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The History of Witchcraft in Great Britain

Photo credit: A Rehearsall were both Straung and True, of Hainous and Horrible Actes Committed by Elizabeth Stile (1579) / British Library / https://brewminate.com/woodcuts-and-witches/

Witchcraft in Great Britain is a fascinating and under-appreciated subject. ‘Witchcraft’ refers to the magical or supernatural practices of mankind. Traditionally, it has meant the use of magic for evil purposes which included to harm or bewitch others. While the overwhelming majority of witches were women, it must not be overlooked that there were also men prosecuted for witchcraft. In Britain specifically, around 20% of those accused were male. What follows is a walkthrough of the history of witchcraft in Britain, with case studies of condemned witches and witch hunters, as well as an insight into how the history has been revealed by historians over the past century.

Before 1563

The belief in magic and magical traditions has been recognised in Britain since antiquity. Before the 16th century, it was believed there were many types of witchcraft including astrology and predicting one’s future. However, in the early modern period, the idea of ‘Dark Magic’ emerged along with concerns that deals could be made with the devil in exchange for powers which is known as a ‘demonic pact’. As a result, witches were viewed as evil and believed to be the cause of disasters or diseases. In medieval England, there is little evidence of prosecutions and executions rarely took place. The cases took place in church courts, and often if the accused were determined to be good Christians they were forgiven for their crimes (Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, J. Russell). However, if they were accused of attempting to harm the monarch they were deemed to have committed treason. In 1430 seven witches were accused of plotting against Henry VI. Similarly, Joan of Arc, honoured for her role in the siege of Orléans, was accused of being a witch by the English. In Shakespeare’s play, Henry VI, Part 1, she was portrayed as a witch, with Shakespeare undoubtedly using contemporary propaganda to build her character.

During the early Tudor period, the supporters of Perkin Warbeck (a false pretender to the English throne) tried to employ witchcraft to overthrow King Henry VII. Under Henry VIII, there were several trials and executions around witchcraft and the king himself was concerned about the practice. He was convinced that his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was unable to conceive a child as a punishment for him marrying his brother’s (Prince Arthur) widow. It was then claimed that Anne Boleyn (his second wife) was a witch, who had used her powers to seduce him. In 1542, Parliament passed an act against enchantments and sorceries. This act was the first to define witchcraft as a felony, a crime punishable by death. It was, however, repealed by Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, in 1547 as it was deemed too harsh.

Drawings like the one above were common during the 16th century, portraying a female witch (often old and ugly-looking) feeding her familiar spirits with blood. Familiars were believed to be supernatural malevolent entities that would assist witches in their magic practice, as well as provide protection. They were thought to be able to manifest themselves in numerous animal forms.

During Elizabeth I’s reign

During Elizabeth’s reign, conjurers prophesied that the queen would die and that the old Catholic laws of her older sister, Mary I, would be reinstated. In 1559, a new bill on witchcraft was introduced to parliament that intended to make it a felony but this was not passed. In early 1563, a bill specifically against enchantments was passed by both Houses of Parliament meaning it became a permanent part of English law and this resulted in a large increase in prosecutions. The act defined a sliding scale of seriousness of punishments. The use of witchcraft that resulted in death was the worst offence and would receive the death penalty. Meanwhile the most common uses of witchcraft, such as stealing, would result (if it is the first offence) in a year’s imprisonment and time in the stocks (restraining devices used as a form of punishment and public humiliation). Life imprisonment would be given for the second offence.

Within months of the bill receiving royal assent, many people were denouncing their neighbours to the authorities. For example, three alleged witches were tried and executed in the Channel Islands in November 1563. The pamphlet, The Confessions of Certain Witches at Chelmsford, is the earliest to survive. This was a report of the confessions of three women, Elizabeth Francis and Agnes and Joan Waterhouse, who were all related. It was claimed that Elizabeth could communicate with Satan in the form of a cat. Agnes was the stereotypical witch: an old, poor woman, excluded from society and widowed. She was executed as a result of killing one of her neighbour’s husbands. It was said that to fulfil her duties Satan would feed on her blood, just as in the image above. This pamphlet was published to educate people about the activities of witches in case they needed to make an accusation. It also reinforced the idea that the powers were passed down through the female line of the family. This helped to set the agenda for witchcraft through the rest of the period.

Cases continued to steadily increase throughout Elizabeth’s reign. In 1578, wax figurines that had been stabbed in the heart were found in London and were believed to be an occult attack on the queen. Then, in 1584, Reginald Scott published The Discovery of Witches, a highly sceptical work, but this did not become very popular with contemporaries. The 1590s saw the first recorded executions of witches in Wales, which had remained exempt from prosecutions until this point.  

