The Burning of Witches

Witches weren’t burned at the stake in England during what is commonly referred to as the “witch craze” or “burning times”, but I have used this method of execution in a scene in my novel Blackfeather. Below you will find a paper I submitted for an assignment we were set on the Go Higher course which explains in more detail what really happened to those accused of witchcraft during this period of fear and uncertainty. It is fully referenced for those who are interested in reading more.

Who Was Accused of Witchcraft in Early Modern England and Why?

witchburningDuring the witch hunts of the early modern period 95% of those accused of witchcraft in England were women.[1] It is a commonly held belief that many of these women were burned at the stake, but there is no evidence for this. On the continent, however, things were very different, horrific tortures were carried out on both men and women and burning was one of the forms of execution.

No single cause can explain the “witch-craze” that swept across Europe in its entirety. It can only be interpreted by viewing the multitude of factors that together impacted on the phenomenon as a whole.  Some possible reasons can be gleaned from the evidence  that is still available. Surviving records come from assize and ecclesiastical court records, gaol books, first-hand accounts and contemporary writings and tracts of the time.[2] The most complete are those from the Home Circuit, particularly Essex, but others are missing or incomplete and may have given us new insights on the situation had they survived.[3]

The early modern period covers the years 1450-1750, an era of major upheavals in both religion and politics. The Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the Puritan Movement all occurred at this time. The pressure to conform to whichever religion was prominent at the time meant those that did not do so became potential targets for witchcraft accusations.[4]   There was a ‘tyranny of local opinion and […] lack of tolerance towards noncomformity and social deviance’.[5]

The first statute against witchcraft was introduced in 1542 by Henry VIII, but there is no evidence it was ever enforced. Elizabeth I’s statute of 1563 made killing a person by witchcraft an offence punishable by death while James I’s statute of 1604 meant an accusation of injuring by witchcraft was increased from a sentence of life imprisonment to a death sentence also. [6]

Witchcraft was defined in two ways: Black Magic or Maleficium – causing or intending to cause harm or death, by magic and White Magic which included treasure seeking, fortune telling, finding lost objects and using herbs for healing.[7]   Maleficium was the most common accusation, usually involving a child, but also adults and animals.[8] As it was mostly women who took on the role of midwife and healer it is no surprise that these were the first to be accused.[9]

Whilst acknowledging the fact that the majority of those accused of witchcraft were women, James Sharpe, in his book, Witchcraft in Early Modern England, says that ‘few serious historians now see the problem in terms of a simplistic emphasis upon […] male oppression’. His evidence for this is that ‘a high proportion of those accusing them […] were also women’. He also points out that where witchcraft accusations were high men would also be accused.[10] Though it was only 5% in England, throughout Europe the figure for male accusations is 20%.[11]

Christine Larner refutes this by stating that women who conformed to the patriarchal social structure felt threatened by those who did not and would therefore attack them in order to protect themselves.[12] She describes the stereotypical witch as, ‘an independent adult woman who does not conform to the male idea of proper female behaviour.’ [13]

A more commonly held stereotype of the witch comes from Reginald Scot, writing in 1584 as, ‘women which bee commonly old, lame, bleare-eied, pale, fowl and full of wrinkles; poore, sullen and superstitious and papists; or such as knowe no religion.’[sic] [14]This description conforms to the idea most people have of witches, as old, ugly, hunchback women. These older women, often widowed, living without the protection of a man and relying on charity from their neighbours were regularly singled out.   The “charity-refused” scenario or failure to repay a debt often resulted in retaliation by the perceived witch, but it was also believed that those giving charity were just as likely to become victims of witchcraft as those who refused.[15]

