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There have been many horrific tales through history, from gruesome medical practices to bizarre punishments and even some very questionable cleaning habits. Today, as we are in the month of spooky stories, we are looking at the horrific history of Britain’s witch trials.

We’ve all heard about Salem’s witch trials in America, but did you know that Britain and the rest of Europe were pretty prolific in their hunting of witches too? Witch trials are known to have occurred in England as far back as the Middle Ages, though these cases were mostly political and focused on people of a higher social status than those under James I. Two such women who fell foul of the early witch hunts were Eleanor Cobham, the Duchess of Gloucester and Margery Jourdemayne. Eleanor was the second wife of Humphrey the Duke of Gloucester, the youngest son of King Henry IV who acted as Lord Protector for his nephew, the infant King Henry VI. It is alleged that Eleanor sort to see the future by consulting with astrologers who predicted that Henry VI would suffer a life threatening illness. Saying anything of the sort about a monarch was deemed treason, and the astronomers were sentenced as such, but they took Eleanor down with them. Historians and contemporaries at the time believe that the charges against Eleanor were exaggerated to curb the ambitions of her husband. After all, had the infant king died, Humphrey would have been next in line for the throne.

Eleanor couldn’t be put on trial because she sought sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, but she was examined by a panel of religious leaders who extricated a confession that she had purchased potions from a witch, Margery Jourdemayne. They were all found guilty, one of the astronomers died before their execution, another was hung, drawn and quartered and Jourdemayne was burned at the stake. Eleanor was forced to do public penance in London, which involved her walking barefoot to three churches on marked days, was forcibly divorced from her husband and was condemned to life in prison, firstly at Chester Castle, then Kenilworth Castle before being moved to the Isle of Man and then Beaumaris Castle where she died. Unlike Eleanor, Margery was a commoner, so there isn’t as much known about her. We do know that she was married and that her husband’s family were well established in Middlesex. Margery was known as the Witch of Eye Next Westminster and several nobles consulted her for her foresight, including Edmund Beaufort the Duke of Somerset and of allegedly, Eleanor. The incident with Eleanor wasn’t the first time she had been punished for so called witchcraft. Ten years before she served a sentence at Windsor Castle under suspicion of sorcery and was only released on condition of refraining from witchcraft in the future. After being mentioned in Eleanor Cobham’s confession, Margery was arrested and taken to the Tower of London where she was accused of using witchcraft to bring about the death of the king, she was found guilty and was sentenced to death by burning at Smithfield in East London, an area that was commonly used for executions.

It wasn’t until later in Britain’s history that witch hunts became more popular. The bulk of them took place from around the 15th until 18th century and resulted in the death of around 500 people, the majority of which were women. They particularly increased after King James I/VI came to power, he was supposedly very interested in witches and had closely followed the Copenhagen witch trials, leading to him sharpening the English Witchcraft Act of 1604. The act existed in various forms prior to this, the Act of 1542 was introduced and repealed, before returning in 1563 where it resulted in a death penalty for any witchcraft that caused a person’s death, the 1604 Act included death for anyone found to have made a Pact with Satan. This wasn’t something that was as common an accusation as other places in Europe.

Under this act, people sentenced for witchcraft were executed by hanging, an exception was made when the person had committed another crime, they were burned at the stake instead. An example of this was with the case of Mary Lakeland, she was burned at the stake because it was found that she used witchcraft to murder her husband. It is widely believed that the last people executed for witchcraft in England where those accused in the Bideford witch trial, but there is evidence to suggested that Mary Hicks, who was executed in 1716 was the final person executed under the Witchcraft Act. James I was said to have been so interested in witchcraft that he personally supervised the torture of some suspected witches.

As we said, the majority of people found guilty of witchcraft were women, specifically old women who were of a low social class and were deemed to be crone like. Extra suspicion was handed to old women who had a cat. Those accused of witchcraft were subjected to horrific forms of torture, including thumb screws and leg irons that had been heated over a fire. You will have likely heard of the tests where women were drowned with the theory being that if they were able to float they were a witch. Those that were subjected to this would have their left thumb tied to their right toe before being thrown into a body of water, usually a castle moat or something similar. Other forms of torture included making the accused squat in a room while being stared at by witchfinders and being denied food and water, while another was for the accused to be dragged on a long walk with rest only being offered in return for a confession.

Witch hunters and witch fever

The majority of witch trails took place in East Anglia and particularly during the puritan era. The increased suspicion of women brought about the emergence of witch hunters, who would travel around the country sniffing out witches. The most famous of which was Matthew Hopkins, who was known as the Witchfinder General. He was so good at his job that he would receive huge payments for bringing witches to trial, the reason he was so good at it? He would find a “Devil’s Mark” on the suspect, which he would then prick with a fake needle – his theory being that if the woman didn’t flinch, they were a witch. Obviously, the women wouldn’t, so would appear guilty.

