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Garland, Anna --- "The Great Witch Hunt: The Persecution of Witches in England" [2003] AukULawRw 3; (2003) 9(4) Auckland University Law Review 1152


The Great Witch Hunt:

The Persecution of Witches in England, 1550 – 1660

Anna Garland[∗]

I. Introduction

During the early modern period of European history, witchcraft was seen as a very real crime and those convicted of engaging in it often suffered the death penalty. During this time thousands of people, predominantly women were tried for the crime of witchcraft, and approximately half of these were executed.

Witchcraft as a crime was focused on when there was tension and disarray in society. There have been three significant peaks in the persecution of witchcraft. The first wave of persecution followed the Crusades. Norman expansion into the East brought Europe into contact with Eastern religions, resulting in a dilution of conventional Christian beliefs and fear of heretic influences. The second wave of persecution followed the Black Death, which swept through Europe in the fourteenth century. Satanic witchcraft was believed to have been responsible. The third great wave of witch hunting commenced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Early modern Europe was wracked by the prolonged turmoil and crises of the Renaissance and Reformation. This was accentuated by sectarian rivalries, and religious intolerance escalated.

It should be noted that much of what has been written about the witch-hunts is incorrect. Earlier historians based their works on inaccurate analysis or folklore. Many historians suggested the Church was responsible for spreading much of the hysteria surrounding the practice of witchcraft. However, modern research has quite conclusively exposed this theory as a myth. Modern historians, with the benefit of comprehensive regional studies, have generally identified that preconditions for a witch-hunt relied more upon cultural, legal and even geographical circumstances than confessional ones.

The distribution of the witch-trials throughout Europe was highly erratic, and some of the most enormous persecutions – for example, the panics of Wurzburg, Germany, occurred adjacent to areas that had virtually no trials whatsoever. Geneva, the heart of Calvinism, had an equally appalling record of persecution as that of the Catholic territories.[1]

In England, heightened tensions brought about by the Civil War,[2] the consequent dilution of local authority, and the ever-present panic about the forces of darkness and the apocalyptic struggle being waged between God and the Devil saw witchcraft re-established as a live issue in the 1640s, after a decline in the 1630s.

This article seeks to examine the persecution of witches by focusing on the sixteenth and seventeenth century witch-hunts in England, in particular the East Anglia witch-hunt which proceeded in earnest from 1642 – 1647, in an attempt to illustrate how the prevailing social, legal and conceptual influences of the period combined to produce the most notorious witch-hunt in English history. .

II. Background to the Early Modern Period

1. Development of Witchcraft Beliefs

Ideas about witchcraft and magic had long been present in European culture. However, it was the witch trials in Switzerland in 1427 that seems to have established the belief that witches were magical practitioners, owing their evil powers to a pact they had made with the Devil.[3] As the fifteenth century progressed this notion developed and became more complex. It became accepted knowledge among theologians that witches were not isolated individuals dabbling in the occult, but rather members of a demonic, anti-Christian heretical sect.[4]

This formative period in the witch craze was symbolized by two publications; the first being the Papal Bull of 1484 in which Pope Innocent VIII vigorously denounced the evil works of witches, and provided papal support and encouragement to witch-hunting. Building upon this sentiment, the Malleus Maleficarum[5] (The Hammer of Witches) was subsequently published by Dominican inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger in 1487. These two documents built upon the existing secular notion that witches were a serious physical threat to Christianity due to their performance of maleficia, the arguments cloaked in vaguely academic dress.

(a) The Malleus Maleficarum

The Malleus Maleficarum detailed an exposition of witchcraft and a code of procedure for the detection and punishment of witches. Even by modern standards, it was a cruel and vicious book. It advocated stripping an accused witch before starting to question her, to search for an instrument of witchcraft sewn into her clothes. It went on to suggest that if the witch could not be convinced to confess, that he or she be shown the implements of torture. The Malleus Maleficarum became a handbook for the guidance of judges and magistrates, running into 14 editions between 1486 and 1520.

Many Christian scholars and theologians had previously thought witches to be mere folk tales and superstitions. However, the allegations contained in the Malleus Maleficarum were considered to be the irrefutable truth and silenced dissent. The essential notions of witchcraft were thus well in place by the end of the fifteenth century. The Malleus Maleficarum caused the image of the witch to become firmly established in the elite’s consciousness.[6]

As the first shock waves from the Reformation hit, publication of the Malleus Maleficarum was actually followed by a slump in witch-hunting at the beginning of the sixteenth century. This trend was reversed in the post-Reformation period. From around 1550, the persecution skyrocketed, reaching its height between 1580 and 1660 when witch trials became common throughout most of Western Europe. In central Europe the trials were concentrated in Germany, Switzerland and eastern France, where rival Christian sects sought to impose their views on each other, and in Calvinist Scotland. Countries such as Italy and Spain dealt with accusations of witchcraft by the Inquisition[7] and consequently, witch-hunting was uncommon.

2. Witch-Beliefs

Witch-beliefs existed in two separate mind sets – that of the intellectual and that of the peasant. The construction of witch-beliefs as they were in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a composite of the differing world views of the masses and the intellectual elite. The great European witch-hunt could not have taken place until the members of the ruling elite, particularly the individuals controlling the operation of the judicial machinery, subscribed to the various beliefs regarding the diabolical activities of witches.[8]

(a) Maleficia

In all witch believing societies, witches were regarded as individuals possessing an extraordinary or mysterious power to perform evil deeds. These acts came to be referred to in Latin as maleficia. The essential characteristic of these deeds was that they were magical, rather than religious; and harmful, rather than beneficial.

At a local level, and for the masses, the primary fear was maleficia. It was the alleged performance of maleficia which lay at the heart of many accusations of witchcraft. However, at the intellectual level, it was the diabolical witches’ Sabbath which was the aspect of primary importance in witch-belief.

(b) The Cumulative Concept

The cumulative concept was subscribed to by the intellectual and educated of early modern Europe. It incorporated three fundamental beliefs with respect to witches, which had evolved over time.[9] Each of these components had an individual history and was synthesised to form a core belief from which the European witch-hunts stemmed.

The first was the essence of witchcraft – the diabolical pact which had been entered into with the Devil. Inherent in this concept was belief in the existence of the Devil himself. The second component was participation in the witches’ Sabbath, or the collective worship of the Devil and engaging in blasphemous, amoral and obscene rites. The third major component of the cumulative concept was the belief that witches could fly (night flight). The belief in night flight differs from the other components of the cumulative concept, in that it originated from the beliefs of the peasant population. The other elements were contributions of the intellectual elite.

One popular witch-belief closely related to flight that was never fully integrated into the cumulative concept of witchcraft was that of metamorphosis.

(i) Pact with the Devil

The essence of witchcraft was the explicit face-to-face pact a witch made with the Devil. This pact not only gave the witch the power to perform maleficia but also initiated her into the Devil’s service. The conclusion of the pact was a formal ceremony which took place after the Devil had appeared to the witch, usually as a handsome, well dressed man and enticed her with the promise of material reward or sexual pleasure. The witch agreed to reject her Christian faith and then paid homage to the Devil either by bowing down before him or by kissing his buttocks. The Devil would imprint a distinctive mark on the witch’s body, usually in a concealed spot, as a sign of her allegiance. He would then give her careful instructions for the performance of her maleficent work.[10]

Scholars and theologians had not needed to invent a new understanding of the physical world to explain diabolism, as it was able to be incorporated within the intellectual framework that already existed. Witches were servants of the Devil because it was only he that could give them these strange, but explicable, powers.

