[From Mary Douglas (ed.), Witchcraft, Confessions and Accusations (Tavistock, London, 1970)]

Alan Macfarlane

Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart Essex (1)



This paper will assume a knowledge of the historical background to witchcraft prosecutions in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century England. (The best general studies of English witchcraft are Ewen, 1929, and Notestein, 1911.) It will also assume a general knowledge of current anthropological interpretations of witchcraft and sorcery.(2) Its more general aim is to show by a concrete example the way in which the disciplines of history and social anthropology may benefit each other.

There are many topics that, like witchcraft, need serious investigation by the historian of pre-industrial England equipped with contemporary anthropological ideas. An exchange of ideas would also benefit anthropologists. Historical material provides information which is different from and often more extensive than that used by anthropologists. For example, the following account of Essex witchcraft is based on over 700 cases of witchcraft in one county in England over a period of 120 years. This is a far greater number than has ever been assembled by an anthropologist.(3) The historian also has the advantage of being able to study change in beliefs. He is able to watch the rise and decline of accusations and may seek to correlate such changes with other contemporary movements. He is able to recognize that witchcraft accusations may be a far more radical and disruptive force than they sometimes appear in anthropological analysis.

In the year 1593 a literary character was made to say- concerning witches:

'I heare of much harme done by them: they lame men and kill their cattle, yea they destroy both men and children. They say there is scarce any towne or village in all this shire, but there is one or two witches at the least in it' (Gifford, 1593, sig. A4v).


The first object of this paper will be to see how far the assertion that there was 'scarce any towne or village' without its witch was true. If it was accurate, it seems evident that we cannot understand Elizabethan village society without taking witchcraft beliefs into account. In the latter part of the paper two theories will be suggested to account for the phenomena outlined in the first part. It will be seen how far witchcraft beliefs helped to explain events for which religious and medical knowledge were unable to provide a satisfactory answer. An attempt, albeit superficial in the limited space available, will also be made to relate witchcraft accusations and beliefs to certain types of conflict in society, particularly that between an ideal of neighbourliness and the practical necessities enforced by economic and social change. Because my knowledge is limited to that area, this discussion will be confined to the county of Essex. On a number of occasions, where even more detailed research is needed, I have confined myself to three adjacent villages, Hatfield Peverel, Boreham, and Little-Badow, which lay approximately five miles to the east of Chelmsford (see map on p. 85). Most of the analysis will be centred on the forty years after the passing of the Witchcraft Statute of 1563. There are problems of how far Essex was exceptional within England, how far England differed from the Continent, and to what extent witchcraft beliefs changed after 1603 or originated before 1563, crucial as they are, cannot be discussed here.

The meaning given to the term 'witchcraft' will emerge during this paper, but it may be given a preliminary definition as supernatural activity, believed to be the result of power given by the Devil, and causing physical damage, for instance death. 'White witchcraft' is roughly similar to this, except that the aim is healing rather than hurting.


Court records, principally those of the Assize and ecclesiastical courts, provide the bulk of the actual prosecutions for witchcraft in Essex. From them we learn the names and villages of approxi-

mately 545 people who were accused of witchcraft, black or white, between 1560 and 1680. Over two-thirds of these were accused of 'black' witchcraft, and many were imprisoned or


executed; for instance, some seventy-four persons are' known to have been executed at the Essex Assizes. Of the 426 villages in Essex at this time, some 227 are known to have been connected with witchcraft prosecutions in some way or other. At the peak period of prosecutions some 13 per cent of the indictments for all offences over a ten-year period at the Essex Assizes were for witchcraft; this offence was second only to theft in its frequency. Witches were accused of bewitching humans on 341 occasions and animals on eighty occasions at this court.

At the village level, Hatfield Peverel, with a total population of roughly 500, over a period of twenty-five years, harboured fifteen suspected witches; another thirty persons were directly involved as husbands or victims of witches. In Boreham, a village of seventy-eight households in 1575, there were at least four suspected witches. Seen as a proportion of all known offences at the Quarter Sessions and Assize courts from these villages during Elizabeth's reign, witchcraft accusations also appear important. Thus, in Hatfield Peverel, there were roughly twenty-six assault cases, two murders, one suicide, eleven cases of theft, and fourteen cases of witchcraft; in Boreham, the proportion of witchcraft cases was a good deal lower - five assaults, one murder, twenty thefts, and four witchcraft. In the three villages together there were five times as many known cases of witchcraft as of murder.

