English Witchcraft

Enlarge picture
Title page of Daemonologie, James I's book against witchcraft, 1597. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.

English Witchcraft

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The first witchcraft trial in England was held in the secular courts in 1209, when one woman accused another of sorcery. The accused was cleared by ordeal. In 1279, a man was accused of killing a witch who, he claimed, had assaulted him. In 1325, twenty-seven people of the city of Coventry were charged with plotting to kill the king, Edward II, using a wax image. Prior to that, Walter, Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry and former treasurer to King Edward I, was taken to trial in 1303 with charges related to witchcraft, although this was politically motivated. Also politically motivated was the charge of witchcraft brought by Roger Mortimer against Edmund, Earl of Kent, in 1330.

There are sporadic references to witchcraft in England from earlier times, many in Saxon manuscripts. Kittredge points out that if from no other proofs, the very richness of the vocabulary shows a prevalence of every form of witchcraft and sorcery before the Norman Conquest. He claims there are more than thirty AngloSaxon terms, including wicca, witch, wizard, enchanter, seer, and diviner, mentioned in the laws of King Alfred, Edward, Guthrum, Aethelred, Cnut, and others. In those early references, witchcraft was associated with the working of magic, including conjuring, casting spells, and using charms.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century in Europe, the idea of gatherings of witches for sabbat celebrations was established. As a remnant of the old pagan religion, Witchcraft was caricatured by Christianity to show it in a negative light. With the idea of nocturnal gatherings grew the belief that witches flew through the air on broomsticks and pitchforks. By the end of the fourteenth century, the University of Paris had formulated the theory that all magic hinged upon a pact with Satan. The Christians linked such a pact with the older belief in broomstick riders, through the responses obtained from carefully worded questions at witch trials. However, this belief did not become established in England until about a century later. It was with the start of Elizabeth I's reign that the true persecution of English witches began.

In 1542, during the reign of Henry VIII, the first statute was passed that dealt specifically with witchcraft, although it made no reference to pacts with the devil. It referred more to the practice of black magic, such as using wax images, or poppets, to cause harm. Edward VI then repealed that law in 1547 and prepared a new Act in 1559, but it failed to become law. It was not until 1563, when Elizabeth I issued new legislation, that there were fresh statutes prohibiting witchcraft.

A number of Elizabeth's Protestant bishops had witnessed the burning of witches on the continent, and they urged the queen to take strong measures against witchcraft. Bishop John Jewel, who had strong Calvinist leanings, drew no line between witchcraft and Catholic practices. He lectured the queen sternly on the "great forest and crop of superstitions" that had grown up during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary. The 1563 Convocation of the Church of England urged stronger penalties. Whether from this preaching or from the very existence of the Act, discovery of witchcraft activity suddenly increased tremendously throughout England.

One of the first and best known trials was that of the Chelmsford witches of Essex, begun on July 26, 1566. The judges were notable: Sir Gilbert Gerard, the Queen's attorney, and John Southcote, justice of the Queen's Bench, plus Rev. Thomas Cole and Sir John Fortescue, who later became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Elizabeth Francis was the first of the accused to be questioned, and she readily admitted to a variety of charges. She said that she had received a white spotted cat from her grandmother, Eve. Its name was "Sathan," and when she fed it with bread and milk plus a spot of her own blood, it gave her what she asked for. She said she "desired to have one Andrew Byles to her husband, which was a man of some wealth, and the cat did promise she should." However, when Andrew Byle sexually abused her but did not marry her, she caused the cat to "touch his body," and he subsequently died. The cat then procured another man as a husband for her, by whom she had a child. But the marriage was not a good one, and Elizabeth used the cat to kill her child and make her husband lame. After fifteen years of using the cat, Elizabeth gave it to her sixty-four-year-old sister, Agnes Waterhouse.

Mother Waterhouse was examined and admitted to having received the cat from Elizabeth Francis. But she turned it into a toad and used it to kill her neighbor's cattle, hogs, and geese. She went on to kill a neighbor and then her husband. Mother Waterhouse's eighteen-year-old daughter, Joan, confirmed that her mother kept a toad. Joan had used it to torment a neighbor's twelve-year-old child, by causing a horned dog to repeatedly threaten her. That child, Agnes Brown, was then questioned, and so the investigation continued. Eventually Elizabeth Francis had to serve one year in prison with time in the pillory, Joan was found not guilty, and Agnes Waterhouse was put to death.

