James I And Witchcraft

Some one has remarked that witchcraft came into England with the Stuarts

and went out with them. This offhand way of fixing the rise and fall of

a movement has just enough truth about it to cause misconception.

Nothing is easier than to glance at the alarms of Elizabeth's reign and

to see in them accidental outbreaks with little meaning, isolated

affairs presaging a new movement rather than part of it. As a matter of

fact, any such view is superficial. In previous chapters the writer has

endeavored to show just how foreign ideas and conditions at home gave

the impulse to a movement which within a single reign took very definite


Yet so much was the movement accelerated, such additional impetus was

given it by James I, that the view that James set the superstition going

in England, however superficial, has some truth in it. If Elizabeth had

ever given the matter thought, she had not at least given it many words.

James had very definite opinions on the subject and hesitated not at all

to make them known. His views had weight. It is useless to deny that the

royal position swayed the courts. James's part in the witch persecution

cannot be condoned, save on the ground that he was perfectly honest. He

felt deeply on the matter. It was little wonder. He had grown up in

Scotland in the very midst of the witch alarms. His own life, he

believed, had been imperilled by the machinations of witches. He

believed he had every reason to fear and hate the creatures, and we can

only wonder that he was so moderate as we shall later find him to have

been. The story of the affair that stirred up the Scottish king and his

people has often been told, but it must be included here to make his

attitude explicable. In 1589 he had arranged for a marriage with the

Princess Anne of Denmark. The marriage had been performed by proxy in

July, and it was then provided that the princess was to come to England.

She set out, but was driven on to the coast of Norway by a violent

storm, and detained there by the continuance of the storms. James sailed

to Upsala, and, after a winter in the north of the Continent, brought

his bride to Scotland in the spring, not without encountering more rough

weather. To the people of the time it was quite clear that the ocean was

unfriendly to James's alliance. Had Scotland been ancient Greece, no

doubt Neptune would have been propitiated by a sacrifice. But it was

Scotland, and the ever-to-be-feared Satan was not so easily propitiated.

He had been very active of late in the realm.

Moreover it was a time when Satanic and other conspiracies were likely

to come to light. The kingdom was unsettled, if not discontented. There

were plots, and rumors of plots. The effort to expose them, as well as

to thwart the attacks of the evil one on the king, led to the conception

and spread of the monstrous story of the conspiracy of Dr. Fian. Dr.

Fian was nothing less than a Scottish Dr. Faustus. He was a schoolmaster

by profession. After a dissolute youth he was said to have given soul to

the Devil. According to the story he gathered around him a motley crowd,

Catholic women of rank, "wise women," and humble peasant people; but it

was a crew ready for evil enterprise. It is not very clear why they were

supposed to have attacked the king; perhaps because of his well known

piety, perhaps because he was a Protestant. In any case they set about,

as the story went, to destroy him, and thought to have found their

opportunity in his trip to Denmark. They would drown him in a storm at

sea. There was a simple expedient for raising a storm, the throwing of

cats into the sea. This Scottish method of sacrificing to Neptune was

duly carried out, and, as we have seen, just fell short of destroying

the king. It was only the piety of the king, as Dr. Fian admitted in his

confession, that overmatched the power of the evil one.[1]

Such is the story that stirred Scotland from end to end. It is a story

that is easily explained. The confessions were wrung from the supposed

conspirators by the various forms of torture "lately provided for

witches in that country." Geillis Duncane had been tried with "the

torture of the pilliwinkes upon her fingers, which is a grievous

torture, and binding or wrinching her head with a cord or roape." Agnes

Sampson had suffered terrible tortures and shameful indignities until

her womanly modesty could no longer endure it and she confessed

"whatsoever was demanded of her." Dr. Fian was put through the ordinary

forms of torture and was then "put to the most severe and cruel pain in

the world, called the bootes," and thereby was at length induced to

break his silence and to incriminate himself. At another time, when the

king, who examined him in person, saw that the man was stubborn and

denied the confessions already made, he ordered him to be tortured

again. His finger nails were pulled off with a pair of pincers, and

under what was left of them needles were inserted "up to the heads."

This was followed by other tortures too terrible to narrate.[2]

It is a little hard to understand how it was that the king "took great

delight to be present at the examinations," but throughout the whole

wretched series of trials he was never wanting in zeal. When Barbara

Napier, sister-in-law to the laird of Carshoggil, was to be executed, a

postponement had been granted on account of her approaching

accouchement. Afterwards, "nobody insisting in the pursute of her, she

was set at libertie." It seems also that the jury that had before

condemned her had acquitted her of the main charge, that of treasonable

witchcraft against the king. The king was angered at the default of

justice, went to the Tolbooth, and made an address on the subject. He

spoke of "his own impartiality, the use of witchcraft, the enormity of

the crime, ... the ignorance of thinking such matters mere fantasies,

the cause of his own interference in the matter, the ignorance of the

assizes in the late trial, his own opinion of what witches really


It was only a few years later that James put that opinion into written

form. All the world knows that the king was a serious student. With

unremitting zeal he studied this matter, and in 1597, seven years after

the Dr. Fian affair, he published his Daemonologie.[4] It was expressly

designed to controvert the "damnable opinions of two principally in our

age"--Scot, who "is not ashamed in publick Print to deny that there can

be such a thing as witchcraft," and Wierus, "a German physician," who

"sets out a publicke apologie for all these craft-folkes whereby ... he

plainly bewrayes himself to have been one of that profession."