Yet even these numbers seriously underestimate the amount of interest in witchcraft. Comparison of the court records with other sources suggests that loss of records means that under 75 per cent of the suspected witches brought to court are known to us. Moreover, it seems that approximately one in four of those strongly suspected of witchcraft in the villages were never formally accused. Fear of the witch, the migration of the suspect, and other factors tended to curb accusations. It further appears that only the more serious offences at the Assizes were recorded; thus the actual total of 490 indictments for black witchcraft represents only some one-third of the accusations made at the court. To take one example: from court records we learn of a woman tried at Quarter Sessions and Assizes for bewitching a gelding to death; she was acquitted at the latter court. The court records alone would give a picture of a mild prosecution. But from the pamphlet account of the same trial'


learn of a web of suspicions behind this one official accusation. Among the misfortunes supposedly inflicted by this suspect re: tormenting a man, killing chickens, causing a woman to ell so that she looked pregnant and nearly burst, making cattle give 'gore stynking blood' instead of milk, making a child and tormenting another so that it 'fell unto suche shrickyng and staryng, wringyng and writhyng of the bodie to an fro, that that sawe it, were doubtful of the life of it'. If we take all these underestimates into account and multiply the total of own prosecutions, it seems that roughly 2,500 individuals re involved directly in black witchcraft accusations, either as witch or victim, between 1560 and 1680. These accusations occurred within a county with a population of approximately 100,000 persons.

The distribution of the actual prosecutions may be analysed various ways. Temporally, the peak of trials at both ecclesiastical and Assize courts was in the 1580s and 1590s - with a final outburst in 1645 (see graph on p. 86). The prosecutions died ay long before the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1736. though certain years saw peaks, accusations continued year and year out during Elizabeth's reign.

By geographical area, again, prosecutions were spread all over Essex (see map facing). They seem to have started in the ea around Chelmsford and were, to a certain extent, concentrated in the central and northern strip of Essex. The north-eastern Tendring Hundred was practically free except for the o most notorious trials, those of 1582 and 1645, when a group adjoining villages became the centre of prosecutions. All broad tempts to correlate the distribution with economic, social, religious factors have, so far, been unsuccessful. For example, ere seems to be no particular relationship to areas of population density, the new draperies, enclosure, or forest land.

By sex, it is apparent that witches were usually women. Of 270 suspected witches at the Assizes, all but twenty-three were men. Women, also, were slightly more likely to be bewitched; us, at the same court, indictments stated that 103 males had en bewitched to death, 116 females. Neither in this, nor in the myths and types of injury inflicted, does there seem to have en any marked sexual element in Essex witchcraft.

By occupation and status, it appears that witches were usually


on a slightly lower economic level than their accusers. Thus, of fifty husbands of witches whose status is given in the Assize cords, twenty-three were 'labourer' and four were yeomen; while of forty-five victims whose status was given, only six were labourers and sixteen yeomen. Twenty per cent of the suspects ere connected with non- agricultural occupations, and 40 per cent of the victims; the totals are, however, very small. Evidence

The county of Essex, showing sample villages MAP

from the pamphlet accounts of trials, and from the study of the three villages, suggests that the suspects, although poorer than their victims, were not the poorest in the village. For instance, Boreham, of the ten people receiving aid from the overseers of e poor, none were witches - despite the presence of four suspected witches in the village. Rather, Margaret Poole of that village, a suspected witch, was married to a man who was constable of the village, and who, in 1566, was one of the assessors the lay subsidy and himself the sixteenth highest contributor. As regards marriage and age, it does not seem that witches re necessarily unmarried, either widows or spinsters. Thus,



of fifteen women whose marital status we know in the three sample villages, only one was unmarried, while eight were widowed. From the Assize records we, know that, of 117 persons whose marital status was given, 40 per cent were widows. This figure is clearly interlinked with the age of those involved. It is difficult to get statistical information on this problem, but coroners' inquisitions on five imprisoned witches in 1645 show them to have been aged 40, 'about 50', 70, 70, and 'about 84' years, respectively. Tracing individuals in local records also suggests that older women, that is women over about 50 years of age, were more powerful witches, though it was believed that they tried to impart their witchcraft to their young children.

