Witchcraft is a term that encompasses various beliefs and practices involving the manipulation of natural or supernatural forces, often believed to be for malevolent purposes but in truth this was rarely the case.
Witchcraft has been a part of human history for millennia, but its manifestations and perceptions have varied across cultures and time periods. In this blog post, we will focus on the history of witchcraft in England, from the Anglo-Saxon era to the early modern period.
Witchcraft in Anglo-Saxon England
The earliest evidence of witchcraft in England comes from the Anglo-Saxon period, between the 5th and 11th centuries AD. The Anglo-Saxons had a complex and rich worldview that blended elements of paganism, Christianity, and folklore. They believed in various beings and forces that could affect human life, such as gods, spirits, elves, dwarves, giants, dragons, and witches.
The Old English word for witchcraft was wiċċecræft, which literally means “the craft of the wise”. Witches were seen as people who had special knowledge and skills to manipulate natural or supernatural phenomena, such as weather, health, fertility, luck, and curses. Some witches were respected and sought after for their healing abilities or divination skills, while others were feared and shunned for their harmful magic or association with evil beings.
There are few surviving sources that describe the beliefs and practices of Anglo-Saxon witchcraft in detail. Most of what we know comes from laws, penitentials, homilies, and charms that either condemn or prescribe certain forms of magic. For example, the Laws of King Alfred (9th century) prohibit the use of witchcraft to cause death or harm to humans or animals, while the Lacnunga (10th-11th century) is a collection of medical and magical remedies for various ailments.
One of the most famous examples of Anglo-Saxon witchcraft is the story of Ælfthryth, the wife of King Edgar (959-975). According to the chronicler William of Malmesbury (12th century), Ælfthryth was accused of murdering her stepson Edward the Martyr by offering him a poisoned cup at Corfe Castle in 978. William claims that Ælfthryth was skilled in witchcraft and learned her art from a woman named Wulfrun, who was also suspected of killing her husband by magic.
Witchcraft in Medieval and Early Modern England
The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought significant changes to the social, political, and religious landscape of England. The Norman kings and nobles imposed their feudal system and their version of Christianity on the Anglo-Saxon population. The Church became more powerful and influential, it feared the hold pagan beliefs had on the common folk and sought to eradicate any traces of paganism or heresy among its flock. Witchcraft was increasingly seen as a threat to the Christian faith and as a sign of diabolical influence. It was here the negative propaganda against witchcraft really began to gain traction and the false impression of those practising witchcraft as devil worshipping disciples of evil really began. These erroneous misconceptions remain, even today.
The first law against witchcraft in England was enacted in 1542 under Henry VIII, but it was repealed five years later. The law was reinstated in 1562 under Elizabeth I, making witchcraft a felony punishable by death. The law was further revised in 1604 under James I, who had a personal interest in witch-hunting since his involvement in the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland in 1590.
The peak of witch-hunting in England occurred between the late 16th and mid-17th centuries, coinciding with periods of social unrest, political turmoil, religious conflict, and economic hardship. Thousands of people, mostly women, were accused of witchcraft by their neighbours or authorities, often on flimsy or fabricated evidence. The accusations typically involved harming people or animals by curses or spells, having familiars (animal companions) that aided their magic, or making pacts with the Devil.
The most notorious witch-hunter in England was Matthew Hopkins, who styled himself as the Witchfinder General. Between 1644 and 1647, he and his associates travelled across East Anglia, interrogating, torturing, and executing hundreds of suspected witches.
Hopkins used various methods to identify witches, such as searching for witches’ marks (moles, scars, or birthmarks) on their bodies, forcing them to recite the Lord’s Prayer without mistakes, or subjecting them to the ordeal of water (throwing them into a pond to see if they sank or floated – sadly they were only believed to be innocent if they sank).
One of the most famous witch trials in English history was that of the Pendle witches in 1612. Twelve people from Pendle Hill in Lancashire were charged with murdering ten people by witchcraft. One of them died in prison, one was acquitted and ten were found guilty and hanged. The trial was based on the confessions and testimonies of some of the accused, who implicated themselves and others in a web of witchcraft and diabolism.
The last person to be executed for witchcraft in England was Alice Molland, who was hanged in Exeter in 1684. The last trial for witchcraft was that of Jane Wenham in 1712, who was accused of bewitching a servant girl and causing her to have fits. She was found guilty by the jury but the judge refused to pass the death sentence and obtained a royal pardon for her. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 repealed the previous laws and replaced them with a new one that treated witchcraft as a form of fraud or delusion rather than a capital crime.
Witchcraft in England has a long and fascinating history that reflects the changing beliefs, values and fears of the people who lived in different times and places. Witchcraft was not always seen as evil or dangerous but as a form of knowledge and power that could be used for good or ill. Witchcraft was also not a monolithic or static phenomenon, but a diverse and dynamic one that adapted to new circumstances and influences.
Witchcraft still exists today in various forms and traditions, such as Wicca, which is a modern pagan religion that draws inspiration from ancient and medieval sources.
© Colin Lawson Books