Early Modern Witch-Hunting in Scotland and England

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Written for 2nd year university British Isles history course; on the difference between the witch hunts that took place in Scotland & England.

Submitted: November 13, 2011

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Submitted: November 13, 2011



In the early modern period—specifically, in the 16th and 17th centuries—European countries experienced the phenomenon that has been referred to as the “witch craze.”The widespread belief in and persecution of persons suspected of witchcraft affected not just the continent, but the British Isles as well: of those, Scotland and England in particular.  The isolation of the Isles from the rest of Europe meant that witch-hunts there were unique from those of the continent, but there was not a uniform pattern of witch persecution general to the Isles.  Scotland’s witch-hunt was much more severe and bore a closer resemblance to those of the continent, whereas England deviated further from the continental model and was more lenient in its pursuit and prosecution of suspected witches.  This difference can be seen clearly in the focus of accusations, the nature and extent of the trials, and the use of judicial torture.  Whatever the methods of eradication, all were driven by the shared notion that witches were a danger to the population and must be gotten rid of.

The two main aspects of witchcraft that concerned the population were diabolism and maleficia.  Maleficia, or maleficium, was the term used to refer to all the terrible deeds that witches were capable of doing with the use of magic. Diabolism was the belief that witches made pacts with the Devil, in which they pledged their souls to him and he put a mark upon their bodies as a sign of their allegiance.1 Diabolism provided an explanation for deviant behaviour, and it became the focus of witchcraft allegations in Scotland and most of the European continent.2 The most common aspects of ‘diabolic acts’ included flying on sticks to meetings with other witches, sacrificing and eating children, and engaging in sexual acts with demons, other witches, and even Satan himself.3 King James VI of Scotland, in his work Daemonologie, described how the Devil played upon human desires, particularly greed and revenge, to convince witches to enter into a pact with him:

“…the Devil vsed as meanes to intyse them to his  service… promising vnto them great riches, and… to get their turne satisfied to their hartes contentment.”4

This idea of the demonic pact became a pervasive one that dominated the ideology of witch-hunting in Scotland.  Early demonologists declared witchcraft to be the performance of magical operations with malicious—diabolical—incentives. In the Celtic regions, many witches may actually have been practicing forms of ‘popular’ magic that remained a prevalent part of Scottish culture despite Christianization, such as charms for curing illness, which authorities interpreted as ‘diabolic’ magic. England, being separate from the Celtic areas of the isles, did not experience this.5 Also, the idea that witches flew on broomsticks to reach their Sabbaths, as was popularly believed in Scotland and on the continent, was never accepted in England.6 When diabolism did occur in trials of English witches, it focused on the witches’ liaisons with ‘familiars’—imp-like creatures in the form of animals who assisted witches in the performance of spells.  In exchange for their help, familiars received nourishment by suckling on a witch: this was essentially a watered-down version of the face-to-face pact with the Devil.7 For the most part, English witchcraft cases focused on maleficium- the magical wrong-doings purveyed by witches onto their neighbours.  Villagers who believed that witches had harmed their family, particularly children and spouses, or their livestock, brought accusations forward to court—rarely, if ever, did they bring forth accusations of associating with demons.  Out of all the witchcraft indictments given by the assize courts in England, 94% of them dealt mainly with maleficium.8 A significant factor in the occurrence of diabolism was the influence of religious authorities in the witch hunts and trials.  On the continent, the Inquisition played a major role, because, having crushed the largest heretical movements that the church found threatening, it turned towards a new form of heresy—witchcraft—so that Inquisitorial authority could continue. This centralized, religious force created an image of witch-hunting as a fight against the devil, hence the stress on diabolic components.9 The Inquisition did not reach the Isles, but in Scotland, the clergy were far more active in pressuring accused witches to confess, and this clerical influence gave more weight to the religious, diabolic side of witchcraft.  In England, witchcraft cases were overseen by secular judges who dealt with the villagers’ complaints of personal harm caused by maleficium.10 Almost completely lacking the satanic elements that dominated European trials, England’s witch-hunt was quite unique from that of the continent, but Scotland’s witch-hunt, though less virulent, shared many of the demonic traits found in accusations on the mainland.