Detailed analysis of the kinship structure in the three villages has given the negative conclusion that witches were hardly ever related by blood to their victims, though they occasionally confessed to bewitching their husband or relations by marriage. On the other hand, almost all bewitchings occurred within a village and within groups of neighbours. Thus, of 460 cases of bewitching property or persons tried at the Assizes, only fifty occurred between villages; the rest were within the village. This intra-neighbour bewitching is clearly shown in the pamphlets. In Hatfield Peverel, one witch gave her familiar 'to mother Waterhouse her neighbour' and she in turn 'falling out wyth another of her neybours' killed three geese and 'falling out with another of her neybours and his wife' killed the husband. In this village it s even beginning to appear that nearly all the accusations took )lace between the tenants of one manor and not those of another. This manor was composed of a dissolved priory, but there seems lo be no general correlation between dissolved monastic foundations and witchcraft tensions. Nor has any connection been found between manors with partible inheritance, or ultimogeniture, and accusations.

Finally, those involved may be analysed to see whether there 3 any connection between witchcraft suspicions, religious groupings, and deviant behaviour of other kinds. The distribution of prosecutions shows no obvious correlation with Puritan centres or with Roman Catholic strongholds. Nor does a detailed study of church attendance and the religious formula of wills in ie three sample villages show any marked relationship between religious attitudes and attitudes to witchcraft. Thus, in Hatfield


Peverel, none of the ten women presented between 1584 and 00 for not attending church were suspected witches. In fact it was recognized by contemporaries that witches might be outwardly godly people; those 'which seemed to be very religious people, and would constantly repair to Sermons near them' might be witches (Stearne, 1648, p. 39). Nor does comparison those known to be witches and those accused of thefts, suicide, murder, breaking the sabbath, quarrelling, scolding, or sexual offences show any clear correlation in the three villages. Thus in Boreham, where there were roughly thirteen bastards cases, six cases of premarital intercourse, and seventeen miscellaneous cases of sexual misbehaviour between 1570 and 1600 ere is only one possible overlap with a suspected witch. Although witches were thought of as quarrelsome and unpleasant people they were not usually formally accused of other offences.


One theory for the existence of witchcraft beliefs is that they are, in certain respects, the most satisfactory explanation of misfortune or strange events. If medicine failed to heal and God seemed to turn a deaf ear to prayer, then the individual, it is suggested, could at least busy himself in hunting down the witch and countering her magic, occupations which both took the mind off the grief and held out a partial hope of recovery. So attractive, in fact, was the witchcraft explanation, that some authorities believed that people related almost every injury to witch. Reginald Scot argued

'that fewe or none can (nowadaies) with patience indure the hand and correction of God. For if any adversitie, greefe, sicknesse, losse of children, corne, cattell, or libertie happen unto them; by and by they exclaime uppon witches' (Scot, 1584, p. 25).

On the other hand, it is quite evident from the three-village study that only a small proportion of the many accidents in an Elizabethan village were interpreted as the result of the evil will of a neighbour. In Boreham between 1560 and 1603 witches were accused of killing one child and making one man ill. Even


if this was only a small part of the actual suspicions against them, it must have been a tiny proportion of the total illness and 351 known deaths during this period in the village. In the same village, coroner's inquests were held on the bodies of two young men who were squashed to death by a landslide while digging in a sand pit, and on another inhabitant who fell into a stream and drowned. There is no suggestion that they were believed to have been bewitched; the verdict was 'death by misfortune'. Since it seems, therefore, that death or injury could be explained in other ways, we are left with the problem of why certain injuries were ascribed to witches and not others.

To a limited extent the answer lies in the nature of the injury. To begin with, witchcraft explained only individual misfortunes, not general phenomena such as major climatic changes or the burning down of a whole town. Witches were accused in Essex courts of burning down a particular barn, nearly blowing down

a particular house, and sinking a particular ship. There was also an emphasis on the strangeness of an event: for instance when a huge tree suddenly fell down on a windless day; or when a normally clean woman 'was on a sudden so filled with Lice, that they might have been swept off her cloaths with a stick', especially when the lice were 'long, and lean, and not like other Lice' (Pamphlet, 1645, p. 23). Again, the amount of pain, physical or emotional, involved and the ability of physicians to deal with it, were partly relevant. Thus witches were, above all suspected of killing human beings, and those whose death was ascribed to witches characteristically languished some time before they died. Of 214 people stated at the Assizes to have been bewitched to death where the length of time they were ill is given, only seventeen were said to have died immediately, while seventy were ill for between one and three months.

