The last decades of the 16th century saw a sharp rise in indictments for witchcraft. In spite of some scepticism amongst the educated, a belief in the harmful power of sorcery was widespread at the time, and accusations of witchcraft were taken extremely seriously. Witches were not burnt at this time, as is popularly supposed, and nor were they usually victims of mass hysteria or frenzied witch hunts.
Hawise, in Time’s Echo, finds herself at the hands of a small mob, but her death is the result of a personal vendetta. In practice most witches in Elizabethan England were dealt with more prosaically by the assize courts and if found guilty, they were sentenced to hang.
The vast majority of those accused were women, often (but not always) elderly or vulnerable -although not all were without supporters. Leonard Norgrave, the keeper of Canterbury gaol, was accused of allowing convicted witch to escape his prison and it was claimed that he had been overheard saying ‘that the witch did more good by her physic [than] Mr Wood, a minister of God’s word’.
Most indictments for witchcraft that made their way to the assize courts involved murder rather than petty accusations of butter not churning or broken pie crusts. Alice Daye, a tanner’s wife, was accused of bewitching Isabel Chylde on 12 January 1573 ‘so that she languished until 16 February and then died’. In June she allegedly struck again, bewitching a widow, Alice Goodwyne, and Isabel’s father, both of whom died. Alice herself was pregnant, so escaped immediate hanging when she was found guilty.
In spite of the specific nature of many of the accusations, where dates were carefully noted, not all those accused of being witches were found guilty. We have few details of the trials themselves, but witnesses were examined and where an accusation was clearly a case of paying off scores, the court passed a verdict of not guilty and released the accused. Joan Foster, a spinster of Stansted, faced accusations dating over a number of years when she was indicted for witchcraft.
“On 21 June 1584 at Stansted she bewitched Joan Lane so that she languished until 23 June and then died.
On 10 December 1587 at Stansted she bewitched a mare belonging to Robert Wold so that it died on 16 January 1588.
On 31 May 1592 at Stansted she bewitched William Wodden so that he was and is afflicted in several parts of his body.
On 10 November 1592 at Stansted she bewitched Alice Woldam so that until 17 November she was afflicted in several parts of her body.”*
Joan was found not guilty. It’s hard to not wonder about the stories behind allegations like these: what was the relationship between Joan and those who died or were paralysed? Was Joan a wise woman like Sybil Dent, or was she simply an unpopular neighbour? What happened to the horse and why was Joan a suspect? I’m fascinated by records like these that allow us tantalising glimpses of past lives, and raise questions that can only be answered in our imaginations.
*From Calendar of Assize Records: Kent Indictments, Elizabeth I, p.345.