Witchcraft in Britain

The Witchcraft Act of 1542 by Henry VIII (Tudor England) first made witchcraft a felony – punishable by death and the loss of personal goods and chattle, which at the time would have conveniently been turned over to the ruling government. (Gibson, 2006)

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 ..

The Witchcraft Act of 1563, or, “An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments, and Witchcrafts”  by Elizabeth I (Tudor England) requires the death penalty ONLY where harm was incurred, whereas lesser accusations could be sentenced to prison terms.  The act defined witches as those who …use, practice, or exercise any Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm, or Sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed. (i.e. “harm”) was sentenced to death without benefit of clergy* (Gibson, 2006)

The Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 made not just the practice of witchcraft, but consulting with witches, a crime.  This act was active until it was repealed and replaced by the Witchcraft Act of 1735 (House of Lords, post- 1707 Acts of Union, making Scotland and England part of the Kingdom of England)

The Witchcraft Act of 1604, or, “The Act Against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits,” under King James expanded the sentencing of death without clergy to anyone found guilty of invoking evil spirits or communing with familiar spirits.  This act changed the existing law by making all association with witchcraft a felony and moving the jurisdiction from the ecclesiastical (church) courts to common law courts.  This would have been an improvement for the accused, as it allowed them a criminal procedure (the bias nature of this procedure not withstanding); burning at the stake would have been eliminated (Yay, personal growth!  Way  to be progressive, England!) except where the accusation of witchcraft also included treason.  If a witch was accused and found guilty twice (the first offence being small enough to result in one year imprisonment rather than death), then upon the second offence, the witch would be executed.  (sort of a twisted version of California’s three-strikes-your-out law).  This was the act that gave power to Matthew Hopkins, the famous “Witch Finder General.  People associated with this act include: Earl of Northumberland, Bishop of Lincoln, Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, Attorney General for England and Wales, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench.  (Gibson, 2006)

The Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1649 by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the Commission of the Kirk (this is the Covenanter regime in Scotland, y’all… look it up.  It’s pretty fascinating).  The Covenanters passed morality laws enforcing “godliness” that made blasphemy, worshiping false gods, and beating and cursing one’s parents felonies.  (Making Scotland Great Again, huh?) Included in these new acts was the Witchcraft Act, expanding on the previous Witchcraft Act of 1563, ratifying the previous act and expanding it to include those who “deal with” and/or “consult with” “Devils and Familiar Spirits.”  These things were now punishable by death.   (Young, 2006)

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 : the paradigm shift.  Doing a complete 180, this new Witchcraft Act defined witches as those who claimed to communicate with spirits, had powers of divination and fortune telling, spell casting, and dousing (including for objects), and put them in the same class of criminals as vagrants and con artists.  The sentencing shifted from death to fines and possible jail time.  This act, being post- union, applied to all of the British Isles and repealed the previous Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 and the (English) Witchcraft Act of 1604.  The longevity of this act is impressive- it stayed on the books until it was repealed and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951.  (1951!!!)


Gibson, Marion (2006) “Witchcraft in the Courts” in Gibson, Marion, Witchcraft and Society in England and America, 1550-1750, Continuum International Publishing Group, isbn: 978-0-8264-8300-3

Larner, Christine (1981)Enemies of God, isbn: 0-7011-2424-5

Goodare, J. (2005) Anentis Witchcraftis, “The Scottish Witchcraft Act” Church History, vol. 74.1, pp. 39-67, PDF available here;

J.R. Young, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006) “The Covenanters and the Scottish Parliament, 1639-51: The Rule of the Godly and the Second Scottish Reformation,” E. Boran and C. Gribben, eds.,Enforcing Reformation in Ireland and scotland, 1550-1700; isbn: 0-754-6822-34