Witchcraft in British History: The Advent of Witch Trials

Although there had been earlier attempts to reform the Catholic religion, the real founders of the Protestant movement were Luther and Calvin. Luther, who died in the same year as Henry, preached to the people of Germany; Calvin's sphere of influence was Switzerland and southeast France. Although the two men had differences in their approach to Protestanism, they were united in their opposition to the Catholic Church and most of its practices. As reformers they did not seek to introduce a new religion, but to modify Catholicism and retain those portions which they felt were of vital importance. Their main impact lay in their writings and their translations of the Bible which were produced in the language of the country, and it was the advent of the printing press which made their triumph possible by making their message available to the mass of the people.

Calvin's translation of the Bible was rudimentary by the standards of today. He had no background in the meanings of usages of words in the Hebrew language, few comparative documents and, of course, no counter-checks from archeological research. The Bible he produced was an almost painfully literal translation from the existing text in Latin. This resulted in those verses which referred to witchcraft being reproduced and disseminated throughout Europe without any real meaning when compared with the original documents. At the same time, they were held as a basic tenet of faith and infallible in the eyes of all Protestants. People did not believe in witches because they were instructed to do so by a Papal Bull, but because they could now read for themselves God's direct condemnation of witches in the Bible.

Both Luther and Calvin not only believed in witchcraft but actively participated in witch-hunting, Calvin being the more active of the two. There is a reference in Janssen's History of the German People to a late sixteenth-century document which says, "We wish to and must punish and root out spirits and sorcerers in accordance with God's stern command, nevertheless it is not considered wise by all people to proceed against them so extravagantly as was done under Calvin in Switzerland."

A letter of Calvin's, dated 1545, gives us the reason for his activities: "Here God is trying us sorely. A conspiracy of men and women have been discovered, who for the space of three years have spread the plague through the city, by what enchantments I know not. Fifteen women have already been burnt. Some of the men have been punished even more severely. Some have committed suicide in prison." It is little wonder that the latter took their own lives, for the men had had the flesh pulled from their bodies with pincers before being killed, while the women had had their right hands cut off before they were burned.

As an aside on the contemporary view of the plague and of medicine in general, it is interesting to note that in 1597 the Medical Faculty of Marburg agreed that the plague was contracted by eating bread made from rye which had a fungus growth. Their explanation, although only partial, was ignored by the medical world and the drug "ergot" was not recognized until about 1750. The white witches and midwives, however, must have realized its properties for possibly thousands of years, for the use of diseased rye to bring about abortion was an established practice of folk-medicine.

The poor wretches who were condemned by the early European Protestants were tortured in the same manner as that practiced during the Inquisition and confessions were extracted from them in the same way. These confessions followed the usual pattern of pact with the devil, the obscene kiss, the use of potions and ointments, flying and so on, all of which merely indicated that the Protestant inquisitors were unable to add anything to what the Catholic inquisitors had already imagined and had caused to be expressed through the bloody mouths of their victims.

Another aspect of the Catholic faith which both Luther and Calvin not only shared with Rome but took to even further extremes was the belief in original sin, and the consequent attitude to women and sex. Martin Luther, who married a nun in his later years, commented somewhat laconically, "The reproduction of mankind is a great marvel and a mystery. Had God consulted me in the manner, I would have advised him to continue the generation of the species by fashioning them out of clay."

Calvin put forward the same point of view in stronger terms and at great length in his Institute: "All of us, therefore, descending from an impure seed come into the world tainted with the contagion of sin. Before we behold the light of the sun we are, in God's sight, defiled and polluted. Even children bringing their condemnation with them from their mother's womb, suffer not from another's, but from their own defect. Their whole nature is a seed-bed of sin and therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God."

