Arts Feature: A History of Witchcraft in the UK

Sophie explores our fascination with witches by diving deep into the history of Witchcraft in the UK...

Amongst the most common Halloween costume characters, zombies, vampires, ghosts… there is one that remains triumphant: the witch. But where does this fascination with witchcraft come from?

Made punishable by death in the UK in 1542 under the reign of King Henry VIII, witchcraft was a crime leading to the murders of some 200,000 women and men across western Europe. Witches were believed to practice ‘black magic’ and were associated with the devil, holding powers to inflict harm upon others. Older women were particularly vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, many of whom were poor. Witches were also said to communicate with the devil through small animals, commonly cats, which were known as their familiars. Even today there is a suspicion of black cats, especially.

Confessions of witchcraft were often extracted through methods of torture, creating inaccurate accounts. Other tests for witches included the swimming test, in which the victim would be tied up and flung into a river, if she or he floated, they were found guilty, and if they sunk then they were innocent. Although it is likely that many victims were falsely accused, some individuals would have genuinely thought of themselves as witches, using herbal remedies as healing sources.

“Witches were also said to communicate with the devil through small animals, commonly cats, which were known as their familiars.”

The Pendle Witch Trials, lasting from 1612 until 1634, are some of the most well-known in British history. Ten individuals were hanged for witchcraft, having been accused of the deaths of ten men and women by black magic. Pendle Hill, located in Lancashire, has since become a popular tourist location due to this event. Every Halloween a hilltop gathering takes place to commemorate the association with witches.

King James VI of Scotland was another monarch plagued by the threat of witchcraft. In 1597 he published Daemonologie, expressing his belief in the existence of witchcraft and magic, as well as asserting that witches should be punished by death. This book had a large influence upon the presentation of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The three gruesome witches appear to predict the future, prophesising that Macbeth will become King of Scotland in the first scene of the play. However, what Shakespeare leaves ambiguous to the audience is whether it is the witches’ prophecy that leads to Macbeth’s inevitable ascension to the crown and eventual downfall, or whether it is due to his own actions in his pursuit of kinghood.

“In 1597, James VI published Daemonologie, expressing his belief in the existence of witchcraft and magic.”

Finally, the laws against witchcraft came to an end in 1736 during the time of the Enlightenment, which favoured science and reason over superstition. Despite its history of torture and killings, it is evident that there are still witches existing today. Witchcraft, also known as Wicca, is one of the most influential Pagan practices.

Alongside the longstanding history of suspicion of witchcraft, this theme has infiltrated its way into popular culture in many forms, including TV, film and literature. Some of the most popular examples being the infamous Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl’s children’s classic The Witches, cult Broadway and West-End Musical Wicked, and even the Sabrina The Teenage Witch comic and TV series. With sights of thousands of witches having appeared this Halloween, it seems that we are not ready to say goodbye to the witch just yet.

Sophie Hunt 

Featured image courtesy of plaisanter~ via Flickr. Image found here.

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