It is very difficult to know whether certain illnesses were always ascribed to witches, and other types never. It does seem that the plague was infrequently blamed on specific witches; thus in the three sample villages, years of high mortality in the parish registers did not coincide with an increase in supposed deaths by witchcraft. Nor does it seem to have been death at childbirth that was automatically blamed on witches. Of 233 deaths by witchcraft recorded at the Assizes, only seven are known to have been those of infants under three months old.


Even children seem to have been less frequently the objects of witches' attacks than mature people: in Hatfield Peverel, nine out of ten of those supposedly bewitched to death were adults. Thus witchcraft was characteristically a relationship between two fully grown people. If, as sometimes was alleged to happen, the witch was unable to bewitch her enemy because of his godly life, she bewitched his children or animals instead.

Some sceptics argued that witchcraft was used as an explanation only where medical knowledge fell short, that physicians themselves blamed witches if they could find no 'naturall distemperature of the body'. This seems only partly to have been true, and the conclusion drawn from it, that witchcraft beliefs and accusations declined because of an alleged advance in medical techniques during the seventeenth century, seems even less likely. Such a theory is not based on any demonstrable advance in medical knowledge at the village or practical level during this period, nor does it account for the many injuries to animals and property - such as beer and butter - blamed on witches. At a more sophisticated level, both Sir Thomas Browne and William Perkins stressed that, even if an illness was explicable by medical theory, it might still originate in the evil will of another person. Here they were making the distinction between a cause in the mechanistic sense - how a certain person was injured - and cause in the purposive sense - why this person and not another was injured. When people blamed witches they did it not out of mere ignorance, but because it explained why a certain misfortune had happened to them, despite all their precautions; why, for example, their butter did not 'come'. Thus we have an account of a woman who could not have success with her butter; she tried feeding the cows on better food, tried scalding her butter pans, and finally, in desperation, used the old counter-witchcraft charm of sticking in a red-hot horseshoe. The butter came (Pamphlet, 1582, sig. E8V).

A very complex, yet vital, problem is whether people suffered some misfortune and then looked round for a witch, or whether they disliked a person and then blamed subsequent misfortunes on him. There is evidence for both processes, but the more normal form seems to have been for the quarrel to precede the injury, for the suspicion to be present before the accident. The way in which suspicions grew up, intermingling injuries with


tensions, is excellently illustrated in the words of George Gifford, writing in 1587:

'Some woman doth fal out bitterly with her neighbour: there followeth some great hurt, either that God hath permitted the devil to vex him: or otherwise. There is a suspicion conceived. Within fewe yeares after shee is in some iarre with an other. Hee is also plagued. This is noted of all. Great fame is spread of the matter. Mother W is a witch. She hath bewitched goodman B. Two hogges which died strangely: or else hee is taken lame. Wel, mother W doth begin to bee very odious and terrible unto many. Her neighbours, dare say nothing but yet in their heartes they wish shee were hanged. Shortly after an other falleth sicke and doth pine, hee can have no stomacke unto his meate, nowe he can not sleepe. The neighbours come to visit him. Well neighbour, sayth one, do ye not suspect some naughty dealing: did ye never anger mother W? truly neighbour (sayth he) I have not liked the woman a long tyme. I can not tell how I should displease her, unlesse it were this other day, my wife prayed her, and so did I, that shee would keepe her hennes out of my garden. Wee spake her as fayre as wee could for our lives. I thinke verely shee hath bewitched me. Every body sayth now that mother W is a witch in deede, and hath bewitched the good man E. Hee cannot eate his meate. It is out of all doubt: for there were (those) which saw a weasil runne from her house-ward into his yard even a little before hee fell sicke. The sicke man dieth, and taketh it upon his death that he is bewitched: then is mother W apprehended, and sent to prison' (Gifford, 1587, sigs. G4-G4v).

