Monday 9 March 2020

#HistoricalRomance author, Catherine Meyrick is taking a look at Witchcraft Trials in Early Modern England. There is also a chance to check out Catherine's fabulous book —The Bridled Tongue. @cameyrick1

Witchcraft Trials in Early Modern England
By Catherine Meyrick

‘The early-modern European witch-hunts were neither orchestrated massacres nor spontaneous pogroms. Alleged witches were not rounded up at night and summarily killed extra-judicially or lynched as the victims of mob justice. They were executed after trial and conviction with full legal process.’
Gregory J Durston
Crimen exceptum (2019) p.14

Across Europe, from the fifteenth through to the eighteenth century, thousands of people, women mainly, were tried and often executed for witchcraft. The treatment of accusations varied from place to place depending on the local legal process, even within the British Isles. England had around 500 executions over the period covered by the Witchcraft Acts while in Scotland more than 1,500 of those accused were executed; Wales and Ireland had few cases as personal setbacks were more often ascribed to fairies or the little people than to witches.
Prior to the first English witchcraft Act of 1542, most cases of witchcraft and sorcery were dealt with by ecclesiastical courts; such cases were infrequent and punishments were usually penances. Occasionally serious cases did occur such as that of Margery Jourdemayne, tried for treasonable witchcraft in 1441. She felt the full weight of the secular court and was burnt at the stake, the usual punishment for women convicted of treason. Burning was reserved for the crimes of heresy and, for women, for both high and petty treason (the murder of either a husband, or a master or mistress).

The 1542 Act defined witchcraft as a felony, a crime punishable by death at the first offence and forfeiture of goods and chattels. Few, if any, were prosecuted under this Act which was repealed in 1547. It was replaced in 1563 by An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts which prescribed the death penalty for invoking evil spirits or using witchcraft to bring about death. A first offence of using witchcraft to otherwise harm people or property, to find treasure or lost or stolen items, or to provoke a person to unlawful love earnt a year’s imprisonment and six hours in the pillory on market day four times in that year. Second offences could receive the death penalty. The 1604 Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits extended the death penalty to those using witchcraft to harm people in any way as well as introducing it for the new crimes of covenanting with evil spirits and taking up the dead from graves for use in witchcraft.
Accusations of witchcraft often arose from ‘misfortune following anger’—an old woman reputed to be a witch requested charity of a neighbour, the neighbour refused, the old woman became angry and threatened the neighbour. Not long after the neighbour, a family member or even some of their livestock fell inexplicably ill or suffered some other misfortune. Cause and effect were clear.
The legal process began when the person believing him or herself to be the victim of witchcraft took their complaint to a Justice of the Peace(JP). Other neighbours then came forward with more complaints, some years old. The accused was brought before the JP who examined both accused and witnesses and recorded their statements. The accused was strongly encouraged to confess.
After taking the depositions, the JP decided whether the case should be dismissed or the accused should be indicted and committed to gaol or, in rare occasions, bailed. Depending on the timing of the accusation and indictment, those accused could spend months in gaol awaiting trial, some dying before trial as a result of the harsh conditions and the spread of typhus.
Various tests developed over the period to determine if the accused was, in fact, a witch. Apart from a witch’s confession or identification by another known witch, the inability to say the Lord’s Prayer without mistake, or to only be able to say it in Latin, were considered strong proofs. Respectable women, often midwives, were brought in to search the accused for a mark or growth anywhere upon her body that could be considered to be an extra teat used to suckle her familiar spirits. These familiars were small creatures such as cats, rats, dogs, ferrets, birds, frogs and toads believed to assist a witch in her magic. Depending on the zeal of the women searching, even conditions such as haemorrhoids might be considered a teat. A common test throughout the whole period of the operation of the witchcraft Acts was scratching. A person afflicted by a witch’s magic scratched the suspected witch and drew blood; if this brought relief, the woman scratched was obviously a witch. Witches were also believed to have a place, or mark, on their bodies that was insensitive and did not bleed when pricked with a needle. Witch pricking was common in Scotland but appears not to have been used in England until the reign of James I. Swimming involved throwing an accused witch into a body of water in the belief that if she sank she was innocent, if she floated it was proof she was a witch. With origins in the disused trial by ordeal, swimming was not used in witchcraft cases in sixteenth century England but reappeared in the seventeenth with the first reported incidence at Northampton in 1612.