The tensions of daily life and conflicts between women especially resulted in libellous accusations, with the word “witch” used to insult often paired with aspersions of sexual impropriety. Arguments could last for years between antagonists, each accusing the other of increasingly more grievous crimes, e.g. stealing a husband, bewitching someone into conceiving an illegitimate child or causing a child’s death.[16]   Men also used the word witch to insult not only women, but other men.[17] However, men’s sexuality was rarely called into question. It was the woman who was ‘sexually insatiable and prone therefore to sinful and deviant behaviour’.[18]

Rural village life appears to be full of feuding, quarrelling and troublesome individuals. There is: “overwhelming evidence of a lack of warmth and tolerance in interpersonal relations…[with an] extraordinary amount of backbiting, malicious slander, marital discord and unfaithfulness…[the] only unifying bond being the occasional episode of mass hysteria, which temporarily bound together the majority in order to harry and persecute the local witch.” [19]

The lives of the common people were dominated by rituals of both a religious and magical nature. Whilst the church presided over life’s milestones (baptism, confirmation, marriage, penance and death), superstition regarding luck and the banishment of evil persisted and was widespread.[20]   The church felt it had good reason to persecute women, after all Eve’s weakness had caused humanity’s fall from grace. It was the Christian Church that created the devil-worshipping image of the witch.[21] The contemporary writer, William Perkins summed up their position when he wrote:

“The woman being the weaker sexe, is sooner intangled by the devill’s illusions, with the damnable art, than the man… the devill hath more easily and oftner prevailed with women than with men.”[sic][22]

There was a second peak of witchcraft accusations which coincided with the 1642-1651 Civil War and the breakdown of social norms. Concentrated in Puritan East Anglia, this outbreak is most commonly attributed to the self-styled Witch-finder General, Matthew Hopkins and his companion, John Stearne.   Hopkins was the younger son of a clergyman who expected him to show his devotion to God by setting an example. It was finding and executing witches that provided him an opportunity to do this.[23]

Historians have concluded from his use of certain techniques that Hopkins was aware of continental literature on witchcraft beliefs and the methods employed to prosecute them.[24] Though torture was illegal in England, he regularly used walking, (the constant pacing round and round of the accused for hours on end until exhaustion brought her to collapse and therefore nearer to confession). The accused could be brought to confession by sleep deprivation over several nights. He also used ducking or swimming as a method for confirming a witch’s guilt; the hands and feet of the accused were tied together she was thrown in a lake to see whether or not she floated (guilty) or drowned (innocent).

If this is true, it may be that this knowledge of Continental practices, along with his religious upbringing, influenced his attitudes towards women. Out of the 250 people he accused, 161 were women, 19 of whom were hung together. He was responsible for 100 deaths in total.[25]

The Hopkins trials were unusual in the number of cases involving the devil. It was the sexually active, sinful and manipulative woman, who sought to fulfill her sexual needs by liaisons with the devil that came to the fore in the 1645-1647 trials.[26]    The Lancashire witch trials also differed from the usual pattern of accusations in that groups of witches were thought to have acted together and attended “Sabbats”. In 1612 and 1633 families, acting as witch-finders [27] and accusing each other of crimes of maleficium, resulted in the mass hangings of ten and nineteen people respectively.

The early modern period could be a dangerous time for women, but especially so if they were considered to be outside the jurisdiction of men. Women who were unmarried, widowed or lived alone were viewed with suspicion from both sexes and with jealousy by those who must defer to their husbands, the church and male authority as a whole. Self-governing, outspoken, sexually independent women and their opposites: elderly, poor, and reliant women, were easy targets for charges of witchcraft when misfortune, illness, conflict and death took their toll. Gossip, a predominantly women’s pastime, could stir up the enmity and hatred of an entire community.[28]

Attitudes towards women were influenced by the church, patriarchy and politics. Women were targeted because of their status and the perceived ability to ‘manipulate men for their own ends in a male-dominated Christian society’.[29] The witch craze (though it never really reached this level in England) and witch trials could not have occurred without the church creating the idea of a Satanic Pact and the legal system’s acceptance that witchcraft was a crime.[30] Accusations may have been fuelled by women’s conflicts, but it was men who were the law-makers, gaolers, judges, jurors and priests. The majority of those accused were hung or died in prison either having been given a life sentence or before they were even brought to trial through the awful conditions in which they were kept.