The pact formed the heretical element of witchcraft, the renunciation of the Christian faith, and enabled the Church to punish witchcraft as heresy.

(ii) The Devil

Naturally there could be no pact with the Devil without a Devil. The Devil was primarily a character of the New Testament – having previously been referred to as Satan throughout the Middle Ages. The Devil was gradually integrated into the doctrine of the fall of man, original sin and man’s redemption through the crucifixion of Christ. He was the epitome of evil and Christ’s ultimate adversary. The Devil however still held his power at the will of God. The world had come to be perceived as the battlefield of a constant conflict between the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Satan.

(iii) The Witches’ Sabbath

Having made a pact with the Devil, witches were believed to gather periodically with other witches to perform a series of blasphemous, obscene and heinous rites. At these meetings the Devil would appear in various forms. The witches would often sacrifice children to the Devil, dance naked and engage in sexual intercourse with the Devil and other witches.

The witches’ Sabbath was perhaps the most important element of the witch-beliefs in contributing to the scale of the European witch-hunts. Without the idea of mass meetings there would have been no witch crazes to catalyse hunting, as hunting involved the search for a witch’s confederates. It was the witches’ Sabbath that made witchcraft such an horrific crime. It played on the fear that large organised groups could overthrow the established authorities if they so desired.

(iv) Night Flight

Closely associated with the pact and the witches’ Sabbath was the belief that witches could use the power of the Devil to fly through the air. The Devil is important in terms of the concept of flight, as the air was known to be the Devil’s domain.[11] Demons were confined to the air above the earth, making flight their natural form of transportation. If witches submitted their soul to the Devil then the air would become their domain through which to travel.

Flight provided an explanation for the ability of witches to attend secret nocturnal gatherings in remote areas without their absence from home being detected. However, belief in the witches’ Sabbath could exist independently of the belief of night flight, as it did in Scotland.

(v) Metamorphosis

The ability of witches and demons to assume another form was known as metamorphosis. This belief was already substantially present in the peasant tradition. Among the elite the concept was regarded with scepticism and as heretical; it broke the natural law of God and was believed to be an illusion. Accordingly, this feature never became fully integrated into the cumulative concept with respect to witches, but remained confined to demons.

(vi) Familiars

I have heard old Beldames talk of Familiars in the shape of Mice, Rats, Ferrets, Weasels, and I wot not what, that have appear’d, and suck’d, some say, their blood.[12]

A familiar, or imp, was a witch’s attendant subordinate demon in the form of an animal. Familiars drew nourishment by suckling blood from the witch – from Devil’s marks, her breasts, or insensitive parts on her body. In attaching itself to the witch’s body the familiar would leave a bruise witch-hunters referred to as a “witch’s mark”.[13] Sometimes, rather than appearing as a cut or a bruise, it looked more like an extra nipple, or teat.

Familiars had their own names, which they communicated to humans through speech, and they behaved in ways that no natural pet was believed to. They ran errands, brought messages and aided in Devil worship, therefore assisting a witch in performing her maleficia.

The notion of the familiar was primarily confined to England from 1566 onwards, although occasional cases did arise in other countries.[14] Familiars and witch’s marks provided strong evidence in many of the English trials, and many people were executed on the basis that they kept animals or had a strange mark on their body.

Familiars were often described in supernatural forms, but no unnatural creature was ever produced as evidence in a courtroom. Similarly, there were no credible witness accounts of familiars undertaking any act, not otherwise attributable to a natural animal.

The English trial records depict two possible means by which a witch acquired her familiar; either inheriting the animal from another witch, or the animal having approached the witch of its own accord. The notion of an inheritance system resonated with the common belief that witchcraft stayed in a particular family and was handed down from generation to generation.

III. Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England: Social Context

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries people believed as much in the supernatural powers of the Devil as they believed in the supernatural powers of God. Just as priests and bishops were seen as God’s emissaries, witches were seen as agents of the Devil. The sincere belief in harmful witchcraft was endemic and witch-beliefs were part of people’s mindset. Ordinary villagers inherently believed that individuals existed who were capable of employing harmful magic to damage livestock or to murder their children.

Early historians previously propounded a firm distinction between the English experience of witchcraft and that of Europe. However, it subsequently became clear that the English experience of witchcraft and witch-hunting was not unique, but rather a variation on a number of themes found throughout Europe.

Several large-scale demonological treatises appeared in England between 1590 and 1627.[15] These texts provided a medium more accessible than a full-scale theological tract and afforded the widespread dissemination of witch-beliefs. The authors of these works created a distinctive style of English demonological thought, but demonstrated awareness of the writings of their Continental counterparts. This English style was simply a broader Protestant approach to witchcraft and demonology.

1. The Influence of King James I

When Elizabeth I died in 1603, James VI of Scotland also became James I of England.[16] King James played an important role in the development and belief of witchcraft, encouraging belief in witches and witchcraft and increasing the punishments for convicted witches. James has often won the dubious acclaim of being one of the great European witch-hunters of the sixteenth and seventeenth century period.

King James was brought up under the control of the Presbyterian clergy and was an intelligent man, who was fascinated by witchcraft. He came to believe in and fear witches around 1590 when a conspiracy against his life was revealed. He was convinced that he, as a divine right monarch, was the chief enemy of Satan. On his return to Scotland in 1590 with his new wife, Princess Anne of Denmark, James encountered storms at sea. These were subsequently blamed on a group of North Berwick witches. An attempt was made to also implicate the King’s cousin, Francis, Earl of Bothwell, who had some claim to the throne should James die without an heir.

(a) Proof of witch-craft

Agnes Sampson was arrested following an accusation made against her, and she eventually confessed under torture to being a witch. Agnes confessed that she and some other 200 witches had met the Devil at the Kirk of North Berwick, and that he had instructed the witches to throw a christened cat into the sea in order to raise a storm. Others had also been implicated, including John Fian, a schoolmaster, who was alleged to be the leader of the witches. He was brutally tortured in order to extract his confession.[17]

James personally interrogated the witches and initially found their confessions exaggerated, remarking that “they were all extreme liars”. He subsequently changed his mind when Agnes Sampson took him aside and relayed to him the exact words of his conversation with his new wife on their wedding night. This was viewed by King James as irrefutable proof that witchcraft had been performed against him. He was convinced that they had been trying to kill him by raising storms, working on wax images, and by manufacturing poison.[18]

(b) Outcomes of the trial

Three witches were tried and sentenced to death. There was insufficient evidence to convict the Earl of Bothwell, and he was banished to Italy. The trial had far reaching effects. King James VI playing a prominent part in the proceedings, gave credence to the existence of witchcraft and set the standard for later trials.

James VI was so concerned about the threat witchcraft posed to himself and his country, he undertook to study the subject in some depth. He published his results in the book, Daemonologie. This demonological text was intended to outline the correct way to detect and punish witches:[19]

The water test: The suspect is taken to the nearest pond, naked or lightly dressed. He or she is tied left foot to right hand to right foot. If the person floats when thrown in the water, he or she works with Satan!

