Cover Image: The Manningtree Witches

The Manningtree Witches

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Member Reviews

Winter lays down hard frosts, vitrifying the roads and the rooftops, enforcing seclusion and imposing fasts. Pigs freeze to death in their pens. News slows to a trickle. Letters go astray and are intercepted, the heart’s-blood missives of young lovers and the sober bulletins of generals alike. The rumour is that both armies are quartered away for Christmastide, but no definitive word on this subject arrives. An army is a very large thing to lose; losing two begins to look like carelessness. While marching orders and tactical directives deliquesce on the brumal winds, the pyrotechnics of imminent apocalypse shimmer just as rosily on the ice-bound horizon as they ever did. In Ipswich, a sorceress is seen shrieking down the Orwell on a pole, wielding lightning bolts.  …………… In Manningtree itself there have been most strange and inexplicable happenings that could be accounted for only by infernal malice.

This book was recently included on a very impressive shortlist for the Desmond Elliott Prize for Debut fiction.

This is a fictionalised account of a dark period in English history – the actions of the so-called “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins, who for a brief period in an East Anglia convulsed by the Civil War, effectively revised the idea of witchcraft trials, widely quoted as being responsible in just 2-3 years for as many executions from witchcraft as seen in England in the previous 150 years.

The book is set in the eponymous Essex town where his crusade began and is effectively narrated by one of his accused – Rebecca West, a young girl, arrested for witchcraft with her widowed mother (who was believed by Hopkins to be at the centre of the witches activity with another elderly eccentric – Elizabeth Clark).  Sometimes directly in the first person, sometimes with Rebecca imagining or recounting scenes she hears about but does not participate in, and sometimes in more of a third party narrator style.

The outline of the story that follows is in some ways terribly familiar – not least to anyone who, like me, studied Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” for A-Level: arguments, allegations, hysterical reactions, accusations, arrests, confessions – forced or tactically volunteered, recantations, trials, and executions.

But of course it was Hopkins actions and treatises which partly inspired the Salem trials.

The book is clearly the subject of detailed and (as far as I can) very accurately rendered research and yet this this is not one of those historical fiction books where either dialogue is used for historical exposition or the narrator’s voice hijacked to cram in some research.  And the historical fact is blended with imagination and with gentle (and far from over-laboured) allusions to contemporary relevance – allusions the author allows the reader to form for themselves.

The author conveys brilliantly the tensions, petty jealousies, long-held resentments and class/gender biases of the town which of course form the soil in which the accusations and insinuations of witchcraft can be planted and allowed to flourish.

The author does examine what might have caused the actions of Hopkins as well as those that encouraged or at least did not hinder him.

Partly this is the background of the times: the natural order of divine rule of Kings being overturned by Parliament; a fierce iconoclastic reaction (inspired by both patriotism and direct access to the scriptures) against the perceived perversions of Popery; villages and towns largely devoid of fighting-fit men, both removing their protection from their womenfolk and surely making those of an age left behind feeling a need to prove their prowess and power.  I was reminded in some of Hopkins (and his associates) views – in their simultaneous hatred of and obsession with women of the present day Incel movement.

And all of this is shot through with fear of the present and future, and with a religiously fanatically view which is long on judgment and short on mercy (it was for me very telling that Hopkins almost obsessive biblical quotations seem to omit the gospels almost entirely, and pretty well the New Testament) and a fanatical belief in providence which struggles to explain the vicissitudes of normal existence as not being of diabolic design.  

But what the book is really about (as the author says in the Afterword) is the “fears, hopes, desires and insecurities of the women who scratched out their existence on the very edges of society, and who have otherwise gone voiceless, or else been muted by victimhood.” 

And the author does a brilliant job, principally by the wonderful character of Rebecca in capturing their voices – their (again her words) “character, humour and pride”.

We see through Rebecca how impossible it is to avoid accusations of witchcraft once placed: how for example she asks can she provide an alibi if she can apparently be in two places at once via transportation, or supposedly carry out her nefarious schemes at a distance via invisible imps; and how she asks can she testify truthfully to save herself when “I can say again and again, a thousand times.. that I am not w witch and have not traffic with the Devil not his spirits, and it will account for nothing.  But if I say once that I am, then it counts for everything”

The author is a poet and the language in the book is superbly crafted – studded with quite beautiful writing, I have started and ended my review with two examples, but there are many more phrases (“the grass a hard enameled green in the low rays of sunshine, already a crust of young moon visible over the treetops”) 

The reading experience is visceral, immersive and multi-sensory: you are really placed in the mind and body of the narrator; and in the smells, sights, touch, sounds of 1740s Essex. 