Love, as we know it, seemed to be practically unknown even to the upper (and gentler) class of Protestants. A letter from Paulus Merula, an advocate at the Dutch Court, written to his bride-to-be in 1589 refers only to her proper place in the home and her duty to her husband. It paints a picture of the dreary life which is before her, for in "the holy and virtuous life of matrimony the husband guides, instructs and protects his housewife. If she is not wholly perfect, he will reprimand her in private, with friendliness and politeness. Should the husband's fury be let loose, let her remember that he is the master and it is right that she should endure it. Let her refrain from all stubbornness or susceptibility, even should she be clearly in the right and even should what she say be the truth. One does not marry to satisfy one's passions and give oneself up to pleasure, but to live together in virtue and in conformity with the Word of God."

What was the reaction of these misogynist Protestants to be to a female on the throne of England for the first time? Indeed, what was their reaction to no less than four female monarchs upon the thrones of Europe within a few years? "This monstrous regiment of women," as John Knox called them, echoing Euripides' "great plague" of women and St John Chrysostom's (Sovereign pest of women.)

Catherine de Medici of France (the precipitator of the St. Bartholomew massacres), Mary Tudor and Mary Queen of Scots all mishandled their power and left their countries sadder for their reign. Only Elizabeth (who, during Mary's reign, was dutifully studying St Cyprian's The Discipline of Virgins at the behest of her tutor) was to be capable of controlling the powers which were now unleashed.

The Protestants did not go underground and Mary thought it her duty to stamp them out; with the assistance of Cardinal Pole, she burned about three hundred Protestants in three years. Her husband of only a few months returned home to become Phillip 11 of Spain on the death of his father, Charles V, in 1555. He returned to England only once again, two years later, to obtain military aid from England for Spain's war with France. Phillip was fanatical in his attempts to wipe out Protestantism in the Lowlands and sent the Duke of Alba together with the forces of the Inquisition to help him do so. Literally thousands of Flemish peasants were hung from hill-top gallows or broken on the wheel, either individually or en masse.

That Europe was beginning to resemble a vast slaughter-house was strikingly pointed out by Pieter Breughel the Elder. Prompted by the horrible sights he had seen during his travels on the Continent, he painted his Triumph of Death in 1556, a work which depicts in one vast landscape every possible method of killing known at that time. Under such circumstances the Protestant countries became the only place for those who held strong Protestant views, and there were many who fled to them for safety.

It was during the trial of Archbishop Cramner and Bishop Ridley, before they were burned for heresy in 1558, that John Jewel first entered the story of witchcraft in Britain, in which he was to play a leading role. This onetime master of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, acted as secretary to the two men during the trial and his obvious Lutheran views brought him under further suspicion. An interview with the Vice-Chancellor made him realize the wisdom of affirming his belief in the Catholic faith; but once he had been released he fled immediately to the safety of the Continent. There he lived in Frankfurt, Zurich and other cities where the Calvinist witch-hunters were at work, and became imbued with the teachings of Calvin.

When Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1556 Jewel returned to England where he was made Bishop of Salisbury two years later. At once his Calvinist leanings became evident. After a tour of the southwest of England in 1559 he wrote: "We found in all places votive relics of the Saints, nails with which infatuated people dreamed Christ had been pierced, and I know not what small fragments of the sacred Cross. The number of witches and sorceresses had everywhere become enormous." It is important to notice that he drew no line of distinction between witchcraft and Catholic practices.

Even as he wrote this Parliament was finalizing the Witchcraft Act of Elizabeth and although the session ended before it was passed, it duly appeared on the Statutes at the next sitting in 1563. It was at the opening of this, her first Parliament, that Elizabeth was displeased with the lighted tapers of the Abbot of Westminster. "Away with those torches," she said, "we can see well enough." Perhaps Elizabeth's attitude encouraged Jewel (she objected to the elevation of the host at Mass and certain other trimmings of the Catholic faith) because he took the opportunity of directly addressing the Queen during a sermon preached after his appointment to Salisbury:
To touch but a word or two on this matter for that the horrible using of your poor subjects enforceth thereunto; it may please your Grace to understand that this kind of people (I mean witches and sorcerers) within these last few years are marvelously increased within 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 color fadeth, their flesh rotteth, their speech is benumbed, their senses are reft.

