The persecution of witches “officially” began in the 15th century, but it wasn’t until 1563 that supposingly being one became a capital offence punishable in Britain. Before then, it was considered to be heresy and was denounced as such by Pope Innocent VIII. From 1484 until 1750 over 200,000 witches were tortured, burnt or hanged in Western Europe.
Many of those accused of being witches were typically old women and usually poor. If you had a “witch-like” appearance (a crooked nose, sunken cheeks, a hairy lip, etc.) and a cat thrown in, you would have had a good chance of being taken to the stake. In fact, many unfortunate women were condemned on this sort of evidence and underwent appalling torture before their deaths. The “pilnie-winks” (thumb screws) and iron “caspie-claws” (red-hot leg irons) usually got the required confession.
Britain suffered some pretty dark years around the mid-16th century. East Anglia was particularly caught up in witch fever between 1645-1646. The inhabitants were solidly Puritan and staunch anti-Catholics and easily influenced by preachers whose mission was to seek out any whiff of heresy. One such man, Matthew Hopkins, an unsuccessful lawyer became known as “Witchfinder General”. He had 68 people put to death in Bury St. Edmunds alone and 19 hanged in Chelmsford on just one day. After this, he set off on further witch-finding travels. He was paid six pounds in Aldeburgh for ridding the town of witches, fifteen pounds in Kings Lynn and 23 pounds in Stowmarket. The wage at that time was 2.5 pence. Good business!!
Hopkins claimed that he could identify a witch by marks on the body known as “Devils Marks”. For example, it could be a wart or mole or even a flea-bite and he used his “jabbing needle” to see if these marks were insensitive to pain. His “needle” was a three-inch-long spike which retracted into the spring-loaded handle so invariably the women never felt any pain and was subsequently condemned.
There were other tests as well. In Bedford, Mary Sutton was put to the swimming test. With her thumbs tied to opposite big toes she was thrown into the river. If she floated she was guilty, if she sank, innocent. She was found guilty.
A reminder of Hopkins’s persecution was discovered in St. Osyth in 1921 when two skeletons were found pinned to the ground with iron rivets. He wanted to make sure they could not return from their graves. All in all he was responsible for more than 300 executions.
In 1612 the Pendle witches were condemned and marched through the town of Lancaster where they were hanged.
Although the majority of the laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1736, witch-hunting still went on. Even in 1863, an alleged male witch was drowned in Headingham, Essex and in 1945 an elderly farmhand was found near Meon Hill,Warwickshire with his throat cut and his body pinned to the ground. Still unresolved, the man was said to have been a wizard.
Most of today’s alternative medical practicioners, tarot card readers, palmists, Bach flower specialists, family constellations therapists, herbal remedy specialists, etc. would probably have suffered a bloody fate less than 400 years ago because many would have been considered witches or wizards.
Only in the last 30 years have some of these practices been accepted by the public as effective remedies. Such resistance is probably indicative of some people’s suspicion towards “strange potions and concoctions” which are nothing more than natural solutions to health problems. Not so long ago this was considered to be witchcraft. Maybe the pharmaceutical companies should take heed… Matthew Hopkins would have been delighted!!