Your guide to 17th Century Witch Hunts

Written by InFocus History

This article will explore the phenomenon of witch hunting in 17th century Britain. Of course, the belief in witchcraft and the subsequent persecution of so called 'witches' cannot be confined to the 1600s nor something unique to the British Isles either. Across Europe, roughly 50,000 men and women were executed for witchcraft between 1500 and 1800 and in some corners of the world witch hunts continue to this day.

Widescale witch trials became more common towards the end of the 16th-century and the early 17th-century, cases rose particularly with the succession of King James I to the English throne in 1603.

King James I of England

King James had shown a great interest in witch trials. A religious man, James was fearful of the biblical warnings against witchcraft and used religious teachings to back up the wave of terror that was about to ensue around the country.

It is thought that James was inspired by the Copenhagen witch trials in 1589. These witch trials prompted him to begin his own campaign in his native land (Scotland) just a year later, these became known as the Berwick witch trials. When James succeeded to the English throne in 1603, James ensured that witch finding was high on the agenda in his new kingdoms. The English Witchcraft Act was amended and strengthened in 1604.

Yet the phenonium was to continue into the Civil War era. Apocalyptic omens prompted a secondary spout in witch detection and it is now widely assumed that witch hunting reached its zenith during the English Civil War of the 1640s and the Puritan era of the 1650s. This was a period of relentless interrogation.

'James I England' Attributed to John de Critz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Top Tips for Identifying a Witch

But how exactly did one identify a witch in the 17th century? Take a look at some of the top tips for identifying a witch below!

  1. Wrinkles! Reverend John Gaule (speaking in the 1640s) insists that ‘every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furr’d brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue is not only suspected, but pronounced for a witch.’

  2. Identify which of the locals can’t swim. It is well known that water rejects the wickedness of a witch as said in the King’s (James I of England) own book Daemonologie!

  3. Listen out in church! Due to a witch’s inherent wickedness, they will be unable to recite scripture. Jane Wenham failed to recite the Lords Prayer despite several attempts and was subsequently sentenced to death.

  4. Look out for any moles, skin discolouration, or scars on the skin. When entering into a pact with the Devil, witches are branded. This mark could be concealed anywhere on the body but is easily identified by a pin prick – real witches will not bleed!

  5. Do you know of any crazy cat ladies around town? Witches are often assisted by their pets, toads, cats and hares were common choices, with snakes and black dogs also reported. Agnes Waterhouse was convicted of witchcraft after it was discovered that she had urged her cat to kill her neighbours pigs and cows!

Image of witches being hanged, from Ralph Gardiner, ''England's Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade'', 1655. Source = Published in ''A New History of Witchcraft'' by Brooks and Alexander (2007)

Extra Reading

Kings, monks and Inquisitors alike wrote down their collective 'knowledge' on defeating the maleficent forces of Satan so that regular folk were better suited to deal with witches. James I was inspired to write 'Daemonology' following a powerful storm which forced the King to shelter in Norway following a trip from Copenhagen to meet his new bride, Anne of Denmark. The storm, which was said to have been caused by witchcraft sparked an interest in witch hunting within the King.

The first section of this book is on magic and necromancy the second on witchcraft and sorcery and the third on spirits and spectres. This work inspired Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, aiding his hunts which later inspired Shakespeare's Macbeth.

The second, and older text that inspired many was The Malleus Maleficarum, the so called bible for witch hunting. This seminal text was written between 1486 and 1487 by two German Dominican Monks, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. Since then, the text has been widely distributed, thanks largely to the Gutenberg printing press.

The key lessons from this book are that:

  • Witches are very real, to deny their existence is heresy.

  • Regardless of their character, anyone can testify against witches.

  • Torture is sanctioned as a means of securing confessions.

  • Lay and secular authorities are called upon to assist the inquisitors in the task of exterminating those whom Satan has enlisted in his cause.

Trial and Torture

Few things provided more entertainment than a local witch trial in 17th century Britain. Just as the execution of a witch was entertaining so was the use of torture which was often used to coerce a confession from these poor victims.

The use of torture in these trials increased following the papal declaration of 1468 (where it was declared that all legal limits on the application of torture were to be removed if evidence of witchcraft was difficult to find in the first instance).

The methods of torture were thought to vary depending on location. Some suspects were subjected to water torture, others to public humiliation and so forth. Depriving witches of sleep for example, first originated in Italy and has had such high success rates that the English too started to implement it. If you were really lucky you might also catch the name of an alleged co-conspirator - which would guarantee that the excitement would continue for months!

Note that the use of torture in England was only permitted when authorised by the monarch (only 80 of these warrants were issued throughout English history). Those that were disappointed by the infrequent use of torture were recommended to visit the Continent or to Scotland.

Condemnation and Legislation

Those who were found guilty were sentenced under the Witchcraft Act - this legislation was reformed in 1604 to also incriminate those who were guilty of making a pact with the devil, as well as those who were responsible for sorcery.

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 made it a crime for a person to claim that any human being had magical powers or was guilty of practising sorcery. The law abolished the hunting and executions of witches in Great Britain. The maximum penalty set out by the Act was a year's imprisonment.

Burning of three "witches" in Baden, Switzerland (1585), by Johann Jakob Wick

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