Witchcraft has had a fascinating and turbulent history in the UK. Through periods of persecution and prejudice, it has survived to the present day and many people still practise the tradition now.
Originally, witchcraft simply referred to a collection of actions and beliefs associated with healing. It was woven into pagan ideas and many practitioners would have been skilled in the use of different plants and other ingredients as remedies for particular ailments. The services of these people, who were also known as ‘cunning folk’, were enlisted to help protect livestock too. They would speak blessings over the animals.
A change in attitudes
However, from the 7th century onwards, attitudes towards the practise began to change. During the medieval period, fears over so-called ‘black magic’ began to emerge. This referred to the power of witchcraft to bring harm to others. An association was also drawn between witchcraft and the devil.
In 1486, the German clergyman and witch finder Heinrich Kramer wrote a book called Maleus Mallificarum in which he derided witchcraft. The tome, which was commonly referred to as Hammer of the Witches in English, soon outsold every publication in Europe apart from the Bible. In the book, Kramer wrote: “Magicians, who are commonly called witches are thus termed on account of the magnitude of their evil deeds. These are they who by the permission of God disturb the elements, who drive to distraction the minds of men, such as have lost their trust in God, and by the terrible power of their evil spells, without any actual draught or poison, kill human beings.”
One of the central themes of the book was that women were weaker in their Christian faith and were therefore more likely to be seduced by the devil.
Older women were particularly vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft because of the roles they served. For example, they would often look after infants and cook for families. If people sickened and died, these helpers tended to be the first to be accused.
However, it’s important to note that men were also the victims of witch hunts. Around a fifth to a quarter of all those executed as witches were male.
As witchcraft gradually became disassociated from the benign and constructive, the caricatures of witches grew increasingly extreme. These people were often portrayed as older, dishevelled individuals and any blemishes such as moles or warts were said to be teats used to suckle the devil’s imps. Meanwhile, witches were believed to convene with the devil through small real or imagined animals. These creatures were referred to as a witch’s familiar.
A patchy phenomenon
It is thought that during the bloodiest period of witch trials, around 500 executions took place in England and approximately 1,000 occurred in Scotland. However, witch hunting was never a unified national policy. Instead, it was a patchy phenomenon, with witch crazes breaking out in particular communities at certain times.
The effect of the weather
Scholars link a change in climate to the rising unpopularity of witches. From the early 14th century until the mid-19th century, temperatures in Europe dropped and as a result, crop failures became more common. This caused living standards to fall and it increased competition for resources among neighbours.
Seeking answers to these problems and looking to take control over their circumstances, some communities turned on witches.
A skewed perspective
While there are very few records of the benevolent witchcraft that had been going on in communities for many hundreds of years on an informal basis, we do have lots of evidence of the supposed black magic perpetrated by witches during this period of persecution.
Virtually all of the material used in witch trials was anecdotal or based on confessions extracted from the accused while they were subjected to torture. This has given a skewed perspective on the history of witchcraft in the UK.
The rise of anti-witchcraft laws under Henry VIII
There were no laws banning witchcraft in Britain until Henry VIII took to the throne. Then, in 1542, the Witchcraft Act was passed and, under the terms of this legislation, witchcraft was defined as a crime punishable by death. Although this was repealed five years later, it was restored by a new act in 1562.
Meanwhile, under James I of England, a further law was passed in 1604 which transferred the trial of witches from the Church to the ordinary courts.
Notable trials and witch hunts
There were many witchcraft trials in the UK. Among the most well known are the trials of the Pendle witches in 1612. The 12 accused were charged with the murders of ten people by the use of witchcraft. All but two were tried at Lancaster Assizes. One was tried at York Assizes and one died in prison. Of the 11 who appeared in court, ten were found guilty and were sentenced to death by hanging. Only one was found not guilty.
Perhaps the most brutal witch hunt in English history was led by Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne. In 1645, the duo visited the home of 80-year-old Elizabeth Clarke, who they accused of witchcraft. She was deprived of sleep for three days and nights while four women and two men kept watch over her looking for signs of the devil. She eventually confessed to having “carnal relations” with the devil. Elizabeth then implicated other local women in witchcraft crimes and, between 1645 and 1646, more than 100 women were hanged.
The last documented execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1682, but the practice continued in Scotland for longer. In 1697, seven people were sentenced to death in Paisley. The three men and four women were found guilty of committing murder by witchcraft. Six were hanged and burned, while one committed suicide before the sentence was carried out. The trial had been based on the testimony of an 11-year-old girl.
Another interesting case has come to represent the end of the witch trial era. In March 1712, Jane Wenham from the village of Walkern in Hertfordshire stood trial for “conversing familiarly with the Devil in the shape of a cat”. A jury found her guilty and she was sentenced to hang. However, she was pardoned by Queen Anne.
The Enlightenment, which travelled through Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and emphasised the importance of reason, spelled the end of the period of witch trials. The laws against the crime of witchcraft were eventually repealed in 1736.
However, ill-sentiment to those deemed to use black magic did not entirely disappear. In the absence of legal options, communities occasionally took matters into their own hands and attacked suspected witches. For example, in 1808, an angry mob in Cambridgeshire assaulted a young woman named Ann Izzard, who was accused of being a witch. They beat her in the face and stomach with a club and scratched her arms to draw blood.
The distinction between black magic and white magic remains
The connection drawn by the Church between witchcraft and the devil has had an irrevocable effect on the tradition. To this day, people feel the need to draw a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ witchcraft. It is common to hear people describe themselves as white witches in order to dissociate themselves from black magic.
Paganism and witchcraft today
Despite the attacks on witchcraft, these practices have refused to die out. Now, as has been the case throughout the history of the tradition, many of those who consider themselves to be witches identify with the Pagan beliefs. Indeed, witchcraft, or Wicca, is one of the most influential Pagan practices.
In its current form, Wicca emerged publicly in the 1940s. Men who follow this path are initiated as Priests and women as Priestesses. It doesn’t seek converts and initiation is never offered. Instead, it must be asked for and is only given to people who have proved themselves to be suitable.
The Pagan Federation
Unfortunately, many witches are still reluctant to declare their beliefs because of fear of prejudice. However, support is available. For example, the Pagan Federation aims to assist all Pagans and to help ensure they enjoy the same rights as followers of other religions and beliefs. Founded in 1971, it exists to promote a positive profile for Paganism and to provide information on the beliefs to official bodies, the media and the wider community.
Originally, witchcraft and the work of the ‘cunning folk’, with their herbal remedies and blessings, was an integral part of community life.
There is some evidence that a realigning of witchcraft and popular culture may be taking place now. After all, witchcraft and Paganism more generally places a huge emphasis on the importance of nature and the environment, which is something that many individuals and organisations now strongly relate to.