Wicked Spirits?

Witchcraft + Magic at Colchester Castle
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16th July 2022 – 8th January 2023



‘Wicked Spirits? Witchcraft + Magic at Colchester Castle’ was produced in partnership with the famous Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle.

It brought the stories of those that suffered and lost their lives out into the open. Our team are now looking to incorporate some of those stories into the Castle’s permanent displays to make sure they are never forgotten.


Why Wicked Spirits?

Colchester Castle was a key landmark in the Essex witch trials. In the 1500s and 1600s, hundreds of people were imprisoned inside its walls suspected of being a witch. The county became well known for its persecution of suspected witches, the first person in England to be executed under a Witchcraft Act was Elizabeth Lowys who lived in Great Waltham.

Five hundred years later, many of the stories of victims like Elizabeth are at risk of being lost – overshadowed by tales of people like the famous Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins.

The Victims

In Essex alone, around 1000 people were accused of witchcraft from the 1500s to 1800s. Some of them spent time in the cells at Colchester Castle, awaiting their trial. Accusations ranged from using animal familiars to kill neighbours to meeting in secret and reading from mysterious books.

Most of these accusations have rational meanings to us today, such as the mysterious book being a Latin bible, while others were completely made up to ensure the victim was found guilty.

Our Partners

This exhibition was made possible thanks to the support of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic and the Museum of British Folklore. Both organisations contributed objects, design and insight towards this hugely important and sensitive topic.

The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic was established in 1951 by Cecil Williamson. It explores witchcraft and magic with a focus on everyday practitioners.

The Museum of British Folklore was founded in 2009. Although it does not have a permanent building, it works with many institutions, creating events and exhibitions that highlight the importance of British folklore.

What was the exhibition about?

Wicked Spirits? Witchcraft + Magic at Colchester Castle explored the history of changing attitudes towards witchcraft in England from the 1500s into the 1800s. It considered

  • How the development of printing and the spread of books lead to increasing fear around suspected witches.
  • Why some people allowed to practice magic, whilst others who did not even believe they had magical powers lost their lives?
  • Five stories over the course of 300 years that showed how attitudes towards suspected witches and the ways in which the law treated them changed.
  • How superstition is something that persists into the modern day. Wicked Spirits? also looked at some of the more popular beliefs today. Do you still salute the magpie?
  • Ways in which people wanted to defend themselves from evil. Although people feared witches, many still turned to magic to protect themselves, whether through amulets or buried items in buildings.
  • How many unfortunate people were tortured to get a confession. At a time when torture was illegal, those seeking a confession had to resort to new approaches.

Find Out More

Learn more about the exhibition by downloading our free visitor guide

Collections Online

Wicked Spirits? may have ended, but you can still discover many of the objects featured in the exhibition by exploring our online catalogue.

Things to listen to...

Find out more by listening to the ‘The Witch Craze’ episode of You’re Dead To Me on BBC Sounds.

You can also delve deeper into the themes and stories behind Wicked Spirits? through interviews with the exhibition team. Simply follow the links below…

Things to read...

For fiction inspired by true stories, try ‘The Manningtree Witches’ by A K Blakemore or ‘The Familiars’ by Stacey Halls.

You can also check out our blog…

Learning Resource

Check out our free downloadable resource relating to Wicked Spirits?

This resource is aimed at GCSE and A Level, but can be used to teach younger pupils about the witch trials. 

Thank You

Lenders, Partners, Advisors and Contributors:
A K Blakemore 
Ipswich Museum 
John Worland 
Museum of British Folklore 
Museum of Witchcraft and Magic
Prof A Rowlands 
Salem Museum, Essex County
Simon Entwistle
Exhibition, Build and Transport:
External Solutions – Shou Sugi Ban 
All our ArtHappens donors
Arts Council England 
Colchester City Council 
Chocolate Films
Friends of Colchester Museums 
Postcode Places Trust 
Supporters of our Crowdfunding Campaign:
ArtFund – ArtHappens 
Colne Valley Tea Company
Red Lion Books 
Tiptree Patisserie Ltd 
Wivenhoe House Hotel 
And to all who’ve offered advice and support in so many ways – thank you.

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