Throughout his text, James employed his religious knowledge, acquired from the recently translated Bible, to prove witchcraft existed.[20]

James I aimed to ensure his subjects took the threat of witchcraft as seriously as he did. Daemonologie became a textbook for subsequent witch-hunters.[21]

Following his ascension to the English throne, James repealed and replaced Elizabeth’s Witchcraft Act of 1563; his 1604 statute demanding more severe penalties for witchcraft confessed or proven. The punishment for anyone suspected of practicing witchcraft was death. This inflamed and encouraged a climate of torture and false accusations.

(c) King James’s Involvement in the Witch-craft Trials

King James participated directly in the interrogation and trial of witchcraft suspects. However, while James clearly genuinely believed in the existence of practitioners of black magic and the diabolical conspiracy, he remained generally sceptical. He expressed a cool attitude towards the witch-hunt and spent some time exposing the fraudulent claims of his subjects in their alleged performance of magic. Appreciating that many cases were false, James I urged the judiciary to be extremely cautious when dealing with prisoners committed for trial on evidence of bewitching.

2. Political Framework

The period leading up to, as well as during the Civil War was characterised by political disruption and tension, and this most certainly impacted upon society. Charles I succeeded to the throne in 1625, following the death of his father. Embracing the doctrine of the divine right of Kings, Charles considered himself above the law. Following repeated disputes with Parliament for failing to vote supply, Charles determined to rule without it, and did so from 1629 to 1640. Throughout this time, Charles was obliged to raise income from obscure and highly unpopular measures such as impositions, forced loans, the sale of commercial monopolies and Ship Money.

To add to an increasingly volatile political situation, Charles entered the House of Commons in 1642 and attempted to arrest five members of Parliament. Civil War broke out shortly thereafter between the Cavaliers (Royalists) and the Roundheads (Parliamentarians) and raged for six years. Victory went to the Roundheads, under Oliver Cromwell, in 1648. Charles I was tried and executed in 1649. England was then declared a Commonwealth and governed as a republic, with Cromwell as Lord Protector. It was with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 that attitudes towards witchcraft began to shift.[22]

IV. Witchcraft and English Law

1. Statutory Framework

Statutes throughout Europe defined the crime of witchcraft. These varied from region to region, so the crime of witchcraft was not uniform in nature between countries.

In spite of the occasional trial of witchcraft in the secular courts, witchcraft was not legally defined as a crime in English law until 1542, by statute 33 Hen. VIII, cap. 8.[23] The accusation of witchcraft was not new, but it was now recognised by the legal authorities as a crime and could be prosecuted in court. There is, however, no evidence that this, the harshest of the English witchcraft statutes, was ever enforced. It was subsequently repealed in 1547,[24] during the reign of Edward VI, along with other criminal legislation of Henry VIII’s reign.

(a) Re-establishing witch-craft as a crime

The important Act came in 1563, with statute 5 Eliz. I, cap.12[25], which re-established witchcraft as a crime. In this statute, witchcraft was defined as a crime in terms of maleficia, rather than as a demonological alliance between human beings and the Devil. Under this legislation, the killing of humans by witchcraft was punishable by death. Maleficium such as injuring people or animals, or damaging goods by witchcraft, attempting to do the same, using witchcraft to find lost or stolen goods, money, or treasure, or using witchcraft to provoke love or for any other purpose were punishable by a year’s imprisonment, with four spells on the pillory during that time for the first offence, and death for the second offence.

(i) King James Statute

Elizabeth’s statute was repealed and replaced by a more severe piece of legislation with James VI and I’s 1604 Act. This statute made injuring people a capital offence on the first conviction, reasserted the 1563 Act’s clause making conjuration of spirits a capital offence, and added the curious offence of using dead bodies, or parts thereof, for witchcraft or sorcery. This was also punishable by death.

The 1604 statute introduced the concept of diabolism as well as Continental demonology into English law. James I had been introduced to Continental concepts of witchcraft at the Danish Court, following his marriage to Princess Anne of Denmark in 1589.

The belief in diabolism was a concept of the intellectual elite. It appeared in the statute simply because the elite drafted the legislation, and it thus reflected their concerns. The more fanciful demonological aspects of witch-belief, such as night flight, were not present in the English statutes, as the transmission of demonology beliefs from the Continent had been partial and incomplete.

King James’ statute was more specific than its predecessor and most likely sought to include familiars. It specifically addressed not just the conjuring or invoking, but the feeding, of evil spirits:[26]

That if any person or persons ... shall use practice or exercise any Invocation or Conjuration of any evill and wicked Spirit, or shall consult covenant with entertaine employ feede or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit....

The 1604 statute remained in effect until its repeal in 1735. The 1735 legislation repealed both previous English statutes against witchcraft, as well as the Scottish Statute of 1563.[27]

2. Court Structure

A number of courts could try witchcraft. The ecclesiastical courts investigated sorcery, and many fortune tellers and cunning folk were presented before them. In the secular courts, the crime of witchcraft, as defined in the 1563 and 1604 statutes could be tried at quarter sessions – courts held four times per year for each of England’s counties, or in the local borough courts. These courts were presided over by individuals with varying degrees of legal training or expertise – frequently none at all.[28]

For the most part, cases of malefic witchcraft were tried at the assizes, as they constituted an effective method of bringing centrally directed justice to the localities. For the purposes of the assizes, England’s counties were grouped into six circuits. Twice a year, in January and mid-summer two judges were allocated to each of the assize circuits and sent out from Westminster to try criminal cases in the provinces.[29]

The assizes were presided over by experienced and senior judges who were culturally distanced from the world of village squabbles that so frequently formed the context for accusations of witchcraft. As an added protection, an unwritten convention existed whereby judges could not ride the circuit in which their main residence was located.[30]

3. The Criminal Justice System

By the time the witch-hunts began in earnest, England was the only country in Europe which had not incorporated at least some of the features of inquisitorial procedure into its central legal system.[31] Unlike most territories in western and central Europe, England did not employ or sanction torture as a normal part of the criminal justice process.

On the Continent, officers of the court possessed both the right to initiate legal proceedings and determine their outcome. Judges in England could not instigate a trial, but had to wait for an accusation to be made. Furthermore, England depended upon juries to establish proof and determine the outcome of proceedings. Members of the jury came from within the community, were not legally trained, and were expected to employ the previous knowledge they had of the parties involved when reaching their verdict.[32]

Evidence at trial was provided by the accusers, watchers, searchers and interrogators. One of the most important issues the jury had to consider was whether the accused had a motive for witchcraft. Important consideration was also given to whether the accused had any prior reputation for maleficia.

The Witchcraft Act of 1563 coincided with new legislation enabling witnesses to be compelled to attend trials. The statute also rendered perjury – effectively, the alteration of a text – a crime. Statements were given on oath. Without an oath, magistrates would not regard a case as seriously established. Unusually, testimony of very young witnesses was permitted in witchcraft cases. This was an exception to the rule, as people under the age of 14 years were deemed unable to understand the importance of an oath and the nature of the truth.

It should be noted that during this period, a trial was only one of the possible methods of resolving cases of witchcraft. Alternatives included the employment of doctors, Godly ministers and counter magic. A legal trial was often a last resort because it was an expensive process.

V. Who Were the Witches?

A study of records of the sixteenth and seventeenth century witch trials reveals a “typical” accused – marginal, of poor reputation, and low social status – the kind of person viewed most likely to succumb to diabolical temptation in order to improve their situation.

