Elizabeth Francis, Fraunces, Frauncis or Frances, (c. 1529–1579) was an English woman who was tried three times for witchcraft at the Chelmsford Assizes in Essex. Declared guilty on each occasion, her first two sentences, in 1566 and 1573, were for her to be imprisoned for a year during which she was to be placed in a pillory four times. In 1579, together with three other women, she was charged with bewitchment and murder by witchcraft. She was executed by hanging, probably within days of her third trial.
Each of Elizabeth’s trials is noteworthy for different reasons. Her first was not only the first prosecution under the new Witchcraft Act 1563Until the passage of Henry VIII’s Act of 1542 witchcraft was dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts rather being seen as a secular felony. It is unknown what triggered the perceived need for such a law, but it undoubtedly suited Henry’s agenda of wresting power from the Catholic Church. Until the passage of Henry VIII’s Act of 1542 witchcraft was dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts rather being seen as a secular felony. It is unknown what triggered the perceived need for such a law, but it undoubtedly suited Henry’s agenda of wresting power from the Catholic Church. – which stipulated capital punishment for those found guilty of causing death by magical means – but the accused were also immortalised in the oldest surviving chapbook on the topic of witches, “The examination andFirst pamphlet describing witchcraft trials in England; it covers the testimony of witches at Chelmsford Assizes in 1566.First pamphlet describing witchcraft trials in England; it covers the testimony of witches at Chelmsford Assizes in 1566.
confession of certaine Wytches at ChensfordeFirst pamphlet describing witchcraft trials in England; it covers the testimony of witches at Chelmsford Assizes in 1566.“. Following her third trial thirteen years later, at which she pleaded her innocence, Elizabeth was featured in another pamphlet, “A Detection of Damnable DriftesSixteenth-century pamphlet describing prominent Chelmsford witchcraft trials against Elizabeth Francis and othersSixteenth-century pamphlet describing prominent Chelmsford witchcraft trials against Elizabeth Francis and others“.
Despite the Act mandating that a guilty verdict handed down for a second offence of witchcraft was punishable by death, at her second trial Elizabeth received the more lenient sentence of a year in gaol, owing to errors in the drafting of her indictment.
Elizabeth Francis, Fraunces, Frauncis or Frances,[a] was born in about 1529. A resident of the small village of Hatfield Peverel, about five miles (8 km) north-east of Chelmsford, when Elizabeth was twelve-years-old, her grandmother, Eve, had schooled her in the skills of witchcraft. Eve also gave her a pet cat.
Possessing a poor reputation and of low character, Elizabeth’s impoverished circumstances meant she often resorted to begging or had to rely on poor relief. She had a brief sexual relationship with Andrew Byles, whom she considered to be wealthy, but he refused to marry her. Worried that she might be having his child, Elizabeth took herbal remedies that would induce an abortion if she had conceived. Shortly afterwards, the assets of Byles dwindled and he soon died.
Later, Elizabeth was married to Christopher Francis, a yeoman. The couple had one child, a daughter, who was born around three months after the pair were married but the baby died when about six months old. Married life was a constant round of heated arguments with her husband, who had a surly disposition.
Details of Elizabeth’s first trial, held at Chelmsford Assizes, are documented in the chapbook “The examination andFirst pamphlet describing witchcraft trials in England; it covers the testimony of witches at Chelmsford Assizes in 1566.First pamphlet describing witchcraft trials in England; it covers the testimony of witches at Chelmsford Assizes in 1566.
confessionFirst pamphlet describing witchcraft trials in England; it covers the testimony of witches at Chelmsford Assizes in 1566. of certaine Wytches at ChensfordeFirst pamphlet describing witchcraft trials in England; it covers the testimony of witches at Chelmsford Assizes in 1566.“.[b] She was charged under the Witchcraft Act 1563Until the passage of Henry VIII’s Act of 1542 witchcraft was dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts rather being seen as a secular felony. It is unknown what triggered the perceived need for such a law, but it undoubtedly suited Henry’s agenda of wresting power from the Catholic Church. Until the passage of Henry VIII’s Act of 1542 witchcraft was dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts rather being seen as a secular felony. It is unknown what triggered the perceived need for such a law, but it undoubtedly suited Henry’s agenda of wresting power from the Catholic Church. of bewitching a child, which mandated the death penalty for witches who killed by using magic. It also prescribed that the method of execution should be hanging instead of burning, and that for non-fatal incidents the guilty receive a sentence of incarceration for a year during which they would also spend time in the stocks;[c] however, if the lesser offence was repeated, a death penalty would be applied. The first major English trial prosecuted under the new Act, proceedings were conducted by an array of prestigious judges, setting a precedent for later trials.[d]
Confession and verdict
Elizabeth readily confessed to a variety of wrongdoings. She explained that when she was a child her grandmother, then deceased, instructed her to renounce God and gave her a cat called Sathan. The white-spotted feline spoke to her in a strange hollow voice, promising to fulfil her needs. Normally fed bread and milk, the creature’s diet was supplemented with Elizabeth’s blood. Sathan provided her with livestock – eighteen black and white sheep – that Elizabeth kept in a field for a while, but she did not know what happened to them; the animals just eventually disappeared.