Chelmsford was a hotbed of witchcraft, it seemed, for again in April of 1579, four women from there were charged with witchcraft and three of them hanged. The three included Elizabeth Francis, who apparently had not learned her lesson (in fact, she had been charged and found guilty again in 1572, receiving the same sentence as previously, of one year in prison and time in the pillory). The other two charged and hung were Ellen Smith and Alice Nokes. The fourth accused was Margery Staunton, but she was not found guilty.

A third witchcraft case took place in Chelmsford ten years later, in 1589, again resulting in three hangings. At this trial the two judges were especially notable: Robert Clarke, Baron of the Exchequer, and John Puckering, Queen's Sergeant. Nine women and one man were charged with witchcraft. Joan Cunny, an eightyyear-old widow, was one of those hanged. Her pregnant daughter was reprieved until after she had her child, then hanged in 1590. Elleine Smith was also hung, as was Mother Upney.

A notable aspect of these Chelmsford trials was the acceptance of evidence from children. Indeed, the judges particularly commended the children for giving their evidence. Future trials, both in England and in New England, were to be greatly swayed by this evidence from children (see Salem Witch Trials). Fifty-six years later, in 1645, Chelmsford again became the scene of witch activities, this time the accusations led by "Witchfinder General" Matthew Hopkins.

In 1582 fourteen women were charged with witchcraft in the village of St. Osyth, near Brightlingsea, in Essex. Margaret Murray narrowed the number of these witches to thirteen, to support her theory of covens, but in fact there were fourteen so-called witches at St. Osyth. The vast majority of the evidence in the trial came from children six to nine years of age.

Eric Maple contends that the local Cunning Men and Women were at the heart of many witchcraft accusations. Although themselves practitioners of magic, they took on the unofficial role of witch-hunters and were "an integral part of the grand alliance of Church and State against black witchcraft," according to Maple.

The trial of the Windsor witches—Elizabeth Stile, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell, and Mother Margaret—took place in 1579. The evidence was three female wax images, stuck through with bristles and buried in a dunghill. The accused were impoverished old women who denied the charges against them until they were told that there would be leniency shown if they confessed. Although they dutifully did so, they were found guilty and put to death.

In 1584, Reginald Scot produced his famous book on the subject, Discoverie of Witchcraft, possibly induced by the St. Osyth trial. In the book, Scot pointed out all the obvious errors in the popular concept of witchcraft. According to Ronald Holmes, the book was later banned by James I. But Scot's voice and that of George Gifford (A Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcraftes, 1593) were lonely ones.

One of the major trials of the period was that at Warboys, Huntingdonshire, in 1589. It started when one of the children of Sir Robert Throckmorton became ill. A neighbor, Alice Samuel, happened to call at the house, and the sick child nervously said, "Did you ever see one more like a witch then she is; take off her black thrumbed (fringed) cap, for I cannot abide to look on her!" Although the boy's parents thought little of what he said at the time, when Dr. Barrow, the physician, had no success curing the boy, he asked if there was any chance of witchcraft being involved. The parents thought not, until several other of their children also fell ill and similarly hinted that Mother Samuel was a witch.

Alice Samuel was brought into the presence of the children, and they immediately fell to the ground "strangely tormented." Lady Cromwell (second wife of Sir Henry Cromwell, grandfather of Oliver Cromwell) visited the house and, after meeting Alice Samuel, started having strange dreams of the woman. These persisted until Lady Cromwell's death, a little over a year later. Alice Samuel was made to live in the Throckmorton house and was constantly confronted by the children and their parents and urged to confess that she was responsible for their condition. For a long time she refused, but eventually, after constant harassment, she gave up and said that perhaps she was responsible. But after getting some rest, she retracted her confession. She was hauled off to appear before the bishop where, in fright, she again confessed. Her daughter and husband were imprisoned with her, and all three were tried before Judge Fenner at the Huntingdon assizes. In a trial that lasted five hours, the three were found guilty and put to death. As Wallace Notestein points out, there were many similarities to the trials that would take place at a later date in Salem, Massachusetts. It is perhaps significant that the American colony would have had access to the broadsheet produced in collaboration with Judge Fenner, The Most Strange and Admirable Discoverie of the Three Witches of Warboys, published in 1593.

The case had a significant impact on public opinion in England. That and the membership of the Cromwells in the Parliament of James I contributed to the passing of a new, more stringent Witchcraft Act in 1604. Death by hanging was the mandatory penalty even for first offenders of maleficia, and it did not matter whether or not the intended victim actually died—it was sufficient if they had been "killed, destroyed, wasted, consumed, pined or lamed in his or her body, or any part thereof."

Outbreaks of supposed witchcraft spread into Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, and other counties around England. Wallace Notestein comments, "There were few aspects of sixteenth and seventeenth century life that were not affected by the ugly belief (in witchcraft). . . . It was the conception that controlled European opinion on the subject for the latter part of the fourteenth to the close of the seventeenth century."

