Elizabeth Lowys: Witch and Social Victim, 1564

Alan R. Young describes how, in sixteenth and seventeenth century England, village witches were prosecuted as the scapegoats for local anxiety.

In 1563 Elizabeth’s government passed an ‘Act agaynst Conjurations Inchantments and Witchcraftes’ which opened the way for the period of intense witchcraft persecution that affected England for the rest of the sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth century. The first person to be prosecuted under this new statute was Elizabeth Lowys from the Essex village of Great Waltham.

Her story is important, not only because she was the first of the many accused witches, but because the detailed records of her case provide us with one of the clearest surviving pictures of the kind of communal village tensions that lay behind the majority of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century witchcraft trials.

At the same time, her story is not obscured by the sensational details that coloured many later cases, nor do her prosecutors appear to have imported any of the elaborate mythology of the European demonologists that prejudiced the understanding of later prosecutors, such as the notorious Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witch-Finder-General, who caused misery in the mid 1640s.

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