It was to be expected that James would be an exponent of the current

system of belief. He had read diligently, if not widely, in the

Continental lore of the subject and had assimilated much of it. He was

Scotch enough to be interested in theology and Stuart enough to have

very definite opinions. James had, too, his own way of putting things.

There was a certain freshness about his treatment, in spite of the fact

that he was ploughing old fields. Nothing illustrates better his

combination of adherence to tradition, of credulity, and of originality

than his views on the transportation of witches, a subject that had long

engaged the theorists in demonology. Witches could be transported, he

believed, by natural means, or they could be carried through the air "by

the force of the spirit which is their conducter," as Habakkuk was

carried by the angel.[5] This much he could accept. But that they could

be transformed into a "little beast or foule" and pierce through

"whatsoever house or Church, though all ordinarie passages be closed,"

this he refused to believe. So far, however, there was nothing original

about either his belief or his disbelief. But his suggestion on another

matter was very probably his own. There had been long discussion as to

how far through the air witches could go. It was James's opinion that

they could go only so far as they could retain their breath.

But it was seldom that the royal demonologist wandered far from the

beaten road. He was a conformist and he felt that the orthodox case

needed defence: so he set about to answer the objectors. To the argument

that it was a strange thing that witches were melancholy and solitary

women (and so, he would have explained, offer the easiest object of

attack) he interposed a flat denial: they are "some of them rich and

worldly-wise, some of them fat or corpulent in their bodies." To the

point that if witches had the power ascribed to them no one but

themselves would be left alive in the world, he answered that such would

be the case, were not the power of the Devil bridled by God. To the plea

that God would not allow his children to be vexed by the Devil, he

replied that God permits the godly who are sleeping in sin to be

troubled; that He even allows the Evil One to vex the righteous for his

own good--a conventional argument that has done service in many a

theological controversy.

It is a curious circumstance that James seemingly recognized the

reliability of the Romish exorcisms which the Church of England was

about that time beginning to attack. His explanation of them is worthy

of "the wisest fool in Christendom." The Papists could often effect

cures of the possessed, he thought, because "the divell is content to

release the bodily hurting of them, ... thereby to obtain the perpetual

hurt of the soules."

That James should indulge in religious disquisitions rather than in

points of evidence was to be expected. Although he had given up the

Scottish theology, he never succeeded in getting it thoroughly out of

his system. As to the evidence against the accused, the royal writer was

brief. Two sorts of evidence he thought of value, one "the finding of

their marke, and the trying the insensiblenes thereof, the other is

their fleeting [floating] on the water." The latter sign was based, he

said, on the fact that the water refuses to receive a witch--that is to

say, the pure element would refuse to receive those who had renounced

their baptism.[6] We shall see that the influence of the Daemonologie

can be fairly appraised by measuring the increased use of these two

tests of guilt within his own reign and that of his son. Hitherto the

evidence of the mark had been of rather less importance, while the

ordeal by water was not in use.

The alleged witch-mark on the body had to do with the contracts between

witches and the Devil. This loathsome side of witch belief we cannot go

into. Suffice it to say that James insisted on the reality of these

contracts and consequently upon the punishment that should be meted to

those who had entered into them. All witches except children should be

sentenced to death. The king shows a trace of conventional moderation,

however, and admits that the magistrates should be careful whom they

condemned. But, while he holds that the innocent should not be

condemned, he warns officials against the sin of failing to convict the

guilty.[7] We shall see that throughout his reign in England he pursued

a course perfectly consistent with these principles.

A critical estimate of James's book it is somewhat hard to give.

Students of witchcraft have given utterance to the most extravagant but

widely divergent opinions upon it. The writer confesses that he has not

that acquaintance with the witch literature of the Continent which would

enable him to appraise the Daemonologie as to its originality. So good

an authority as Thomas Wright has declared that it is "much inferior to

the other treatises on the subject," and that it was compiled from

foreign works.[8] Doubtless a study of the Continental literature would

warrant, at least in part, this opinion. Yet one gets the impression,

from what may be learned of that great body of writing through the

historians of witchcraft, that James's opinions were in some respects

his own. He had, of course, absorbed the current belief, but he did not

hesitate to give his own interpretation and explanation of phenomena.

That interpretation is not wanting in shrewdness. It seems to one who

has wandered through many tedious defences of the belief in witchcraft

that James's work is as able as any in English prior to the time of

Joseph Glanvill in 1668. One who should read Glanvill and James together

would get a very satisfactory understanding of the position of the

defenders of the superstition. Glanvill insisted upon what he believed

were well authenticated facts of experience. James grounded his belief

upon a course of theoretical reasoning.

