England’s Witch Trials Were Lawful

It might seem like collective madness today, but the mechanisms for trying witches in England were enshrined in law

Shakespeare wrote 'Macbeth,' which features three witches, during James I's reign, which also was the time of some of England's most famous witch trials. Henry Fuseli/Wikimedia Commons

While witch trials might seem like the epitome of collective madness–so much so that modern cases of mob justice are regularly called “witch hunts,” they were surprisingly bound up in the law.

The monarchs of 1600s and 1700s England believed that controlling witchcraft was a way to control the supernatural, writes Malcolm Gaskill for the journal Past & Present. The religious Reformation occasioned by Henry VIII “was widely believed to have unleashed antichristian forces,” Gaskill writes, “such as magicians able to predict, even cause, the death of the monarch.” In an attempt to prove that they had absolute control–even over deciding what did and did not constitute witchcraft–in the 1500s Tudor monarchs enshrined into law provisions establishing witchcraft as being under the purview of the court system that they oversaw. This changed who was seen as a witch and how they were prosecuted over time.

The Witchcraft Act of 1542 was England’s first witchcraft law, enacted during Henry VIII's reign. It established witchcraft as a crime that could be punished by death, and also defined what constituted witchcraft–using invocations or other specifically magical acts to hurt someone, get money, or behave badly towards Christianity. Being a witch–whether or not specific harm was caused to another person–was enough to get you executed.

This law only lasted until 1547, when Henry VIII died. It wasn’t replaced with anything until Elizabeth I’s reign, which began in 1558. In 1563, An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts was passed. It made causing anyone to be “killed or destroyed” by use of witchcraft punishable by death.

“By 1560 there were two stages to criminal prosecution,” writes Gaskill: examination and committal by a Justice of the Peace, followed by arraignment and trial.” 

After Elizabeth I died and her success James I took the throne, though, things really went off the rails. “He passed a new Act that made almost all forms of witchcraft punishable by death,” writes Erin Hillis for Impetus. In 1597, several years before taking the throne, James had written  a book on witchcraft, Daemonologie. When he became king in 1604, he quickly enacted a new law. However, she writes, the conviction rate for witchcraft actually went down under the 1604 law, writes Hillis–likely because one of the other things that law did was outlaw the use of torture to get a confession.

However, like the Tudors before him, James I was using witchcraft law to help remind everyone who was in charge. In the climate of paranoia that shaped his reign, writes Frances Cronin for the BBC, hunting witches (just like hunting Catholic rebels like Guy Fawkes) became “a mandate” for the British.  England’s most infamous witch trials happened during this period–including the trial of the Pendle Witches, which began on this day in 1612.

This trial, writes Cronin, used something James had written in Daemonologie to justify using a child as the prime witness. In other criminal trials of the time, children's testimony would not have been accepted, but James had written that there's an exception for witches. “Children, women and liars can be witnesses over high treason against God,” was used as justification for using nine-year-old Jennet Device as the chief witness in the case. In the end, Device’s testimony convicted her own mother and grandmother as well as eight other people. They were all hanged.

Device’s testimony eventually provided the precedent for using child witnesses in Boston’s Salem witch trials–even though by 1692, the idea of trying someone for witchcraft was dying down in both England and America.

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