Elizabeth Mortlock was a woman from the small farming village of Pampisford, in Cambridgeshire, convicted of witchcraft by an ecclesiastical court in 1566. She was known locally as a healer of children and animals, and diagnosed those possessed by spirits.[1] She also provided magic girdles, to protect women in childbirth.[2]

Although the Witchcraft Act of 1563Series of Acts passed by the Parliaments of England and Scotland making witchcraft a secular offence punishable by death. used the term witchcraft, it did not define it. The Act made killing or causing harm by magic – maleficiumAct of sorcery, historically usually performed by a witch, intended to cause harm or injury. – capital offences, but Elizabeth used her magic to heal.[3] Unfortunately for her though, in her ministrations she used Catholic prayers, which had been condemned as superstitious by the post-Reformation Church of England. And to compound her crime in the eyes of the Church, she recited them in Latin, “the vulgar tongue”; all prayers were required to be said in English. As a result, she was accused of “unorthodox devotion”, and tried at the ecclesiastical court in Ely.[4]

Elizabeth claimed in her defence that her healing power came from God, but the court ruled that could not possibly be so, and it must therefore be devilish. She was found guilty and ordered to appear before the congregation wearing a white sheet and a placard reading “for wicked witchcraft worthily I bid rebuke and shame”.[4]

Modern interpretations

At the time of Elizabeth’s trial, the idea of witchcraft being almost exclusively about pacts with the Devil and maleficium had not yet taken hold in England; that did not happen until around 1600.[2]

Mortlock was branded a witch, not because she physically embraced the Devil as described in the demonologies but because the Church had labelled her as deviant.[5]

From a legal perspective, jurists such as the Kent magistrate Reginald Scott believed that magic was associated with Catholicism, and therefore had to be rooted out as a logical progression of the English Reformation. There was as yet no clear distinction between magic and witchcraft. Indeed, in the medieval period most magicians were monks, friars and members of the clergy; being literate, they were able to read books of spells and make a little money on the side as a result.[6] The Church struggled to make a convincing distinction between divine magic – miracles – and what it considered to be demonic illusions.[7]