Why Didn’t the Witches Use Magic to Escape Their Captors?

circa-1662-a-man-is-arraigned-before-a-judge-in-a-17th-century-scene-picture-id51241415For anyone studying the history of Witchcraft, this title is the question that you can’t quite believe nobody asked.

In the pamphlet, The Severall Facets of Witch-crafte (1585), we can observe the horrible retribution a nameless thirty-year-old metes out on a neighbour in Stanmore:

“I have not done with thee yet: so hee went about his businesse and beeinge come home, he complained of his backe and belley, saying… that he thought she had bewitched him: so his paine increased more and more, and hee began to growe into a consumption, and wasted away like the Childe before mentioned, like a parched or wethered leafe, hanged up in the smoke of a Chimney, and dyed three monthes after, and before he dyed his side did burst, and his guttes and backe bone was rotted in sunder, so that his guttes and bowels being rotten did issue foorth on his belley: and dyed hereof in most pitifull and grievous manner, the sayd partie taking it upon his death that her witch-craft and sorcery was the cause…”

With that sort of power – to kill swiftly, painfully, and with almost guaranteed success – you might think her apprehension would have caused a considerable number of casualties. Yet in the 1585 case our demonstrably dangerous sorceress is captured by simply arresting her when she comes begging at a gentleman’s door.

The witchcraft sceptic Reginald Scott even devoted a chapter to the ridiculousness of the idea:

“What follie it were for witches to enter into such desperate perill and to endure such intolerable tortures for no gaine of commoditie, and how it comes to passe that witches are overthrown by their confessions…

“…it were mere follie for them, not onelie to make a bargain with the divell to throw their soules into hell fire, but their bodies ot the tortures of temporall fire and death, for the accomplishment of nothing that might benefit themselves at all… Yea, if they were sensible, they would saie to the divell; Whie should I hearken to you, when you will deceive me? Did you not promise my neighbour Mother Dutton to save and rescue hir; and yet lo she is hanged?”

One attempted explanation was that the witch hoped for favour from the judge. The case of ‘Mother Dutton’, as mentioned by Scott, was a real case tried in Windsor. The case had inspired two pamphlets in the year of its trial (1579) and in the longer of the two – written by Richard Galis –  we see the real contradiction of the witch’s capture:

“Shee said that four or Five of the ablest men in Windesor (if she had been so disposed) should not have brought her to the Gaile but that she came of her owne accorde, for by the way as shee went with John Browne to the Gaile who was her Guide thither, her [spirit] came to her in the likeness of a great black Cat and would have had her away, but hoping for favour, she banished him againe.”

Considering that the defendant in question, Elizabeth Style, seems to be a poor, hated, old woman with few ties to the town of Windsor, the reader can be forgiven for finding it hard to understand why she wouldn’t accept a literal ‘get out of jail free’ offer.

The penitence of the captured witch, however, is given a power to end Satan’s reign once and for all. In the second book of James VI’s Demonology, he writes:

“…if they be obstinate in still denying he will not spare, whne he finds time to speak with them, wither if he find them in any comfort, to fill them more and more with the vain hope of some manner of relief; or else, if he find them in deep despair, by all means to augment the same and to persuade them by some extraordinary means to put themselves down, which very commonly they do. But if they be penitent and confess, God will not permit him to trouble them any more with his presence and allurements.”

Here we see the perfect loop of logic that Reginald Scott’s ‘witch-monger’ has fashioned: if a defendant is defiant, the Devil is encouraging them. If a defendant dies in prison, the Devil urged them to do so. If they are (naturally) fearful and contrite, they have no power to escape because God will not permit the Devil to visit them.

However, especially in post-Reformation Europe, where Reformers and Counter-Reformers were uneasy with the mystical trappings of the Medieval church, there was a need for more. A belief was required to explain why witches did not curse the magistrates who tried their cases, or vanish at night on broomsticks.

The Divine Power of Magistrates

In James’ Demonology, he writes on the power that God affords to a properly appointed magistrate:

“If [the magistrate] is slothful towards [witches], God is very able to make them instruments to waken and punish his sloth. But if he be the contrary, he, according to the just law of God and allowable law of all nations, will be diligent in examining and punishing them. God will not permit their master to trouble or hinder so good a work.”

