The Witchcraft Acts were historically a succession of governing laws in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and the British colonies on penalties for the practice, or—in later years—rather for pretending to practise witchcraft.
Witchcraft Act 1541
|Act of Parliament|
|Long title||An Act against Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorcery and Inchantments.|
|Citation||33 Hen. 8. c. 8|
|Royal assent||1 April 1542|
Religious tensions in England during the 16th and 17th centuries resulted in the introduction of serious penalties for witchcraft. Henry VIII's Witchcraft Act 1541 (33 Hen. 8. c. 8) was the first to define witchcraft as a felony, a crime punishable by death and the forfeiture of goods and chattels. 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 Act also removed the benefit of clergy, a legal device that exempted the accused from the jurisdiction of the King's courts, from those convicted of witchcraft. This statute was repealed by Henry's son, Edward VI, in 1547.
Witchcraft Act 1562
|Act of Parliament|
|Long title||An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts.|
|Citation||5 Eliz. 1. c. 16|
|Royal assent||10 April 1563|
|Repealed by||Witchcraft Act 1603|
|Text of statute as originally enacted|
An 1562 Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts (5 Eliz. 1. c. 16) was passed early in the reign of Elizabeth I. It was in some respects more merciful towards those found guilty of witchcraft than its predecessor, demanding the death penalty only where harm had been caused; lesser offences were punishable by a term of imprisonment. The Act provided that anyone who should "use, practise, or exercise any Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm, or Sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed", was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, and was to be put to death.
Indictments for homicide caused by witchcraft begin to appear in the historical record in the period following the passage of the 1563 Act. Out of the 1,158 homicide victims identified in the surviving records, 228 or 20.6% were suspected of being killed by witchcraft. By comparison, poison was suspected in only 31 of the cases. Out of the 157 people accused of killing with witchcraft, roughly half were acquitted. Only nine of the accused were men.
Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563
|Witchcraft Act (Scotland) 1563|
|Act of Parliament|
|Long title||Anent the using of witchcraftis sorsarie and necromancie.|
|Citation||1563 c. 9|
Under the Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563 both the practice of witchcraft and consulting with witches were capital offences. This Act stayed on Scottish statute books until repealed as a result of a House of Lords amendment to the bill for the post-union Witchcraft Act 1735.
Irish Witchcraft Act 1586
|Witchcraft Act (Ireland) 1586|
|Act of Parliament|
|Long title||An Act against Witchcraft and Sorcerie.|
|Citation||28 Eliz. 1. c. 2 (I)|
The Irish act (28 Eliz. 1. c. 2, An Act against Witchcraft and Sorcerie) was largely identical to the English Witchcraft Act 1562. The penalty for causing death by witchcraft was as a felony without benefit of clergy (that is, capital punishment), which was also the penalty for a second offence of causing injury or material loss by witchcraft; for a first such offence, the penalty was one year's imprisonment including six hours in the pillory once per quarter. This was also the penalty for a first offence of using witchcraft to "discover hidden treasure, ... or stolen goods, or to provoke unlawful love"; for a second such offence, it was life imprisonment.
The last prosecution under the 1586 act was the 1711 Islandmagee witch trial. Nobody is known for certain to have been executed under the act. Of those accused of causing death by witchcraft, William Sellor was convicted at the Islandmagee trial, but there is no surviving record of his sentence; Florence Newton died during her 1661 trial; Marion Fisher's 1655 conviction was overturned by Sir James Barry; and the strangling of a suspected witch in Antrim in 1698 was a lynching.
The 1586 act was repealed in 1821.
Witchcraft Act 1603
|Act of Parliament|
|Long title||An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits.|
|Citation||1 Jas. 1. c. 12|
|Royal assent||7 July 1604|
|Repealed||24 June 1736|
|Repeals/revokes||Witchcraft Act 1562|
|Repealed by||Witchcraft Act 1735|
In 1603, the year James I's accession to the English throne, the Elizabethan Act was broadened by Edward Coke and others to bring the penalty of death without benefit of clergy to any one who invoked evil spirits or communed with familiar spirits. The Act's full title was An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits, (1 Jas. 1. c. 12). It was this statute that was enforced by Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witch-Finder General.
The Acts of Elizabeth and James changed the law of witchcraft by making it a felony, thus removing the accused from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the courts of common law. This provided, at least, that the accused persons theoretically enjoyed the benefits of ordinary criminal procedure. Burning at the stake was eliminated except in cases of witchcraft that were also petty treason; most convicted were hanged instead. Any witch who had committed a minor witchcraft offence (punishable by one year in prison) and was accused and found guilty a second time was sentenced to death.
The Witchcraft Act 1603 was employed in the British American colonies, e.g., in the trial of Margaret Mattson, a woman accused of witchcraft in the Province of Pennsylvania. (She was acquitted by William Penn after trial in Philadelphia in 1683.)
Scottish Witchcraft Act 1649
Through the 1640s the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the Commission of the Kirk lobbied for the enforcement and extension of the Witchcraft Act 1563, which had been the basis of previous witch trials. The Covenanter regime passed a series of acts to enforce godliness in 1649, which made capital offences of blasphemy, the worship of false gods and for beaters and cursers of their parents. They also passed a new witchcraft act that ratified the existing act of 1563 and extended it to deal with consulters of "Devils and familiar spirits", who would now be punished with death.
