Essex

Old Knobbley tree in Mistley a 'sanctuary for hunted witches'

Old Knobbley Image copyright Other
Image caption Ancient English oak tree Old Knobbley is thought to be at least 800 years old

An ancient oak tree - nominated in a national tree competition - could have been a sanctuary for hunted witches, according to local folklore.

Old Knobbley in Mistley, Essex, dates from the 13th Century. The area was home to "Witch-finder General" Matthew Hopkins from 1645 to 1647.

Susan Anderson, who lives in Mistley, said witches may have sought safety in woodland around Old Knobbley.

The tree is one of 10 nominated in a "Tree of the Year" competition.

Hopkins lived in nearby Manningtree and owned the Thorn Inn in Mistley, where he "examined" his first witch.

He is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300 women between 1644 and 1646.


Hopkins' witch-spotting techniques

Image copyright Thinkstock
  • One of Hopkins' preferred methods to extract a confession from a suspected witch was to bind the woman's limbs together and lower her into pond water on a rope
  • He saw the principle as being simple - if the woman sank and drowned, she would be innocent and in heaven; if she floated, she would be tried as a witch
  • It was believed witches could be stabbed without having any mark remaining on their skin
  • Hopkins had implicated 36 women by the spring of 1645 and saw 19 of them tried and executed at Chelmsford

"Maybe some of the witches sought sanctuary in the woods or were pursued by Hopkins' henchmen past Knobbley," Mrs Anderson said.

"The tree has such personality, he's imposing and just oozes history and presence. I can't think of any other tree to have his own website," she added.

Standing more than 13ft (4m) tall and 38ft (11.5m) wide, Old Knobbley is known to have "been ravaged by fire and at one point had a hornets' nest among its boughs" said the tree's unofficial biographer Morag Embleton.

"If Hopkins was the terror people made him out to be and women were being persecuted, it's not unreasonable to think women who knew the wild wooded area could have hidden and sought refuge there," she said.

According to local legend, Hopkins' ghost is said to haunt Mistley Pond.

Image copyright WTPL/Morag Embleton
Image caption The tree, which is more than 800 years old, has its own Facebook page

The land around Old Knobbley was later taken over by the British army and used as a station during World War Two.

During the Cold War, a "secret bunker" was built on nearby land where government officials could shelter in the event of a nuclear attack.

A Facebook page about the ancient tree has attracted more than 600 hundred fans.

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