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A History of Witchcraft in England by Wallace Notestein - HTML preview

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The year 1566 is hardly less interesting in the history of English witchcraft than 1563. It has been seen that the new statute passed in 1563 was the beginning of a vigorous prosecution by the state of the detested agents of the evil one. In 1566 occurred the first important trial known to us in the new period. That trial deserves note not only on its own account, but because it was recorded in the first of the long series of witch chap-books--if we may so call them. A very large proportion of our information about the execution of the witches is derived from these crude pamphlets, briefly recounting the trials. The witch chap-book was a distinct species. In the days when the chronicles were the only newspapers it was what is now the "extra," brought out to catch the public before the sensation had lost its flavor. It was of course a partisan document, usually a vindication of the worthy judge who had condemned the guilty, with some moral and religious considerations by the respectable and righteous author. A terribly serious bit of history it was that he had to tell and he told it grimly and without pity. Such comedy as lights up the gloomy black-letter pages was quite unintentional. He told a story too that was full of details trivial enough in themselves, but details that give many glimpses into the every-day life of the lower classes in town and country.

The pamphlet of 1566 was brief and compact of information. It was entitled The examination and confession of certaine Wytches at Chensforde in the Countie of Essex before the Quenes Maiesties Judges the XXVI daye of July anno 1566. The trial there recorded is one that presents some of the most curious and inexplicable features in the annals of English witchcraft. The personnel of the "size" court is mysterious. At the first examination "Doctor Cole" and "Master Foscue" were present. Both men are easily identified. Doctor Cole was the Reverend Thomas Cole, who had held several places in Essex and had in 1564 been presented to the rectory of Stanford Rivers, about ten miles from Chelmsford. Master Foscue was unquestionably Sir John Fortescue, later Chancellor of the Exchequer, and at this time keeper of the great wardrobe. On the second examination Sir Gilbert Gerard, the queen's attorney, and John Southcote, justice of the queen's bench, were present. Why Southcote should be present is perfectly clear. It is not so easy to understand about the others.

Was the attorney-general acting as presiding officer, or was he conducting the prosecution? The latter hypothesis is of course more consistent with his position. But what were the rector of Stanford Rivers and the keeper of the great wardrobe doing there? Had Doctor Cole been appointed in recognition of the claims of the church? And the keeper of the wardrobe, what was the part that he played? One cannot easily escape the conclusion that the case was deemed one of unusual significance. Perhaps the privy council had heard of something that alarmed it and had delegated these four men, all known at Elizabeth's court, to examine into the matter in connection with the assizes.

The examinations themselves present features of more interest to the psychologist than to the historical student. Yet they have some importance in the understanding of witchcraft as a social phenomenon. Elizabeth Francis, when examined, confessed with readiness to various "vilanies." From her grandmother she said she had as a child received a white spotted cat, named Sathan, whom she had fed, and who gave her what she asked for. "She desired to have one Andrew Byles to her husband, which was a man of some welth, and the cat dyd promyse she shold." But the promise proved illusory. The man left her without marriage and then she

"willed Sathan ... to touch his body, whych he forthewith dyd, whereof he died." Once again she importuned Satan for a husband. This time she gained one "not so rich as the other." She bore a daughter to him, but the marriage was an unhappy one. "They lived not so quietly as she desyred, beinge stirred to much unquietnes and moved to swearing and cursinge." Thereupon she employed the spirit to kill her child and to lame her husband. After keeping the cat fifteen years she turned it over to Mother Waterhouse, "a pore woman."[1]

Mother Waterhouse was now examined. She had received the cat and kept it "a great while in woll in a pot."

She had then turned it into a toad. She had used it to kill geese, hogs, and cattle of her neighbors. At length she had employed it to kill a neighbor whom she disliked, and finally her own husband. The woman's eighteen-year-old daughter, Joan, was now called to the stand and confirmed the fact that her mother kept a CHAPTER II.


toad. She herself had one day been refused a piece of bread and cheese by a neighbor's child and had invoked the toad's help. The toad promised to assist her if she would surrender her soul. She did so. Then the toad haunted the neighbor's girl in the form of a dog with horns. The mother was again called to the stand and repeated the curious story told by her daughter.

Now the neighbor's child, Agnes Brown, was brought in to testify. Her story tallied in some of its details with that of the two Waterhouse women; she had been haunted by the horned dog, and she added certain descriptions of its conduct that revealed good play of childish imagination.[2]

The attorney put some questions, but rather to lead on the witnesses than to entangle them. He succeeded, however, in creating a violent altercation between the Waterhouses on the one hand, and Agnes Brown on the other, over trifling matters of detail.[3] At length he offered to release Mother Waterhouse if she would make the spirit appear in the court.[4] The offer was waived. The attorney then asked, "When dyd thye Cat suck of thy bloud?" "Never," said she. He commanded the jailer to lift up the "kercher" on the woman's head. He did so and the spots on her face and nose where she had pricked herself for the evil spirit were exposed.

The jury retired. Two days later Agnes Waterhouse suffered the penalty of the law, not however until she had added to her confessions.[5]

The case is a baffling one. We can be quite sure that the pamphlet account is incomplete. One would like to know more about the substance of fact behind this evidence. Did the parties that were said to have been killed by witchcraft really die at the times specified? Either the facts of their deaths were well known in the community and were fitted with great cleverness into the story Mother Waterhouse told, or the jurors and the judges neglected the first principles of common sense and failed to inquire about the facts.[6] The questions asked by the queen's attorney reveal hardly more than an unintelligent curiosity to know the rest of the story.

He shows just one saving glint of skepticism. He offered to release Mother Waterhouse if she would materialize her spirit.

Mother Waterhouse was her own worst enemy. Her own testimony was the principal evidence presented against her, and yet she denied guilt on one particular upon which the attorney-general had interrogated her.

This might lead one to suppose that her answers were the haphazard replies of a half-witted woman. But the supposition is by no means consistent with the very definite and clear-cut nature of her testimony. It is useless to try to unravel the tangles of the case. It is possible that under some sort of duress--although there is no evidence of this--she had deliberately concocted a story to fit those of Elizabeth Francis and Agnes Brown, and that her daughter, hearing her mother's narrative in court--a very possible thing in that day--had fitted hers into it. It is conceivable too that Mother Waterhouse had yielded merely to the wish to amaze her listeners. It is a more probable supposition that the questions asked of her by the judge were based upon the accusations already made by Agnes Brown and that they suggested to her the main outlines of her narrative.

