Three women pointing
The Three Witches, 1783, by Henry Fuseli[pimage][/pimage]Swiss-born British Romantic artist (1741–1825), who established a reputation for his paintings depicting the horrifying and fantastic.
Wikimedia Commons

Exodus 22:18 states that “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”,[a]The Hebrew text refers not to a witch but to a diviner, a kasaph, someone able to see into the future. Witch was the preferred translation for the King James Bible, reflecting the reality of witchcraft in the consciousness of the Jacobean state.[1] but 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 legislation, but it undoubtedly suited Henry’s agenda of wresting power from the Catholic Church.[2]

The difficulties of proving the crime of witchcraft in a court of law, which included the lack of eyewitness accounts, led to the development of a clarified foundation for the admissibility of circumstantial evidence to secure criminal convictions more generally.

Witchcraft Act 1542

The Witchcraft Act of 1542 was the first in English law to define what was to be considered witchcraft, and to declare it a crime punishable by death.[3] It remained in force for five years before its repeal by Henry’s son King Edward VII in 1547, during which time there appear to have been no prosecutions under the Act.[4]

Witchcraft Act 1563

A major trigger for the introduction of the 1563 Act was the Waldegrave ConspiracySupposed plot to kill Queen Elizabeth I and reintroduce Catholicism to England. two years earlier, a supposed plot to kill Queen Elizabeth I by the use of sorcery and reintroduce Catholicism to England.[5] Officially known as the Act agaynst Conjuracons Inchantments and Witchecraftes, it was passed by Queen Elizabeth I’s second Parliament.[6] It was in some respects more merciful towards those found guilty of witchcraft than its predecessor, demanding the death penalty only if harm had been caused – maleficiumAct of sorcery, historically usually performed by a witch, intended to cause harm or injury. ; lesser offences were punishable by a term of imprisonment. The Act provided that anyone who should “use, practise, or exercise any Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm, or Sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed”, was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergyLegally enshrined right of any clergyman facing prosecution for a felony in a royal court to have the case heard instead in an ecclesiastical court. , and was to be put to death.[7]

Elizabeth LowysFirst person to be prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act of 1563. was the first person to be convicted under this Act, on 21 July 1564, but there is no firm evidence that she was actually executed.[8] Agnes WaterhouseElderly Essex woman convicted and hanged for witchcraft at Chelmsford in 1566., or Mother Waterhouse, an elderly woman from Hatfield Peverel in Essex, is the first person known to have been convicted and executed under the 1563 Act, in July 1566.[9][10]

Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563

Under the Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563 the practice of witchcraft and consulting with witches became capital offences in Scotland.[11] This Act remained on Scottish statute books until its repeal by the post-union Witchcraft Act 1735.[12]

The wording of the Act is perhaps somewhat sceptical, speaking as it does of “the heavy and abominable superstition used by divers of the lieges of this Realm … and credence given thereto in time bygone … and for avoiding and away putting of all such vain superstition in times to come.” The Act was, in other words, a general legislative instrument against superstition, and did not result in any great increase in prosecutions for witchcraft.[13]

Witchcraft Act 1604

In 1604, the year following James’ accession to the English throne, the Elizabethan Act of 1563 was broadened to bring the penalty of death without benefit of clergy to anyone who invoked evil spirits or communed with familiarDemonic spirit who attends upon a witch, possessing magical powers that can be used for good or evil. Often taking the form of a small animal such as a cat. spirits. The Act’s full title was An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits, (1 Ja. I c. 12).[14] It was this statute that was enforced by Matthew Hopkins
English witch-hunter who claimed to hold the office of Witchfinder General, although that title was never bestowed by Parliament.
, the self-styled Witch-Finder General.

By making witchcraft a felony, the Acts of Elizabeth and James removed the accused from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts, as Henry VIII had done with his Act of 1542. Those accused of witchcraft were thus subject to ordinary criminal procedure. Burning at the stake was retained only for cases of witchcraft that were also petty treason; most of those convicted were instead hanged. Any witch who had committed a minor witchcraft offence (punishable by one year in prison), and was accused and found guilty a second time, received the death penalty.

Scottish Witchcraft Act 1649

The Scottish Witchcraft Act 1649 extended the scope of the 1563 Act to include the new crime of consulting with “Devils and familiar spirits”.[15]

Witchcraft Act 1735

Main article: Witchcraft Act 1735Sometimes dated 1736, an Act of Parliament that repealed the statutes concerning witchcraft throughout Great Britain, including Scotland.

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 marked a complete reversal in attitudes towards witchcraft, which by that time was considered to be an impossible crime by many influential figures. Penalties for the practice of witchcraft were replaced by those for the pretence of witchcraft. The Act also outlawed fortune telling, but as it necessitated a trial by jury it was not commonly used for that purpose.[11] Fortune tellers were instead usually tried summarily as vagrants by magistrates, and subject to fines and imprisonment.[16] The Act applied to the whole of Great Britain, repealing the 1563 Scottish Act and the 1604 English Act.[11]

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 remained in force in Great Britain well into the 20th century, until its eventual repeal with the enactment of the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951. That Act was in turn repealed on 26 May 2008,[17] by new consumer protection regulations following a European Union directive targeting unfair sales and marketing practices.[18]

Legacy in English law

Witchcraft, although considered to be a serious crime, was one that was very difficult to prove. There were typically no witnesses, and in England it was illegal to use torture to extract a confession. The courts therefore often had to rely on circumstantial evidence, such as the presence of Devil’s marksMethods used to identify witches. . English law differed from that in Scotland and on the Continent, in that the accused could be convicted on circumstantial evidence alone, whereas in Scotland they had to confess to the crime, which often necessitated the use of torture.[19]

Although witchcraft trials were not particularly common in England, they did focus legal minds on the problems of circumstantial evidence in general, which led to the development of a robust foundation for its admission.[19]


a The Hebrew text refers not to a witch but to a diviner, a kasaph, someone able to see into the future. Witch was the preferred translation for the King James Bible, reflecting the reality of witchcraft in the consciousness of the Jacobean state.[1]



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