Those accused of capital witchcraft were usually tried at the Assizes. Once the Assizes opened, a Grand Jury was called comprising persons of higher social standing and education than those who sat as petty jurors in the trial itself. The Grand Jury received the bills of indictment and examined prosecution witnesses for each case to determine whether there were sufficient grounds to put the accused on trial. If the majority considered the evidence sufficient, the case went to trial.
The accused was brought into court manacled. Despite having, under pressure, confessed her guilt to the JP, most accused witches pleaded not guilty at trial. The examinations taken by the JP were read out in court and evidence heard from the victim, if living, or a member of the victim’s family. Others, including the JP and the women involved in the search for the witch’s teat, provided supporting evidence. The accused rarely called her own witnesses, and was usually unrepresented. The progress of the case involved disputation between the accused and the accuser and witnesses. Hearsay was permitted and judges were interventionist, asking questions and involving themselves to a degree that would be considered improper today.
Records no longer exist for all counties but in the period 1570-1609 at the Assizes of the Home Circuit 24% of witchcraft accusations resulted in execution, a similar rate to other capital crimes. Only 44% of those accused of witchcraft are recorded as having suffered punishment of any sort. The conviction rate for witchcraft offences actually declined under the 1604 Act, possibly due to the higher level of proof required. The glaring exception was the activities of Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General, and John Stearne freelancing in East Anglia during the upheaval of the Civil War.
Those found guilty of causing death by witchcraft were hanged, the same penalty as for murder by any other means, unless that murder was high or petty treason where the penalty was burning. The body of the executed ‘witch’ was then buried in unconsecrated ground. A fortunate few were granted a special royal pardon. During her reign Elizabeth I granted thirty-six pardons to people convicted of witchcraft.
In 1736 the 1604 witchcraft Act was repealed but, though the more educated sections of society no longer believed in witches and their ability to do harm, witchcraft beliefs lingered with attempts at swimming occurring as late as the second half of the nineteenth century. Today, even in my sunny corner of the world, some still believe that harm can be done by supernatural means. Notices are regularly placed in local newspapers by those ‘skilled’ at removing the evil eye and curses. Fortunately, the law no longer concerns itself with such matters.
Court of Wards by an unidentified painter. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Title page of Witches Apprehended, Examined, and Executed... (1613) showing a witch being swum. Wellcome Collection  Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The Bridled Tongue

By Catherine Meyrick

England 1586

Death and life are in the power of the tongue.

Alyce Bradley has few choices when her father decides it is time she marry as many refuse to see her as other than the girl she once was—unruly, outspoken and close to her grandmother, a woman suspected of witchcraft.

Thomas Granville, an ambitious privateer, inspires fierce loyalty in those close to him and hatred in those he has crossed. Beyond a large dowry, he is seeking a virtuous and dutiful wife. Neither he nor Alyce expect more from marriage than mutual courtesy and respect.

As the King of Spain launches his great armada and England braces for invasion, Alyce must confront closer dangers from both her own and Thomas’s past, threats that could not only destroy her hopes of love and happiness but her life. And Thomas is powerless to help.

Pick up your copy of

The Bridled Tongue

Catherine Meyrick

Catherine Meyrick is a writer of historical fiction with a particular love of Elizabethan England. Her stories weave fictional characters into the gaps within the historical record—tales of ordinary people who are very much men and women of their time, yet in so many ways like us today.
Although she grew up in regional Victoria, Australia, Catherine has lived all her adult life in Melbourne where she works as a librarian. She has a Master of Arts in history and is also a family history obsessive.
Catherine’s first novel, Forsaking All Other, was the 2018 Gold Medal winner of The Coffee Pot Book Club Historical Romance Book of the Year. She has recently released a second novel, also set in the 16th century England. The Bridled Tongue, this time set against the threat of immanent invasion by the Spanish in 1588. It touches on issues such as arranged marriages, sibling rivalry and jealousy, the dangers of gossip, and the ways the past can reach out and affect the present. The Bridled Tongue is a Coffee Pot Book Club recommended read.

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx