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The History of Witchcraft in England – The Beginnings

The Beginnings of English Witchcraft

It has been said by a thoughtful writer that the subject of witchcraft has hardly received that place which it deserves in the history of opinions. There has been, of course, a reason for this neglect—the fact that the belief in witchcraft is no longer existent among intelligent people and that its history, in consequence, seems to possess rather an antiquarian than a living interest. No one can tell the story of the witch trials of sixteenth and seventeenth century England without digging up a buried past, and the process of exhumation is not always pleasant. Yet the study of English witchcraft is more than an unsightly exposure of a forgotten superstition. There were few aspects of sixteenth and seventeenth century life that were not affected by the ugly belief. It is quite impossible to grasp the social conditions, it is impossible to understand the opinions, fears, and hopes of the men and women who lived in Elizabethan and Stuart England, without some knowledge of the part played in that age by witchcraft. It was a matter that concerned all classes from the royal household to the ignorant denizens of country villages. Privy councillors anxious about their sovereign and thrifty peasants worrying over their crops, clergymen alert to detect the Devil in their own parishes, medical quacks eager to profit by the fear of evil women, justices of the peace zealous to beat down the works of Satan—all classes, indeed—believed more or less sincerely in the dangerous powers of human creatures who had surrendered themselves to the Evil One.

     Witchcraft, in a general and vague sense, was something very old in English history. In a more specific and limited sense it is a comparatively modern phenomenon. This leads us to a definition of the term. It is a definition that can be given adequately only in an historical way. A group of closely related and somewhat ill defined conceptions went far back. Some of them, indeed, were to be found in the Old Testament, many of them in the Latin and Greek writers. The word witchcraft itself belonged to Anglo-Saxon days. As early as the seventh century Theodore of Tarsus imposed penances upon magicians and enchanters, and the laws, from Alfred on, abound with mentions of witchcraft. From these passages the meaning of the word witch as used by the early English may be fairly deduced. The word was the current English term for one who used spells and charms, who was assisted by evil spirits to accomplish certain ends. It will be seen that this is by no means the whole meaning of the term in later times. Nothing is yet said about the transformation of witches into other shapes, and there is no mention of a compact, implicit or otherwise, with the Devil; there is no allusion to the nocturnal meetings of the Devil’s worshippers and to the orgies that took place upon those occasions; there is no elaborate and systematic theological explanation of human relations with demons.

     But these notions were to reach England soon enough. Already there were germinating in southern Europe ideas out of which the completer notions were to spring. As early as the close of the ninth century certain Byzantine traditions were being introduced into the West. There were legends of men who had made written compacts with the Devil, men whom he promised to assist in this world in return for their souls in the next. But, while such stories were current throughout the Middle Ages, the notion behind them does not seem to have been connected with the other features of what was to make up the idea of witchcraft until about the middle of the fourteenth century. It was about that time that the belief in the “Sabbat” or nocturnal assembly of the witches made its appearance. The belief grew up that witches rode through the air to these meetings, that they renounced Christ and engaged in foul forms of homage to Satan. Lea tells us that towards the close of the century the University of Paris formulated the theory that a pact with Satan was inherent in all magic, and judges began to connect this pact with the old belief in night riders through the air. The countless confessions that resulted from the carefully framed questions of the judges served to develop and systematize the theory of the subject. The witch was much more than a sorcerer. Sorcerers had been those who, through the aid of evil spirits, by the use  certain words or of representations of persons or things produced changes above the ordinary course of nature. “The witch,” says Lea, “has abandoned Christianity, has renounced her baptism, has worshipped Satan as her God, has surrendered herself to him, body and soul, and exists only to be his instrument in working the evil to her fellow creatures which he cannot accomplish without a human agent.” This was the final and definite notion of a witch. It was the conception that controlled European opinion on the subject from the latter part of the fourteenth to the close of the seventeenth century. It was, as has been seen, an elaborate theological notion that had grown out of the comparatively simple and vague ideas to be found in the scriptural and classical writers.

