In 1612, a dozen people were accused of using witchcraft to murder ten of their neighbors. Two men and nine women from the Pendle Hill area of Lancashire were eventually brought to trial, and of those eleven, ten were eventually convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. While there were certainly other witch trials in England from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, it was rare for so many people to be tried and tried at the same time, and even more unusual for so many to be sentenced to death. Of the approximately five hundred people executed for witchcraft in England for three hundred years, ten were the Pendle witches. Although one of the defendants, Elizabeth Demdike, has long been known as a witch in the area, it is entirely possible that the allegations that led to a formal indictment and the trial itself were rooted in a feud between Demdike`s family and another local clan. For a fascinating look at the trials, you can read The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancaster, an account of the events of Thomas Potts, the employee of the Lancaster Assizes. Thus, the 1735 law reflected the general trend in Europe, where, after a peak around 1600 and a series of late epidemics in the late 17th century, witch trials quickly subsided after 1700. The last person executed for witchcraft in Britain was Janet Horne in 1727. This law was only valid until 1547, when Henry VIII died. It was not replaced by anything until the reign of Elizabeth I, which began in 1558. In 1563, a law against incantations, enchantments and witchcraft was passed. It made instigation of a person killed or destroyed by witchcraft punishable by death.
After the death of Elizabeth I and her success, James I ascended the throne, but things were really getting better. “He passed a new law punishing almost all forms of witchcraft with death,” Erin Hillis wrote for Impetus. In 1597, a few years before his accession to the throne, James had written a book on witchcraft, demonology. When he became king in 1604, he quickly promulgated a new law. She writes, however, that the conviction rate for witchcraft actually dropped under the 1604 law, Hillis writes, because one of the other things the law did was prohibit the use of torture to extract confessions. It is important to remember that the English phase of the “witch trials” lasted less than three centuries, despite the excessive number of trials in continental Europe. The period from the reign of Henry VIII to the early 1800s was a period of great political, economic and social upheaval in England. The belief in witchcraft, pacts with the devil and supernatural powers – and the need to prosecute those who practiced these things – was an extension of the great changes in the religious and cultural life of the country at the time.
In England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as well as in the British colonies, there have historically been a number of witchcraft laws that governed witchcraft and provided for penalties for its practice, or – in subsequent years – rather for purporting to practice it. It is important to note that the witch laws of 1653 were not the first to appear in the English judicial system. In 1541, King Henry VIII passed a law making witchcraft a crime punishable by death. In 1562, Henry`s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, passed a new law stipulating that witchcraft would only be punishable by death if harm was caused – if no physical harm was inflicted on the alleged victim, the accused only faced imprisonment. In 1563, a law was passed on the “law against incantations, enchantments and witchcraft”, and one of the first major trials under this law took place only three years later at the Chelmsford Assizes. Four women – Elizabeth Frauncis, Lora Wynchester and mother and daughter Agnes and Joan Waterhouse – have been charged. Frauncis told the court that she had been practicing witchcraft since the age of twelve, after learning from her grandmother, and that she fed the devil with her blood in the form of a white cat that she kept in a basket. Agnes Waterhouse had a cat she thought was for a similar purpose – and she even named it Satan. Frauncis was imprisoned, Agnes was hanged and Johanna was found not guilty.
This process is important because this is the first documented case of a witch using a known animal for metaphysical purposes. You can read more in the digital version of a popular pamphlet of the time, The Examination and Confession of Certain Wytches at Chensforde. The monarchs of England in 1600 and 1700 believed that controlling witchcraft was a way to control the supernatural, writes Malcolm Gaskill for Past & Present magazine. It was widely believed that the religious reform unleashed by Henry VIII unleashed anti-Christian forces,” writes Gazkill, “like magicians who may have predicted or even caused the death of the monarch.” In an attempt to prove that they had absolute control – even over what constituted witchcraft and what was not – in the 1500s, Tudor monarchs enshrined in legal provisions that established witchcraft to be within the jurisdiction of the judicial system it overseeed.