England - Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

Witchcraft was prosecuted very differently in England than on the Continent or in neighboring Scotland. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, witchcraft itself was not a crime per se in England. The only witches prosecuted were those using magic to cause physical harm to another person or their property, including animals. Anyone convicted of causing harm via malicious magic was punished in the same manner as someone who caused similar harm in a non-magical way: fines, incarceration, and/or public humiliation such as the pillory or stocks. During the fifteenth century some began demanding a more stringent approach.

English witchcraft trial records are comparatively complete; many fascinating witchcraft trials occurred in England. The following are but a few of the most famous:

Eleanor Cobham

In 1441 Eleanor Cobham, wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was accused of conspiring to kill the king via wax image magic. Two priests, Roger Bolingbroke and Thomas Southwell, were charged as her accomplices as well as Margery Jourdemayne, known as the Witch of Eye because she lived in Eye-next-Westminster.

Jourdemayne had allegedly helped Eleanor wed Gloucester via charms and love spells. In 1430, she was imprisoned for sorcery but released two years later. She then disappears from documents until charged alongside Eleanor.

Eleanor was accused of practicing malevolent magic in order to obtain political power for her husband. The accusations were corroborated by occult scholar Roger Bolingbroke, who was charged alongside Eleanor. Tortured, Bolingbroke confessed that he was a master sorcerer who taught Eleanor everything she knew including wax image magic. He confessed to performing divination at her request.

The childless Eleanor confessed that she made a wax poppet to increase her fertility not to injure or control the king or anyone else. The figure however was judged to be the likeness of the king. Of course, every judge queried was allied with Eleanor’s husband’s enemies.

Father Thomas Southwell was accused of performing a mass over Bolingbroke’s necromantic instruments, seized when Bolingbroke was arrested. None of the accused denied practicing magic but all vociferously denied treason or attempts on the king’s life.

Thomas Southwell died in prison before sentencing. Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye, was burned at the stake. Bolingbroke was made to stand on a high scaffold in London wearing magician’s robes and surrounded by his ritual tools including the wax figure allegedly made of the king. He was then hanged, drawn, and quartered. His severed head was displayed on London Bridge. His limbs were exhibited, one each in Cambridge, Hereford, Oxford, and York.

Eleanor was convicted and condemned to do public penance on three occasions. She was made to walk barefoot and bareheaded through the streets of London carrying a two-pound candle. She was imprisoned for the rest of her life, first at Chester, then at Peel Castle on the Isle of Man, where she died in mysterious circumstances in 1447.

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn (c.1507—1536) is the perfect example of political, cynical use of witchcraft accusations. When Henry VIII was in love with Anne, many critics suggested that she had bewitched the king in order to become queen. When Anne first gave birth to a daughter (the future Elizabeth I), then a still-born son, Henry described it as God’s punishment on him for consorting with a witch. He ordered her arrest for treason. (The charge was based on accusations of infidelity.) She was convicted and beheaded in 1536.

During the sixteenth century, witchcraft laws were made more severe. In 1542 a law was passed decreeing mandatory strict sentences—but not death—for conviction of maleficia (see DICTIONARY). In 1562 Queen Elizabeth I passes the Witchcraft Act. A first offense was punishable by being pilloried; the death sentence was only permitted after three separate convictions. Execution is mandated for cases of maleficia involving murder. In 1581 severe physical punishment is mandated for maleficia even if it does not result in murder. (Merely practicing folk magic, however, was not a crime.)

The number of witchcraft accusations rose, as did the number of sensational trials that gripped the public imagination such as the Burton Boy and the Chelmsford Witches.

Witch persecutions were disproportionately strong in Essex and Lancashire; historians suggest that this was in response to religious tension between Roman Catholics and Puritan evangelists.

Chelmsford Witch Trials

Chelmsford, Essex, was racked with witch trials in 1566, 1579, 1589, and 1645.

In 1566 three women were charged as witches in Chelmsford during a two-day trial. Charges included consorting with the devil and harming others via magic (maleficia).