True winter refuses to leave, tantrums, threatens to scatter abjection all over the country again. Dark clouds flex and leer above the cursed cities and empty fields with a renewed sense of commitment to pathetic fallacy. Riding high. The world seems his; he thought it would feel better than it does.

Highly recommended.
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As the country is riven by Civil War, the people of Mannintree get on with their lives.  Many women are widowed and those who are married are fearful of them, to the extent that witchcraft is a common accusation.  Into this comes Matthew Hopkins, an austere Puritan, who becomes a self-styled Witchfinder and takes up several women in the village.  Rebecca West is one of them, attractive and intelligent but the daughter of an outspoken widow who does not help her cause.
I loved this book!  It is a more feminist slant on the witchcraft purge in East Anglia in the mid-1640s with a feisty protagonist and a focus on the unbelievable (to our modern eyes) accusations.  The sexual tension is realistic and the horrors of incarceration and hanging are described with both detail and also a light touch.
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Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I really enjoyed reading this book! It fits perfectly into my favourite historical fiction niche: 17th century Britain. I think if I was into giving half star ratings this would get 3.5. It just didn’t hit me or blow me away quite enough to give any higher a rating.

This is a very character driven book and the character development is done really well. Each character felt very distinct and I felt like I knew them all quite well. This meant though that there wasn’t too much going on with the plot - not necessarily a bad thing just I know some people aren’t a fan of this.

I liked the perspective of Rebecca but also the fact that we got a sort of third person perspective at times when Rebecca wasn’t witnessing the happenings of certain chapters. This mixture worked really well in my opinion.

I think the atmosphere of a seventeenth century English town during the witch hunts was done so well and you could really understand the motives behind certain actions and why people thought the way they did back then.

I would just say that the lack of plot at points made me a bit bored, but obviously it wasn’t completely plotless, there were just points where not much was going on. I also felt some scenes or sections were a little dragged out such as when they’re in prison. But I fully appreciate that it was mostly an accurate portrayal of what happened to the real Manningtree Witches and I’m such a big fan of historical fiction that doesn’t shy away from the truth!
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A vividly immersive novel exploring the Manningtree witch trials and the persecution of hundreds of women by the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, during the 1640s. The story focuses on Rebecca West and her formidable mother, the Beldam West, deftly portraying their tumultuous relationship with a universality that will feel familiar to mothers and daughters everywhere.

Blakemore’s storytelling weaves historical fact with beautifully written conjecture on the motivations and interior lives of these maligned women, who until now have remained voiceless. Lyrical and razor-sharp, Blakemore writes with wit and meticulous attention to detail making this novel feel refreshingly modern despite the historical subject matter. 

Where this book floundered for me was the too-neatly packed ending which felt trite when compared with an otherwise sophisticated narrative. I wish Blakemore had been bolder in her conclusion. However, The Manningtree Witches is a darkly accomplished debut, a confident and intelligent new work in the canon of historical fiction.
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While it took me a while to truly get into The Manningtree Witches, I was immediately struck by the evocative nature of the prose - I could truly imagine the gritty sights, smells, and sounds of the 17th Century, for better or for worse! It's a stark exploration of the nature of witchcraft accusations as another means of exerting control over any woman who "makes things happen" and who lives as she pleases.
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I found it quite tricky to get into this book but once I did I read it soooo fast. loved it and would definitely recommend
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The Manningtree Witches is a super slow burn, and it took me quite a while to get in to. (A good like, 20-25% or more, maybe). When I got into the story though, I did really enjoy it and want to know more. 

My heart broke for these girls (and Vinegar Tom, I haven't recovered from that yet and probably won't ever). It's really hard to believe that these kind of things used to happen in the world. 

MC Rebecca is a strong women, (you have to be to endure the witch trials) and even knowing you're falsely accused doesn't make her waver. I am quite intrigued by what she starts to see, or think she might have seen, and would have loved even more story surrounding that.

Quick moment of appreciation for the gorgeous cover!

3.5 stars.