Elizabeth Francis, who had been the first accused and who had accused Mother Waterhouse, escaped.

Whether it was because she had turned state's evidence or because she had influential friends in the community, we do not know. It is possible that the judges recognized that her confession was unsupported by the testimony of other witnesses. Such a supposition, however, credits the court with keener discrimination than seems ever to have been exhibited in such cases in the sixteenth century.[7]

But, though Elizabeth Francis had escaped, her reputation as a dangerous woman in the community was fixed.

Thirteen years later she was again put on trial before the itinerant justices. This brings us to the second trial of witches at Chelmsford in 1579. Mistress Francis's examination elicited less than in the first trial. She had cursed a woman "and badde a mischief to light uppon her." The woman, she understood, was grievously pained. She followed the course that she had taken before and began to accuse others. We know very little as to the outcome. At least one of the women accused went free because "manslaughter or murder was not objected against her."[8] Three women, however, were condemned and executed. One of them was almost CHAPTER II.


certainly Elleine Smith, daughter of a woman hanged as a witch,--another illustration of the persistence of suspicion against the members of a family.

The Chelmsford affair of 1579[9] was not unlike that of 1566. There were the same tales of spirits that assumed animal forms. The young son of Elleine Smith declared that his mother kept three spirits, Great Dick in a wicker bottle, Little Dick in a leathern bottle, and Willet in a wool-pack. Goodwife Webb saw "a thyng like a black Dogge goe out of her doore." But the general character of the testimony in the second trial bore no relation to that in the first. There was no agreement of the different witnesses. The evidence was haphazard.

The witch and another woman had a falling out--fallings out were very common. Next day the woman was taken ill. This was the sort of unimpeachable testimony that was to be accepted for a century yet. In the affair of 1566 the judges had made some attempt at quizzing the witnesses, but in 1579 all testimony was seemingly rated at par.[10] In both instances the proof rested mainly upon confession. Every woman executed had made confessions of guilt. This of course was deemed sufficient. Nevertheless the courts were beginning to introduce other methods of proving the accused guilty. The marks on Agnes Waterhouse had been uncovered at the request of the attorney-general; and at her execution she had been questioned about her ability to say the Lord's Prayer and other parts of the service. Neither of these matters was emphasized, but the mention of them proves that notions were already current that were later to have great vogue.

The Chelmsford cases find their greatest significance, however, not as illustrations of the use and abuse of evidence, but because they exemplify the continuity of the witch movement. That continuity finds further illustration in the fact that there was a third alarm at Chelmsford in 1589, which resulted in three more executions. But in this case the women involved seem, so far as we know, to have had no connection with the earlier cases. The fate of Elizabeth Francis and that of Elleine Smith are more instructive as proof of the long-standing nature of a community suspicion. Elleine could not escape her mother's reputation nor Elizabeth her own.

Both these women seem to have been of low character at any rate. Elizabeth had admitted illicit amours, and Elleine may very well have been guilty on the same count.[11] All of the women involved in the two trials were in circumstances of wretched poverty; most, if not all, of them were dependent upon begging and the poor relief for support.[12]

It is easy to imagine the excitement in Essex that these trials must have produced. The accused had represented a wide territory in the county. The women had been fetched to Chelmsford from towns as far apart as Hatfield-Peverel and Maldon. It is not remarkable that three years later than the affair of 1579 there should have been another outbreak in the county, this time in a more aggravated form. St. Oses, or St. Osyth's, to the northeast of Chelmsford, was to be the scene of the most remarkable affair of its kind in Elizabethan times. The alarm began with the formulation of charges against a woman of the community. Ursley Kemp was a poor woman of doubtful reputation. She rendered miscellaneous services to her neighbors. She acted as midwife, nursed children, and added to her income by "unwitching" the diseased. Like other women of the sort, she was looked upon with suspicion. Hence, when she had been refused the nursing of the child of Grace Thurlow, a servant of that Mr. Darcy who was later to try her, and when the child soon afterward fell out of its cradle and broke its neck, the mother suspected Ursley of witchcraft. Nevertheless she did not refuse her help when she "began to have a lameness in her bones." Ursley promised to unwitch her and seemingly kept her word, for the lameness disappeared. Then it was that the nurse-woman asked for the twelve-pence she had been promised and was refused. Grace pleaded that she was a "poore and needie woman." Ursley became angry and threatened to be even with her. The lameness reappeared and Grace Thurlow was thoroughly convinced that Ursley was to blame. When the case was carried before the justices of the peace, the accused woman denied that she was guilty of anything more than unwitching the afflicted. That she had learned, she said, ten or more years ago from a woman now deceased. She was committed to the assizes, and Justice Brian Darcy, whose servant Grace Thurlow had started the trouble, took the case in hand. He examined her eight-year-old "base son," who gave damning evidence against his mother. She fed four imps, Tyffin, Tittey, Piggen, and Jacket. The boy's testimony and the judge's promise that if she would confess the truth she "would CHAPTER II.


have favour," seemed to break down the woman's resolution. "Bursting out with weeping she fell upon her knees and confessed that she had four spirits." Two of them she had used for laming, two for killing. Not only the details of her son's evidence, but all the earlier charges, she confirmed step by step, first in private confessions to the judge and then publicly at the court sessions. The woman's stories tallied with those of all her accusers[13] and displayed no little play of imagination in the orientation of details.[14] Not content with thus entangling herself in a fearful web of crime, she went on to point out other women guilty of similar witchcrafts. Four of those whom she named were haled before the justice. Elizabeth Bennett, who spun wool for a cloth-maker, was one of those most vehemently accused, but she denied knowledge of any kind of witchcraft. It had been charged against her that she kept some wool hidden in a pot under some stones in her house. She denied at first the possession of this potent and malignant charm; but, influenced by the gentle urgings of Justice Darcy,[15] she gave way, as Ursley Kemp had done, and, breaking all restraint, poured forth wild stories of devilish crimes committed through the assistance of her imps.