Whilst Kate’s dream of being burned at the stake in Chapter Five and description of Catherine Whittle’s execution for conversing with spirits in Chapter Eleven of  Blackfeather may not be quite correct, women who were accused and found guilty of treason and adultery were burned in this way. By placing them in a barrel of tar a continuous and furious fire was ensured with no risk of it going  out before death had occurred. I chose to use burning at the stake as it was a more terrifying event that would stick in the minds of those who observed it and something more likely to cause trauma to the souls of Catherine Whittle and her father, Thomas. It also provided a neat solution to Catherine’s burial in the small jewellery-box-sized casket which Kate discovers in the church 500 hundred years later.

Nel Ashley is the author of Blackfeather – a Fallen Angel Paranormal Romance  and Immortal, the second book in the Blackfeather Series. She is currently working on her third novel, Persephone Reborn, a vampire romance influenced by Greek mythology.

You can also connect with Nel on Facebook and Twitter

[1] Lea, Deborah, ‘Harlots, Whores and Witches’, in Herstoria (3) Autumn 2009,  pp.32-36

[2] Pickering, David & Pickering, Andrew, Witch Hunt: The Persecution of Witches in England,  (Stroud: Amberley, 2013)

[3] Ibid

[4] Sharpe, James, Witchcraft in Early Modern England, (England: Pearson Education, 2001)

[5] Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England (London: Penguin, 2003)

[6] McFarlane, Alan, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (London: Longman, 2009)

[7] McFarlane, p. 3-5 and Thomas, p. 518-519

[8] Pickering, David & Pickering, Andrew, Witch Hunt: The Persecution of Witches in England (Stroud: Amberley, 2013)

[9] Ibid

[10] Sharpe, p.10

[11] Roper, Lyndal, Witch Craze (Suffolk: St Edmundsbury Press Ltd, 2004)

[12] Larner, Christine, Witchcraft and Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985)


[14] Scot, Reginald,  The Discoverie of Witchcraft  (Dover Publications Inc: Dover Occult Series, 1990)

[15] McFarlane, p105 and  p.174, Thomas, p.661,

[16] Lea, Deborah, ‘Harlots, Whores and Witches’, in Herstoria (3) Autumn 2009, pp.32-36

[17] Ibid

[18] Hester, Marianne, pp.294

[19] Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (1982) as cited in Sharpe p.34

[20] Wilby, Emma, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic  (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2005)

[21] Sharpe p.6

[21] Perkins, William, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Wtchcraft. So Farre Forth as it is Revealed in the Scriptures, and Manifest by True Experience, (Cambridge, 1608) as cited in Sharpe p.43

[23] Gaskill, Malcolm, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-century English Tragedy, (Great Britain: John Murray, 2006)

[24] Sharpe, Jim, ‘The devil in East Anglia: the Matthew Hopkins trials reconsidered’, in Barry, Hester and Roberts, eds, Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1996, pp.237-254.

[25] Davies, Owen, Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p.91

[26] Hester, Marianne, ‘Patriarchal reconstruction and witch hunting’, in Barry, Hester and Roberts, eds, Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp.288-306

[27] Swain, John, ‘Witchcraft, economy and society in the forest of Pendle’ in Poole, Robert, ed,  The Lancashire Witches, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).

[28] Lea, Deborah, ‘Harlots, Whores and Witches’, in Herstoria (3) Autumn 2009, pp.32-36

[29] Katz, Steven, T., The Holocaust in Historical Context: Holocaust and Mass Death Before The Modern Age Vol 1. (USA: Oxford University Press Inc, 1994)

[30] Sharpe, p.33 and Pickering & Pickering, p.41