The Bewitching of Anne Gunter of North Moreton
18 May 2023
When 14-year-old Anne Gunter began to exhibit disturbing symptoms that her family attributed to witchcraft, the quiet South Oxfordshire village of North Moreton became the focus of national, and even royal, interest.
Seizures and paralysis
Anne's trouble began in 1604 when she started to experience fits and spells of total paralysis. During these seizures she would babble incessantly about three local women, Elizabeth Gregory, Agnes Pepwell, and her daughter Mary Pepwell. She accused the three ladies of witchcraft.
To find out whether Anne was really being bewitched, a self-styled witch-hunter named John Wendore was summoned from Newbury. Wendore examined Anne, paying special attention to her urine, which was apparently a typical means of detecting witchcraft at the time, but it is unknown what conclusion he reached from this!
The situation soon escalated, with Anne's father Brian claiming that he had also experience pains in his shoulder that disappeared only after he had scratched Elizabeth Gregory on the head. This too was seen as a clear sign of witchcraft and of Elizabeth Gregory's guilt.
Over the following weeks, Anne's symptoms worsened, including frothing at the mouth and the release of pins from her mouth, hands, and breasts. Many local priests, even Oxford scholars, came to examine Anne, but all they seemed to be able to do was shake their heads and diagnose witchcraft as the cause.
One of the witches confesses
With all fingers pointing to Elizabeth Gregory, Agnes Pepwell and Mary Pepwell, the trio were arrested and imprisoned at Abingdon to await trial at the next assizes. While imprisoned, Agnes Pepwell made a startling confession that seemingly confirmed Anne and Brian Gunter's accusations.
Agnes said that she and her companions had indeed been practicing witchcraft for a number of years and went on to give all sorts of curious details, including descriptions of the three women's animal familiars (a black cat, a mouse called Sweat and a white toad called Vizitt). Whether her confession was given willingly is unknown, but for a time it looked like it might seal the three women's fate.
The fraud is revealed
However, a Wiltshire gentleman named Thomas Hinton had become interested in the case and was sceptical as to whether witchcraft was really involved. Hinton was determined to find out whether Anne was faking her symptoms. When visiting the Gunters, he surreptitiously marked various pins he saw around the Gunter's house. When Anne Gunter later pretended to vomit up the self-same pins, Hinton was able to identify the pins and reveal her trickery.
Hinton reported his findings to the authorities and it cast enough doubt on the Gunter's story to get the three accused women released without charge.
King James I gets involved
Although the case had been thrown out of the courts, the story does not end there. King James I was visiting Oxford and, knowing that the king had previously expressed a keen interest in witchcraft and demonology, Brian Gunter took the opportunity to request an audience with the king!
His request was successful, and Anne and Brian Gunter were granted an audience. They did not, however, find the ally they had hoped for in King James, who passed them on to his Archbishop Richard Bancroft. Bancroft investigated the case, and his report was damning against Brian Gunter.
Brian Gunter's cruel scheme is revealed
Despite his relatively affluent and respected position in the local community, Brian Gunter appears to have been a violent and malicious man. In 1598 he had come close to being tried for murder after attacking two men with a knife during a fracas at a football match.
Both men later died of their injuries, and both men were sons of the Gregory family, the same family who Anne and Brian Gunter had accused of witchcraft! Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was considerable animosity between the two families which provided a motive for Brian Gunter's witchcraft hoax.
Archbishop Bancroft's report revealed Brian Gunter as the mastermind behind a scheme to frame his rivals for witchcraft. Worse than that, he had demonstrated extreme cruelty in forcing his daughter to go through with the hoax. He had forced Anne to drink wine and oil, and had even poisoned or drugged her on occasion, in order to cause the convulsions and paralysis that the duo passed off as witchcraft symptoms. The report painted Brian Gunter as a bully who had forced his daughter to continue the deception, coaching her to regurgitate pins and go through humiliating and intrusive public examinations. Anne had even attempted suicide on a number of occasions.
Brian Gunter was brought before the Star Chamber, the criminal court at Westminster usually reserved for politically prominent people who local courts might not feel they had the authority to prosecute.
Frustratingly, the verdict given against Brian Gunter seems to be lost to history, though he is known to have been briefly locked up in Lambeth Palace. He is known to have lived on into old age so we know that he avoided the capital punishments that he had been hoping for Elizabeth Gregory and Agnes and Mary Pepwell!
- 'The Veiled Vale' by Mike White (Two Rivers Press, 2016, ISBN: 0791909747173)
- History of North Moreton (www.north-moreton.com)
- North Moreton - Warriors and Witchcraft (www.berkshirehistory.com)