Witchcraft Acts

In England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and the British colonies, there has historically been a succession of Witchcraft Acts governing witchcraft and providing penalties for its practice, or—in later years—rather for pretending to practise it.

Witchcraft Act 1541

Religious tensions in England during the 16th and 17th centuries resulted in the introduction of serious penalties for witchcraft. Henry VIII’s Act of 1541[1] (33 Hen. 8. c. 8) was the first to define witchcraft as a felony, a crime punishable by death and the forfeiture of goods and chattels.[2] It was forbidden to:

… use devise practise or exercise, or cause to be devysed practised or exercised, any Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to thentent to fynde money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone in his bodie membres, or to pvoke [provoke] any persone to unlawfull love, or for any other unlawfull intente or purpose … or for dispite of Cryste, or for lucre of money, dygge up or pull downe any Crosse or Crosses or by such Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries or any of them take upon them to tell or declare where goodes stollen or lost shall become …[3]

The Act also removed the benefit of clergy, a legal device that exempted the accused from the jurisdiction of the King’s courts, from those convicted of witchcraft.[3] This statute was repealed by Henry’s son, Edward VI, in 1547.[4]

Witchcraft Act 1562

An 1562[1] Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts (5 Eliz. 1. c. 16) was passed early in the reign of Elizabeth I. It was in some respects more merciful towards those found guilty of witchcraft than its predecessor, demanding the death penalty only where harm had been caused; lesser offences were punishable by a term of imprisonment. The Act provided that anyone who should “use, practise, or exercise any Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm, or Sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed”, was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, and was to be put to death.[5]

Indictments for homicide caused by witchcraft begin to appear in the historical record in the period following the passage of the 1563 Act. Out of the 1,158 homicide victims identified in the surviving records, 228 or 20.6% were suspected of being killed by witchcraft. By comparison, poison was suspected in only 31 of the cases. Out of the 157 people accused of killing with witchcraft, roughly half were acquitted. Only nine of the accused were men.[6]

Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563

Under the Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563 both the practice of witchcraft and consulting with witches were capital offences.[7] This Act stayed on Scottish statute books until repealed as a result of a House of Lords amendment to the bill for the post-union Witchcraft Act 1735.[8][9]


Irish Witchcraft Act 1586

The Irish act (28 Eliz. 1. c. 2, An Act against Witchcraft and Sorcerie) was largely identical to the English act of 1562. The penalty for causing death by witchcraft was as a felony without benefit of clergy (that is, capital punishment), which was also the penalty for a second offence of causing injury or material loss by witchcraft; for a first such offence, the penalty was one year’s imprisonment including six hours in the pillory once per quarter. This was also the penalty for a first offence of using witchcraft to “discover hidden treasure, … or stolen goods, or to provoke unlawful love”; for a second such offence, it was life imprisonment.[10]

The last prosecution under the 1586 act was the 1711 Islandmagee witch trial.[11] Nobody is known for certain to have been executed under the act. Of those accused of causing death by witchcraft, William Sellor was convicted at the Islandmagee trial, but there is no surviving record of his sentence;[11] Florence Newton died during her 1661 trial;[12] Marion Fisher’s 1655 conviction was overturned by Sir James Barry; and the strangling of a suspected witch in Antrim in 1698 was a lynching.[11]

The 1586 act was repealed in 1821.[13]

Witchcraft Act 1604

In 1603,[1] the year James I‘s accession to the English throne, the Elizabethan Act was broadened by Edward Coke and others to bring the penalty of death without benefit of clergy to any one who invoked evil spirits or communed with familiar spirits. The Act’s full title was An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits, (1 Ja. I c. 12).[14] It was this statute that was enforced by Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witch-Finder General.

The Acts of Elizabeth and James changed the law of witchcraft by making it a felony, thus removing the accused from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the courts of common law. This provided, at least, that the accused persons 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 convicted were hanged instead. Any witch who had committed a minor witchcraft offence (punishable by one year in prison) and was accused and found guilty a second time was sentenced to death.[citation needed]

Colonial use

The Witchcraft Act 1604 was employed in the British American colonies, e.g., in the trial of Margaret Mattson, a woman accused of witchcraft in the Province of Pennsylvania. (She was acquitted by William Penn after trial in Philadelphia in 1683.)

Scottish Witchcraft Act 1649

Through the 1640s the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the Commission of the Kirk lobbied for the enforcement and extension of the Witchcraft Act 1563, which had been the basis of previous witch trials. The Covenanter regime passed a series of acts to enforce godliness in 1649, which made capital offences of blasphemy, the worship of false gods and for beaters and cursers of their parents. They also passed a new witchcraft act that ratified the existing act of 1563 and extended it to deal with consulters of “Devils and familiar spirits”, who would now be punished with death.[15]

Witchcraft Act 1735

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 (9 Geo. 2 c. 5) marked a complete reversal in attitudes. Penalties for the practice of witchcraft as traditionally constituted, which by that time was considered by many influential figures to be an impossible crime, were replaced by penalties for the pretence of witchcraft. A person who claimed to have the power to call up spirits, or foretell the future, or cast spells, or discover the whereabouts of stolen goods, was to be punished as a vagrant and a con artist, subject to fines and imprisonment. The Act applied to the whole of Great Britain, repealing both the 1563 Scottish Act and the 1604 English Act.[7]

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 remained in force in Britain well into the 20th century, until its eventual repeal with the enactment of the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951.

The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 was repealed on 26 May 2008[17] by new Consumer Protection Regulations following an EU directive targeting unfair sales and marketing practices.[18]

Other related acts

The Witchcraft Suppression Act, 1957 of South Africa, which is still in force,[19] was based on the Witchcraft Act 1735.[20]

An Act, Against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits, passed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony General Court, October 1692.[21][22]

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


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