Witchcraft in Tudor Times

British attitudes to witchcraft during the Tudor era tended to be less extreme than those of contemporary Europeans, argues Victoria Lamb.

Witches by Hans Baldung Grien (Woodcut, 1508)

British attitudes to witchcraft during the Tudor era tended to be less extreme than those of contemporary Europeans. Indeed, under the right circumstances, the British witch could occasionally become an acceptable – if not quite respectable – member of society. This produced characters such as the village elder with healing skills, usually burnt at the stake in places like Denmark or Germany, and the eccentric gentleman with a library of arcane tomes whose ‘experiments’ were considered scientific rather than supernatural. Acceptance was not universal, however, and those who attracted the attention of the witchfinder – or even the Inquisition under Mary I’s reign – often ended up on trial for their lives.

Happily, many of these ‘witches’ escaped conviction, since most English tests tended to favour the accused. One common test was ‘swimming the witch’; in a village pond test, the guilty floated and the innocent sank (and were pulled to safety, one hopes). Another test was to weigh the accused against the Bible; if the Bible was heavier, she was clearly a witch. The unfortunate few convicted by such bizarre methods were generally spared the flames. Whereas the Europeans burnt or even boiled their witches alive – occasionally strangling them beforehand as an act of mercy – the more usual sentence for a British witch was death by hanging.

Most witches came to trial for the following crimes: inflicting death or disease on livestock and humans; souring milk or causing miscarriage; cursing and hurting children. Under torture, the European witch typically confessed to having intercourse with the Devil and suckling demons at her breast. The British witch usually kept a familiar – a cat, dog or toad – who spoke with her and often suckled too, leaving a distinct mark. The accused would be stripped and searched for such tell-tale marks, then tortured to extract a ‘confession’. In July 1589, three ‘notorious witches’ were hanged at Chelmsford, Essex; one of them, Joan Prentice, was later depicted as having suckled familiars, including two rat-like ferrets named ‘Jack’ and ‘Jill’. The discovery of a birthmark or extra nipple was therefore a key factor in determining a witch’s guilt, with or without a confession.

Yet there was a deep ambivalence surrounding the figure of the Tudor witch, for even occult powers had their uses. A Christian-Cabalist, Dr John Dee suggested the date for Elizabeth I’s coronation and enjoyed her patronage as court astrologer most of his life, despite openly conjuring ‘spirits’ from the ‘super-celestial sphere’ using rituals found in ancient magical grimoires. Dee’s abilities as an astrologer and his potentially lucrative experiments with alchemy kept him above the law, despite Elizabeth I’s punitive statute in 1563, enforcing the death sentence for the practice of witchcraft. All witches were equal under Tudor law, it seemed, but some were more equal than others. Indeed, it was not until after James I came to the throne in 1603, with his treatise Daemonologie  and his fear of the supernatural, that the witch-hunting craze in England really took off.

Victoria Lamb is the author of Witchstruck published by Corgi Books