The Witchcraft Act



The act of De hæretico comburendo was the first Witchcraft act to be passed in 1401. The start of witchcraft percussions in England was during the reign of Henry VIII with the witchcraft act of 1541/42, against conjurations and wichescraftes and sorcery and enchantmentes. Edward VI brought in the witchcraft act of 1547. Elizabeth I brought in witchcraft acts of 1562/3 and 1580 ‘agaynst Conjuracions Inchauntmentes and Witchecraftes’ and it was the most notorious of all witchcraft acts. Witchcraft only became a crime during the reign of James I (1603-1625), when the law changed to the witchcraft statue of 1604, which brought the witchcraft act in line with the rest of Europe and remained until 1735 when it was repealed and George II brought in the witchcraft act of 1735, practising witchcraft was no longer a hanging offence, but the alleged witch would be punished as a vagrant, con-artist, fined and imprisonment.
An Act to repeal the Witchcraft Act 1735, and to make, in substitution for certain provisions of section four of the Vagrancy Act 1824, express provision for the punishment of persons who fraudulently purport to act as spiritualistic mediums or to exercise powers of telepathy, clairvoyance or other similar powers.
(1) Subject to the provisions of this section, any person who—
(a) with intent to deceive purports to act as a spiritualistic medium or to exercise any powers of telepathy, clairvoyance or other similar powers, or
(b) in purporting to act as a spiritualistic medium or to exercise such powers as aforesaid, uses any fraudulent device, shall be guilty of an offence.
(2) A person shall not be convicted of an offence under the foregoing subsection unless it is proved that he acted for reward; and for the purposes of this section a person shall be deemed to act for reward if any money is paid, or other valuable thing given, in respect of what he does, whether to him or to any other person.
(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding four months or to both such fine and such imprisonment, or on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding five hundred pounds or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both such fine and such imprisonment.
(4) No proceedings for an offence under this section shall be brought in England or Wales except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. (5) Nothing in subsection (1) of this section shall apply to anything done solely for the purpose of entertainment.

· Malleus Maleficarum

Malleus Maleicarum is Latin for ‘The Hammer of Witches’ and was written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger in 1486 but was published in Germany in 1487. In total there was thirty editions printed from 1486 to 1669 and the English translation was published in London in 1928, 1948, 1974 by Montague Summers. Both Authors were members of the Dominican circle (friars) and inquisitors for the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church banned the book in 1490 but the book still became a handbook for witch-hunts.

The main purpose of the book was to prove that witchcraft did not exist and to direct magistrates how to identify witches and interrogate and convict witches. The book was supposed to examine the existence of witchcraft. The book contained three elements that were thought necessary for witchcraft.

The evil-intentioned: Refutes critics who deny witchcraft and therefore stops prosecutions of witchcraft. The devil exists and has the power to do bewildering things and witches help the devil. But the Devils power is heightened when sexuality is involved and it was thought that women were more sexual than men and that some women had sex with the devil and thereafter became witches.

The help of the Devil: Forms of witchcraft and remedies. Discussion on the power of witches and recruitment and it was thought that witches recruited people. Witches were thought to cast spells and remedies to prevent witchcraft or to help those that had been affected by witchcraft.

The permission of God: Judges to combat and confronting witchcraft. The book offered a step-by-step guide including the torture of witnesses and the alleged witches. It was also thought that a woman who did not cry was a witch.

The main themes running through the book are what is witchcraft and who is a witch. One of the main themes was hatred of women (misogyny) as women were weak and were more susceptible to the devil and most alleged witches had strong personalities and defied convention. Malleus Maleficarum accused witches of casting evil spells, cannibalism, infanticide and having the powers to steal men’s penises. A humanistic theme was also present, covering philosophy; medicine, astronomy, ancient texts and the bible are just a few examples.

Other publications of interest:
In 1584 Reginald Scot published The Discoverie of Witchcraft, which followed the Chelmsford witch trials.
In 1587 Clergyman George Gifford publishes ‘A Discourse Concerning the Subtle Practices of Devils by Witches and Sorcerers’.
In 1593 George Gifford published ‘A Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcraftes’.
In 1597 James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) Publication of Demonology.

· The Witch Finder General

The witch finder general for East Anglia was Matthew Hopkins (ca 1620-1647). The background on Matthew Hopkins is very limited and the number of trials and executions are inconsistent and therefore the figures below might not match other figures. It is thought he lived at Manningtree in Essex and this is where his career in witch trials started. He tried to be a solicitor but failed twice. He was never employed by parliament and used the Civil war to his advantage and roomed around East Anglia without challenge from authority. It is thought that he overhead a group of women in March 1644, talking about a meeting they had with the Devil in Manningtree and he accused these women of being witches and Nineteen-Twenty four were hanged and four died in prison.

hopkins_smHopkins then travelled around East Anglia from 1645-1647 with John Stearne and Mary Phillips. They could earn up to £20 for each witch from the local magistrates. It is estimated that he hanged two hundred and thirty alleged witches. Hopkins produced a pamphlet called ‘The discovery of witches’ in 1647, which defined witchcraft and the pamphlet helped him to manipulate the act of 1604. Mistley Lake in North Essex was the scene of seventy accused witches, which were drowned by Hopkins. The main interrogations were held at Manningtree (White Hart) and Mistley (The Thorn) and the trials were held at Chelmsford assizer.  Click here to go to The Discovery of Witches.

