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Centralization and Skepticism :: History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts

Centralization and Skepticism

Jack Wilbur

Centralization and Skepticism

            The height of the witch trials in Europe occurred from the late sixteenth century to the late seventeenth century.  Across most of Europe there were numerous trials, court cases, and eventual executions numbering in the tens of thousands of innocent women.  However, England only had around 500 women accused and executed throughout most of this time. The majority took place in a single decade: the 1640’s.  Why was England so different and how did it avoid persecuting women throughout this turbulent time?   Unlike most other countries, England had a tradition of a strong and centralized court system. This centralized court system  promoted skepticism in the witch trials, and this skepticism acted as a clear buffer against people’s fears and fostered the safety of the nation’s women. The 1640’s were the exception that proved the rule.  It was during this time period that the English Civil war occurred and the educated judges were far too busy attempting to hold the country together than to worry about witch trials.  It was during this time that a localized court system reigned and it was here that a majority of England’s witches were convicted and executed.  By looking at primary documents, the journals of other historians, and an abbreviated view of the 1640’s, a centralized court system emerges as the strongest reason that England did not experience the same level of witch hysteria as the rest of Europe.

English had a strong parliamentary system established in order to maintain checks and balances on the king.  Even though the King had the power to dissolve Parliament at will, they still wielded enormous influence and power in the judicial and legislative policies of the kingdom.  England resisted the impulse to embrace absolutism and its central government was small and restrained, however, the judicial system was highly centralized and able to run the country effectively.[i]  Stemming from this was a court system that found itself strictly governed by rules and practices that were not otherwise found in Europe.[ii]  These policies led to an English tradition of skepticism within the judicial system and inspired English writers to comment on the social phenomena of witchcraft.

Reginald Scot embodied this skepticism as early as 1584 when he published his treatise: The Unreality of Witchcraft.  In this document he laid out why witchcraft is an impossible crime and that any of the crimes so called witches committed should be tried in the appropriate secular law.  Scot believed that there was no supernatural reason that could not be tried as a mundane crime.  If a witch was accused of “kill[ing] men with poison [then] let them be hanged for their labor.  [Likewise if] they kill men’s cattle, then let an action of trespass be brought against them for doing so.”[iii] There was no crime that the witches could commit that was not already against English Law.  Scot scoffed at the idea that witches had great supernatural power because “[the crimes] cannot be proven to be true…othersome of these crimes are so absurd… that they are derided by almost all men.”[iv]  Women who were ready and willing to admit to witchcraft troubled Scot.  He set forth that women who admitted to witchcraft were suffering some sort of madness or delusion.[v]  During the later witch trials confessions were considered void and, “magistrates sought tangible proof of the witch’s status.”[vi]  Following the policy of the law and requiring proof of guilt was crucial to the commendation of criminals in England.  The nature of witchcraft lends itself to being shrouded in hearsay and spectral evidence.  Scot went on to declare that, “If one part of their accusation be false, the other part deserveth no credit.” This view established a tradition of skepticism in reviewing the witch trials in England.

Later English skeptics based their work off of Scot’s precedent.  John Webster in 1677 and Thomas Ady in 1656 both proceeded to comment on the reality of witchcraft and how it was unable to be considered crime.  Both of these men thought that witchcraft cases only appeared in areas where the local populace was misinterpreting the Gospel.  It was not that there was no such thing as magic; it was that there was no Biblical proof of witches.  Ady claimed that any reference to witches was actually a mistranslation and the word heretic was more accurate[vii].  Webster puts forth that it was peasants that were, “bred up in ignorance, either of God, the Scriptures, or the true grounds of Christian religion.”[viii] While this view certainly cast peasants into a negative light and showed bias against them, it strengthens the view that the courts remained skeptical in these cases.  For educated court judges these peasants already started at a disadvantage trying to convict a woman of witchcraft.  The court was hesitant to accept what came to be viewed as illiterate superstition.  Webster practiced medicine for over forty years and admitted to never once seeing an actual case of demonic possession.[ix]  This bias against that belief helped to make it significantly harder to convict women of witchcraft.  Judges in this organized system were accountable to the English crown and were generally well educated and knew their duties.  Nature was not well understood and logically “no man can rationally assign a beginning for supernatural agents and actions that does not certainly know where the power and operation of nature ends.”[x] How could a judge and jury condemn a witch when they are constantly being surprised by nature? The English courts needed physical evidence in order to convict people of their crimes.  Spectral evidence was not considered admissible in court. [xi]