Wherefore, your poor subjects' most humble petition unto your highness is, that the laws touching such malefactors may be put in due execution. For the shoal of them is great, their doings horrible, their malice intolerable, the examples most miserable. And I pray God they never practice further upon the subject.

He was to have his way. At the next Parliament the Statutes became Law, and witchcraft on the Continental pattern was at last established in England.

Although he was the most prominent, Jewel was not the only returned exile to spread the witch-fear from Europe, nor was his religion the only motive to be found to connect Catholicism with witchcraft. Hardly had Elizabeth gained the throne when a Popish plot to replace her with Mary of Scotland was discovered. Five men were accused of dealing with conjurors who cast their figures to calculate the Queen's life and the duration of her Government.

The passing of the Witchcraft Act gave immediate license to magistrates to try and condemn witches for the first time in England, a course which they proceeded to follow without delay. Of the cases recorded immediately after the Act, that of the Witches of Chelmsford (1566) created the precedent which was to guide the decisions of later judges. Three women were accused and three different sentences given according to the requirements of the Act.

The first was Elizabeth Francis, who had been the pupil of Mother Eve of Hatfield Peverell, and from her had received training in witchcraft together with a familiar in the shape of a black cat named Sathan. In return for payments of drops of blood (according to her confession) Sathan helped her to seduce a young man named Andrew Byles; when he refused to marry her the familiar revenged her by touching him "whereof he died". The familiar then advised her to make a potion which brought about the abortion of Byles' child. Although the ingredients of the potion are not mentioned it is highly probable that it contained "ergot".

This process was repeated with a yeoman, Christopher Francis, and this time they were married, their child being born three months later. Within six months the marriage so little pleased Elizabeth that she asked Sathan to kill the child, which he did.

Still not satisfied with her lot, she asked the cat to lame her husband "and he was forthwith taken with a lameness whereof he cannot be healed".

Today, we would regard her (or her accusers) as simple-minded and unable to distinguish between the wish and the material causes of the misfortunes that befell her lovers and children. Perhaps the justices, Sir Gilbert Gerard, Sir John Fortesque and Mr. Justice Southcote, appreciated the situation for, while they found her guilty, she was only sentenced to one year of imprisonment.

The story of Sathan continued with the second witch on trial, Agnes Waterhouse, to whom Elizabeth Francis had given the cat in exchange for a cake. Old Mother Waterhouse must have been a termagant. She boldly admitted to the killing of one William Fynee with the aid of Sathan and went on to admit other malignant acts. She had Widow Gooday's cow drowned by Sathan because of a quarrel, "fell out with another of her neighbors, killed her geese in the same manner" and caused another woman who had refused to give her butter "to lose the curds two or three days later". Her obvious malevolence and bad temper counted against her, the Court accepted her own declaration of the murder of Fynee and sentenced her to death. She was hanged two days later.

The third witch to be tried was Joan, daughter of Agnes Waterhouse, who was accused of bewitching Agnes Brown, a twelve-year-old girl who was the main witness against Mother Waterhouse. This child, who was as vindictive in her own way as Mother Waterhouse had been in hers, told a long and embellished tale of a black dog with the face of an ape which came to her on several occasions at the behest of the old woman. This dog was not only supposed to be able to speak but could unlock doors with a key and threaten to stab her with a knife held in its mouth. There are many cases of highly imaginative and sometimes malicious children who have caused the death of women in this way, some of which will be recounted in the following pages, but they were not always able to convince a court. This was one such case; Joan was found not guilty and released.

It seems that prison did nothing to improve Elizabeth Francis; soon after her release she was accused of bewitching Mary Cocks and was again returned to prison-being sentenced to one year's imprisonment and four appearances in the pillory during that time. Seven years later she was involved in the second Chelmsford Trials when she was hanged with three others.