But why should we trace out the confessions, charges, and counter-charges that followed? The stories that were poured forth continued to involve a widening group until sixteen persons were under accusation of the most awful crimes, committed by demoniacal agency. As at Chelmsford, they were the dregs of the lower classes, women with illegitimate children, some of them dependent upon public support. It will be seen that in some respects the panic bore a likeness to those that had preceded. The spirits, which took extraordinary and bizarre forms, were the offspring of the same perverted imaginations, but they had assumed new shapes.

Ursley Kemp kept a white lamb, a little gray cat, a black cat, and a black toad. There were spirits of every sort, "two little thyngs like horses, one white, the other black'"; six "spirits like cowes ... as big as rattles"; spirits masquerading as blackbirds. One spirit strangely enough remained invisible. It will be observed by the reader that the spirits almost fitted into a color scheme. Very vivid colors were those preferred in their spirits by these St. Oses women. The reader can see, too, that the confessions showed the influence of the great cat tradition.

We have seen the readiness with which the deluded women made confession. Some of the confessions were poured forth as from souls long surcharged with guilt. But not all of them came in this way. Margerie Sammon, who had testified against one of her neighbors, was finally herself caught in the web of accusation in which a sister had also been involved. She was accused by her sister. "I defie thee," she answered, "though thou art my sister." But her sister drew her aside and "whyspered her in the eare," after which, with "great submission and many teares," she made a voluble confession. One wonders about that whispered consultation.

Had her sister perhaps suggested that the justice was offering mercy to those who confessed? For Justice Darcy was very liberal with his promises of mercy and absolutely unscrupulous about breaking them.[16] It is gratifying to be able to record that there was yet a remnant left who confessed nothing at all and stood stubborn to the last. One of them was Margaret Grevel, who denied the accusations against her. She "saith that shee herselfe hath lost severall bruings and bakings of bread, and also swine, but she never did complaine thereof: saying that shee wished her gere were at a stay and then shee cared not whether shee were hanged or burnt or what did become of her." Annis Herd was another who stuck to her innocence. She could recall various incidents mentioned by her accusers; it was true that she had talked to Andrew West about getting a pig, it was true that she had seen Mr. Harrison at his parsonage gathering plums and had asked for some and been refused. But she denied that she had any imps or that she had killed any one.

The use of evidence in this trial would lead one to suppose that in England no rules of evidence were yet in existence. The testimony of children ranging in age from six to nine was eagerly received. No objection indeed was made to the testimony of a neighbor who professed to have overheard what he deemed an incriminating statement. As a matter of fact the remark, if made, was harmless enough.[17] Expert evidence was introduced in a roundabout way by the statement offered in court that a physician had suspected that a certain case was witchcraft. Nothing was excluded. The garrulous women had been give free rein to pile up their silly accusations against one another. Not until the trial was nearing its end does it seem to have occurred to Brian Darcy to warn a woman against making false charges.



It will be recalled that in the Chelmsford trials Mother Waterhouse had been found to have upon her certain marks, yet little emphasis had been laid upon them. In the trials of 1582 the proof drawn from these marks was deemed of the first importance and the judge appointed juries of women to make examination. No artist has yet dared to paint the picture of the gloating female inquisitors grouped around their naked and trembling victim, a scene that was to be enacted in many a witch trial. And it is well, for the scene would be too repellent and brutal for reproduction. In the use of these specially instituted juries there was no care to get unbiassed decisions. One of the inquisitors appointed to examine Cystley Celles had already served as witness against her.

It is hard to refrain from an indictment of the hopelessly prejudiced justice who gathered the evidence.[18] To entrap the defendants seems to have been his end. In the account which he wrote[19] he seems to have feared lest the public should fail to understand how his cleverness ministered to the conviction of the women.[20]

"There is a man," he wrote, "of great cunning and knowledge come over lately unto our Queenes Maiestie, which hath advertised her what a companie and number of witches be within Englande: whereupon I and other of her Justices have received commission for the apprehending of as many as are within these limites."

No doubt he hoped to attract royal notice and win favor by his zeal.

The Chelmsford affairs and that at St. Oses were the three remarkable trials of their kind in the first part of Elizabeth's reign. They furnish some evidence of the progress of superstition. The procedure in 1582 reveals considerable advance over that of 1566. The theory of diabolic agency had been elaborated. The testimony offered was gaining in complexity and in variety. New proofs of guilt were being introduced as well as new methods of testing the matter. In the second part of Elizabeth's reign we have but one trial of unusual interest, that at Warboys in Huntingdonshire. This, we shall see, continued the elaboration of the witch procedure. It was a case that attracted probably more notice at the time than any other in the sixteenth century. The accidental fancy of a child and the pronouncement of a baffled physician were in this instance the originating causes of the trouble. One of the children of Sir Robert Throckmorton, head of a prominent family in Huntingdonshire, was taken ill. It so happened that a neighbor, by name Alice Samuel, called at the house and the ailing and nervous child took the notion that the woman was a witch and cried out against her. "Did you ever see, sayd the child, one more like a witch then she is; take off her blacke thrumbd cap, for I cannot abide to looke on her." Her parents apparently thought nothing of this at the time. When Dr. Barrow, an eminent physician of Cambridge, having treated the child for two of the diseases of children, and without success, asked the mother and father if any witchcraft were suspected, he was answered in the negative. The Throckmortons were by no means quick to harbor a suspicion. But when two and then three other children in the family fell ill and began in the same way to designate Mother Samuel as a witch, the parents were more willing to heed the hint thrown out by the physician. The suspected woman was forcibly brought by Gilbert Pickering, an uncle of the children, into their presence. The children at once fell upon the ground "strangely tormented," and insisted upon scratching Mother Samuel's hand. Meantime Lady Cromwell[21] visited at the Throckmorton house, and, after an interview with Alice Samuel, suffered in her dreams from her till at length she fell ill and died, something over a year later. This confirmed what had been suspicion. To detail all the steps taken to prove Mother Samuel guilty is unnecessary. A degree of caution was used which was remarkable. Henry Pickering, a relative, and some of his fellow scholars at Cambridge made an investigation into the case, but decided with the others that the woman was guilty. Mother Samuel herself laid the whole trouble to the children's "wantonness." Again and again she was urged by the children to confess. "Such were the heavenly and divine speeches of the children in their fits to this old woman ... as that if a man had heard it he would not have thought himself better edified at ten sermons." The parents pleaded with her to admit her responsibility for the constantly recurring sickness of their children, but she denied bitterly that she was to blame. She was compelled to live at the Throckmorton house and to be a witness constantly to the strange behavior of the children. The poor creature was dragged back and forth, watched and experimented upon in a dozen ways, until it is little wonder that she grew ill and spent her nights in groaning. She was implored to confess and told that all might yet be well. For a long time she persisted in her denial, but at length in a moment of weakness, when the children had come out of their fits at her chance exhortation to them, she CHAPTER II.


