From Hollywood to Harry Potter, witches have been viewed with macabre fascination for centuries. But behind the stereotypical broomstick-flying hag lies a dark history of trials, persecution and torture that claimed the lives of hundreds of men and women.
The 16th century was a time of religious upheaval caused, in part, by the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. As the aftershocks of religious division extended across Europe, fear spread that the Day of Judgment was nigh. Catholics viewed the rift as a sign that the antichrist was increasing his works in the world, while Protestants saw the corruption of the Catholic church as proof that the devil was near.
Fuelling concerns about the pernicious influence of magic and the devil was the revolution of print, which saw an influx of written texts from the continent, such as the Malleus Maleficarum (c1486), urging people to take decisive action in the battle with witches and magic. It was against this emotionally charged backdrop that Henry VIII introduced the first English statutes addressing witchcraft in 1542, followed by new, stricter, legislation by Elizabeth I in 1563 and James I in 1604.
No one was safe from an accusation of witchcraft, even clergymen. However, marginalised women bore the brunt of the accusations – particularly elderly spinsters, widows, and those living alone. In fact, 80 per cent of those tried in Britain were women.
Begging, a standard method of survival, lay at the root of many witchcraft allegations, and beggars were often blamed for misfortunes that occurred after they were refused help. More often than not, accusations of witchcraft resulted from neighbourly disagreements, inextricably bound to a deep-rooted fear of malevolent magic and the devil.
As stories of continental trials spread and as the new witchcraft laws filtered down through society, some took it upon themselves to lead the witch hunts, gathering evidence before trial as self-proclaimed ‘witchfinder generals’. The most notorious of these in England was a Puritan called Matthew Hopkins who launched an unprecedented campaign of terror against suspected English witches during the 1640s.
These led to some 300 trials and the deaths of around 100 people in eastern England. Hopkins was by no means the only witch detector, but his reputation spread far and wide and he had a profound impact on those around him. One source from the time commented: “It is strange to tell what superstitious opinions, affections, relations, are generally risen amongst us, since the Witchfinders came into the Countrey.”
Although the use of torture to extract a confession was illegal in England, Ireland and Wales, it was permitted in Scotland, and less ‘formal’ types of torture were often used by men such as Hopkins at a local level, often presided over by a magistrate or local constable. One such method was sleep deprivation, whereby the accused would be forced to walk back and forth until exhausted and then denied rest. In Scotland, thumb screws and leg crushers were also used.
Another, more public and informal type of trial was ‘swimming’ the accused to prove their guilt. The victim’s right thumb would be tied to their left big toe and they would be thrown into a nearby pond or river. If they sank, they were innocent; if they floated, they had been rejected by the water as a servant of the devil, in a type of reverse baptism.
As a capital offence, witchcraft trials in England were held before a judge and a jury under the common law system, during which evidence against the accused was presented. Court records reveal extraordinary stories of witches flying out of windows on broomsticks or cavorting with satanic imps. There are many theories to explain why the accused related such fantastical stories to open-mouthed juries – some historians cite mental health disorders; others attribute it to attention-seeking.
“Contrary to popular belief”, explains Professor Owen Davies of the University of Hertfordshire, “witch trials were not a foregone conclusion; only 25 per cent of those tried across the period were found guilty and executed. In fact, the total number of people tried for witchcraft in England throughout the period was no more than 2,000.”
Scotland, which has traditionally been regarded as more zealous in its persecution of witches than its southern counterparts, had a quarter of England’s population, yet tried 2,500 people and had an execution rate of around 67 per cent. Wales, however, held very few trials throughout the period – no more than 34. This has mainly been attributed to cultural differences and language barriers preventing the practice of hunting witches from crossing the Welsh border, as well as a tendency to explain misfortune as the work of fairies. This was also the case in Ireland.
By the late 17th century – thanks to a combination of judicial scepticism, low prosecution rates and the costs of pursuing a case through the courts – the number of accusations of witchcraft had plummeted. Many people turned instead to ‘cunning folk’ (‘wise’ men and women who practised ‘good’ witchcraft) and healers to combat the malevolent forces they believed to be at large. Witchcraft was finally decriminalised in Britain in 1736 – though people were still being accused of it as late as the 19th century.
Where history happened
1. Pendle Hill, Lancashire
Mass witch trials were rare in England, primarily due to the workings of common law, which prevented individuals from pursuing campaigns against a general perceived threat. Instead, a charge was usually based on a formal complaint from an injured party. However, in 1612, 16 people living around Pendle Hill were tried at Lancaster gaol, accused of selling their souls to the devil and murdering 17 people through witchcraft.