Elizabeth Francis confessed that her grandmother, Mother Eve, had instructed her in witchcraft, teaching her to renounce God and give her blood to the devil. She also confessed to bewitching a baby who then “became decrepit.” She had a white spotted cat named Sathan who was her familiar and obtained goods and sheep for her. Sathan, who could speak English (this ability was not demonstrated at the trial), stole 18 black and white sheep for Elizabeth.

Sathan also helped her obtain a lover; when the lover wouldn’t marry Elizabeth, the cat killed him via witchcraft. On the cat’s advice she became pregnant by Christopher Francis, whom she later married, but the marriage was unhappy. Elizabeth testified that she requested that Sathan kill her child, which he did. She later wanted her husband lamed, which the cat accomplished by transforming into a toad and hiding in Christopher Francis’ shoe. The cat also allegedly killed a neighbor’s cattle.

After 15 or 16 years of service, Elizabeth Francis said she had enough of Sathan the cat and gave him to her impoverished neighbor, 65-year-old Mother Agnes Waterhouse, instructing her to call him “Sathan” and feed him bread, milk, and her own blood.

Agnes Waterhouse confessed to the murder by witchcraft of William Fyness and sending Sathan to destroy a neighbor’s cattle and geese. She also had a toad familiar whom she kept in a pot. She also testified that she tried to get Sathan to kill a local tailor, Mr Wardol, with whom she had a dispute, but Wardol was too strong in his faith.

Joan Waterhouse, her daughter, aged 18, was charged with bewitching 12-year-old Agnes Brown. Both older women confessed but Joan did not, begging for mercy instead, which she received.

Elizabeth Francis was sentenced to a year in prison. Agnes Waterhouse was condemned and hanged on July 29, 1566. Joan Waterhouse, Agnes’ daughter, was found innocent.

In 1579 four women were charged with witchcraft in Chelmsford including Elizabeth Francis who had served one year in jail after being convicted of witchcraft in 1566. Charges included two cases of bewitchment resulting in a person’s death and one charge each of bewitching a cow and a gelding to death. Elizabeth Francis, Ellen Smith, and Alice Stokes were executed by hanging. Margaret Stanton was released for lack of evidence.

In 1589 ten people were accused of witchcraft in Chelmsford. Records show that four were hung and three were found innocent. It is uncertain what happened to the last three defendants.

The Windsor Witches

This 1579 trial was stimulated by the discovery of three female wax images, pierced with bristles and found buried in a dung heap. Four elderly, impoverished women (Mother Devell, Mother Dutten, Mother Margaret, and Elizabeth Stile) were accused of witchcraft. They denied the charges until they were told that leniency would be shown if they confessed. They confessed and were promptly convicted and hanged.

St Osyth Trial

There were approximately 14 defendants in this 1582 trial. Ten were charged with committing murder via witchcraft. (Margaret Murray reported 13 defendants, however many historians believe she manipulated numbers to support her theory of 13-member covens. Trial transcripts allegedly indicate 14 witches.)

The central figure was Ursula Kemp, a professional healer who included folk magic in her practice: it is unclear whether she was tortured. The person who first accused her of maleficia was a former patient who had refused to pay a bill and claimed Kemp had retaliated by worsening the illness.

Kemp’s eight-year-old son was coerced into offering detailed testimony about witchcraft practiced in their home. After her son’s testimony, Ursula confessed to being a witch and named four other women as witches. Ursula claimed to be a solitary witch but said the other women were part of two covens in the area. The four women were arrested and charged; they in turn confessed and named others as witches. Two women, Ursula Kemp and Elizabeth Bennet, were hanged on February 18, 1582. Four others were acquitted. Two women were released prior to the trial’s conclusion for lack of evidence and the rest were incarcerated.