1. Gender

The accused were principally women. However witchcraft was not a gender-specific crime and men were not exempt from accusation. There were also a surprising number of men labeled as suspects, often the husbands of witches. When the witch-hunts became indiscriminate at their peaks, so did the issue of gender distinction.

The prototype of a witch in ancient and medieval culture, literature and art was predominantly that of a female. Women were believed to be morally weaker than men, and thus more likely to succumb to temptation from the Devil. Women were seen as intellectually inferior and superstitious and were also viewed as possessing insatiable sexual passions. Customary roles women held in society were seen as giving them more opportunity for witchcraft - cooks could gather herbs and easily poison others. Wise women used herbs and ointments for their cures - those who could cure, could also harm. The wise women who used magic as a means of healing came to be regarded as witches during the witch craze, and the distinction between ‘white’ magic and ‘black’ magic found in most societies began to disappear at the magisterial level.[33] White magic, however, continued to remain important at the local level, as it was used to ward off the effects of maleficia.

Women who undertook the role of midwife were blamed for the death of newly born infants. As about one fifth of children died at birth or in infancy, this charge was not uncommon.[34] Midwives would also be seen out at night traveling to attend a lying-in and this could be construed as her traveling to attend a witches’ Sabbath, which only took place under the cover of darkness.

2. Age

“Witches are women which be commonly old”.[35] The majority of accused witches were aged over 50. This is attributed to a number of reasons; often people were not accused until suspicion of them had been mounting for some time. Older people regularly manifested signs of eccentric or anti-social behaviour. It was believed that because older people were less powerful they were more likely to use sorcery as a means of protection or revenge. Senility was common, and those who suffered from it were more likely to confess to crimes of witchcraft.

There was widespread recognition that men were both less sexually ardent and capable as they grew older, whereas women allegedly became even more potent. It was believed older women were not as easily able to find sexual partners and were thus more susceptible to temptation by the sexual advances of the Devil:[36]

Underlying the depiction of the old, sexually voracious hag was a deep male fear of the sexually experienced, sexually independent woman...There was much more to be feared from the sexually experienced, mature woman, whose passion had not subsided, especially if she was no longer married and no longer able to conceive a child.

Children were also victim to witchcraft accusations. When the process of naming one’s accomplices got out of control, children were often accused. It was believed that a tendency towards maleficia was inherited or learned from the parents. Children would often accuse themselves as a means of getting attention, or simply as a result of their own fertile imaginations. In the Basque witch-hunt of 1610-1614, where witches were given freedom to confess with impunity, more than 1300 out of the 1800 who confessed were minors.[37]

3. Married status

In most regions, the percentage of accused witches who were unmarried (either widowed or had never married) was higher than the percentage of those accused that were married. Among unmarried females, widows and elderly spinsters were the most likely to suffer an accusation. In a patriarchal society, the existence of women who were subject neither to father or husband was both unconventional and a source of concern. With no sexual partner, it was inferred that single women were also more likely to be seduced by the Devil in the guise of a man. Most unmarried women were also very poor and therefore thought more likely to resort to sorcery to increase their fortunes.

Married women could also be accused however. Conflicts between a woman and her spouse or children would often give rise to accusations of witchcraft. Married women also often became embroiled in conflicts over her husband’s land, rents and labour. Many of these disputes led to accusations of witchcraft. The naming of an antagonist’s wife as a witch would be most attractive in the absence of a legal mechanism with which to resolve the dispute. Similarly, political motives could come into play when members of town councils accused their rivals or their wives.

Accusing someone of witchcraft afforded an expression of hostile feelings which did not have any other socially approved means of expression – violence or legal action not being acceptable by society.

4. Personality

While not conforming to one single personality profile, witches often exhibited certain behavioural characteristics which point to why they attracted accusations of witchcraft.

Witches were often described as sharp-tongued, bad tempered and quarrelsome – traits that naturally resulted in disputes with their neighbours.[38] Witches were often the village scolds, prone to cursing, an act easily interpreted as an act of sorcery.

Accused witches certainly had vivid imaginations, as their detailed confessions often revealed. Witches were reputedly religiously and morally deviant; they were, by definition, intrinsically evil creatures.

The witch of the early modern period was best described as non-conformist. The witch was not a foreigner or stranger in the community, but was hardly a typical villager. Female witches often defied contemporary standards of domesticity and provided the antithesis to the notion of the good Christian wife and mother.

5. Social and economic status

The sixteenth and seventeenth century witch-hunt occurred at a time of general economic decline and dramatically increasing population, with poverty becoming more severe and widespread.

The majority of alleged witches were from the lower levels of society, often living at the margin of subsistence. Poorer people were the weakest and most vulnerable members of society and were believed most likely to make pacts with the Devil in order to improve their economic situation. Being dependent upon the community and reliant on the charity and alms giving of others, poor people easily aroused resentment and (when charity was not forthcoming) guilt among their neighbours.

However, the wealthy were not immune from accusation. Wealthier witches were accused in connection with a real or imaginary political conspiracy; especially at the height of the witch-hunt, when accusations became less discriminate. Another motive for accusing wealthy and prominent persons was the desire of either relatives or magistrates to acquire that witch’s property upon conviction.

VI. Anatomy of a Witch-Hunt

Witch-hunts did not start spontaneously. A private citizen, a group of villagers, or a magistrate would start the process by accusing or denouncing someone, or by citing a person who was rumoured to be a witch.

The witch-hunt would begin with a single case, but during the course of the trial a confession together with a list of the names and accomplices the accused had seen at the witches’ Sabbath would be extracted.

In most cases, the catalyst was a personal misfortune that a person and their neighbours interpreted as an act of maleficent magic – the sudden death of a child or family member, the contraction of a disease, the loss of a farm animal, sexual impotence or romantic failure.

1. Accusations: Witches and Neighbours

Many witch trials were provoked, not by hysterical authorities or fanatical clergy, but by village quarrels among neighbours.[39] Charity and mutual assistance were central to the concept of “good neighbourliness” in early modern society. Customary charity included both the giving of alms as well as the lending of tools and other such items to a neighbour. Those seeking charity were not always the lowest members of society, but also those who occasionally required the help and assistance of their neighbours. This help was provided in the spirit of mutual help and community - when times were easier the favour would be returned.

Refusal of charity was an offence which broke unwritten rules of social etiquette. If charity was refused or an argument ensued it was not uncommon for curses to be cast in anger. Those who refused charity felt guilty and expected some manner of redress from the aggrieved party. Any form of misfortune which befell the refuser would immediately be linked in their mind to the person whom they had refused. Anything from a cow failing to produce milk to a death in the family could lead to an accusation of witchcraft. When the connection to the aggrieved party was made, the refuser ceased to be in the wrong. They transferred their guilt to the aggrieved party who, through redress, had not only broken the rules of etiquette but also the law of the land, therefore their offence was greater.

2. Securing a Confession

The Malleus Maleficarum states that “common justice demands that a witch should not be condemned to death unless she is convicted by her own confession”.[40]

Witchcraft crimes were exceptionally difficult to prove. Without a conviction the accused could not be punished, nor could their estate be seized. There could be no conviction without proof of guilt. Standing mute at trial was not equivalent to guilt or confession, so it was imperative that the accused be compelled to plead. Confessions used in prosecuting the accused were almost always extracted by use of torture, or the threat thereof. The purpose was to induce the accused witch to confess to the charge. This essentially made torture compulsory in order to obtain a conviction.

