and 17th century England was an age of tremendous religious
enthusiasm. Most people believed that God and the devil had
a powerful daily influence on their lives. Many, including influential
people like King James I & VI also believed that some people
made a pact with the devil: these were witches.
About 3,000 people were tried for the crime of witchcraft, nearly
all of them women and nearly all over 50. There were occasional
outbreaks of mass accusations, as in the activities of Matthew
Hopkins, self-styled "Witchfinder-General", in Essex
in 1645. He accused 35 women of being witches, of whom 19 were
executed and 9 died in gaol. However, the full picture is nothing
like so dramatic. Cases of witchcraft cropped up occasionally
and most of the accused were found not guilty, or not executed
even if found guilty. About 400 people were actually executed
for witchcraft in England.
To be a witch was not in itself a crime; what was a crime was
to use these powers of witchcraft to cause harm to other people,
their families or livelihood. That is why court records list
illnesses or deaths of people or animals, supposedly from a
curse put on them by a witch. The courts also took great care
to make sure the evidence proved the case. It was believed that
once a witch had got involved with the devil, his "familiar",
in the form of an animal, lived with her and sucked from her
body. The accused women's bodies were therefore examined to
search for the extra nipple.
The crime of witchcraft died away in the 18th century. People
were more sceptical about the whole idea of spells, curses and
conversations with the devil. Witchcraft ceased to be an offence
in 1736. But were there really, for a time, witches in England?