A Prideful and Naughty Coniurer: Tudor England’s Crackdown on Semi-Learned Male Magicians

gilles_de_rais_murdering_childrenIn the parliament of 1541/2, Henry VIII passed a witchcraft act entitled ‘An Act against Conjurations, Witchcraft, Sorcery and Enchantments.’

The act had a very different focus to what we might expect for an act punishing witchcraft: killing by magic is only mentioned in passing, and the idea of the witch as being in league with Satan was given a backhanded reference:

“Where dyvers and sundrie persones unlawfully have devised and practised invocacons and conjuracons of Sprites, p’tendyng by such meanes to understand and get Knowledge for their own lucre in what place treasure of golde and Silver shoulde or mought be founde or had in the earthe or other secret places, and also have used and occupied witchcrafts inchauntment and sorceries to the distruccon of their neigbours persones and goodes, And for execucon of their said falce devyses and practises have made or caused to be made dyvers Images and pictures of men women children Angells or devells beastes or fowles, and have also made Crownes Septures Swordes rynges glasses and other thinges, and giving faithe & credit to suche fantasticall practises have dyged up and pulled downe and infinite nombre of Crosses within this Realme, and teaken upon them to declare and tell where things lost or stolen shulde become; wiche things cannot be used and exercised but to the great offence of Godes lawe, hurt and damage of the Kinges Subjects, and losse of the sowles of such Offenders, to the greate dishonour of God, Infany and disquyetnes of the Realme…”

The target of this crackdown was, of course, a class of troublemaker more threatening to Henry than all the village wise women and argumentative spinsters combined: educated sorcerers, very often former monks or clerically trained university men, who had turned to magic as a way of earning a crust.

This, of course was at a time when the Reformed Church’s writers railed against Miracles and other forms of Saintly Thaumaturgy. For the Catholic Church, miracles were seen as critical to conversion and proof that God’s power was substantial. Reformation writers like John Bale were busily marking out the path of when the ‘true’ church had become infiltrated by the Antichrist and minions of Satan. Doubtless, with a class of displaced former monks and clergy across the country, some would use the ritual skills learned in Catholicism by turning to illicit magical ritual.

William Stapleton

One displaced monk, although the date of his trial remains ambiguous, was William Stapleton. While a monk at St. Bennett’s in Norfolk, Stapleton was approached by Denys of Hofton, possibly another monk, who brought him ‘a book called Thesaurus Spirituum.’

This seems to have been part of a toolkit for finding lost treasure, which Stapleton descrbes:

Thesaurus Spirituum, and… another called Secreta Secretorum, a little ring, a plate, a circle, and also a sword for the art of digging…’

The main motivation for Stapleton’s magical experiments seems to have been desperation: he describes being a fairly poor monk who was often late for matins and generally finding it difficult to get out of bed. After a magical ritual involving the aforementioned Denys and another man – the Vicar of Watton – Stapleton fails to find money, but is given six months to buy out his dispensation or return to holy orders.

At this point, quite without the intervention of the Reformation’s closing of the monasteries, Stapleton becomes a travelling sorcerer. A failed attempt to find treasure in Sidestrand sees him chased off some land by the Lady of the house, which washes him up in search of more mystical muscle in Norwich, and attempts (unsuccessfully) to work with a scryer.

To Stapleton’s good fortune, it would seem that a local man of substance saw the value in having a pet sorcerer and put together 46s 8d so that Stapleton could buy a Hermit’s license and return to Norfolk to practise his magical arts.

It’s after this that Stapleton makes the big leagues. Not long after settling as a hermit, Stapleton is on the move again. A parson of Lessingham was reputed to have bound a spirit named Andrew Malchus, which lead him to standing a circle with said parson, and local nobleman Sir John of Leiston.

Finally, Stapleton became enmeshed in a perceived magical struggle between the Duke of Norfolk and Cardinal Wolsey: brought to the Duke’s household, one of the Duke’s servants told him that the Duke believed he was being tormented by a spirit in the employ of the Cardinal.

Stapleton isn’t sure he has the skills to drive away the Cardinal’s spirit – which he frantically denies believing in – but creates a wax doll for the Duke, which seems to make him feel better. Finally, though some entirely confusing twist that involves a Cunning Man named Doctor Wilson, the unfortunate Stapleton is commanded to write a full confession before a man who might or might not be the Duke of Norfolk, and interrogated upon whether the Duke himself is summoning spirits.


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