This account is amply substantiated in the Essex pamphlets. How there was a gradual growth of feeling over a long period, although no event was ascribed to the witch for several years at a time, and then how more and more disaster was laid at her door, are graphically illustrated. Gifford shows how the whole village community became involved in the gossip and tension. He also shows the process whereby a person cast around in his mind to see who might have bewitched him: in this 'case he selected a person with whom he felt uneasy and against whom he had offended. Mounting bitterness against an individual could not find an outlet until proof of her witchcraft had been


discovered; then she was either forced to confess her guilt and promise amendment of life at the ecclesiastical courts, or removed from the community by imprisonment or death at the Assizes. The stress throughout the account is on neither the strangeness nor the painfulness of the injuries, but rather on the social relationship preceding the injury. It would seem, therefore, that the key to understanding Essex prosecutions does not lie primarily in the amount of pain and in explanations of suffering current in Elizabethan villages, but rather in strains between villagers.


Witchcraft prosecutions, we have seen, usually occurred between village neighbours. They almost always arose from quarrels over gifts and loans, when the victim refused the witch some small article, heard her muttering under her breath or threatening him, and subsequently suffered some misfortune. This sequence is particularly well illustrated in the witchcraft pamphlets. The following are some of the motives suggested either by confessing witches or by their accusers in the 1582 Assize trial. The witch acted because she was: refused the nursing of a child; refused a loan of 'scouring sand'; refused 12d. for her sick husband; denied mault at the price she wanted; refused a 'mess of milk'; denied mutton. If we examine the motives of a single witch, Joan Robinson, we see that her various acts of witchcraft were precipitated by the following acts of her neighbours: she was denied an implement for making hay, the hire of a pasture, the sale of a pig, a cheese, a pig she had been promised, and payment for goods 'at her own reckoning'.

Another illustration of the fact that witchcraft was seen as a reply to unneighbourly behaviour is provided by the various counter-activities that were believed to be efficacious against witches. It was noted by contemporaries that it was those who refused gifts and other neighbourly charity who incurred the wrath of witches. Thus an Elizabethan preacher, Francis Trigge, told his congregation that

we may see how experience, and the very confessions of witches, agree that the merciful lenders and givers are pre-


served of God, and unmerciful and covetous Nabals are vexed and troubled of Satan' (Haweis, 1844, p. 224).

Thus it begins to seem as if it was those who offended against the ideals of a cooperative society by refusing to help their neighbours who found themselves bewitched. The continued force of the old ideals of neighbourliness, as well as the belief that a moral offence would bring physical affliction, is excellently illustrated in the words of an Essex writer in 1656:

' "God hath given it as a strict Command to all men to relieve the poor" he told his audience, then he quoted from Leviticus that "Whosoever hearkeneth not to all the Commandements of the Lord to do them (whereof relieving the poor is one) the Lord will send several crosses and afflictions, and diseases upon them, as followeth in the Chapter" and continued that "therefore men should look into the Scriptures, and search what sins bring afflictions from Gods hand, and not say presently, what old man or woman was last at my door, that I may hang him or her for a Witch; yea, we should rather say, Because I did not relieve such a poor body that was lately at my door, but gave him harsh and bitter words, therefore God hath laid his Affliction upon me, for God saith, Exod. 22.23. If thou any way afflict widows, and fatherless, and they at all cry unto me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath shall wax hot against thee" ' (Ady, 1656, p. 130).

Physical afflictions, he suggested, could be punishment for failure to uphold the social code, and men might well tremble when they heard a neighbour's curse, backed, as it might be, by power from God, or, as they preferred to think, from the Devil.

