Witchcraft to murder: Records reveal 200 years of crimes

Isle of Ely Assizes Image copyright University of Cambridge
Image caption Almost 270 files and rolls from the Isle of Ely Assizes have been revealed

Archivists have compiled a "rogues' gallery" based on two hundred years of court records, including offences such as witchcraft and highway robbery.

Archivists in Cambridge have combed through more than 270 handwritten scrolls from the Isle of Ely Assizes.

The records, dating from 1557 to 1775, contain crimes ranging from murder to the theft of cloth worth 20 shillings.

The courts of assize - commonly known as the assizes - were replaced by the modern court system in 1972.

They were held in the main county towns and presided over by visiting judges from higher courts based in London.

The Isle of Ely Assizes would have tried the most serious criminal cases in the region at that time - including rape, forgery and "vagrancy".

The records, mainly in Latin, include court proceedings and papers, depositions, jury lists, inquests, and examinations.

Among them was the case of Margaret Cotte, of Haddenham, accused in 1577 of causing the death of a blacksmith's daughter "by witchcraft".

Image copyright University of Cambridge
Image caption Details of the case of Margaret Cotte, accused of causing a child's death through witchcraft

Another woman, spinster Cecilia Samuel, was hanged the same year for drowning her baby in a Wisbech ditch.

In one case, records reveal how Richard Beckett, a labourer, assaulted a man called Robert Coward so violently that Robert's life was "despaired of".

University library archivist, Sian Collins, said the files present a "cornucopia of information about everyday life and communities".

"It enables us to hear the voices of people from all backgrounds whose names come tumbling out of the records," she said.

"Many of these people, long dead and forgotten, will now have a small piece of their story told."

Image caption The scrolls and files will be catalogued by archivists at the Cambridge University Library

The court records are also significant because they show how Ely's bishops were granted judicial privileges until 1836 - the only diocese in England and Wales apart from Durham to hold the control.

Dr Paul Cavill, lecturer in Early Modern British History at Cambridge's Faculty of History, said: "The Isle of Ely Assize records are a major untapped resource for lives and deaths of ordinary people over centuries."

The full catalogue will be available online from September 2020.

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