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Witchcraft in the times of Henry VIII and beyond

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Witchcraft had long been forbidden by the Catholic Church before Henry VIII’s reign. Years before Henry acceded to the throne, Pope Innocent VIII had decreed in a papal bull document of 1484 that ‘sorceresses were real and harmful through their involvement in the acts of Satan’, a view that was to encourage hysteria over the existence of witches and their alleged sinister activities throughout Europe, decades before a similar pandemic took hold of England in the 17th century.

Witchcraft and the Tudors

Unlike growing paranoia over witchcraft and the practising of it on the continent, England’s climate was more muted and more accepting of some forms of divination. Monarchs like Henry VIII (1491 -1547), and later his daughter Elizabeth 1 (1533 – 1603) were passionate advocates of astrology themselves and employed such services to predict not only their own destinies but to choose dates for important events such as when to try and conceive, go to battle, stage weddings or coronations. What wasn’t looked on necessarily as witchcraft but a more accepted way of consulting the stars for guidance on all manner of subjects, was part of the popular culture of necromancy.

This tradition of practising magic, spell casting and communicating with the dead, didn’t always attract the wrath of the Catholic Church to the point of condemnation until such assumed practices were viewed as demonic and heretical. But the early middle-ages, by and large, viewed such superstitious practices as being part of the natural order and reflecting long-established pagan rituals.

Tudor people may not have been against using charms or occasional incantations to help them but they did fear ‘bad’ witches, those who used their magical gifts for ‘evil’. George Gifford (1548 – 1600) a preacher from Essex said ‘if there no witches there should be no plagues’ and his words show that the people of the time blamed natural disasters on witches and witchcraft. They thought they could prevent such disasters if they got rid of people thought to be witches.

Fortune Tellers

Before witchcraft became a byword for evil, resulting in thousands of people being accused of using magic for ill and as a consequence being imprisoned or executed, the Tudors took an enthusiastic interest in ‘soothsaying’ or the art of prophesying. Elizabeth Barton (the Nun of Kent) was a self-proclaimed teller of divine revelations who enjoyed a brief moment of royal patronage when her skills at predicting future events became known to Henry via his right-hand man and religious advisor, Cardinal Wolsey. Barton was a 19-year-old domestic servant when her first prophecy about a child dying appeared to come true.

Her fame increased by the time she met Cardinal Wolsey and through him had meetings with King Henry himself whom she impressed with her revelations that suited his own beliefs and politics. However, Barton’s hallowed status as a gifted prophet soon turned against her when she prophesied that Henry would die within a few months if he married Anne Boleyn. Soon afterwards the ‘Mad Maid of Kent’ as Barton was also known, was found guilty of false prophecies and for being involved in a conspiracy to kill the King and hanged at Tyburn on 20 April, 1534.

Seduction and Sorcery

By the time Henry tired of Anne Boleyn in 1536 and started seeking a new wife to give him the male heir he desperately needed, it was convenient for him to believe that she was a witch who had used magic to seduce him. A growing belief in such malevolent supernatural forces in Tudor England helped reinforce accusations of sorcery against unfortunates who found themselves facing enemies who wanted to get rid of them.

Boleyn was castigated as a sorceress, mainly because of rumours that she was a sexual libertine with unnatural sexual urges. it is possible that King Henry convinced himself he had been ‘bewitched’ to justify getting rid of her without a protracted divorce. In the end, Anne was executed on the grounds of treason and not witchcraft.

Contrasting against these extreme views of sorcery was a more acceptable form of magic-making, as demonstrated by Henry VIII’s endorsement of some of its practices, as being ‘purely natural’, a continuation of pagan ritualism and demonstrating the study of ‘natural’ phenomena in general with no evil or irreligious intent. For King Henry sorcery was acceptable as long as it tallied with his own beliefs and favoured his ambitions and prejudices.

The Witch-hunt Manual

Twenty-two years before King Henry’s reign the Malleus Maleficarum or the Hammer of the Witches (published 1487), written by German Dominican monk Heinrich Kramer (1430 -1505), was a treatise to argue the existence of witches working for the devil. It became a legal and acutely misogynistic manual for witch-hunting, torturing and killing them when found guilty. In 1484 the book was hugely influential, mainly because it was given the seal of the Papal Bull, the equivalent of a royal proclamation.

Kramer’s handbook for demonologists and witch hunters detailed a range of methods for determining a witch’s guilt and extracting confessions. Its ‘torture’ suggestions, such as the use of sleep deprivation, were used and continued in similar fashion during Henry VIII’s reign and beyond to the 17th century when witch-hunting reached its apotheosis. Cruel and inventive minds contributed to an obscene culture of torturing suspected witches that evolved in their perverse extremities during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Torture Techniques

Sleep Deprivation

Probably the least violent and barbaric of the various methods, where the unfortunate victim was usually deprived of sleep for around forty hours before relentless interrogation. It was often ineffective as the prisoner usually became delirious and would confess to anything.

Dunking (Water Torture)

The idea behind dunking the accused – usually an unfortunate woman strapped to a pole or plank and lowered into a lake or pond – was that if they survived drowning it would be proof of their guilt due to a witch’s supernatural lightness. Either way, if the victim survived dunking, they would still face a fateful painful death by hanging.


