I’m working this week on two podcast episodes with the History, Bitches podcast (which is great) that we’re putting out jointly, on Halloween themes, including witches and ghosts. Today we recorded ghosts, so different places where Tudor ghosts are meant to be haunting, and tomorrow is witches. As such, I’ve been doing a lot of research into witchcraft in early England.
Because I’ve always been a carefree person who does my own thing, I’m very much interested in the themes of community and the importance of fitting in that are running through the different cases. I am reminded of how important the protection of a community would be to everyone; one of the main reasons people didn’t travel and reinvent their lives in new places was simply because it was so difficult to leave the community filled with people who knew you since you were born, where you had a reputation already, and where you had a network that would protect you if you needed it.
The vast majority of people who were accused of witchcraft were:
– unmarried or widowed
– ostracized in some way from the community
– often they would have animals (“familiars”) which makes sense if they were unmarried – animals make the best friends.
It’s interesting that witch hunting really reached a fever pitch in the decades leading up to the real scientific revolution of the Enlightenment. Before the Renaissance, there were always wise women in communities, and more often than not, townspeople would look to them for their healing potions, and their way of mixing herbs. After the advances of the printing press, suddenly there were more biblical tracts in circulation than ever before, and people spent more time thinking about witches and their potential dangers. Add to that the bubonic plague, where 1/3 of the entire population died a tremendously horrible death (with no scientific explanation to understand how it was spread) and you’ve got a perfect situation lined up for poor unprotected women to become the scapegoats of these natural disasters that were beyond the average person’s understanding.
One of the earliest witches in English History was Ursula Southeil, also known as Mother Shipton, who was born in a cave in Yorkshire. Her mother was also considered a witch, and died in childbirth (a really depressing story, considered she had to give birth on her own, and was probably petrified, in addition to then, you know, dying, and wondering what would happen to her baby. Not something I’d wish on anyone). Ursula was taken in by a neighbor who saw what was happening, and raised her. She grew up to be one of the most famous witches in the reign of Henry VII and Henry VIII, and foresaw some big events, supposedly, like the great fire of London. Interest in her grew during the Victorian age when there was a general upswing in paranormal studies.
By 1542 witchcraft was defined as a felony under Henry VIII’s witchcraft act, a crime that was punishable by death and forfeiting all your goods and chattels. It was forbidden to:
… use devise practise or exercise, or cause to be devysed practised or exercised, any Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to thentent to fynde money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone in his bodie membres, or to pvoke [provoke] any persone to unlawfull love, or for any other unlawfull intente or purpose … or for dispite of Cryste, or for lucre of money, dygge up or pull downe any Crosse or Crosses or by such Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries or any of them take upon them to tell or declare where goodes stollen or lost shall become …
The Act also removed a right known as benefit of clergy from those convicted of witchcraft, a law that spared anyone from hanging who was able to read a passage from the Bible. This statute was repealed by Henry’s son, Edward VI, in 1547.
By the time of Elizabeth things changed again with her act of 1562, the Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts. In some ways it was more merciful towards those found guilty of witchcraft than the 1542 act, demanding the death penalty only where harm had been caused; lesser offenses were punishable by a term of imprisonment. The Act provided that anyone who should “use, practice, or exercise any Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm, or Sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed”, was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, and was to be put to death.
Witchcraft trials in England never reached the same level of fevered craziness in Elizabethan England that they did in other countries like France, but there were several cases of mass trials. In 1612 there were a group of 12 women accused of the murder of 10 people by witchcraft around the Pendle area of Lancashire. The series of trials and executions that came from this one group accounts for 2% of the total number of witchcraft executions in England.
For fun, check out HistoryExtra’s quiz to see if you would have been at risk for being accused as a witch. I would have been, for sure. Yet another reason why I’m glad I didn’t live in the 17th century.