     It may well be doubted whether this definite and intricate theological notion of witchcraft reached England so early as the fourteenth century. Certainly not until a good deal later—if negative evidence is at all trustworthy—was a clear distinction made between sorcery and witchcraft. The witches searched for by Henry IV, the professor of divinity, the friar, the clerk, and the witch of Eye, who were hurried before the Council of Henry VI, that unfortunate Duchess of Gloucester who had to walk the streets of London, the Duchess of Bedford, the conspirators against Edward IV who were supposed to use magic, the unlucky mistress of Edward IV—none of these who through the course of two centuries were charged with magical misdeeds were, so far as we know, accused of those dreadful relations with the Devil, the nauseating details of which fill out the later narratives of witch history.

     The truth seems to be that the idea of witchcraft was not very clearly defined and differentiated in the minds of ordinary Englishmen until after the beginning of legislation upon the subject. It is not impossible that there were English theologians who could have set forth the complete philosophy of the belief, but to the average mind sorcery, conjuration, enchantment, and witchcraft were but evil ways of mastering nature. All that was changed when laws were passed. With legislation came greatly increased numbers of accusations; with accusations and executions came treatises and theory. Continental writers were consulted, and the whole system and science of the subject were soon elaborated for all who read.

     With the earlier period, which has been sketched merely by way of definition, this monograph cannot attempt to deal. It limits itself to a narrative of the witch trials, and incidentally of opinion as to witchcraft, after there was definite legislation by Parliament. The statute of the fifth year of Elizabeth’s reign marks a point in the history of the judicial persecution at which an account may very naturally begin. The year 1558 has been selected as the date because from the very opening of the reign which was to be signalized by the passing of that statute and was to be characterized by a serious effort to enforce it, the persecution was preparing.

     Up to that time the crime of sorcery had been dealt with in a few early instances by the common-law courts, occasionally (where politics were involved) by the privy council, but more usually, it is probable, by the church.      This, indeed, may easily be illustrated from the works of law. Britton and Fleta include an inquiry about sorcerers as one of the articles of the sheriff’s tourn. A note upon Britton, however, declares that it is for the ecclesiastical court to try such offenders and to deliver them to be put to death in the king’s court, but that the king himself may proceed against them if he pleases. While there is some overlapping of procedure implied by this, the confusion seems to have been yet greater in actual practice. A brief narrative of some cases prior to 1558 will illustrate the strangely unsettled state of procedure. Pollock and Maitland relate several trials to be found in the early pleas. In 1209 one woman accused another of sorcery in the king’s court and the defendant cleared herself by the ordeal. In 1279 a man accused of killing a witch who assaulted him in his house was fined, but only because he had fled away. Walter Langton, Bishop of Lichfield and treasurer of Edward I, was accused of sorcery and homage to Satan and cleared himself with the compurgators. In 1325 more than twenty men were indicted and tried by the king’s bench for murder by tormenting a waxen image. All of them were acquitted. In 1371 there was brought before the king’s bench an inhabitant of Southwark who was charged with sorcery, but he was finally discharged on swearing that he would never be a sorcerer.