became convinced that she was guilty and exclaimed, "O sir, I have been the cause of all this trouble to your children." The woman, who up to this time had shown some spirit, had broken down. She now confessed that she had given her soul to the Devil. A clergyman was hastily sent for, who preached a sermon of repentance, upon which the distracted woman made a public confession. But on the next day, after she had been refreshed by sleep and had been in her own home again, she denied her confession. The constable now prepared to take the woman as well as her daughter to the Bishop of Lincoln, and the frightened creature again made a confession. In the presence of the bishop she reiterated her story in detail and gave the names of her spirits.

She was put in gaol at Huntingdon and with her were imprisoned her daughter Agnes and her husband John Samuel, who were now accused by the Throckmorton children, and all three were tried at the assizes in Huntingdon before Judge Fenner. The facts already narrated were given in evidence, the seizures of the children at the appearance of any of the Samuel family[22], the certainty with which the children could with closed eyes pick Mother Samuel out of a crowd and scratch her, the confessions of the crazed creature, all these evidences were given to the court. But the strongest proof was that given in the presence of the court.

The daughter Agnes Samuel was charged to repeat, "As I am a witch and consenting to the death of Lady Cromwell, I charge thee, come out of her."[23] At this charge the children would at once recover from their fits. But a charge phrased negatively, "As I am no witch," was ineffectual. And the affirmative charge, when tried by some other person, had no result. This was deemed conclusive proof. The woman was beyond doubt guilty. The same method was applied with equally successful issue to the father. When he refused to use the words of the charge he was warned by the judge that he would endanger his life. He gave way.

It is needless to say that the grand jury arraigned all three of the family and that the "jury of life and death"

found them guilty. It needed but a five hours' trial.[24] The mother was induced to plead pregnancy as a delay to execution, but after an examination by a jury was adjudged not pregnant. The daughter had been urged to make the same defence, but spiritedly replied, "It shall never be said that I was both a witch and a whore." At the execution the mother made another confession, in which she implicated her husband, but refused to the end to accuse her daughter.

From beginning to end it had been the strong against the weak. Sir Robert Throckmorton, Sir Henry Cromwell, William Wickham, Bishop of Lincoln, the justices of the peace, Justice Fenner of the king's court, the Cambridge scholars, the "Doctor of Divinitie," and two other clergymen, all were banded together against this poor but respectable family. In some respects the trial reminds us of one that was to take place ninety-nine years later in Massachusetts. The part played by the children in the two instances was very similar. Mother Samuel had hit the nail on the head when she said that the trouble was due to the children's "wantonness."

Probably the first child had really suffered from some slight ailment. The others were imitators eager to gain notice and pleased with their success; and this fact was realized by some people at the time. "It had been reported by some in the county, those that thought themselves wise, that this Mother Samuel ... was an old simple woman, and that one might make her by fayre words confesse what they would." Moreover the tone of the writer's defense makes it evident that others beside Mother Samuel laid the action of the Throckmorton children to "wantonness." And six years later Samuel Harsnett, chaplain to the Bishop of London and a man already influential, called the account of the affair "a very ridiculous booke" and evidently believed the children guilty of the same pretences as William Somers, whose confessions of imposture he was relating.[25]

We have already observed that the Warboys affair was the only celebrated trial of its sort in the last part of Elizabeth's reign--that is, from the time of Reginald Scot to the accession of James I. This does not mean that the superstition was waning or that the trials were on the decrease. The records show that the number of trials was steadily increasing. They were more widely distributed. London was still the centre of the belief.

Chief-Justice Anderson sent Joan Kerke to Tyburn and the Middlesex sessions were still occupied with accusations. The counties adjacent to it could still claim more than two-thirds of the executions. But a far wider area was infected with the superstition. Norfolk in East Anglia, Leicester, Nottingham and Derby in the Midlands, and York and Northumberland in the North were all involved.

The truth is that there are two tendencies that appear very clearly towards the last part of Elizabeth's reign. On CHAPTER II.


the one hand the feeling of the people against witchcraft was growing in intensity, while on the other the administration at London was inclined to be more lenient. Pardons and reprieves were issued to women already condemned,[26] while some attempt was made to curb popular excitement. The attitude of the queen towards the celebrated John Dee was an instance in point. Dee was an eminent alchemist, astrologer, and spiritualist of his time. He has left a diary which shows us his half mystic, half scientific pursuits. In the earlier part of Mary's reign he had been accused of attempting poison or magic against the queen and had been imprisoned and examined by the privy council and by the Star Chamber. At Elizabeth's accession he had cast the horoscope for her coronation day, and he was said to have revealed to the queen who were her enemies at foreign courts. More than once afterwards Dee was called upon by the queen to render her services when she was ill or when some mysterious design against her person was feared. While he dealt with many curious things, he had consistently refused to meddle with conjuring. Indeed he had rebuked the conjurer Hartley and had refused to help the bewitched Margaret Byrom of Cleworth in Lancashire. Sometime about 1590 Dee's enemies--and he had many--put in circulation stories of his success as a conjurer. It was the more easy to do, because for a long time he had been suspected by many of unlawful dealings with spirits. His position became dangerous. He appealed to Elizabeth for protection and she gave him assurance that he might push on with his studies. Throughout her life the queen continued to stand by Dee,[27] and it was not until a new sovereign came to the throne that he again came into danger. But the moral of the incident is obvious. The privy council, so nervous about the conjurers in the days of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Catholic and Spanish plots, was now resting easier and refused to be affrighted.

