In England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland there has historically been a succession of Witchcraft Acts governing witchcraft and providing penalties for its practice, or -- in later years -- rather for pretending to practise it.
Witchcraft Act 1542Edit
Religious tensions in England during the 16th and 17th centuries resulted in the introduction of serious penalties for witchcraft. Henry VIII's Act of 1542 (33 Hen. VIII c. 8) was the first to define witchcraft as a felony, a crime punishable by death and the forfeiture of the convicted felon's 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 a right known as benefit of clergy from those convicted of witchcraft, a legal device that spared anyone from hanging who was able to read a passage from the Bible. This statute was repealed by Henry's son, Edward VI, in 1547.
Witchcraft Act 1563Edit
An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts (5 Eliz. I 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 1563Edit
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.
Witchcraft Act 1604Edit
In 1604, the year following James' accession to the English throne, the Elizabethan Act was broadened 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 Ja. I c. 12). It was this statute that was enforced by Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witch-Finder General.
Supporters of the Act included the Earl of Northumberland, the Bishop of Lincoln, the Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, the Attorney General for England and Wales, the Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, and the Chief Justice of the King's Bench.
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 witches 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.
Scottish Witchcraft Act 1649Edit
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 1735Edit
The Witchcraft Act of 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 of 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.
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