5 Infamous Witch Trials in Britain

Léonie Chao-Fong

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On 5 December 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued Summis desiderantes affectibus, a papal bull authorizing the systematic persecution of witches and magicians in Germany.

The bull recognised the existence of witches and declared it heresy to believe otherwise. It paved the way for the subsequent witch hunt that spread terror, paranoia and violence for centuries after.

Between 1484 and 1750, some 200,000 witches were tortured, burned or hanged in western Europe. Most were women – many of them old, vulnerable and poor.

By 1563, witchcraft had been made a capital offence in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Here are 5 of the most infamous cases of witch trials in Britain.

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1. North Berwick (1590)

The North Berwick trials became the first major case of witchcraft persecution in Scotland.

More than 70 people from East Lothian, Scotland, were accused of witchcraft – including Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell.

In 1589, James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) was sailing to Copenhagen to collect his new bride, Anne of Denmark. But the storms were so severe that he was forced to turn back.

King James I of England
King James I of England (and James VI of Scotland) by John de Critz, 1605 (Credit: Museo del Prado).

The king blamed the storms on witchcraft, believing that a witch had sailed to the Firth of Forth intent on destroying his plans.

Several nobles of the Scottish court were implicated, and witchcraft trials were held in Denmark. All the women accused confessed they had been guilty of sorcery, and James decided to set up his own tribunal.

70 individuals, mostly women, were rounded up, tortured and put on trial, accused of holding covens and summoning the devil at St. Andrew’s Auld Kirk in North Berwick.

Among the witches accused was Agnes Sampson, a well-known midwife. Brought before the king, she finally confessed to attending Sabbat with 200 witches, after being tortured horrifically.

Prior to her confession, Samson had been kept without sleep, fastened to the wall of her cell by a so-called ‘Scold’s Bridle’ – an iron muzzle enclosing the head. She was finally strangled and burned at the stake.

The king would go on to establish royal commissions to hunt down witches across his realm.

In all, Scotland would see around 4,000 people burned alive for witchcraft – an enormous number relative to its size and population.

2. Northamptonshire (1612)

Dunking
Illustration of a woman being “dunked” from an 18th century chapbook (Credit: John Ashton).

On 22 July 1612, 5 men and women were executed at Abington Gallows, Northampton, for witchcraft of various kinds, including murder and bewitching of pigs.

The Northamptonshire witch trials were among the earliest documented cases in which “dunking” was used as a method to hunt witches.

Ordeal by water would become associated with the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. It was believed that the accused who sank was innocent, and those who floated were guilty.

In his 1597 book about witchcraft, ‘Daemonologie’, King James claimed that water was so pure an element that it repelled the guilty.

The Northhamptonsire trials may have been a precursor to the Pendle witch trials, which began some weeks later.

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3. Pendle (1612)

The trials of the Pendle witches were among the most famous witch trials in English history, and among the best recorded of the 17th century.

The trials began when a young woman called Alizon Device, from Pendle Hill in Lancashire, was accused of cursing a local shopkeeper who soon afterwards fell sick.

An investigation was launched that led to the arrest and trial of several members of Device’s family, as well as members of another local family, the Redfernes.

Martha Corey Salem witch trials
The Pendle trial would be used as legal precedence for the Salem witch trials of 1692 (Credit: James Stark).

Many of the families’ friends were also implicated, as were other supposed witches from nearby towns who were said to have attended a meeting together.

In all, 10 men and women were hanged as a result of the trials. Those included Alizon Device who, like her grandmother, was reportedly convinced that she was guilty of being a witch.

The Pendle trial would go on to be used as legal precedence to allow the testimony of children in trials of witchcraft.

At the 1692 Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts, most of the evidence was given by children.

The burning of Louisa Mabree
The burning of Louisa Mabree in a cage filled with black cats suspended over a fire (Credit: Wellcome Images).

4. Bideford (1682)

The Bideford witch trial in Devon came towards the end of the witch-hunting craze in Britain, which peaked between 1550 and 1660. There were only a few cases of executions for witchcraft in England after the Restoration.

Three women – Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles, and Susanna Edwards – were suspected of causing the illness of a local woman by supernatural means.

All three women were found guilty and executed at Heavitree, outside Exeter.

The trials were later denounced by the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Francis North, who claimed the prosecution – which had been based almost entirely on hearsay – was deeply flawed.

The Bideford trial was one of the last in England to lead to an execution. The death penalty for witches was finally abolished in England in 1736.

Witch burning
Execution of three witches in 1585 in Baden, Switzerland (Credit: Johann Jakob Wick).

5. Islandmagee (1711)

Between 1710 and 1711, 8 women were put on trial and found guilty of witchcraft on Islandmagee in County Antrim in present day Northern Island.

The trial began when a Mrs. James Haltridge claimed that an 18-year-old woman, Mary Dunbar, exhibited signs of demonic possession. Haltridge claimed the young woman was

shouting, swearing, blaspheming, throwing Bibles, going into fits every time a clergyman came near here and vomiting households items such as pins, buttons, nails, glass and wool

8 local Presbyterian women were put on trial for having orchestrated this demonic possession, and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment.

The Islandmagee witch trials are believed to have been the last witch trials to have taken place in Ireland.

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Léonie Chao-Fong