     It will be observed that these early cases were all of them tried in the secular courts; but there is no reason to doubt that the ecclesiastical courts were quite as active, and their zeal must have been quickened by the statute of 1401, which in cases of heresy made the lay power their executioner. It was at nearly the same time, however, that the charge of sorcery began to be frequently used as a political weapon. In such cases, of course, the accused was usually a person of influence and the matter was tried in the council. It will be seen, then, that the crime was one that might fall either under ecclesiastical or conciliar jurisdiction and the particular circumstances usually determined finally the jurisdiction. When Henry IV was informed that the diocese of Lincoln was full of sorcerers, magicians, enchanters, necromancers, diviners, and soothsayers, he sent a letter to the bishop requiring him to search for sorcerers and to commit them to prison after conviction, or even before, if it should seem expedient. This was entrusting the matter to the church, but the order was given by authority of the king, not improbably after the matter had been discussed in the council. In the reign of Henry VI conciliar and ecclesiastical authorities both took part at different times and in different ways. Thomas Northfield, a member of the Order of Preachers in Worcester and a professor of divinity, was brought before the council, together with all suspected matter belonging to him, and especially his books treating of sorcery. Pike does not tell us the outcome. In the same year there were summoned before the council three humbler sorcerers, Margery Jourdemain, John Virley, a cleric, and John Ashwell, a friar of the Order of the Holy Cross. It would be hard to say whether the three were in any way connected with political intrigue. It is possible that they were suspected of sorcery against the sovereign. They were all, however, dismissed on giving security. It was only a few years after this instance of conciliar jurisdiction that a much more important case was turned over to the clergy. The story of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, is a familiar one. It was determined by the enemies of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester to attack him through his wife, who was believed to be influential with the young king. The first move was made by arresting a Roger Bolingbroke who had been connected with the duke and the duchess, and who was said to be an astronomer or necromancer. It was declared that he had cast the duchess’s horoscope with a view to ascertaining her chances to the throne. Bolingbroke made confession, and Eleanor was then brought before “certayne bisshoppis of the kyngis.” In the mean time several lords, members of the privy council, were authorized to “enquire of al maner tresons, sorcery, and alle othir thyngis that myghte in eny wise … concerne harmfulli the kyngis persone.” Bolingbroke and a clergyman, Thomas Southwell, were indicted of treason with the duchess as accessory. With them was accused that Margery Jourdemain who had been released ten years before. Eleanor was then reexamined before the Bishops of London, Lincoln, and Norwich, she was condemned as guilty, and required to walk barefoot through the streets of London, which she “dede righte mekely.” The rest of her life she spent in a northern prison. Bolingbroke was executed as a traitor, and Margery Jourdemain was burnt at Smithfield.

     The case of the Duchess of Bedford—another instance of the connection between sorcery and political intrigue—fell naturally into the hands of the council. It was believed by those who could understand in no other way the king’s infatuation that he had been bewitched by the mother of the queen. The story was whispered from ear to ear until the duchess got wind of it and complained to the council against her maligners. The council declared her cleared of suspicion and ordered that the decision should be “enacted of record.”

     The charge of sorcery brought by the protector Richard of Gloucester against Jane Shore, who had been the mistress of Edward IV, never came to trial and in consequence illustrates neither ecclesiastical nor conciliar jurisdiction. It is worthy of note however that the accusation was preferred by the protector—who was soon to be Richard III—in the council chamber.

     It will be seen that these cases prove very little as to procedure in the matter of sorcery and witchcraft. They are cases that arose in a disturbed period and that concerned chiefly people of note. That they were tried before the bishops or before the privy council does not mean that all such charges were brought into those courts. There must have been less important cases that were never brought before the council or the great ecclesiastical courts. It seems probable—to reason backward from later practice—that less important trials were conducted almost exclusively by the minor church courts.

     This would at first lead us to suspect that, when the state finally began to legislate against witchcraft by statute, it was endeavoring to wrest jurisdiction of the crime out of the hands of the church and to put it into secular hands. Such a supposition, however, there is nothing to justify. It seems probable, on the contrary, that the statute enacted in the reign of Henry VIII was passed rather to support the church in its struggle against sorcery and witchcraft than to limit its jurisdiction in the matter. It was to assist in checking these practitioners that the state stepped in. At another point in this chapter we shall have occasion to note the great interest in sorcery and all kindred subjects that was springing up over England, and we shall at times observe some of the manifestations of this interest as well as some of the causes for it. Here it is necessary only to urge the importance of this interest as accounting for the passage of a statute.

     Chapter VIII of 33 Henry VIII states its purpose clearly: “Where,” reads the preamble, “dyvers and sundrie persones unlawfully have devised and practised Invocacions and conjuracions of Sprites, pretendyng by suche meanes to understande and get Knowlege for their owne lucre in what place treasure of golde and Silver shulde or mought be founde or had … and also have used and occupied wichecraftes, inchauntmentes and sorceries to the distruccion of their neighbours persones and goodes.” A description was given of the methods practised, and it was enacted that the use of any invocation or conjuration of spirits, witchcrafts, enchantments, or sorceries should be considered felony. It will be observed that the law made no graduation of offences. Everything was listed as felony. No later piece of legislation on the subject was so sweeping in its severity.

