In 1664, in Bury St Edmunds, the judge Sir Matthew Hale* – great lawyer but ‘as gullible as the simplest peasant’ concerning witches – had to sit on a case of purported witchcraft. A child had become ill and was taken to a ‘cunning man’, who advised the mother to wrap child in a blanket that had previously been in the chimney and to burn any object that fell out of it. A toad fell out and was immediately thrown into fire, where it exploded. A local woman named Amy Duny was later seen with burns on the arms and body. Nobody doubted what must have happened. Amy was accused of assuming the shape of a toad and bewitching the child. Another child then complained that Amy had visited the house and given him tummy ache. Amy was put on trial. When she touched the children they began to scream, had fits and vomited pins. But observers began to suspect trickery on the part of the accusers. They blindfolded one of the children and got somebody else to touch her. The girl still screamed. It was clearly a fabrication. But Hale condemned Amy to death anyway.
The seventeenth century was a bad time to be accused of being a witch. The Middle Ages had been relatively benign – at least in England. The church had not, of course, approved of witchcraft. After all, Exodus xxii 18 stated quite clearly: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. Nobody could say that the Bible celebrated excellence in sorcery. But in practice the punishments handed out were time in the pillory or penance. The first English statute against witchcraft was not until 1547, and that was not strictly enforced. The death penalty was introduced only in 1563.
That began one of the two intensive periods of persecution in England, which reached a peak around 1598-1607. The trial of the Pendle witches, hanged in Lancaster and York in 1612, is one of the best known cases from this first phase of witch persecution. The play Macbeth also dates from this time, Shakespeare pandering to the King James’s fervent belief in sorcery. James strengthened legislation against witchcraft and also wrote a book on Daemonologie, classifying demons into four groups and advocating witch hunting as a good thing.
The reign of Charles I saw a decline in witch trials, but a second wave of persecution occurred in the 1640s, led by Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, who cut a swathe through towns and villages in the eastern counties. Between 1644 and 1647 he and his assistants were responsible for the deaths of about 300 purported witches. It was profitable for Hopkins, who reputedly charged the communities he visited £5 per successful conviction. His methods were the tried and tested ones. On arrival he would make enquiries about who was reputed to practice witchcraft. He would then attempt to obtain a confession by a combination of interrogation, starvation, sleep deprivation (the suspects were walked up and down to keep them awake) and the identification of the Devil’s marks on their person – any strange mole or blemish would qualify. Witches were supposed to have spots where they felt no pain, so the victims would be repeatedly stuck with pins until such a spot was found (or not). Any pet animal which came when called was assumed to be a ‘familiar’ who carried messages to and from the Devil. Suspects could also be ‘swum’ – thrown in a pond, often with their hands and feet tied, to see if they floated, survival proving their guilt. This last seems to have been regarded more a form of entertainment for the village than clear and unambiguous proof. Having been worn down sufficiently to admit their guilt, and finally get some sleep, the now self-confessed witches were encouraged to inform on their neighbours so the whole process could begin again. Evidence was also taken from witnesses though the standard expected was not high. Normally two witnesses are required in court, but since witchcraft was practised in secret and often from a distance, that could not be expected. One contemporary law book stated: ‘half proofs are to be allowed and are good causes for suspicion’.
Though most of those accused were women, men were also convicted, including John Lowes, vicar of Brandesdon in Suffolk. He had made himself unpopular with his parishioners, above all through his defence of a local resident accused of witchcraft. They had tried several times get rid of him. Hopkins presented them with another chance. The chief piece of evidence against Lowes was not untypical of that which led to other convictions – he had given a mother half a crown to pay for the treatment of a sick child and the child had subsequently died. He was hanged in 1645 and insisted on reading the Anglican burial service over himself before his execution.
Hopkins died in 1647. Legend has it that he was himself accused of witchcraft and executed for it, but that is almost certainly wishful thinking. With his death, however, persecution of witches falls away dramatically. Neither the pragmatic Cromwell nor the easy-going Charles II encouraged witch hunts. By the 1660s most judges were sceptical of the existence of witchcraft. The gullible Hales was in this respect becoming the exception. The general public took longer to convince however and often put pressure on the courts convict. Sometimes, justices would give way and hang innocent women, just for a quiet life. One judge argued that it was better for an unjust law to be administered by the courts than for it to be left to the mob. It was not until the end of the century that public opinion swung behind that of the educated elite. The last trial for witchcraft in England was in 1717. The legislation against witchcraft was repealed eighteen years later.
My novel, The Bleak Midwinter, is set in 1668, shortly after the Duny trial. The narrator, John Grey, justice of the peace and lord of the manor of a small Essex village, is firmly of the view that witches are harmless and largely self-deluded. But when ne’er-do-well George Barwell is found murdered in the woods, having been cursed a few days before by the elderly Alice Mardike, the villagers are quick to accuse Alice of consorting with the Devil to bring about his death. For Grey, called in to investigate, this is a simple case of murder, albeit that the victim’s face has been mutilated after death. A lot of people in the village had good reason to want Barwell dead, including Alice’s most vocal accusers. But there is pressure on Grey to stand up for the villagers and condemn Alice. As the innkeeper reminds him, they give him their loyalty and pay their rent to him: ‘God bless you, Master John, they don’t resent that you were born richer than they were and can dress in fine clothes and drink Canary while they dig the frozen soil and drink small beer. They accept that that’s how things are and always will be. They just want you to do right by them in return.’ And that means hanging witches. But Grey insists on sticking to the law and, thereafter, the threats to himself and his family become more ominous. He is reassured by the fact that the authorities in London will support him, but then there is a snowstorm and the village is cut off from the outside world. Either he must find the real killer by Christmas Eve or hand Alice over to mob justice. And there’s a good pond for swimming witches right there in the village. You just need to break the ice.
As I note in the book, what made the persecution of witches so easy, at least for a while, was the willingness to set aside the normal rules for prosecution; the desire to believe the victims at all cost, however weak the evidence; the danger of speaking out against the accusers and the willingness of the authorities to go along with the prejudices of the mob. Once the juggernaut had been set rolling, the only safe thing to do was to travel in the same direction until, as all these things do, it lost momentum and ground to a halt.
But the fact that all things will pass should make us no less angry at the time – then or now.
*No relation of Supreme Court judge Lady Hale – or not that I know of.
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Note from Deborah: I am thoroughly enjoying this witty mystery, review coming soon!