Notestein makes the point that a large percentage of the witchcraft cases that ended in hangings took place in towns judicially independent of the assize courts. The clumsy municipal courts were not familiar enough with the law to properly determine guilt. An example is the 1560 case of Joan Cason, of Faversham, Kent,

who was accused of bewitching a three-year-old child to death. It was plainly shown in court, by her own defense, that the eight neighbors who testified against her did so out of malice and without any real evidence. The jury acquitted her, but a lawyer pointed out that the invocation of evil spirits was a felony. Therefore, although Joan steadfastly refused to admit guilt, the mayor sentenced her to be hanged.

Witchcraft in England is frequently associated most of all with the twenty-twoyear reign of King James I. Certainly James was paranoid about witchcraft, having been badly scared by the Berwick Witches when he was still James VI of Scotland, before he succeeded Queen Elizabeth. He developed definite opinions on the subject, to the point of influencing translation of the Authorized or King James version of the Bible, carried out under his patronage in 1611. In 1597, he had written and published Daemonology, a treatise advocating severe measures against witchcraft. But by 1616, James was becoming suspicious of much of the hysteria and aware of fraud and delusion, to the point where he interfered in a case at Leicester being tried by Sir Randolph Crew, a former member of Parliament, and Sir Humphrey Winch, Justice of the Common Pleas.

On July 18, 1616, the two magistrates hung nine witches solely on the evidence of a possessed child named Smythe. There were similarities in the case to Alice Samuel's trial at Warboys. King James happened to visit Leicester a few days after the hangings to find that six more women were due to go to trial. The king interviewed the possessed boy and then sent him to Lambeth for further questioning. It quickly became evident that Smythe was pretending. Five of the women were released, the sixth having died in prison. James went on to reprimand the two magistrates for their lack of discernment and acumen. From then on, judges became more careful about the evidence presented and how they used it. In the remaining nine years of James's life, only five people were executed for witchcraft in England.

One of the most famous cases during James's reign was the case of the Lancaster witches. It also shows some of the continuation of the Old Religion in country areas. The incident took place in the forest of Pendle in the hills of eastern Lancashire, with focus on the two families of Elizabeth Sowtherne and Anne Whittle. Elizabeth Sowtherne was generally known as "Old Mother Demdike" and Anne Whittle as "Old Chattox," possibly their eke-names, or witch names.

As a young woman, Elizabeth Sowtherne had been introduced to the Old Religion by a young man she met near a stone pit in the forest. He had sex with her and promised her satisfaction in life if she followed his faith. This she did, and over the years she introduced her family and neighboring families to the old ways. She and Anne Chattox, her neighbor, gained reputations as effective witches. Unlike modern practitioners, they were not averse to practicing black magic as well as white and were involved in a number of deaths. In time, a rivalry built up between the two families, and a break came about due to the stealing of goods belonging to Alison Device, Demdike's married daughter, by Anne Redfearne, Chattox's married daughter.

In March 1612, Alison Device was arrested and examined by Roger Nowell. After her free admission of witchcraft, Alison, Demdike, and Chattox were imprisoned in Lancaster Castle. A meeting was held at Old Demdike's home, known as Malking Tower (Malking, or Malkin, was a favorite name for a witch's cat, often thought to be a familiar). It was reported that the gathered witches feasted on mutton from a stolen sheep, drank ale, and plotted to blow up the castle to rescue their relatives. Within a few weeks, many more of the group were arrested until eighteen people were in custody. Old Demdike died in the prison.

A feature of the trial was the testimony of Jennet Device, the nine-year-old granddaughter of Old Demdike, who stood on a table to give evidence against her own family. Alison, her brother James, her son, and her eleven-year-old daughter were condemned to death, as were Old Chattox, her daughter, and five others. Although young Jennet Device was spared because of her youth, she was hung as a witch twenty years later.

There quickly became available handbooks for guiding magistrates. Two notable ones were Country Justice (1618) by Michael Dalton and Guide to Grand Jurymen (1627) by Richard Bernard. Both of these insisted that the chief evidence against a witch was the possession of a familiar spirit, usually in the form of an animal such as a cat, dog, toad, or rabbit. They also stated that spectral evidence was quite acceptable.