     The law remained on the statute-book only six years. In the early part of the reign of Edward VI, when the protector Somerset was in power, a policy of great leniency in respect to felonies was proposed. In December of 1547 a bill was introduced into Parliament to repeal certain statutes for treason and felony. “This bill being a matter of great concern to every subject, a committee was appointed, consisting of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the lord chancellor, the lord chamberlain, the Marquis of Dorset, the Earls of Shrewsbury and Southampton, the Bishops of Ely, Lincoln, and Worcester, the Lords Cobham, Clinton, and Wentworth, with certain of the king’s learned council; all which noblemen were appointed to meet a committee of the Commons … in order to treat and commune on the purport of the said bill.” The Commons, it seems, had already prepared a bill of their own, but this they were willing to drop and the Lords’ measure with some amendments was finally passed. It was under this wide repeal of felonies that chapter VIII of 33 Henry VIII was finally annulled. Whether the question of witchcraft came up for special consideration or not, we are not informed. We do know that the Bishops of London, Durham, Ely, Hereford, and Chichester, took exception to some amendments that were inserted in the act of repeal, and it is not impossible that they were opposed to repealing the act against witchcraft. Certainly there is no reason to suppose that the church was resisting the encroachment of the state in the subject.

     As a matter of fact it is probable that, in the general question of repeal of felonies, the question of witchcraft received scant attention. There is indeed an interesting story that seems to point in that direction and that deserves repeating also as an illustration of the protector’s attitude towards the question. Edward Underhill gives the narrative in his autobiography: “When we hade dyned, the maior sentt to [two] off his offycers with me to seke Alene; whome we mett withalle in Poles, and toke hym with us unto his chamber, wheare we founde fygures sett to calke the nativetie off the kynge, and a jugementt gevyne off his deathe, wheroff this folyshe wreche thoughte hymselfe so sure thatt he and his conselars the papistes bruted it all over. The kynge laye att Hamtone courte the same tyme, and me lord protector at the Syone; unto whome I caryed this Alen, with his bokes off conejuracyons, cearkles, and many thynges beloungynge to thatt dyvlyshe art, wiche he affyrmed before me lorde was a lawfulle cyens [science], for the statute agaynst souche was repealed. ‘Thow folyshe knave! (sayde me lorde) yff thou and all thatt be off thy cyens telle me what I shalle do to-morow, I wylle geve the alle thatt I have’; commaundynge me to cary hym unto the Tower.” Alen was examined about his science and it was discovered that he was “a very unlearned asse, and a sorcerer, for the wiche he was worthye hangynge, sayde Mr. Recorde.” He was however kept in the Tower “about the space off a yere, and then by frendshipe delyvered. So scapithe alwayes the weked.”

     But the wicked were not long to escape. The beginning of Elizabeth’s reign saw a serious and successful effort to put on the statute-book definite and severe penalties for conjuration, sorcery, witchcraft, and related crimes. The question was taken up in the very first year of the new reign and a bill was draughted. It was not, however, until 1563 that the statute was finally passed. It was then enacted that those who “shall use, practise, or exercise any Witchecrafte, Enchantment, Charme or Sorcerie, whereby any person shall happen to bee killed or destroyed, … their Concellors and Aidours, … shall suffer paynes of Deathe as a Felon or Felons.” It was further declared that those by whose practices any person was wasted, consumed, or lamed, should suffer for the first offence one year’s imprisonment and should be put in the pillory four times. For the second offence death was the penalty. It was further provided that those who by witchcraft presumed to discover treasure or to find stolen property or to “provoke any person to unlawfull love” should suffer a year’s imprisonment and four appearances in the pillory.