Thanks to NetGalley, Granta Publications and A.K. Blakemore for an eArc copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review!
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Dark and lyrical - the author is also poet and this shows; the prose is gorgeous - with an interesting main character and a lot of themes that are (somewhat sadly) still relevant today.
Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for review.
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It took some time for me to get into this book. I can't put my finger on why. I was enjoying the writing style, I was intrigued by the story but something was missing. It took until the half way point for me to feel fully invested and I did end up enjoying the story as a whole. When fictionalising a real life event it can be tricky to fully flesh out a character and I thought that Matthew Hopkins (the Witchfinder General) needed more detail, I didn't feel like I knew enough about Becky West either, the main character. I think the book needed another 100 pages to round things out. What I did like was the language used and the wry sense of humour that was often injected into the conversations between the Manningtree women. If you like stories about (alleged) witches then I don't think you will be disappointed in this and I would definitely read more from this author.
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thanks to netgalley/granta for a review copy. really enjoyed this, although it didn't truly find its feet until about 100 pages in. as some others have commented, the movement between different POVs/narrative styles was a bit jarring, and it potentially could have worked better without the first person narration at all. the characters, however, were well-crafted and definitely did justice to those caught up within this period of british history. the middle section of the narrative flew by and was a delight to read. the author's style is undoubtedly poetic and there are some beautiful turns of phrase throughout.
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I am fascinated with the history of witches especially stories that are based in the areas where I live so was excited to read this book. 

The Manningtree Tree witches was a enjoyable read and it didn't dissapoint. It was very easy to get into and is an enjoyable, descriptive story based on  a fictional account of the witch hunt by Matthew Hopkins and the plight of the women of the age told through a story of Rebecca West.
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I had the amazing opportunity to participate in another instagram readalong – this time reading the Manningtree Witches by A.K. Blakemore with some amazing bookstagrammers. We even had a wonderful Q&A chat with the author once we finished the book. Huge thank you to the team at Tandem as well as the publisher, Granta Books, for sending me a copy of the book to read and review!

Synopsis:
England, 1643. Parliament is battling the King; the war between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers rages. Puritanical fervour has gripped the nation, and the hot terror of damnation burns black in every shadow.

In Manningtree, depleted of men since the wars began, the women are left to their own devices. At the margins of this diminished community are those who are barely tolerated by the affluent villagers – the old, the poor, the unmarried, the sharp-tongued. Rebecca West, daughter of the formidable Beldam West, fatherless and husbandless, chafes against the drudgery of her days, livened only by her infatuation with the clerk John Edes. But then newcomer Matthew Hopkins, a mysterious, pious figure dressed from head to toe in black, takes over The Thorn Inn and begins to ask questions about the women of the margins. When a child falls ill with a fever and starts to rave about covens and pacts, the questions take on a bladed edge.

My Thoughts:
As soon as I laid eyes on the cover and the synopsis, I knew I had to read it. And it didn’t disappoint at all. I just had to shift my expectations a little bit.

The Manningtree Witches is a book set in England in 1643, where witch hunters were quite popular and many women were killed after being accused of witchcraft. This book is actually inspired by true events that happened in history. The focus was more on the historical aspect and bringing life to the characters, rather than the supernatural elements.

We never get a full clarification whether Beldam West, her daughter Rebecca and the other women were actually witches, and we get a glimpse of their lives and their imprisonment. We get a front row seat of their feelings, and how this impacts them as well as the community. It was so interesting to also get a point of view from the perspective of the witch hunter. As the villain that he is, I loved getting to know his opinion on the situation and his reasoning.

“But if a witch can be in two places at once, as you say, then I cannot prove my innocence by those same means. Nor, it seems to me, by any other. I can say again and again, a thousand times, sir, that I am not a witch, and have no traffic with the Devil nor his spirits, and it will account for nothing. But if I say once that I am, then it will account for everything.”

The writing is very lyrical and also captures the old-style English.
I had to refer to my dictionary a few times, which has now become a rare occasion. And I really enjoyed learning some new words. I’m looking at you – lucre, extemporise, gaol, interlocutor and bray! You can immediately notice the love the author has for poetry. It took me a while to get into it, but after 80 pages I started loving it.

There were times when I was confused about whose point of view I am currently reading about. This slightly interrupted my concentration, but the story was wonderful in terms of timeline and storytelling.

The only reason of my rating is because my expectations were different going into the book. My need for paranormal elements and a bit of witchcraft weren’t satisfied. However, putting my expectations aside, this book beautifully represents the reality of witch hunting and the struggles so many women had to endure during these times.

If you want to read a book about the witch hunting in history, The Manningtree Witches is a wonderful lyrical take on the events that happened in Manningtree. However, if you want a book that has more “witchy” elements – I would suggest you skip this one.
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Thank you to Net Galley and the publishers for sending me a copy of the book in exchange for a review. 

This was a fascinating and thought provoking look at the Manningtree witches and the witch trials of Mathew Hopkins in Essex and the surrounding counties. I loved the character of Rebecca West, who as a young woman, was feeling natural thoughts but because of the Puritan community she lived in, believed she was a sinner. 