We have already indicated that James's book was influential in its time.

It goes without saying that his position as a sovereign greatly enhanced

its influence. This was particularly true after he took the throne of

England. The dicta that emanated from the executive of the English

nation could not fail to find a wide audience, and especially in England

itself. His work offered a text-book to officials. It was a key to the

character and methods of the new ruler, and those who hoped for

promotion were quick to avail themselves of it. To prosecute witches was

to win the sovereign's approval. The judges were prompted to greater

activity. Moreover, the sanction of royalty gave to popular outbreaks

against suspicious women greater consideration at the hands of the

gentry. And it was in the last analysis the gentry, in the persons of

the justices of the peace, who decided whether or no neighborhood

whispering and rumors should be followed up.

But the king's most direct influence was in the passing of a new law.

His first Parliament had been in session but eight days when steps were

taken by the House of Lords towards strengthening the statute against

witchcraft. The law in force, passed in the fifth year of Elizabeth's

reign, imposed the death penalty for killing by witchcraft, and a year's

imprisonment for injuring by witchcraft or by allied means. James would

naturally feel that this law was merely one version of the statute

against murder and did not touch the horrible crime of contract with the

Devil and the keeping of imps.[9] Here was a sin beside which the taking

of life was a light offence. It was needful that those who were guilty

of it should suffer the severest penalty of the law, even if they had

not caused the loss of a single life. It was to remedy this defect in

the criminal code that a new statute was introduced.

It is not worth while to trace the progress of that bill from day to

day. It can be followed in the journals of the Lords and Commons. The

bill went to a large committee that included six earls and twelve

bishops.[10] Perhaps the presence of the bishops was an evidence that

witchcraft was still looked upon as a sin rather than as a crime. It was

a matter upon which the opinion of the church had been received before

and might well be accepted again. It was further arranged that the Lord

Chief-Justice of the common pleas, Sir Edmund Anderson, and the

attorney-general, the later so famous Sir Edward Coke, along with other

eminent jurists, were to act with the committee. Anderson, it will be

recalled, had presided over numerous trials and had both condemned and

released witches. As to Coke's attitude towards this subject, we know

not a thing, save that he served on this committee. The committee seems

to have found enough to do. At any rate the proposed statute underwent

revision.[11] Doubtless the privy council had a hand in the matter;[12]

indeed it is not unlikely that the bill was drawn up under its

direction. On the 9th of June, about two months and a half after its

introduction, the statute passed its final reading in the Lords.[13] It

repealed the statute of Elizabeth's reign and provided that any one who

"shall use, practise or exercise any Invocation or Conjuration of any

evill and wicked Spirit, or shall consult, covenant with, entertaine,

employe, feede, or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any

intent or purpose; or take up any dead man, woman, or child, ... to be

imployed or used in any manner of Witchcrafte" should suffer death as a

felon. It further provided that any one who should "take upon him or

them by Witchcrafte ... to tell or declare in what place any treasure of

Golde or Silver should or might be founde ... or where Goods or Things

loste or stollen should be founde or become, or to the intent to provoke

any person to unlawfull love, or wherebie any Cattell or Goods of any

person shall be destroyed, wasted, or impaired, or to hurte or destroy

any person in his or her bodie, although the same be not effected and

done," should for the first offence suffer one year's imprisonment with

four appearances in the pillory, and for the second offence, death. The

law explains itself. Not only the killing of people by the use of evil

spirits, but even the using of evil spirits in such a way as actually

to cause hurt was a capital crime. The second clause punished white

magic and the intent to hurt, even where it "be not effected," by a

year's imprisonment and the pillory. It can be easily seen that one of

the things which the framers of the statute were attempting to

accomplish in their somewhat awkward wording was to make the fact of

witchcraft as a felony depend chiefly upon a single form of evidence,

the testimony to the use of evil spirits.

We have seen why people with James's convictions about contracts with

the Devil might desire to rest the crime upon this kind of proof.[14] It

can be readily understood, too, how the statute would work in practice.

Hitherto it had been possible to arraign a witch on the accusations of

her neighbors, but it was not possible to send her to the gallows unless

some death in the vicinity could be laid to her charge. The community

that hustled a suspicious woman to court was likely to suffer the

expense of her imprisonment for a year. It had no assurance that it

could be finally rid of her.

Under the new statute it was only necessary to prove that the woman made

use of evil spirits, and she was put out of the way. It was a simpler

thing to charge a woman with keeping a "familiar" than to accuse her of

murder. The stories that the village gossips gathered in their rounds

had the keeping of "familiars" for their central interest.[15] It was

only necessary to produce a few of these gossips in court and the woman

was doomed.