Sathan was, according to the testimony Elizabeth gave to her inquisitors, responsible for enticing Byles into the relationship with her, his loss of wealth, his death and the cat supplied the recipe of herbs needed to terminate any possible pregnancy. At her request, the creature also killed Elizabeth’s baby daughter then, by transforming itself into a toad, caused her husband to become incurably lame.
The final thing she told the justices was that she offered to give Sathan to a poor elderly neighbour, Agnes WaterhouseElderly Essex woman convicted and hanged for witchcraft at Chelmsford in 1566.,[e] – who it was later discovered was her older sister – as recompense for one of the cakes she had seen her baking. Insisting that the story she was growing tired of looking after the cat – Elizabeth had owned it for fifteen or sixteen years by then – was not true, when the sixty-four-year-old agreed to the transaction, she gave her the cat passing on the same instructions for its care as she had received from her grandmother.
Declared guilty of the original charge against her – that of bewitching John, the baby son of another resident of Hatfield Peveril, William Auger, until the child was paralysed – Elizabeth was sentenced to imprisonment for one year plus sessions in the stocks.
In 1572, Elizabeth again came to the attention of the authorities when she was accused of using witchcraft to make a woman ill. Her victim, a miller’s wife named Mary Cocke, was severely incapacitated for ten days following the incident on 25 March and feared she was not going to survive. Elizabeth was arrested with her case scheduled to be heard at Chelmsford Assizes in August. The court was very busy during that session – several other witchcraft cases were being heard: one against a woman with four serious charges against her;[f] a married couple facing a string of bewitchment accusations;[g] and another adult female who allegedly induced serious illness in livestock and a woman.[h] The documentation for Elizabeth’s case was not correctly presented necessitating the indictment be rewritten. This delayed her trial until 2 March 1573.
The revised paperwork was presented at court on 2 March 1573; however, a key component from the original indictment, that of it being Elizabeth’s second offence, was omitted. The legislation in the 1563 Witchcraft Act stipulated the death penalty for subsequent misdemeanours, yet despite the case being heard by one of the judges from her first trial,[i] her punishment was once more that she be jailed for a year with periods in the stocks.[j] The leniency of her sentence is especially noteworthy as the judges had no qualms prescribing the death penalty for three others declared guilty of witchcraft at the same time.[k]
By 18 March 1574, Elizabeth had served her sentence and returned to Hatfield Peverel. Four years later, in 1578, she is documented as a spinster and, unlike in earlier records, no reference is made to a spouse or partner. Villagers remained convinced that any unfortunate incident or sickness could be attributed to witchcraft or magic; paupers like Elizabeth, who mainly supported themselves by begging from neighbours, instilled a sense of terror by angrily cursing or bitterly responding if their pleas for sustenance were refused.
On one such occasion during Lent in 1578, Elizabeth approached Alice Poole begging for some old yeast; when Alice refused, Elizabeth headed off to try another villager, loudly cursing against and expressing a desire for Alice to suffer. There was a loud noise followed immediately by an apparition in the form of a white shaggy dog appearing beside Elizabeth. She conversed with the creature, rewarding it with a tiny morsel of bread after it promised to cause pain to Alice’s head. Elizabeth never saw the dog again but she later discovered from another villager that Alice was suffering with severe head pains that started not long after the incident.
An accusation was made against Elizabeth on 26 June 1578 alleging she had bewitched Alice, although at that time her victim was only ill; she subsequently died from the affliction on 1 November. Elizabeth was apprehended but the first hearing of her case did not take place until the Quarter Sessions at Chelmsford on 8 January 1579 where it was endorsed to be tried at the Chelmsford Assizes on 2 April.
