Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy

19/9/2004

Witchcraft in England-The Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries

Witchcraft persecutions really began in England in 1563 with the statute of Elizabeth I, much later than elsewhere in Europe, but did not really become fully developed until the reign of James I.

Various estimates have been given of the number of persons hanged as witches in England during the period of laws against witchcraft ( 1542-1736) but the probable number is around 1,000. The first person definitely known to be hanged for witchcraft in modern times was Agnes Waterhouse at Chelmsford in 1566, the last was Alice Molland at Exeter in 1684. The last person to be found guilty of the crime of witchcraft was in 1712 when Jane Wenham, the Wise Woman of Walkern. She was reprieved.

English witchcraft trials took a different direction from those of Europe. In England there were generally no elements of extreme torture, such as those used by the Inquisition, nor were witches burned at the stake as was the universal practice elsewhere. Under English law burning was the penalty for treason and those witches who were burned in England suffered this fate because they were convicted of the crime of “Petty Treason”, usually for murdering their husbands.

Nor were there mass executions in England such as those in France and Germany. The largest groups in England were nineteen witches hanged at Chelmsford in 1645, and the nine Lancashire witches sent to the gallows in 1612.

Peculiarly English features of witchcraft trials were the concepts of “pricking” to locate the devils mark and the use of “possessed”children as accusers, a feature that was to recur in the Salem trials in America. The relative simplicity of English trials and the absence of many of the satanic features of their continental counterparts was probably due to the absence of a centralised persecuting body such as the Inquisition. In England too there was open debate about, and opposition to, the concept of witchcraft which acted as a restraining influence.

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