Though there are few surviving written records of the history of witches in Britain, we do know that witches were active in Britain during the Medieval period, and that belief in witches and witchcraft in Britain spans all the way back to antiquity. Prior to the infamous witch trials, witches in Britain were considered healers, herbalists, helpers of the community. Many people sought them out when they needed salves or potions to cure ailments. Before witches came to be associated with the devil in Britain’s modern period, people who practiced healing magic were called the Cunning Folk and were highly revered in society.
The Cunning Folk
The Cunning Folk in Britain were believed to have existed from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century. They were practitioners of folk magic – not to be confused with ceremonial magic – and often hired by the people in their towns for the purposes of healing, fortune-telling, love spells, finding lost objects and missing persons, catching criminals, and even aiding in fighting off bewitchments from ceremonial or ritual witchcraft practitioners.
Though today, we would still classify this practice as witchcraft, the Cunning Folk were often staunchly opposed to ceremonial witchcraft and were typically practicing Christians. As said above, they were healers, not hinderers – which is what they believed witches to be. According to Ronald Hutton, a British historian that specializes in British folklore, in his book, “The Triumph of the Moon,” the Cunning Folk were, “concerned not with the mysteries of the universe and the empowerment of the magus, so much as with practical remedies for specific problems.”
Laws Against Witchcraft
Due to his controversial English Reformation, in which King Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church, many in Tudorian society believed that his shirking of Rome brought about anti-Christian forces, such as witchcraft. It was widely believed at the time that his religious reformation would cause witches in Britain to be able to cause the death of a monarch.
In an attempt to smooth over the controversy, Henry VIII enacted Britain’s very first law against witchcraft, called The Witchcraft Act, in 1542. This law stated that witchcraft was a crime punishable by death.
The Witchcraft Act eventually fell to disuse upon Henry’s death in 1547 and was only replaced 16 years later, by Elizabeth I’s Act Against Conjuring, Enchantments, and Witchcraft in 1563. This act established that causing harm or death to anyone by way of witchcraft was a capital offense.
Following Elizabeth I’s death, her successor, James I broadened her original law by making any act of witchcraft punishable by death. His law was entitled An Act Against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and Dealing With Evil and Wicked Spirits. It was during James I’s reign that the British witch hunts reached their peak.
Mother Waterhouse, the First Execution
Elizabeth I’s anti-witchcraft law claimed its first victim in 1566. Agnes Waterhouse, also called Mother Waterhouse, was the first woman to be executed for witchcraft in England. In 1566, in Chelmsford, Essex, England, three women were brought to trial for witchcraft. Elizabeth Francis was the first accused who admitted to practicing witchcraft taught to her by her grandmother, along with her familiar, a white cat named Satan. Elizabeth then told her accusers that she gave the cat to Agnes Waterhouse, and taught her witchcraft.
Agnes also admitted to having practiced, stating that Satan, the cat, spoke to her, and for a drop of her blood would do anything she wanted. She stated she used Satan to kill her neighbor’s livestock after an argument. She was also accused of killing a man by way of witchcraft but denied these claims. Next, Anges’ daughter, Joan Waterhouse, was also accused of using witchcraft to scare her neighbor, 12-year-old Agnes Brown, with a demon dog.
In the end, Joan was acquitted, Elizabeth was imprisoned but not executed (until 13 years later when she was tried again and finally executed), and Anges was executed by hanging.
The Witchfinder General
Matthew Hopkins, the famed “Witchfinder General” (though that title was never actually given by Parliament), was believed to have accused and executed more witches in his brutal 14-month reign of terror than any other witch hunter in the 160 years preceding him.
Between March of 1644 until the end of his terror in 1647, it’s said that Matthew Hopkins was responsible for over 100 executions of suspected witches.
Though torture was supposed to be outlawed in England at the time, this didn’t stop the infamous Witchfinder General from using torturous techniques to extract confessions from his prisoners. His preferred methods of getting confessions were trial by water, pricking, sleep deprivation, and the finding of a Devil’s or Witch’s Mark.
Trial by water was performed by tossing an accused witch into a body of water to see if she would sink or float. It was believed that the water represented baptism and since witches rejected their baptisms, the water would reject them. Thus, if they floated, it was proof that the water wouldn’t allow them to submerge, so they had to be witches.
To find a Witch’s Mark, women and men accused of witchcraft were shaved of all their body hair while Hopkins would search for any kind of mole, scar, or other skin imperfection, which he claimed would be the source of nutrition for a witch’s familiar. If no Witch’s Mark was found, Hopkins would claim that it was invisible, and so would resort to pricking. Pricking was the practice of using a knife or needle to poke at a suspected witch. If the person didn’t bleed – as was often the case because Hopkins tended to use dull or special needles – it was proof of witchery.
Hopkins retired from witch-hunting in 1647 after he, himself, was accused of witchcraft due to his unlawful methods of confession extraction and torture.
The Last Witch
Though the history of witches in Britain doesn’t end in 1727, the lawful executions of witches did. The last witch to be executed lawfully in Britain was Janet Horne.
In 1727, Janet Horne and her daughter were accused of witchcraft by their neighbors. Janet was in the stages of senility, and her daughter, whose name is not recorded, allegedly had deformations on her hands and feet. Thus, her neighbors accused Janet of riding her daughter like a horse, at night, to consort with the devil, which is why the daughter’s hands and feet were deformed.
The trial was quick and incredibly unjust, and the sheriff quickly decided both were guilty and would be executed by means of burning at the stake. Janet’s daughter, luckily, was able to escape, but Janet was stripped naked, covered in tar, and paraded through town before being burnt alive.
The history of witches in Britain is vast and lengthy. It cannot all be covered in a single article, so we chose to showcase what we deemed the most interesting or important parts. But the fact of the matter is, from antiquity to present times, Britain has an extensive and varied history with witches and witchcraft.