Not only the nature of accusations, but how witches were sought out and how they were dealt with by the courts differed noticeably between Scotland and England, again with Scotland tending more towards continental patterns.  Scottish judicial authorities had the ability to initiate a witch-hunt, draft diabolism charges against a witch or group of witches, and summon villagers to provide testimony against those charged.  Villagers could, and did, come forward with their own independent accusations, which could spark further hunting as well, but the initiative could come from above, from the educated judiciary elites.  On the continent, this push from above often came from judges of the Inquisition.11 In England however, judges could not launch the investigation of supposed witches by their own initiative; because of the way the judicial system operated, prosecution could only take place if an alleged witch’s neighbours came forth with accusations.12 The result of this difference is that witch hunts in England usually remained localized, with persecutions taking place against individuals or very small groups, who were nearly always women. The stress of the hunt was on village tensions—which often sparked the initial accusation—and the villagers’ fears—which were usually of a personal nature.13 In Scotland, sheriffs and justices of the peace had a more significant impact; the educated, elitist mindset was to “enforce godliness” on all Scots, and the authority to initiate witch-hunts allowed them to make examples of individuals who they felt led morally questionable lives.14 It was these higher classes, versed in demonology, who drew the people’s focus to diabolism, and the ability to start their own witch trials without pressure from the commoners meant that they were also able to make the demonic pact and subsequent diabolic actions the central crimes of those trials. Scottish trials occurred in waves; instigated by religious-minded officials, rashes of witch paranoia would spread throughout an area, and it was during these times that Scotland executed most of its alleged witches.15 Despite having a population that was roughly a quarter that of England’s, Scotland executed approximately three witches for every one that England did.16 Witchcraft in England did not garner the high rate of conviction found in Scotland and on the continent.  The assizes were the courts that most often dealt with witchcraft cases in England, and they were part of a judicial system called the ‘Home Circuit,’ which also heard cases for homicide, housebreaking, theft, and rape.  Of the witchcraft cases heard by these courts, only 32% of those accused were actually found to be guilty, and the punishments meted out were not always fatal; imprisonment with intervals on the pillory was not an uncommon sentence to be dealt in lieu of execution.17 English authorities appear to have been more in favour of diffusing witchcraft accusations than inflaming them.18 Take, for example, the case of the Witches of Huntingdon—Matthew Hopkins built up his reputation as the “Witchfinder General” by charging townspeople a fee for the discovery of witches and their subsequent persecution.  Paranoia built up in his wake and threatened to spill into one of the wide-spread panics that Scotland suffered, until Reverend John Gaule forced the hunts to an end because he not only felt that people were being unreasonably treated, but he suspected that Hopkins was a scam artist.19 In Scotland, the opposite occurred: a hunt would spread from one accused witch to the next in virulent fashion, such as in the case of the North Berwick witches of 1590-91.20 After enduring a storm-plagued journey from Denmark back to Scotland, King James became convinced that witches had attempted to kill him at sea by the use of magic to conjure storms.  Not long after, the North Berwick coven was discovered, allegedly numbering over three hundred witches who had met to plot the king’s death. Paranoid and afraid for his life, James authorized the use of any force necessary to extract confessions and force the witches to name their co-conspirators.21 Under torture, accused witches gave the names of others, and then those named more, until the witch-scare had engulfed the surrounding population. Western and central Europe during the time of the witch scare experienced many large-scale hunts, which saw the prosecution of hundreds of victims. The hunt of the North Berwick coven was carried out in a similar fashion.22 It is estimated that around 1,300 people were executed as witches in Scotland, and although this still pales in comparison to some of the statistics from elsewhere in Europe, it significantly outweighs the death toll of England, who boasted a significantly higher population.23 Chronologically, the witch hunts also lasted longer in Scotland; with both England and Scotland passing witchcraft statutes in 1563, and England trying its last witch in 1712, while Scotland’s last trial took place in 1722.24

