The Practice of Witchcraft

Witchcraft is an important theme in Elizabethan England, legal accounts of witchcraft are abundant, the church saw it as a major problem and devoted a fair bit of energy towards it and both popular and more intellectual writings and plays deal with it repeatedly. It is however also a subject, which carries a lot of modern myths.

Firstly it is worth pointing out that the theory, first drawn up in the 1920’s, that Tudor and Stuart witchcraft is a last survival of the pagan mothergodess beliefs of pre Christian times which was being finally eradicated by the church, has now been thoroughly discredited. Nor is Tudor witchcraft related to the modern pagan beliefs or to the practices of modern witches either Wicca or Satanists.

English Eiizabethan witchcraft and magic is also different to the picture we get from images of the Inquisition and the Salem trials that film, plays and Television have given us. It is both more ordinary and generally less violent. Unlike the continent, witches were hung not burned, they were never thought to belong to covens or to have made sexual pacts with the devil. Many accusations of witchcraft in England resulted in the accuser being prosecuted for slander, and the shear number of prosecutions for witchcraft, whilst still distressing, is tiny in relation to the continental and American experience.

What is magic

“Magic is the art of compelling destiny” – Barbara Rosen. Magic covers anything, which is seen to be un or super natural. This of course leads us to ask for definitions of what is natural. The answer to these questions obviously changes with changes in scientific knowledge and from one person to another. A balloon rubbed against a jumper will stick to the ceiling – is this magic or static electricity? A steel needle moves seemingly by itself out of a pile of brass needles when the cunning man calls- is this example of his magic abilities or magnetism? A weird high pitched shriek- is it the wind or a ghost? A glass held by a ring of people that feels as if it is moving of its own accord toward a certain letter on a Oji board- is it a contact from the dead? Is taking a lucky pen into every exam with you an attempt to influence the outcome? Is repeating a phrase over and over such as “Good car start now” a charm? Obviously an Elizabethan person is going to have a different perspective as to what constitutes magic to that which is general nowadays but I hope that the above examples have made you think about how fluid our modern definitions are and remind you that Elizabethan definitions were equally fluid. The English Elizabethan experience of magic is of unorganised individuals dotted all over the country carrying out a huge range of services for their community and trying to use their power for their own ends. There is no one ritual or rite connecting them and no hierarchy. Their spells charms and incantations are highly varied and have only the most general of themes in common. Both in civil law and in church law they are condemned and their practices outlawed and yet commentator after commentator talks about them being commonplace and much in demand. ” A great many of us when we be in trouble, or sickness, or lose anything, we run hither and thither to witches, or sorcerers, whom we call wise men…seeking aid and comfort at their hands” – Bishop Latimer 1552. “You have heard of Mother Nottingham, who for her time was pretty well skilled in casting of waters, and after her, Mother Bomby; and then there is one Hatfeild in Pepper Alley, he doth pretty well for a thing that’s lost. There’s another in Coleharbour that’s skilled in the planets. Mother Stuton in Golden Lane is for fore- speaking; Mother Philips of the Bankside, for the weakness of the back; and then there’s a very reverend matron on Clerkenwell Green good at many things. Mistress Mary on the bankside is for erecting a figure; and one (what do they call her?) in Westmister that practiseth the book and the key, and the sieve and the shears; and all do well according to their talent.”- T.Heywood 1638.

Both men and women, high or low resort to them, various legal cases have people such as the countess of Somerset, Lord Burghley, and Raleigh using the services of witches as well as thousands of ordinary souls. There are records of charms, spells and potions to; cure sickness of people and animals, to win at cards, to defeat opponents in lawsuits, to escape arrest, to find lost property, to recover stolen property, to discover thieves, give immunity in battle, keep off vermin, give success at dice, protection from lightening, to put out fires, put children to sleep, to attain skill in playing musical instruments, for good luck, love charms, to remove marital impotence, find buried treasure, and determine the sex of a baby. And of course spells to counter witchcraft.

