Enlightenment was decades away, but people were already beginning to stop, look around, think and speak out.Sects, some of them radical, formed, each with their own agenda. One of these groups, the Fifth Monarchists, were devoted to the belief that the four kingdoms described in the book of Daniel had passed and the time of the fifth kingdom — that of the returned Jesus Christ — was at hand. They believed they were saints living on the cusp of a new millennium. Several were high-ranking members of Oliver Cromwell’s government after the English Civil War; two even signed the death warrant of Charles I.
However, they soon fell from favor, horrified when Cromwell set up his Protectorate. They tried and failed, twice, to overthrow the regime.
They or any other sect, when caught by authorities, could be charged with witchcraft or any similar offense, including public prophesying. Occasionally these crimes were tantamount to sedition and those accused were either jailed or executed.
One interesting exception was Anna Trapnel. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she knew how to manipulate the social, political and religious constructions that defined English society. She not only prophesied publicly, she dared to write. In her famous Report and Plea — which is fascinating and should be more widely read — she says she seeks only to tell the truth and claims to have merely acted as a conduit for God.
That was clearly not the case. Her subtle use of political commentary is too frequent to believe this to be anything other than, well, political commentary. Still, it allowed her to disclaim any responsibility for her actions, thus theoretically making her innocent of any and all charges the law would bring against her. This is extremely important; because she continually impressed upon her audience that she was only a vessel, what she said while “under the influence” are God’s words and not the opinion of the Fifth Monarchists — of which she was a member.
Trapnel was tried and acquitted of witchcraft in 1654. A great deal of her Report is her first-person chronicle of her trial. Her Fifth Monarchist agenda can be seen throughout, but is exceedingly clear in her arrest. While relating how the constables and other town officials arrived at her lodgings to take her before a magistrate, she casually mentions that one of the justices that arranged for her warrant, Launce, was “now a Parliament-man”. This references the dissolution of the Barebones Parliament, which the Fifth Monarchists supported, and the institution of the Protectorate. Through her writing, Trapnel was confronting a fierce political rival.
Likewise she also identifies other areas of popular concern in her narrative, such as Church corruption. When speaking about her initial encounter with the law, when some tried to brand her a witch, she recalls the priest arrived with the officers of the law, because “one depends upon another, rulers upon clergy, and clergy upon rulers”. During her trial she mentions a particular priest with the justices, who had aided in the construction of the indictment against her. She noted “his pulpit wanted him … it being a fast day … which he broke without any scruple that so he might keep close to the work of accusation”. In both instances she attacks the symbiotic relationship between the Church of England and Cromwell’s government, using it to prove that the corruption was due to the lack of an earthly king. Indeed, it is her visions of an England ruled by “King Jesus” that most troubled Cromwell’s political order.
The way Trapnel constructs her text also lends credence to the idea that she was writing political commentary. No doubt drawing on popular crime literature and the rich and varied assortment of theatrical plays available, Trapnel turns her “report” into a drama complete with a heroine, villains and a chorus. At the heart of it all is Anna Trapnel, who portrays herself as naïve and guileless, while at the same managing to withstand when faced with the evil officials of a corrupt and immoral government. She frequently presents herself as an innocent; her characterization of herself is that of a martyr, even becoming Christ-like times. When taken into court, she says the spectators “mocked and derided me … but I was never in such a blessed self-denying lamb-like frame of mind as then”. Immediately, she has set herself up as the heroine who must “endure many trials” in order to “vindicate God’s word”.
Part of her “trials” is the trial itself; allegedly, she expected they would charge her as a “taciturn witch,” so she was as vocal as possible in the courtroom. Trapnel shows herself doing verbal battle with the justices who question her. She alludes to herself as a vessel throughout the proceedings and engages one justice in a theological debate over who has the right to judge another. This witty “judge not” repartee is intended to make Trapnel appear righteous, that she does not judge her fellow human being — God does. This dramatic scene reaches its climax when the “false witnesses” the court “procures” are presumably struck with the “error of their ways” and flee the courtroom. Trapnel goes on to recall more verbal sparring with her accusers, but the final result is an acquittal on the charge of witchcraft, although the court admonishes her to pray only in the place where she resides.
As she leaves the court, she very purposely mentions that the crowd outside was “very loving” and that they were convinced that she was “no witch … for she speaks many good words which the witches could not”. The crowd, then, is her Greek chorus. Their emotions are intended to mirror that of the reader’s, and to provide a vantage from which to view Trapnel’s case.
Anna Trapnel very clearly set out to write the story of her trial with personal vindication and politics in mind. Had done any one thing and not the others, her innocence would not be as questionable as it is. However, she evidently knew how to make her points without putting herself in too much danger — and it can be assumed that she had more motivations in writing and “prophesying” than she ever admitted in her lifetime.
For more on the Fifth Monarchists, see this entry on English Dissenters.
A PDF version of Report and Plea is available from Norton.