the supposed witches were tried, and the ecclesiastical politics and theological positions which were so often crucial in determining the course of a witchcraft accusation once it attracted the attention of officialdom.

Speaker Bio

James Sharpe completed his BA and DPhil in Modern History at the University of Oxford. After temporary posts at the Universities of Durham and Exeter he was appointed lecturer at the university of York in 1973, and continued to work there throughout his career, being promoted to a professorship in 1997. He has published twelve books and around sixty learned articles and essays. His initial work was in the history of crime in England in the early modern period, but he has also written extensively on early modern English witchcraft, his first major work on the subject being Instruments of Darkness, published in 1996, and focussing on the history of witchcraft in England c. 1550-1750. He retired in 2016, but remains research active, and is currently Professor Emeritus in Early Modern History at the University of York.