The initial accusation was directed at Alison Device for allegedly cursing a pedlar who had refused to give her some pins. When the pedlar later suffered a stroke, Alison was accused of causing him harm by witchcraft, and in her subsequent trial incriminated other members of her family, who in turn named other village members.
After reports of a witches’ sabbat (assembly) at Malkin Tower emerged and bones and clay images were allegedly retrieved from the building, ten were sentenced to death by hanging, and five were acquitted. The final member of the group, Margaret Pearson, was found guilty of a minor offence and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment.
The Pendle witches are one of the most famous examples from the period, partly due to the wealth of evidence available, recorded at the time by a local clerk of the Lancaster courts, Thomas Potts, and partly due to the nature of the trial. The location of Malkin Tower is unknown but one of its most likely sites is Pendle Hill. There is still a great deal of superstition surrounding the hill and many people choose to visit the site on Halloween, or to follow the walk the Pendle witches would have taken to their trial at Lancaster gaol.
2. Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh
Scotland saw numerous witch trials throughout the early modern period, many of which have been attributed to the zeal of the Calvinist clergy in alerting secular authorities to cases that appeared before them in the church courts.
Edinburgh Castle played a key role in the trial and execution of condemned witches, and an estimated 300 were put to death on the castle’s esplanade. One such figure was Agnes Finnie, an Edinburgh shopkeeper who was charged with 20 counts of witchcraft and sorcery, including placing “so frightful a disease on Beatrix Nisbet, for some other trifling offence, that she lost the use of her tongue”. Arrested in 1644, Agnes was found guilty of witchcraft and held in the castle’s dungeons. After strangulation, her body was burned on the esplanade.
Although the use of torture in this case was not officially recorded, it was permitted in Scotland, the most common format employed being sleep deprivation. Thumbscrews
and leg crushers were also common, as was ‘witch pricking’ – the method of piercing the skin to find areas of flesh that would not bleed.
Today, a small well on the castle’s esplanade marks the spot where Agnes Finnie, and others, were executed for the crime of witchcraft. Edinburgh Castle and its dungeons are open to the public.
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3. Brandeston village, Suffolk
As the witch hunting momentum grew, self-appointed ‘witchfinder generals’ sprung up around Britain, devoted to extracting confessions of guilt. Matthew Hopkins, the most notorious of these, was responsible for one fifth of the total number of executions in England over the period. One of his targets, John Lowes, was the elderly vicar of Brandeston who was accused of witchcraft in 1642.
After being ‘swum’ in the moat at Framlingham Castle, and proclaimed guilty after floating to the surface, Hopkins “kept [Lowes] awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath… till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did”. Ultimately, Lowes ‘confessed’ to sending imps to sink a ship near Harwich and allegedly proclaimed that he “was joyfull to see what power his imps had”. Lowes was hanged at Bury St Edmunds in August 1645.
All Saints Church has a plaque dedicated to Lowes and an image of his hanging is depicted on the village sign. Framlingham Castle and moat are still open to the public.
4. Exeter Castle Devon
Popular pressure and the power of the community often lay behind witchcraft sentences. This is seen in England’s last executions for witchcraft, which took place in 1682 and involved three women from the town of Bideford: Temperance Floyd, Mary Trembles and Susanna Edwards. The trio were arrested “upon suspicion of having used some magical art, sorcery or witchcraft upon the body of Grace Barnes…” who complained of a “griping” in her “belly, stomach and breast”.
The three women, two of whom were widows and the other a spinster, all confessed to meeting the devil during their trial at Exeter Castle, and sources from the time emphasise their unpopularity. “A less zeal in a city or kingdom hath been the overture of defection and revolution, and if these women had been acquitted, it was thought the country people would have committed some disorder,” claimed one witness. The judge, it would seem, caved before popular pressure and all three were hanged.
Although little of the original castle remains, a plaque near the gatehouse names all three women as the last to be executed in England for witchcraft. A fourth woman, Alice Molland, is also mentioned. She was sentenced to death but it is unclear whether she was executed, as there are no accounts of the sentence being carried out.
5. Taunton Castle, Somerset
The lead up to the repeal of the witchcraft statutes in 1736 saw a shift in attitudes towards witch trials and a marked increase in judicial skepticism, as well as the rigorous examination of the evidence. Juries became increasingly disbelieving of witness’s claims of supernatural activity and, consequently, fewer people pursued their claims through the law.
One of the last witch trials held in England, and the last in the south-west, was the case of Maria Stevens who, in 1707, was charged with bewitching an acquaintance, Dorothy Reeves. Although little evidence remains, we know that the trial was held at Taunton Castle and Maria was acquitted and released after both judge and jury failed to believe the evidence given against her.