Confessions were more frequent in Continental trials due to a much greater use of torture associated with the inquisitorial system. Although these forms of physical torture were illegal in England,[41] torture was occasionally employed illicitly. English witch hunters, such as Matthew Hopkins, employed more subtle torture methods – “watching” and “walking” an accused witch.

There was a gulf between the witch-beliefs held by the educated elite, and those of ordinary folk. The intellectual elite expected confessions of witches’ Sabbaths, night flying and intercourse with the Devil. However, the confessions of men and women accused often included little or nothing of these habits. It was only with the application of threats or torture that confessions to such activities were forthcoming. Unsurprisingly, the confessions elicited with torture corresponded exactly with that the interrogators wanted to hear.

(a) Methods of torture

The methods of securing a confession varied from country to country, and the various methods were widespread. In Europe and Scotland the methods used were severe.

(i) Physical Torture

The rack was popular in France, where the victim was stretched across a flat surface. Whipping was common, as was the application of red hot irons to burn flesh and were sometimes inserted into the lower orifices or used to gouge out eyes. Red hot pincers were used to tear off flesh and breasts, and the spider, a sharp iron fork was used to mangle breasts. The turcas was used to tear out fingernails, after which pins were inserted into the quicks. Thumbscrews crushed finger and toe nails at the root until blood spurted out, whilst thrawing involved violently jerking the head from side to side using ropes. Cashielaws crushed the legs when a series of wedges fitted from ankles to knees, then beaten with a heavy hammer. Burning feathers were applied to the armpits and groin, fingers immersed in boiling water or oil, and alcohol poured on the head and set alight.

Water torture involved forcing a long knotted cloth down the throat along with great quantities of water, sometimes boiling, and then violently jerking the cloth, which tore up the bowels. Strappado was usually reserved until last, in which the victim was attached to a pulley by their hands (which were bound behind their back), raised, and then dropped. This dislocated the shoulders, hands and elbows. Weights, weighing anything between 40 to 200 pounds, could be attached to the accused’s feet to increase the pain and dislocate the hips, feet and knees. One insidious method was to torture the family of the accused as they watched helplessly.

(ii) Watching and Walking

Watching deprived the accused witch of sleep until a hallucinatory state set in. On the basis the witch had a familiar which requiring feeding, an accused witch would be stripped naked and dressed in a loose shift. The witch was searched intimately for “witch’s marks”, or teats, and then forced to sit on a stool in the middle of a room for days and nights.

During this time the witch was “watched” by witnesses, waiting to see a familiar sneak out to feed. Witch hunters kept the accused awake and forbade laying down, lest a familiar creep up and feed upon the witch without being seen by the watchers.

To ensure that the accused did not fall asleep, he or she was periodically “walked” around the room to ensure they stayed awake. This “watching” and “walking” often lasted many days and nights – often until the suspect’s feet were bloody and sore and they were not sensible of what they said or did. There is no record of familiars being encountered during the watching. Predictably, a large number of confessions were secured after a few days and nights of this treatment.

(iii) Witch pricking

Witch pricking prevailed in Scottish witch-hunts, but was also a method employed by “Witch Finder General” Matthew Hopkins during the East Anglia hunts. Witch pricking involved the use of pins, needles and bodkins to pierce the skin of an accused witch. If the skin failed to bleed, this was interpreted as a Devil’s mark and provided conclusive evidence that the accused was a witch.

(b) The Trial

The trial process became an increasingly documented one, with both confessions and witness statements in writing, all of which had to be assessed for truthfulness and trustworthiness.

Judicial decisions resulted from public performances of narrative accounts, which, in being accepted, became authoritative versions of reality. In this sense, truth was “constructed” in the courts of record.

One of the more poignant illustrations of the disparity between the public (court) record and the truth is the trial of Johannes Junius, Mayor of Bamberg in Germany, who was tried and burned at the stake for witchcraft in 1628. He was tortured so severely that even his gaoler begged him to admit a non-existent offence to end his suffering. A letter written by Junius to his daughter and smuggled out of prison differs markedly from the official court record of his trial.[42]

The court records state that when the thumbscrews, strappado and leg screws were applied Junius felt no pain, where he stated in his letter that he felt “terrible pain”. The report records the subsequent discovery of a bluish Devil’s mark, in the shape of a clover leaf, which when pricked, feels no pain and does not bleed. Junius’ subsequent renouncing of God and confession to worshipping the Devil with a paramour named Vixen were then triumphantly recorded by the court in great detail.

(c) Trial by Ordeal

Ordeals were employed as a means of determining innocence or guilt, not by rational inquiry into the facts, but by an appeal to divine intervention. The ordeal was a test that the accused party would have to take in order to gain acquittal. In difficult or doubtful legal cases, the court would appeal to God to provide some sign of the accused’s guilt or innocence.

The ecclesiastical and secular courts of Western Europe abandoned this medieval system of criminal procedure in favour of an inquisitorial legal framework. The Church had banned clerics from participating in ordeals at the fourth Lateran Council in 1215. In England, trial by ordeal was replaced[43] within the criminal justice system by Henry II[44] with the jury concept, whereby 12 men had to swear that they believed the accused.

The ordeal came back into common use in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for witchcraft trials. It was considered particularly appropriate in cases of suspected witchcraft, as the crime of witchcraft was so difficult to prove – evidence of sick neighbours, curdled milk, and secret meetings being the only signs.

As was characteristic of the witch trials, there was regional variation in the use of ordeals – Germany, France and Switzerland used them most frequently. The ordeal was rarer in English witch trials until the early seventeenth century. The first recorded use of an ordeal was the Northampton witch trials of 1612, which involved ordeal by swimming. Witch swimming also featured in the East Anglia mass witch-hunts of 1645-1647, conducted by Matthew Hopkins.

(i) Witch Swimming

The ordeal most frequently imposed on witches in England was swimming. Swimming had been banned by Henry III in 1219, but lingered on in the decision-making processes of rural communities and continued outside judicial authority well into the eighteenth century.

Swimming was not intended to drown the accused, but to expose their guilt through a

symbolic rejection of their bodies from the water – an inverted form of the Christian baptism. King James details this sentiment in his Daemonologie:[45]

God has appointed, for a supernatural sign of the monstrous impiety of witches, that the water shall refuse to receive in her bosom those have shaken off the sacred water of baptism and wilfully refused its benefit.

The accused witch’s thumbs and toes were tied together. A rope was also tied around their waist and held by a man on either side, ostensibly to prevent them from drowning. The accused was then lowered from a platform into the waters of a river, pond or stream, and allowed to sink and rise three times. If the accused sank, they were innocent; if they floated, they were guilty. It depended largely on the dexterity of the men handling the rope as to whether the accused survived or drowned. Unfortunately, the accused often died even if they were found to be innocent.

The English judicial system never came to depend on swimming the suspects in any important sense. Swimming was not commonly used at trial as evidence of witchcraft, as the courts recognised how easily manipulated it was by the prosecution or defence when in progress.

(d) Punishment

English witches were not burned at the stake. Death at the stake was a fate reserved for traitors and heretics. Those sentenced to death were executed by hanging.

