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The Story of Ursula Kempe | England's Witchcraft Trials

| On
May 11, 2019

Ursula Kempe was an English cunning woman that practised folk medicine in St Osyth. She would help her friends and neighbours regularly with their ailments, but she was later blamed for causing pain and suffering.

Today's post is about the St Osyth witch trials that took place in the village in 1582, and how it all started with a feud between two friends.

The Feud


The feud began when Grace Thurlow's son fell ill. Ursula visited them to see how he was, and she offered to perform a well-known ritual in an attempt to help him. After she completed the ritual she left, only to return later to repeat the ritual again.

Grace said Ursula repeated this ritual 3 times in total. After her last visit Ursula assured Grace her son would be on the mend, and that night he appeared to be a lot more comfortable.

During this time Grace was also heavily pregnant, and Ursula assumed due to their friendship and her experience that she would be chosen as her midwife. Unfortunately, Grace had already made other plans. Ursula was angered by this and she made her feelings clear.

Grace complained that she was experiencing lameness and threatened Ursula with naming her as the cause of her suffering to a magistrate.


The threats of having her name being connected in any way to witchcraft didn't bother Ursula. She had admitted openly that she had the ability to un-witch people that had been bewitched but could not bewitch them herself. Ursula instead offered to help Grace with her lameness if she agreed to let her be the midwife at her birth, which Grace eventually agreed to.

After the birth of Grace's baby girl they clashed again, but this time over who was going to nurse the child. Grace decided she wanted to nurse her baby, and all seemed to be going well at first. That was until her baby fell from her crib and died of a broken neck.

Ursula had no sympathy and openly said that it would never have happened if she was nursing the baby. After the loss of her baby, Grace's lameness appeared again.

This time Ursula visited unannounced and offered to help, but she asked for 12 pence as payment. Grace accepted and after several weeks she was feeling better. However, when it came to paying Ursula she didn't have the money. Ursula said she would accept cheese instead of money, but Grace had none of that either.

Ursula left again and when she did Grace's lameness came back. She also said that whenever she started to feel better her son fell ill again and vice versa.

Grace decided to speak to Justice Bryan Darcy, a justice of the peace for Essex and tell him about everything. She told Darcy that Ursula was practising witchcraft and that she was to blame for everything that happened to her and her neighbours.

The Investigation


The day after Grace visited Darcy they brought Ursula in for questioning. During the questioning, Ursula was adamant at first that she was not a witch. She told him that she cured the lameness using a ritual she had learnt when she was suffering with it. She only wanted to use her knowledge to help others. 

However, when Darcy promised her leniency she burst into tears and started to tell him everything. She told him all about her 4 familiars and what they did for her. 

She told him that she had 2 female familiars, Piggin a black toad and Tiffin a white lamb. The females were the ones that caused lameness and other bodily harm. She also had 2 male familiars that were both cats. A black cat called Jack and a grey cat called Titty. The males were more dangerous and brought death to the ones Ursula wanted to punish.


Ursula confessed that she had used the familiars to cause harm to others, which included her own sister in law and Graces daughter. She confessed to sending Tiffin to knock over the crib as a punishment for Grace.

Later in the questioning, she tried to shift the blame to another young woman called Alice. She hoped that offering Darcy another witch meant that he would keep his promise of being lenient. It wouldn't stop there though, as she would incriminate several other women in her future confessions.

As a result of Ursula's confessions, all of these women were brought in for questioning by Darcy. Some of the women followed Ursula's example after they were promised leniency and told him everything he wanted to hear. 

Darcy collected more evidence over time and questioned all of the accused. Then on the 29th of March 1582, Ursula and the others were tried at Chelmsford Assizes.

Ursula was indicted for murder by witchcraft with the young woman called Alice. Even though Ursula was promised leniency for her cooperation, she was found guilty of her crimes and sent to the gallows to be hung.


The Discovery


In 1921 at Mill Street in St Osyth 2 skeletons were found in a garden. The founder believed that one of the skeletons was that of Ursula Kempe. Both of the skeletons had iron rivets through their elbows and knees, which was a common practice and was believed to stop the witches rising from the dead.

However, the identity of the skeletons was never confirmed and they could have been any of the women tried in the area between 1582 and 1645.

Final Thoughts


I am not sure if I believe that any of the women tried in St Osyth were witches. I think that the women that did confess did so thinking it would save them from the gallows. It was also sad that this all stemmed from a feud between two women, and as a result, it ended the lives of several women in the village.

What are your thoughts on this story? Do you believe in witches? Do you believe that Ursula was a witch? Share them in the comments below!

20 comments on "The Story of Ursula Kempe | England's Witchcraft Trials"
  1. I'm inclined to believe that Ursula was maybe a healer of some description, through charming or faith healing. She may also have been a homopath as we currently now them. I don't believe she was a witch, nor her 'sisters' and they more likely confessed to these crimes due to thinking they would be spared.

    Excellent post. I know it's a true story but this would make an excellent book.

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    1. I agree with you. She was a healer and she was helping people. I think that a lot happened between the two women and it went too far. It's just a shame so many women were punished and they died because of it. Thank you so much for reading and commenting! :)

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  2. oooooooh witches and witch hunts fascinate me! I'm inclined to agree with Nyxie that it sounds like Ursula practiced a form of herbal medicine, of the type that is now mostly lost to us due to these witch hunts.
    I hate that women were so often deceived into confessing to witchcraft (or possible delusions and mental ill health) in return for leniency but were then murdered anyway.

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    1. Definitely! She was a healer and was just helping people in the community. They were all tricked into confessing and I can't imagine how it felt to be betrayed like that. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

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  3. Ooh this is such an interesting post! I find stuff about the Witch Trials and things like that fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I am so glad you enjoyed my post. :)

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  4. Another great post and an intriguing story. I haven't heard of this case before. Accusations of witchcraft quite often stem from feuding women. What a way to incriminate your enemies! Ursula sounds like an old apothecary type who often faced the gallows! xxx

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    1. Thank you so much! It was such a scary time and to think an argument could lead to this. I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment! :)

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  5. WOW interesting! Maybe Ursula was a witch, maybe she wasn't. Just from reading this account I believe she had some kind of ability. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thank you so much! :) I really appreciate you reading my post and commenting.

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  6. Interesting post like always. I don't believe they were witches but were trying to save themselves.

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  7. I'm always completely fascinated by witch stories! I think because its not something a person tends to "believe" when they see movies, tv shows, etc about witches. But really, I think there must be Some truth to it right!? Why would women like Ursula confess to that sort of thing if there wasn't something to it? I mean yeah, it might be a case of false confessions thinking that's their only way out but I dunno haha I guess we'll never truly know though!

    Renee @ Maritime Mama

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    1. Thank you! I am so glad you enjoyed my post! :)

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  8. My early morning read before getting out of bed. I've never read anything on witch trials before and found myself into the story. I don't believe she was a witch as others have stated. It's very unfortunate that lives were lost over one woman wanting her way. I think the ladies truly believed confessing would save them. I don't know why Ursula had to go so far as to bring others into her confession though.
    Great post.

    4youiwill.blog

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    1. Thank you so much for reading! I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. :)

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  9. I’ve never heard this story before, I find the Witch Trials so interesting, I loved learning about it in school and recently there was a Doctor Who episode on it. I don’t think I believe in witches, I think they’re more healers and dabbled in it before medicine became more common, and that they confessed to be spared but unfortunately were unsuccessful!

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    1. Thank you! I'm so glad you enjoyed my post about this story. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment too! :) x

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