The Historical Background of English Witchcraft
Witchcraft has a long, complicated history in England. In comparison to other countries, the hysteria surrounding witchcraft came quite late to England, but prior to the 16th century it was still considered a punishable offence. The Inquisition never had a huge amount of success in English Society as there was denial in the use of torture to obtain a confession. Evidence had to be substantial in cases of maleficia, with confessions needing a large amount of support to be accepted. Henry VIII was the first monarch to introduce a statute to deal with Witchcraft. This was passed in 1542 and only saw one suspect arrested under the Act until it was repealed by Edward VI in 1547. It was Elizabeth I who introduced more substantial legislation in 1543, which seen the beginnings of ‘witch mania’ in England with the cases of the Chelmsford and St Osyth Witch trials.
It was with the 1604 Act introduced by James I that we see a real shift in societal attitudes. This Act is thought to have been the basis for the Salem Witch Trials, and this Act saw the biggest mass execution in this era of hysteria. The 1640’s saw the exasperation of this hysteria with the rise of the infamous ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins. Although torture was outlawed as a means of obtaining a confession, Hopkins used methods such as sleep deprivation, diet restriction and enforced walking to entice an accused witch to confess. Hopkins also stated that pricking and a witch’s mark were substantial evidence of witchcraft. The infamous method of swimming was also used by Hopkins, but this was outlawed in 1645. Victims were overwhelmingly women, usually poor and resented by their communities.
The 1604 Act was finally repealed by George II in 1736, it is thought that at least 1000 people were executed for witchcraft between the years of 1542 and 1736. Although witchcraft was not illegal after this time, communities still accused individuals of practising, including a woman called Ruth Osbourne who was stoned to death by locals in 1751. There have been isolated cases of witchcraft in the last few centuries, with a revival in interest particularly in the last 50 years after Parliament removed the last references to witchcraft in the statute book in 1951.
The archaeological material remaining from the eras of suspected witchcraft and persecution are fascinating pieces of paraphernalia. Between 2018-2019, the Ashmolean Museum held the exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft, which displayed numerous archaeological objects associated with the theme of magic. That exhibition is the inspiration for this blog post, which asked viewers to examine their own beliefs and rituals through the examination of the presented objects. This important aspect in English history should remember its victims by showcasing what material has been left behind. I have chosen five archaeological objects to discuss- a scratch on the surface of the wealth of material available.
- The Discovery of Witches book by Matthew Hopkins, 1647, British Library.
The book written by the infamous ‘Witch-finder General’ described the details of his profession. Hundreds of women were executed during his ‘reign of terror’, and Hopkins was on a mission to destroy the ‘works of the devil’. Hopkins made a substantial sum from his persecution, moving from town to town with his entourage charging for their services. He is thought to be directly responsible for the deaths of 300 women over a two- or three-year period in England, directly taking references of his dogma from King James’ Daemonologie. The Discovery of Witches pamphlet was published in 1647, the same year that Hopkins met his end in unknown circumstances. We can see parallels with this pamphlet and the infamous witch hunting treatise Malleus Maleficarum or The Hammer of the Witches written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger in the 15th Century
- The Reigate Witch Bottle, c. 1685-1720, South London.
The Reigate witch bottle was found buried under a house in South London. It contained urine, nine bent pins into an L-shape, human hair (likely eyelashes), wool and grass. In this example, the stopper was still in place and the bottle itself was made of glass. The use of glass was unusual as most witch bottles from the time in England were durable, brown, and bulbous- usually German-made Bartmann vessels according to MOLA. Most of these types of vessels are found beneath the floor of a house, up a chimney or under a threshold. The purpose of the bottle was to assist against a witch you believe had bewitched you. The bottle contained a ‘prepared cure’ against the witch before being sealed and was sometimes thought to explode once the witch who had bewitched you died. These bottles are a great archaeological example of the hysteria amongst the general population concerning witchcraft. The use of witch bottles in England is thought to have been introduced from the Netherlands, and their use was still quite popular up until the late 19th century (particularly in parts of East Anglia where jam jars of urine were often thrown into fires).
- The ‘Witch Pits’, c.1640- 1970, Cornwall.
Archaeologist Jacqui Wood discovered a series of pits near the Hamlet of Savelock in 2003. The find revealed several pits thought to have been used by local women over numerous generations in Cornwall dating back to a coven in the 1640s and used as recently as the 1970s. The pits contained offerings of birds (notably swans and magpies), animal bones wrapped in twine, eggs, pebbles, claws and even a part of a cauldron. The symbolism associated with the birds and the eggs indicated some sort of fertility ritual that may have been carried out to increase the chance of pregnancy or marriage. The offerings may have coincided with the feast of St Brigid of Kildare (1st February), the Irish Saint of new-born babies and has often been referred to as the first abortionist in Ireland. She also has strong links to the pagan practices associated with Springtime. The finds highlight that witchcraft was still being used by women even in times when it was highly risky, and that it was passed down through the generations, so the traditions were not lost.
- The Deviant Burial of Meg Shelton or the ‘Fylde Hag’, 1705, Lancashire.
In the grounds of St Anne’s Church in Woodplumpton is the grave of Meg Shelton, an accused witch that was thought to use her powers to steal from the locals. The grave consists of a boulder, and it is alleged she was buried under it in a vertical position as to stop her escaping. Accounts state she had crawled out of her grave twice before the boulder was placed on top of her. This is an unusual burial found in England, particularly since it is on consecrated ground. Many accused her of shape shifting into different animals, it was even said she walked with a limp after transforming into a rabbit. She was found crushed to death between a barrel and a wall. The case of Meg highlights the accounts of accusations involving recluse women in local communities. Archaeologically, her grave is an interesting case. The boulder is only three feet by two feet as it is thought her grave was very narrow for her to be buried headfirst, a burial of indignity as well as practicality in the eyes of the accusers.
- Poppet Doll found in South Devon, 1909-13, Displayed for the Spellbound Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
A poppet doll was found in an Edwardian style black dress with a stiletto through the face in South Devon. The doll is quite late in age, dating to the early 20th century, showing witchcraft was still being practised. Poppet dolls were made to represent a person and were used to cast magic against them or to aid them in times of difficulty. The obvious aggressive act depicted in this case shows the poppet was intended to harm the individual, often penetration of the head with a nail or sharp object intended to cause the person to go mad. Poppets or ‘image magic’ were often made from clay, wax, wood or, as with this case, in the form of a rag doll. Some witches were thought to add ingredients such as fresh grave soil, cremated human bones, spiders, or any piece of biological material from the person they intended to target or protect. Pins, nails, or thorns were stuck into the doll to cause harm. Into the heart would cause instant death or the doll being buried in the ground would cause a slow, painful death. In 1960, a poppet dating to the 18th century was found in Hereford in offices. The name Mary Ann Ward was attached to the skirt of the doll.
Dell, C. (2016) The Occult, Witchcraft and Magic: An Illustrated History. Thames and Hudson: London.
Lipscomb, Suzannah (2018). Witchcraft. illus. Martyn Pick. London: Ladybird Books.
Mackay, Christopher S. (2009). The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum (1 volume). Cambridge University Press.
Pickering, D. (1999) Cassell Dictionary of Witchcraft. Brockhampton Press: Great Britain.
Russell, J.B. (1999) A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. Thames and Hudson: London.