To be sure, this is theory. The practical question is, not how would the

law operate, but how did it operate? This brings us again into the

dangerous field of statistics. Now, if we may suppose that the witch

cases known to us are a safe basis of comparison, the reign of James, as

has already been intimated, shows a notable increase in witch executions

over that of Elizabeth. We have records of between forty and fifty

people who suffered for the crime during the reign of James, all but one

of them within the first fifteen years. It will be seen that the average

per year is nearly double that of the executions known to us in the

first part of Elizabeth's rule, and of course several times that of

those known in the last part. This increased number we are at once

inclined to assign to the direct and indirect influence of the new king.

But it may very fairly be asked whether the new statute passed at the

king's suggestion had not been in part responsible for the increased

number. This question can be answered from an examination of those cases

where we have the charges given. Of thirty-seven such cases in the reign

of James I, where the capital sentence was given, seventeen were on

indictments for witchcrafts that had not caused death. In the other

twenty cases, the accused were charged with murder.[16]

This means that over two-fifths of those who are known to have been

convicted under the new law would have escaped death under the

Elizabethan statute. With all due allowance for the incompleteness of

our statistics, it seems certain that the new law had added very

considerably to the number of capital sentences. Subtract the seventeen

death sentences for crimes of witchcraft that were not murder from the

total number of such sentences, and we have figures not so different

from those of Elizabeth's reign.

This is a sufficient comment on the effectiveness of the new law as

respects its particularly novel features. A study of the character of

the evidence and of the tests of guilt employed at the various trials

during the reign will show that the phrasing of the law, as well as the

royal directions for trying guilt, influenced the forms of accusation

and the verdicts of the juries. In other words the testimony rendered in

some of the well known trials of the reign offers the best commentary

upon the statute as well as upon the Daemonologie. This can be

illustrated from three of the processes employed to determine guilt. The

king had recommended the water ordeal. Up to this time it had not been

employed in English witch cases, so far as we know. The first record of

its use was in 1612, nine years after James ascended the English throne.

In that year there was a "discoverie" of witches at Northampton. Eight

or nine women were accused of torturing a man and his sister and of

laming others. One of them was, at the command of a justice of the

peace, cast into the water with "her hands and feete bound," but "could

not sink to the bottome by any meanes." The same experiment was applied

to Arthur Bill and his parents. He was accused of bewitching a Martha

Aspine. His father and mother had long been considered witches. But the

"matter remaining doubtful that it could not be cleerly tryed upon him,"

he (and his parents) were tied with "their thumbes and great toes ...

acrosse" and thrown into the water. The suspicion that was before not

well grounded was now confirmed.[17] To be sure, this was done by the

justices of the peace and we do not know how much it influenced the

assize court.[18]

These are the only instances given us by the records of James's reign

where this test was employed by the authorities. But in the very next

year after the Northampton affair it was used in the adjoining county of

Bedford by private parties. A land-owner who had suffered ills, as he

thought, from two tenants, Mother Sutton and her daughter, took matters

into his own hands. His men were ordered to strip the two women "in to

their smocks," to tie their arms together, and to throw them into the

water. The precaution of a "roape tyed about their middles" was useless,

for both floated. This was not enough. The mother, tied toe and thumb,

was thrown into the water again. She "sunke not at all, but sitting upon

the water turned round about like a wheele.... And then being taken up,

she as boldly as if she had beene innocent asked them if they could doe

any more to her."

The use of marks as evidence was not as new as the water ordeal. But it

is a rather curious thing that in the two series of cases involving

water ordeal the other process was also emphasized. In these two

instances it would seem as if the advice of the Daemonologie had been

taken very directly by the accusers.[19] There was one other instance of

this test.[20] The remarkable thing, however, is that in the most

important trial of the time, that at Lancaster in 1612, there was an

utter absence, at least so far as the extant record goes, of female

juries or of reports from them.[21] This method of determining guilt was

not as yet widely accepted in the courts. We can hardly doubt that it

had been definitely forbidden at Lancaster.[22] The evidence of the use

of evil spirits, against which the statute of the first year of James I

had been especially framed, was employed in such a large proportion of

trials that it is not worth while to go over the cases in detail.

The law forbade to take up any dead person or the skin, bone, or other

part thereof for use in witchcraft. Presumably some instance of this

form of witchcraft had been responsible for the phrase, but we have on

record no case of the sort until a few years after the passage of the

statute. It was one of the principal charges against Johanna Harrison

of Royston in 1606 that the officers found in her possession "all the

bones due to the Anatomy of man and woman."[23] This discovery brought

out other charges and she was hanged. At the famous Lancashire trials in

1612 the arch-witch Chattox was declared to have had in her possession

three scalps and eight teeth. She was guilty on other counts, but she

escaped the executioner by death.

