Here we see an image of the witch feeding her familiar from the 1579 pamphlet, A Rehersall Both Staunge and True. The familiar was a common feature of the English witch trial. In Scotland, where the legal system was more continental, familiars were far less common.
The Absent Familiar
With the exception of the brief reign of terror by self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins — which only really affected the South East of England, and only then between 1645 and 1647 — familiars are almost universally absent from trials. When Elizabeth Style, a witch from Windsor and the subject of the image above, was captured she said that her familiars had offered her the chance to escape captivity, but that she had told them to leave, accepting her fate.
In the St. Osyth Witch trial of 1582, a variety of excuses were employed to explain the absence of familiars during trials. Nine year old Henry Sellys told authorities that his mother’s familiars lived in the firewood, under a tree in their back yard, suggesting they were wild things that could have run away on their own. His brother John further explained their absensce by saying that the familiars had gone to Colchester, although he didn’t elaborate on why.
Uruly Kemp, the ‘patient zero’ of the trial, was said to have lost her familiars following a quarrel with her friend, Alice Newman, who took them away in a basket — or so said her eight year old son, Thomas Rabbet. Eight year old Febey Hunt said that her mother’s familiars had gone away to ‘Hayward’ of Frowick Lane, and Margery Sammon admitted to allowing two familiars to be carried from her house in a wicker basket.
The Mouths of Babes
Another distinctive feature of the St. Oysth trial is the high incidence of testimony from children. We see Ursuly Kemp left struggling to form a narrative with her interrogators when her son Thomas described her familiars as a small white lamb called Tyffin, a grey cat called Tittey, a black toad called Pygine and a black cat called Jack.
Eight year old Febey Hunt went a step further and described something familiar from the playtime fantasies and toyboxes of modern girls her age: she said that her mother had two miniature horses — one black, one white — that she kept in an earthenware pot covered with wool. Similarly, Annie Dowling (aged seven) described that her mother had two boxes of spirits sleeping on black and white wool. One box contained crows (presumably miniature) and the other cows, of which she and her brother had been allowed to take one each as a pet.
We see a similar result of child testimony in the trial of the Pendle Witches: when Jennet Device gave evidence against her mother, she described how Elizabeth had a tiny dog familiar called Ball, who helped her to perform acts of black magic.
Not all familiars were the fantasies of children. In other trials, like the Windsor trial behind the Rehearall Straunge and True, the testimony was likely the result of torture. Physical force wasn’t permitted in English Law, but a throwaway reference to the Queen found the Windsor Witches facing interrogation from an officer appointed by the Privy Council, which makes it likely they were interrogated under the regulations for treason.
In many ways, Familiars were a result of the English legal system. Continental Law was reliant on agreeable witness testimony, or confessions gained by torture. English courts weren’t permitted to torture witches, but laws of evidence were still relatively stringent. Without getting into the issue of whether witchcraft was real, physical evidence was very hard to come by… unless courts took into account the existence of familiars.
The “Witches’ Mark”, or feeding site for a familiar granted by the Devil, was something physical that trial judges could see and believe in. While the physician William Harvey, and the French surgeon Marescot, both proved fairly conclusively that Witches marks and their characteristics were normal skin blemishes obeying ordinary rules of biology, to less skeptical minds a mark on the skin that could be seen and touched was more persuasive than witness testimony. The idea that the witch had no power of their own, but was merely a client of the Devil, sending spirits to do their bidding, also fitted in very well with contemporary Christian attitudes that the Witch was powerless.