On Friday 26th October, we are taking the Ashmolean Museum back to a dark period of English history as we conduct a 17th Century witch trial as part of the critically-acclaimed Spellbound exhibition. But although Matthew Hopkins, the notorious ‘Witchfinder General’ is undoubtedly the most famous witch-hunter, he was by no means alone.
The practice was relatively rare in England and most accusations were dealt with by Justices of the Peace through the civil courts, but during the English Civil War and other periods of political and economic disruption there were always those willing to hire out their services to those who feared there were witches in their midst.
Who were some of the other witchfinders of the British Isles?
Stearne (c. 1610–1670) was Matthew Hopkins’ associate but is often overlooked in favour of the dark foreboding figure of the ‘Witchfinder General’ – yet it was he who helped, more than any other, to put and sustain Hopkins onto his malign path. A member of the gentry from Lawshall near Bury St Edmunds, his accusations helped bring about the execution of 15 ‘witches’ at Chelmsford in July 1645 and he then travelled and worked with Hopkins as they made their way through East Anglia, exploiting existing animosities in communities that were economically strained and emotionally overwrought. How much Stearne believed in what he was doing is open to interpretation, but both he and Hopkins were not cheap – the town of Ipswich had a levy a special tax to pay for their services. While Hopkins was an opportunist who saw a chance for self-advancement, as a member of the gentry Stearne should probably not have had the same motivation, though he undoubtedly sought the same elevation as Hopkins and it’s worth noting that his later years were packed with acrimonious money troubles. He was also as responsible as Hopkins for bending the truth to suit his mission – when the people of Kimbolton in Huntingdonshire explained that they had searched the body of a “detestable wretch” but found no ‘witch marks’, it was Stearne who assured them that the Devil often taught witches to conceal the marks, especially if forewarned. In The English Civil War: A People’s History, Diane Purkiss says that ‘for John Stearne, the war against witches was another way of fighting the Civil War’ and he was probably heavily influenced by William Perkins’ godly Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, 1608, but also borrowed at length from Richard Bernard’s Guide to Grand Jurymen, 1627. Within a year of the death of Matthew Hopkins in 1647, John Stearne retired to his farm and wrote A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft, in which he attempted to justify their actions.
Although not as famous as Hopkins and Stearne’s reign of terror, the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 are sometimes referred to as the ‘Salem of England’ due to their scale and importance. The trial not only resulted in the execution of ten people, but also set a dangerous precedent in witchcraft cases that would go on to have a lasting influence – before this point, children under the age of 14 were considered unreliable witnesses and their testimonies were not allowed in court. This was overturned by King James, who had an almost obsessive interest in witchcraft, and convictions in this case were secured using the testimony of a nine-year-old Jennet Device. Nowell was a magistrate in Lancashire, a county plagued by both economic hardship and lingering pockets of Roman Catholicism. Nowell heard about a merchant who had allegedly been cursed by an alleged witch, named Demdike, for not selling her pins and he subsequently died. Attempting to earn favour with witch-obsessed King James, Nowell used Jennet Device’s testimony and convicted eleven people of witchcraft, including Jennet’s family members.
Aitken is an unusual addition to this list – accused of witchcraft, she avoided torture and execution and turned witchfinder by claiming to be able to recognise fellowwitches. In the ‘Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597’, Aitken was accused of witchcraft and , to spare her own life, during her confession she claimed to be able to recognise other witches by looking for a special mark in their eyes and told her interrogators she knew of a convention of 2,300 witches in Atholl. As a result, a special commission was formed with the approval of James VI and prosecutors took her from town to town to detect witches, using both her accusations and – in a rare example in Scotland – ‘swimming’ those suspected of witchcraft. Aitken’s short-lived success not only led to the execution of hundreds of women, but also led to imitators such as Anne Ewing. However, in the summer of 1597, a sceptical prosecutor took some of those Aitken had declared guilty and brought them back to her the next day in different clothing – when she declared them innocent, she was exposed as a fraud. Taken back to Fife, she stood trial and admitted she had made everything up. For her crimes, Aitken was burnt at the stake. Her actions, ironically, helped end witch trials in Scotland for 30 years.
