Elizabethan Witch Trials: More Evidence (and a Map)

Posted by Krista J. Kesselring, 30 June 2019.

Most of what we know of accusations of felony witchcraft in early modern England comes from the few surviving assize court records, supplemented by printed news pamphlets that detailed some such trials. Judges travelled on assize circuits throughout the country, but for the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, records survive only from the Home Circuit, which included the counties of Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey, and Sussex. Mining these records, James Sharpe tallied accusations against some 474 alleged witches, from 1560-1710.[1] The county of Essex accounted for 59% of the prosecutions, making it by far and away ‘ground zero’ for witchcraft cases – at least in those few counties for which we have trial records. For the incidence of witchcraft cases outside the Home Circuit, we’ve largely been left only to speculate.

Turning to the records of pardons reveals a few more cases, and also an intriguing possibility or two: might the people of Elizabethan Suffolk have experienced more problems with witchcraft than did their neighbours in Essex? Or might we at least have reason to expand our map of Elizabethan witchcraft’s ground zero beyond Essex, to include neighbouring Suffolk and Cambridge, and possibly Norfolk, too?

When teaching a class on the history of the witch trials recently, I remembered a couple unexpected details that had arisen, years ago, when I was researching the use of pardons in criminal justice and political culture under the Tudors. Queen Elizabeth granted relatively few pardons for the offence after the passage of the 1563 Witchcraft Act–only 39 in total, from 1568-1603. One key feature was much as one would expect, given the preponderance of women accused of the crime in the extant trial records, with 85% (33/39) of the recipients of these pardons being women. But it was striking that most pardons for witchcraft clustered in the southeast of the country, with only a rare few beyond, and more of them came from the Norfolk Circuit than from the Home Circuit. The recent publication of the last calendars of Queen’s Elizabeth’s patent rolls (where clerks recorded royal pardons) let me easily return to double check these observations. And, indeed, while Essex had the greatest number of accusations in the known trial records, Suffolk nudged it out in the pardon count: seven people who faced trials as witches in Elizabethan Essex ultimately received pardons, compared to eight in Suffolk. The fourteen pardons for cases heard on the Home Circuit were in turn exceeded by the nineteen pardons for cases heard by judges on the Norfolk Circuit (Bedford, 0; Buckingham, 2; Cambridge, 5; Huntingdon, 1; Norfolk, 3; and Suffolk, 8).

Now, to be sure, we have no reason to think that the ratio of pardons to trials constituted any sort of mathematical constant and thus no firm basis to conclude that the trials for witchcraft on the circuit with the highest number of pardons outnumbered those on the other. It may well be that the judges who travelled the Norfolk Circuit were more skeptical of such accusations than their fellows on the Home Circuit and put forward a greater proportion of the accused for the Queen’s mercy. Or Norfolk Circuit jurors might have been more fearful of the offence, readier to convict, and thus have made more decisions than did their neighbours of the sort that judges thought best dealt with through pardons.

But the relatively high numbers of pardons on the Norfolk Circuit, and especially as clustered in the East Anglian counties bordering Essex, is at least suggestive – as is the relative scarcity of pardons (and thus possibly trials?) outside the south east. The infamously savage witch-hunt supervised by Matthew Hopkins from 1645-7 ranged across puritan East Anglia, with its deadliest centre in Suffolk; the pardon evidence hints that its Elizabethan antecedents may have had a similar geography.[2]

In case anyone curious about the subject of Elizabethan witch trials wants to dig into the data, just click on the pointers in the interactive version of the map of pardons embedded below. (And let me know if you find anything interesting!)


Feature image comes from A rehearsall both straung and true, of hainous and horrible actes committed by Elizabeth Stile, alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Deuell, Mother Margaret, fower (i.e. four) notorious witches (London, 1579), British Library, public domain.

[1] J.A. Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England (Philadelphia, 1996), pp. 110-11. We do have some records of felony witchcraft from courts other than the assizes: records from the Palatinate Court of Great Sessions at Chester also survive, with 69 accusations of witchcraft from 1589-1675, and Middlesex Sessions records include some 63 indictments between 1574 and 1659 (Sharpe, Instruments, pp. 121, 125). The Isle of Ely’s assize court records also survive and will become newly accessible soon, thanks to an ongoing cataloging effort. (Church courts also heard accusations of witchcraft but did not hear them as felony cases subject to the death penalty.) For trial records and the incidence of felony witchcraft cases, see also C. L’Estrange Ewen, Witch Hunting and Witch Trials: The Indictments for Witchcraft from the Records of 1373 Assizes Held for the Home Circuit, A.D. 1559-1736 (London, 1929) and J.S. Cockburn, A Calendar of Assize Indictments (11 volumes, London, 1975-85). For the pamphlet accounts of trials, see, e.g., Marion Gibson, Early Modern Witches: Witchcraft Cases in Contemporary Writing (London, 2000).

The literature on early modern English witchcraft is voluminous, but in addition to the works cited above, see, e.g., Christina Larner, Witchcraft and Religion: The Politics of Popular Belief (Oxford, 1984); Orna Alyagon Darr, Marks of an Absolute Witch: Evidentiary Dilemmas in Early Modern England (Farnham, 2011); and Peter Elmer, Witchcraft, Witch-Hunting, and Politics in Early Modern England (New York, 2016).

[2] On the Hopkins witch-hunt of 1645-7, see Malcolm Gaskill, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy (Cambridge, MA., 2005) and Sharpe, Instruments, pp. 128-47.

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