It is sometimes thought that the persecution of those accused of witchcraft began to fade away after the 1640s and the trials initiated by Matthew Hopkins, self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’. The truth is more complex. Although hangings for witchcraft reduced in number, the period 1650-1700 witnessed several trials that culminated in guilty verdicts and death sentences.
It was not just the uneducated who continued to call for the death of those seen as witches at this time. Some prominent English intellectuals of the Interregnum and Restoration periods actively endorsed the killing of the ‘witches’. Here are 6 of the most important witchcraft cases of the second half of the 17th century.
1. Anne Bodenham, hanged at Salisbury (1653)
The trial of Anne Bodenham caused a national sensation in 1653. She worked openly as a ‘white witch’ or ‘cunning woman’ in Salisbury, England. Bodenham was found guilty of witchcraft, largely as a result of the damning testimony of another woman from the city, a servant called Anne Styles. Anne Bodenham was charged with making a pact with the Devil, summoning up demons and persuading Styles to join her in selling her soul to the Devil.
Dr Henry More of Cambridge University investigated this case carefully and was completely convinced of her guilt. More was one of England’s leading philosophers. He also believed completely in the authenticity of witchcraft. In 1655 he published a best-selling book in which he set out to prove that witchcraft was a reality and he gave great prominence to the story of Anne Bodenham as indisputable proof. Henry More was seen as one of the most learned people in England so his advocacy of witchcraft belief was taken very seriously by his many readers.
2. The trial of Jane Brooks of Shepton Mallett (1658)
An Anglican clergyman called Joseph Glanvill was a great admirer of the philosopher, Henry More, and his defense of belief in witchcraft. Inspired by More, Glanvill sought to gather more examples of witchcraft trials where the accused was manifestly guilty and was rightly punished.
Glanvill highlighted the case of Jane Brooks, a woman from the Somerset town of Shepton Mallet who was accused of torturing a local boy called Richard Jones by witchcraft. Brooks was hanged in March 1658. Glanvill accepted the truth of the charges against Brooks. Like More, he publicised the case in print in a series of popular books that went through many editions. He had no doubt about the rightness of the verdict and expressed no reservations about the justice of the punishment of Jane Brooks.
3. The witches of Lowestoft (1662)
Two women from Lowestoft – Rose Cullender and Amy Denny – were tried for witchcraft at the assizes at Bury St Edmunds, England, in March 1662. The charges concerned the bewitching of local children and the trial was presided over by Sir Matthew Hale, one of England’s most distinguished judges. Some of the ‘bewitched’ children testified in court against the women.
A famous doctor called Thomas Browne was called as an expert witness. Browne had come to prominence a few years earlier as the author of Religio Medici, a book which sought to reconcile modern scientific thinking with the tenets of Christianity. In this book, Browne also stated that he found it incomprehensible that any educated person should deny the truth of witchcraft.
During the 1662 trial, Browne physically examined the girls in front of the court and pronounced that they had genuinely been bewitched. This testimony from a leading medical expert contributed to the jury’s decision to find Cullender and Denny guilty and their subsequent hanging.
4. The trial of the Malmesbury witches (1672)
The town of Malmesbury in Wiltshire, England, was notorious as a hotbed of witchcraft throughout the 17th century. In 1672, the town was in uproar because many townsfolk were convinced that a coven of witches was active in their midst and was murdering children by witchcraft. A local magistrate called James Long interrogated 14 suspected witches and sent some of them to Salisbury for trial.
At the trial, two women – Anne Tilling and Judith Witchell – were found guilty and were then hanged. James Long saw himself as a very modern man and was convinced both that Tilling and Witchell were guilty and that their witchcraft could be explained using scientific principles. He wrote a pamphlet on the subject that he dedicated to Henry More.
5. The hanging of the Bideford witches (1682)
In August 1682 three women from the Devon port of Bideford were hanged following a trial in Exeter for witchcraft. Their names were Susanna Edwards, Mary Trembles and Temperance Lloyd. Local people were convinced of their guilt and demanded at their trial that they must die.
They were accused of making pacts with the Devil and using witchcraft to kill their enemies. Their hanging was the last occasion when women were, without doubt, executed in England for witchcraft. An anonymous pamphlet was published shortly after, justifying the verdicts and the executions. The pamphlet reassured readers that they need not doubt the existence of witches because learned people such Dr Henry More had written confirming that witchcraft was a reality.
6. The Salem witch trials (1692)
Accounts of witchcraft trials in England, and the defense of witchcraft by prominent English writers, influenced thinking in colonial America. As is well known, Salem in Massachusetts witnessed a spectacular outbreak of witchcraft hysteria which culminated in the execution of 20 people in 1692.
What is less well known is that the thinking of the Salem judges was shaped by the endorsement of witchcraft belief that had been taking place in England since 1650. The intellectual and religious world of colonial Massachusetts was shaped and dominated by two Boston-based clergymen, Increase Mather and his son, Cotton Mather. These Americans read with approval the witchcraft texts of More and Glanvill, and sought to emulate them through their own work. Like the authors who inspired them, Increase and Cotton Mather believed that the principles of experimental science were entirely in keeping with the reality of witchcraft.
There is a clear pattern across these six key trials. Belief in witchcraft could be found at all levels of society and was not just the preserve of the poorly educated. Respected and influential intellectuals were also convinced that witches had real diabolical power. Their books in defense of witchcraft provided a justification for the Last Witch Craze in England and America.
Tony McAleavy has a degree in History from the University of Oxford and was formerly schools history adviser for Gloucestershire Local Education Authority. He has written many school textbooks on different history topics for Cambridge University Press, Harper-Collins and Hodder Education, and has also written extensively for English Heritage. He was for many years the academic editor of the Cambridge University Press school history list and in his current role as research director of an education charity he writes and publishes frequently on the subject of education reform. McAleavy is also the author of The Last Witch Craze: John Aubrey, the Royal Society and the Witches, published by Amberley Publishing.