Five years later, England saw its last witchcraft conviction in the shape of Jane Wenham, who was later pardoned. Demonstrating the cynicism with which England’s elite viewed accusations of witchcraft, when hearing the charge that Wenham flew on a broomstick, the judge allegedly joked that there was “no law against flying”. The authorities in England were distancing themselves from popular beliefs.
The remains of the castle and later buildings now house the county museum, military museum and gallery. These are currently being refurbished and are due to re-open to the public in 2011.
6. Dornoch, Sutherland
The decline of witch trials in Scotland was roughly equivalent with that of England, and in 1722 the last execution for witchcraft was performed in the town of Dornoch. The execution date is still debated, as the central Scottish courts did not conduct the trial – as was the norm – and therefore no trial records exist. Anomalies like this were fairly common in Scotland due to its scattered population, which often led to local authorities pursuing cases that would otherwise have been heard in the central courts.
The case involved a woman, Janet Horne, who was accused of “having ridden upon her own daughter, transformed into a poney, and shod by the devil, which made the girl ever after lame…”. After stumbling over the Lord’s Prayer in the dock, Horne was sentenced to death. Sources written after the event write of Horne being stripped, covered in tar and paraded through Dornoch in a barrel before “warming herself by the fire lit to consume her”. The latter is unlikely as most witches were strangled before burning.
In the garden of a cottage located in a side street just south of the town’s square stands the ‘Witch’s Stone’. Dated 1722, the stone is said to mark the site where Horne was burned.
7. Tring Hertfordshire
Long after the Witchcraft Act of 1736, people continued to administer their own justice on those they suspected of being witches. In 1751 a chimney sweep named Thomas Colley was executed for leading the swimming of Ruth Osborne and her husband, John, both of whom were accused of witchcraft.
A notice was served in the village stating: “This is to give notice that on Monday next a man and a woman are to be publicly ducked at Tring, in this county, for their wicked crimes”, and despite sheltering in the vestry of Tring church, the pair were dragged to a pond between Wilstone and Long Marston by a mob of villagers on the prescribed day. After their hands and feet were tied, both were wrapped in sheets and thrown into the pond where they were then poked at with sticks. Ruth subsequently drowned but her husband was pulled out alive.
The inquest into Ruth’s death was held at the Half Moon pub in the village of Wilstone, and Thomas Colley was hanged for murder. His body was allegedly left dangling for some time to deter similar acts of cruelty. The Half Moon pub still stands, as does the church of St Peter and St Paul at Tring.
8. Ffynnon Eilian, Anglesey
Although Wales held very few witch trials, the practice of ritual cursing was widespread and many ‘cursing wells’ sprung up across the country during the early modern period. One of these, Ffynnon Eilian (St Eilian’s Well) in Llaneilian, Anglesey, was originally a healing well where pilgrims would offer money and food to obtain a cure for a sick child, and was affiliated with nearby St Eilian’s church. By the late 18th century, however, the well had taken on a more sinister role and had grown an extensive and profitable reputation for enacting curses.
One object found in the well in 1925 was a small piece of slate with the letters ‘RF’ carved in the middle. Pinned to the centre of the slate was a small wax figure with head, body, legs and one arm – the left arm had been broken off. Evidence suggests that the object had been placed in the well to wish misfortune on ‘RF’. Some cursing wells even had ‘well keepers’ who would note down curses in a ledger.
The well was destroyed, probably by the church, after its notoriety for cursing rituals spread, but St Eilian’s church still exists, as does the spring that fed the original well.
9. Sible Hedingham, Essex
Right through to the 19th century, magic and witchcraft were still very much a part of everyday life, and although trials by swimming were frowned upon in the eyes of the law, they continued to be used by the population at large long after the repeal of the witchcraft statutes in 1736.
The last recorded case of swimming in England occurred in the village of Sible Hedingham in 1863 when an elderly man by the name of Dummy was dragged from the taproom in The Swan public house to a nearby brook. The man, who was deaf and dumb, gained a living by telling fortunes and was a figure of curiosity in the village. He was accused of bewitching the wife of the beerhouse owner, Emma Smith, who complained that she had been ill for some ten months.
After Dummy refused to ‘remove the curse’, Smith struck him “several times” with a stick and pushed him into the brook, encouraged by other villagers, in particular master carpenter Samuel Stammers. Dummy died a few days later from shock and pneumonia caused by the constant immersion and ill treatment, and both Smith and Stammers were sentenced to six months’ hard labour.
Although no longer a working pub, The Swan Inn still stands, and the stream in which Dummy was swum flows nearby.
Words by Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: Owen Davies of the University of Hertfordshire. Davies is author of A Very Short Introduction to Paganism (OUP, 2011)