A short story of English Witchcraft Acts4 min read
From 1541 to 1951, England had laws strictly prohibiting the practice of witchcraft. During the early years it was a crime punishable by death and the forfeiture of goods and chattels.
Put into effect on June 1, 1653, the laws mandated the outlawing of any kind of witchcraft-related activities.
However, the 1653 Witchcraft Laws were not the first to appear in the English judicial system, as in 1542, King Henry VIII passed a piece of legislation that made witchcraft a felony, punishable by death.
Henry VIII’s Act was the first to define witchcraft as a felony. Literally, It was forbidden to:
“...use devise practise or exercise, or cause to be devysed practised or exercised, any Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to thentent to fynde money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone in his bodie membres, or to pvoke [provoke] any persone to unlawfull love, or for any other unlawfull intente or purpose … or for dispite of Cryste, or for lucre of money, dygge up or pull downe any Crosse or Crosses or by such Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries or any of them take upon them to tell or declare where goodes stollen or lost shall become ...”
In 1562, Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, passed a new law that said witchcraft would only be punished with death if harm had been caused. If no physical harm was done to the alleged victim, then the accused only faced imprisonment.
Indictments for homicide caused by witchcraft begin to appear in the historical record in the period following the passage of this Act.
In 1604, the year following James I’s accession to the English throne, the Elizabethan Act was broadened to bring the penalty of death to any one who invoked evil spirits or communed with familiar spirits. The Act’s full title was “An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits”, and It was this statute that was enforced by Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witch-Finder General.
Supporters of the Act included influent characters such as the Earl of Northumberland, the Bishop of Lincoln, the Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, the Attorney General for England and Wales, the Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, and the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench.
The Acts of Elizabeth and James changed the law of witchcraft by making it a felony, thus removing the accused from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the courts of common law. Burning at the stake was eliminated except in cases of witchcraft that were also petty treason, while most convicted were hanged instead. On the other hand, any witch who had committed a minor witchcraft offence (punishable by one year in prison) and was accused and found guilty a second time was sentenced to death.
It was the Witchcraft Act of 1735 that marked a complete reversal in attitudes: penalties for the practice of witchcraft as traditionally constituted, which by that time was considered by many influential figures to be an impossible crime, were replaced by penalties for the pretence of witchcraft.
In short, a person who claimed to have the power to call up spirits, or foretell the future, or cast spells, or discover the whereabouts of stolen goods, was to be punished as a vagrant and a con artist, subject to fines and imprisonment. The Act applied to the whole of Great Britain, repealing the previous Act.
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 remained in force in Britain well into the 20th century, until its eventual repeal with the enactment of the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, repealed on 26 May 2008 by new Consumer Protection Regulations following an EU directive targeting unfair sales and marketing practices.
It was a law in England and Wales which prohibited a person from claiming to be a psychic, medium, or other spiritualist while attempting to deceive and to make money from the deception (other than solely for the purpose of entertainment).
Interestingly, there were five prosecutions under this Act between 1980 and 1995, all resulting in conviction.
In any case, the period from the reign of Henry VIII up until the early 1800s was a time of great political, economic and social upheaval in England. The belief in witchcraft, pacts with the Devil, and supernatural powers (and the need to prosecute those who practiced these things)was an extension of the great changes in religious and cultural life in the country at the time.
Witch trials in England were well-known and highly publicized, many of which we still talk about today, but these are other stories…
Images from web – Google Research