Strangled, hanged, burnt or boiled alive, and drowned: the fate of witches
Of course, English attitudes to witchcraft during the Tudor era were always less extreme than those of Europeans. Indeed, under the right circumstances, the British witch could occasionally become an acceptable – if not quite respectable – member of society. Acceptance was not universal, however, and those who attracted the attention of the witchfinder – or even the Inquisition under Mary I’s reign – often ended up on trial for their lives.
Happily, many of these ‘witches’ escaped conviction, since most English tests tended to favour the accused. One common test was ‘swimming the witch’; in a village pond test, the guilty floated and the innocent sank (and were pulled to safety, one hopes). Another test was to weigh the accused against the Bible; if the Bible was heavier, she was clearly a witch. The unfortunate few convicted by such bizarre methods were generally spared the flames. Whereas the Europeans burnt or even boiled their witches alive – occasionally strangling them beforehand as an act of mercy – the more usual sentence for a British witch was death by hanging.
All witches were equal under Tudor law, it seemed, but some were more equal than others. Particularly perhaps if they were male. Indeed, it was not until after James I came to the throne in 1603, with his treatise Daemonologie and his fear of the supernatural, that the witch-hunting craze in England really took off.
So this Halloween, while trick-or-treating with the kids, spare a thought for those unfortunate women accused of witchcraft in earlier centuries, whose fate was often sealed by nothing more sinister than a birthmark where the Devil was thought to have suckled ...
NB. A longer version of this article appeared at History Today in August 2012.
|WARNING: Witches are variously depicted as hanged, burnt alive and 'floated' in WITCHSTRUCK.|
WITCHSTRUCK is now available in the USA.