The first victim of Hopkins was one-legged, Elizabeth Clarke who confessed to keeping familiars, she was interrogated at Colchester Castle and the trial was at Chelmsford. Not all witches were women, John Lowes was 80 years old and a vicar at Brandeston in Suffolk, basically the villagers wanted a new vicar and eventually he was hanged for being a witch. Faith Mills of Fressingfield in Suffolk was hanged after confessing to having three familiars. In spring of 1645, 36 women were interrogated and nineteen executed at Chelmsford. In Suffolk 68 alleged witches were executed, in Sudbury one hundred and seventeen people were trialled and examined. In Norfolk in 1645, forty women were executed. During the summer of 1646, eight alleged witches were trialled and five executed in Huntingdonshire. At Great Yarmouth sixteen alleged witches were trialled and executed. It is thought that Hopkins trialled Two hundred people but only one hundred were executed; unfortunately the number of alleged witches is inclusive. The highest alleged witch execution in one day by Hopkins was nineteen. More witches were hanged in Essex than in any other English County.

During the year of 1646 a parliamentary pamphlet called ‘The modern intelligencer’ questioned Hopkins methods and John Gaule’s pamphlet ‘select case of conscience towards witches and witchcraft’ exposed Hopkins’ method of interrogation and hinted that Hopkins was a witch. In 1647 Hopkins rebutted this not to be true. It has been suggested that Hopkins was excuted for witchcraft but there is no evidence for this claim but it is generally thought he died of tuberculosis. It is also thought that Hopkins Ghost visits Mistley, as this is thought to be his last resting place.

The witch-hunts continued for about forty years after Hopkins had died but not in the same way. During the Elizabethan period there were two hundred and seventy witchcraft trials, two hundred and forty-seven were women and only twenty-three were men. Interestingly, Anne Boleyn was accused of being a witch due to her having a sixth finger and a prominent mole on her neck. The last woman hanged in England for witchcraft was Alice Holland in Exeter 1684. It is estimated between the years of 1542-1736 that one thousand people were executed for witchcraft in England and four thousand in Scotland. Thomas Edward and Ephraim Pagitt are other famous Witch Hunters.

· How to tell a witch

Witches'Familiars1579Ringleader Matthew Hopkins known of Witch finder General he derived many ways of supposingly recognizing a witch. Most Witches were women, widows, and spinsters with a very low number of married women. It was believed that witches had intercourse with the Devil. Witches would have the devil’s mark, this is an area of the body that would not bleed and would be dead to all feelings shown by a disfiguration of some kind like a birth mark, scar, mole or boil but are not thought as boils or tumours or similar. The witches’ familiars, which are mainly a pet/animal (cat, fox, horse, toads, spiders and magpie are just a few examples), or a spirit of a dead person or an element or material creature. The witches’ familiar was thought to drink blood from the Devils mark/third nipple and they ran errands, brought messages, and aided in devil worship. It was thought that witches were allocated an imp/familiar by the devil (i.e. animals).

It is also thought that a witch could turn themselves into animals. Witches were believed to kill babies, drink blood, conjure demons and desecrate the cross.

During the Elizabethan period, witches were blamed for unexplainable events such as the Black Death, other terrible diseases, animals dying, a bad harvest, housing burning down and even food curdling.

· Witch trials

duckingAlleged witches during Matthew Hopkins era were usually kept in cold, windowless cells and were sat on wooden stools, if the alleged witches fell asleep they were walked/marched around the cell, until they were awake. Sleep and food deprivation were used for 24 hours but it could last up to five days. They were also told that it was morning when it was not, to add to the confusion to get a confession. English witches were not burnt at the stake. The accused witches were put through the swimming test, if they sank they would not be classed as witches but if they floated they would be classed as witches. The accused witches were usually tied up, with the left thumb to the right toe and then were thrown in to see if they floated. It was thought that the water would reject witches, as they would have renounced their baptism. Witch prickers used knives and needles to check for the Devils Mark.

One of the well-known witch trials was Pendle Hill in Lancastershire, which took place on 18th August 1612. In total thirteen people were on trial for witchcraft and were accused of murdering seventeen people by Witchcraft, Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle alias Chattox, Anne Redfern, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Isobel Robey were hanged on the 20th August 1612 at Lancaster Gaol. Elizabeth Southerns alias Demdike died it Lancaster Gaol and Jennet Preston was trialled in Yorkshire and was hanged in York 29th July 1612. Margaret Pearson was found guilty of witchcraft but not have murder and was imprisoned for one year.