We have already referred to the pardons issued as one of the evidences of the more lenient policy of the government. That policy appeared too in the lessening rigor of the assize judges. The first half of Elizabeth's reign had been marked by few acquittals. Nearly half the cases of which we have record in the second part resulted in the discharge of the accused. Whether the judges were taking their cue from the privy council or whether some of them were feeling the same reaction against the cruelty of the prosecutions, it is certain that there was a considerable nullifying of the force of the belief. We shall see in the chapter on Reginald Scot that his Discoverie of Witchcraft was said to have "affected the magistracy and the clergy." It is hard to lay one's finger upon influences of this sort, but we can hardly doubt that there was some connection between Scot's brave indictment of the witch-triers and the lessening severity of court verdicts. When George Gifford, the non-conformist clergyman at Maiden, wrote his Dialogue concerning Witches, in which he earnestly deprecated the conviction of so many witches, he dedicated the book "to the Right Worshipful Maister Robert Clarke, one of her Maiesties Barons of her Highnesse Court of the Exchequer," and wrote that he had been

"delighted to heare and see the wise and godly course used upon the seate of justice by your worship, when such have bene arraigned." Unfortunately there is not much evidence of this kind.

One other fact must not be overlooked. A large percentage of the cases that went against the accused were in towns judicially independent of the assize courts. At Faversham, at Lynn, at Yarmouth, and at Leicester[28]

the local municipal authorities were to blame for the hanging of witches. The regular assize courts had nothing to do with the matter. The case at Faversham in Kent was unusual. Joan Cason was indicted for bewitching to death a three-year-old child. Eight of her neighbors, seven of them women, "poore people," testified against her. The woman took up her own cause with great spirit and exposed the malicious dealings of her adversaries and also certain controversies betwixt her and them. "But although she satisfied the bench," says Holinshed,

"and all the jurie touching hir innocencie ... she ... confessed that a little vermin, being of colour reddish, of stature lesse than a rat ... did ... haunt her house." She was willing too to admit illicit relations with one Mason, whose housekeeper she had been--probably the original cause of her troubles. The jury acquitted her of witchcraft, but found her guilty of the "invocation of evil spirits," intending to send her to the pillory. While the mayor was admonishing her, a lawyer called attention to the point that the invocation of evil spirits had been made a felony. The mayor sentenced the woman to execution. But, "because there was no matter of invocation given in evidence against hir, ... hir execution was staied by the space of three daies." Sundry preachers tried to wring confessions from her, but to no purpose. Yet she made so godly an end, says the chronicler, that "manie now lamented hir death which were before hir utter enimies."[29] The case illustrates vividly the clumsiness of municipal court procedure. The mayor's court was unfamiliar with the law and CHAPTER II.


utterly unable to avert the consequences of its own finding. In the regular assize courts, Joan Cason would probably have been sentenced to four public appearances in the pillory.

The differences between the first half and the second half of Elizabeth's reign have not been deemed wide enough by the writer to justify separate treatment. The whole reign was a time when the superstition was gaining ground. Yet in the span of years from Reginald Scot to the death of Elizabeth there was enough of reaction to justify a differentiation of statistics. In both periods, and more particularly in the first, we may be sure that some of the records have been lost and that a thorough search of local archives would reveal some trials of which we have at present no knowledge. It was a time rich in mention of witch trials, but a time too when but few cases were fully described. Scot's incidental references to the varied experiences of Sir Roger Manwood and of his uncle Sir Thomas Scot merely confirm an impression gained from the literature of the time that the witch executions were becoming, throughout the seventies and early eighties, too common to be remarkable. For the second period we have record of probably a larger percentage of all the cases. For the whole time from 1563, when the new law went into effect, down to 1603, we have records of nearly fifty executions. Of these just about two-thirds occurred in the earlier period, while of the acquittals two-thirds belong to the later period. It would be rash to attach too much significance to these figures. As a matter of fact, the records are so incomplete that the actual totals have little if any meaning and only the proportions can be considered.[30] Yet it looks as if the forces which caused the persecution of witches in England were beginning to abate; and it may fairly be inquired whether some new factor may not have entered into the situation. It is time to speak of Reginald Scot and of the exorcists.

[1] Who from a confession made in 1579 seems to have been her sister. See the pamphlet A Detection of damnable driftes, practised by three Witches arraigned at Chelmsforde in Essex at the last Assizes there holden, which were executed in Aprill, 1579 (London, 1579).

[2] E. g. : "I was afearde for he [the dog with horns] skypped and leaped to and fro, and satte on the toppe of a nettle."

[3] Whether Agnes Waterhouse had a "daggar's knife" and whether the dog had the face of an ape.

[4] An offer which indicates that he was acting as judge.

[5] She was questioned on her church habits. She claimed to be a regular attendant; she "prayed right hartely there." She admitted, however, that she prayed "in laten" because Sathan would not let her pray in English.

[6] There is of course the further possibility that the pamphlet account was largely invented. A critical examination of the pamphlet tends to establish its trustworthiness. See appendix A, § 1.

[7] Alice Chandler was probably hanged at this time. The failure to mention her name is easily explained when we remember that the pamphlet was issued in two parts, as soon as possible after the event. Alice Chandler's case probably did not come up for trial until the two parts of the pamphlet had already been published. See A Detection of damnable driftes.

[8] Mother Staunton, who had apparently made some pretensions to the practice of magic, was arraigned on several charges. She had been refused her requests by several people, who had thereupon suffered some ills.

[9] It is possible that the whole affair started from the whim of a sick child, who, when she saw Elleine Smith, cried, "Away with the witch."

[10] A caution here. The pamphlets were hastily compiled and perhaps left out important facts.

[11] Her eight-year-old boy was probably illegitimate.



[12] Mother Waterhouse's knowledge of Latin, if that is more than the fiction of a Protestant pamphleteer, is rather remarkable.

[13] Allowance must be made for a very prejudiced reporter, i. e. , the judge himself.

[14] These details were very probably suggested to her by the judge.

[15] Who promised her also "favour."

[16] The detestable methods of Justice Darcy come out in the case of a woman from whom he threatened to remove her imps if she did not confess, and by that means trapped her into the incriminating statement, "That shal ye not."

[17] William Hooke had heard William Newman "bid the said Ales his wife to beate it away." Comparable with this was the evidence of Margerie Sammon who "sayeth that the saide widow Hunt did tell her that shee had harde the said Joan Pechey, being in her house, verie often to chide and vehemently speaking, ... and sayth that shee went in to see, ... shee founde no bodie but herselfe alone."