The idea of the magistrate channelling directly from god was one derived from the 16th and 17th century reading of the Bible. Romans 13: 3-4 empowered both the magistrate and the monarch with power directly from God:

“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do which is good, and though shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”

Likewise, 2 Kings 23:24 bears the story of Josiah: “Moreover the workers with familiar spirits, and the wizards, and the images, and the idols, and all the abominations that were spied in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, did Josiah put away, that he might perform the words of the law which were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the Lord.”

Thomas Cooper, writing in 1626, made it clear that even in Protestant England, for believers, the connection was explicit:

“As the Lord hath his Ministers to Exeeute his wrath vpon the disobedient: namely, the Magistrate, so Sathan will haue his bade Witches to execute against the sonnes of Men…”

Cooper’s writings came at a time when the pace of witch trials had started to cool. By 1613, James had already cautioned against the use of child witnesses, and although he fiercely defended his belief in witches to George Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury, it was nonetheless true that he had quashed claims by the Earl of Essex that his ex-wife was guilty of sorcery. Five years after the pale, one-eyed, hook-nosed Elizabeth Sawyer had been executed at Newgate, seemingly despite her ability to kill on whim, Cooper needed to explain and understand why her powers had ceased once she’d been taken into custody:

“…the power of all witches is restrained by the authoritie of the Magistrate. For though, if a private person detain them, they may either hurt or escape, yet if once the magistrate hath arrested them, Satans power ceaseth, in being not now able to hinder and defraud the Iustice of the Allmightie: and lastly, it is also restrained to the good of the Church.”

The Divine Right of Kings

In England, both James and Elizabeth were strong believers in the idea that monarch held a divine mandate to rule: not brought to the throne by accident or politics, but through a deliberate guiding hand on the part of God.

The idea had been critical to both rulers. For Elizabeth, her semi-divinity was her saving: as a woman alone, her position was precarious, as can be seen from the 2nd Earl of Essex’s rebellion just before her death. Even more so, she was in danger as the monarch of nation divided between Protestant and Catholic courtiers. A woman at the head of a once-more Protestant nation that her sister had supposedly rescued in the name of the Catholic Church, with the enemy training infiltrators at the French seminaries of Rhiems and Douai.

Elizabeth’s supporters therefore compared her with Astraea, the Goddes of Justice. In the introduction to his 1599 play Old Fortunatus, Thomas Dekker writes,

“Are you then travelling to the temple of Eliza? Even to her temple are my feeble limbs travelling. Some call her Pandora: some Gloriana: some Cynthia: some Belphoebe: some Astraea… I am of her own country, and we adore her by the name of Eliza”

From Dekker to Spencer and beyond, the equation of Elizabeth with Astraea was calculated. By associating Elizabeth with the relatively obscure Goddess, they also associated her with the much better known figure of Virgo. For Early Modern popular culture this was an unmistakable dog whistle towards another iconic Virgin: Mary, Mother of God.

When the Eilzabethan lawyer Compton wrote about Elizabeth surviving the Babbington Plot against her life in 1587, he leaned heavily upon the power of her more-than-human presence to subdue wrongdoing against her:

“they… which have thus conspired to take your Majesty from us, when they have come into your presence, meaning then to have accomplished theyr most trayterous purpose, have beene so dismayed upon the sight of your princely person, and in beholding your most gracious countenaunce, that they had no power to performe the thing, which they had before determined upon.”

Similarly, for James, the supernatural power of the monarch was a pure act of saving propaganda. As a child, the boy king was passed like a totem between warring supporters. He had broken free in 1584 and overseen the Black Acts, driving back the Presbyterian advance and consolidating his rulership. This cloak of divinity, with which he eagerly wrapped himself, saved him from the Kirk’s creeping attempts to portray him as weak: unable to bring his bride home because of Witches’ plotting; it enabled him to bring the witches to justice, ‘discovering’ that his rival, the Earl of Bothwell, was the true culprit. Myth, and the powerlessness of captured witches, were parts of a machine that enabled James – along with many other European monarchs – to continue their benevolent otherness: a superior species, appointed to rule over the mere mortal and impervious from harm.


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2 thoughts on “Why Didn’t the Witches Use Magic to Escape Their Captors?”

  1. Just discovered your blog, and it’s fantastic. I’ve been reading Katherine Howe’s book on the history of witchcraft, and this fits along nicely with it.

    Looking forward to your future posts.

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