The Background to Witchcraft, Magic and Superstition

Frederick Victor Alfred Valletta
Frederick Victor Alfred Valletta

In 1633, a young lad named Edward Robinson, from Pendle in Lancashire, testified to the justices at Lancaster how he had stumbled upon a witches coven. While walking around his home village, he came across a pair of greyhounds which he knew belonged to one of the villagers. The two hounds were wearing collars and leashes, so he decided to take them to course for hares.

After he had led them out of the village, he saw a hare and urged the greyhounds to chase it, but they refused. Becoming angry, he tied the hounds to a nearby bush and beat them with a stick. As he did so, the black greyhound immediately transformed into a woman and stood up: she was “Dickenson’s wife”, a neighbour of the boy.

The brown greyhound then transformed into a boy whom he did not know. At this point, he attempted to run away, but the woman stopped him. She put her hand into her pocket and pulled out a piece of silver and offered it to him “to hold his Tongue, and not tell; which he refused, saying Nay, thou art a Witch”. She put her hand into her pocket again and removed a bridle which she put over the head of the boy who was with her, after which he then “stood up in the likeness of a White Horse”.

Dickenson’s wife then took Robinson on the horse to a new house called “Hoarstones”, about a quarter of a mile away. Many other people were there, and more were arriving on different coloured horses. In the house, there were about 60 persons gathered around a fire, over which meat was roasting.

After a while, some of the company made their way to an adjoining barn and Robinson followed them. He saw six of them kneeling and pulling ropes which were fastened to the top of the barn. As Robinson watched, he saw “Flesh smoking, Butter in lumps, and Milk as it were flying from the said Ropes. All which fell into Basons which were placed under the said Ropes”.

Others came in and repeated the same action with an identical result. At this point, he ran off. The people in the house immediately realised they were missing one of their numbers and so came out to look for him. Eventually, he met with two horsemen and at the sight of them his pursuers gave up the chase. However, amongst those chasing him be had recognised some neighbours which made him worry for his safety. One was Loind’s wife and one Jannet Davies.

When he returned to his father he saw Loind’s wife sitting on a cross-piece of wood in the chimney of his home. He called to her but she immediately vanished. He was then sent out on an errand by his father and met with a boy in a field. He got into a quarrel with him and had his ears and face injured during the subsequent fight.

When he looked down at the boy’s feet, he noticed one of them was cloven. As he fled the field, he saw a lantern, but when he got there he saw a woman standing on a bridge whom he knew to be Loind’s wife. He turned from her and immediately met with the boy again who gave him a blow.

Finally, he testified that when he had been in the barn, he had seen three women take “’Pictures from the Beam, in which Pictures were many Thorns”.

One of these women was Loind’s wife. When he was asked if he knew any of the others, he answered that one was Dickinson’s wife, and he could identify by sight eighteen others. As a result of his testimony the suspected witches were apprehended and the boy, together with his father, attended all the local churches in order to identify the other people who had been present at the coven. For doing this, they received payment. At the assizes at Lancaster were found guilty by the jury, but the judge, not being satisfied with the testimony, had them reprieved.

Charles I and his council had been informed of the Pendle case by the presiding judge and as a result, appointed the bishop of Chester to examine the circumstances surrounding the incident.

In addition of the four suspected witches were sent to London. It was now that the whole case was challenged, especially the trustworthiness of the boy’s testimony. The four suspected witches were examined by the King’s physicians and surgeons and after by the Council: “and no Cause of Guilt appearing, but great Presumptions of the Boy’s being subsumed to accuse them falsely; it was resolved to separate the Boy from his father, and put them in several Prisons”.

Soon after this, the Boy confessed that he was taught and encouraged to feign those “Things by his Father, and some others, whom Envy, Revenge, and hope of Gain had prompted”. In addition, a team of ten London midwives and a panel of physicians led by William Harvey (the physician to Charles I) examined the women. They declared one of the suspects had unusual marks (but explicable), while on the other three they found ‘nothing unnatural neither in the secrets or any other parties of their bodies, not anything like a tease or mark, nor any sign that any such thinge baith ever beene”. Having exposed the fraudulent nature of the accusations, those convicted were all acquitted.

This case has been narrated at length because it illustrates the scepticism prevalent during the 1630s concerning accounts of witchcraft and the willingness of the central government to become involved in the judicial process.

While it may at first seem untypical of early modern witchcraft cases, it was, in fact, a culmination of a long line of false accusations exposed by the central government during the first forty years of the seventeenth-century.

In 1597, a William Somers alleged he had been bewitched and possessed by the devil. Over a period of time, the exorcist, John Darrell, was able to convince people of this and attempted to exorcise the evil spirits from Somers. However, the boy later confessed to faking the fits and incriminated Darrell, who denied any complicity.

Darrell was eventually condemned as a counterfeiter by a court consisting of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr Whitgift) and the Bishop of London (Dr Bancroft). Darrell was not punished, but this case resulted in the ruling of Canon of the new Church Canons of 1604 which forbade the exorcising of evil spirits.

In 1614, at Leicester the testimony of a thirteen-year-old boy, John Smith, resulted in the execution of nine persons. However, James I ordered an investigation, discovered his imposture and ordered the release of those still in jail.

In 1612, the justices at Lancaster, under the direction of Sir Edward Bromley, acquitted Jennet Bierly, Jane Southworth and Ellen Bierly of witchcraft after they ruled that their local priest had falsely accused the accused. Likewise in 1620, the ‘Bilson Boy’, William Perry, was exposed as a fraud by Bishop Morton after he had faked possession and accused others of witchcraft. By contrast, we do not see another case of proven counterfeiting of bewitchment until 1690, when Lord Chief Justice Holt exposed Richard Hathaway.

One conclusion which can be drawn from these cases is that central government and the judiciary were becoming increasingly concerned during the 1630s about the numbers of witches prosecuted on such unreliable and tenuous evidence.

There was particular concern over the reliability of panels of local folk, many of whom had a particular axe to grind against unpopular figures in their communities. In addition, it was increasingly recognised that a conviction based solely on the evidence of young children was absurd. Analysis of prosecutions for witchcraft at the assises indicates that the latter years of Elizabeth I’s reign marked the climax.

In Essex, which has been studied in detail, while between 1580 and 1680, five percent of all criminal proceedings at the assises were for witchcraft, the 1580s and 1590s record a peak of indictments.

Although the subsequent decline may not have been due to the belief that the testimony of children was unreliable, this does seem probable, especially when one considers that those opposing the prosecution of witches were pitching their arguments, not on the premise that witches did not exist, but that too many people were being prosecuted on unreliable testimony.

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