Using magic

There is no evidence of any connecting or underlying theory of magic in Elizabethan England, rather it was a mish mash of several old ideas that had become rather garbled. There are discernable elements of anglo saxon practices, medieval scientific ideas, catholic beliefs and rituals in some of the spells. But usually the people using them are totally unaware of the origin of the charms they are using and report learning them verbatim without any explanation. Words are frequently seen to be very powerful and the spell consists entirely in repeating the correct formula either verbally or in written form. Three paternosters and a creed said by one witch were all that she required to heal someone. Another woman repeated ” In the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost begone thou foul ringworm” three times to cure cases of ringworm. Such religious almost prayer forms of spells are common. Some however have no religious element and some are nonsense words or corrupted Latin phrases where the magic practitioner obviously has no idea of what they once meant. Sometimes the words must be written and have a physical proximity to be effective such as the ARATALY RATALY ATALY TALY ALY that has to be worn next to the skin to protect against the toothache. Transferring the evil, particularly of sickness into some other thing and then destroying that thing is another common theme in spells. This is the idea behind pressing a toad against a wart and then casting the toad away. Wearing a charm and then after a set amount of time burning the charm. Spells can be cast using something that has been close to the one to be bewitched is also common. A lock of hair or piece of clothing is seen to carry enough of the person in them to allow knowledge or control over them. This is a method commonly used to harm someone and as such obtain such small tokens was often seen as threatening. A few words and the burning of a lock of hair could be a spell to make someone fall in love or to cause a wasting sickness depending on the words and the intention behind them. Indeed the intentions were all important. A witch could harm someone just by wishing them ill. Several trials contain both confessions from accused witches of having ill wished someone and when sickness or ill luck befalls them they believed that they had brought it about by their ill wishing. ” the same Elizabeth saith that herself did kill one Shaddock with a clap on the shoulder, for not keeping his promise for an old cloak to make her a safeguard, who presently went home and died” 1579. Some spells seem to have been almost common knowledge and required no special person to do them. The sieve and shears being one that is commonly mentioned. “Stick a pair of shears in the rind of a sieve and let two persons set the top of each of their forefingers upon the upper part of the shears holding it up from the ground steadily; and ask Peter and Paul whether A, B or C hath stolen the thing lost; and at the nomination of the guilty person the sieve will turn around.” The use of this spell actually led to arrests being made.

Herblore is mixed in with all other magical practices. Some of it is simply traditional medicine and some based upon the medical theory of the time. It can be easy to get confused here; a modern person can see practices, which were perfectly orthodox to an Elizabethan, as magic at work. Weapon salve is a perfect example of this. Weapon Salve is simply a salve, which instead of being applied to the wound is applied to the weapon, which caused the wound. This was a perfectly acceptable medical approach based upon Neoplatonic ideas of the interconnectedness of things. Some herblore however was seen as the practice of magic, love potions for example.

Familiars and Spirits
A familiar or tame spirit is very common in court cases against witches. Usually in the form of a small animal such as a cat or toad but sometimes an imp or other unnatural beast. They are always presented as evil, living off the witch’s blood and carrying out her magical demands. ” one Mother Dutten dwelling within one Hoskins in the Clewer perish can tell everyone’s message as soon as she seeth them approach near to the place of her abode and further, she keepeth a spirit of frend in the likeness of a toad, and feedeth the same feind (lying in a border of green herbs within her garden) with blood which she causeth to issue from her own flank” .1579. Confession of Elizabeth Francis “First she learned this art of witchcraft at the age of 12 years, of her grandmother, whose name was mother Eve of Hatfeild Peverel, deceased. Item: when she taught it her, she counseled her to renounce GOD and his word, and to give of her blood to Satan (as she termed it), which she delivered her in the likeness of a white spotted cat, and taught her to feed the said cat with bread and milk, and she did so. Also she taught her to call it by the name of Satan, and to keep it in a basket…

Item: that every time that he did anything for her, she said that he required a drop of blood, which she gave him by pricking herself, sometime in one place and then in another, and where she pricked herself there remained a red spot which was still to be seen.” 1579. Often seen as a physical sign of a pact with the devil, familiars are a small and rather domestic version of the devil worship, which the continental pattern postulated. There is little sign of the sexual covenant, which the Inquisition claimed, nor the full sized devils of the Faustus story. The public, in general, was convinced of the reality of familiars. Some of the evidence suggests that some accused witches believed that their pet cats really were able to bring about death and destruction when asked just as many accused witches became convinced that their own ill wishing had power, and that really were witches.


All sorts of people seem to have engaged in practicing magic. Some from fairly high up the social scale but mostly from fairly humble backgrounds. Both men and women were involved. It is mostly, but by no means exclusively women who are prosecuted. We do not know if this means that it was mostly a female activity, or if men were just less likely to be brought to court over their magical activities. At the upper end of society were a number of intellectuals who would not have seen their own activities as in any way magical, but rather as scientific. However in popular eyes they were suspect and eventually many of them got into trouble in one way or anther. During the middle of the16th century Neoplatonism rose to intellectual prominence. Most popular in Italy, it was less commonly accepted in England but did attract the interest of men such as Dee, Gilbert and Raleigh. The idea was that the cosmos was an organic unity with everything sympathetically connected to everything else. Thus the stars and planets held an influence over peoples lives (an orthodox view at the time). So also just as an individual man was believed to mirror the world in miniature so a hand or face mirrored the man (palmistry). William Gilbert did a whole sequence of experiments with magnets and magnetism and believed that his results showed clear evidence of this interlinkage, with invisible forces binding things together. The weapon Salve mentioned earlier was thought to act in similar ways.

Popular magic and its practitioners however were a completely different kettle of fish, often illiterate and almost always unable to read Latin the Neoplatonist ideas were out of their reach. Confessions of witches often describe becoming a witch almost by accident by cursing someone in anger and then finding that the curse had power. “she cursed Poole’s wife and bade a mischeife to light upon her for that she would give her no yeast. Whereupon suddenly in the way she heard a great noise and presently there appeared unto her a spirit of a white colour” from then on she thought of herself as a witch. Relations taught others and accusations of witchcraft frequently run in families. Others gain a reputation over time in the general talk of their neighbours. For some people magic power was a welcome help to their survival, giving them a respected, if suspect, place in their community, and they chose to cultivate the reputation. A person who was known to be good at finding lost things was likely to be looked on favorably by their neighbours who would be more likely to help in bad times as a result. Alternatively some poor and much bullied person might be willing to risk a reputation as a dangerous person to cross, as it would give them protection from abuse in the future. For others simple good medical practice could gain a reputation for knowing more than other folk. Some practitioners specialised in only one form of magic. Some saw themselves as acting solely for the benefit of others. Some charged for their services and some worked only for goodwill. Some used magic for revenge and others to change the world around them more to their liking.