Although not a witchfinder per se, John Cotta (1575–1650) was a doctor and leading ‘expert’ on witchcraft. Despite being known for exposing quack doctors and arguing for better medical learning, Cotta was convinced of the existence of witches, sorcerers, and witchcraft and his works influenced many of the witchfinders of the 17th Century thanks to his assertion that eyewitness accounts were sufficient to charge a suspected witch with witchcraft. In his book The Triall of Witch-craft, 1616 he states that witchcraft is beyond human knowledge and that only by conjecture and inference is it possible to understand it. While he warned readers that many suspected witches were really imposters or unwitting agents of the devil, he took it as read that magic was a factor in day-to-day life because many diseases displayed symptoms that could not be understood or did not respond to known remedies. Cotta wrote: ‘Hence as Wítches doe strange and supernaturall workes, and truly vnto reason worthy of wonder; so the Impostor doth things voide of accomptable reason, in shadow, shew, and seeming onely supernaturall, wondred and admired. And hence it commeth to passe, that with vndiscerning mindes, they are sometimes mistaken and confounded one for another.’
Caldwell was notorious cross-dressing witch-hunter and ‘pricker’ active in Morayshire, Scotland, during the 1660s. It was a commonly held belief that a witch would have ‘devil’s marks’ or ‘witch marks’ about her body where animal ‘familiars’ sent by the devil would suckle blood before doing their bidding; witch-pricking involved lancing these marks to see if the accused felt any pain. The practice involved stripping and shaving the victim completely and pushing the pin in repeatedly until the right spot was found. This, however, was a trade for men so Caldwell apparently disguised herself as a man to pursue her career. Her first contract was with the Baillie of Spynie, John Innes, who granted her leave to live in the shire for one year and identify witches for a salary of 6 shillings a day. She went on to wrongly accuse a man called John Hay, an influential court messenger who ordered her arrest. Dickson was accused of witchcraft and interrogated in Edinburgh on 30 August 1662 on the basis of “false accusation, torture, and causing death of innocent people in Moray”. Her true gender was discovered and she was banished to a plantation in Barbados on 4 May 1663, the day her last victim was burned.
It is likely that the impact of Hopkins and Stearne’s activities extended far across East Anglia and, in 1645, there was reported to be a significant number of alleged witches in Suffolk not being put on trial. A routine assize commission was drawn up with Godbold, an MP and Serjeant-at-Arms, as its judge. Parliament, alarmed at the number of ‘confessed witches’ in Suffolk, granted Goldbold special emergency powers – usually deployed against seditious plots and rioters – to try and punish. There may have been as many as 150 accused of witchcraft and a barn had to be used to hold them all. Both Hopkins and Stearne testified at several of the trials, but any witchfinder using the ‘swimming test’ was severely rebuked by Godbold. A first group of two men and 16 women were sentenced to death and after an adjournment caused by the approach of Royalist forces, another fifty were subsequently hanged as witches.
Sir Henry Chauncy
Chauncy (1632 – 1719) was a Hertfordshire lawyer who, at the age of 80, was involved in one of England’s last witch-hunts in 1712. The alleged witch, Jane Wenham, brought a charge of defamation against a farmer after they called her a witch. As the local Justice of the Peace, Chauncy referred the matter to the rector of Walkern and Wenham was awarded a shilling, though advised to be ‘less quarrelsome’. Disappointed with the outcome, it was reported that she had said she would have justice “some other way” and supposedly then bewitched Ann Thorne, a servant at the rectory. Chauncy issued a warrant for her arrest and gave instructions that she be searched for ‘witch marks’. Although no such marks were found, she was tried at the assize court in Hertford where several neighbours claimed they had witnessed her practising witchcraft. When asked to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, she apparently stumbled and subsequently confessed. She was convicted, but the judge set aside her conviction, suspended the death penalty, and sought a royal pardon from Queen Anne. Wenham escaped the hangman’s noose but was removed from her village for her own safety.
Gilbert Geis and Ivan Bunn: A Trial of Witches: A Seventeenth-century Witchcraft Prosecution
Malcolm Gaskill: Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy
Malcolm Gaskill: Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction
Diane Purkiss: The English Civil War – A People’s History