Following Ursula’s death, her body was dipped in tar and displayed, hanging from a gibbet, for almost a month. She was refused a Christian burial and was buried in wasteland. Her remains were discovered during a 1921 excavation just outside the Priory of St Osyth. Metal spikes had been driven through her wrists, knees, and ankles—presumably so she wouldn’t rise again. Her body was displayed before being buried once more under a heap of rubble. Cecil Williamson purchased her remains in the 1940s for £100. (See HALL OF FAME: Margaret Murray, Cecil Williamson.)

The Warboys Witches

The trial of the Warboys Witches in 1593 was a sensational case; it is sometimes cited as a major factor in the passage of the 1604 Witchcraft Act. The Warboys Witches were Alice Samuel, aged 76, her husband John, and her daughter Agnes.

In 1589, Alice was visiting her neighbor Robert Throckmorton in Warboys when his 10-year-old daughter Jane suffered some sort of seizure, for which Jane blamed Alice. Soon other girls in the Throckmorton family, aged 9 to 15, were having fits too and blaming Alice Samuel.

Their parents doubted witchcraft was the cause. Wealthy and well-educated, they consulted the finest physicians possible who could find no physical cause. The fits increased in frequency and in violence. Other women in the household (the girls’ aunt, female servants) started having fits too. At first there was no pattern to these fits but after a while they only occurred in Alice Samuel’s presence. (Alice was frequently summoned to the Throckmorton estate as part of the process of determining what was wrong with the girls. She had no choice but to appear.)

Eventually Throckmorton asked Alice to live in his house, reasoning that the girls couldn’t sustain their fits 24 hours a day. He was right: the fits became intermittent, but instead the girls now began to see demons. A visitor, Lady Cromwell, experimented by burning a little of Alice’s hair in the belief that this could lessen her power. The girls were no better and Lady Cromwell later claimed that Alice appeared in her dreams that night and attacked her. Lady Cromwell developed a long illness and died one year later. Alice Samuel was blamed for her death.

Three years later in 1592, the Throckmorton girls were still pitching fits, still seeing demons, still in misery, and still blaming Alice Samuel. Alice apparently finally had enough: she lost her temper and ordered the girls to stop their nonsense—they did!

The fits stopped. Unfortunately for Alice, this was taken as incontrovertible proof of witchcraft. Alice herself began to wonder if she possessed some kind of power, confiding her fears to a local clergyman. He shared her concerns with others: a formal investigation was opened.

Alice Samuel soon confessed to witchcraft. She was placed on trial for bewitching the ladies of the Throckmorton household and the magical murder of Lady Cromwell.

During that era it was commonly believed that if someone practiced witchcraft, others sharing her household must be practitioners, too, especially daughters. Alice’s husband and her daughter were charged with witchcraft too, although both protested their innocence. The Samuel family was convicted and hanged in August 1593, after which all signs of bewitchment in the Throckmorton household ceased.

The Pendle Forest Witches

The trial of the Pendle Forest witches in 1612 was one of the largest and most complex of the English witch trials. Twenty defendants from two families were charged. The trial was the subject of a 1613 book by the court clerk, Thomas Potts—The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster.

Elizabeth Sowthern, also known as Old Mother Demdike, and Anne Whittle, also known as Old Chattox, worked together for a while selling magic potions. Each lived with her large extended family in Lancashire’s Pendle Forest. Eventually rivalry developed between the two families and a feud developed, each family accusing the other of malevolent witchcraft. Accusations were lobbed against each other: magical baby killing, murder via familiar (spotted dog), Satanic pacts, and so forth.

Authorities eventually arrested the two matriarchs and nine of their relatives; officials later learned that about twenty members of the two families that hadn’t been arrested were conspiring to spring the accused from jail. Nine were caught and jailed for this conspiracy, but were also charged with witchcraft. The new defendants were accused of using magic to murder 16 people as well as assorted cows and horses.

Nine-year-old Jennet Device was the prosecution’s star witness, offering damning testimony against her grandmother (Sowthern/Demdike), her mother Elizabeth Device, her sister Alison, and her brother James. She testified that her mother used witchcraft to kill three people and had a familiar in the shape of a brown dog named Bell.

Mother Demdike, aged 80, confessed that she became a witch 50 years earlier when she was initiated by a boy wearing parti-colored clothing whom she met near a stone pit in Pendle Forest. She had since dedicated herself, her children, and her grandchildren to Satan. (Whether this was code for hereditary witchcraft remains subject to debate.) Her granddaughter Alison testified that Demdike had initiated her into the family coven with the gift of a big black dog.

Mother Demdike was allegedly the leader of one group of witches; her rival Anne Whittle (Chattox) was accused of killing John Device (Mother Demdike’s son-in-law) via witchcraft because he didn’t pay Chattox the annual tax he promised her for not harming him or his family.

The magistrate ordered Demdike and three others be arrested and taken to Lancaster Castle where Mother Demdike died in jail. Ten people were hanged in August 1612 including Anne Chattox and her daughter as well as Elizabeth, Alison and James Device. Young Jennet Device, who was left without immediate family, largely because of her own testimony, was herself hanged as a witch 20 years later.

The Burton Boy

Thomas Darling (c.1582—?) was from Burton-on-Trent and so was called “the Burton Boy.” At age 14, Thomas experienced a brief illness; he began having convulsions and reported seeing visions of demons. Physicians were consulted; most diagnosed bewitchment. (One diagnosed worms.) Thomas was asked who was responsible; he named 66-year-old Alice Gooderidge, with whom he had quarreled in the forest. She was tracked down and tortured to extract her confession. Alice denied being a witch but was unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer, then considered proof of witchcraft. She was tortured until she began to give details of her “crimes.”

Alice said Satan visited her in the form of a dog she had received from her mother, Elizabeth Wright. No record exists of what happened to Wright; Gooderidge died in prison while serving a one-year sentence for witchcraft.

In the meantime, famed exorcist John Darrell cast out Darling’s demons. He suffered no more convulsions. Three years later, Thomas Darling admitted faking convulsions, possessions, and exorcism in order to achieve celebrity and fame. (Some believe Darrell was also involved in the deception.)

In 1604, King James I passed the Witchcraft Act. Death by hanging is decreed for all cases of maleficia, even first offenses not involving murder. It becomes a crime to consort with the devil, concoct potions, and practice divination. Rural practitioners of folk magic were reclassified as devil-worshiping witches.

Elizabethan law had preserved distinctions between “good” and “bad” witches. Reginald Scot’s 1584 book Discoverie of Witchcraft became increasingly influential (see BOOKS: Witch-hunters’ Manuals: Scot). Trial judges more and more found accused witches innocent or even refuse to try them. James changed the law because, in his words, he “found a defect in the statute…by which none died for witchcraft but only who by that means had killed so that such were executed rather as murderers” than as witches.

Following the 1604 Act, professional witchfinders begin to appear, most notoriously Matthew Hopkins. Because English law did not permit brutal torture as in parts of the Continent, English witch-finders devised their own techniques. (What constituted torture was subjective; although “torture” as practiced in Germany and Scotland was forbidden in England, starving, exhausting or otherwise creating “discomfort” was permissible.)

Accused witches were kept awake for days, made to walk continuously, and refused food and water. When exhausted, they were more easily bullied, coerced or tricked into confessions.

Witchcraft was also proven by water ordeal, known as “swimming the witch” or “being swum.” The accused was tied up and tossed into deep water. Most people at that time could not swim. If the person floated, she was guilty. Many panicked and confessed. This ordeal was banned by Parliament in 1645, although it remained commonly practiced.

Matthew Hopkins

Between 1645 and 1646 Matthew Hopkins was responsible for the executions of over two hundred accused witches. Hopkins (c.1621—c.1647), a professional witch-finder, appointed himself Witch Finder General. He received a fee of 40 shillings for each charge and investigation and a bonus per conviction. His profit per “job” ranged from £4 to £26. He traveled through the countryside offering his services.