Hopkins was known as being particularly ruthless, in one instance, he ordered the hanging of nineteen people in one day while visiting Essex.

It is thought that of the 500 people executed for witchcraft in England, around 200 of them were down to Hopkins’ investigations. There was no rest after death either, after being accused, tortured and then executed, the women’s bodies would then be pinned to their graves with iron rivets.

Notable witches and trials in England

North Berwick Trials of 1590

These were thought to have been directly influenced by trials taking place in Copenhagen around the same time. James I had travelled to Copenhagen to get married and found himself in the midst of a witch trial. On his return, new wife in tow, his ship was caught in an intense storm which he suspected to have been the work of witches, so he launched a tribunal to root out witches throughout England and Scotland. More than 100 people were arrested and the trial ran for over 2 years. Under torture, many of the accused admitted to having to making a pact with the devil, and using witchcraft to attempt to sink the king’s ship.

Northamptonshire Trials of 1612

These trials are believed to have been the driving force behind later trials and was one of the earliest documented cases of “trial by water” to determine guilt. The trial saw five people, four women and one man, being executed for witchcraft, with accusations ranging from bewitching pigs to murder. They were all found guilty and hung at Abingdon.

Arthur Bill, the man who was found guilty, was from a poor family who were rumoured to be into black magic. He was accused after a woman was brutally murdered and the entire family underwent trial by water, however they all floated, which determined their guilt.

Pendle Trials of 1612

This is probably the most infamous of Britain’s witch hunts. The trial would set a precedent in all following legal proceedings surrounding witches. The trial saw 12 people accused of witchcraft, with half of them from two well known local families. One of them, Elizabeth Southern was known for being a local healer who used natural remedies, she had been operating as a healer for over 50 years before being accused of a witch. The accusations came after her granddaughter Alizon Device was present when a pedlar tripped, leading her to become convinced that she had caused the accident because of her magical powers. She approached the pedlar and confessed, begging for his forgiveness. Shortly after this, the whole family and several other people in the area were arrested and confessions began flying around that incriminated others.

Prior to this case, anyone under 14 was considered to be an unreliable witness, however, 9 year old Jennet Device, took the stand and her testimony resulted in ten of the accused being executed.

Allowing children to testify became common after this and would be used in other infamous witch trials. However, karma came for Jennet was accused of witchcraft herself less than 20 years later by a 10 year old.

Pittenweem Trials of 1705

This trial, which took place in Scotland, all came down to a series of accusations made by a 16 year old boy, Patrick Morton. He accused several of his neighbours as being witches, including the wife of the town treasure, who he said was sending him evil thoughts. One of the accused was kept in complete darkness for five months, only being freed to go to the torture chamber, she was eventually freed but would die soon after. Another of the accused starved to death in a dungeon and a third was beaten by the townspeople before being swung from a rope tied between a ship and the shore, stoned and crushed to death under a door piled with rocks. Then just to be certain she was dead, a man ran over her body with his horse and cart several times. She was then thrown into a mass grave.

Though Scotland had a smaller population than England, it actually had over three times the number of prosecutions for witchcraft. The majority of which took place in the lowlands, as there was much more belief in magic in the more rural highland areas. Unlike in England, the divide of men and women who were accused sat at 25% men and 75% women, compared to 10% men and 90% women.

Bideford Trials of 1682

It is believed this was one of the last trials in England. The four accused, Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles and Susannah Edwards from the town of Bideford in Devon, and Alice Molland are often credited with being the last people in England to be executed for witchcraft. They were tried and convicted by a jury before being sentenced to death.

And today…

In Scotland, as recently as 2021, the Scottish parliament decided to clear the names of all those accused of witchcraft around 300 years beforehand. Nicola Sturgeon, who was first minister at the time, apologised to all those who had been accused on behalf of the Scottish Government.

In England, the Witchcraft Act of 1735 made it a crime to claim that any human being had magical powers or was guilty of practicing witchcraft. This law effectively banished the hunting and executions of witches across Great Britain. This law repealed the previous ones and assumed that there were no witches, no one had magical powers and those claiming otherwise were out to extort money. The punishment for accusing someone of witchcraft was a year’s imprisonment. The last threatened use of the act was against a medium in the 1950s, which led to the repeal of the Witchcraft Act 1735. It was then replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951, covering England and Wales, this prohibited anyone from claiming to be a medium, psychic or spiritualist while attempting to deceive and make money from deception, other than the sole purpose of entertainment. It was repealed in 2008 and became part of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations, however five people were prosecuted under it and were convicted.

Stay tuned for more horrific history!




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