The subject of witch panics and witchcraft trials remains a hotly contested one, even in these more enlightened times. Recently, I posted an article about northern witchcraft trials that surprisingly didn’t end in execution. One accusation occurred as late as 1867, and the accuser ended up paying damages to the accused.
Yet an indignant tweeter took the opportunity to correct me that you couldn’t ignore centuries of burnings because not all trials ended in execution. At no point did I say that we could. But these trials clearly still weigh heavy on modern minds. As well they should.
Willow Winsham’s previous book followed a range of accused women. Accused: British Witches Throughout History explored the lives of eleven British witches between 1324 and 1944. Winsham gave these women back the voices stolen from them when they passed into the official records.
It comes as no surprise therefore that Winsham’s latest book, England’s Witchcraft Trials, would extend the narrative.
Five Examples of Witchcraft Trials
Divided into five chapters, Winsham uses a similar formula for each case. She presents us with the build-up, if known, and then the events as contemporary commentators believed them to have occurred. Next, we learn the fates of the accused witches. Finally, Winsham presents us with an objective analysis, taking all evidence into account and placing everything into context.
While these are famous cases, Winsham still teases new insights and original perspectives from the stories. That the cases are well known doesn’t detract from the book’s value. The chapters cover the events in St Osyth, the Witches of Warboys, the Pendle Witches, the heinous work of Matthew Hopkins in Bury St Edmonds, and finally, the Bideford Witches.
The contextual element is perhaps the most vital part of the story.
Without it, these stories stand in isolation and it’s difficult to see any commonalities. But Winsham’s skilful weaving of the literature of the period in Europe into the narrative is a clever one.
For example, many aspects of the “confessions” contain elements familiar to writing on the subject from the continent. Yet these largely illiterate women at first described elements of their “witchcraft” more common to ordinary folk practices. You have to wonder where the more sensationalist aspects really come from in these later “confessions”. When the historical record states they gave their confessions freely, just how free were these women?
It’s also worth noting the social and economic aspects of the witchcraft trials. Many of these women were poor, reduced to begging from neighbours. The Witches of Warboys case is notable given the class difference between the accused and the allegedly tormented family. And how many women avoided the noose simply by being ‘better off’?
Some of the stories have since prompted calls for pardons for the women involved. Yet an alternative view is keeping the injustice alive also keeps alive their memory. With any luck, we won’t slide into another period in which a person can be put to death because of their difference within the community. Yet the McCarthy period in 1950s America shows that persecution can follow any group of people.
Is it worth buying?
Absolutely. It’s ideal for fans of English history, but particularly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. If you’re interested in witches and witch panics, then this is a level-headed, clear read. Accessible for non-historians, it’s also rich and well-written. I flew through it in a single sitting on a three-hour train journey! (Pity I didn’t have a broomstick)
Winsham’s level of detail is immense, and she brings to life these vivid characters and their stories. In a way, that makes what happened to these poor women all the more horrifying. They may have been brash, argumentative, or even proud of their witchy status in the community. But they were still human.
If you loved Accused and wanted more, then this book should satisfy you. If you haven’t read Accused yet, well, what are you waiting for?
Find out more about Willow Winsham at her blog, The Witch, the Weird, and the Wonderful.
Want more folklore in your inbox?
Add your email below and get these posts in your inbox every week.
You'll also get my folklore podcast recommendations for your listening pleasure!