The worst years for witch persecution in England took place under Charles I in the mid-1640s, mainly due to the exuberance of the self-styled "Witch Finder General" Matthew Hopkins. He instigated what amounted to a reign of terror in the eastern counties for over two years. Although torture was not allowed under English law, Hopkins managed to obtain numerous confessions by such tactics as forcing the subject to walk back and forth until totally exhausted, and pricking with bodkins to find the supposed insensitive "devil's mark"—undeniable proof of a covenant with the devil. Hopkins also extracted confessions of familiars, or attendant demons. Most of his victims were elderly peasants, easily confused, and evidence leaned heavily on heresay and on the word of young children, priests, and malicious neighbors.

Despite Matthew Hopkins, there were actually few executions during the reign of Charles I. Such executions were widely scattered: Durham, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Middlesex, Northumberland, Somerset, Staffordshire, Wiltshire, and Yorkshire. Of these, the most notable was the case of the Lancashire witches, in 1633— an outcome of the earlier troubles of 1612.

Edmund Robinson, an eleven-year-old boy, was supposed to be looking after some cattle but wandered off hunting for plums. He encountered two greyhounds bounding along and tried to get them to chase a rabbit he saw. When they wouldn't, he tied them to a bush and beat them with a stick. According to his story, the dogs then changed into a woman and a young boy. He recognized the woman as a neighbor's wife, Frances Dicconson, but he didn't know the boy. The woman offered him money to keep quiet about the incident, but he refused it. She then turned the other boy into a horse and took Edmund off to a gathering of witches who were working black magic, feasting, and drinking. After being given a taste of the food and drink, Edmund ran off.

Edmund had grown up in Pendle Forest and knew all the stories of the witches' feast at Malking Tower twenty years before. He had even had some of the thenaccused people pointed out to him.

Edmund's father went to look for him and for the cattle he was supposed to be attending. The father claimed later, in court, that his son was "quite distracted" when he found him—a telling piece of evidence when told to the magistrates. Although at his first examination in London, Edmund admitted making up the story, he later stood by it and named eighteen people as being among the witches he saw at the gathering. One of them was Jennet Device who, twenty years before, had been instrumental in sending her own family to the gallows.

Edmund was exhibited from town to town "as a great wonder and witch detector," according to Notestein. At the assizes in Lancaster he gave his testimony again, supported by his father. Many more were accused; one contemporary report said as many as sixty were charged and nineteen found guilty. However, there were finally some doubts about Edmund's truthfulness, and seven of the accused were sent to Henry Bridgeman, the Bishop of Chester, to be interviewed. King Charles himself also intervened, requesting three of the prisoners for questioning. From questioning and unsuccessful pricking of the women, both the bishop and the king determined them not to be guilty. It then transpired that Edmund's father had been blackmailing the originally accused Frances Dicconson and, on being separated from his father and further questioned, Edmund admitted to having made up the whole story at his father's bidding. Father and son were imprisoned. Although all the accused were to have been set free, several had died in prison and many remained there for as long as two years, probably due to poor administration.

Slowly the witchcraft mania died down in England. The last hanging took place in 1684, with the execution of Alice Molland in Exeter. The last official trial for witchcraft in England was conducted in Leicester in 1717. Justice Parker presided and Mother Norton and her daughter were the indicted. The two had been accused by twenty-five of their neighbors, subjected by them to the swimming ordeal, bloodied, and then publicly stripped and pricked. Yet, when they were brought before Justice Parker, he and the Grand Jury of the Assizes found no substance to the charges and acquitted both mother and daughter.

James's statute of 1604 was finally repealed in 1736 by George II. The action had little effect on the superstitions of the country folk, however, who still very much believed in witchcraft. But George's act decreed, "No prosecution, suit or proceeding, shall be commenced or carried out against any person or persons for witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment, or conjuration, or for charging another with any such offence, in any court whatsoever in Great Britain." Another section of the act also proclaimed, "Be it further enacted (that if any person) pretend to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment, or conjuration, or undertake to tell fortunes, or pretend from his or her skill or knowledge in any occult or crafty science to discover where or in what manner any goods or chattels, supposed to have been stolen or lost, may be found; every person so offending. . . shall for every such offence suffer imprisonment by the space of one whole year." However, over the two hundred years or so of the witchcraft hysteria, at least a thousand people had been hanged in England and as many more put to death by crazed witch-hunting mobs.

Opinion swung back and forth on the whole subject of witchcraft. In 1715 Richard Boulton published his Complete History of Magic, Sorcery and Witchcraft, in which he accepted completely the stories of witches flying through the air, changing their appearance, and worshiping the devil. Three years later, Francis Hutchinson's Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft appeared, dealing in a very down-toearth manner with the delusions of sick minds, the acceptance of evidence from small children, political aspects, perjurers, and so on. By the mid-nineteenth century, popular opinion finally settled on a somewhat romantic-rationalist approach. In 1831 Sir Walter Scott's Demonology and Witchcraft appeared. It was to become enormously popular, its main theme being the identification of the witches and fairies with submerged races in Europe, a theme picked up a hundred years later by Dr. Margaret Alice Murray in her books on the origins of witchcraft.