Witchcraft Act 1735
The Witchcraft Act 1735 (9 Geo. 2 c. 5) marked a complete reversal in attitudes. Penalties for the practice of witchcraft as traditionally constituted, which by that time was considered by many influential figures to be an impossible crime, were replaced by penalties for the pretence of witchcraft. A person who claimed to have the power to call up spirits, or foretell the future, or cast spells, or discover the whereabouts of stolen goods, was to be punished as a vagrant and a con artist, subject to fines and imprisonment. The Act applied to the whole of Great Britain, repealing both the 1563 Scottish Act and the 1604 English Act.
The Witchcraft Act 1735 remained in force in Britain well into the 20th century, until its eventual repeal with the enactment of the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951.
- The Witchcraft Suppression Act, 1957 of South Africa, which is still in force, was based on the Witchcraft Act 1735.
- An Act, Against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits, passed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony General Court, October 1692.
- Bideford witch trial: Trial of the last three people known to have been executed in England for alleged witchcraft, in 1682.
- Janet Horne: The last person to be legally executed for witchcraft in the British Isles, in 1727.
- Helen Duncan: The last person to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act 1735, in April 1944. Her conviction led to the repeal of the Act and the introduction of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951.
- Jane Rebecca Yorke, the last person convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1735, in September 1944. Found guilty on seven counts, and fined £5.
- Margaret Mattson: A woman accused of witchcraft in the Province of Pennsylvania; acquitted by William Penn after trial in Philadelphia in 1683.
- "WHICH WITCH (CRAFT ACT) IS WHICH?". Parliamentary Archives: Inside the Act Room. 28 October 2020. Retrieved 8 September 2022.
- Gibson 2006, p. 1
- Gibson 2006, p. 2
- Brosseau Gardner 2004, p. 254
- Gibson 2006, pp. 3–4
- Kesselring, K.(2016-05-12). ‘Murder’s Crimson Badge’: Homicide in the Age of Shakespeare. In The Oxford Handbook of the Age of Shakespeare. : Oxford University Press.
- Gibson 2006, p. 7
- Larner 1981, p. 78
- Anentis Witchcraftis, "The Scottish witchcraft act." Church history 74.1 (2005): 39. online
- "1586: 28 Elizabeth 1 c. 2: An Act against Witchcraft and Sorcerie". The Statutes Project. 24 January 2019. Retrieved 24 March 2023.
- Sneddon, Andrew (15 May 2013). Possessed By the Devil: The Real History of the Islandmagee Witches and Ireland's Only Mass Witchcraft Trial. The History Press. ISBN 978-0-7524-8087-9.
- Sneddon, Andrew (27 May 2019). "Witchcraft Belief, Representation and Memory in Modern Ireland". Cultural and Social History. 16 (3): 251–270. doi:10.1080/14780038.2019.1595273. S2CID 150681667.
- Sneddon, Andrew (November 2019). "Select document: Florence Newton's trial for witchcraft, Cork, 1661: Sir William Aston's transcript". Irish Historical Studies. 43 (164): 298–319. doi:10.1017/ihs.2019.55. S2CID 197849651.
- 1 & 2 Geo. 4 c. 18 An Act to repeal an Act, made in the Parliament of Ireland in the Twenty eighth Year of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, against Witchcraft and Sorcery
- Gibson 2006, pp. 5–6
- Sir John Holt. National Portrait Gallery.
- J. R. Young, "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 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), ISBN 0754682234, pp. 149-50.
- Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 Schedule 4
- "There may be trouble ahead" BBC News, 18 April 2008
- "Witchcraft Suppression Act 3 of 1957" (PDF). Government of South Africa. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
- "The 1957 Witchcraft Act". Quackdown. 29 August 2011. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
- Acts and laws, passed by the Great and General Court or Assembly of Their Majesties province of the Massachusetts-Bay, in New-England. Begun at Boston, the eighth day of June, 1692. And continued by adjournment, unto Wednesday the twelfth day of October following. June 2006. Retrieved 11 February 2018 – via University of Michigan.
- The Charters and General Laws of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts. T. B. Wait and Co. 1814. pp. 735-736. Retrieved 11 February 2018 – via Internet Archive.
- Brosseau Gardner, Gerald (2004), The Meaning of Witchcraft, Red Wheel/Weiser, ISBN 978-1-57863-309-8
- Gibson, Marion (2006), "Witchcraft in the Courts", in Gibson, Marion (ed.), Witchcraft And Society in England And America, 1550–1750, Continuum International Publishing Group, pp. 1–9, ISBN 978-0-8264-8300-3
- Larner, Christine (1981), Enemies of God, Chatto and Windus, ISBN 0-7011-2424-5
- John Newton and Jo Bath (eds), Witchcraft and the Act of 1604 (Leiden, Brill, 2008) (Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions, 131)
- P G Maxwell-Stuart, The Great Scottish Witch-Hunt (Tempus, Stroud, 2007)