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Witchcraft In Elizabethan England 

Up until the Renaissance, the knowledge of “Wise Women” was not only accepted, but sought out.  These women were seen as an invaluable part of the community. Their knowledge of herbs and plants allowed them to be the medical professionals of their time. 

This knowledge was passed from generation to generation, mother to daughter, or sometimes to an apprentice.  There were no medical texts, it was all taught by oral tradition, and practical experience. This was true Witchcraft in Elizabethan England.

These ‘White’ Witches were set apart from the ‘Black’ Witches who were said to consort with, and get their abilities from the Devil.  Because the Healers helped those in need, they were a valuable asset, and highly respected for their knowledge.

Access to doctors and medicines was minimal.  Woman as part of their housekeeping, were expected to produce the cures for most ailments.  The Wise Women used herbs and plants to create cures.  Common ingredients included St John’s Wort, Monkshood, Mandrake, and even poisonous plants such as Belladonna, and Hemlock.  Those women who were not skilled in herb lore, would go to the Wise Woman and barter for cures when needed. 

Before the Renaissance period, towns and cities were small. Most people lived out in villages, which fed the cities. This also allowed those who practiced herbal remedies to live peaceful and productive lives. 

The reawakening of technology, such as the heavy plow, that helped start the Renaissance, also allowed fewer people to do more work.  Mills became more productive, and people started to get currency as wages instead of livestock or food.

This caused a shift from living mostly in the country, to living in towns or cities.  This was a similar, but smaller shift to the one caused by the Industrial Revolution, some four centuries later. 

Because towns and cities became larger, this gave the Church more influence.  While monks and friars would wander from village to village occasionally, they tended to stay cloistered in their Abby’s, leaving the village folk alone for the most part.

The title page to "A true Relation of the Araignment of Eighteen Witches..." 1645. Image: British LibraryWith the increase in population of the towns, the Church Converted more and more people from the Pagan beliefs of the countryside, to the strict Christian beliefs of the towns and cities. 

The country folk still held fast to their beliefs in the Old Ways, but as the towns and cities grew in size and overtook what were once individual villages those beliefs were dropped or hidden as people were pressured into conforming. 

 If you lived in a village outside town, it wasn’t expected that you would go to church every Sunday. The churches were in the towns and cities, which might be several hours walk away.  Within the towns and cities, it wasn’t just expected, but basically required that each man woman and child attend Sunday Services.

There were other factors which lead to the fall of the Wise Woman from a position of respect, to being the old Hag, who consorted with the Devil.  Johannes Gutenberg introduced his printing press c1436. The first book to be published was the Bible.  No longer was the Bible painstakingly copied letter for letter by monks. Copies could be made quickly and cheaply.

In fact, most literature to be printed this way was religious in nature.  Many of these published materials contained ideas that lead to the intensified Witch Hunts of the 15th and 16th centuries.  While most people still couldn’t read, those who lived in the cities were much more likely to be literate. Even if you can’t read, ideas can be passed the same way Witchcraft had been passed for centuries.  People talk about them.

The printing press, and its ability to mass produce text with new ideas, allowed those ideas to spread much farther and faster than ever before. The Renaissance was a direct result of this technology.

Then there was the Black Death.  The Bubonic Plague struck England in 1349.  The Term “Black Death” wasn’t used until the 19th century.  At the time, it was called “The Great Pestilence”, or “The Great Mortality”.  It was thought to be a punishment from God, for having wandered from His Plan. 

Minorities of all types were singled out and blamed for the pandemic that reduced Europe’s population by up to two thirds what it had been. Jews, foreigners of all types, and especially Witchcraft, in Elizabethan England were blamed.  Witches were especially vulnerable since they were seen to be working magic, and magic was seen as the Devil’s Work.

New renaissance thinking on subjects of Astrology, Alchemy, and Magic, increased awareness of Witchcraft even further, just not always in a positive way.  Treatises on Witches, Witchcraft, and the idea of Witch hunts, increased. 

By the time Elizabeth came to the crown, after her sister Mary, Witches and Wise Women were seen by most as one in the same. Witchcraft in Elizabethan England had taken on the meaning of Devil worship. In 1562 the Elizabethan Witchcraft Act was passed. This legislation outlawed all manner of “Conjuracions Inchauntmentes and Witchecraftes”.

Elizabeth I, was coronated Queen of England in November 1558. People of this time blamed Witches for any event that was unexplainable. Plague had hit England, and the rest of Europe once a generation, for the previous 200 years. Because of the population density in towns and cities, any disease tended to infect much larger numbers of people than in previous eras.  This fact was just not understood at the time. No one knew what germs or bacteria were. No one understood that coughing next to someone could infect that person. All they knew was that entire cities were dead in the wake of The Plague.