At the trial the presiding judges were both Justices of the Queens Bench, John Southcote and Sir Thomas Gawdy. Only one charge was made against her: she caused the death of Richard Poole’s wife, Alice, by means of witchcraft. Elizabeth pleaded her innocence, naming two other women from Hatfield Peverel as witches, possibly in the hope it would help her cause, but no action was taken against either of them. She was deemed guilty and the death penalty by hanging was enacted, probably within a couple of days of her sentencing.[l]
Three other women faced accusations of witchcraft in the same session; two were hanged and the third was not tried due to a technicality in the drafting of her indictment.[m] Around two weeks after the trial, on 15 April, another pamphlet was produced, “A Detection of Damnable DriftesSixteenth-century pamphlet describing prominent Chelmsford witchcraft trials against Elizabeth Francis and othersSixteenth-century pamphlet describing prominent Chelmsford witchcraft trials against Elizabeth Francis and others“, detailing the the cases of the four women with Elizabeth as the principle character.
Writing in the early part of the twentieth-century, Wallace Notestein, an American scholar of British literature and historian, suggests elements of the first trial in 1566 are more likely to appeal to specialists in psychology rather than historians. He further argues that there is the possibility Elizabeth had associations with powerful figures in the area or that she was afforded leniency for initiating the case against her neighbour. The prosecutors may also have discounted much of her confession as it could not be verified by other witnesses.
Academic Peter Maxwell-Stuart speculates the lesser punishment may have been applied as the jury did not grasp the inference concerning her familiar, Sathan, made to demonstrating actions forbidden by the Witchcraft Act, that of summoning spirits. Another American historian, Jeffrey Burton Russell, feels the first trial typified many of the witchcraft proceedings in England: “the absurdity of the charges, the emphasis upon the familiar, … …” Scholar and specialist in early modern English witchcraft, James Sharpe, likens Elizabeth’s familiar with that of the Devil reported twenty-five years later in the North BerwickSeries of Scottish witch trials held between 1590 and 1593 case of Agnes SampsonScottish midwife, cunning woman and healer; central figure in the North Berwick witch trials; both offered the women paltry increases in wealth and the tales have roots in folklore but also reflect material provided by interrogators.
Writing from the perspective of a radical feminist, British historian Marianne Hester considers that the wording “waste his goodes”, included as Elizabeth’s words in the pamphlet about her first trial, should be interpreted as causing her lover to become impotent. As the two pamphlets concentrate principally on Elizabeth, despite being almost thirteen years apart and the work of different printers, both may stem from the same source.
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- In Scotland and England during the sixteenth century spelling was haphazard leading to many words, places and names having several variations. Modern-day texts often use an anglicised version.
- The first pamphlet to cover witchcraft in England, the chapbook was published in three parts throughout August 1566; it gives an accurate reflection of the indictments held at the Public Records Office.
- Usually they were confined in the pillory for a period of six hours, four times during the 12 month sentence.
- The four presiding judges were a local dignitary Reverend Thomas Cole, (a strict Calvinist and Archdeacon of Essex from 1559) and Sir John Fortesque, who at the time was keeper of the great wardrobe to Queen Elizabeth, later elevated to Chancellor of the Exchequer; on the second day, judgement was overseen by the Attorney General, Sir Gilbert Gerard together with a Justice of the Queen’s Bench, John Southcote.
- Agnes Waterhouse was then questioned by the prosecutors; she confessed to among other things bewitching William Fynee until he died on 1 November 1565; found guilty, she was sentenced to be hanged and was executed on 29 July 1566.
- The woman being prosecuted was Agnes Francis, who may have been Elizabeth’s sister-in-law; she was charged with killing two women, a man and a horse by witchcraft between October 1566 and March 1572. She was deemed guilty but was pregnant so was remanded.
- John and Joan Salmon faced several charges, jointly and separately, of maiming men and killing livestock.
- Agnes Steadman
- Sitting at the bench were Justice of the Queen’s Bench, John Southcote, – who had overseen her trial in 1566 and Robert Monson.
- Historians differ on whether the plea was innocent or guilty: Peter Maxwell-Stuart indicates Elizabeth pleaded guilty to the charge whereas Cecil L’Estrange Ewen and Rossell Hope Robbins state she claimed innocence.
- The three incurring the death penalty were: Catherine Pullen, William and Margery Skelton. All were accused of killing a variety of people by witchcraft.
- She named Elizabeth Lord, claiming she bewitched two people to death, and Mother Osborne, who she identified as a witch because she had seen witches marks on her finger and leg.
- Ellen Smith was declared guilty of bewitching a four-year-old child to death and Alice Nokes faced a similar charge; both were hanged. Margery Stanton was released.