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Witchcraft Act

In England, a succession of Witchcraft Acts have governed witchcraft and provided penalties for its practice. To consider the changes in these laws is to make a chronicle of received ideas about the subject.

The first act of Parliament directed specifically against witchcraft was the act De hæretico comburendo, passed at the instigation of Archbishop Thomas Arundel in 1401. It specifically named witchcraft --- sortilegium --- "sorcery," or "divination," as a species of heresy, and provided that unless the accused witch abjured these beliefs, she was to be burnt at the stake. This law, however, was directed against an ecclesiastical offence, not technically a felony at common law. Offenders were tried before an ecclesiastical tribunal --- the Inquisition, per se, did not operate in England, but the procedure was comparable. The penalty of burning at the stake was prescribed for ecclesiastical offences only because the Church daintily shied away from the shedding of blood.

It was not until the start of the sixteenth century, however, that religious tensions increased the penalty for witchcraft in England. A statute of Henry VIII provided the death penalty for "invoking or conjuring an evil spirit." This statute was repealed by his more liberal son, Edward VI. Edward's successor Bloody Mary was too busy killing Protestant heretics to have much to do with witches.

England's most notorious Witchcraft Act was passed early in the reign of Elizabeth I. This act of 1563 provided that anyone who should "use, practice, or exercise any Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm, or Sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed," was guilty of felony without benefit of clergy, and was to be put to death. This law was broadened further by Elizabeth's successor James I, a king who wrote a treatise on Dæmonologie and who, as James VI of Scotland, took a personal interest in the trial of some accused witches at Berwick on Tweed. In 1604, the first year of James's reign, the Elizabethan act was broadened to bring the penalty of death without benefit of clergy to any one who invoked evil spirits or communed with familiar spirits. It was this statute that was enforced by Matthew Hopkins, the notorious "Witch-Finder Generall."

The acts of Elizabeth and James changed the law of witchcraft in two major respects. First, by making witchcraft a felony, they removed the accused witches from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the courts of common law. This provided, at least, that the accused witches theoretically enjoyed the benefits of ordinary criminal procedure. Burning at the stake was eliminated, except in cases of witchcraft that were also petty treason; most instead were hanged. However, by making witchcraft an ordinary crime, they invoked all the penalties of felonies against the convicted witch, including escheat which forfeited the convict's land and goods to the Crown. This gave local officials a financial stake in finding witches to convict, and led to the most pervasive witchhunts in English history. After the Restoration, the witch hunting gradually died down, not because people had ceased to believe in or fear witches, but because the witch-hunting enterprise smacked of the "enthusiasm" and revolutionary Puritanism that led to the regicide of Charles I.

This statute was replaced under George II in 1736 by a new Witchcraft Act that marks a complete reversal in attitudes. No longer were people to be hanged for consorting with evil spirits. Rather, a person who pretended to have the power to call up spirits, or foretell the future, or cast spells, was to be punished as a vagrant and a con artist, subject to fines and imprisonment.

In 1951 this last Witchcraft Act was repealed, largely at the instigation of Spiritualist mediums.