10 January 2018

EASTWARD HO!

Michael Howard. East Anglian Witches and Wizards. Three Hands Press, 2017.

East Anglia is a windswept, marshy land. Bordering on the North Sea, this flat, unprepossessing region, although on the edge of the populous and burgeoning London-Birmingham conurbation, has been the site of dramatic events that have helped shape the modern nation of Great Britain. 
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The modern definition of East Anglia is quite different from the past, in that it contains the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. However, in the past, it also included the county of Essex, which is surprisingly rural considering that the south of the county is an almost continuously urban extension of London. It is Essex which has come to epitomise the brash new money and supposedly uncouth ways of the Estuary English speakers which surround London and dwell along both banks of the Thames.

Michael Howard, the author, has passed away. He was an intriguing figure who practised what is known as Luciferian Witchcraft. He was attracted to the paranormal through his reading. This covered most of the mainstream characters, including Aleister Crowley, Montague Summers, Robert Graves and Margaret Murray, to name a few. This was later consolidated by a near-death experience. He moved into what may be termed mainstream occultism after this. He joined several groups, such as the Co-Freemasons. He was the editor of the magazine The Cauldron until his death in 2015. This publication featured articles by Ronald Hutton, Geraldine Beskin and Caroline Tully, again to name a few.

East Anglian Wizards and Witches, therefore, is a book that covers four English counties that, although close to London in miles, still to this day represents a land that is bucolic yet liminal. Although the county of Essex is, at best, an optional part of East Anglia, it is where most of the focus of this book is. Arguably the most famous persecution of witches in Great Britain happened there in the form of the Chelmsford Witch Trials. The county also gave birth to Matthew Hopkins, notorious as the Witchfinder General. The 'cunning men', James Murrell and George Pickingill, were also residents of Essex and, probably by virtue of their relatively recent existence, feature strongly in this volume.

There is no doubt that this book covers a lot of ground; no pun intended. Not only do the more notable people receive much attention, but also supernatural subjects not directly associated with witches and the like are covered. Because of this, it shows that one of the author’s main interests is folklore. One such is Black Shuck, the spectral, huge black hounds with red, luminous eyes. One of these is famously said to have paid a visit to Holy Trinity Church in the village of Blythburgh, Suffolk, the door of which allegedly bears the scars to this day. 

Four counties is a lot of ground to cover, especially where folklore is concerned, so the odd mistake is bound to crop up. Howard mentions the settlement of Leighs, in Essex. No such place exists. There are the villages of Great Leighs and Little Leighs, north of Chelmsford, and Leigh-on-Sea, the fishing village which is now a suburb of Southend-on-Sea in the south-east. This shows the value of visiting the sites one is writing about. Also covered is also the theory that Matthew Hopkins embarked on his witch hunting because he feared that a coven working near to him was plotting a magickal death for him. If he thought that this was so, then this provides an insight into his reaction to perceived witches.

Written by a man utterly steeped in the occult from an early age, this is a book that encompasses the supernatural life of four counties. It even includes a personal favourite, Old Mother Moore of the old fishing town of the aforementioned Leigh-on-Sea. Although a modern building, there is even a pub named after her in the town, the 'Sarah Moore'. The concentration on the role and lives of the 'cunning' people is fascinating, and a contrast to studying mages who operated at high levels, with governments, royalty and so forth. The book is certainly full of interesting detail, which is why the index lets it down and prevents it from being a useful reference tool. Something much more detailed would suit better. As it is, one has to have a decent memory or many, many bookmarks in order to find one’s way around. All in all, a flawed, yet fascinating, book. -- Trevor Pyne.


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