Regular readers will know that I am always looking out for those unusual stories of local people in history and the life of Anna (or Hannah) Trapnell is certainly unusual.
Anna Trapnell was born in Poplar in the 1630s, the only child of William Trapnell who was a shipwright.
It is worth noting at this time that Poplar was a small hamlet which had a number of ship workers resident who worked in the shipyards at Blackwall. The East India Company based their operations in Blackwall when they bought a shipyard in 1614.
Little is known about Anna’s mother except that she bought up Anna to be able to be literate and to believe in God.
Anna later said that “When a child, the Lord awed my spirit, and so for the least trespass, my heart was smitten.”
Anna believed that her relationship with God was a personal one, and around the time of her mother’s death in 1645 , she began to experience visions of a religious nature.
Her father had died sometime before, so Anna went to live with her aunt and visited a number of congregations especially around St Dunstan’s in Stepney. In her pursuit for religious salvation she underwent fasting that led to trances and visions. Although Anna’s religious experiences were extreme even for the time, they were no means unusual.
However it is the next stage of her life that made her name and for a short time she became a ‘famous celebrity’.
After a serious illness in 1647, Anna’s visions became more like prophecies of future events. The visions were published in a series of pamphlets which gave testament of Anna’s ability to see the future. She said she forsaw the New Model Army’s entry into London, in 1650 she saw Cromwell’s defeat of the Scots at Dunbar, In 1652 Anna predicted victory over the Dutch, in 1653 Cromwell’s dissolution of the Barebones Parliament and being declared Protector .
Whilst attending a trial at Whitehall, she went into a trance and was taken to a local inn where she lay on the bed with eyes shut and began to recite verses over the next twelve days not eating and drinking only a small sip of beer. One of the visions she related was that God would punish Cromwell for his corruptions.
Anna may have thought she had divine guidance in heaven but she was making some dangerous enemies on earth.
England after the Civil war was in political and religious turmoil, Anna’s attack on Cromwell would have normally resulted in her death. Her insistence that she was God’s prophet led various religious institutions to accuse her of blasphemy or witchcraft.
After her Whitehall visions, she decided to go to Cornwall and spread the word of God but was arrested and charged with witchcraft, madness, whoredom, vagrancy, and seditious intent.
However by quoting freely from the bible and insisting that she was a free single woman who had a right to pray, publish, and travel according to common law and God’s word, she remarkably managed to escape being convicted and possible death but was taken to Plymouth to be sent back to London and was taken to Bridewell Prison . Anna now was at the height of her fame and rather than make her a martyr, the government decided to release her.
In a time of great religious and political intolerance, Anna through a combination of religious zeal and a belief in her own rights had taken on the establishment and survived. It is important to recognise it was her skill to present her argument in a sensible and reasonable manner that prevented her being considered mad and being burnt as a witch.
For the next couple of years , she travels around and publishes her trances until she mysteriously drops out of the public arena. No-one knows what happened next or when she died, but in recent years the interest in the incredible exploits of the young girl from Poplar has steadily grown.