Witch feeding her familiars, from "A Rehearsal Both Straung And True, of Fower Notorious Witches" 1579 - Image: British LibraryFear and anger caused the people to find Scapegoats.  Anyone might be blamed as a Witch for failed crops, animals that died, fires, or curdled milk. Almost any excuse was good enough for someone to be accused as a Witch. 

Most of those accused were elderly women.  During this era, women had few rights.  They required a father, brother, husband, or son in order to do anything.  If a woman had no man she could count on to help her, she was considered an outcast. She was a burden to society.

Stories of Familiars, demons or spirits taking animal form, had been around for centuries. Unfortunately, many older women who had been widowed kept animals around the house for company.  This only lent credibility to stories of familiar spirits, especially when these women were overheard talking to their animals.

Out of the 270 Witch trials in Elizabethan England, 247 of those were women, 23 were men.  Those targeted were,

  • Old
  • Poor
  • Unprotected

Single, or widowed women were the easy target.  Any woman who had a man, had some measure of protection.  Women outlive men, and divorce was unheard of (except for the King).  Older widowed women were a natural target. Society was changing.

With Elizabeth’s father breaking from the Roman Church, the Convents had closed.  Famine had dropped the standard of living, there were more poor people.  Poor, unprotected women, with no man to support them, needed the charity of others to survive, and this was resented by those around them who had little to spare.

As the fear of Witches increased in Europe, the Catholic Church added to its definition of Witches, anyone who had the knowledge of herb craft.  The Church had decided that anyone who used herbs or plant for cures only did so through a pact with the Devil, either explicitly, or implicitly.  Possession of such herbs, some of which were psychedelic in effect, could result in execution by burning at the stake in Continental Europe. 

In England, the penalties were less severe.  The Witchcraft Act, passed in 1652 was harsh, but did not define Witchcraft as Heresy.  This meant that Witchcraft trials in England were a matter of State, not a matter of the Church.  Any Witch convicted of murder by Witchcraft was sentenced to death by hanging, not burned at the stake, as in the rest of Europe.

Crimes of lesser nature could result in a Witch being pilloried, but torture was not allowed as a means of interrogation, or punishment.  Since it was the State prosecuting Witches, not the Church, the matter of religion was not involved.

Queen Elizabeth’s attitude toward Witches and Witchcraft was certainly more tolerant than her peers in the rest of Europe.  This may have been because her mother Anne Boleyn, was accused, tried, and executed, as a Witch by her Father, King Henry VIII.  It was common to use abnormal markings, moles or spots, as proof of Witchcraft.  These were known as Devil’s Marks. Anne Boleyn had a prominent mole on her neck, as well as a sixth finger growing from her pinkie. 

Queen Elizabeth was also known to consult John Dee, who was the founder of the Rosicrucian Order, and she had an interest in Astrology. John Dee determined the date of her coronation by Astrology, and the Queen was known to visit Dr. Dee riding on horseback.  These all may be factors in her more tolerant attitude toward Witchcraft in Elizabethan England. 

There is also a legend that the storm that sank the Spanish Armada, was conjured by English Witches.  There is no way to confirm this, but similar stories were circulated after the Battle of Britain, after Hitler gave up the invasion of England.  British Witches were said to have used magick to prevail there also.

So now we have a picture of society during Elizabethan England.  People were superstitious, or perhaps it was simply that they were trying to explain what was to them at the time, unexplainable.  The Bubonic Plague had been recurring every generation for about two centuries.  Cities had begun to grow in size and wealth.  Gutenberg’s press was printing books, allowing ideas to be spread farther and faster than before. Among these books was the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, in 1486.

Women had no rights in this society, at least not unless you happened to be Queen.  They were required to be looked after, and under the protection of men.  Women could not own property, nor could they own livestock. Women who had no one to look after them, were considered a burden to society.  The numbers of poor were also rising, chief among them, the older, widowed women. They were easy targets.

The following list gives details on the first Witch Trials in mid 1500’s Elizabethan England, in Chelmsford, County of Essex.