VII. The East Anglia Witch-Hunt 1645-1647

England’s only mass witch-hunt occurred in East Anglia in 1645-1647. In the winter of 1644 Matthew Hopkins, became alarmed by what he perceived to be a local prevalence of witches. His concerns struck a responsive chord with many in the area, and led to the prosecution of 36 women, about half of whom were executed, at Chelmsford in July 1645. This marked the debut of a short, but vicious, career as self-appointed “Witch Finder General”. This subsequent crusade resulted in a total of 250 individuals being tried as witches; in excess of 100 of those being hanged.

1. Matthew Hopkins

Matthew Hopkins is believed to be the son of James Hopkins, a Puritan Minister of Wenham in Suffolk. It is estimated Hopkins was born between 1619 and 1622, indicating he was in his early twenties at the time of the witch trials.[46] Hopkins is believed to have been well educated and to have had some form of legal training, but held no formal qualification. By the early 1640s he had moved from Ipswich to Manningtree and owned property there, including an interest in the Thorn Inn in the adjacent parish of Mistley. It was there he is said to have examined the first suspect witches.

It is not certain what motivated Matthew Hopkins in his zealous campaign. Historians have represented this as financial greed or puritan enthusiasm, but neither claim has been wholly substantiated. Hopkins was most certainly paid for his witch-hunting campaign.[47] Some accounts detail this payment as being modest, while others report it as being financially lucrative, Hopkins having been paid varying sums by each village - £6 for cleansing Aldeburgh, £15 for cleansing King’s Lynn, and £23 for cleansing Stowmarket.[48] The average daily wage during this period was sixpence.

Hopkins’ ideas about witches appear to have been influenced to some degree by Continental thinking and he is believed to have been a man of deep religious, puritan ideals. He makes reference to King James I’s text, Daemonologie in his own pamphlet, The Discovery of Witches.[49] Hopkins’ beliefs reflect the prevailing intellectual thinking of the period, as he was convinced that all witches made a satanic pact with the Devil and then received their familiars or imps with which to do the Devil’s work.

In his crusade to purge East Anglia of witches, Hopkins did not operate alone. His main associate was John Stearne, a man in his 30s, a settled householder, married, with property in East Anglia. While Hopkins was able to organize, direct, analyse and ensure the success of the witch campaign, Stearne provided the relentless, fanatical element.

(a) Interrogation

Matthew Hopkins and his assistants perfected a system of examining witches that shed no blood and remained within the confines of English law – where, in theory, the use of torture was forbidden. Hopkins was very careful in describing these techniques to the villages he traveled to. The primary means of securing a confession were “watching”, “searching” and “walking”.

Hopkins offered three means of distinguishing witch’s marks from natural marks, which all people have. First, a witch’s mark was to be found in an unusual place, for example “bottome of the back-bone”.[50] Secondly, “they are most commonly insensible, and feele neither pin, needle, aule, &c., thrust through them”.[51] The third means of detection involved familiars. Hopkins would keep strict surveyance of a witch for 24 hours, making sure none of her familiars came and sucked blood from the hidden nipple on the witch’s body. According to Hopkins, the “teat” in that time would noticeably fill up with fluid and become visible. Thus, a witch who had a familiar also had a mark, and it was just a matter of finding it.

2. The Chelmsford Trial

Matthew Hopkins began his successful career in 1644 after a Manningtree tailor, John Rivet, had consulted a “wise woman” about a mysterious illness that had afflicted his wife. He was told that she had been bewitched by two of her women neighbours. These women were not named, but Rivet guessed that one of them was a toothless, one-legged crone, eighty years of age, known locally as “Mother Clarke”. Hopkins immediately went into action.

(a) Elizabeth Clarke

Elizabeth Clarke, whose mother had been hanged as a witch before her was consigned to prison where Hopkins began to question her. She was stripped naked, searched and pricked for witch’s marks and “[s]he was found to have three teats about her, which honest women have not”.[52]

Elizabeth Clarke was then watched – kept without food or sleep – for three consecutive nights. Having been constantly “encouraged” by Hopkins, she confessed on the fourth night to being a witch. Her confession alleged that she kept and nourished five familiars, Holt - a white kitten, Jarmara – a fat spaniel, Sack and Sugar – a black rabbit, Newes – a polecat and Vinegar Tom – a long legged greyhound with a head like an ox, broad eyes and a long tail.[53] According to Hopkins no less than eight people swore they had seen these familiars.

Elizabeth Clarke also confessed to having had “carnal copulation with the Devil for six or seven years” and that he would appear to her three or four times a week at her bedside and lie with her half the night, and would say “Bessie, I must lie with you”. This confession was carefully supported by evidence of other witnesses.

Many of the confessions during the Hopkins period make reference to sexual intercourse between the witch and the Devil. Sexual references were rarely noted prior to this time and did not form part of the prevailing witch-beliefs of the masses. Their inclusion in confessions suggests leading questions from the interrogators assisting the witch in fashioning her offence.

Under pressure, Elizabeth Clarke also implicated other witches during the course of her interrogation. During the ensuing investigation of this “network” of witches, Hopkins interviewed or interrogated over one hundred people, but among those arrested only one refused to acknowledge her guilt.[54] Others were quick to confess under Hopkins’ questioning and further names of imps and familiars were revealed - Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peck in the Crown and Grizzel Greedigut – “names that no mortal could invent".[55]

The trials of the accused were held at Chelmsford on 29 July 1645 and resulted in 29 people being condemned. Ten of the accused were hanged at Chelmsford and the others were executed in various hamlets and villages throughout the locality, further adding to the witch hysteria.

(b) The campaign spreads

Cromwell's armies were defeating the Royalists and one town was falling after another. The consequent sense of righteous anger and heightened suspicion in the Parliamentary and Puritan villages of eastern Essex villages fostered religious and moral cleansing in earnest. This moral cleansing included a purge of witches.

After the success of the Chelmsford trials, news of the exposure of the Manningtree witches quickly spread and Hopkins became sought after as a witch finding expert. The spate of witchcraft accusations soon spread to Suffolk, a county with even stronger Puritan traditions than Essex. By this time, Matthew Hopkins had conferred upon himself the title of “Witch Finder General”.

The prevailing atmosphere saw gossip and innuendo transformed into formal accusations of witchcraft and devil worship. Most villages had at least one old woman rumoured to be a witch. Hopkins’ witches were mainly old, poor and the most feeble and defenseless members of the community, or those unpopular and against whom others held grievances.

(i) John Lowes

Perhaps the least justified and most vindictive case brought by Matthew Hopkins was that against John Lowes, Vicar of Brandeston in Suffolk. Lowes was an old man of nearly 80 when Hopkins accused him, stating he “was naught but a foul witch”. It appears Lowes had been bad-tempered and was sorely disliked by many in his parish; they complained his sermons were overly long, confusing and too mystical. In probability, these sermons were beyond the grasp of a semi-literate parish. Gradually, by going patiently from house to house and by both cajoling and threatening villagers, Hopkins and Stearne built up a case against John Lowes.

