Canterbury Uncovered

Curious Canterbury: The Old Witches ‘ Ducking Stool

Location: Old Weavers House Bridge, Canterbury CT1 2JE

If you walk over the bridge on the high street by the old Weavers’ House, you might see something strange, held aloft over the river Stour. Incongruous above the heads of the happy riverboat tour guides that we see today, sits an old witches’ ducking stool.

Canterbury was once home to Theodore of Tarsus, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 669-690 and was the first person to introduce legislation against witches in the county of Kent. Despite their occupation being made illegal, however, witches largely escaped persecution until the 16th and the 17th centuries.

As the vast majority of witches happened to be not actually witches, but normal people with an aptitude for attracting grudges, the ensuing witch-hunting spree of the late Middle Ages amounted to a lot of very regrettable executions. Most of the accused, but not all, were women. It was a time when it was very easy to get into rather a lot of trouble; for example, in 1597, John Darrell was sent to the gatehouse for saying something a bit rude about the Archbishop of Yorke. Entrenched power structures were firmly cast, and difficult to fight against. Mass hysteria fuelled this, particularly in times of famine, war or plague.

The witches ducking seat acted as both juror and executioner. Upon being dunked into the water, which would then have at that time been teeming with excrement and muck fresh from the city dwellers, the suspected would be held there for several minutes. If she or he emerged alive, it would be found that they were a witch. If they died, they would be proven innocent and they would receive a formal letter of apology from the Church, (which seems to be a terribly British way of conducting law and order).

People would stand on the bridge and watch this display, and the seat was made visible so as to accommodate the crowds of peering onlookers. The rivers and the towns would be thick with people, smells and noise; the accused would sit, amongst this, and wait.

During the period, ducking stools were also used for punishing ‘scolds’, which was a term for nagging or gossiping women. Scolds were often made to wear a humiliating and painful mask with a bit on their tongue and were paraded through the town. They would be dunked by their dissatisfied husbands, who paid to use the stool in order for their wives to be made an example of, and in the hope that it would lead to better future habits. Sort of like a grim, medieval version of relationship counselling. Now in Canterbury, we have Relate instead, which has a much better success rate.

So, when you look at the old witches’ dunking seat, know that despite its frailty, a lot of heavy decisions were once set to motion along that branch of timber, and many others just like it.

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