The case of the Pendle witches of Lancaster, with Mothers Demdike and Chattox, illustrates that the Old Religion did survive in out-of-the-way country areas, even into the late Middle Ages. It seems logical to believe that it could continue to survive, despite the witchcraft persecutions, through to the present, as has been suggested by such scholars as Murray, Lethbridge, Gardner, et al. In 1921 Margaret Murray published The Witch Cult in Western Europe, and ten years later The God of the Witches. In these she attempted to establish that witchcraft was the remains of a pre-Christian pagan religion and that it could be traced back all the way to the beginnings of religio-magic in Paleolithic times. Many of her arguments are tenuous, to say the least, and were derided by other anthropologists. But not all disagreed; many did support her general theory, for there was no way all of her evidence could be swept away.

In 1824 the Vagrancy Act was passed, which was basically to protect the gullible from charlatans. This Act repealed part of the 1736 Witchcraft Act of George II. The balance of that earlier act was then fully repealed with the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, again to protect from "any person who—with intent to deceive—purports to act as a spiritualist medium or to exercise powers of telepathy, clairvoyance or other similar powers."

With the final repeal of all laws against witchcraft in England, it meant that if there were any surviving witches, they were now free to come out into the open. But they had learned a hard lesson, and they remained hidden. However, one Witch, Dr. Gerald Brouseau Gardner, did feel that it was time the true story of Witchcraft was told. Although his attempts to correct the misconceptions concerning his beliefs were met with many incidents of persecution, he remained steadfast in speaking out. As a result, today the religion of Witchcraft, or Wicca, has become firmly re-established, not only in England but around the world. (See Wicca and Witchcraft.)

Lea, Henry C.: History of the Inquisition in Spain. New York, 1906. Macfarlane, Alan: Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970. Man, Myth and Magic. BPC Publishing, 1970. Maple, Eric: Witchcraft. Octopus Books, 1973. Murray, Margaret Alice: The Witch Cult in Western Europe. Clarendon Press, 1921. Notestein, Wallace: A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718. Russell & Russell, 1965. Pickering, David: Cassell Dictionary of Witchcraft. Cassell, 1996. Rosen, Barbara: Witchcraft. Edward Arnold, 1969. Scot, Reginald: Discoverie of Witchcraft. London, 1584 Scott, Sir Walter: Demonology and Witchcraft. Harper's Family Library, 1831. Trevor-Roper, H. R.: The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Harper,



The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
Mentioned in ?
References in classic literature ?
Scattered also among their pale-faced enemies were the Indian priests, or powwows, who had often scared their native forest with more hideous incantations than any known to English witchcraft.
The sexualized nature of English witchcraft drawn from witchcraft pamphlets is explored by Charlotte-Rose Millar in the final essay of this collection.
In her chapter, Charlotte-Rose Millar argues that contrary to the prevailing historical narrative, sexuality was indeed a significant factor in cases of English witchcraft. Her study of fifty surviving seventeenth-century witchcraft pamphlets demonstrates that English witchcraft was presented as 'diabolical and highly sexualised' (p.
(7) When used positively, the expressions anyen and bayie, or the English witchcraft, normally refer to "genius." In its more serious usage, however, anyen or bayie refers to a person's ability to use some supernatural power to harm others spiritually.
(16) In her study of music in seventeenth-century English witchcraft plays, Amanda Eubanks Winkler confirms this finding.
Firstly, an almost identical version of the English witchcraft act of 1563 was passed by the Irish parliament in May 1586, one of a batch of official measures introduced into Ireland at that time.
Scattered, also, among their pale-faced enemies, were the indian priests, or powows, who had often scared their native forest with more hideous incantations than any known in English witchcraft" (Hawthorne, "Goodman" 72).
The event is well known to scholars of the witch trials--the exception that proved the rule of the "normal" form of English witchcraft trials, which focused on maleficia and largely lacked the demonological content of continental trials.
Only a paragraph or two, for example, concern English witchcraft trials and treatises, where maleficium was often the sole accusation made against a witch.
Stephens makes only a half-hearted stab at "English witchcraft" (102-6), where the witches' "teat" and their animal familiars are said to be Protestant substitutes for confessions of demonic copulation in the business of proving the corporeality of demons.
Even while the recently revived field of witchcraft studies lay dormant over most of Europe, there was a steady tradition of taking English witchcraft seriously.

Full browser ?