The witches were accused of selling their souls to the devil or their familiar, which in return they received power to kill or to lame. It is thought they made an entity of the intended victim and over a period of time, they would crumb or burn it, causing the victim death or illness. They were also accused of having a witches Sabbat meeting at Malkin tower on 10th April. Some of the Pendle witches incriminated each other, while others maintained their innocence.

Anne Chattox was accused of killing John Device, Hugh Moore, John Moore, Anne Nutter and Robert Nutter. Elizabeth Demdike was accused of killing Richard Asshetan and the child of Richard Baldwin. Elizabeth Demdike, Elizabeth Device, Alice Nutter were accused of killing Henry Mitton. James Device was accused of killing John Duckworth, Blaze and John Hargreaves and Ann Towneley. Elizabeth Device was accused of murdering James and John Robinson. Katherine Hewitt was accused of killing Anne Foulds. Anne Redfern was accused of murdering Christopher Nutter. Jennet Preston was accused of murdering Thomas Lister. Alizon Device confused to cursing John Law, a peddler, when he refused to sell her some pins, he collapsed from a seizure but he forgave Alizon.

The pendle witches were accused of having familiars, Margaret Pearson a Cloven-hoofed Man, Alison Devices a black dog, Elizabeth Device a ball, James Device a dandie, Anne Chattox a Fancie, Demdike a Tibb and Jennet Preston a white foal.

A witch trial in Pittanweem, Fife, Scotland took place during 1704-1705. Patrick Morton aged sixteen years old made allegations against a number of his neighbours. Beatrice Laing was accused of sending evil thoughts to torture Patrick. Beatrice was put into a dark dungeon, alone, tortured over the period of 5 months, but was freed and sadly died shortly after, alone. Thomas Brown was also accused but died in the dungeon. Janet Cornfoot (Corphat) was also accused but she escaped only to be re-captured by a mob on the 30th January 1705. Janet was dragged to the sea front and tied and swung between the shore and a ship, while being beaten and stoned, but a door that was piled with rocks eventually crushed Janet. A man drove a horse and cart over her body to make sure she was dead. She was buried in a communal grave, known as the witches’ corner. All the other people were freed once it was shown that Patrick was a liar, but no one was punished for the crimes against the alleged witches.

Properly the most famous American witch trials are that of Salem. Between February 1692 and May 1693, over one hundred and fifty people were imprisoned and fourteen women and five men were hanged at Gallows Hill, Salem Town, under the felony of witchcraft. Five people accused, died in prison and one other person died as he was being crushed to death under heavy stones, he survived this but died two days later. The trials in 1692 were heard in Ipswich, Andover, Salem village and town. Twenty-six people were convinced alone in Salem town.

During 1693 there were four sessions of witch trials and held in Ipswich, Boston, Charlestown and Salem Town. There were Thirty-one witchcraft trials but only three people were convicted.

Peabody Essex Museum holds 552 original documents from the Salem witch trials and the witch pins and finger bones of George Jacob are at Clerks office in Essex superior court-house at Salem.

It is thought that many factors helped cause the hysteria of the Salem witch trials including, religion, family feuds, politics, economics and the fear and imagination of people.  This witchcraft trial, the history before, during and after the witch trials are too vast for us to cover here, but we thought it warranted a brief mention.

Under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, Helen Duncan in 1944 was jailed under the witchcraft act, for pretending to summon spirits but some contest this and say it was feared that she wold reveal the secret D-Day plans, Helen was jailed for nine months. In the same year, Jane Rebecca Yorke was also jailed under the witchcraft act. Five people have recently been successfully prosecuted and convicted for witchcraft (1884, 1986, 1990,1991 and 1992), one person was prosecuted but not convicted in 1985.

· The New Act

From April 2008 the Fraudulent Mediums Act was replaced by the Consumer Protection Regulations (2007), which includes the unfair Commercial Practices Directive.

The new changes mean that mediums, psychics, healers, psychic suppers, clairvoyant evening, development circles and other spiritual services who take money for services will be subject to consumer law, the same law as buying a faulty computer or other items. If a person does not get what is advertised they can take legal action. It is suggested by some professional bodies in the spiritual arena, to display a sign of ‘for entertainment purposes only’ but this is up to the individual if they do.

Supposing site of Hopkins resting place

Hopping Bridge at Mistley

Dunking pond at Mistley and Hopkins Ghost has been seen

The beach, screams have been heard

Thought to be haunted by Hopkins in Mistley

Hopkins is supposed to haunt here in Manningtree

Copyrighted by Tracy Monger 2012.



2 responses to “The Witchcraft Act

  1. Pingback: Norfolk Witchcraft – Executions – Ritual objects |·

  2. Pingback: Suffolk Witchcraft – Executions |·

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