The history of witchcraft in Britain is a dark one, brimming with trials, persecution and torture, which claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent men and women during the 16th and 17th centuries. But what did you actually have to do to end up in the dock, accused of devil worship and crimes of witchcraft? Very little, as the following eight questions, compiled with the help of Owen Davies, professor of social history at the University of Hertfordshire, reveal…
Are you female?
Although around 80 per cent of those tried for witchcraft in Britain were women, men also suffered at the hands of so-called witch hunters, too. In 1863, an elderly man from Sible Hedingham, Essex, was accused of bewitching the wife of the local beerhouse owner. Using the more informal type of trial of ‘swimming’ the accused to prove their guilt, the villagers threw the man into a nearby brook. If he sank, he was deemed innocent; if he floated, he had been rejected by the water as a servant of the devil, in a type of reverse baptism. The victim died a few days later from shock and pneumonia caused by the constant immersion and ill treatment.
Do you have any pets?
The stereotypical witch with his or her black cat actually has its roots in history, and the keeping of ‘familiars’ in animal or human form was seen as an important indicator of witchcraft activity. ‘Familiars’ – cats, rats, toads, dogs and other domestic animals – were often believed to have been ‘seen’ to assist witches in the practice of magic. The first major trial in England, held at the Chelmsford assizes in July 1566, saw the accused, Agnes Waterhouse, confess to giving her blood to the Devil in the likeness of a white-spotted cat named Satan.
Do you live alone?
No one was safe from an accusation of witchcraft but marginalised women were more prone to accusations – particularly elderly spinsters, widows, and those living alone.
Have you ever asked for charity?
Begging lay at the root of many witchcraft allegations, and beggars were often accused of practising witchcraft against those who had refused them help. The persecution of the so-called Pendle witches began when a young woman, Alison Device, asked a peddler for a pin. She was refused and the peddler later suffered a stroke, leading to an accusation of witchcraft against Device.
Have you ever fallen out with neighbours?
Popular pressure and the power of the community often lay behind witchcraft sentences, so it paid to be on good terms with your neighbours. An accusation of witchcraft could be used as a way of explaining misfortune or illness, as well as a way of ridding oneself of a troublesome neighbour. In 1712, after arguing with a local farmer, Jane Wenham, dubbed ‘the wise woman of Walkern’, was accused of bewitching one of the farmer’s workers. She was eventually acquitted after receiving a royal pardon from Queen Anne.
Have you ever uttered vague threats?
Losing your temper with someone could be a death sentence in early modern England, particularly if your idle threats came true. In 1644, Edinburgh shopkeeper Agnes Finnie was charged with 20 counts of witchcraft after falling out with a number of neighbours and customers. In one case, Agnes was accused of “having fallen in a controversy with Margaret Williamson [and] most outrageously wished the Devil to blow her blind”. Witnesses reported that Williamson did indeed fall ill after this threat, and allegedly lost her sight.
Have you ever told people’s fortunes or given herbal remedies?
Cunning folk (‘wise’ men and women who practised ‘good’ witchcraft) were common in the early modern period and their help could be sought for a number of different occasions: illness, fertility, and even to combat evil forces thought to be at large. However, cunning folk could often find themselves on the receiving end of an allegation of witchcraft, accused of bewitching rather than curing.
Do you have a vivid imagination?
Records of witch trials show that in some cases, those accused of witchcraft appeared to go along with the so-called ‘evidence’ presented against them, often confessing to the most unlikely crimes and thus feeding the suspicions of the magistrate. The first major witch trial in England, in 1566, saw the accused ‘confess’ that she had used her cat as means to work her magic, feeding it chickens and drops of her own blood in return. Other trials reveal admissions of flying and meeting with the Devil. Some of these confessions were clearly the result of torture, especially in Scotland where torture was legal, but others were mostly likely the products of a vivid imagination.
Would you have been tried for witchcraft? It all depends on how many of the questions you answered ‘yes’ to…
Score 0-1: You’re safe
Judging by your answers, you would probably have avoided any accusations of witchcraft. However, you may well have known others accused of the crime, or even have been called as a witness against them.
Score 2–4: You’re raising concerns
Your answers show that you would not have been immune from an accusation of witchcraft during the early modern period. Although not all accusations led to trial, even the smallest suspicion cast against you could have resulted in a visit from the local witch finder.
Score 5–7: You’re highly suspect
By answering ‘yes’ to the majority of our questions, it’s clear that an accusation of witchcraft against you would have been highly likely. Such an allegation would have seen you subjected to a number of ‘witch tests’, some of which may have involved ‘informal’ torture such as ‘witch pricking’ (the method of piercing the skin to find areas of flesh that do not bleed). If you lived in Scotland where the use of torture was once permitted, you may have been subjected to sleep deprivation, thumbscrews and leg crushers until you confessed. Once a confession was made, it would have been left up to the courts to sentence you.
Score 8: You’re a witch (in the eyes of those around you)
You’ve achieved the highest possible score and would probably have been tried at your local assizes and found guilty of cavorting with the Devil and causing death by witchcraft during the early modern period. Contrary to popular belief, death by fire was only common on the continent; those found guilty of witchcraft in Britain would have been publicly hanged as an example to others.