These are illustrations of the point that the Daemonologie and the

statute of James I find their commentary in the evidence offered at the

trials. It goes without saying that these illustrations represent only a

few of the forms of testimony given in the courts. It may not,

therefore, be amiss to run over some other specimens of the proof that

characterized the witch trials of the reign. With most of them we are

already familiar. The requirement that the witch should repeat certain

words after the justice of the peace was used once in the reign of

James. It was an unusual method at best.[24] A commoner form of proof

was that adduced from the finding or seeing clay or waxen images in the

possession of the accused.[25] The witness who had found such a model on

the premises of the defendant or had seen the defendant handling it,

jumped readily to the conclusion that the image represented some

individual. If it should be asked how we are to account for this sort of

evidence, the answer is an easy one. Every now and then in the annals of

witchcraft it came out that a would-be accuser had hidden a waxen or

clay figure in the house of the person he wished to accuse and had then

found it. No doubt some cases started in this way. No doubt, too, bitter

women with grudges to satisfy did experiment with images and were caught

at it. But this was rare. In the greater number of cases the stories of

images were pure fabrications. To that category belong almost certainly

the tales told at Lancaster.[26]

"Spectral evidence" we have met with in the Elizabethan period. That

reign saw two or three instances of its employment, and there were more

examples of it in the reign of James. Master Avery of Northampton, who

with his sister was the principal accuser in the trials there, saw in

one of his fits a black wart on the body of Agnes Brown, a wart which

was actually found "upon search."[27] Master Avery saw other spectres,

but the most curious was that of a bloody man desiring him to have mercy

on his Mistress Agnes and to cease impeaching her.[28] At Bedford,

Master Enger's servant had a long story to tell, but the most thrilling

part concerned a visit which the young Mary Sutton (whom he was

accusing) made to him. On a "moonshine night" she came in at the window

in her "accustomed and personall habite and shape" and knitted at his

side. Then drawing nearer, she offered him terms by which he could be

restored to his former health, terms which we are to understand the

virtuous witness refused. It is pleasant to know that Master Enger was

"distrustfull of the truth" of this tale. One fears that these spectres

were not the products of overwrought imagination, as were many others,

but were merely fabrics of elaborate fiction.[29] In any case they were

not the groundwork of the proof. In the Fairfax prosecutions at York in

1622 the charges against the six women accused rested entirely upon a

great tissue of spectral evidence. The three children had talked to the

spectres, had met them outdoors and at church and in the kitchen. The

spectres were remarkably wise and named visitors whom the family did not

know. They struggled with the children, they rolled over them in bed,

they followed them to the neighbors.

Somewhat akin to the evidence from apparitions was that from the effect

of a witch's glance. This is uncommonly rare in English witchcraft, but

the reign of James offers two instances of it. In Royston,

Hertfordshire, there was "an honest fellow and as boone a companion ...

one that loved the pot with the long necke almost as well as his

prayers." One day when he was drinking with four companions Johanna

Harrison came in and "stood gloating upon them." He went home and at

once fell sick.[30] At Northampton the twelve-year-old Hugh Lucas had

looked "stark" upon Jane Lucas at church and gone into convulsions when

he returned home.[31]

One other form of proof demands notice. In the trial of Jennet Preston

at York it was testified that the corpse of Mr. Lister, whom she was

believed to have slain by witchcraft, had bled at her presence. The

judge did not overlook this in summarizing the evidence. It was one of

three important counts against the woman, indeed it was, says the

impressive Mr. Potts, quoting the judge, of more consequence than all

the rest.[32] Of course Mistress Preston went to the gallows.

It will occur to the reader to ask whether any sort of evidence was

ruled out or objected to. On this point we have but slight knowledge. In

reporting the trial of Elizabeth Sawyer of Edmonton in 1621 the Reverend

Henry Goodcole wrote that a piece of thatch from the accused woman's

house was plucked and burned, whereupon the woman presently came upon

the scene.[33] Goodcole characterized this method as an "old ridiculous

custome" and we may guess that he spoke for the judge too. In the

Lancashire cases, Justice Altham, whose credulity knew hardly any

bounds, grew suddenly "suspitious of the accusation of this yong wench,

Jennet Device," who had been piling up charges against Alice Nutter. The

girl was sent out of the room, the witches were mixed up, and Jennet was

required on coming in again to pick out Alice Nutter. Of course that

proved an easy matter.[34] At another time, when Jennet was glibly

enumerating the witches that had assembled at the great meeting at

Malking Tower, the judge suddenly asked her if Joane-a-Downe were there.

But the little girl failed to rise to the bait and answered negatively,

much to the satisfaction of everybody, and especially of the righteous

Mr. Potts.[35]

This is all we know directly about any tendency to question evidence at

Lancaster in 1612, but a good deal more may be inferred from what is not

there. A comparison of that trial with other contemporary trials will

convince any one that Justices Altham and Bromley must have ruled out

certain forms of evidence. There were no experiments made of any sort

nor any female juries set inspecting.[36] This, indeed, is not to say

that all silly testimony was excluded. There is enough and more of sheer

nonsense in the testimony to prove the contrary.

We turn now from the question of evidence to a brief consideration of

several less prominent features of Jacobean witchcraft. We shall note

the character of the sentences, the distribution of the trials, the

personnel and position in life of the accused, and lastly the question

of jurisdiction.