More commonly known as thumbscrews, they crushed the flesh and bones of the fingers or toes, often leaving the victim permanently crippled.


A barbaric form of torture where a rope fastened around the victim’s cranium was pulled tight fracturing the skull and facial bones.


A method to find tell-tale signs of evidence the accused was a witch by pricking or scratching marks on the body to see if they were insensitive to pain or didn’t bleed.


A popular form of torture in the famous Salem witch trials, where the victim was subject to having increasingly heavy stones placed on the body with the hope that such unbearable pressure would elicit a confession. Often the victim died through suffocation.

Heretic’s Fork

A torture device loosely consisting of a length of metal with two opposed bi-pronged ‘forks’ as well as an attached belt or strap. The device was placed between the breastbone and throat, under the chin and the victim hung from the ceiling.

Witchcraft and Misogyny

Many of those accused of witchcraft in the Tudor and Stuart periods were often old women who were poor and lived by themselves or they could be women on the fringes of society who didn’t fit in. They may have been women who didn’t live up to society’s norms. If such a woman fell out with their neighbour or shouted a curse out of the heat of the moment and that neighbour coincidentally suffered some form of accident or ill fortune, then the woman could be accused of using witchcraft.

More than 90% of those accused of witchcraft between 1450 – 1750 were women. They were seen as weaker and therefore more willing to do the ‘devil’s work’.

Thousands Tried for Witchcraft

Women were also viewed as ‘temptresses’ harking back to the biblical texts describing ‘original sin’ where Eve sinned and caused Adam to sin along with her. In Essex in the 1580’s, 13% of the county’s assize trials were for witchcraft. Out of sixty-four people accused of witchcraft fifty-three were found guilty. Three thousand women were officially tried for witchcraft in England between 1563 – 1700. Out of those four hundred were hanged. Another disturbing statistic reveals that between 1558 and 1709 over seven hundred and eighty-five formal cases involving four hundred and seventy-four witches were tried by assizes in Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey and Sussex. The terrible outcome was that over one hundred were hanged out of two hundred and nine convicted.

Good v Bad Witches

Witchcraft and the practice of it for either good (White Witches) or malevolent (to cause ill, death or to steal) was often viewed with a contradictory attitude in the middle-ages. The rise of the Protestant faith began to develop a more critical view of such beliefs and Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation, taught that witchcraft was a sin against the second commandment.

In 1538 he recorded his views in print about being troubled by the presence of two ‘witches’ allegedly poisoning chicken eggs in the nest and also poisoning milk and butter. ‘One should show no mercy to these (women): I would burn them myself’. Not only worried about spells being cast to cause mayhem Dr Luther argued that one of the most serious ‘perversions’ wrought by magic was the threatened degeneration of traditional female roles in the family.

Witchfinding Hysteria

Henry VIII’s reign (1509 – 1547) kick-started the early beginnings of paranoia about witchcraft in the Tudor period and the belief that the innocent could be ‘bewitched’, as Henry was led to believe had been done to him by Anne Boleyn. For a monarch troubled by disastrous wars abroad and bouts of impotency, it was far easier to lay the blame on demonic forces. Although Boleyn wasn’t accused of witchcraft during her trial, she was subject to being associated with cavorting with ‘demons’ and using witchcraft in the lead up to her arrest, and later after her execution (1536) was demonised as such centuries later.

This turbulent period of irrational superstition reached its terrifying climax by the 17th century with the likes of the ‘Witchfinder General’ (Matthew Hopkins), who between 1644 – 1646, mainly in East Anglia, had over three hundred women executed for witchcraft. Thousands of innocent women were imprisoned, hanged or even burned (mainly in Scotland) due to allegations of witchcraft – quite often initiated by their own neighbours.

Allegations of witchcraft could be used by the church to either control (dissenters and supposed heretics) or get rid of people whose beliefs did not comply with accepted religious beliefs and practices. Also, it was a way to silence people who were seen to cause arguments and conflicts in communities. At a domestic level, an accusation of witchcraft could be used by husbands to rid themselves of wives they no longer loved or wanted.

A heady mix of ignorance, bigotry and the fear of the unknown could often lead to complaints of witchcraft and that a citizen was a witch, sorcerer or a familiar of the devil. Such ignorance could condemn the likes of midwives, skilled practitioners and herbalists, simply out of a need to blame someone for accidents and disasters.

Institutionalised Murder

By the end of the 17th century witch-hunting reached a point of hysteria in England as the church used it to control people and ordinary citizens found it an easy way to take revenge on their enemies. The period witnessed the most famous witch trials in England known as the ‘Pendle Witches’ in Lancashire. Ten of the thirteen alleged witches were hanged in 1612 at Lancaster jail after having been found guilty of witchcraft. Their alleged crime was that they had sold their souls to ‘familiars’ and caused the deaths of around seventeen people in the town by using witchcraft such as using effigies of their victims out of pictures of clay and crumbled or burned to bring about death. The condemned included two men and an 80-year-old woman. Due to an inadequate drop from the scaffold the victims were left dangling and slowly dying by strangulation.

In short the criminalising of witchcraft and its association with sorcery and magic-making became little more than a means to carry out institutionalised murder by the state.