Hopkins’ family came from East Anglia. He was a Puritan and lived in the village of Manningtree in Essex; very little else is known of his early life. He had been a struggling lawyer but in 1645 began advertising his services as a witch-hunter. Essex was his preferred territory but he extended his efforts throughout East Anglia.

Hopkins placed emphasis on imps, familiars, and witch’s marks rather than on the sabbats popular among witchcraft accusations elsewhere. An accused person was searched for a devil’s or witch’s mark, which was almost inevitably found. Searching wasn’t limited to visual examination: long pins were stuck all over the accused’s body in search of a witch’s mark, which might be visible or merely a spot on the body perceived as being insensitive to pain. If the person didn’t cry out in pain then the witch’s mark had been found. After the mark was discovered, the accused was strapped naked onto a stool or table and left with observers to await the arrival of an imp, familiar, demon or devil. Any appearance was considered sufficient: an ant, a fly, a mouse…

Hopkins had two assistants. John Stearne, a Puritan, searched men, and Mary Phillips, a midwife, searched female suspects for marks, under the supervision of Hopkins.

The first witch Hopkins investigated was old, one-legged Elizabeth Clarke whose neighbors in Chelmsford disliked her. Clarke was tortured and named five others. All were executed. From that very first trial, people were disconcerted by Hopkins’ fees and by the financial incentive he had in discovering and proving witchcraft.

The public became increasingly uneasy about Hopkins’ methods. Opposition to him grew. A 1646 publication, Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft by John Gaule, a clergyman in Huntingdonshire, wrote against the cruelties of witch-hunting in general and attacked Hopkins’ procedures in particular. After publication of Gaule’s book, Hopkins’ business began to taper off.

In 1647, Hopkins self-published a pamphlet, The Discovery of Witches: in Answer to Severall Queries lately Delivered to the Judges of Assize for Norfolk County, that defended his actions and claimed that the sincere desire to eliminate evil (not financial motivation) stimulated his career as a witch-finder.

Hopkins then disappeared. What happened to him? Who knows? Some suggest that Hopkins was himself accused of witchcraft and executed. Others suggest that relatives of a witch he caused to be executed killed him or that a mob seized him and dunked him in the village pond until he drowned (Hopkins was particularly fond of swimming witches). This may be wishful thinking: Stearne, his old assistant, suggested that Hopkins died of tuberculosis.

The Somerset Witch Trials

In 1664, 16 women and 9 men are tried in what became known as the Somerset Witch Trials. They allegedly belonged to two covens, both under the alleged personal supervision of Satan, who appeared to them as a mysterious man named “Robin.” The witches confessed to the charges; they claimed they’d been given devil’s marks and that they had used ointments and incantations to fly off to sabbats. The court, however, didn’t believe their confessions and dismissed the case.

Margaret Murray relied heavily on trial transcripts from the Somerset Witch Trials for her books and theories of witchcraft. See HALL OF FAME: Margaret Murray.

Exeter Witch Trials

In 1682 three impoverished elderly defendants were arrested in Exeter—Susanna Edwards, Mary Trembles, and Temperance Lloyd. Lloyd, who had twice previously been unsuccessfully tried for witchcraft, was accused of leading a coven that included the other two women. It is not clear whether the women were tortured but all three confessed to being witches and consorting with the devil. This was one of the last English witchcraft trials. The judge, convinced that the confessions stemmed from the defendants mental and physical infirmities, wished to acquit the women. The public massed outside the courtroom however roared for conviction and execution, and the judge, fearing public’s reaction, ordered their execution. The three women were hanged in August.

In 1684 Alice Molland was hanged as a witch in Exeter. She was the last person executed for witchcraft by an English court of law.

The last official trial for witchcraft in England occurred in Leicester in 1717. Twenty-five neighbors accused Mother Norton and her daughter of practicing witchcraft. The two women were subjected to swimming and were publicly stripped naked and pricked. However, in court, the presiding judge, Justice Parker, and the Grand Jury found no substance to the charges and released both women.