It was believed that if a witch accused of diabolism admitted to their crimes, that God would intervene and prevent the Devil from troubling them any further, thus releasing them from their pact with him and disabling them from causing further harm.  In Daemonologie, King James wrote, “If they be penitent and confesse, God will not permit him [the Devil] to trouble them anie more with his presence and allurements.”25 What officials were also looking for in a witch’s confession, however, were the names of other witches in the area.  One of the main aspects of diabolism entailed that witches did not work alone; they met and plotted with other witches, particularly at their Sabbaths.  In fact, torture was most frequently employed in areas where the idea of the “witch’s Sabbath” was most fully-formed in the minds of the population because then, a witchcraft ‘conspiracy’ against the God-fearing people of that area seemed like a much more immediate threat.26 Torture was used to force accused witches to give the names of their co-conspirators so that the judges could seek out and eradicate the entire group.  The result was chain-reaction witch hunts, where each accused and tortured witch named other witches, who were in turn tortured, and provided more names, and so on, creating a spiral of panic that eventually led to mass executions.27 Methods of torture were varied; sleep deprivation was a common one, and preferred because after three to five days of being kept awake, accused witches became compliant and delirious, quite willingly confessing tales of devil-inspired debauchery. The second most common form of torture was presented to be a necessary searching of the accused for “the devil’s mark”—the spot on a witch’s body that supposedly did not bleed and was immune to pain.  During such searches, the suspected witch would be stripped naked and every part of their body pierced with pins until the searcher found an insensitive spot; a process that was both degrading and painful.28 The strappado was a torture device in which the accused would have their hands tied behind their back and then be hung from the ceiling by their wrists; while in this position, sometimes weight would be attached to their ankles until their joints dislocated or bones broke.29 Sometimes candles would be put under the feet, in the mouths, or to the heads of the suspended witch.30 By law, in both Scotland and England, torture was only permitted with permission of the Privy Council, or when the case involved matters of state.  This depended strongly on the centrality of government control on witch hunts, however; it was strictly enforced in England, where cases remained local and were mostly overseen by government officials at assize courts.  In Scotland, where witch hunts spread in a serial manner and often involved more than one town, the legal technicalities were not well-adhered to, but the inquisitorial features that had made their way into the Scottish justice system were.31 When torture was used on Scottish witches, it was often done illegally, and as part of pre-trial investigations of suspects.  Part of this difference in the application of torture is that England’s government was better able to enforce its laws regarding torture than Scotland’s government was, but this was not the only reason.  The focus on diabolism in Scottish trials almost necessitated torture, because either two eyewitness accounts or a confession was needed for a conviction; since diabolism was an ‘invisible’ crime, a confession was necessary. 32 The lack of diabolism in England was connected to the lack of torture; there were abundant reports of villagers claiming to have witnessed accused witches performing some sort of malfeasance, so confessions were not so crucial.  A collection of documents from England between 1540 and 1640 concerning accused witches confirmed that torture was just not used.33 English witches were stripped and searched for the Devil’s mark, but this was not legally considered to be torture.  The more horrific modes of torture were found in Scotland and on the continent, such as the record of one witch who “…was dragged along the ground by her breasts and tortured with white-hot tongs.”34 Inquisitorial procedures throughout continental Europe employed torture as a regular part of their interrogations, and while Scotland’s trials were not modeled after these, they held much more in common with them than witchcraft investigations in England did.

The 16th and 17th centuries were an unstable time for the British Isles and the European continent.  Witch paranoia was wide spread, and the hunts and trials that sprang from the general cultural fear of magical practitioners were harsh.  Although the British Isles did not experience the so-called ‘witch-craze’ with the same intensity that the rest of Europe did, the Isles still experienced a significant witch scare of their own.  Scotland’s witch hunts were similar to those of the continent and far more severe than England’s, which, relatively speaking, were mild in terms of the resultant death toll.  The roles of diabolism and maleficium in trials, and the ways in which trials and hunts were conducted, as well as the use of torture, formulated the main differences between the witch hunts in Scotland and England.  Regardless of these differences, however, witch hunts in any form were a dark, frightening time in the history of both countries.



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