We have in another connection indicated the approximate number of

executions of which we have record in James's reign. That number, we

saw, was certainly over forty and probably approached fifty. It

represented, however, not quite half the total number of cases of

accusation recorded. In consequence the other verdicts and sentences

have significance. Especially is this true of the acquittals. They

amounted to thirty, perhaps to forty. When we add the trials of which we

do not know the outcome, we can guess that the number was close to the

sum total of executions. Legally only one other outcome of a trial was

possible, a year's imprisonment with quarterly appearances in the

pillory. There were three or four instances of this penalty as well as

one case where bond of good behavior was perhaps substituted for

imprisonment.[37] Five pardons were issued,[38] three of them by the

authorities at London, two of them by local powers apparently under


We come now to consider the personnel, sex, occupations, and positions

in life of the accused. On certain of these matters it is possible to

give statistical conclusions, but such conclusions must be accepted with

great caution. By a count as careful as the insufficient evidence

permits it would seem that about six times as many women were indicted

as men. This was to be expected. It is perhaps less in accord with

tradition that twice as many married women as spinsters seem to have

figured in the witch trials of the Jacobean era. The proportion of

widows to unmarried women was about the same, so that the proportion of

unmarried women among the whole number accused would seem to have been

small. These results must be accepted guardedly, yet more complete

statistics would probably show that the proportion of married women was

even greater.[40]

The position in life of these people was not unlike that of the same

class in the earlier period. In the account of the Lancashire trials we

shall see that the two families whose quarrels started the trouble were

the lowest of low hill-country people, beggars and charmers, lax in

their morals and cunning in their dealings. The Flower women, mother and

daughter, had been charged with evil living; it was said that Agnes

Brown and her daughter of Northampton had very doubtful reputations;

Mother Sutton of Bedford was alleged to have three illegitimate

children. The rest of the witches of the time were not, however, quite

so low in the scale. They were household servants, poor tenants, "hog

hearders," wives of yeomen, broomsellers, and what not.

Above this motley peasant crew were a few of various higher ranks. A

schoolmaster who had experimented with sorcery against the king,[41] a

minister who had been "busy with conjuration in his youth,"[42] a lady

charged with sorcery but held for other sin,[43] a conjurer who had

rendered professional services to a passionate countess,[44] these make

up a strange group of witches, and for that matter an unimportant one.

None of their cases were illustrations of the working of witch law; they

were rather stray examples of the connection between superstition, on

the one hand, and politics and court intrigue on the other. Not so,

however, the prosecution of Alice Nutter in the Lancashire trials of

1612. Alice Nutter was a member of a well known county family. "She

was," says Potts, "a rich woman, had a great estate and children of good

hope."[45] She was moreover "of good temper, free from envy and malice."

In spite of all this she was accused of the most desperate crimes and

went to the gallows. Why family connections and influences could not

have saved her is a mystery.

In another connection we spoke of two witches pardoned by local

authorities at the instance of the government. This brings us to the

question of jurisdiction. The town of Rye had but recently, it would

seem, been granted a charter and certain judicial rights. But when the

town authorities sentenced one woman to death and indicted another for

witchcraft, the Lord Warden interfered with a question as to their

power.[46] The town, after some correspondence, gave way and both women

were pardoned. This was, however, the only instance of disputed

jurisdiction. The local powers in King's Lynn hanged a witch without

interference,[47] and the vicar-general of the Bishop of Durham

proceeded against a "common charmer"[48] with impunity, as of course he

had every right to do.

There is, in fact, a shred of evidence to show that the memory of

ecclesiastical jurisdiction had not been lost. In the North Riding of

Yorkshire the quarter sessions sentenced Ralph Milner for "sorcerie,

witchcraft, inchantment and telling of fortunes" to confess his fault at

divine service, "that he hath heighlie offended God and deluded men, and

is heartily sorie."[49] There is nothing, of course, in the statute to

authorize this form of punishment, and it is only accounted for as a

reversion to the original ecclesiastical penalty for a crime that seemed

to belong in church courts.

What we call nowadays mob law had not yet made its appearance--that is,

in connection with witchcraft. We shall see plenty of it when we come to

the early part of the eighteenth century. But there was in 1613 one

significant instance of independence of any jurisdiction, secular or

ecclesiastical. In the famous case at Bedford, Master Enger, whom we

have met before, had been "damnified" in his property to the round sum

of L200. He was at length persuaded that Mother Sutton was to blame.

Without any authority whatsoever he brought her forcibly to his house

and caused her to be scratched.[50] Not only so, but he threw the woman

and her daughter, tied and bound, into his mill-pond to prove their

guilt.[51] In the mean time the wretched creatures had been stripped of

their clothes and examined for marks, under whose oversight we are not

told, but Master Enger was responsible. He should have suffered for all

this, but there is no record of his having done so. On the contrary he

carried the prosecution of the women to a successful issue and saw them

both hanged.

