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The 5 most unfair British witch trials
The history of British magic is as old as the British Isles themselves. From pagan worship of the wilderness to druidic councils that married the power of magic with the power of law, it wasn’t until the rise of Christianity, thanks to the Roman occupation, that ancient practices of the Britons were considered anything other than the norm.
The rise of Christianity and the threat of eternal damnation introduced a new problem to anyone who challenged the status quo. Allowing someone to continue to practice old and heretical customs could prevent your soul from reaching heaven, and there was no greater threat than that of the heathen.
As the fear of the other grew, so too did the panic about the danger that they posed to Christian communities. Where once the magic of healers, druids, or scientists had been greatly sought after, now it was an apparent sure sign of allegiance with Satan.
Twinned with the growing belief that the Christian God was all-seeing and all-powerful, any slight challenge to that belief, such as a bad harvest or the death of a child, was quickly pinned instead on something working against his will: witches.
What was a witch trial?
While many communities likely enacted their own justice upon suspected witches, it wasn’t made law until 1542 when the Witchcraft Act was passed to try and temper religious tensions across England.
Henry VIII, who had led the reformation of the church, passed the act defining the crime and its punishments. Those guilty of witchcraft were sentenced to death, and all their possessions were forfeited.
The Witchcraft Act went through several repeals and restorations throughout the early modern period, but it wasn’t removed from the British legal system until 1736.
Between 1560 and 1700, it is believed that as many as 1,000 people (mostly women) were executed for Witchcraft across the UK. Here are five of the worst witch trials from around the British Isles.
1. Eleanor Cobham and Margery Jourdemayne - 1441
More than 100 years before the Witchcraft Act was implemented, Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester found herself at the centre of a life-threatening witchhunt.
After employing two astrologers to help divine her future, Eleanor was horrified to learn they had predicted that King Henry VI would suffer a life-threatening illness in the summer of 1441. At a time when discussing or imagining the death of a monarch was considered treason, Eleanor’s use of magic and divination crossed more than just the lines of heresy.
While on trial, Eleanor denied most of the accusations of witchcraft but did admit to purchasing potions from Margery Jourdemayne (also known as ‘the Witch of Eye’) that were designed to help her to conceive a son.
Eleanor and her conspirators were all found guilty of treasonable witchcraft on King Henry VI, and only Eleanor escaped with her life. Poor Margery, who had seemingly played no part in the divination of the King’s fate and was little more than a local folk healer, was burnt at the stake.
2. Chelmsford Assizes - 1566
It didn’t take long after the passing of the Witchcraft Act in 1542 for witch trials to start popping up in the local courts and assizes. As a result, Agnes Waterhouse was one of the first women executed as a witch in the UK.
Agnes, a widow from Hatfield, was charged with the murder of her neighbour, William Fynne, with whom she held a contemptuous relationship. Under questioning, Agnes confessed to the murder, along with the additional act of harming her local town’s livestock and owning a demonic spirit that lived in the form of her pet cat.
While it was likely that her confession was given under duress or torture, Agnes was hanged with other felons convicted at the assizes. Even after her conviction, she continued to confess to acts of witchcraft at a startling rate. It is believed that her last desperate act was to confess to the crimes to spare her daughter, Joan, who was also under trial.
3. Witches of Berwick - 1590
During the height of the witch trials, the town of Berwick in Scotland was a hive of witch-hunting activity. The small town just southeast of Edinburgh was responsible for the trial, torture, and execution of 70-200 men and women.
Perhaps the worst of the trials took place following King James VI's return from his honeymoon in Denmark. Impressed by the trials that had gripped Europe, James and his wife had set out to return to the UK, only for their fleet to run foul of a fierce storm.
Believing witches in Scotland and Northern England to be at fault, as many as 100 people were arrested under suspicion of attempted regicide. The trials dragged on for over two years, and many confessions given were likely made so under duress or torture.
4. Gwen Ellis - 1594
Gwen Ellis’ trial was the first recorded trial and execution of someone found guilty of witchcraft in Wales. Unlike England and Scotland throughout the height of the witch trials, Wales had managed to avoid the panic that had gripped the rest of the British Isles.
Accused of witchcraft, Gwen was a widow who had accumulated her own wealth through her life as a spinster. As well as her wool spinning, Grace admitted to providing healing and care to the sick and infirmed in her town - likely the activity that led to her unfortunate ending.
Implicated in the trial of two further suspected witches in Conwy, Gwen was arrested when a written charm was found in the home of Thomas Mostyn - a gentleman of high esteem and stature in Wales. The charm, which had been written backwards, was attributed to Gwen.
Gwen was executed in Denbeigh Town Square before the end of the year.
5. Pendle Hill - 1612
Thanks to the extensive recording of proceedings, the Pendle Hill witch trials are perhaps the most well-known in British history. Twelve individuals from Pendle and its surrounding areas were accused of murdering ten people using witchcraft.
The majority of those accused came from two families that were each led by an elderly matriarch. The families had been at odds with one another for decades, and it’s likely that when questioned, they pointed the finger at the other families in the hopes that they would exonerate themselves while settling some bad blood in the process.
All but two of the accused were tried at the Lancashire Assizes. One of the accused died from the squalid conditions in prison, while another was tried in the York assizes. Of the eleven accused that did go to trial, ten were found guilty of witchcraft. Nine of those accused were women.