November 25, 2021
From CounterFire
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A study of the last witchcraft executions in England is very revealing about the roots of witch-panics in conflicts fuelled by capitalism and the state, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

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John Callow, The Last Witches of England. A Tragedy of Sorcery and Superstition (Bloomsbury Academic 2021), xv, 333pp.

On 25th August 1682, three women from Bideford in north Devon, Temperance Lloyd, Susanna Edwards and Mary Trembles, were hanged at Heavitree, outside Exeter, for witchcraft.i These were probably the last witchcraft executions in England.ii While witchcraft remained a capital crime in England until 1736, elite belief in the usefulness and validity of witchcraft cases was clearly on the wane by the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. At the last trial for witchcraft in England, in Leicester in 1717, the jury found the accused not guilty despite the 25 witnesses asserting their guilt.

Similarly in the Bideford case, Callow points out that the judge, Sir Francis North, does not appear to have believed in the reality of witchcraft himself, arguing that he nevertheless had to condemn the women because of the strength of public feeling:

‘[with] the country so fully possessed against them … we cannot reprieve them without appearing to deny the very being of witches, which, as it is contrary to law, so I think would be very ill for his Majesty’s service’ (p.208).

In this light, the Bideford witches could be regarded simply as the unfortunate victims of a dying superstition, the last gasp of a panic which had seen its apogee in England with Matthew Hopkins in Essex forty years before. Callow’s detailed study shows however that the Bideford case can make an important contribution to our understanding of the witch-hunting phenomenon as a whole.

History of witch hunting

The European witch hunt has its origins in the fifteenth century,iii with its first peak between around 1435 and 1500, primarily in parts of France, Germany and Switzerland. It had a second peak in the 1560s, during which it spread to England and Scotland, and further peaks throughout the seventeenth century, before it died out in the eighteenth. The last execution for witchcraft in Europe appears to have been in Switzerland in 1782.

It is not clear how many people, mostly women, were killed in the witch hunt: surviving records are patchy and we often only have pamphlets reporting that ‘hundreds’ of witches were burnt in a particular place. While it probably wasn’t the hundreds of thousands sometimes estimated, the numbers in some areas were clearly high enough to be horrifying. In Oppenau in south-western Germany, for example, fifty people out of a population of only 650 were burnt for witchcraft in 1631-2 alone.iv

It has been argued that witch hunts were an attempt to stamp out an underground religion centred around women’s power, but there is very little evidence for the real existence of such a cult. The witch hunt has been seen nevertheless as an attack on women as women: a genocide of women.v In this view, the witch trials were an attempt to ensure control over women’s reproductive power in the context of the societal changes in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. As part of this, in this view, witch-hunting was an explicit attack on women’s traditional knowledge, such as in midwifery and healing, which was being replaced by the male medical profession.

It is the case that the vast majority of those accused of witchcraft were women. Men could be involved, particularly if they were associated with an accused woman, and some major panics could sweep up virtually anyone, but the preponderance of older women in particular in witchcraft trials is undeniable. As has been pointed out for Scotland, witch-hunting thus reflected the effect of the Reformation that ‘women for the first time became responsible for their own souls.’vi As witches, women were adult criminals acting independently, not merely as dependents of their husbands, and it is virtually the only crime aside from infanticide of which women appear accused in Scottish records in the period.

Contemporary witch-hunters were clear that women were more likely to be witches than men were. According to James VI and I of Scotland and England, this was simply because they were inherently more susceptible to diabolical influence:

‘for as that sex is frailer than man is, so is it easiest to be intrapped in those gross snares of the Devil, as was over well proved to be true, by the Serpent’s deceiving of Eve at the beginning, which makes him the homelier with that sex since’ (p.163).

This is not quite the same though as conceding that the purpose of witch-hunting was to attack women as women. Callow points out that the Bideford witches do not fit an idea of persecuted wise women. The role of midwives and ‘knowing women’ in this witch trial was on the other side, as experts inspecting the accused for the ‘Devil’s marks’ that would confirm that they were witches. He also notes that the accusations of witchcraft in this case also came from women, and women at that whose social position was not much more secure than that of the accused witches.

There was a sense in which making the accusation of witchcraft could be an opportunity for a marginalised woman to be listened to. Women can of course be co-opted to act in support of women’s oppression, but nevertheless, the role of numerous women on the side of the prosecution in the Bideford case does suggest that the gender politics here are more complex than it might seem.

Capitalism and the end of community solidarity

Women were more likely than men to be reliant on public support and begging, as the opportunities for them to support themselves were more limited. That this could translate into accusations of witchcraft against them is the basis of the social strain theory of witch-hunting. In summary, this sees accusations of witchcraft as arising from tensions in small communities, as the transition to a more commercial and individualist society broke old bonds of social solidarity.

