From the year 1563 to 1736 Scotland saw almost four thousand witch trials, with as many as 67% of the accused being executed by fire.
Two of the greatest concentrated periods of witch trials occurred under the stewardship of King James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots, who would come to succeed the English Queen Elizabeth in 1603. That year, lawmakers in London would also draft a new witchcraft act that created a two-tier system of trials, dramatically increasing the number of death sentences for the most serious categories of witchcraft.
For 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.
I’ve already written about fairies in the witch trials on this blog. While it would be inaccurate to say that witches represented a survival of some pre-Christian Pagan religion, the idea of Pagan DNA lurking in the genetic makeup of Medieval and Early Modern Christian practises certainly bothered educated writers. In Buchard of Worms’ Decretum, written sometime around 1066, took time to attack perceived ‘Pagan’ practises such as dream travel, playing music around the dead, and dancing in cemeteries. Whether it was a deliberate campaign — not unlike the general campaign of imitation, assimilation and stigmatisation used through the rest of the spread of Christianity through Europe — or the result of writers attempting to use the Latin language to express native concepts, by the 16th and 17th centuries the idea had become entrenched.
We can see by the late 16th century, by which time the English witch trials were in full swing, and nowhere near the hiatus that would occur in the first Caroline era, that the ecclesiastical elite were very much of the opinion that witches whose work involved mention of the fairies were certainly minions of Satan. In 1579, in a book of medicinal recipes, William Bullein took time to attack a Catholic healer in Parham who used an ebony rosary and prayers to St. Anthony to cure illnesses caused by fairies and sprites.
In his 1590 Treatise Against Witchcraft Henry Holland, a graduate of Cambridge who was the Vicar of St. Brides while Christopher Marlowe was writing his Faustus, mentioned fairy witches in his list of terms for malevolent women, “the witches are sometimes called Thessalae, Thessalian Witches, Sagae, Wise Women, Magae, Persian Witches, Lamiae, Ladies of Fayrie, Stirges, Hegge…”
This blog post comes from a conversation I had with someone in a pub. I can’t remember how the conversation had come around to witches – it was somewhere between one of them having a go at me for not owning a telly, but before when they had a go at me for using too many long words.
The thing that stuck with me was the outrage I got when I mentioned that the English didn’t torture witches. I was offered the famous quote that Medieval people were nasty, brutish and short, and that their lives were shaped correspondingly.
Because of this, I’d like to make it clear that this article isn’t meant to account for every abusive blow struck in the cellar of every parish goal. It isn’t meant to say that no abuse took place, or that the conditions of Early Modern confinement were in any way pleasant.
In 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…”
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. Continue reading “A Very British Magic 2: St. Osyth and the Witch’s Familiar”
While the witch’s familiar can be found in other countries (I found some in some French cases), it represents one of the features that most separates the English witch from her continental counterpart.
The era of the witch trials in England came before the creation of the idea of ‘Britain’, from the traumas of the Reformation in 1538, gradually losing judicial support from the mid-17th century onwards.
A part of the reason for familiars is an extension of the idea birthed in Continental witchcraft that the witch herself was powerless: witches did not truly wield magical power, but instead they made bargains with Satan, who would send demons to invisibly watch over them and reproduce magical effects when they performed certain ritual actions.
In the classic Continental trial this is expressed in the image of the Sabbat, where witches meet and worship Satan in a series of increasingly degrading and humiliating rituals, culminating with the ‘foul kiss’ where witches would kiss Satan on or under the anus.
English witch trials feature the Sabbat less often. Scottish trials tend to be far more traditionally continental in character, with the North Berwick Witch Trials hinging on a lurid Sabbat at the North Berwick Kirk that could have come directly from the pen of Conrad of Marburg. By contrast, without searching my notes, I can only think of a single trial with a strong Sabbatic image: the Windsor trial of Elizabeth Style, where the witches involved confessed to meetings where they would agree their nefarious activities.
With the Sabbat being a less common image, the familiar seems to take a similar disempowering role. It also gave the searchers the hope of finding physical evidence. Even if an animal designated as a familiar could not be found, which they usually could not, the ‘teat’ the animal suckled from could usually be located on the body. Since the teat was a magical thing, not a natural part of the anatomy, it could be found anywhere… although it is of interest that the most common locations and description of witches’ marks conform to those of sebaceous cysts.
A final, especially sad feature of the English witch trials was the use of children as witnesses. While the influence of King James Stuart led to the discrediting of child witnesses in the early to mid 17th century, we see a significant use of child witnesses in the earlier part of the witch trials. In the 1582 trial of the St. Osyth witches Ursula Kemp’s eight year old son Thomas Rabbet gives us the names of four familiars whose names have clearly come from the mind of a child: Tiffy, Jack Pigin and Tyffin. We see similar image from the interrogation of James Device during the witch trials at Pendle, with a second era of the familiar during the brief activities of Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne in the South East of England in the 1640s.
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This blog post comes after a Twitter conversation with the awesome writer and publisher Theo Paijmans. One of the biggest motivations behind the history title I’m writing at the moment is to look at the people and legal developments behind the witch trials. To us, as citizens of the 21st century, the barbarism of the witchcraft accusation – flimsy evidence, torture, intimidation, false promises of leniency and finally burning at the stake – is palpable.
But nothing is ever so simple. Even the way we imagine the witch trials – a single monolithic persecution spanning hundreds of years – is far from what the evidence shows to be the case. Even the term ‘witch hunter’ is a misuse. Those who brought the witches to their deaths came from a variety of backgrounds, and most were never full time persecutors of witches.
Being entirely honest, I have a lot of books. I doubt any of my readers will be surprised to find that many of them are about the supernatural in the Middle Ages and Early Modern.
One thing that crops up again and again is the idea that bells have power over the supernatural. In as many as a quarter of my books, there are references to the idea that bells have the power to drive away demons and abate storms.