Witchcraft persecutions began during Elizabeth I's reign - around 1563, which was actually much later than other areas of Europe... Witch hunts in southern France and Switzerland began as early as the 14th century.
In early modern tradition, witches were stereotypically women. The common belief was that these women would make a diabolical pact with evil spirits and appeal to their intervention. They would reject Jesus and the holy sacraments, and take part in "the Witch's Sabbath" - a parody of the mass and sacraments. By paying honor to the 'Prince of Darkness,' they would in turn receive preternatural powers - thereby becoming evil.
Folklore said that the 'Devil's Mark' would appear on the new witch's skin like a brand, to signify that the evil pact had been made. It was said during Elizabeth I's reign that the devil's mark had been spotted on Anne Boleyn - though this has been popularly seen as a cruel and unwarranted slam against her.
Interestingly, the reasons for a woman to make a pact with the devil were varied - people believed that women, in their frustrations and struggles, would appeal to the devil in order to gain powers to deal with infertility, fear for her children's well-being, or revenge against a lover.
Although witch persecutions were not really in effect until 1563, the use of witchcraft had been deemed as heresy by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484. From then until about 1750, roughly 200,000 witches were tortured, burnt, and hung across Western Europe.
Witches were frequently characterized as being ugly and old women. (Though in Anne Boleyn's case, people were apparently willing to overlook those characteristics when they called her a witch). They were typically described as "crone-like," with snaggle teeth, sunken cheeks, and hairy lips. Not a pretty picture, and certainly similar to how we picture witches today! Also, if they were the owner of a cat, they were all the more likely to be considered a witch - that's right, even in the early modern period, cats were considered a sign of witchcraft. For that reason, most cats during the Tudor period in England were burnt or otherwise destroyed because of the fear that they would attract evil. As sad as that is, I find it interesting - we hear frequently about how kings and queens kept pets such as dogs and monkeys...but never cats! Now we know why!
Witch persecutions were not a pretty thing. Similar to your average 16th century execution methods, the witches were handled cruelly and harshly, and were typically put under some kind of awful torture to gain a confession of their craft and other witches in the village. 'Thumb screws' and 'leg irons' seem to be the most common forms of torture used on the witches, and they usually resulted in a confession - This, of course, would have been taken as proof that witchcraft really did exist in England, because a woman being tortured would confess it! Whether it was said out of pain and agony or not, it certainly gave witch-hunters cause to continue looking and persecuting... and it only increased the fear of evil and the devil!
1645-1646 marks a short period of time when 'witch fever' gripped England hard. A man named Matthew Hopkins, a renowned witch finder, had 68 people put to death in Bury St. Edmunds and 19 people hung in Chelmsford in a single day. He was given exorbitant amounts of money for touring England and ridding towns and villages of evil witches. The grateful townsfolk would do anything and pay any price to rid their homes of the devil's influence! Because of this, many people lost their lives.
Hopkins' main 'tool' to discover witches during this period was by using a needle and poking/prodding a wart, mole, or insect bite to see if the woman felt any pain. If she didn't, it was 'solid proof' that the mark was indeed the devil's mark! There could be no question that she was a witch and would have to be executed! However, his 'needle' was no needle at all. It was a 3 inch spike that retracted into the spring-loaded handle so the women would not feel a thing.
Other witch tests included the swimming test. Mary Sutton of Bedford was tossed into a river with her thumbs tied to her opposite big toes. If she floated, she was guilty; if she sank, she was innocent. Either way she would die! Poor Mary Sutton floated, and was therefore burnt.
In August 1612, King James I (who was famously terrified of witchcraft), ordered that the Pendle Witches (three generations of a family), should be marched through the streets of Lancaster all together and hanged.
In fact, King James I was so fearful of witchcraft and the threat of evil, that he advocated a book called Daemonologia - published in Edinburgh in 1567. This was a guide telling his subjects how to detect witchcraft and how to protect themselves from it. His writings included descriptions of the devil's mark, the swimming test, and the fact that a witch cannot shed tears!
Witchcraft Statistics & Facts
- From April 1661-Autumn 1662, 600 witches were found - 100 were executed.
- Mother Samuel, from Huntingdonshire, was tortured into confessing to the death of Lady Cromwell in 1590. She, her daughter, and her husband were all hanged and their naked bodies were left there for onlookers to see.
- In 1616, nine witches were hanged at Market Bosworth, Leicestershire, England, for causing epilepsy in a boy.
- Major Thomas Weir was strangled and burnt for witchcraft in 1670 [at age 70] for incest and bestiality. His sister, Jean, was hanged for similar crimes.
- Margaret Aikens, a 16th century Scottish woman was known as "The Great Witch of Balver." She said she could detect other witches, and under supervision, she was taken around the world for that purpose.
- Jane Wenham was the last person in England to be convicted of witchcraft. This was in 1712.
During James I's reign, the 'new world' of America was discovered - and unsurprisingly, witch hunting continued there. The Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in 1692 stemmed from King James' fear of witches - and that fear continued through his son Charles I, and all the way throughout the Stuart dynasty. Witches were no longer the subject of folklore and medieval myths - they were a real, tangible representation of the devil. They could inflict diseases on people, spoil crops, bring about bad weather, and perform other unspeakable and detestable acts of devil's work. Witches and witchcraft were a scary reality of the 16th and 17th centuries in England. Even to this day the history of witches remains something of a mystery. Was there really some kind of mythical power that certain women held? Did people truly (successfully) practice the dark arts? Or were the thousands of executions and horrible tortures for nothing? Although certainly a sad and somewhat creepy history - it is an interesting history of a type of people and a major fear of the Tudor and Stuart dynasties.
I hope you enjoyed my Halloween-themed post today! If you're dressing up as an historical figure for Halloween, please send pictures to the Tudor Enthusiast's Facebook page! Be safe, have fun, and enjoy a spooktacular Halloween!