Ironically the introduction of the printing press, one of the greatest tools in increasing knowledge and learning was responsible. Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press c1456. The first printed books were bibles or contained religious themes. Unfortunately many of these books promoted ideas about witches and witchcraft which in turn led to the intensified witch hunts of the 15th and 16th centuries. Additional new renaissance thinking and books about Astrology, Alchemy and Magic increased the interest in witchcraft, witches and witch hunts even further. The 1562 Elizabethan Witchcraft Act was passed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It was an act 'agaynst Conjuracions Inchauntmentes and Witchecraftes'.
The Elizabethan Belief in Witches
During the Elizabethan era people blamed unexplainable events as the work of witches. There were frequent outbreaks of the deadly Black Death (Bubonic Plague) for which there was no cure. The fear and anger about this terrible disease had to be directed at someone - witches were the obvious target. When people died from terrible diseases, when animals died, when there was a bad harvest, when houses were burnt down in fires even when foods curdled - witches were the obvious targets. During the Elizabethan era there was limited medical knowledge or facilities and there was no form of insurance. Such events as those described above were devastating and there was no means of minimising their terrible effects on the lives of Elizabethans - someone had to be blamed - witches were the obvious targets. Elizabethan Superstitions
Who were the people accused of being Elizabethan Witches?
Women were those most often accused of being witches. There were 270 Elizabethan witch trials of 247 were women and only 23 were men. Those accused of witchcraft were generally:
- Single women or widows (many kept pets for company - their 'familiars')
During the Elizabethan era men were all-powerful. Women had few rights and were expected to obey men. Elizabethan women totally relied on the male members of the family. Society and the culture of England was changing. The convents had been closed. The number of poor was increasing and people were far less charitable. Old, poor, unprotected women needed to be supported - and this was resented by other Elizabethans. Access to doctors and medicines was minimal. Women were expected to produce cures for most ailments as part of their house keeping. 'Wise women' also used herbs for this purpose. The use of herbs and plants such as mandrake, datura, monkshood, cannabis, belladonna, henbane and hemlock were common ingredients in brews and ointments for medical purposes. As the fear of witches and witchcraft increased in Europe the Catholic Church included in its definition of witchcraft anyone with knowledge of herbs as 'those who used herbs for cures did so only through a pact with the Devil, either explicit or implicit.' Possession of such herbs, many of which did have psychedelic effects, resulted in execution by burning in Europe.
Queen Elizabeth and the Punishment of Elizabethan Witches
The hysteria and paranoia regarding witches which was experienced in Europe did not fully extend to England during the Elizabethan era. Queen Elizabeth I passed a new and harsher witchcraft Law in 1562 but it did not define sorcery as heresy. Witches convicted of murder by witchcraft were to be executed but the punishment for witches in England was hanging, not burning at the stake which was the terrible death that was inflicted on French and Spanish witches. Lesser crimes relating to witchcraft resulted in the convicted witch being pilloried. Torture was not allowed as part of the investigatory or punishment procedure for witches. As the Witchcraft Law did not define sorcery as heresy the matter of religion was not involved in the prosecution of witches. The attitude of Queen Elizabeth was certainly more lenient than those of her neighbours in France and Spain. Her mother, Anne Boleyn had been accused of being a witch ( Anne Boleyn had a sixth finger growing from her fifth small finger. Anne also had a prominent mole on her neck - these deformities were seen by her enemies as a sure sign that Anne Boleyn was a witch.) Queen Elizabeth was known to consult John Dee and she also showed an interest in Astrology. Perhaps these explain her leniency towards witches.
Elizabethan Witches - Black Witches and White Witches ('Cunning Folk' or Healers)
Up to the Renaissance period the wisdom of the 'Wise women' or 'Cunning Folk' - the White Witches - were seen as helpful, if not invaluable, members of the community. Their knowledge of the healing properties of various plants and herbs were often passed down through the generations. Their role was to provide help for people in need. The White witches were clearly distinguished from the 'Black' witches. The 'Black' witches were seen as those who practised the secret arts in order to do physical or practical harm to others. This distinction between 'White' and 'Black' witches was lost during the hysteria of the era of the Renaissance witch hunts.