The Witchcraft Act of 1736, enacted under George II, sharply reduced penalties for practicing witchcraft. The gist was that witchcraft doesn’t exist, therefore no one should in the future be prosecuted for it, but anyone pretending to be a witch or to practice witchcraft should be prosecuted as an impostor.

A substantial segment of the populace disapproved of the Act as being too lenient towards witches, permitting them to get away with their crimes. Thus instead of charging people with witchcraft, mob violence became more customary when witchcraft was suspected. As late as the early twentieth century, stories of mobs attacking suspected witches were not uncommon.

In 1751 John and Ruth Osborne were killed by a mob that suspected the elderly couple of witchcraft. The Osbornes had long been unpopular in their Hertfordshire community; they are described as holding differing political views from their neighbors. A dairy farmer named Butterfield apparently refused Ruth Osborne some free buttermilk; shortly afterwards his cows died. With no cows, he sold his farm and opened a tavern instead. Butterfield then began to have convulsions for which he blamed Ruth, as he had the cows’ demise. Butterfield grumbled to his tavern customers who spread the gossip. A “rumor” spread that on April 22, 1751, the Osbornes would be swum to determine if they were witches. Local authorities hid the Osbornes for their own safety but a mob, led by chimney sweep Thomas Colley, found them on the appointed day. They were stripped naked, tied up, and tossed into a stream.

Ruth Osborne did not sink and so Colley pushed her under with a stick until she nearly died. The crowd then dragged her from the water and beat her to death. Her husband was dragged out as well and beaten; he died several days later.

In 1875 80-year-old Anne Tennant was fatally wounded with a pitchfork wielded by James Haywood, a local farmhand, in the village of Long Compton, Warwickshire. She was pinned to the ground with a pitchfork through her throat; a cross was carved over her breast with a billhook. “I meant to do it!” Haywood said when arrested. Haywood, terrified of witches since childhood, believed there were at least 15 in the area and intended to eliminate them. A jury declared him insane.

The 1944 trial of Helen Duncan (born in 1898) is cited as the reason for the repeal of Great Britain’s 1736 Witchcraft Act. Duncan was a medium. In 1941, she claimed to have spoken with the spirit of a recently drowned sailor. However, the event in which he had drowned had been classified as a military secret; no one outside a very limited military circle was aware of the drowning. The media picked up the story and the government was forced to admit the truth. There was speculation as to what other secrets Duncan might reveal and so she was placed on trial under the 1736 Witchcraft Act as plans for the Allied invasion of Normandy were being finalized.

During her trial, the government argued that Duncan was a life-long fraud and charlatan. However, dozens of witnesses, Duncan’s satisfied clients, testified to the contrary. Helen Duncan was convicted and spent nine months in prison, despite public protest against her incarceration.

In 1945 Charles Walton (1871—February 14, 1945) was discovered murdered. He had been pinned to the ground with a pitchfork through his throat. A cross had been slashed onto his body using a billhook, which was then thrust into his torso. The case became known as the “Witchcraft Murder”; Walton may have been killed because he was assumed to be a witch. A laborer who lived with a niece, he had a reputation as a cunning man with clairvoyant skills. Walton had taken his billhook and gone to trim hedgerows for a local farmer. He was seen at work at midday but never returned home. His niece and the farmer searched for him, discovering his body under a tree.

Scotland Yard was never able to solve the crime despite taking over four thousand statements. Villagers were not forthcoming: Walton was not well-liked. There was much speculation regarding his witchcraft practices and whether he was personally responsible for poor crops in the area. The murder remains unsolved to this day.

Does the murder sound familiar? It occurred but two miles from where Anne Tennant had been similarly killed as a witch in 1875 (see page 794).

In 1951 all British anti-witchcraft laws were repealed. Up until then, books perceived as advocating witchcraft practices and rituals, such as this one, could not be published in the UK.