Whereas in the past, communities would have looked after those who couldn’t look after themselves, as a matter of course, in the early modern period, this was becoming a limited and resented responsibility of the authorities at a local level. This meant that prosperous villagers and townspeople were both more likely to be approached by, for example, a poor local woman who relied on begging to live, to refuse and to feel guilty about it. It was then a short step to imagining that, when she went off cursing, she could do them supernatural harm.

While not all accused witches were beggars, very few were wealthy. It is notable in accounts of witch trials how little the Devil was supposed to have promised them to gain their allegiance. It is very rarely great wealth or luxury; usually it is simply that they should be free from want. The Devil himself was imagined as not immune from worries about money. In 1645, Elizabeth Southerns said that the Devil had met her on the road to Westleton and promised her two and six, which he then failed to pay her because of ‘the hardness of the times.’vii

Callow’s account of the Bideford case brings out several aspects which bear out the social strain theory. All three women in the case were poor, as long-term recipients of poor relief, supplemented by begging. They also all lived alone and were all in different ways on the margins of Bideford society. Lloyd was an immigrant from Wales, who had been left behind when her husband and children had moved on from the town; Edwards an illegitimate child of an extended family responsible for more than half of the illegitimate births in Bideford and possibly for many of the brothels; Trembles an Irish immigrant and daughter of a long-term poor-relief recipient called Trojan ‘Trudging’ Trembles.

The accounts of what they were supposed to have done are also redolent of the threat that they were felt to pose to the new bourgeois order. As Callow puts it:

‘Worse still, the home and the hearth no longer appeared sacrosanct. It felt as though there was always something trying to get in … the taint of the wild, with its animal stench and depredations threatening domestic order and seemliness with scrabbling feet or claws drumming at the wainscotting; the unwelcome visitor soliciting for work or relief at the door’ (p.4).

Temperance Lloyd was accused of having caused a mysterious illness in a Bideford woman called Grace Thomas. One day, when the servants in the house where Thomas lived with her sister and brother-in-law were changing her sheets, a magpie flew in and flapped around the room, while they panicked and tried to get it out. They finally managed it, but when they went downstairs, they found Lloyd in the street outside the front door of the house, as if she was the cause of the incursion. They could hardly have come up with a better metaphor for the way in which witchcraft symbolised the undermining of the security of private property.

None of the Bideford witches appear to have managed the inter-personal conflicts that arose from their reliance on relief and charity particularly well, although this is of course easy to see in hindsight. Lloyd in particular, who had a reputation as a witch for at least a decade before the 1682 trial, appears to have leaned into this image of her, possibly because fear of the consequences of refusing her helped successful begging. In many ways, the three Bideford witches match the ideal type of the witch from the most intense witch-hunting areas in England and Scotland: ‘a married middle-aged woman of the lower peasant class… [with] a sharp tongue and a filthy temper.’viii

A ruling-class strategy

This is however only half of the story, as locating witch-hunting purely in social conflicts at grassroots level ignores the extent to which it was driven and encouraged by local and national elites. There are, after all, some limited examples of popular witch-hunting in the medieval period, but these are usually condemned in the ecclesiastical sources we have, and there are even instances of clergy intervening to save accused witches from the mob. In contrast, in the late sixteenth century, the King of Scotland, James VI (shortly to become James I of England) wrote a major treatise on witchcraft. Clearly something in elite attitudes had changed.

It is apparent in the Bideford case that some of the accusations at least were driven by members of the local professional class. One of the accusers, Grace Barnes, told the trial that she ‘never had any suspicion that she had had any Magical Art or Witchcraft used upon her Body, until it was about a year and a half ago … she was informed by some Physicians that it was so’ (p.117). As Callow points out, the judge, Sir Francis North’s statement of why the witches had to be condemned was highly political and points to the place of witchcraft in the dominant political ideology.

James VI and I’s treatise on witchcraft, the Daemonologie, represented a ‘significant attempt to introduce Continental witch theory… into Scottish and, later, English intellectual life and legal practice’ (p.161). We should see it not as an interesting royal hobby but as a statement of the ‘imminence of both God and the Devil in human affairs’ and therefore a key aspect of Stuart absolutism and belief in the divine right of kings. As a method of social control, it both identified an Other in fear of which right-thinking people could unite behind the monarch, and presented the monarch as the defender of his people against supernatural as well as material threats.

This function of witchcraft was not specific to the Stuart monarchy. The early modern period saw states widely taking over from the church responsibility for the people’s thoughts and morals, most obviously but not limited to those which had become Protestant. This entailed setting out a new framework for the control of people’s beliefs and of people through belief. Witchcraft was central in this, and its utility as a method of social control is apparent from the tendency of witch hunts to be concentrated in areas and times where elite power was perceived to be under threat. Hence, for example, early witch-hunting in areas in Switzerland, where there was widespread elite concern about Waldensian heretics, or indeed the outbreak of witch-hunting in Essex in England towards the end of the Civil War.