The portrayal of Hopkins was great - a zealot of a man who in my opinion was either scared of the way women made him feel or was worried because he didn’t find them attractive (either was a sin in his mind).
 A sickly, cold liar who creeped me out. 

Absolutely brilliant and I would recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction!
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I knew I would like this book as I’m extremely interested in Wicca and the Occult and witch trials fascinate me. 

The story revolves around Rebecca West, who we are aware must be a witch as her mum has the traits as well as a few of her neighbours. As the story progresses we see Rebecca becoming aware of her heritage and if she is a witch. She also has to contend with a witchfinder coming to her village who imprisons anyone he believes to be a witch.

Once I got passed some of the slow writing  I was completely hooked by this book, and was happily finishing it within 5 days. I would highly recommend as it’s definitely relevant to modern times, even though its based in the 1600s, as it revolves around women, strong passionate women with voices that want to be heard in a time when it is very male dominated and for a woman to have a voice and opinions are frowned upon.
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“England, 1643. Parliament is battling the King; the war between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers rages. Puritanical fervour has gripped the nation, and the hot terror of damnation burns black in every shadow.
In Manningtree, depleted of men since the wars began, the women are left to their own devices. At the margins of this diminished community are those who are barely tolerated by the affluent villagers - the old, the poor, the unmarried, the sharp-tongued. Rebecca West, daughter of the formidable Beldam West, fatherless and husbandless, chafes against the drudgery of her days, livened only by her infatuation with the clerk John Edes. But then newcomer Matthew Hopkins, a mysterious, pious figure dressed from head to toe in black, takes over The Thorn Inn and begins to ask questions about the women of the margins. When a child falls ill with a fever and starts to rave about covens and pacts, the questions take on a bladed edge.
The Manningtree Witches plunges its readers into the fever and menace of the English witch trials, where suspicion, mistrust and betrayal ran amok as the power of men went unchecked and the integrity of women went undefended. It is a visceral, thrilling book that announces a bold new talent.”
 
Reading this, I felt a bit like the teens who watch Titanic not realising it’s based on real events. I mean, I know the witch trials were a ‘thing’ but I don’t know how well I connected the Witchfinder General characters and stories with a real set of events, and not far from me in East Anglia either.  I’ve been to Salem in the US, where on a very quiet Wednesday morning a couple of costumed tour guides took my husband and I on the tour (complete with role play, it was very sweet of them to make the effort), but I just never thought about it being in the UK, really. Anyway, enough of my ignorance. 
 
Rebecca West is a late teens woman who lives with her mother in a small village, where she is not very affectionately referred to as ‘the Beldam West’. She is a drunkard, and crotchety, and prone to unwomanly outbursts. Basically, she’s a fun character and so is Rebecca, who chafes in her house but doesn’t have a way out unless she’s married. And in this time, men are few and far between, leaving the women to hold the fort. 
It’s much funnier than I expected, being an historical novel and written in that kind of style, talking about stays and slippers and everyone is addressed as Mother, Goody or Widow depending on their marital status. 
 
Rebecca moves through her pretty hard life from day to day, trying to get enough to eat for her and her mother, and their bad tempered cat, Vinegar Tom. They grow vegetables, and sell whatever they can of her crafting - embroidery, mostly. She’s also unusual in that she’s learning her letters from one of the town’s eligible bachelors. She and her mother have terrible fights, and in one of these she flees out the door before the jug her mother has thrown can connect with her face, led out by a yowling Vinegar Tom. A passing farmer happens to see it, and in that instance it’s re-told, morphed into a parade of ‘imps’ who blew past him with a malignant air. In this way, the seeds are sown for the West women, along with others in their village.
 
The arrival of another eligible bachelor is a cause for some gossip, and some hope too. A child the Beldam West chides for being naughty then falls ill, and Matthew Hopkins becomes less of an ideal husband and much more of a threat. 
 
I thought that the ambiguity in whether or not the women were witches, was interesting. I don’t think they were Satan’s handmaidens of course, but they all made their own poultices and medicines, talked of healing and supporting each other. The child that is told off, is the one that falls ill and none of his symptoms sound like something we’d know today - hallucinations, speaking in tongues - what could it be, if not possession? Maybe they did have something to do with it. That of course doesn’t mean that they’re deserving of their fate. 
 