Cursing was one of the most important methods supposedly employed by witches to injure their victims; often their familiars first appeared when an angry woman cursed or swore revenge on a neighbour. It seems, then, that a sanction which had long been effective in making people live up to social obligations was still felt to be powerful. Thus when Thomas Cooper warned the godly in 1617 to forgo indiscriminate charity and especially to be hard on suspected witches, 'to bee straight-handed towards them, not to entertaine them in our houses not to relieve them


with our morsels', he had to counsel his audience to 'use a Christian courage in all our Actions, not to feare their curses, nor seeke for their blessings' (Cooper, 1617, p. 288). It was considered necessary to shun overtures of friendliness on the part of suspected witches, for gifts of food might be the vehicle of witchcraft. In 1579 a witch bewitched two neighbours in gifts of a drink and an apple-pie. Witchcraft beliefs thus provided a mechanism for severing unwanted relationships; a person could be cut off 'because' he or she was a witch. Moreover, since people still felt guilt at such a break with the traditional ideals, witchcraft explained to them their feeling of anxiety - no wonder they were worried since they were in peril of being bewitched, likely to be repaid on the supernatural plane for their lack of charity. Although the outwardly accepted village ethic was still one of mutual aid and intimate neighbourly links, people were constantly forced into situations where they were made to depart from such an ideal. Hence we find people especially sensitive to, witchcraft attacks on those occasions when neighbourly sentiments are most openly shown, during festivities such as weddings, or during illness. Suspected witches were often those who went round inquiring about their neighbours' health.

When a person was forced into a situation - by pressures it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss - where he had to break with a neighbour, there must have been considerable difficulties in an Elizabethan village. There was no code to which he could appeal for justification; Christianity still upheld communal values. But through the mechanism of the witchcraft laws, and the informal channels of village opinion, support in a dispute over neighbourly obligations was given to the bewitched person rather than to the witch, who had, in fact, suffered under the older social ideals. Thus it could be argued that the emotion that lay behind witchcraft accusations arose largely from discord within individuals, within people who felt the demands of the old communal values and the power of the old sanctions, while also realizing the practical necessity of cutting down, or re-directing, their relationships. By means of witchcraft prosecutions the older values were undermined or changed while, on the surface, they were still, apparently, subscribed to.

Since some Essex villages seem to have been free from accusations, it is clear that witchcraft was not the necessary or only


solution to such a conflict. Nor does it seem probable that disputes were absent before 1560 or suddenly ended in the middle of the seventeenth century. This suggests that alternative methods of settling village tensions were available, both in Elizabethan society and in the periods before and after. This is a huge topic and cannot be treated here. All that can be suggested is that earlier conflict may not have risen to such a pitch since there was a universal standard of behaviour to which appeal could be made, and that during the seventeenth century a new ethic and new institutions, centring on the treatment of poverty and one's obligations to neighbours, emerged and were established.

In Elizabeth's reign we may be witnessing a transitional stage. Such a clash of values could not be settled by most other normal methods of settling disputes. Religious guidance was split, and any comfort given by the ritualization of conflict or the confessional was destroyed at the Reformation. Various escapes such as suicide, mental breakdown, compulsive work or organization, alcoholism, and aggression, physical or verbal, seem to have been limited both in availability and in effectiveness. Thus, as such conclusions must be because of the records, 'here do seem to have been comparatively low rates of crime, suicide, and mental breakdown in the three sample villages. It is even more difficult to decide how useful informal methods of settling disputes between and within villages were gossip, joking, work and leisure activities, the advice of elders, and so on. The only positive evidence is that witchcraft did provide many acceptable mechanisms for overcoming uncertainty and anxiety. Physical attack on the witch was encouraged by the popular belief that an effective cure was to draw the witch's blood; a whole detailed set of counter-witchcraft rituals, and myths about the evil doings of witches, gave ample scope for activities and outlet for repressed fears and worries. Probably his all seems very high-flown in the context of the historian's dual picture of an Elizabethan village. Perhaps, therefore, I could end by showing the sort of insight into village mentality that witchcraft evidence provides. Not only does it reveal some of the mental concomitants of economic and social change, but it also reveals a much less stable and simple 'popular mentality' than one might expect from the usual local sources.


On the surface, the villagers of Hatfield Peverel were practical, 'rational', farmers and craftsmen. Their seventy five Elizabethan wills, extensive manor court rolls, criminal and ecclesiastical records show little sign, beyond the witchcraft prosecutions already mentioned, of oddness or tension. Yet, quite by chance, we are enabled to see, through the series of confessions recorded for the Assizes of 1566 and 1579, some of their secret fears and thoughts. The result is extraordinary. It immediately becomes clear that overlapping with the ordinary physical world was a sphere inhabited by strange, evil creatures, half-animal, half demon. A world full of 'power', both good and evil. This cannot be dismissed as a delusion or fantasy of a minority; it appears to have been fully credible to all the villagers and to the presiding magistrates, who included the Queen's Attorney, Sir John Fortescue (later Chancellor of the Exchequer), and Thomas Cole, Archdeacon of Essex.