Witchcraft under the Stuarts

In 1603, Elizabeth I died and was succeeded by her cousin, James I and VI of Scotland. James was personally troubled by witchcraft. In 1589, he married Anne of Denmark. She attempted to sail to Scotland, but bad weather prevented this so James sailed to bring her. However, he too was hit by terrible storms, which were blamed upon Danish witches aimed at killing them both. Denmark was well-acquainted with witch-hunts, which sparked his interest in the subject. He personally attended the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland in 1590. Over a course of two years, over 70 people were implicated. This was the first major prosecution of witches in Scotland. In 1591, a pamphlet entitled Newes from Scotland was published which described the trial and the confessions given. The pamphlet was published in James’ dissertation on witchcraft and necromancy called Daemonologie, published in 1597. This was republished when James took the throne in England. Within a year, a harsher Act was passed; if anyone could be proved to have even injured someone, the punishment would be death. The Elizabethan Act was also broadened to bring the death penalty, usually hanging, to those who invoked evil spirits or communed with familiars. As a result, it became even easier for innocent people to be condemned, as long as witnesses could be found. During James’ reign, there were several mass executions. In 1612, the Pendle Witch Trials (in Lancashire) saw the execution of 10 supposed witches. However, in the latter years of James’ reign, prosecutions became less common, and the king more sceptical.

Following James’ death in 1625 and the accession of Charles I, rumours of witchcraft in high positions surrounding the King and government became more prominent. One key example was George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham was the king’s favourite (rumoured to be James I’s lover), which made Parliament uneasy. There were dark rumours around him and his mother, the Countess of Buckingham, in which she was accused of being a witch. Similarly, Buckingham was closely associated with Dr Lambe, who had been publicly condemned for witchcraft, and other offences such as rape. Lambe was tried and sentenced to death but was pardoned by the king. However, he was so despised that he was murdered. Then, in 1628, Buckingham was stabbed to death in Portsmouth, and there were celebrations about their deaths.

Witchcraft during the English Civil War

The English Civil War was a period of high tensions therefore it is predictable that anxieties were also high about witchcraft. In August 1642, Prince Rupert of the Rhine (nephew of Charles I) came to England to fight on the Royalist side. He was constantly accompanied by his dog, a white hunting poodle named Boy. He was also frequently the subject of Parliamentarian propaganda. In 1643, a pamphlet entitled Observations upon Prince Rupert’s White Dog called Boy was published and reproduced several times. In this, Boy was claimed to be  Prince Rupert’s familiar. It was alleged that Boy was bulletproof as well as that he slept in Rupert’s bed, a nod to contemporary theories of sexual encounters with familiars. However, recent historians have begun to believe that this was a Royalist publication, designed to mock the other side for their false beliefs. Boy died during the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, and a pamphlet was devoted to his death, in which a witch was shown weeping over his body (The Black Legend of Prince Rupert's Dog: Witchcraft and Propaganda During the English Civil War, M. Stoyle).

Frontispiece of the Parliamentarian pamphlet A true relation of Prince Rupert's barbarous cruelty against the towne of Brumingham/ 1643

This all helped to stir up anxieties about witchcraft and helped pave the way for a huge surge of prosecutions in the mid-1640s. J. Sharpe argued that many of those who took part in the East Anglian Witch Hunt had been affected by parliamentary propaganda which portrayed the royalists as agents of the devil.

The East Anglian Witch Hunt 1645-47

Very little is known of the origins of Matthew Hopkins, the self-titled Witch-Finder General. In the early 1640s, he moved to Manningtree in Essex, a county that was teeming with stories and witch trials. In 1645, he discovered several witches living in Manningtree who would supposedly have weekly meetings and make offers to the devil. He gave detailed evidence in court and obtained money as a result. Along with John Stearne (his associate and a committed Puritan), they had several witch-hunting techniques, including sleep deprivation, the ‘swimming test’ (based on the idea that witches would float when submerged as a result of renouncing their baptism and the water rejecting them) and searching for ‘witch marks’ on their bodies. These marks, also called ‘devil’s marks’ were believed to be the permanent marking of the devil to seal their submission to him and also associated with the perversion of maternal power.

During the climax of the panic, in the summer of 1645, 36 witches were on trial in Essex. 19 were executed, nine died in prison and six remained imprisoned in 1646. Only one was acquitted. The total number of executions as a result of Hopkins and Stearne’s work is estimated to have been at least 100, maybe as many as 300. More people were killed in this period than in the previous century, it went down in history as the ‘Great Witch Hunt of 1645-47’. Most were hung, but in September 1646 Mary Lakeland was burnt at the stake for having allegedly tortured and murdered her husband. It is a common misconception that all witches were burnt at the stake; this was far more common in Europe than in Britain.

After spring 1646, the panic began to subside and scepticism increased. Criticisms began to appear in the London press and by the autumn of 1646, most of the suspected witches were acquitted. In 1647, Hopkins published The Discovery of Witches, with its frontispiece showing witches identifying their familiars, with him dressed as a country gentleman. The pamphlet detailed his actions and methods and was also a response to those who had rebuked him. In the summer of 1647, Hopkins became very ill and died aged around 27. The Witch Hunt died with him and never regained the same momentum.