Getting into trouble

Witchcraft was against the law. It had been contrary to church law from the initial biblical enjoinder “thou shalt not suffer the witch to live.’ But in practice was very leniently dealt with throughout the medieval period and punished by the pillory or penance. Nor do cases turn up very often at this time. The first secular act was not until 1542 it appears to have only been used once and was repealed in1547. There remained no secular law against witchcraft until 1563. This “Act against conjuration’s enchantments and witchcraft’s” was current throughout Elizabeth’s reign and was then super seeded by James I’s harsher act.

“That if any person or persons after the first day of June next coming, use practice or exercise any invocations or conjuration’s of evil and wicked spirits, to or for any intent or purpose; or else if any person or persons after the said first day of June shall use practice or exercise any witchcraft, enchantment, charm, or sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed, …. Shail suffer pains of death as a felon…or exercise any witchcraft, enchantment, charm, or sorcery whereby any person shall happen to be wasted, consumed, any goods or chattels shall be destroyed, wasted or impaired…. Shall for his or their first offence or offences suffer imprisonment by the space of one whole year…..and .. stand openly upon the pillory by the space of six hours…..and for the second offence….shall suffer death” There was never any Inquisition in England and only one episode of major witch hunting in England -1640 Hopkins, witchfinder general. During the Elizabethan period prosecutions for witchcraft were patchy with the last few years of the reign seeing an intensification of prosecutions. It is worth pointing out at this stage that only one fifth of prosecutions led to a death sentence. There is also evidence that many people who were considered to practice magic in one form or another were never brought to trial at all. There are also a fair number of cases where the accused was able to clear- usually herself by producing a number of neighbours who were willing to swear to the accused’s good character. However the standard of evidence required to convict a witch were very low indeed. There are examples of small children’s evidence being used. “The said John Sellis saith, that he is about the age of 6 years 3 quarters, and saith…”. Hearsay is frequently accepted as proof as are any marks on the body which can be said to be the suck marks of a familiar. The inability to say the Lords Prayer correctly, the inability to weep in court and floating when ducked or “swam”, were all taken as proof of guilt. Prosecutions are very localised with accusations being made over and over again in the same villages over several generations often against members of the same family, whilst other areas are completely free of any prosecutions The main determining factor as to whether a prosecution is brought and the outcome of that prosecution seems to be the accused’s relationship with his or her neighbours. Trials which resulted in the accused being convicted usually show evidence of a long term and widespread breakdown and longstanding resentments. Alan Macfarlane and Keith Thomas point out that often what finally causes the official accusation is guilt. Guilt on the part of someone, usually of a little higher station, who has refused the suspected person some favour. The accused has gone away angry and when some illness or misfortune comes along they guiltily remember their former behaviour and assume that the accused person has taken a magical revenge upon them. “Item: she came often to the house of one John Hopwood of Walden, and had continually her requests. At the last, being denied of a leathern thong, she went her way offended, and the same night his gelding in the stable, being the day before in very good case, died suddenly”. Outcomes of accusations also depended very heavily upon they attitude and beliefs of the Judges. In general English Judges refused to believe in the full continental pattern of witchcraft with its Sabbaths, devil worship, sexual relations with the devil and sacrificing babies. The exception is Brian Darcy, who in 1582 applied the principles and methods of continental interrogation to a case in St Osyth Essex. He began with a presumption of guilt, used young children’s evidence repeatedly interrogated the suspects, made threats and promises that he later broke. The consecutive confessions get wilder and wilder. As a result of this trial two people were hanged, a further five were convicted but later reprieved, two were discharged and four people were acquitted. At the other end of the scale you find Magistrates who refuse to believe that the alleged acts of witchcraft are physically possible and therefore dismiss the case outright.

To sum up

English Elizabethan witchcraft is a special case- no professional witchfinders, no clerical involvement in the legal process and probably much less than a thousand death sentences in the whole period. Magic itself is widespread and common, resorted to by many, maybe even most people, at some time or other. Many practitioners consider themselves to be doing white or good magic and can count on a fair bit of goodwill in their community which by and large keeps them out of trouble. Witchcraft prosecutions come in clusters where you get officials who believe in it and are zealous in persecuting any reported instances. Some localities are very prone to accusations of witchcraft whether because of high levels of community tensions or because it became a self-perpetuating circle of revenge and guilt. Magic was used for a huge range of purposes, by a huge range of people and was reacted to in a variety of ways, from turning a blind eye to using the full weight of the law in procedures which allowed little chance of escape.

Written by Ellen, 2001