THE ESSEX SOCIETY FOR ARCHAEOLOGY & HISTORY
Volume 2 · 2011
196
What did Thomas Plume think about witchcraft?
Reconstructing the intellectual outlook of a little-known
17
th
-
century English sceptic.
Alison Rowlands
Introduction
Thomas Plume was an Anglican cleric who lived between
1630
and 1704. His name has lived on (at least as far as the
eastern region of England is concerned) because of the Plume
Library in his home town of Maldon, Essex, and the Plumian
Professorship of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy
at the University of Cambridge, both of which he founded
by bequest and both of which survive to this day.
1
Plume’s
life coincided not just with the turbulent political events of
mid-seventeenth-century England but also with the largest
ever English witch-prosecution – the East Anglian Witch
Hunt of 1645–7 – and its aftermath in late-seventeenth-
century debates about the reality of witchcraft. But what did
Plume think about the subject? This article seeks to answer
this question, drawing for evidence on Plume’s life-history
and probable personal experience of the East Anglian witch-
hunts; on anecdotes about witchcraft and magic that Plume
wrote in a personal notebook in the late 1640s; and on the
contents of the Plume Library (the
c
. 7,400
volumes which
the avid bibliophile Plume collected during his life-time and
bequeathed to Maldon to enable local clergymen who could
not afford to buy books themselves to attain adequate levels
of erudition).
2
Plume never published anything on the subject of
witchcraft, so why does he matter to its seventeenth-century
history? As we shall see, he emerges as a post-Restoration
Anglican cleric who, while supporting Henry More and Joseph
Glanvill’s insistence on the existence of spirits, remained
critical of the excesses of popular superstition and of the
religious radicals who tried to exploit such superstition, either
in the form of witch-hunts or pretended exorcisms. He was
thus a sceptic who seems to have believed that proper religious
education, rather than the heavy hand of the law, was the
best remedy against alleged witches, demoniacs and cunning
folk, but who generally did not accord any of these subjects
a particularly high priority in his everyday life and career.
Plume is thus interesting precisely because he was neither
a famous opponent of witch-trials (like Johann Weyer or
Friedrich Spee) nor a radical challenger of witchcraft beliefs
(
like Reginald Scot or John Webster), but a ‘run-of-the-mill’
sceptic whose views (if representative of a broader swathe of
post-Restoration Anglican opinion) help explain why the
persecution of witches declined so markedly in England in the
late-17
th
century, despite the fact that debates about beliefs in
the supernatural continued into the early 18
th
century.
3
Robin
Briggs contended in the late 1990s that witch-hunting never
developed anything like its full potential in early modern
Europe; more recently, Erik Midelfort has reminded us that
large-scale witch ‘crazes’ were exceptional events which have
distorted our understanding of the broader spectrum of early
modern beliefs about witchcraft and magic.
4
This is, then,
perhaps a good time to highlight the importance (and need
for further study) of the sort of low-key, quotidian scepticism
represented by Plume, as it may have played a much more
significant role in keeping witch-hunts in check than has
hitherto been recognised.
Thomas Plume was born in the Essex town of Maldon
and baptized on 18 August 1630, the second son of Thomas
and Helen Plume.
5
Thomas senior had both wealth (he was
a landowner and also traded in coal) and significant political
status in Maldon, acting as one of the town’s two bailiffs on
six occasions between 1627 and 1649 and as an alderman
from 1624 to 1653 (and probably as the lead alderman from
1636).
He was also a Presbyterian who became an elder of
the Dengie classis.
6
Thomas junior was sent to school in the
county town of Chelmsford, about ten miles from Maldon,
at the age of eight or nine, probably as a boarder, before
moving on to Cambridge in 1646:
7
he was formally admitted
to Christ’s College on 24 February 1646, aged fifteen years
and six months.
8
Despite his father’s Presbyterianism and
willingness to conform to rule by Parliament, which might
have been expected to encourage Thomas junior in the same
political and religious direction, the latter displayed royalist
feelings from his earliest Cambridge days. The notebook of
accounts he kept as a student begins with a Cavalier verse
inveighing against the ‘accurst Anarchy, sedition, murther and
rapine’ occasioned by the Civil War, and calls on supporters of
Charles I to redouble their efforts in the King’s cause;
9
a second
notebook, in which Plume recorded verses and anecdotes while
at Cambridge between 1646 and 1650
10
likewise contained
three royalist poems.
11
The anti-Catholic, anti-Puritan and
anti-Parliamentarian tone of sixteen of the 245 anecdotes this
second notebook contains, coupled with some notes Plume
made on a sermon about communion, have led Plume’s
biographer, Tony Doe, to conclude that ‘he was beginning to
hold, even at this early stage of his life, proto-Anglican beliefs
of a moderate nature’.
12
Plume maintained this position, and the loyalty to
monarch, episcopacy, and the Church of England that it
entailed, for the rest of his life. Given his views, he dropped into
relative obscurity during the 1650s after leaving Cambridge,
probably spending these years with his former Cambridge tutor,
William More, at Kegworth in Leicestershire, and then with his
great friend and mentor, John Hacket (who became the post-
Restoration Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield) at Cheam in
Kent.
13
Plume’s successful career in the Church began with his
appointment as Vicar of Greenwich in the Diocese of Rochester
in 1658, a position he held until his death (unmarried) on 20
November 1704. He also obtained the sinecure living of Merston
in Kent in 1662, and was made Archdeacon of Rochester, a
prebend of Rochester Cathedral and a Freeman of the City of
Rochester in 1679.
14
Plume left relatively few personal traces
in the sparse sources that survive for his parish and diocese
for this period, but Doe suggests that this was at least in part