Frontispiece to Matthew Hopkins’s Discovery of Witches / British Library/ https://brewminate.com/woodcuts-and-witches/

After the Restoration

At a popular level, the discoveries by Hopkins and Stearne strengthened the fears of witchcraft. Inspired by the Great Witch Hunt, several local initiatives against witchcraft took place in the 1650s. For example, in Newcastle in 1650, through the work of a ‘witch-finder’ named John Wheeler, 27 women were declared witches and 15 were executed. He focused particularly on the looks of a witch: if they did not fit the stereotype, he did not declare them as one.

After the Restoration of the Monarchy under Charles II, there was a swift decline in witch prosecutions. There appear to have been only ten executions in the period between 1663 and 1685. Historians have suggested several explanations as to why this is the case, including that the witch hunt was closely associated with puritanism. The pro-monarchists now wished to distance themselves from this as well as the development of ‘polite society’, with elite cultures wishing to separate themselves from the more uncivilised groups with which witchcraft was associated. While this period by no means saw the end of witch prosecutions, English judges became increasingly sceptical. This growing uncertainty then filtered down to the ordinary people. 1712 witnessed the last known accusation filed on the Home circuit when a Hertford woman was tried and convicted but the Judge ensured she received a royal pardon. The tide of educated opinion was so strongly against witchcraft that it became almost impossible to convict people. Then, in 1736, the Jacobean act against witchcraft was repealed (Religion and the Decline of Magic – Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, K. Thomas). This, however, is not the end of the story as the removal did not eliminate the fears surrounding witchcraft.

Popular belief today

The repeal of the witchcraft law did for a short time increase mob violence, when ordinary people took it upon themselves to fight the malice of witches. For example, Ruth Osborne died as a result of the wounds inflicted upon her by a crowd in Herefordshire in 1751. When Queen Victoria ascended in 1837, witches were still believed to be found in society. Even during World War II, during Operation Barbarossa in 1941, a man physically attacked an elderly woman whom he believed to be a witch.

It is also still firmly believed by many that witches exist: a poll of Canadians and British people in 2005 revealed that 13% believed in witches, in America it was as high as 21%. Today, the idea of witches is far more positive, with them usually being the heroes. They no longer fall under the stereotype of old, widowed, ugly women. Take Hermione Granger from Harry Potter or the Good Witch of the North from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as examples. As a result, witches are now often seen as early-day feminists as they surpassed their male counterparts in power and intelligence and broke the status quo. This is a complete U-turn from how they were viewed centuries ago.

An insight into the discovery of witchcraft by historians

Historians have been researching the history of witchcraft for over a century, with great leaps occurring in the half century before World War II. The subject has benefited, like many fields of historical research, from a steady advance of monographs (a detailed written study of a single specialized subject), which continued after the War until today.

Professor Mark Stoyle, a Tudor and Stuart historian, who teaches at the University of Southampton, specialises in the nature of magic and witchcraft, as well as the English Civil War and the identity of Cornwall and Wales during the early modern period. Upon conversing with him about this topic, he said: ‘I first became interested in the history of witchcraft because my own home city of Exeter is the very last place in England in which people are known to have been executed for that alleged crime, during the 1680s. During the course of my ongoing research into Exeter’s history, I uncovered the stories of more than a score of local people who had been denounced to the city authorities as witches between 1550 and 1680. The more that I found out about these cases - and the more that I read around the subject of witchcraft in general – the more I realised what a precious window witch-cases provide into the lives of ordinary people – and especially of ordinary women – in early modern England, whose stories would otherwise go untold.’

He now teaches, alongside his friend and colleague Dr Julie Gammon, a module for second-year undergraduates entitled ‘Witchcraft in England between 1540 and 1734’, as a means of telling these stories. ‘The course consistently recruits extremely well, and consistently attracts a host of especially committed and engaged students – it is a joy to teach’. Alongside the core focus on the early modern period, they also investigate other periods and places, ‘ranging all the way from the supposed links between heretical beliefs and witchcraft in the medieval Alps to the use of witch-imagery by present-day Icelandic post-punk band Kaelan Mikla’. Professor Stoyle has written several books and articles on this subject, including Witchcraft in Exeter and The Black Legend of Prince Rupert’s Dog: Witchcraft and Propaganda during the English Civil War, which he draws upon to teach the course. Historians like Professor Stoyle continue to make fascinating discoveries, and we may be sure that the full story of witchcraft in Great Britain is yet to be uncovered. Undoubtedly, through his module Professor Stoyle has helped inspire a new generation of historians who are also fascinated by this subject.

I wish to thank Professor Stoyle for taking the time to talk to me and for permitting me to use my lecture notes (based on his teaching after taking his witchcraft module in my second year of university) to form the basis of this article.

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