In addition, Ady wrote his treatise on witches specifically for judges, where he put forth several arguments on how there was not any evidence in the Scriptures for witches.[xii]  He contended that the evident truths being used by witch hunters and mongers were nothing but misinterpretations of the Bible at best and sacrilegious at the worst.  In his treatise A Candle in the Dark he showed how the Scriptures disprove the existence of witches rather than confirm them.  Ady valued the Scriptures and argued that, “it is written (because the Scriptures are the only rule of righteousness) whosoever then will take example by him, to try the Truth by Scripture, and to argue by them, as he did in this place of Luke.”[xiii] Ady used a legal defense to prove the nonexistence of witches.  By showing that the “evidence” used by witch-mongers was inherently false, it made it significantly more difficult to prove their existence in a court of law.  Unlike in other areas of Europe, this made it harder for the more fantastical elements of witchcraft to work their way into the trial.  Unlike in Scotland, English court systems generally made no reference to the Devil and the use of torture for confessions was strictly prohibited.[xiv]

Modern historians have long examined the role of a centralized judicial system and the role it had on the witch trials.  As Brain Levack states, “It has long been recognized that local courts pursued witches more aggressively than central courts; that many witchcraft convictions were reversed on appeal; that skepticism appeared first in the central courts.”[xv]  England for most of its history was a bastion of strength for a central court.  It had both common law and a national court system, which was the strongest in Europe.[xvi]  This enabled the skeptics such as Scot and Ady to have their views not just heard, but also widely discussed and accepted among the elite.  This discussion promoted a controversy between the state and the Church.  The church wanted to preserve this idea of witchcraft in order to protect the people, however, the courts needed sufficient evidence to convict a witch.[xvii]  Thanks to the strength of the court system it resisted the church controlling witchcraft trials and instead tried witches in courts of law.[xviii]  The trained court judges in England were directly responsible for their conduct during court and their cases examined.  For this reason prosecutors needed much more evidence to convict an accused woman in England versus other countries across Europe.  This is directly seen in the amount of witchcraft pamphlets produced in England.  From 1621 to 1643 there were no English pamphlets produced by English printing presses.[xix]  Witch trials in England began to show a distinct downward trend during the early 17th century.  Marion Gibson suggests that this was because, “that interest in printing works on witchcraft falters when it becomes controversial.”[xx]  These works could no longer become a part of the self-perpetuating cycle of witchcraft discourse.  In other words, English believers could not build up evidence of a vast witch conspiracy in England.  However, just as the witch-trials seemed to be dying out the trend was suddenly and dramatically reversed with the onset of the English Civil War.

The English Civil War was a conflict that expanded to include all of England and plunged the countryside into chaos.  For the first time in English history the countryside was directly experiencing the chaotic nature of war.  The war pitted Parliament and the central courts vs. the King and his supporters.  English judges were called away to deal directly with the civil war, leaving local magistrates in charge.    One of the men left in charge of a witch trial was “the earl of Warwick, who a largely untrained nobleman who represented military authority.”[xxi]  These men had not been officially trained and even more, had no central authority to answer to.  During the time of the English civil war judges had no time to adequately judge something deemed as irrelevant as witchcraft.  The prohibition of torture was not enforced and was used to extract confessions from women.[xxii]  There is a direct link between the rise of torture and the rise of witchcraft confessions during this time period.  The lack of power of the courts prohibited them from enforcing their own laws on the localized courts.  Virginia Krause put forth an idea that,” Without confession, there would have been no demonology…Without demonology, there would have been no ‘witches’ for the villain of the story [witches]…[were] produced by the very institution that sought to destroy her.”[xxiii]  This certainly holds true for the duration of the English Civil War.  The rise in confessions obtained via the illegal use of torture match the distinct rise of the number of women convicted and executed.  The only time that the central courts lost their authority in English history directly coincide with the rise of the witch-craze.   Instead much of the power fell into the hands of men like Matthew Hopkins.

Matthew Hopkins was born in 1620 and began his witch-hunting career in 1644 after overhearing witches plotting to kill him.[xxiv]  The lack of a central court system meant that villages and towns were eager for anyone claiming to know judicial procedure to intervene in their affairs.  Hopkins took advantage of the chaos and sold his service to the English countryside as ‘Witch-Finder General,’ a title he bestowed upon himself.[xxv]  The local magistrates acquiesced to his judgment on the matter of witchcraft and he was, “acting with considerable support and encouragement from towns and villages.”[xxvi]  Suddenly power was for the first time in the English witch trials in the control of local, decentralized courts.  The amount of witch convictions rose dramatically in this one decade.  Hopkins himself is responsible for upwards of three hundred accusations.[xxvii]  This was a dramatic increase from just a few years previous.  Louise Jackson believes that, “as a result of the frenzied witch-hunting activity generated though the involvement of Matthew Hopkins, the concept of who was a likely suspect expanded to encompass younger women.”[xxviii]

During the medieval and early modern periods, England experienced as few as 500 trials that resulted in executions.[xxix] A majority of these executions took place under the chaos that directly stemmed from the English Civil war during one decade.  This occurred when the courts were the weakest and prone to allowing local magistrates to take control rather than official judges.  In detailed cases such as The Bewitching of Anne Gunter, the accused girl  “was very worried about being taken into the custody of Samuel Harsnett, the archbishop of Canterbury’s chaplain, and a man with a formidable reputation as a skeptic in matters of witchcraft.”[xxx] This trial took place in 1604, and already here was a man renown for being a skeptic in a critical position in the trial.  Harsnett’s position as a chaplain gave him influence within the church and judicial system if he was called as a witness.  The centralized and regulated court system insured that judges were educated in all matters.  This would mean that they had read the works of Scot and then later on Hobbes, Webber, and Ady.