Around 300 women are recorded to have died in this period - drowned or hanged, mostly - with no punishment or apology shown. I found the article below from a few years ago in the local paper: 
https://www.harwichandmanningtreestandard.co.uk/news/16685384.witch-memorial-30-000-bronze/. It’s a great idea, and sounds like something the council will benefit from in terms of tourist trade, if nothing else. The lady who set this up was hoping for £30k and when I checked, 3 years after it had been created, it had £350.  This is still a great amount to have been raised, and took such a lot of time and effort, but really - where were we? 
It all feels quite timely, in the wake of Sarah Everard’s (alleged) murder and the ongoing case. Women have been mistreated by men, for ever. For the crime of making your own ointment. For having a cat. For telling a kid to stop being annoying. It might have been hundreds of years ago, but so were a lot of things we keep talking about - Jack the Ripper, for instance. These women accused of witches were allowed to be treated so badly because they were poor, on their own and defenceless. They represented some kind of threat to those around them and they were eradicated and dismissed as a result. Does that sound familiar?

The book itself was, I thought - slightly overlong. It was a bit of a slow burner which might suit some people, I was a bit more impatient and wanted the narrative to hurry up a bit, if I’m honest. The ending was a bit of a false ending too, it felt like it had a natural end but continued for maybe two or three chapters afterwards, wrapping things up which could have been a bit slicker. It almost felt like AK Blakemore has written the first couple of chapters of the next book, keen to get started. I would read that, by the way - the sequel.

Thanks as always to Netgalley and to Granta Publishers for the DRC. This is available to buy now!
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This is a great book and an engaging read but it made me so angry the entire way through as the power men had/have over women was so strongly displayed. Sod the Witchfinder General!
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The Manningtree Witches by A.K Blakemore is a stunning tale of the Manningtree witch trials orchestrated by infamous witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins. Set in Essex, England in 1643, the story centres on the lives of a number of women who, in the fever of the times, come to be suspected of witchcraft. 

Rebecca West, the young protagonist, is our eyes and ears in the town, and through her we meet some of the story’s prolific ‘witches’, some of whom (such as Elizabeth Clarke) were the real victims of Hopkin’s assault on the women of the town. Her mother, her friends and her mothers friends all experience the suspicion in some form, each dealing with it in their own special way. Some enact a thrilling performance of possession by evil forces while others, with little other choice, succumb to the intrusions, interrogations and probing it was believed necessary in order for maleficum to be declared. 

Through it’s imps, charms and rituals that lurk in the shadows of this text, in the marginal species of dreams and twisted gossip, this novel reveals something even darker and more insidious than the believed witchcraft itself. That is, the systematic exploitation and punishment of women, especially those that refuse to subscribe to the patriarchal and puritan regimes of the town. 

This is a completely thrilling and original take on a moment in English history that is little discussed. Blakemore demonstrates a masterful use of language to create a narrative that is both warm and cheerful in it’s depictions of rebellious women while simultaneously terrifying. 

This is a brilliant read, I thoroughly enjoyed it!
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*A big thank-you to A.K. Blakemore, Granta Publications, and NetGalley for arc in exchange for my honest review.*
A superbly written novel set in the 1640s when the Civil War has just begun and when witch hunts continue. The novel based on real events, focuses on a group of women who through their independence are feared and despised in a small community. When a witchfinder, the famous Matthew Hopkins, appears, they are persecuted, accused of witchcraft and taken to Colchester for a trial. 
The novel is superbly written, atmospheric and with the feel of dread and helplessness. The language is not easy to follow but it definitely adds to the authenticity of the period. The characters feel natural and not modern as is often the case with historical fiction. Descriptions of Essex are poetic and it does not surprise as the author is a poet and this is her debut novel. And a remarkable debut!
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A sad but joyous historical and read (with the occasional dip into a large dictionary) that gripped me from page one..

The book is set in the early 1640s in a village in rural Essex, bordering Suffolk, and with a background of the  English Civil War - although this conflict does warrant only a few references. 

The village of Manningtree is beautifully described using much 'old' English and some of the inhabitants ( many being extremely poor) are accused of being witches and there are witch hunts of real life conducted by the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins.

The fabulous imagery of their lives, the village life (yes, even a pub!) and relationships was so good the whole book has to be five stars. Loved it!

Thanks to Net Galley and Granta Publications for the chance to read and review.
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Rich and detailed, this beautifully written book gives a voice to one of the women accused in England’s seventeenth century witch trials. It perfectly  captures a sense of panic and loss of control as the villagers get whipped up into a frenzy and the accusations begin to fly. The book explores the way that any woman who didn’t perfectly fit with society’s view of how a woman should behave was at risk, as well as the hypocrisy of those who persecuted them.
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