The Witch Trail

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The Witch Trail

Until 1542 there were no laws barring the use of witchcraft. In fact, local villagers would seek out soothsayers and those who used herbs to cure both human and animal ailments. Royal families and the like commissioned astrological charts, looking for auspicious dates to go into battle, wed, and even produce a heir. In the witch-hunts that followed, it was usually those rumoured to be using witchcraft that was kept from prison by royal favour. For others, the opposite, especially when royal favour declined.

Alleged witches were put on trial, but not for being a witch. They were accused of using spells to do others harm, and if found guilty, were given prison sentences or put in the pillory or stocks. Certain monarch's were paranoid that witchcraft was being used against them.

In England, a law passing an act against witchcraft in 1542 was repealed five years later in 1547. There are no records of witch hysteria during this period, unlike Europe. The law was reintroduced in 1563 during the reign of Elizabeth I, and the tide of accusations began. Witchcraft being any number of things, whatever gift the devil presented to the practitioner of the black arts.

Those who confessed often did so under torture. There was numerous means of testing a witch. Several areas of the body where pins could be struck where no pain would be felt. The accused were stripped in a belief that they possessed a third nipple from which the devil and his imps could suckle. It was also thought that water, being a life source, would help to detect a witch. A witch placed in water would always float.

The law also made it lucrative for the accuser. The possessions of a tried witch was often passed to the inflicted of their sorcery or the family of a member killed by witchcraft. Most of the accused were female, elderly, and often widowed. Their children and other family members would also come under scrutiny.

Pope John XII lived in fear of witches, that they could curse him. The Dominican Friars saw it as their duty to rid the world of this growing evil. In so doing they persecuted and burned alleged witches. The practice grew to proportions among the villages of the Alps and Pyrennes.

In 1481 Pope Innocent VIII authorised two Dominican monks, Jakob Spenger and Heinrich Kramer to stamp out witchcraft in Germany. Torturing suspected witches, they amassed testimonies that were published in 1487 in the form of "The Hammer of the Witches." They made extravagant claims that were believed around the world. Witches had testified to eating children, flying in the air, and had total control over of the weather. The publication brought about a witch hysteria. The witch-hunts consisted of torture, trial, and execution. Many retracted the statements that were forced from them, but to no avail.


Between 1365 and 1722 there are records of 6,420 witches tried and executed in Europe. This is nowhere near the actual number as records are misplaced or non-existent. And this does not include those who were acquitted, or when the law did not intervene and lynching parties took it upon themselves to meter out their own sentences.

Like England, other countries had their own witch-finders. The archbishop-elector of Trier burned some 368 people found guilty of witchcraft between 1587-1593. During this six year purge he had 133 witches put to death in a single day. Most of them were women as the persecutors seemed obsessed with female lust, orgies, and sexual encounters with the devil and his imps.

At the Abbey of Fulda, Prince Abbot Bathasar von Dernbach supervised the witch-hunts in this area of Germany. Between 1603 and 1605, 205  people were convicted of witchcraft and burnt.

In Germany over the decade of the 1620's the prince-bishopric of Werzburg, Bishop Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg ordered the execution of some 900 people. This included his nephew, 19 priests, and several young children.

When a new emperor was elected in Vienna in 1775, new reforms were made to bring about a new set of civil codes to a more civilised culture. Emperor Josef wanted laws abolished based on superstition. Apart from witchcraft, the marriage between a Christian and other religious sects was legalised. The use of torture to extract confessions was also abolished, but punishments such as flogging, the branding of criminals, and the stocks, remained in use.

Witch-hunting was at its greatest during the time of civil war in England's history. Oliver Cromwell, a pious man, may also have been out for revenge (see the Warboys Witches). Between 1649 - 1658, under Cromwell's tenure 3000-4000 people were killed, most without trial, under the accusations of witchcraft.

The only real anti-witch trial campaign came in 1584. Reginald Scot, having studied demonology then published a book denouncing witchcraft as an illusion. When King James VI of Scotland took the English throne in 1603, he ordered that all copies of Scot's "The Discovery of Witches" be destroyed.

THE FEAR OF THE CURSE

Those accused of witchcraft, but due to their associations, went unpunished, may have irked their enemies. No one stands out more than Sir Francis Drake. Under the protection of Elizabeth I, he was also a national hero.

Another under the protection of Queen Elizabeth was John Dee. He gave the queen auspicious dates for her coronation and drew up her astrological chart with favour. It was not just England, other crown states and officials sought his advice. To some he was a charlatan, using his so-called powers to spy for the English government, which is no doubt feasible.

Sir Walter Raleigh also came under accusation, but his exploits saved him. On the death of Elizabeth I, the new King James I, had him incarcerated in the Tower of London for treason, plotting against the throne. It was here that he past the time by writing before a warrant for his execution was signed.

While a witch could go free, or serve a minimal prison sentence, treason was another accusation, as many being accused of crimes involving witchcraft, if not more, were acquitted when coming to trial, but attempts on the crown by means of witchcraft was one way to ensure a conviction. No one, no matter how high their status, could be safe when accused of plotting against the throne.