  13% of assize trials Essex, were for Witchcraft

  • 64 people were accused, 53 were found guilty.
  • Those accused were tried for maleficium, not heresy.
  • Maleficium is the use of diabolical power to cause harm.
  • Torture was not allowed as a means of interrogation, nor punishment.
  • Most of the accused confessed to the charges, even without torture. (At least none that was recorded.)
  • The first of the Chelmsford Witch trials in 1566 was against Elizabeth Frances. She confessed to using a cat named Sathan, as a familiar to harm various people. The cat was given to Agnes Waterhouse, and her daughter Joan. Elizabeth Frances was sentenced to one year in prison, Agnes Waterhouse was hung, and her daughter Joan was found not guilty.
  • Alice Chaundler of Maldon was accused in 1572 of Bewitching Mary Cowper, age eight.  She was also accused of Bewitching Mary’s father Frances, who was a Fletcher, to death, bewitching Robert Briscoe, age 30 his son two, and his daughter five, to death.  Alice was found guilty and hanged. 
  • Five years later, her daughter Ellen Smythe of Malden, was accused at the Assizes of bewitching Susan Webbe, age four, who became sick, then died. Ellen was found guilty, and hung.
  • The second Chelmsford Witch Trial in 1579 also brought charges against Elizabeth Frances, along with several other women. “They were found guilty, and hanged”
  • In 1589 the third Witchcraft Trial was against three women, Joan Prentice, Joan Upney, and Joan Cunny.

“Joane Cunny, liuing very lewdly, hauing two lewde Daughters, no better then naughty packs, had two Bastard Children: beeing both boyes, these two Children were cheefe witnesses, and gaue in great euidence against their Grandam and Mothers, the eldest being about 10. or 12. yeeres of age. Against this Mother Cunny the elder Boye gaue in this euideoce which she herselfe after confessed, that she going to Braintye Market, came to one Harry Finches house, to demaund some drink, his wife being busie and a brewing, tolde her she had no leysure to giue her any. Then Ioane Cunnye went away discontented: and at night Finches wife was greeuously taken in her head, and the next day in her side, and so continued in most horrible paine for the space of a week, and then dyed.”

 Woodcut of the hanging of Joan Cunny 1589 - Image: Wayland Picture Library
Joan Cunny and her two daughters, Margaret, and Avice, from Stisted, Essex, were brought before the Summer Assizes on charges of Witchcraft. The two daughters, having illegitimate children, were most likely seen as outside the norms of Elizabethan society.  Only one to four percent of children of that era were illegitimate.  Joan and Avice were accused of causing people to die by Witchcraft.  Margaret was accused of the lesser two counts of Bewitchment. 

All three women were found guilty.  Joan and Avice were sentenced to hang, while Margaret “got off” with a year in prison, and six appearances in the stocks.  Joan was hanged immediately after trial, but Avice had plead that she was pregnant.  She was found to be pregnant by a jury of Matrons, including Joan Robinson, who had been implicated in 1582 in the St Oysth Witch Trials. Avice was hung the following year, after the birth of her child.

The following timeline describes the events that lead to the Witchcraft Acts, the laws being passed, and to the Elizabethan Witch Trials.

  • 1486 Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), published by James Sprenger and Henry Kramer, two Dominican inquisitors. The book vividly described the Satanic and sexual abominations of witches
  • 1521 - Pope Leo X issues a Papal Bull ensuring that the Religious Courts of the Inquisition would execute those convicted of Witchcraft
  • 1542 King Henry VIII passed the Witchcraft Act against “conjurations and wichescraftes and sorcery and enchantments”. His second wife, Anne Boleyn, was accused of being a witch
  • 1545 The word occult first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary meaning "that which is hidden or is beyond the range of ordinary apprehension and understanding"
  • 1547 Repeal of 1542 Witchcraft Act during the reign of King Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII, who was more liberal in his thinking about Witches and Witchcraft
  • 1562 Elizabethan Witchcraft Act was passed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It was an act 'agaynst Conjuracions Inchauntmentes and Witchecraftes'.
  • 1566 The Chelmsford Witches. The first Witch Trial to appear in a secular court in England resulting in a series of Witch Trials in Chelmsford, Essex. The first woman to be hanged for witchcraft was Agnes Waterhouse
  • The Agnes Waterhouse trial in Chelmsford produced the first Chapbook relating to witchcraft
  • 1579 The Windsor witch trials
  • 1579 The second Chelmsford witch trials
  • 1582 St. Osyth Witches of Essex (the case was tried at Chelmsford)
  • 1584 “The Discoverie of Witchcraft” was published by Reginald Scot following the Chelmsford witch trials. Reginald Scot argued that witches might not exist
  • 1587 Clergyman George Gifford publishes “A Discourse Concerning the Subtle Practices of Devils by Witches and Sorcerers”
  • 1589 The Third Chelmsford witch trials
  • 1593 The trial of the Warboys witches of Huntingdon
  • 1593 George Gifford published “A Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcraftes”
  • 1597 Publication of Demonology by James VI of Scotland (later James I of England)
  • 1604 James I released his statute against witchcraft, in which he wrote that they were "loathe to confess without torture."

If you would like to learn more about Traditional British Witchcraft, what it is, how it works, and how it differs from Wicca, a friend of mine has published a course book called The Journey To Trad Witchcraft.  

This 149 page book contains information about Traditional British Witchcraft that you simply cannot get anywhere else. This is not Wicca, it is what Wicca was derived from.

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