[18] Reginald Scot, Discoverie of Witchcraft, 542, says of this trial, "In the meane time let anie man with good consideration peruse that booke published by W. W. and it shall suffice to satisfie him in all that may be required.... See whether the witnesses be not single, of what credit, sex, and age they are; namelie lewd miserable and envious poore people; most of them which speake to anie purpose being old women and children of the age of 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 yeares."

[19] There can be no doubt that Brian Darcy either wrote the account himself or dictated it to "W. W." The frequent use of "me," meaning by that pronoun the judge, indicates that he was responsible.

[20] It is some relief in this trial to read the testimony of John Tendering about William Byett. He had a cow

"in a strange case." He could not lift it. He put fire under the cow, she got up and "there stood still and fell a byting of stickes larger than any man's finger and after lived and did well."

[21] Second wife of Sir Henry Cromwell, who was the grandfather of Oliver.

[22] The children were strangely inconsistent. At the first they had fits when Mother Samuel appeared. Later they were troubled unless Mother Samuel were kept in the house, or unless they were taken to her house.

[23] This device seems to have been originally suggested by the children to try Mother Samuel's guilt.

[24] The clergyman, "Doctor Dorrington," had been one of the leaders in prosecuting them.

[25] Harsnett, Discovery of the Fraudulent Practises of John Darrel (London, 1599), 92, 97.

[26] Among the manuscripts on witchcraft in the Bodleian Library are three such pardons of witches for their witchcraft--one of Jane Mortimer in 1595, one of Rosa Bexwell in 1600, and one of "Alice S.," without date but under Elizabeth.

[27] In 1595 he was made warden of the Manchester Collegiate Church. Dee has in our days found a biographer. See John Dee (1527-1608), by Charlotte Fell Smith (London, 1909).

[28] For the particular case, see Mary Bateson, ed., Records of the Borough of Leicester (Cambridge, 1899), III. 335; for the general letters patent covering such cases see id. , II, 365, 366.



[29] For this story see Ralph Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (London, 1577, reprinted 1586-1587 and 1807-1808), ed. of 1807-1808, IV, 891, 893. Faversham was then "Feversham."

[30] Justice Anderson, when sentencing a witch to a year's imprisonment, declared that this was the twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth witch he had condemned. This is good evidence that the records of many cases have been lost. See Brit. Mus., Sloane MS. 831, f. 38.





From the chronicling of witch trials we turn aside in this chapter to follow the career of the first great English opponent of the superstition. We have seen how the attack upon the supposed creatures of the Devil was growing stronger throughout the reign of Elizabeth. We shall see how that attack was checked, at least in some degree, by the resistance of one man. Few men of so quiet and studious life have wrought so effectively as Reginald Scot. He came of a family well known in Kent, but not politically aggressive. As a young man he studied at Hart Hall[1] in Oxford, but left without taking his degree and returned to Scots-Hall, where he settled down to the routine duties of managing his estate. He gave himself over, we are told, to husbandry and gardening and to a solid course of general reading in the obscure authors that had "by the generality been neglected." In 1574 his studies in horticulture resulted in the publication of A Perfect Platforme of a Hoppe-Garden and necessary instructions for the making and maintaining thereof. That the book ministered to a practical interest was evidenced by the call for three editions within five years. Whether he now applied himself to the study of that subject which was to be the theme of his Discoverie, we do not know. It was a matter which had doubtless arrested his attention even earlier and had enlisted a growing interest upon his part. Not until a decade after his Hoppe-Garden, however, did he put forth the epoch-making Discoverie. Nor does it seem likely that he had been engaged for a long period on the actual composition. Rather, the style and matter of the book seem to evince traces of hurry in preparation. If this theory be true--and Mr. Brinsley Nicholson, his modern commentator, has adduced excellent reasons for accepting it[2]--there can be but one explanation, the St. Oses affair. That tragedy, occurring within a short distance of his own home, had no doubt so outraged his sense of justice, that the work which he had perhaps long been contemplating he now set himself to complete as soon as possible.[3] Even he who runs may read in Scot's strong sentences that he was not writing for instruction only, to propound a new doctrine, but that he was battling with the single purpose to stop a detestable and wicked practice. Something of a dilettante in real life, he became in his writing a man with an absorbing mission. That mission sprang not indeed from indignation at the St. Oses affair alone. From the days of childhood his experience had been of a kind to encourage skepticism. He had been reared in a county where Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, first came into prominence, and he had seen the downfall that followed her public exposure.[4] In the year after he brought out his Hoppe-garden, his county was again stirred by performances of a supposedly supernatural character. Mildred Norrington, a girl of seventeen,[5] used ventriloquism with such skill that she convinced two clergymen and all her neighbors that she was possessed. In answer to queries, the evil spirit that spoke through Mildred declared that "old Alice of Westwell"[6] had sent him to possess the girl. Alice, the spirit admitted, stood guilty of terrible witchcrafts.

The demon's word was taken, and Alice seems to have been "arraigned upon this evidence."[7] But, through the justices' adroit management of the trial, the fraud of the accuser was exposed. She confessed herself a pretender and suffered "condign punishment." This case happened within six miles of Scot's home and opened his eyes to the possibility of humbug. In the very same year two pretenders, Agnes Bridges and Rachel Pinder, were convicted in London. By vomiting pins and straws[8] they had convinced many that they were bewitched, but the trickery was soon found out and they were compelled to do public penance at St. Paul's.[9]

We are not told what was the fate of a detestable Mother Baker, who, when consulted by the parents of a sick girl at New Romney in Kent, accused a neighbor woman.[10] She said that the woman had made a waxen heart and pricked it and by this means accomplished her evil purpose. In order to prove her accusation, she had in the mean time concealed the wax figure of a heart in the house of the woman she accused, and then pretended to find it.[11] It is some satisfaction to know that the malicious creature--who, during the history of witchcraft, had many imitators--was caught and compelled to confess.

Scot learned, indeed, by observing marvels of this sort[12]--what it is strange that many others did not learn--to look upon displays of the supernatural with a good deal of doubt. How much he had ever believed in them we do not know. It is not unlikely that in common with his generation he had, as a young man, held a somewhat ill-defined opinion about the Devil's use of witches. The belief in that had come down, a comparatively innocuous tradition, from a primitive period. It was a subject that had not been raised in CHAPTER III.


speculation or for that matter in court rooms. But since Scot's early manhood all this had been changed.