We now turn to the question of the distribution of witchcraft in the

realm during James's reign. From the incidental references already

given, it will be evident that the trials were distributed over a wide

area. In number executed, Lancashire led with ten, Leicester had nine,

Northampton five or more, Middlesex four,[52] Bedford, Lincoln, York,

Bristol, and Hertford each two; Derby had several, the exact number we

can not learn. These figures of the more serious trials seem to show

that the alarm was drifting from the southeast corner of England towards

the midlands. In the last half of Elizabeth's rule the centre had been

to the north of London in the southern midlands. Now it seems to have

progressed to the northern midlands. Leicester, Derby, and Nottingham

may be selected as the triangle of counties that would fairly represent

the centre of the movement. If the matter were to be determined with

mathematical accuracy, the centre would need to be placed perhaps a

little farther west, for Stafford, Cheshire, Bristol, and the remote

Welsh Carnarvon all experienced witch alarms. In the north, York and

Durham had their share of trials.

It will be easier to realize what had happened when we discover that, so

far as records go, Kent and Essex were entirely quiet during the period,

and East Anglia almost so. We shall later see that these counties had

not at all forgotten to believe in witchcraft, but the witchfinders had

ceased their activities for a while.

To be sure, this reasoning from the distribution of trials is a

dangerous proceeding. Witch alarms, on they face of things, seem

haphazard outbursts of excitement. And such no doubt they are in part;

yet one who goes over many cases in order cannot fail to observe that an

outbreak in one county was very likely to be followed by one in the next

county.[53] This is perfectly intelligible to every one familiar with

the essentially contagious character of these scares. The stories spread

from village to village as fast as that personified Rumor of the poet

Vergil, "than which nothing is fleeter"; nor did they halt with the

sheriffs at the county boundaries.

We have now traced the growth of James's opinions until they found

effect in English law, have seen the practical operation of that law,

and have gone over the forms of evidence, as well as some other features

of the witch trials of his reign. In the next chapter we shall take up

some of the more famous Jacobean cases in detail as examples of witch

alarms. We shall seek to find out how they started and what were the

real causes at work.

[1] I have not attempted to give more than a brief resume of this story,

and have used Thomas Wright, Narratives of Sorcery and Magic (London,

1851), I, 181-190, and Mrs. Lynn Linton, Witch Stories, 21-34. The

pamphlet about Dr. Fian is a rare one, but may be found in several

libraries. It has been reprinted by the Gentleman's Magazine, vol.

XLIX (1779), by the Roxburghe Club (London, 1816), by Robert Pitcairn,

in his Criminal Trials in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1829-1833), vol. I, and

doubtless in many other places. Pitcairn has also printed a part of the

records of his trial.

[2] This is all based upon the contemporary accounts mentioned above.

[3] Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, IV (Edinburgh, 1881),

644-645, note.

[4] A fresh edition was brought out at London in 1603. In 1616 it

appeared again as a part of the handsome collection of his Workes

compiled by the Bishop of Winchester.

[5] This story is to be found in the apocryphal book of Bel and the

Dragon. It played a great part in the discussions of the writers on


[6] H. C. Lea, Superstition and Force (4th ed., Philadelphia, 1892),

325 ff., gives some facts about the water ordeal on the Continent. A

sharp dispute over its use in witch cases was just at this time going on


[7] He recommended torture in finding out the guilty: "And further

experience daily proves how loth they are to confesse without torture,

which witnesseth their guiltinesse," Daemonologie, bk. ii, ch. i.

[8] Wright, Narratives of Sorcery and Magic, I, 197.

[9] Edward Fairfax, A Discourse of Witchcraft As it was acted in the

Family of Mr. Edward Fairfax ... in the year 1621 (Philobiblon Soc.,

Miscellanies, V, ed. R. Monckton Milnes, London, 1858-1859), "Preface

to the Reader," 26, explains the king's motive: His "Majesty found a

defect in the statutes, ... by which none died for Witchcraft but they

only who by that means killed, so that such were executed rather as

murderers than as Witches."

[10] Journals of the House of Lords, II, 269; Wm. Cobbett,

Parliamentary History, I, 1017, 1018.

[11] Lords' Journal, II, 271, 316; Commons' Journal, I, 203-204.

[12] Cal. St. P., Dom., 1603-1610, 117.

[13] It had passed the third reading in the Commons on June 7; Commons'

Journal, I, 234.

[14] It can hardly be doubted that the change in the wording of the law

was dictated not only by the desire to simplify the matter of proof but

by a wish to satisfy those theologians who urged that any use of

witchcraft was a "covenant with death" and "an agreement with hell"

(Isaiah xxviii, 18).

[15] See Southworth case in Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of

Witches in the countie of Lancaster ... (London, 1613; reprinted,

Chetham Soc., 1845), L 2 verso. Cited hereafter as Potts.

[16] See, below, appendix B. It should be added that six others who had

been condemned by the judges for bewitching a boy were released at

James's command.