John Tannere claimed to be the son of Edward I. This was Edward Longshanks who was King of England 1272-1307. In 1314-15, he was accused of attempting to gain the crown from Edward II by serving the devil. He was found guilty and hanged.

At Coventry in 1325, 27 men were charged with attempts on the life of Edward II. They were all acquitted. Two years later the king was forced to resign in favour of his son, Edward III, and was held captive at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire where he was murdered.

The same year, Coventry put on trial Robert le Mereschal, Master John of Nottingham, and 27 others for attempts on the life of Edward III by means of witchcraft. The trial ended as the one before, with all being acquitted.

Coming to the English throne in 1413, it was 6-years later that Henry V accused his step-mother, Joan of Navarre of an attempt on his life involving witchcraft in trying to poison him by the means of witchcraft. Joan was the second wife of Henry IV and had been a popular consort for 10-years up to the King's death. She spent 3-years imprisonment at Pervensey Castle not knowing what her fate was to be, but then Henry was taken ill and feeling remorse, on his deathbed, had her set free.

Seven women were imprisoned after a trial in 1430 at London, accused of attempts on Henry VI. More accusations were laid in 1441. Eleanor Cobham was accused of attempting the death of Henry VI with the aid of Margery Jourdemaine, and two men, one an astrologer, the other a doctor. Margery Jourdemaine was burnt at the stake for Treason. Thomas Southwell was imprisoned at the Tower of London. Roger Bolingbroke was hung, drawn and quartered.

In 1483, in seperate incidents, Jane Shore and Elizabeth Woodville were accused of witchcraft against Richard III. Jane Shore had been the mistress of Edward IV for seven years up to his death. The charges of witchcraft couldn't be proven and so she was forced to do the penance of a harlot, only in her petticoat and bare of feet, she walked the streets of London, a lighted candle in her hand.

Elizabeth Woodville was dowager queen of Edward IV and mother of the Princes in the Tower, becoming mother-in-law to Henry VII, the first Tudor King. Having married Edward IV in a secret ceremony, when the marriage became public knowledge there was already whispers that she had gained her title through bewitching the King. Though Richard III made the claim that both she and her mother had used sorcery to obtain the crown of consort, she was never brought to trial.

In 1496 three men were accused by Bernard de Vignolles of using sorcery in an attempt against the life of Henry VII and his immediate family. John Kendal, Sir John Thonge, and William Horsey were pardoned.

"The Maid of Kent", Elizabeth Burton, claimed to see a vision of the Virgin Mary at a shrine in 1522. She later stated the vision told her it was opposed to the forthcoming marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Found guilty of Treason, she was hanged. Later, Anne Boleyn was charged with Treason in using sorcery as well as committing adultery, and thus executed.

Dr. John Lambe never came to trial. Being accused in 1628, after falling out of favour with the Duke of Buckingham, he was beaten to death by an angry mob at St. Paul's Cross where he had just come from the theatre.

There was no monarch so actively involved in witch-finding than James I of England who was also James VI of Scotland. Francis Stewart Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell found himself on trial for witchcraft in Lothian on the 15th of April 1591. He was accused of seeking to harm the throne and the king. His accuser was a wizard of North Berwick, Richie Graham, who claimed the earl took part in black mass, and that he caused a storm in which the king's ship was caught on its way home from Denmark.

The king, on his part, had a very vivid imagination, claiming that during the storm he had seen witches in the form of hares, riding the sea in a sieve. When he reached Leith he ordered the rounding up of all suspected witches in the area. Extracting information that the coven at North Berwick was to meet at St. Andrew's church, several guards took up hiding and waited. It was thought that the Earl of Bothwell was the head of the coven. When a group formed, consisting of 94 women and 6 men, it was claimed they began cavorting around the churchyard, among other things, and the guards swooped. The leader, having remained in disguise, escaped. The Earl denied claims that it was him but he was still imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle where in June, he escaped. Instead of evading his captives by going abroad, on 27th of December he went to Holyrood Palace to confront the king. Accompanied by a band of men, James was chased down a corridor where he locked himself in a tower room. In an attempt to batter the door down it was set alight. The king was saved when a crowd rallied and rushed up from the city. The earl and his followers made good their escape.

James went on to publish "Demonologie" which he wrote himself. This plunged Scotland into a wave of witch-hunting hysteria. A new phase began in July 1597, extorting confessions through torture.

Statements contained the same confessions of orgies, flying by means of a variety animals and objects, and sermons given by the devil himself. The king attended some of these interviews, presumably acquiring the knowledge for his book. Men and children did not go unaffected, all were accused and tortured, no matter what gender or age.

After several bouts of witch-hunting in Scotland, being more prominent in 1649, people became more tolerant, or less superstitious. A series of allegations was made in 1697, but the authorities were not interested in the churches need to control and eradicate witchcraft, mainly because the trial and burning of a witch cost ill-afforded money.

Witch-hunting was lucrative among the villages of the Scottish seacoast. The use of witchcraft was blamed for whipping up storms and disasters in general, but never anything major. The general assembly did not give up on witchcraft, but people no longer had the appetite for hounding old women and putting them to death.

In Britain legislation against witchcraft was repealed under George II in 1736.

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