     With this law the history of the prosecution of witchcraft in England as a secular crime may well begin. The question naturally arises, What was the occasion of this law? How did it happen that just at this particular time so drastic a measure was passed and put into operation? Fortunately part of the evidence exists upon which to frame an answer. The English churchmen who had been driven out of England during the Marian persecution had many of them sojourned in Zurich and Geneva, where the extirpation of witches was in full progress, and had talked over the matter with eminent Continental theologians. With the accession of Elizabeth these men returned to England in force and became prominent in church and state, many of them receiving bishoprics. It is not possible to show that they all were influential in putting through the statute of the fifth year of Elizabeth. It is clear that one of them spoke out plainly on the subject. It can hardly be doubted that he represented the opinions of many other ecclesiastics who had come under the same influences during their exile. John Jewel was an Anglican of Calvinistic sympathies who on his return to England at Elizabeth’s accession had been appointed Bishop of Salisbury. Within a short time he came to occupy a prominent position in the court. He preached before the Queen and accompanied her on a visit to Oxford. It was in the course of one of his first sermons—somewhere between November of 1559 and March of 1560—that he laid before her his convictions on witchcraft. It is, he tells her, “the horrible using of your poor subjects,” that forces him to speak. “This kind of people (I mean witches and sorcerers) within these few last years are marvellously increased within this your grace’s realm. These eyes have seen most evident and manifest marks of their wickedness. Your grace’s subjects pine away even unto death, their colour fadeth, their flesh rotteth, their speech is benumbed, their senses are bereft. Wherefore, your poor subjects’ most humble petition unto your highness is, that the laws touching such malefactors may be put in due execution.”

     The church historian, Strype, conjectures that this sermon was the cause of the law passed in the fifth year of Elizabeth’s reign, by which witchcraft was again made a felony, as it had been in the reign of Henry VIII. Whatever weight we may attach to Strype’s suggestion, we have every right to believe that Jewel introduced foreign opinion on witchcraft. Very probably there were many returned exiles as well as others who brought back word of the crusade on the Continent; but Jewel’s words put the matter formally before the queen and her government.

     We can trace the effect of the ecclesiastic’s appeal still further. The impression produced by it was responsible probably not only for the passage of the law but also for the issue of commissions to the justices of the peace to apprehend all the witches they were able to find in their jurisdictions.

     It can hardly be doubted that the impression produced by the bishop’s sermon serves in part to explain the beginning of the state’s attack upon witches. Yet one naturally inquires after some other factor in the problem. Is it not likely that there were in England itself certain peculiar conditions, certain special circumstances, that served to forward the attack? To answer that query, we must recall the situation in England when Elizabeth took the throne. Elizabeth was a Protestant, and her accession meant the relinquishment of the Catholic hold upon England. But it was not long before the claims of Mary, Queen of Scots, began to give the English ministers bad dreams. Catholic and Spanish plots against the life of Elizabeth kept the government detectives on the lookout. Perhaps because it was deemed the hardest to circumvent, the use of conjuration against the life of the queen was most feared. It was a method too that appealed to conspirators, who never questioned its efficacy, and who anticipated little risk of discovery.

     To understand why the English government should have been so alarmed at the efforts of the conjurers, we shall have to go back to the half-century that preceded the reign of the great queen and review briefly the rise of those curious traders in mystery. The earlier half of the fifteenth century, when the witch fires were already lighted in South Germany, saw the coming of conjurers in England. Their numbers soon evidenced a growing interest in the supernatural upon the part of the English and foreshadowed the growing faith in witchcraft. From the scattered local records the facts have been pieced together to show that here and there professors of magic powers were beginning to get a hearing. As they first appear upon the scene, the conjurers may be grouped in two classes, the position seekers and the treasure seekers. To the first belong those who used incantations and charms to win the favor of the powerful, and so to gain advancement for themselves or for their clients. It was a time when there was every encouragement to try these means. Men like Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell had risen from humble rank to the highest places in the state. Their careers seemed inexplicable, if not uncanny. It was easy to believe that unfair and unlawful practices had been used. What had been done before could be done again. So the dealers in magic may have reasoned. At all events, whatever their mental operations, they experimented with charms which were to gain the favor of the great, and some of their operations came to the ears of the court.