Witch-hunting outbreaks and social crisis

This tendency for witch-hunting to be concentrated in areas of social turmoil tracks for Bideford. Bideford in the seventeenth century was something of a boom town, benefiting from the Newfoundland fishery, from the tobacco trade and from a short-lived but profitable spell of anthracite mining. This brought an influx of south Welsh immigrants to the town in the mid-seventeenth century, and seems along with the Atlantic trade to have brought also a sense of threat to the respectability and stability of sections of Bideford society. In this context, the fact that all three of the accused witches were in some way associated with the floating populations brought to the town by these booms is probably not a coincidence.

Bideford was also a Parliamentarian town with a substantial population of dissenters, which sat rather uncomfortably with the fact that the lord of the manor in the later seventeenth century was Sir John Grenville (later Granville), son of Royalist hero Sir Bevil Grenville and one of the few courtiers who managed not to have a huge falling out with Charles II. Callow estimates that in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries up to around a quarter of Bideford’s population can be shown to have been participating in home churches or conventicles. Many of the town’s leaders were seriously affected by the crackdown on dissenters that accompanied the Restoration, but the effect would have spread to lower social levels as well. Attendance at conventicles was particularly high among women, especially spinsters and women who were in some way marginal; the type of women, in fact, who were vulnerable to involvement in witch trials, either as accused or accuser.

The households involved in accusing the Bideford witches were not leaders in the dissenting community, but they do seem to have been involved. As Callow points out, contemporaries did draw parallels between the actually-existing underground religion that dissenting represented, and the imagined underground religion of the witches’ sabbat. In 1716, for example, Richard Boulton, defending witch-hunting, claimed that witches imitated the Congregational Churches. Within the context of the general political use of witch-hunting, it is possible to see in the Bideford trials a displaced anxiety in elite circles about a dissenting community in Bideford which ‘increasingly acted as an umbrella group for a number of interlocking movements and causes, including the radical political underground and the Duke of Monmouth’s partisans’ (p.81). At the same time, the presence of dissenters on the side of the accusers, rather than the accused, suggests that what we see here is ‘one persecuted minority turning, in the midst of a protracted existential crisis, to vent its rage upon another’ (p.72).

The witch-hunt was an effective tool of oppression because it met an elite political need in a way that chimed with social strains and anxieties at local level. Without the latter, it is unlikely that it would have ever taken off as it did into episodes of mass persecution. Without the former, belief in witches was something which elites could ignore. In England, the settlement of the 1688 Glorious Revolution changed the political climate, so witch-hunting no longer fulfilled the same function as it had. Hence the 1736 Witchcraft Act, only just over fifty years since the Bideford witches were hanged, no longer recognised that it was possible for someone to do harm through witchcraft. The crime it was proscribing was simply pretending that could.

An end to witch hunting?

This did not mean that belief in witches had gone away, although clearly it did dwindle without elite encouragement. Callow cites a number of examples of reputed witches in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Devon, the last of whom died in the workhouse at Okehampton at some point in the first decade of the twentieth century. These were women with similar social positions to those occupied by Lloyd, Edwards and Trembles. The difference was both in the changed political atmosphere in which witch-hunting did not play a controlling role, and in the greater mechanisms for state control of the indigent poor. By the nineteenth century, those who could not support themselves were likely to be removed to the workhouse, rather than hanging around in their villages making their more prosperous neighbours feel guilty.

Callow ends his account of the Bideford witches on an optimistic note, with an account of a commemoration held in Bideford in 2014. This was, he says, ‘spontaneous, irreverent and joyous’ and suggests that ‘a victory, of sorts, was to be found in the laughter of their [the witches’] sisters and their children’ (p.275). It’s a nice note on which to conclude, but the comparison between early modern witch trial and modern celebration shouldn’t give us any cause for complacency. Middle-aged and elderly women may no longer be condemned as witches (although we can still occasionally have that shouted at us) but the use of oppression to divide and control is still very much with us. Neither the witches nor the witch-hunters are really gone.

i Witches were hanged in England, not burnt as they were in Scotland and continental Europe.

ii Another woman, Alice Molland, was sentenced to death for witchcraft at Exeter in 1685, but she may never have actually been hanged.

iii It used to be thought that witch-hunting started in southern France in the 1330s, with accounts of 200 witches burnt at Carcassonne and 400 at Toulouse before 1350. These accounts have however been shown to have been ‘a spectacular historical hoax’, Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons. The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (Pimlico 1993), pp.181-201.

iv Cohn, p.232.

v As described for example by Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch. Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Penguin Books 2004).

vi Christina Larner, Enemies of God. The Witch-hunt in Scotland (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), p.101.

vii Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England (Penguin Books 1978), p.621.

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