The trial of the Windsor Witches (1579) has to be read in full to appreciate the extreme poverty in which the old women lived during the time they were supposed to be practicing their evil arts. Elizabethan Poor Law was extremely rudimentary, it being a first step in providing some form of replacement for the hospitals and other social amenities which had been supplied by the Catholic monasteries dissolved by Henry. In theory each village or community was responsible for the care of its own sick and poor, but poverty was often looked upon as a failing in the character of the individual and these women were virtually outcasts whom the village did not wish to own and had still less intention of feeding. It is not surprising that the old women should feel rejected and resentful when their appeals to the villagers for trifles of food were refused, nor that they should mutter threats and curses, perhaps Papist in tone, when they were turned away hungry.

This miserable and sordid reality has to be set against the outpourings of such men as William West, a lawyer of the Inner Temple, who produced his Symbolteographie in 1594. This book described and defined every form of magic known at the time and included the following definition of a witch: "A witch or hag is she which being deluded by a league with the devil through his persuasion, inspiration, and juggling, thinketh she can design what manner of things so ever, either by thought or imprecation, as to shake the air with lightning and thunder, to cause hail and tempests, to remove green corn or trees to another place, to be carried of her familiar which has taken upon him the deceitful shape of a goat, swine, calf, etc., into some mountain far distant, in a wonderful space of time. And sometimes to fly upon a staff or fork, or some other instrument. And to spend all the night after with her sweetheart, in playing, sporting, banqueting, dalliance, and diverse other devilish lusts, and lewd desports and to show a thousand such monstrous mockeries."

Clearly, at this time the people of England were being taught the witchcraft beliefs of the Continental Protestants — this was a matter of faith which had no connection whatever with reality. The educated classes believed, and were supported in their belief by the Bible and the teachings of Luther and Calvin. They supported each other by constantly writing, preaching and discussing the topic of evil and the part that the witch had to play in delaying the advent of Protestant goodness and the Kingdom of God upon earth. The common people accepted the persuasion of their betters but saw the witch more concretely as the originator of their personal misfortunes and miseries. Ruled by fear, they sought a scapegoat. Some, probably, found a solution to the problems of nagging wives, destitute old women and the threat of rivals and bullies.

Whatever the reason for the accusations, the Windsor Witches stoutly denied them until they were persuaded that a confession would bring lenient treatment. They confessed and were executed. This degeneracy of the legal system, the taking of evidence of children, the tricks to obtain confessions, and the bland acceptance of evidence of flying, shape-shifting and familiars, was to continue until the fanaticism of Protestantism purged itself in bloodshed and regicide. Because most of the educated classes believed in witches the judges and magistrates did not dispense justice, but rather administered procedures which had as little connection with normal criminal procedures as those of the Inquisition when witchcraft cases were involved.

Elizabeth's Act of 1563 thus had the effect of producing a split legal system in England which grafted the function of the Inquisition onto the existing criminal courts. During Elizabeth's lifetime the new system was developing and expanding; it was not until the following reign that James I was to realize that it had become a monster.

Parliament had other reasons to pass the Witchcraft Act. First among these was the desire to see an established monarch on the throne after the uncertainty of the period since the death of Henry. At Elizabeth's first Parliament they were pressing in their arrangements for her safety; they also assumed that she would marry as a matter of course. They wished to continue the trade which flourished with the Protestant Lowlands and were also afraid of her associating with the Catholic powers (Phillip of Spain was already trying to negotiate a marriage settlement).

Furthermore, if she reigned for only a short period the throne of England would be claimed by the Catholic Mary of Scotland, or a second civil War of the Roses might take place. In these circumstances any measures which might protect her from death by witchcraft, or Papist or Scottish plots by magic, would be in order.

When the Pope excommunicated her in 1570 the whole country was too far advanced along the Protestant path for withdrawal and the Bull was meaningless. It did, however, put the Catholic subjects of Elizabeth in a position where they could be accused of treason, and during 1580 the Pope attempted to ease them out of this position by issuing another edict which instructed them not to rise in rebellion until the time was ripe. This could be, and was, interpreted to mean that Elizabeth held the throne at the Pope's pleasure, an intimation which was more than the Protestant Parliament could bear. At the same time, the Catholic Church launched a campaign of sending missionaries into England. These "seminary priests" were devout and honestly wished to convert these heretics who called themselves Protestants to the true and proper way.