     The treasure seekers were more numerous. Every now and then in the course of English history treasures have been unearthed, many of them buried in Roman times. Stories of lucky finds had of course gained wide circulation. Here was the opportunity of the bankrupt adventurer and the stranded promoter. The treasures could be found by the science of magic. The notion was closely akin to the still current idea that wells can be located by the use of hazel wands. But none of the conjurers—and this seems a curious fact to one familiar with the English stories of the supernatural—ever lit upon the desired treasure. Their efforts hardly aroused public interest, least of all alarm. Experimenters, who fifty years later would have been hurried before the privy council, were allowed to conjure and dig as they pleased. Henry VIII even sold the right in one locality, and sold it at a price which showed how lightly he regarded it.

     Other forms of magic were of course practiced. By the time that Elizabeth succeeded to the throne, it is safe to say that the practice of forbidden arts had become wide-spread in England. Reginald Scot a little later declared that every parish was full of men and women who claimed to work miracles. Most of them were women, and their performances read like those of the gipsy fortune-tellers today. “Cunning women” they called themselves. They were many of them semi-medical or pseudo-medical practitioners who used herbs and extracts, and, when those failed, charms and enchantments, to heal the sick. If they were fairly fortunate, they became known as “good witches.” Particularly in connection with midwifery were their incantations deemed effective. From such functions it was no far call to forecast the outcome of love affairs, or to prepare potions which would ensure love. They became general helpers to the distressed. They could tell where lost property was to be found, an undertaking closely related to that of the treasure seekers.

     It was usually in the less serious diseases that these cunning folk were consulted. They were called upon often indeed—if one fragmentary evidence may be trusted—to diagnose the diseases and to account for the deaths of domestic animals. It may very easily be that it was from the necessity of explaining the deaths of animals that the practitioners of magic began to talk about witchcraft and to throw out a hint that some witch was at the back of the matter. It would be in line with their own pretensions. Were they not good witches? Was it not their province to overcome the machinations of the black witches, that is, witches who wrought evil rather than good? The disease of an animal was hard to prescribe for. A sick horse would hardly respond to the waving of hands and a jumble of strange words. The animal was, in all probability, bewitched.

At any rate, whether in this particular manner or not, it became shortly the duty of the cunning women to recognize the signs of witchcraft, to prescribe for it, and if possible to detect the witch. In many cases the practitioner wisely enough refused to name any one, but described the appearance of the guilty party and set forth a series of operations by which to expose her machinations. If certain herbs were plucked and treated in certain ways, if such and such words were said, the guilty party would appear at the door. At other times the wise woman gave a perfectly recognizable description of the guilty one and offered remedies that would nullify her maleficent influences. No doubt the party indicated as the witch was very often another of the “good witches,” perhaps a rival. Throughout the records of the superstition are scattered examples of wise women upon whom suspicion suddenly lighted, and who were arraigned and sent to the gallows. Beyond question the suspicion began often with the ill words of a neighbor, perhaps of a competitor, words that started an attack upon the woman’s reputation that she was unable to repel.

     It is not to be supposed that the art of cunning was confined to the female sex. Throughout the reign of Elizabeth, the realm was alive with men who were pretenders to knowledge of mysteries. So closely was the occupation allied to that of the physician that no such strict line as now exists between reputable physicians and quack doctors separated the “good witches” from the regular practicers of medicine. It was so customary in Elizabethan times for thoroughly reputable and even eminent medical men to explain baffling cases as the results of witchcraft that to draw the line of demarcation between them and the pretenders who suggested by means of a charm or a glass a maleficent agent would be impossible. Granted the phenomena of conjuration and witchcraft as facts—and no one had yet disputed them—it was altogether easy to believe that good witches who antagonized the works of black witches were more dependable than the family physician, who could but suggest the cause of sickness. The regular practitioner must often have created business for his brother of the cunning arts.

     One would like to know what these practicers thought of their own arts. Certainly some of them accomplished cures. Mental troubles that baffled the ordinary physician would offer the “good witch” a rare field for successful endeavor. Such would be able not only to persuade a community of their good offices, but to deceive themselves. Not all of them, however, by any means, were self-deceived. Conscious fraud played a part in a large percentage of cases. One witch was very naive in her confession of fraud. When suspected of sorcery and cited to court, she was said to have frankly recited her charm:

“My lofe in my lappe,
My penny in my purse,
You are never the better,
I am never the worse.”

     She was acquitted and doubtless continued to add penny to penny.