At first Lowes stoutly denied his guilt. However, after having been “swum in the moat”, kept awake for three days and nights, and then forced to walk without rest until his feet were blistered, the old man became “weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did” and confessed to sorceries. He was found guilty at trial and sentenced to be hanged at Bury. Insisting on his innocence to the very last, Lowes recited his own burial service on the way to the gallows, having been denied benefit of clergy.[56]

(c) The witch-hunt continues

In late 1645, news arrived in East Anglia of an approaching Royalist army. In the sudden panic the witch trials were suspended, and the 150 men and women held in Suffolk's jail cells seemed to have been given a temporary reprieve. Unfortunately, this alarm was short lived and the trials were resumed. The end of 1645 marked the most intense phase of the East Anglian witch-hunts. Judiciary, constables, accusers and jailors all worked together to effect expedient trials and executions of accused witches. Execution records detail as many as 40 or 50 people executed at once.[57]

By the autumn of 1646, 18 months since the witch-hunt began, Hopkins and Stearne had taken their war against witches out of Essex and Suffolk and into the surrounding shires where another 20 witches met their fate. In order to make their witch-hunting operation more efficient it seems that John Stearne and Matthew Hopkins had split up at this point, Stearne covered the western part of Suffolk and Hopkins went east.

By now, Hopkins had accomplished some 100 hangings and had achieved a degree of notoriety throughout East Anglia. Wherever Hopkins and his assistants went, fear and apprehension surfaced, it seemed no one was beyond his power or reach. However, to the hundreds of ordinary men and women in these counties who detested the witches they believed to live in their midst, Hopkins was a respectable man, even a hero for delivering villages from the scourge of their witches.

3. Growing Opposition

By late 1646 there was discontent among the Puritan elite about the witch trials. A Parliamentary news pamphlet, The Moderate Intelligencer, began to question Hopkins’ methods.

A Puritan minister from Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire, John Gaule, did more than anyone else to bring about the downfall of Hopkins. Gaule preached openly against Hopkins from the pulpit and started collecting evidence of his excessive methods and use of torture. Hopkins was incensed and retaliated with a blistering letter to one of Gaule’s parishioners:[58]

My service to your Worship presented, I have this day received a letter to come to a Towne called Great Stoughton, to search for evil disposed persons called Witches (tho’ I heare your Minister is farre against us thro’ ignorance). I intend to come (God willing) the sooner to heare his singular judgement in the behalfe of such parties; I have known a Minister in Suffolk preach as much against their discoverie in a pulpit, and forcid to recant it (by the Committee) in the same place. I much marvaile such evil members should have any (much more any of the clergy) who should dayly preach Terrour to convince such complainants for the King and Sufferers themselves, with their families and Estates. I intend to give your towne a visit suddenly. I am come to Kimbolton this weeke, and it shall be tenne to one but I will come to your towne first, but I would certainly know afore whether your towne affords many Sticklers for such Cattell, or willing to afford es good welcome and entertainment, as other where I have beene, else I shall wave your Shire (not as yet beginning in any part of it myself) and betake to such places, where I doe, and may persist without controle, but with Thanks and Recompense, So I humbly take my leave and rest, Your Servant to be Commanded, Matthew Hopkins.

(a)An attack on Hopkins

Gaule subsequently published a pamphlet which contained a month’s sermons on witchcraft and denunciations, describing Hopkins’ methods and hinting that Hopkins himself was a witch: [59]

Every old woman, with a wrinkled face, a furr’d brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye,

a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue, having a rugged coate on her back, a skull-cap on her

head, a spindle in her hand, and a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspected but pronounced

for a witch. Hopkins’ signs discover no other witch but the user of them.

Arising out of the publicity given to Gaule’s pamphlet, certain “queries” regarding Hopkins were raised by objectors and presented to the judges at the Norfolk Assizes, suggesting Hopkins himself was a witch.

The allegations of corruption were so marked that Hopkins, now desperately fighting for his reputation, felt bound to reply to them. In The Discovery of Witches[60] Hopkins tackled each of the criticisms in the third person – in a pedantic, formalised, legal manner. He set out each of the queries point by point, and provided a series of cogently reasoned (albeit defensive) arguments by way of response.

A steadily mounting campaign of criticism against Hopkins ensued and was subsequently taken up in London, having reached Parliament. It came to be realised that more witches were being executed than ever before in the history of England and that Hopkins was making a not inconsiderable sum out of his witch-finding activities. A Special Commission of Oyer and Terminer was appointed to monitor Hopkins activities.

(b) Hopkins’ demise

By the end of 1646 as his credibility and activities dwindled, Hopkins parted company with his assistants and returned to Manningtree where his infamous career had started. He died in August 1647. Local legend arose that Hopkins was himself swum as a witch by the mob and afterwards hanged. This was totally discounted by John Stearne, who wrote in his own tract, A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft, that Hopkins:[61]

... died peaceably at Manningtree, after a long sicknesse of a consumption, as many of his

generation had done before him, without any trouble of conscience for what he had done,

as was falsely reported of him.

Parish records indicate that Matthew Hopkins was buried in the nearby village of Mistley on 12 August 1647. John Stearne continued the witch-hunt, to a lesser degree, until the following year.

(c) Results of the witch-hunt

The imperfect nature of the records makes calculating an exact total of those accused in Hopkins’ witch crusade impossible. An informed estimate would suggest that during his campaign, a minimum of 250 people were tried as witches or at least subjected to preliminary investigation. Of these, a minimum of 100 were executed. The real death toll is likely to have been substantially greater, given the high number of deaths resulting from witch swimming.

It is misleading to attribute the occurrence of the East Anglian trials in their entirety to Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne. Hopkins and Stearne acted as a catalyst, exploiting pre-existing tensions and suspicions among villagers by initiating interrogations and setting the wheels of justice in motion. Hopkins’ importance in the “witch scare” of the 1640s can be downplayed and attributed to other factors:[62]

The answer seems to lie in a combination of particular factors, especially the disruption

of local government and justice by the Civil War and, possibly, the economic, spiritual,

and other tensions which war created, with beliefs in witchcraft which, though usually

kept just below the surface, were no less widespread and powerful than they had been

in the sixteenth century.

VII. The Decline of Witchcraft

Ironically, the witch-hunting of the 1640s had discredited witch prosecution. The excesses in these trials led the English intellectual, often serving as a magistrate or grand juror, to doubt the evidence being presented in the witchcraft accusations. Few were willing to deny the possibility that witchcraft existed, but witch-beliefs continued to flourish more among the mainstream than the intellectual elite, and witch hunting was written off as an activity indulged in by the plebeian religious enthusiast.

The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 saw tolerance and stability gradually replace the uncertainty and puritanism brought on by the Civil War. Greater confidence and prosperity throughout the country led witch-hunting to lose its momentum. There was an outbreak of scepticism among lawyers and judges, and witch-hunting was increasingly regarded as popular superstition or religious fanaticism. The intellectual elite became sceptical of the reality of witchcraft and began to take a more rational view of the world. As a result, witch hunters were exposed as frauds and the legal system began to reject evidence from them.

Conversely, however, with the Restoration of the Church of England, the need to maintain witchcraft beliefs was seen as an element in maintain existing defences against the spread of atheism. If the population ceased to believe in witches, they would then cease to believe in the Devil, and finally cease believing in God.

The 1662 trials of the Lowestoft witches marked the last of the major witch trials in England. The last execution for witchcraft took place in Exeter in 1684 and the death penalty for witchcraft in England was abolished in 1736.

Witch trials declined in most parts of Europe after 1680. Trials in Scotland persisted well into the eighteenth century and as late as 1773, with the last recorded burning of a witch taking place in Sutherland in 1722.

In the late seventeenth and eighteenth century one last wave of witch persecution afflicted Poland and other areas of Eastern Europe, but that ended by about 1740. The last legal execution of a witch occurred in Switzerland in 1782.