An Act was passed in 1585 which stated that "All Jesuits, seminary and other priests, ordained since the beginning of the Queen's reign should depart out of the realm within 40 days and that all such priests should not come into England, or remain there, under the pain of suffering death as in case of treason." Those who arrived after this date came in faith accepting death (by being hanged, drawn and quartered) with the passion of martyrs if they were discovered.

In view of the Pope's previous edicts Parliament regarded these priests as infiltrators and a menace to the established order, especially as they seemed to be meeting with some success. The Bishop of London gave evidence of this when he wrote to Sir Francis Walsingham, "My Lord of Canterbury and I have received from divers of our brethren, bishops of this realm, that the Papists do marvelously increase, both in number and in obstinately withdrawing themselves from the church and service of God."

Elizabeth, who was striving to retain the independence of the Anglican Church, steered Parliament into a middle path in this matter, as she had in so many others. A proposed Bill decreed a traitor's death for anyone who converted another to Catholicism and also levied a k20 per month fine for abstinence from church. Elizabeth reduced this to death if it could be proved that treasonable acts followed conversion, but the fine remained.

Although Elizabeth reigned for forty-five years she summoned Parliament to session only thirteen times. She organized a system whereby her privy councilors sat on every committee of the Commons and promoted legislation meeting her own requirements. She usually called Parliament, as had all monarchs before her, when she wished their approval of taxation but soon she found them attempting to take the initiative. They began to agree to taxation; provided that the Queen also gave certain concessions.

The Anglican Church — which was Catholic in form but without allegiance to the Pope, Catholic in ceremony but with the omission of the Mass, and Calvinist in its doctrine — did not suit the Puritan groups which were now beginning to form. They believed in equality between all men in the sight of God and wished to withdraw all authority from Bishops. This struck at Elizabeth's system of power, for to attack the Bishops was to attack the Crown, and she retaliated both as Queen and as head of the Anglican Church. Her opponents died, some on the gallows, some in prison. As Archbishop Whitgift remarked to the Queen, "In the end Your Majesty will find that those which now impunge the ecclesiastical jurisdiction endeavor also to impair the temporal, and to bring even kings and princes under their censure." History was to prove him right. When, eventually, the Puritans beheaded Charles I they exceeded even the aspirations of the Catholic Church.

James Morrice, a Puritan member of the Commons at the 1593 Parliament, made an impassioned speech against the Monarch's actions: "Shall we yield our bodies to be burned, our consciences to be ransacked, and our inheritance to be disposed at the pleasure of our prelates, and not so much open our mouths to the contrary?" Elizabeth's answer to his question was to dismiss him from the post of Attorney of the Court of Wards, put him under restraints and command through the Speaker, "that they should not intermeddle at all with any other matters of state or touching causes ecclesiastical".

With such dissension in the Government the common people were confused, insecure and afraid; in this state of mind they were easily duped by any rogue who wished to play upon their weakness. John Darrel was such a one: a Puritan minister from Nottingham who preached against witchcraft regularly, and whose "fame collected crowded congregations whom he entertained with tales of devils and possessions which frightened the people till the servants were afraid to go into the cellar for beer without company". He went too far when he set himself up to exorcize devils from people whom he had bribed to pretend they were "possessed", and was exposed as a fake. Darrel's motive for his pretensions was the wish for personal fame and financial gain.

The seminary priests also pretended to exorcize devils and concerned themselves with witchcraft for a number of reasons, all of which revolved about their desire to further the ends of the Catholic Church. In the case of the Bilston boy, during the following reign, a priest bribed the boy to pretend to be possessed by a spirit so that he could exorcize it to demonstrate the power of the Catholic Church and so win converts. The plan miscarried because the boy so enjoyed the attention he received that he kept up the pretense until he was removed from the locality and exposed as a fraud before the priest could carry out the pretended exorcism.