     We need not, indeed, be surprised that the state should have been remiss in punishing a crime so vague in character and so closely related to an honorable profession. Except where conjuration had affected high interests of state, it had been practically overlooked by the government. Now and then throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there had been isolated plots against the sovereign, in which conjury had played a conspicuous part. With these few exceptions the crime had been one left to ecclesiastical jurisdiction. But now the state was ready to reclaim its jurisdiction over these crimes and to assume a very positive attitude of hostility towards them. This came about in a way that has already been briefly indicated. The government of the queen found itself threatened constantly by plots for making away with the queen, plots which their instigators hoped would overturn the Protestant regime and bring England back into the fold. Elizabeth had hardly mounted her throne when her councillors began to suspect the use of sorcery and conjuration against her life. As a result they instituted the most painstaking inquiries into all reported cases of the sort, especially in and about London and the neighboring counties. Every Catholic was suspected. Two cases that were taken up within the first year came to nothing, but a third trial proved more serious. In November of 1558 Sir Anthony Fortescue, member of a well known Catholic family, was arrested, together with several accomplices, upon the charge of casting the horoscope of the queen’s life. Fortescue was soon released, but in 1561 he was again put in custody, this time with two brothers-in-law, Edmund and Arthur Pole, nephews of the famous cardinal of that name. The plot that came to light had many ramifications. It was proposed to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, to Edmund Pole, and from Flanders to proclaim her Queen of England. In the meantime Elizabeth was to die a natural death—at least so the conspirators claimed—prophesied for her by two conjurers, John Prestall and Edmund Cosyn, with the assistance of a “wicked spryte.” It was discovered that the plot involved the French and Spanish ambassadors. Relations between Paris and London became strained. The conspirators were tried and sentenced to death. Fortescue himself, perhaps because he was a second cousin of the queen and brother of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, seems to have escaped the gallows.

The Fortescue affair was, however, but one of many conspiracies on foot during the time. Throughout the sixties and the seventies the queen’s councillors were on the lookout. Justices of the peace and other prominent men in the counties were kept informed by the privy council of reported conjurers, and they were instructed to send in what evidence they could gather against them. It is remarkable that three-fourths of the cases that came under investigation were from a territory within thirty miles of London. Two-thirds of them were from Essex. Not all the conjurers were charged with plotting against the queen, but that charge was most common. It is safe to suppose that, in the cases where that accusation was not preferred, it was nevertheless the alarm of the privy council for the life of the queen that had prompted the investigation and arrest.

     Between 1578 and 1582, critical years in the affairs of the Scottish queen, the anxiety of the London authorities was intense—their precautions were redoubled. Representatives of the government were sent out to search for conjurers and were paid well for their services. The Earl of Shrewsbury, a member of the council who had charge of the now captive Queen Mary, kept in his employ special detectors of conjuring. Nothing about Elizabeth’s government was better organized than Cecil’s detective service, and the state papers show that the ferreting out of the conjurers was by no means the least of its work. It was a service carried on, of course, as quietly as could be, and yet the cases now and again came to light and made clear to the public that the government was very fearful of conjurers’ attacks upon the queen. No doubt the activity of the council put all conjurers under public suspicion and in some degree roused public resentment against them.

     This brings us back to the point: What had the conjurers to do with witchcraft? By this time the answer is fairly obvious. The practisers of the magic arts, the charmers and enchanters, were responsible for developing the notions of witchcraft. The good witch brought in her company the black witch. This in itself might never have meant more than an increased activity in the church courts. But when Protestant England grew suddenly nervous for the life of the queen, when the conjurers became a source of danger to the sovereign, and the council commenced its campaign against them, the conditions had been created in which witchcraft became at once the most dangerous and detested of crimes. While the government was busy putting down the conjurers, the aroused popular sentiment was compelling the justices of the peace and then the assize judges to hang the witches.