VIII. Conclusion

Why the English witch-hunts occurred at all has been a long-standing issue of debate among historians. It is clear, however, that one of the fundamental pre-conditions necessary before a witch-hunt was initiated, was the existence of a supportive central government. This generated the necessary legislation and ensured the court system was available to prosecute the accused. Indeed, it is difficult to differentiate on this basis between the witch panics of 1550-1660, and recent terrorism legislation introduced into New Zealand law to address the current concerns with respect to Islamic fundamentalists.[63]

It cannot be overlooked that in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all levels of society – from the intellectual elite and the masses; from James IV and I to the villager – inherently believed that the world was permeated with supernatural forces. Witch-beliefs were not just held by a small irrational portion of the population. Belief in witchcraft was inseparable from the prevailing, overarching mental framework of the period. This framework was characterised by religious beliefs, and was used to contextualise and explain that which happened in society’s everyday life.

There was no characteristic that the majority of accused witches shared; not gender, not age, not wealth, not religion. The only thing that united them was the fact that they were accused of witchcraft. The diversity of those accused of witchcraft is one of the predominant arguments against theories claiming the witch hunts were a deliberate massacre aimed at a specific group.

This article has demonstrated how little the fundamental nature of human behaviour has changed over time; the only variable being that of social context. Moral panics have continued to surface over the ensuing centuries; panics about Germans, communism, AIDS, paedophilia and child pornography being common in recent times.

Thus, the study of legal history provides an invaluable tool in illustrating the role of law within its social context and, hopefully, provides a forum with which society may learn from previous mistakes and manage recurring events better in the future.


[∗] BA/LLB. The author wishes to acknowledge, with gratitude, Dr David Williams of the University of Auckland, Faculty of Law for his support, wisdom and sense of humour in the preparation of this article.

[1] Briggs, Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (1996).

[2] 1642-1648.

[3] Sharpe, Witchcraft in Early Modern England (2001).

[4] Ibid 4.

[5] The Malleus Maleficarum outlined methods of torture and other means of attempting to procure a witch to speak.

[6] Klaits, Servants of Satan: the Age of the Witch Hunts (1985).

[7] In Spain and Italy the Inquisition prosecuted individuals for magic and superstition, on the grounds that such practices involved either the adoration of the Devil or the abuse of the sacraments, and thus were classified as “manifest heresy”. It is worth noting that the Inquisition rarely employed torture, and adhered to strict procedural rules, thus possibly explaining the low incidence of conviction.

[8] Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (2nd ed, 1995) 28.

[9] Ibid 29.

[10] Ibid 27.

[11] Indeed, it was a prevailing belief at the time that disease was disseminated through the air via evil vapours (with reference and thanks to Dr David Williams, University of Auckland).

[12] Rowley, Dekker, Ford, The Witch of Edmonton (1658) 16.

[13] There is a distinction between a witch’s mark and a Devil’s mark. The former is the result of the suckling of familiars; the latter was imprinted by the Devil as a sign of her allegiance to him. It was discovered by intimately searching the accused witch and “pricking” the mark to see if it would bleed.

[14] Donaldson, The Role of the “Familiar” in English Witchcraft Trials (1995) http://home.earthlink.net/~tad5/familiar.htm (last modified 17 August 2003).

[15] The more notable of these were Henry Holland’s A Treatise Against Witchcraft (1590); William Perkins’ A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (1608); and King James VI and I’s Daemonologie (1597).

[16] King James VI and I ruled both Scotland and England until his death in 1625.

[17] Hole, Witchcraft in England, (1977) 15.

[18] Ibid 15.

[19] King James I, Daemonologie, (1597) 19. Unlike some of the other works published during his lifetime, James published this text under his own name.

[20] For example, at Exodus 22:18: “[p]ut to death any woman who practices magic”

[21] Indeed, Witch Finder General Matthew Hopkins refers to Daemonologie in his own work, The Discovery of Witches.

[22] This is discussed more fully in a subsequent section, The Decline of Witchcraft.

[23] Modern English version contained in Statutes of the Realm, Vol iii, 837.

[24] Repealed by statute 1 Edw. VI, cap. 12.

[25] Modern English version contained in Statutes of the Realm, Vol iv, Pt I, 446.

[26] Witchcraft Act 1604.

[27] Following the Act of Union, Scotland retained a separate legal system but had no separate Parliament. The Scottish MPs sat in London rather than Edinburgh. There was considerable anger from some quarters in Scotland that the Parliament in London was repealing so essential a piece of legislation as the Act against witchcraft.

[28] Sharpe, supra note 3, 23-24.

[29] Ibid 24.

[30] Ibid 24.

[31] Levack, supra note 8, 74. The Star Chamber did, however, employ an inquisitorial process. The Star Chamber was formed by Henry VII in 1487 to pass sentence on those too powerful to be dealt with by an ordinary court or to decide on cases too complex to be understood by what were deemed uneducated juries. Its interrogation methods included torture, mutilations and imprisonment. It was abolished in 1641.

[32] Ibid 73.

[33] Levack, supra note 8, 138.

[34] Ibid 139.

[35] Scot R, The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) 5.

[36] Levack supra note 8, 143.

[37] Ibid 145.

[38] Ibid 152.

[39] Modern thinking on this point was reshaped by historians in the early 1970s. See Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (1971); and Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study (1970). These works concluded that accusations of witchcraft during this period were not set in motion by judges or clergymen, but were attributable to interpersonal tensions between villagers, often brought to a head by the refusal of charity. This model is known as the Thomas-Macfarlane paradigm.

[40] Malleus Maleficarum 1486.

[41] Torture was illegal in England at common law, but could be used under special warrant from the monarch and Privy Council.

[42] Burr (ed), “The Witch Persecution at Bamburg” Original Sources of European History 3(4), 26-27.

[43] However, the “wager of battle” still continued to be employed. This was not abolished in England until 1819.

[44] Henry II reigned from 1154 to1189.

[45] King James I, supra note 19.

[46] Deacon, Matthew Hopkins: Witch Finder General (1976), 58.

[47] Hopkins, The Discovery of Witches (1647), answer to querie 14. Evidence of payment comes both from Hopkins’ own tract and accounting entries in Aldeburgh, Stowmarket and King’s Lynn parish records.

[48] Deacon, supra note 46, 171.

[49] Hopkins, supra note 47, answer to Query 10. This pamphlet was written in May 1647, in response to growing criticism of Hopkins’ methods. It is discussed further in this section.

[50] Ibid, answer to Querie 6.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid, answer to Querie 4.

[53] The pamphlet Discovery of Witches was illustrated by a specially commissioned woodcut of Hopkins, depicting the discovery of these first witches and their familiars.

[54] Elizabeth Gooding was imprisoned for having entertained “two evil spirits, each in the likeness of a young cat, one named Mouse and the other Pease”. She was convicted of witchcraft and hanged at Manningtree in 1645.

[55] Hopkins, supra note 47, answer to Querie 4.

[56] The Witchcraft Act 1604 specifically denies the benefit of clergy to those convicted of witchcraft.

[57] Typically, witchcraft prosecutions in England had occurred only once per year or once every two years.

[58] Deacon, supra note 46, 163.

[59] Gaule J, Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witchcraft (1646).

[60] Hopkins, supra note 47.

[61] Stearne, A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft, (1648).

[62] McFarlane, supra note 39, 142.

[63] Terrorism Supression Act 2002.


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