England had been swept by a tidal wave of suspicion. Hazy theological notions had been tightened into rigid convictions. Convictions had passed into legislative statutes and instructions to judges. The bench, which had at first acted on the new laws with caution and a desire to detect imposture, became infected with the fear and grew more ready to discover witchcraft and to punish it. It is unnecessary to recapitulate the progress of a movement already traced in the previous chapter. Suffice it to say that the Kentish gentleman, familiarized with accounts of imposture, was unwilling to follow the rising current of superstition. Of course this is merely another way of saying that Scot was unconventional in his mental operations and thought the subject out for himself with results variant from those of his own generation. Here was a new abuse in England, here was a wrong that he had seen spring up within his own lifetime and in his own part of England. He made it his mission as far as possible to right the wrong. "For so much," he says, "as the mightie helpe themselves together, and the poore widowes crie, though it reach to heaven, is scarse heard here upon earth: I thought good (according to my poore abilitie) to make intercession, that some part of common rigor, and some points of hastie judgement may be advised upon."[13]

It was indeed a splendid mission and he was singularly well equipped for it. He had the qualifications--scholarly training and the power of scientific observation, a background of broad theological and scriptural information, a familiarity with legal learning and practice, as well as a command of vigorous and incisive language--which were certain to make his work effective towards its object.

That he was a scholar is true in more senses than one. In his use of deduction from classical writers he was something of a scholastic, in his willingness to venture into new fields of thought he was a product of the Renaissance, in his thorough use of research he reminds us of a modern investigator. He gives in his book a bibliography of the works consulted by him and one counts over two hundred Latin and thirty English titles.

His reading had covered the whole field of superstition. To Cornelius Agrippa and to Wierus (Johann Weyer),[14] who had attacked the tyranny of superstition upon the Continent, he owed an especial debt. He had not, however, borrowed enough from them to impair in any serious way the value of his own original contribution.

In respect to law, Scot was less a student than a man of experience. The Discoverie, however, bristled with references which indicated a legal way of thinking. He was almost certainly a man who had used the law.

Brinsley Nicholson believes that he had been a justice of the peace. In any case he had a lawyer's sense of the value of evidence and a lawyer's way of putting his case.

No less practical was his knowledge of theology and scripture. Here he had to meet the baffling problems of the Witch of Endor. The story of the witch who had called up before the frightened King Saul the spirit of the dead Samuel and made him speak, stood as a lion in the path of all opponents of witch persecution. When Scot dared to explain this Old Testament tale as an instance of ventriloquism, and to compare it to the celebrated case of Mildred Norrington, he showed a boldness in interpretation of the Bible far in advance of his contemporaries.

His anticipation of present-day points of view cropped out perhaps more in his scientific spirit than in any other way. For years before he put pen to paper he had been conducting investigations into alleged cases of conjuring and witchcraft, attending trials,[15] and questioning clergymen and magistrates. For such observation he was most favorably situated and he used his position in his community to further his knowledge. A man almost impertinently curious was this sixteenth-century student. When he learned of a conjurer whose sentence of death had been remitted by the queen and who professed penitence for his crimes, he opened a correspondence and obtained from the man the clear statement that his conjuries were all impostures. The prisoner referred him to "a booke written in the old Saxon toong by one Sir John Malborne, a divine of Oxenford, three hundred yeares past," in which all these trickeries are cleared up. Scot put forth his best efforts to procure the work from the parson to whom it had been entrusted, but without success.[16] In another case he attended the assizes at Rochester, where a woman was on trial. One of her accusers was the CHAPTER III.


vicar of the parish, who made several charges, not the least of which was that he could not enunciate clearly in church owing to enchantment. This explanation Scot carried to her and she was able to give him an explanation much less creditable to the clergyman of the ailment, an explanation which Scot found confirmed by an enquiry among the neighbors. To quiet such rumors in the community about the nature of the illness the vicar had to procure from London a medical certificate that it was a lung trouble.[17]

Can we wonder that a student at such pains to discover the fact as to a wrong done should have used barbed words in the portrayal of injustice? Strong convictions spurred on his pen, already taught to shape vigorous and incisive sentences. Not a stylist, as measured by the highest Elizabethan standards of charm and mellifluence, he possessed a clearness and directness which win the modern reader. By his methods of analysis he displayed a quality of mind akin to and probably influenced by that of Calvin, while his intellectual attitude showed the stimulus of the Reformation.

He was indeed in his own restricted field a reformer. He was not only the protagonist of a new cause, but a pioneer who had to cut through the underbrush of opinion a pathway for speculation to follow. So far as England was concerned, Scot found no philosophy of the subject, no systematic defences or assaults upon the loosely constructed theory of demonic agency. It was for him to state in definite terms the beliefs he was seeking to overthrow. The Roman church knew fairly well by this time what it meant by witchcraft, but English theologians and philosophers would hardly have found common ground on any one tenet about the matter.[18] Without exaggeration it may be asserted that Scot by his assault all along the front forced the enemy's advance and in some sense dictated his line of battle.

The assault was directed indeed against the centre of the opposing entrenchments, the belief in the continuance of miracles. Scot declared that with Christ and his apostles the age of miracles had passed, an opinion which he supported by the authority of Calvin and of St. Augustine. What was counted the supernatural assumed two forms--the phenomena exhibited by those whom he classed under the wide term of

"couseners," and the phenomena said to be exhibited by the "poor doting women" known as witches. The tricks and deceits of the "couseners" he was at great pains to explain. Not less than one-third of his work is given up to setting forth the methods of conjurers, card tricks, sleight-of-hand performances, illusions of magic, materializations of spirits, and the wonders of alchemy and astrology. In the range of his information about these subjects, the discoverer was encyclopedic. No current form of dabbling with the supernatural was left unexposed.