Only one example of the beliefs circulating in this village can be quoted here, one of the more extraordinary, but not exceptional. A girl was questioned by the Queen's Attorney and answered that while she was churning butter

'there came to her a thynge like a black dogge with a face like an ape, a short taile, a cheine and sylver whystle (to her thinking) about his neck, and a peyre of hornes on his head, and brought in his mouth the key of the milkehouse doore';

the animal demanded some butter from the milkhouse and then departed. When the girl told her aunt of this encounter, she sent for the priest who 'bad her to praye to God, and cal on the name of Jesus'. This manoeuvre caused only a momentary diversion, and the familiar reappeared several times. The Queen's Attorney then turned to Agnes Waterhouse, the suspected witch, and asked her, 'can you make it come before us nowe, if ye can we will dispatche you out of prison by and by', but she replied that she could not call him;

'then saide the queenes atturneye, Agnes Waterhouse when dyd thye cat suck of thy bloud never saide she, no saide hee, let me se, and then the jayler lifted up her kercher on her heade, and there was diverse spottes in her face and one on her nose, then sayde the quenes atturney, in good faith Agnes


when dydde he sucke of thy bloud laste, by my fayth my lord sayde she, not this fortynyght' (Pamphlet, 1566, pp. 322-323).

Agnes Waterhouse was duly executed; she was one of the first of a minimum of 110 Essex inhabitants who were to die, either of prison fever or by execution, on a charge of witchcraft, within the next hundred years.

The above study is based on the records of one English county. Until the remaining counties have been investigated we will not know how exceptional Essex is. It is hoped that some historically minded anthropologists will help in this immense task. The other even greater need is for general analysis of the social background within which witchcraft prosecutions occurred in Tudor and Stuart England. Many of the most important problems in this field have already been brilliantly outlined (Thomas, 1963). Until we know far more about the social impact of illness and high mortality, about conflict and tension between groups and between ideals, about kinship and neighbourliness, it is very difficult to make more than tentative suggestions concerning English witchcraft. If we study witchcraft in this period using anthropological studies as a model, it is as if Professor Evans-Pritchard had tried to write his book on witchcraft among the Azande in 1900, instead of 1937.


1. This paper derives from my Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (1970), which gives fuller consideration to sources and statistics. Research was carried out between 1964 and 1966 in the Essex and Public Record Offices. Thanks are due to all those at these Offices who made the research possible. I am especially grateful to my former supervisor, Mr Keith Thomas of St John's College, Oxford, many of whose ideas have been borrowed unacknowledged. His forthcoming work, entitled Religion and the Decline of Magic, provides a fuller discussion of many of the issues merely hinted at in this paper. Finally, this analysis would have been impossible without the help of my nuclear family, who aided in the laborious task of reconstructing the village background to prosecutions.

2. My enormous debt to anthropological analyses, particularly to those works included in the list of references below, will be apparent from this treatment of English witchcraft. It would have been quite useless to study English witchcraft prosecutions - as it is futile to study many other topics in pre-industrial England - without having absorbed the stimulating anthropological literature.

3. As White points out (1961, p. 65), most anthropological studies of witchcraft have 'made use of comparatively small quantities of case material', and


his thirty-five cases constitute a relatively large sample. Among anthropologists, M. G. Marwick appears to have drawn on the largest number of witchcraft cases as the basis for his statistics (Marwick, 1965, pp. 15, 17): thirty or forty informants described 194 cases; 107 of these were ascribed to sorcerers, and in 79 instances both victim and sorcerer are identifiable.


The map of Essex and the graph of accused persons included in this paper are reproduced from the author's Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (1970) by kind permission of the publisher, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London.


ADY, THOMAS. 1656. A Candle in the Dark: or, A Treatise Concerning the Nature of Witches and Witchcraft. London.

COOPER, TH0MAS. 1617. The Mystery of Witchcraft. London.

EVANS-PRITCHARD, E. E. 1937. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

EWEN, C. L. 1929. Witch Hunting and Witch Trials. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.

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