‘Witch hunt’ is a term currently being bandied around to relate to a whole raft of things. Yet in earlier centuries, the term referred to a very real danger. Rather than losing a reputation, its victims could lose their lives. Popular culture often implies a craze for witch trials swept Europe, with thousands of people burned at the stake.
There is evidence to suggest witch panics did take place. The case of the Pendle Witches in Lancashire proves that. But did witch trials always lead to executions? And when did belief in witchcraft die out?
Let’s dig into the newspapers and have a look.
Trial by Popular Opinion
Let’s start with 13th-century Northumberland. You didn’t need to have a trial to be exonerated of killing a ‘witch’. In 1279, a man named John prayed at home when a woman came in. The local community believed she was a witch so he made the sign of the cross at her. According to him, she then attacked him, so he defended himself, killing her in the process. He claimed sanctuary with the Bishop but “as he was not suspected of a serious crime” no trial took place (Bath 2002: 5). The clergy agreed to burn the woman’s body in case she was a witch.
Though by my reckoning, if they were going to let a man off from manslaughter using the excuse his victim was a witch, then they’d already decided she was one…
The Introduction of Witch Trials
Civil authorities originally had no remit to punish witchcraft, which was instead a religious offence. Following England’s conversion to Protestantism, a new statue came into force in 1541. Few people went to trial under this law, though a new law appeared in 1563. This law appealed to Queen Elizabeth I herself, highlighting “the wickedness and danger of disobeying the Scriptural precept to put witches to death” (1887: 3).
James I, the chap who added ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ to the Bible, lived in perpetual fear of witchcraft. Under his reign, witchcraft became punishable by death “on the first conviction” (1887: 3). In 1616, early victims of the new law were accused of bewitching a boy. A month after their death, it emerged the accusation was false.
According to a short article in the Newcastle Courant, thirty women were arrested and tried for witchcraft in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1649. The Common Council even hired a witchfinder from Scotland to help quell the panic (1877: 6).
Only sixteen survived the tortures designed to procure confessions, dying instead on the gallows (1887: 3). These gallows once stood on the Town Moor, now a picturesque green space grazed by cattle and beloved by runners and cyclists. Incidentally, the witchfinder earned “twenty shillings a head for every person he could condemn” (1877: 6). In today’s money, that’s just over £1,600 for the sixteen women hung.
Suspicion Falls on Outsiders
If you were a poor woman, then suspicion was more likely to fall on you than a wealthy pillar of society. These unfortunate women might sell things to their neighbours, borrow things they needed, or beg for alms. Disagreements broke out if items weren’t returned, or help was refused.
We’re all used to falling out with people we know. The difference between 21st-century society and the 17th century lies in the way we deal with it. Now, if I don’t buy something a friend is selling and then I get sick, I don’t assume I’ve been cursed. Instead, I realise that’s the downside of using public transport.
But in the 17th century, if a person refused to buy something from a local beggar and then got sick? They often assumed witchcraft lay behind their sudden illness. Remember this is a time when healthcare was rudimentary and the understanding of disease was still in its infancy. Doctors who couldn’t diagnose or cure an illness might claim witchcraft to excuse their inability to help.
Yet these accusations didn’t always go to trial immediately.
A doctor might draw blood from the accused witch instead. Many believed this would end the enchantment. It served a second purpose of ‘proving’ the witch’s guilt. Jo Bath notes that “hanging was generally reserved for suspects who were proved to have bewitched their victim to death” (2002: 21).
Without this rudimentary practice, who knows how many more women would have gone to trial?
In 1661, two children fell ill in Newcastle. They claimed two women, Anne Mennin and Jane Watson, tormented them during the night. The children’s mother, Katherine Cudworth, knew Watson through buying oat cakes from her. But she’d stopped buying them after discovering Watson’s reputation as a ‘healer’. The children fell ill the week Cudworth stopped associating with Watson (Bath 2002: 22).
One afternoon, the children threw a fit and one of them claimed to see Watson. A servant in the room also believed she could see Watson. The child screamed that Watson had left an apple for her and the servant claimed Watson had disappeared under the bed. A passing gentleman waved his rapier under the bed and found half an apple.
The accusation against Watson and Mennin went to trial. The judge found Watson not guilty. Before Mennin could stand trial for the fourth time, her husband poisoned her with arsenic.
The Belief in Witchcraft Lingered
As late as 1867, people still believed drawing blood could alleviate enchantments. An article in the Newcastle Daily Chronicle from December 1867 relates the tale of a case in Durham. Mrs Briggs and her sister-in-law Mrs Clark had a set-to, in which Mrs Briggs attacked Mrs Clark’s arm with a darning needle. Having drawn blood, she apparently exclaimed, “There! I am satisfied. I have drawn blood; she will bewitch me no more!” (1867: 2). Far from putting Mrs Clark on trial for witchcraft, the magistrates fined Mrs Briggs five shillings and costs.
According to the same article, “[t]he earlier witch trials of Scotland generally implicated persons of rank” (1867: 2). The same article claims that those accused were often young women, who asked “their friends in fairyland” for help in curing disease (1867: 2). Apparently, Archbishop Adamson even accepted a potion from one such ‘witch’, so he didn’t seem to think their powers were anything to worry about.
So perhaps that’s another misconception about English witch trials we need to reconsider. It wasn’t just old, poor women who had to worry about accusations.
Witch trials appear in English history. So do executions – although by hanging, not burning. But a trial was no guarantee of an execution. While the 1650 Newcastle example demonstrates what a panic could do, the other ‘precautions’ (such as drawing blood to break enchantments) shows the aversion to witch trials. And the Jane Watson case shows that a trial didn’t always lead to a guilty verdict.
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Bath, Jo (2002), Dancing with the Devil: And Other True Tales of Northern Witchcraft, Newcastle upon Tyne: Tyne Bridge Publishing.
Unnamed author (1867), ‘Modern Witchcraft’, Newcastle Daily Chronicle, December 11, p. 2.
Unnamed author (1877), ‘Leaves from a Parish Register: St. Andrew’s Church, The Great Execution of Thieves and Witches in 1650’, Newcastle Courant, August 24, p. 6.
Unnamed author (1887), ‘Witch Trials and Tests’, Newcastle Courant, March 25, p. 3.
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