Witchcraft: definitions, beliefs and laws

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Witchcraft: definitions, beliefs and laws

In the Middle Ages, people had been tried for witchcraft in Church courts, which tended to give very light sentences. This was because ordinary people, who were too poor to afford a doctor, relied upon local ‘wise women’ to treat ailments.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, superstitions, dating back to pre-Christian times, continued to survive. Many people believed that a witch met with the devil to receive instructions.

In 1542, Henry VIII passed a new law that made witchcraft a serious crime. However, persecutions didn’t really begin until laws, introduced by Elizabeth I, define two types of witchcraft:

  1. Major witchcraft – trying to bring about a death or raise the spirits of the dead.

This was punishable by death.

  1. Minor witchcraft – using magic and charms. This was punishable by imprisonment or the stocks.

The areas in which persecutions were heaviest were East Anglia and Scotland where Protestantism was strongest.

Witch-hunts became most significant under James I, who reinforced witchcraft laws in 1604. James had written a book on the subject and believed that the secrecy surrounding witchcraft gave conspirators and traitors the opportunity to get together. New laws were passed for four main reasons.


After Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, witchcraft became not only a crime against the church but a crime against the state. Thus, both Catholic and Protestant rulers called for action against suspected witches who they viewed as heretics.

Economic hardship

In the period 1580-1645, wages and work opportunities declined. Economic problems led to bad feelings between neighbours and bad luck – such as crop failure or the deaths of stock animals – was blamed on evil spirits and the spells of witches.

Social changes

The break up of some communities led to some old women, previously supported by families, being left alone. Some turned to magic and charms as a means to earning a living.

Discovering Witchcraft

The witchcraft laws were another example of how women were subjected to unequal treatment. Between 1450 and 1750, 90 per cent of those accused of witchcraft were women due to. Essentially, this was due to a hatred of women, or misogyny, women being viewed as the weaker sex and thus more prone to temptation and that woman, particularly by the Puritans, were viewed as temptresses.

A variety of evidence was used to convict people of witchcraft such as:

  • Unusual marks on the woman’s body.

  • A needle test, to find an area on the body insensitive to pain.

  • Neighbours providing evidence; often of overheard conversation.

  • ‘Possessed’ children as accusers.

  • Confessions.

  • ‘Proof’ of guilt. (If two ‘proven’ witches would swear the accused was one too).

  • The ‘swimming test.’ (If you drowned you were innocent, guilty if you floated).

Punishment of witches

If found guilty of major witchcraft and sentenced to death witches were usually hung. Estimates of the number of people hanged for witchcraft between 1542 and 1736 ranges between 400 and 1,000.

Witch-hunts and the Witchfinder General

Compared to other parts of Europe, mass executions of witches were rare. The peak of the hysteria took place in East Anglia during the English Civil Wars (1642-49). This was largely stirred up by an Essex lawyer called Matthew Hopkins who declared himself ‘The Witchfinder General.’ Hopkins and his accomplices were responsible for the executions of 19 women.

Why did witchcraft trials decline?

Increased prosperity reduced tensions in villages, so most people became less jealous and suspicions of their neighbours. Although people still believed in witches, people started to adopt a more rational attitude to their superstitions.

The creation of the Royal Society saw a huge increase in experiments and discoveries, leading to so many more things being explained by science.

Although Alice Molland was the last witch to be executed – in Exeter in 1684 – witchcraft laws were not abolished until 1736.

In 1751 in Hertfordshire, Ruth Osborne was unofficially subjected to the ‘swimming test’ and died. The fact that one of her accusers was tried and hanged for murder showed that, whilst local beliefs had not changes, the attitudes of the authorities had.

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