The prevalent trend among the educated in England was skepticism of witchcraft.  As long as this held true there were trials but few executions.  When Cromwell challenged the throne and threw the country into confusion this changed.  During that one decade the number of trials rose dramatically and can be directly traced back to the lack of a centralized power in England.  It came to resemble the chaotic Germanic states, where witchcraft hysteria was in strength throughout the entire 16th and 17th centuries. England gave rise to this tradition of skepticism because of the rigorous legal procedures.  This promoted a natural tendency towards skepticism and allowed the noble elite to challenge the church’s stance on the validity of witchcraft.  The only time in English history when the courts lost their power and authority resulted in a distinct and dramatic rise in witchcraft deaths.  England’s centralized and powerful judicial courts stifled the witch craze in England by being able to control and overrule the localized tendency towards fear.  By promoting a canonized legal procedure across the country, the citizens of Britain were allowed a degree of protection not seen elsewhere in Europe.


[i] Levack, Brian P., “State-building and Witch-hunting” in The Witchcraft Reader. 2 edition. London ; New York: Routledge, 2008, 193.

[ii] Ohlmeyer, Jane H. “English Civil Wars (English History).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.

[iii] Scot, Reginald. “The Unreality of Witchcraft” in The Witchcraft Sourcebook. 1 edition. New York: Routledge, 2003, 289.

[iv] Scot, Reginald. “The Unreality of Witchcraft”, 290.

[v] Jackson, Louise. “Witches Wives and Mothers” in The Witchcraft Reader. 2 edition. London ; New York: Routledge, 2008, 313.

[vi] Holmes, Clive. “Women Witches and Witnesses” in The Witchcraft Reader. 2 edition. London ; New York: Routledge, 2008, 279.

[vii] Ady, Thomas. A Candle in the Dark: Or, A Treatise Concerning the Nature of Witches & Witchcraft: Being Advice to Judges, Sheriffes, Justices of the Peace and Grand-Jury-Men, What to Do, before They Passe Sentence on such as Are Arraigned for Their Lives, as Witches. London, 1656.

[viii] Webster, John. “Witchcraft and the Occult” in The Witchcraft Sourcebook. 1 edition. New York: Routledge, 2003, 309.

[ix] Sands, Kathleen. “The Social Meanings of Demonic Possession” in ed. The Witchcraft Reader. 2 edition. London ; New York: Routledge, 2008, 224.

[x] Sands, Kathleen. “The Social Meanings of Demonic Possession”, 310.

[xi] Sharpe, James. The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: A Horrible and True Story of Deception, Witchcraft, Murder, and the King of England. 1 edition. New York: Routledge, 2001, 6-9.

[xii] Ady, Thomas. A Candle in the Dark, 1656.

[xiii] Ady, Thomas. A Candle in the Dark, 1656, 6.

[xiv] Anon. “The Trial of Janet Barker and Margaret Lauder at Edinburgh, 1643.”  In The Witchcraft Sourcebook. 1 edition. New York: Routledge, 2003, 210.

[xv] Levack, Brian P., “State-building and Witch-hunting”, 195.

[xvi] Levack, Brian P., “State-building and Witch-hunting”,192.

[xvii] The Decline of Witchcraft persecutions p.342

[xviii] Barry, Jonathan. Witchcraft and Demonology in South-West England, 1640-1789. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

[xix] Gibson, Marion. “The Decline of the Witchcraft Pamphlet” in The Witchcraft Reader. 2 edition. London ; New York: Routledge, 2008, 349.

[xx] Gibson, Marion. “The Decline of the Witchcraft Pamphlet”, 351.

[xxi] Levack, Brian P., “State-building and Witch-hunting”,192.

[xxii] Levack, Brian P., “State-building and Witch-hunting”,192.

[xxiii] Witchcraft Confessions and Demonology p.306

[xxiv] Gaskill, Malcolm. Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy. Harvard University Press, 2007.

[xxv] Gaskill, Malcolm. Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy.

[xxvi] Levack, Brian P., “State-building and Witch-hunting”,192.

[xxvii] Gaskill, Malcolm. Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy, 283.

[xxviii] Jackson, Louise. “Witches Wives and Mothers”, 319.

[xxix] Anon. “The Trial of Janet Barker and Margaret Lauder at Edinburgh, 1643.”, 210.

[xxx] Bewitching of Anne p. 4



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