     This cannot be better illustrated than by the Abingdon affair of 1578-1579. Word had been carried to the privy council that Sir Henry Newell, justice of the peace, had committed some women near Abingdon on the charge of making waxen images. The government was at once alarmed and sent a message to Sir Henry and to the Dean of Windsor instructing them to find out the facts and to discover if the plots were directed against the queen. The precaution was unnecessary. There was no ground for believing that the designs of the women accused had included the queen. Indeed the evidence of guilt of any kind was very flimsy. But the excitement of the public had been stirred to the highest pitch. The privy council had shown its fear of the women and all four of them went to the gallows.

     The same situation that brought about the attack upon witchcraft and conjuration was no doubt responsible for the transfer of jurisdiction over the crime. We have already seen that the practice of conjuration had probably been left largely to the episcopal hierarchy for punishment. The archdeacons were expected in their visitations to inquire into the practice of enchantment and magic within the parishes and to make report. In the reign of Elizabeth it became no light duty. The church set itself to suppress both the consulter and the consulted. By the largest number of recorded cases deal of course with the first class. It was very easy when sick or in trouble to go to a professed conjurer for help. It was like seeking a physician’s service, as we have seen. The church frowned upon it, but the danger involved in disobeying the church was not deemed great. The cunning man or woman was of course the one who ran the great risk. When worst came to worst and the ecclesiastical power took cognizance of his profession, the best he could do was to plead that he was a “good witch” and rendered valuable services to the community. But a good end was in the eyes of the church no excuse for an evil means. The good witches were dealers with evil spirits and hence to be repressed.

     Yet the church was very light in its punishments. In the matter of penalties, indeed, consulter and consulted fared nearly alike, and both got off easily. Public confession and penance in one or more specifically designated churches, usually in the nearest parish church, constituted the customary penalty. In a few instances it was coupled with the requirement that the criminal should stand in the pillory, taper in hand, at several places at stated times. The ecclesiastical records are so full of church penances that a student is led to wonder how effectual they were in shaming the penitent into better conduct. It may well be guessed that most of the criminals were not sensitive souls that would suffer profoundly from the disgrace incurred.

     The control of matters of this kind was in the hands of the church by sufferance only. So long as the state was not greatly interested, the church was permitted to retain its jurisdiction. Doubtless the kings of England would have claimed the state’s right of jurisdiction if it had become a matter of dispute. The church itself recognized the secular power in more important cases. In such cases the archdeacon usually acted with the justice of peace in conducting the examination, as in rendering sentence. Even then, however, the penalty was as a rule ecclesiastical. But, with the second half of the sixteenth century, there arose new conditions which resulted in the transfer of this control to the state. Henry VIII had broken with Rome and established a Church of England around the king as a centre. The power of the church belonged to the king, and, if to the king, to his ministers and his judges. Hence certain crimes that had been under the control of the church fell under the jurisdiction of the king’s courts. In a more special way the same change came about through the attack of the privy council upon the conjurers. What had hitherto been a comparatively insignificant offence now became a crime against the state and was so dealt with.

     The change, of course, was not sudden. It was not accomplished in a year, nor in a decade. It was going on throughout the first half of Elizabeth’s reign. By the beginning of the eighties the church control was disappearing. After 1585 the state had practically exclusive jurisdiction.

     We have now finished the attempt to trace the beginning of the definite movement against witchcraft in England. What witchcraft was, what it became, how it was to be distinguished from sorcery—these are questions that we have tried to answer very briefly. We have dealt in a cursory way with a series of cases extending from Anglo-Saxon days down to the fifteenth century in order to show how unfixed was the matter of jurisdiction. We have sought also to explain how Continental opinion was introduced into England through Jewel and other Marian exiles, to show what independent forces were operating in England, and to exhibit the growing influence of the charmers and their relation to the development of witchcraft; and lastly we have aimed to prove that the special danger to the queen had no little part in creating the crusade against witches. These are conclusions of some moment and a caution must be inserted. We have been treating of a period where facts are few and information fragmentary. Under such circumstances conclusions can only be tentative. Perhaps the most that can be said of them is that they are suggestions.

by Wallace Notestein, The History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718, published in 1911

 

 

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Quotations

Reason’s whole pleasure, all the joys of sense, Lie in three words, —health, peace, and competence.

— Pope

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas – from Ghost Stories of M.R. James

I

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