Decline into the 17th Century
The early years of the 17th Century saw a gradual decline in Aldeburgh’s fortunes. At first shipbuilding and trade were still thriving; the fishing was good. But then a series of violent and destructive storms lashed the East coast; flimsy lathe and plaster cottages were battered by wind and waves and many were lost to the sea.
Poverty was growing as the result of increasing demands for men and money for the Civil War (1642-51); in 1643 Parliamentary soldiers were quartered in the Church.
The Civil War was closely followed by the three Dutch trade Wars (1652-74) which culminated in the terrible and indecisive Battle of Sole Bay fought off Southwold in 1672. Many sailors were cast on shore and upon the charity of the nearest town.
To make matters worse outbreaks of plague and smallpox claimed many victims and fishermen lost their boats and their lives to marauding pirates.
In 1662 the Hearth Tax Return shows Aldeburgh with 77 houses occupied, 34 empty and 25 certificates of poverty. The many beggars and poor people had to be supported by a declining population. A population of 1300 in 1603 had fallen to below 650 in 1670.
In the midst of this misery the town was caught up in a wave of hysteria against so-called ‘witches’ which swept through East Anglia. Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witch Finder General, and widow Phillips, his search woman, were employed by the Burgesses to find out witches in Aldeburgh. Seven women were incarcerated in the Moot Hall’s prison in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record. They were prevented from sleeping and watched for proof of their guilt – that is for the coming of their familiar spirits. Eventually, cold, hungry and exhausted, they must have confessed. They were all hanged in February 1646. Altogether the cost of ridding the town of these poor women was tremendous and a special rate had to be raised to meet it.