British Witch Hunts and Trials

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British Witch Hunts and Trials

The cover of Matthew Hopkins' treatise of 1647 On the Discovery of Witches. It shows a witch surrounded by her 'familiars.' Familiars were said to be entities which aided witches carry out their magic.

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Even today, the witch is a popular staple character in popular mythology. From Roald Dahl to the Wizard of Oz to the costumes worn by children at Hallowe'en, witches are part of the warp and weft of our culture. Of course, in the main it is understood that they are no more 'real' than werewolves, mummies or vampires - but for hundreds of years they were believed to live among us.

They attracted attention from the lowest commoner - who might blame witches for crop failure or an outbreak of illness - to the highest in the land. No less a figure than James I (then James VI of Scotland) published a treatise on the subject in 1597.

With belief in witchcraft so prevalent and ingrained it is perhaps no wonder that those suspected of witching came to the attention of the authorities.  Outbreaks of fervour against alleged witches sporadically broke out across the country for centuries with hundreds of women being found guilty - and often executed, particularly during the high tide of the 16th and 17th century witch trials.

Sometimes justice was delivered by self-appointed quasi authority figures such as Matthew Hopkins - the famous (and self-styled) Witchfinder General - but more than not it was overseen as part of the routine work of the county assizes. In the boiling seas of religious strife that washed over the country from the Tudor era, witches were seen as another danger to the established order - alongside heretics, Catholics, recusants and foreign influences. As the threat from these was to some degree real, it was inevitable that the machinery of the state and the zeal of some public prosecutors would seek to make examples of any and all unnatural activity. 

What lay behind the firmness of belief in witches beyond the general religious temper of the times is unclear, but often suspicion was placed against whole families - and of course, there was the undercurrent of suspicion against females in particular. Some have ascribed the witch trials to an extreme form of sexism, spurred by fears about female sexuality and its dangerous power.

There again, the role of village elder had been often taken by women who were revered for their wisdom, esoteric knowledge and ability to commune with nature. If those powers could be used for good, then there was always the possibility they could be turned to evil purposes.

Against that charge must be lain the fact that life was often bitter and hard and that - as in many countries even today - people looked for supernatural explanations for their ill fates. Without a clear understanding, for example of how illnesses were caused, it was logical to look for an agency and cast blame against families or individuals - often based on nothing more than long-running feuds.

A common feature in several witch trials - including the most famous case at Pendlebury - was the denial of help to a 'witch.' In the Pendle case a man refused to help 'Old Demdike' and she went away uttering curses and oaths. When he fill ill shortly afterwards, it was natural that he should attribute it to her 'curse'. You might ponder the parallels with the so-called 'gypsy curses' said to afflict several English football grounds.

Whatever the reason, the cold reality was that women were accused and found guilty of witchcraft as late as 1944 - when the medium Helen Duncan was tried and convicted of witchcraft under statute dating back to 1735.

Despite the fame of many English witch trials (and Matthew Hopkins in particular), witchcraft was never persecuted with anything of the zeal seen on the continent. By some estimates, 40,000 'witches' were executed across Europe, but Britain's contribution to that total was only around 500. While the numbers sound huge, it was worth remembering that they took place over an entire continent over several centuries. 

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 2nd August 2013 | © Weird Island 2010-2018
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