[17] The Witches of Northamptonshire ... C 2 verso. The writer of this

pamphlet, who does not tell the story of the ordeal so fully as the

author of the MS. account, "A briefe abstract of the arraignment of nine

witches at Northampton, July 21, 1612" (Brit. Mus., Sloane, 972), gives,

however, proof of the influence of James in the matter. He says that the

two ways of testing witches are by the marks and "the trying of the

insensiblenesse thereof," and by "their fleeting on the water," which is

an exact quotation from James, although not so indicated.

[18] The mother and father were apparently not sent to the assize court.

[19] The female jury was used at Northampton ("women sworn"), also at

Bedford, but by a private party.

[20] It was used in 1621 on Elizabeth Sawyer of Edmonton. In this case

it was done clearly at the command of the judge who tried her at the Old


[21] Elizabeth Device, however, confessed that the "said Devill did get

blood under her left arme," which raises a suspicion that this

confession was the result of accusations against her on that score.

[22] See account in next chapter of the trial at Lancaster.

[23] This case must be used with hesitation; see below, appendix A, Sec. 3.

[24] At Warboys the Samuels had been required to repeat: "If I be a

witch and consenting to the death" of such and such a one. Alice Wilson,

at Northampton in 1612, was threatened by the justice with execution, if

she would not say after the minister "I forsake the Devil." She is said

to have averred that she could not say this. See MS. account of the

witches of Northampton.

[25] Well known is the practice ascribed to witches of making a waxen

image, which was then pricked or melted before the fire, in the belief

that the torments inflicted upon it would be suffered by the individual

it represented.

[26] Potts, E 3 verso, F 4, G 2; also The Wonderful Discoverie of the

Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, ... (London, 1619), 21.

[27] See MS. account of the Northampton witches.

[28] Ibid.: "Sundry other witches appeared to him.... Hee heard many

of them railing at Jane Lucas, laying the fault on her that they were

thus accused."

[29] There was practically no spectral evidence in the Lancashire cases.

Lister on his death-bed had cried out against Jennet Preston, and John

Law was tormented with a vision of Alizon Device "both day and night";

Potts, Y 2 verso. But these were exceptional.

[30] See The Most Cruell and Bloody Murther committed by ... Annis

Dell.... With the Severall Witch-crafts ... of one Johane Harrison and

her Daughter (London, 1606).

[31] MS. account of the Northampton witches.

[32] See Potts, Z 2.

[33] The dramatist Dekker made use of this; see his Witch of Edmonton,

act IV, scene I (Mermaid edition, London, 1904):

1st Countreyman.--This thatch is as good as a jury to prove she is a


* * * * *

Justice.-- Come, come: firing her thatch? ridiculous!

Take heed, sirs, what you do; unless your proofs

Come better aimed, instead of turning her

Into a witch, you'll prove yourselves stark fools.

[34] See Potts, P 2.

[35] See ibid., Q verso. This, however, was the second time that the

judge had tried this ruse; see ibid., P 2.

[36] See above, note 21.

[37] North Riding Record Soc., Quarter Sessions Records (London, 1883,

etc.), III, 181.

[38] Two of them, however, were issued to the same woman, one in 1604

and one in 1610.

[39] Hist. MSS. Comm. Reports, XIII, 4 (Rye), pp. 136-137, 139-140,

144, 147-148.

[40] The term "spinster" was sometimes used of a married woman.

[41] Cal. St. P., Dom., 1619-1623, 125, Chamberlain to Carleton,

February 26, 1620: "Peacock, a schoolmaster, committed to the Tower and

tortured for practising sorcery upon the King, to infatuate him in Sir

Thos. Lake's business." This is one of those rare cases in which we know

certainly that torture was used.

[42] Sir Thomas Lake to Viscount Cranbourne, January 20, 1604, Brit.

Mus., Add. MSS., 6177, fol. 403.

[43] Cal. St. P., Dom., 1623-1625, 474, 485, 497.

[44] T. B. and T. J. Howell, State Trials (London, 1809-1818), II.

[45] See Potts, O 3 verso.

[46] See Hist. MSS. Comm. Reports, XIII, 4 (Rye), pp. 136-137,

139-140, 144, 147-148.

[47] See Alexander Roberts, A Treatise of Witchcraft ... (London,

1616), dedicated to the "Maior and Aldermen."

[48] M. A. Richardson, Table Book (London, 1841-1846), I, 245.

[49] North Riding Record Soc., Quarter Sessions Records, I, 58.

[50] "... neither had they authoritie to compell her to goe without a


[51] Brit. Mus., Add. MSS., 36,674, fol. 148. This is a brief

description of "how to discover a witch." It recommends the water ordeal

and cites the case of Mr. Enger and Mary Sutton.

[52] In the case of three of these four we know only that they were


[53] Before the Flower case at Lincoln came the Willimot-Baker cases at

Leicester. The Bedford trial resembled much the Northampton trial of the

previous year.

Glanvill And Webster And The Literary War Over Witchcraft 1660-1688 List Of Cases Of Witchcraft 1558-1718 With References To Sources And Literature facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail