ScotWars - Scottish Military History and Re-enactment
Article on 17th Century Witchcraft
by Janet Lacey.
This is part of a compilation of articles that have appeared in the "Mercurius Politicus", which is the Regimental newsletter of Sgt. Maj. Gen. James Carr, hys Regiment of Foote. Carr's Regiment are the oldest continuing Parliamentarian Regiment in the Sealed Knot. The "Mercurius Politicus" has been issued for over 25 years. Further details can be obtained from the Editor, Pete Minall 100544, Full credit is given to both the author, Janet Lacey and to the Mercurius Politicus.



In order to keep in with our beloved Editor and to pass a couple of empty hours (unusually) one evening, I came up with the idea of writing an article on witchcraft in the seventeenth century. I decided to do a bit of research and found after a few months (on and off) of ploughing through my books, I had enough for a series of articles instead of just one. Hopefully, these will be of interest to you and will put me in good standing with our Editor.

I would like to put into writing a couple of points which may sound daft but I feel need to be said. First, reading these articles will not turn you or your children into Satanists. I believe that this is a nineteenth century invention and so has no real connection with the madness that prevailed in earlier centuries. Secondly, I am not including instructions on how to become a witch. What I am concentrating on is an historical fact which is over 300 years old. It happened, but like slavery, it is a subject that is considered taboo. However, I feel it is time to bring it out into the open. Having said this though if you really don't want to read more, then don't.

Despite the amount of information held in what follows, it is based on a very limited library on the subject. For this reason, I would point out that some could be wrong or not fully explored or explained. Obviously there is far more available in other books as well as other views on the subject. Also, it would appear that there is still a lot of research into original documents that has yet to be carried out and put into print. This really is the tip of the tip of the iceberg.So how do we see a witch? A hag, 'old, lame, blear eyed, pale, foul and full of wrinkles, pretty comprehensive really, and not unlike her portrayal today, yet this description comes from Reginald Scot, who wrote at the end of the sixteenth century. Despite the majority view at the time, there were those few voices of reason, and Reginald Scot was one of them. We all see the witch as an old woman and, probably, this was the case. However, men, women and children were accused, tried and executed. They could be poor or middleclass or rich. It touched everyone no matter what their background. Despite the general belief today, they were usually hanged, burning only being employed as a means of despatch when treason was involved (except Scotland). Many died inprison, long before they felt the hangmans noose. In these articles, I will be attempting to give a brief overall view, including an insight into who was seen as being a "witch", the practices she may have undertaken and the society in which she lived. There are the effects of the law and the Church on the basic accusation or "crime" and the writers from the period when the witch craze was at it's height. The trials are interesting and theses are looked at generally and in some cases are included as an insight, including the infamous Pendle one of 1612. There were the frauds that helped many to see that this madness was just that - a make believe. Finally, there is the declineof the madness. It took a long time, but finally the voice of reason prevailed and people sropped the suffering of many innocents. By the end of the series, I hope I willhave dispelled a few myths and a clearer picture will have replaced them. Before I finish this introduction, however, a small taste of the period that may interest you, especiallyas it occurs during the Civil War.

In 1643, the Parliamentarian army, under the command of the Earl of Essex, was camped at Newbury. Some soldiers saw a woman apparantly walking on water, however, "they could perceive there was a planck or deal overshadowed with a little shallow water, that she stood upon... turning and winding it which way she pleased". No doubt she was a local going about her business as she must have so many times before. She was seized, pronounced a witch and the soldiers decided to shoot her, which is when the story takes a turn into the silly. It seems that she was not to be killed so easily for "with a deriding and loud laughter at them, she caught their bullets in her hands and chewed them". One soldier then took it upon himself to slash her forehead "as sure method to counteract sorcery and discharged the pistol underneath her ear, at which she straight sunk down and died".

A common practise in the seventeenth century was the issue of pamphlets which can be seen as the forerunners of modern newspapers. They reported all sorts of events from local to national interest. One such pamphlet was printed giving the above story. It was issued in 1643 by John Hammond, under the title "A Most Certain, Strange and true Discovery of a Witch". The spelling incidentally is original (note that the word "true" is the only one without a capitalised beginning! - ED) The title page continued with "Being taken by some of the Parliament forces as she was standing on a small planck board and sayling it over the River of Newburys".

I can only say that it is an odd little story and one of many I came across in the course of my research. It has a mixture of fact and fantasy which seems typical. Perhaps the soldiers actually made a mistake, thinking that she floated on the water unaided and only discovered the "planck" after she was dead. It would therefore be convenient to invent her reaction to the bullets. However, we have only the pamphlet to go on and it is not clear if this is an eye witness account. After this time, the truth, the real truth, is lost, no doubt forever!

The history of witchcraft in Britain is decidedly different to that in Europe. Trials here held aspects that were either rare in European cases or did not exist there at all. What follows is a closer look at the way witchcraft played it's part in the individual areas of Britain.


The first to be considered are the Channel Islands. Although politically British, their proximity to France caused their handling of the situation to be decidedly French and the people probably suffered more. Convictions in the islands were high and it would seem that Guernsey was the more fanatical. Torture to extract confessions were common, even after the sentence of death had been passed. To top this, the death sentence was always burning, typical of the European execution practice.


Ireland had a comparitively easy time with only about half a dozen cases between 1324 and 1711, the dates of the first and last trials. Except for the first, they were all Protestants by Protestants. Burning here was reserved for heretics. The first Irish trial was directed against Lady Alice Kytler by Bishop Richard de Ledrede, a Franciscan, who had trained in France. She was, at this time, married to her fourth husband who had become suddenly ill. It appears that her step children from her marriages disliked both her and her son from her first marriage, William Outlaw. There were a variety of charges lodged against her and her son, which very obviously reflected European influences probably from the Bishop. After a battle of sorts between Lady Alice and the Bishop, she returned to England, leaving her son in prison. Meanwhile, her maid was used as a scapegoat. She was flogged six times, before confessing to anything, was excommunicated then burned alive on January 3rd 1324 in Kilkenny.

The last Irish trial was on 31st March 1711 at Carrickfergus, lasting from 6am 'till 2pm. A girl had accused certain women of giving her fits and thus being witches. The women attended church regularly and could repeat the Lord's Prayer perfectly, which would normally have ruled them out as witches. However, the two judges disagreed about their innocence and the jury declared them guilty. Their punishment was a year in prison and four appearances in the stocks emphasising the change in punishment over the centuries.


Wales seems to have totally escaped the witch persecutions. Christianity was slow to spread through the country so the doctrines of the church had less of an influence there. When William took the country in 1066, Wales was not parcelled out as England was, and clear borders between the countries were established. The border Lords gradually took more land from Wales and feudalism lasted longer than in England. In the Thirteenth Century the Black Death decimated the population leaving isolated pockets of occupation. Also there were fewer monasteries giving food, shelter and medicine to those who needed it, the cunning folk or white witches were, therefore, far more important in a Welsh community than in it's English counterpart.

The Roman Catholic faith held sway in Wales even after Henry VIII had passed his two Acts of Union in 1536 and 1542, something that the Welsh had asked for themselves. During Elizabeth's reign, a Welsh Bible was printed but there were omissions and mistranslations due to the nature of the Welsh language. For example, the word "gwrach" which in English means "an old woman" or a "hag", was used instead of "witch". To the English, sorcerors were were seen as evil beings but were seen by the Welsh as benign figures, like that of Merlin. Thus the influence of the English translations did not exist in Wales, even when English words were added, to fill the gaps.


Scotland, no doubt due to it's ties with France in particular, seems to have taken a very tough line. As early as the Sixth Century, it was law to burn anyone accused of witchcraft or it's associated practices. Mary, Queen of Scots, had spent many years in France and therefore it was these influences that she brought back on her return to her native country. Combined with this, was the Protestant threat, so the Act of 1653 was passed. In this Act, the crime of witchcraft warranted the death penalty as it was heretical. Burning was once again the method of execution.

Her son, James VI, was a strong Calvinist, and if anything, the Protestant influence on the crime was harsher than ever. It has to be remembered that James himself had been the subject of bewitchment when the North Berwick witches had apparantly attempted to shipwreck him on his return to Scotland with his bride. This had induced him to deal harshly with such accusations allowing torture to be used to obtain confessions. He even wrote a book, the "Demonologie", decrying witches out of hand. However, after his succession to the English throne, his attitudes were to change quitedramatically, almost to the point of disbelief.


From before the Norman conquest, the witch had a relatively easy time in England. The major penalty for bewitching someone, when death was not involved, seems to have been a pennance at best through to banishment at worst. Only when the crime involved the death of the victim, did the death penalty raise it's ugly head. The witches could opt to undertake trial by ordeal. There were a variety that included that by fire, where burns had to heal quickly, and water, the forerunnerof the later "swimming". Another involved the swallowing of a piece of bread or a specially made cake and, if the accused choked, then he/she was guilty. It is said that this is how the Earl Godwin died.

During the Middle Ages, the main witchcraft accusations and trials which involved the death penalty were made at the Nobility. In 1324, twenty seven were charged at Coventry with employing two necromancers to murder Edward I In England the church was losing it's control over so many areas and this was the first secular witchcraft trial, all previous ones having been ecclesiastical. In later years other notables such as Eleanor Cobham, the Duchess of Gloucester, (Henry VI), the Duke of Bedford (1748) and Morton and Richmond (1483) were acused of witchcraft and sorcery or employing a witch to help in the killing of the ruling monarch. All such cases had political overtones and were therefore treasonous, a greater crime than witchraft.Henry VIII introduced a Statute in 1542 which was the first bill against witchcraft in modern England. It covered such practices as divination for precious metals, simple maleficia, sympathetic magic (ie, the use of waxen images) or the use of rings or bottles to find buried treasure. There was no mention of a pact with the devil, and white witches seem to have been exempt. However, it did make all crimes connected with witchcraft, whether major or minor, into felonies and therefore punishable by death.

Henry was one of the many who used the crimes as a means to his own ends. Anne Boleyn and Wolsey were two who suffered from such accusations, during his reign. Yet Henry's son, Edward VI, changed all this by passing a general bill which repealed the earlier statutes. Wilful killing by poison remained a felony but predicting the Monarch's death no longer carried the death penalty.Mary I, concentrated more on Protestants than witches, so nothing significant happened during her reign. Under Elizabeth, however, a new interest grew and in December 1547, a statute was introduced that returned to Henry's earlier bill. It was welcomed by many and included the death sentence for murder and sorcery. Imprisonment covered non fatal witchcraft and searching for treasure, whilst a second offence, for divination, attempted murder, or unlawful love, meant that the perpatrators property was forfeit. Although it included the devil as a factor, witches had to face their accusers and some attempt was made to sift the charges against them.

So we return to James VI of Scotland and I of England. Due to his earlier brushes, James was definately anti-witch when he came to the English throne. He ensured that his book was published here quite soon and had another statute passed in 1604 which emphasised the pact with the devil. Both the book and the statute were used in later trials bringing in harsher penalties for a wider range of malefica. In the statute at least, he was backed by some of the most learned men in England, like the Earl of Northumberland, the Bishop of Lincoln and the Attorney General.

Despite the influence of these and others, a more sceptical attitude crept through the court during James' reign. His personal physician, Dr Harvey and Francis Bacon were just two to whom James listened. Added to this was the fact that James himself became involved in witch trials that were proved false and fraudulent. At first James became indifferent but finally denied witchcraft as he had previously seen it. He read a wider range of books on the subject, including those which were more moderate. Perhaps he even read Reginald Scot's work which he had banned in 1603. It is interesting to note that, during the last 9 years of James reign, only 5 executions took place.

The statute remained during Charles's reign but, like his father, Charles saw several fraudulent cases so it was largely ignored. However, it came to the fore once again during the Commonwealth. During the latter half of the Seventeenth Century the interest died due to the changes in society. Finally the statute was repealed in 1736. In Ireland, the earlier statute of 1587 which had remained in force there was repealed in 1821. However, it is still possible for a fortune teller to be prosecuted for pretending to be a witch, even today.

This article is from the Mercurius Politicus, which is the Newsletter of Sgt. Maj. Generalle James Carr, hys Regiment of Foote. Carr's Regiment is one of the oldest Parliamentarian re-enactment Regiments, has been active within the Sealed Knot since 1974.

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