During the first Lancashire Witch Trial, in August, 1612, a recess' was called while another case was brought before Mr. Justice Bromley, a magistrate who believed in witchcraft and had great experience of the subject. Three women were accused by Grace Sowerbutts (a fourteen-year-old girl who had been suffering from fits) of bewitching her. She recounted how she had witnessed, from a hiding place, meetings of witches on the banks of the River Ribble and gave accounts of the rituals she saw and of incubi and succubi which seemed more compatible with Continental witch-beliefs than those of England. Believer though Bromley was, he became suspicious and had her examined by a parson and two justices of the Peace. Their questioning produced the confession that she had been taught her part by a Catholic priest. The three Salmesbury "witches" had changed their religion from Catholic to Anglican and it appeared that the seminary priest had no scruples in attempting to bring about their deaths as a warning to others. Having recently arrived in England his knowledge was limited to Continental witchcraft beliefs, a fact which was immediately evident to Bromley who acquitted the three women although he condemned and hanged the Lancashire witches a few days later.

Unlike Darrel, most Puritan ministers contented themselves with thundering against witchcraft from the pulpit or preaching cross. It is difficult to determine whether the preaching prompted the witch-panic in their congregations or the people's belief in witches prompted the preachers to exhort them to less sinful ways. Probably it was a vicious circle, but the people would accept the minister's authority without question and his views would become theirs.

Perhaps the most notable of the preaching ministers was William Perkins (1558-1602), whose sermons were produced in book form after his death and translated into Latin, Spanish and Dutch. His views, some of which are quoted below, were typical of his time and were bound to produce a state of mind in his audience which would prompt them to seek out suspects.

Witches were not, he believed, "aged persons of weak brains, and troubled with abundance of melancholic". He deplored that torture could not be used in England to obtain confessions: "A torture is, when besides the inquiry in words, he useth also the racks, or some other violent means to urge confession. This course had been taken in some countries, and may no doubt lawfully and with good conscience be used, howbeit not in every case, but only upon strong and great presumptions going before, and when the party is obstinate."

He considered Elizabeth's Act as lenient: "And now I proceed to the punishment of a witch, and that is death. The cause of this sharp punishment, is a making of a league with the devil, either secret or open whereby they renounce the Lord that made them. For this cause Samuel told Saul that rebellion was the sinne of witchcraft; that is a most heinous and detestable sinne in the sight of God."

Lastly, he made no distinction between a white witch and any other-all must die. "For this must always be remembered, as a conclusion, that by witches, we understand not those only which kill and torment: but all Diviners, Charmers, jugglers, all Wizards, commonly called wise men and wise women; yea, whosoever do anything (knowing what they do) which cannot be effected by nature or art. All these come under the sentence of Moses, because they deny God, and are confederates with Satan."

Besides that of Reginald Scot, few voices were heard in dissension. Perhaps George Gifford, author of A Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcrafts (1593), should be mentioned, for while believing in witchcraft he sought to tone down the extremes to which the situation was tending: "In good sooth," he wrote, "I may tell you as a friend, when I go but into my closet I am afraid, for I see now and then a hare, which by my conscience giveth me is a witch or some witch's spirit, she stareth so upon me. Also there is a foule great cat sometimes in my barne which I have no liking unto."

When Elizabeth died in 1603 England had seen many changes, not the least of which was the violent upsurge of witch-hunting introduced by the Calvinist Protestants returning from exile on the Continent. Protestantism had come to England as a religion but was fast becoming a political force. Elizabeth had succeeded in preserving the Anglican Church founded by her father and had tempered the passions of the extremists. She prevented England from being involved in the bloody forays which occurred between the Catholic and Protestant countries on the Continent, and by the Treaty of Edinburgh (1560) she also made Scotland secure for Protestantism.

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