Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Bones of 'witch' laid to rest in Essex

A new documentary has been made that examines the history of a 16th century Essex midwife and herbalist who was executed for witchcraft and whose bones had a fascinating journey after her death before being laid to rest in her home village of St Osyth.

Ursula Kemp, like many women of the time, made a humble living through attending births, wet nursing babies and treating the sick with herbal potions and lotions. When Ursula’s services were rejected by a pregnant neighbour in favour of another midwife, she exchanged such harsh words with the expectant mother that when the baby went on to die by allegedly falling from its cradle it was suspected a curse had been placed on the infant. Villagers began to suspect that Ursula could treat or induce sickness and lameness at will and she became a target for witch hunter, landowner and magistrate Brian D’Arcy.

A second woman, Elizabeth Bennett, was also implicated and, according to archives, the two were tried at Chelmsford Court on 29 March 1582. Although held in Colchester Castle and tried in Chelmsford, the place of their execution is not clear. It may have been Chelmsford, but women accused of witchcraft were often hanged in their own village and then buried in local unconsecrated ground.

In 1921 two skeletons were discovered in a garden by a Mr Brooker, a St Osyth tenant, while carrying out building work. One skeleton was badly damaged. The bodies were clearly not near a burial ground and Mr Brooker, having some knowledge of the history of witches in the village, decided to cash in by arranging visits from local people wanting to see the intact skeleton of the "witch". The house burning down in an unexplained fire in 1932 halted interest in what is now believed to be the body of Ursula Kemp. The remains were reburied at the site.

More than 30 years later redevelopment prompted the deliberate, but probably illegal, exhuming of the skeleton. This time there was little interest in it becoming a local attraction and the bones were sold to the Museum of Witchcraft owned by Cecil Williamson, who said he would safeguard her and not allow further exploitation. When Williamson eventually sold the museum, Ursula was not included in the sale of its contents. Her last owner was the eccentric artist Robert Lenkiewicz who had an interest in beliefs in witchcraft and the occult.

Lenkiewicz kept Ursula on display in his library along with the embalmed body of a local tramp. A prolific painter, Lenkiewicz’s life was complex and when he died, heavily in debt, Ursula's skeleton became tied up in the wrangles of his estate.

Documentary maker John Worland and co-director of the 2007 film Witchfinder, based on the Matthew Hopkins witch trials, has been researching the history of witches in the 16th and 17th centuries. He traced the history of Ursula’s life, death and subsequent journey and spent many hours negotiating to have her remains released by the trustees of Lenkiewizc’s estate. From then he began to explore the process of what he and many others believe was the right end to Ursula’s journey – a peaceful reburial back in St Osyth. John can prove, with the help of carbon dating, that the skeleton does date back to the 16th century and that there are remnants of iron nails in her bones.

Working closely with St Osyth Parish Council, a plot with a north-south orientation was located in unconsecrated land and on 15 April, with Pagan and Christian representatives present, Ursula's skeleton was finally laid to rest.

The documentary is due to be shown in Colchester on 9 and 10 January 2012. For more details, visit the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ursula-Kemp-Witch-or-Herbalist/117956854983638

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