James I's "Witchcraft Act" (or more correctly: "An Act Against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits") built on the precedents set by earlier Acts passed by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I to move witchcraft from the purview of the ecclesiastical courts to the realm of common law.
Theoretically, these laws offered some protections for those accused of witchcraft. They were to be tried by a magistrate in public court at the assizes like other criminals, and the penalty of being burnt at the stake was replaced by the relative mercy of merely being hanged. Indeed, those convicted a first time were subject to only a year in prison.
Perhaps significantly given James' own belief that an attempt on his own life had been made by witches, witchcraft became an act of treason when carried out against a member of the peerage.
While in some regards, the protections of the legal system could be considered of some benefit to those accused of witchcraft, its main effect was to normalise belief in witchcraft. With James' scholarly reputation, the publication of Daemonologie and the passing of the 1604 Witchcraft Act served to lend credence to belief in witches and to lay a legal and moral framework for outbreaks of witch hunting for a further century and more - perhaps reaching its apogee in the form of the self-proclaimed 'Witch-finder General', Matthew Hopkins.
Whatever its purpose, hundreds of women were put to death as a result of this act and its predecessors.
Text of the Act
"BE it enacted by the King our Sovraigne Lorde the Lordes Spirituall and Temporall and the Comons in this p’sent Parliment assembled, and by the authoritie of the same, That the Statute made in the fifte yeere of the Raigne of our late Sov’aigne Ladie of the most famous and happy memorie Queene Elizabeth, intituled An Acte againste Conjurations Inchantments and witchcraftes, be from the Feaste of St. Michaell the Archangell nexte cominge, for and concerninge all Offences to be comitted after the same Feaste, utterlie repealed.AND for the better restrayning of saide Offenses, and more severe punishinge the same, be it further enacted by the authoritie aforesaide, That if any pson or persons after the saide Feaste of Saint Michaell the Archangell next comeing, shall use practise or exercsise any Invocation or Conjuration of any evill and spirit, or shall consult covenant with entertaine employ feede or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or pupose ; or take any dead man woman or child out of his her or theire grave or any other place where the dead body resteth, or the skin, bone or any other parte of any dead person, to be imployed or used in any manner of Witchecrafte, Sorcerie, Charme or Inchantment ; or shall use practise or exercise any Witchcrafte Sorcerie, Charme or Incantment wherebie any pson shall be killed destroyed wasted consumed pined or lamed in his or her bodie, or any parte therof ; then that everie such Offendor or Offendors theire Ayders Abettors and Counsellors, being of the saide Offences dulie and lawfullie convicted and attainted, shall suffer pains of deathe as a Felon or Felons, and shall loose the priviledge and benefit of Cleargie and Sanctuarie.AND FURTHER, to the intent that all manner of practise use or exercise of declaring by Witchcrafte, Inchantment Charme or Sorcerie should be from henceforth utterlie avoyded abolished and taken away, Be it enacted by the authorite of this p'sent Parliament, that if any pson or psons shall from and after the saide Feaste of Saint Michaell the Archangell next cominge , take upon him or them by Witchcrafte Inchantment Charme or Sorcerie to tell or declare in what place any treasure of Golde or silver should or had in the earth or other secret places, or where Goodes or Thinges loste or stollen should be founde or become ; or to the intent to Pvoke any person to unlawfull love, or wherebie and Cattell or Goods of any pson shall be destroyed wasted or impaired, or to hurte or destroy any Pson in his bodie, although the same be not effected and done : that then all and everie such pson or psons so offendinge, and beinge therof lawfullie convicted , shall for the said Offence suffer Imprisonment by the space of one whole yeere, without baile or maineprise, and once in everie quarter of the saide yeere, shall in some Markett Towne, upon the Markett Day, or at such tyme as any Faire shalbe kept there, stande openlie upon the Pillorie by the space of sixe houres, and there shall openlie confesse his or her error and offence ; And if any pson or psons beinge once convicted of the same offences as is aforesaide, doe eftsones ppetrate and comit the like offence, that then everie such Offender, beinge of the saide offences the second tyme lawfullie and duelie convicted and attainted as is aforesaide, shall suffer paines of deathe as a Felon or Felons, and shall loose the benefitt and piviledge of Clergie and Sanctuarie : Saving to the wife of such person as sahll offend in any thinge contrarie to this Acte ; her title of dower ; and also to the heire and successor of everie such person his or theire titles of Inheritance Succession and other Rights, as though no such Attaindor or the Ancestor or Predecessor had been made ; Provided alwaies that if the offender in any cases aforesaide shall happen to be a Peere of this Realme , then his Triall therein is to be had by his Peeres, as it is used in cases of Felonie or Treason and not otherwise."