Witches in the dock: 10 of Britain’s most infamous witch trials
What happened when someone was charged with conversing with the Devil or practising sorcery on the king? Owen Davies lifts the lid on 10 of Britain's most infamous witch trials
The prosecution and hanging of two men and eight women on Pendle Hill in Lancashire in 1612 has long caught the public imagination, the story being retold in puppet shows, pamphlets, plays and novels. In terms of witchcraft as heritage tourism, Pendle Hill has become the Salem of Britain. A century later, the last conviction for witchcraft in England took place in Hertfordshire.
It is fitting to put both trials in context, and explore the rise and decline of witch persecution in Britain. Note that I’ve used the word ‘persecution’ and not ‘craze’. This was not an episode of mass insanity: witchcraft made perfect sense within the world view of people at the time. It’s also important to remember that, for two centuries after the last person was executed for witchcraft in Scotland in the 1720s, people continued to harbour a genuine fear of witches.
One common misconception is that witch trials belong to the medieval era. In fact, there were no laws against witchcraft in Britain until 1542, when Henry VIII passed an act against witchcraft and conjuration. But this does not mean that witches were not considered a problem in the 15th century, as our first trial shows…