Elizabethan Witch Trials
The following information provides details and facts about witch trials which took place in the county of Essex during the Elizabethan era. In the 1580s, 13% of assize trials in Essex were for witchcraft. 64 were accused and 53 were found guilty. The accused were tried for maleficium, the use of diabolical power to cause harm, not for heresy. Most of the accused confessed to the charges although torture was not allowed as part of the investigatory or punishment procedure for witches.
- The first witch trial to appear in a secular court in England resulting in a series of witch trials in Chelmsford, Essex. The prosecution of women as the main victims of witch hunts are further explained in details of the trials and those prosecuted
- The First of the Chelmsford 'witches' was the decrepit Elizabeth Frances. Elizabeth Frances confessed to using a familiar cat called Sathan in order to harm various people. The cat was given to Agnes Waterhouse and her daughter Joan Waterhouse. Elizabeth Frances was sentenced to one year in prison but poor Agnes Waterhouse was hung. Her daughter, Joan, was found not guilty
- The Second Chelmsford Witch trial of 1579 once again brought the unfortunate old Elizabeth Frances to answer accusations of witchcraft, along with several other women ' They were found guilty and hanged
- The third Chelmsford Witch trial of 1589 saw the hanging of Joan Prentice, Joan Upney and Joan Cunny for using familiars
- In 1572 Alice Chaundler of Maldon was accused of bewitching Mary Cowper of Maldon, aged eight years, and he father Francis, a fletcher, to death; of bewitching to death Robert Briscoe (aged 30 years), his son aged two years, and daughter aged five years. Alice Chaundler was found guilty and hanged. Five years later her daughter Ellen Smythe of Maldon was accused at the Assizes of bewitching Susan Webbe, aged four years, who became ill and then died. Ellen Smythe was found guilty and was hung.
Timeline of Elizabethan Witchcraft and Witches
The Renaissance period brought about the following events which culminated in Witchcraft Acts and Laws being passed in England. The following timeline of Witchcraft and Witches describes the growth of the belief in Witches and Witchcraft:
- 1486 Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), published by two Dominican inquisitors vividly describing the satanic and sexual abominations of witches
- 1521 - Pope Leo X issues a Bull ensuring that the Religious Courts of the Inquisition would execute those convicted of Witchcraft
- 1542 King Henry VIII passed the Witchcraft Act against conjurations and wichescraftes and sorcery and enchantmentes. His second wife, Anne Boleyn, was accused of being a witch
- 1545 The word occult first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary meaning "that which is hidden or is beyond the range of ordinary apprehension and understanding"
- 1547 Repeal of 1542 Witchcraft during the reign of King Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII, who was more liberal in his thinking about witches and witchcraft
- 1562 Elizabethan Witchcraft Act was passed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It was an act 'agaynst Conjuracions Inchauntmentes and Witchecraftes'.
- 1566 The Chelmesford Witches. The first witch trial to appear in a secular court in England resulting in a series of witch trials in Chelmsford, Essex. The first woman to be hanged for witchcraft was Agnes Waterhouse
- The Agnes Waterhouse trial in Chelmsford produced the first Chapbook relating to witchcraft
- 1579 The Windsor witch trials
- 1579 The second Chelmsford witch trials
- 1582 St. Osyth Witches of Essex (the case was tried at Chelmsford)
- 1584 The Discoverie of Witchcraft was published by Reginald Scot following the Chelmsford witch trials. Reginald Scot argued that witches might not exist
- 1587 Clergyman George Gifford publishes 'A Discourse Concerning the Subtle Practices of Devils by Witches and Sorcerers'
- 1589 The Third Chelmsford witch trials
- 1593 The trial of the Warboys witches of Huntingdon
- 1593 George Gifford published 'A Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcraftes'
- 1597 Publication of Demonology by James VI of Scotland (later James I of England)
- 1604 James I released his statute against witchcraft, in which he wrote that they were "loathe to confess without torture."