In his attack upon the phenomena of witchcraft he had a different problem. He had to deal with phenomena the so-called facts of which were not susceptible of any material explanation. The theory of a Devil who had intimate relations with human beings, who controlled them and sent them out upon maleficent errands, was in its essence a theological conception and could not be absolutely disproved by scientific observation. It was necessary instead to attack the idea on its a priori grounds. This attack Scot attempted to base on the nature of spirits. Spirits and bodies, he urged, are antithetical and inconvertible, nor can any one save God give spirit a bodily form. The Devil, a something beyond our comprehension, cannot change spirit into body, nor can he himself assume a bodily form, nor has he any power save that granted him by God for vengeance. This being true, the whole belief in the Devil's intercourse with witches is undermined. Such, very briefly, were the philosophic bases of Scot's skepticism. Yet the more cogent parts of his work were those in which he denied the validity of any evidence so far offered for the existence of witches. What is witchcraft? he asked; and his answer is worth quoting. "Witchcraft is in truth a cousening art, wherin the name of God is abused, prophaned and blasphemed, and his power attributed to a vile creature. In estimation of the vulgar people, it is a supernaturall worke, contrived betweene a corporall old woman, and a spirituall divell. The maner thereof is so secret, mysticall, and strange, that to this daie there hath never beene any credible witnes thereof."[19] The want of credible evidence was indeed a point upon which Scot continually insisted with great force. He pictured vividly the course which a witchcraft case often ran: "One sort of such as are said to bee witches are women which be commonly old, lame, bleare-eied, pale, fowle, and full of wrinkles; ... they are leane and deformed, shewing melancholie in their faces; ... they are doting, scolds, mad, divelish.... These miserable CHAPTER III.


wretches are so odious unto all their neighbors, and so feared, as few dare offend them, or denie them anie thing they aske: whereby they take upon them, yea, and sometimes thinke, that they can doo such things as are beyond the abilitie of humane nature. These go from house to house, and from doore to doore for a pot of milke, yest, drinke, pottage, or some such releefe; without the which they could hardlie live.... It falleth out many times, that neither their necessities, nor their expectation is answered.... In tract of time the witch waxeth odious and tedious to hir neighbors; ... she cursseth one, and sometimes another; and that from the maister of the house, his wife, children, cattell, etc. to the little pig that lieth in the stie.... Doubtlesse (at length) some of hir neighbours die, or fall sicke."[20] Then they suspect her, says Scot, and grow convinced that she is the author of their mishaps. "The witch, ... seeing things sometimes come to passe according to hir wishes, ... being called before a Justice, ... confesseth that she hath brought such things to passe. Wherein, not onelie she, but the accuser, and also the Justice are fowlie deceived and abused."[21] Such indeed was the epitome of many cases. The process from beginning to end was never better described; the ease with which confessions were dragged from weak-spirited women was never pictured more truly. With quite as keen insight he displayed the motives that animated witnesses and described the prejudices and fears that worked on jurors and judges. It was, indeed, upon these factors that he rested the weight of his argument for the negative.[22]

The affirmative opinion was grounded, he believed, upon the ignorance of the common people, "assotted and bewitched" by the jesting or serious words of poets, by the inventions of "lowd liers and couseners," and by

"tales they have heard from old doting women, or from their mother's maids, and with whatsoever the grandfoole their ghostlie father or anie other morrow masse preest had informed them."[23]

By the same method by which he opposed the belief in witchcraft he opposed the belief in possession by an evil spirit. The known cases, when examined, proved frauds. The instances in the New Testament he seemed inclined to explain by the assumption that possession merely meant disease.[24]

That Scot should maintain an absolute negative in the face of all strange phenomena would have been too much to expect. He seems to have believed, though not without some difficulty, that stones had in them

"certaine proper vertues which are given them of a speciall influence of the planets." The unicorn's horn, he thought, had certain curative properties. And he had heard "by credible report" and the affirmation of "many grave authors" that "the wound of a man murthered reneweth bleeding at the presence of a deere freend, or of a mortall enimie."[25]

His credulity in these points may be disappointing to the reader who hopes to find in Scot a scientific rationalist. That, of course, he was not; and his leaning towards superstition on these points makes one ask, What did he really believe about witchcraft? When all the fraud and false testimony and self-deception were excluded, what about the remaining cases of witchcraft? Scot was very careful never to deny in toto the existence of witches. That would have been to deny the Bible. What were these witches, then? Doubtless he would have answered that he had already classified them under two heads: they were either "couseners" or

"poor doting women"--and by "couseners" he seems to have meant those who used trickery and fraud. In other words, Scot distinctly implied that there were no real witches--with powers given them by the Devil. Would he have stood by this when pushed into a corner? It is just possible that he would have done so, that he understood his own implications, but hardly dared to utter a straighforward denial of the reality of witchcraft.

It is more likely that he had not altogether thought himself out.

The immediate impression of Scot's book we know little about. Such contemporary comment as we have is neutral.[26] That his book was read painstakingly by every later writer on the subject, that it shortly became the great support of one party in the controversy, that King James deemed it worth while to write an answer, and that on his accession to the throne he almost certainly ordered the book to be burned by the common hangman,[27] these are better evidence than absolutely contemporary notices to show that the Discoverie exerted an influence.



We cannot better suggest how radical Scot's position must have seemed to his own time than by showing the point of view of another opponent of witchcraft, George Gifford, a non-conformist clergyman.[28] He had read the Discoverie and probably felt that the theological aspect of the subject had been neglected. Moreover it had probably been his fortune, as Scot's, to attend the St. Oses trials. Three years after Scot's book he brought out A Discourse of the Subtill Practises of Devilles by Witches, and followed it six years later by A Dialogue concerning Witches,[29] a book in which he expounded his opinions in somewhat more popular fashion. Like Scot, he wrote to end, so far as possible, the punishment of innocent women;[30] like Scot, he believed that most of the evidence presented against them was worthless.[31] But on other points he was far less radical. There were witches. He found them in the Bible.[32] To be sure they were nothing more than pawns for the Devil. He uses them "onely for a colour,"[33] that is, puts them forward to cover his own dealings, and then he deludes them and makes them "beleeve things which are nothing so."[34] In consequence they frequently at their executions falsely accuse others of dreadful witchcrafts. It is all the work of the Devil. But he himself cannot do anything except through the power of God,[35] who, sometimes for vengeance upon His enemies and sometimes to try His own people,[36] permits the Evil One to do harm.[37]

Gifford of course never made the impression that Scot had made.[38] But he represented the more conservative position and was the first in a long line of writers who deprecated persecution while they accepted the current view as to witchcraft; and therefore he furnishes a standard by which to measure Scot, who had nothing of the conservative about him. Scot had many readers and exerted a strong influence even upon those who disagreed with him; but he had few or none to follow in his steps. It was not until nearly a century later that there came upon the scene a man who dared to speak as Scot had spoken. Few men have been so far ahead of their time.