While the Inquisition had been prosecuting and executing witches for centuries, the witch craze never really took off in England until the reign of James I. If anything, magic had an everyday place in English lives during the Tudor dynasty. This is not to say that witchcraft (then differentiated from magic) was free from scrutiny. But from the court-sanctioned experimentations of Dr. John Dee and other Christological magicians, the coastal witches who warded off the Spanish Armada with the help of Sir Francis Drake, to the rustic cures and spells offered by the cunning men and women, as well as the fantasy magical elements featured in popular culture such as Marlowe’s Faustus or Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest—magic was everywhere!
During the height of witch persecution on the Continent, there were no large-scale witch trials in England for a number of reasons. The ecclesial separation from other areas of Christian Europe meant that the English church had its own priorities, e.g. the persecution and removal of the treacherous papists! There was also a lack of any desire from authorities to conduct a witch hunt in the first place. The final decline of witch trials came at the latter half of the 17th century as a result of the rise of new scientific thought and the works of natural philosophers like Isaac Newton who were now able to explain the universe in mechanical ways, causing a decline in the belief in the possibility of magic to influence the world.
In English witchcraft trials, it is odd to see any reference to making a pact with the Devil. There are no witches’ sabbats, no sex with devils, nor did English witches fly. They did however have imps and familiars. Ursula Kemp was alleged to have four familiars: two cats, a toad called Piggen, and a lamb named Tiffin. Witches were usually only condemned for maleficium. These trials were rarely issued from above. English court records feature a lot of individual prosecutions from below by the alleged victims of witchcraft seeking redress in the courts. Trials against witchcraft were generally few and far between, except in the counties surrounding London.
Cases of witchcraft were coming predominantly from Essex. During the reign of Elizabeth I, for example, Hertfordshire only produced 24 cases, Sussex only 14, yet Essex produced 172 cases! Between 1560 and 1580, 270 individuals were prosecuted for witchcraft in Essex alone. Most of these trials took place in the last quarter of the 16th century, and became very rare everywhere after 1620. This decline can be explained by the fact that by the 1580’s judges were becoming very worried about the difficulties of proving witchcraft. This doesn’t mean necessarily that they were skeptical—many likely still believed that witchcraft was possible. But how could you prove witchcraft unless they confessed? In English law, torture was not used except in state trials when authorized by the Privy Council. It was routinely used in Scotland and the Continent. How could prosecutors root out natural causes of these alleged injuries? And if it were actually witchcraft, who did it? In cases of witchcraft, the normal rules of evidence could not apply.
With an increasing level of methodical jurisprudence, why they was there also a rise in the concerns against witchcraft in the 17th century? The dominant explanations offered by Thomas and Macfarlane show that witches were frequently elderly women who were accused of bewitching neighbors, not strangers, and who were often poorer than their victims. This suggests that accusations were rising as a result of tensions between poorer women and their competitive neighbors. While it is possible that some of those accused did practice magic and believe they had the power to harm, or that they responded to these accusations by playing the part of the witch given to them by reputation, there must have been some incident serious enough to start an honest investigation into witchcraft. In Essex, there was an average of four witnesses per accused witch. Witchcraft accusations could arise as a result of personal rivalries in local politics, used to discredit others and so on.
Thomas suggests that this peak period of witchcraft anxiety came with the rising concern in the loss of belief in the power of ecclesial protection and counter-magic, and secondly because that period was one of unusual tensions within village societies. Economic distress caused a declining position for the poor and widows. Poor Laws had not yet been put into effect for this population. The decline in charity among neighbors meant that accusing one of witchcraft could become a means to severing responsibility for the poor, and transferring this guilt to an accused witch.
Why were the Witchcraft Acts passed in the first place, and why did so many cases arise in Essex? Why were other counties similar to Essex not so affected? It’s worth considering that these laws were passed when they were for two reasons. Both were passed at the beginning of two monarchical regimes (Elizabeth I, then James I). This suggests that elements of symbolism or propaganda were being set up to confirm the legitimacy and uprightness of the monarch, who would be seen opposing certain subversive (yet harmless) acts. Another element was the perceived threats against the monarch. In 1561, two years before the 1563 act passed, a plot was discovered where sorcery was being used against Elizabeth. William Cecil discovered then that there were no acts preventing these crimes. The 1604 Act followed the succession of James I to the throne. He was a man with profound interest in witchcraft, having written his treatise Daemonologie after a group of witches were uncovered attempting to kill him in a shipwreck. The witchcraft acts of England and Scotland were then overhauled and combined.
As a result of these acts, the political and ecclesiastical elite had a bigger role in managing cases of witchcraft. It is possible then that Essex was peculiarly conscious of threats of witchcraft. The use of criminal law against witches had terrible publicity there. Three group trials took place in 1566, 1582 and 1589. In each case, an initial accusation was vigorously pursued by justices who had a particular concern against witchcraft. These trials were then publicized in pamphlets, which may have had the effect of heightening the sense of threat people felt, or even a moral panic. This paved the way then in 1644 for Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed Witchfinder General.
Between 1644 and 1647, Matthew Hopkins traveled throughout East Anglia and hired himself out as a consultant for the discovery of witches. He came to have gained his experience by accidentally encountering a meeting of witches in Manningtree, Essex. The witches met and offered sacrifices to the Devil, and gave commands to their familiars to do harm. English prosecutions until then had been sporadic, except in Anglia where they then came in great waves. With the Witchcraft Acts of Elizabeth and James now making witchcraft a felony, Hopkins was free to pursue witches as state criminals and so use extreme acts to gain his confessions. Though torture was still illegal, one method he employed was in keeping the accused witch awake for days at a time until they would confess. Another means of torture which he employed was the infamous trial by dunking in water. The aim of Hopkins was not to prove a witch guilty of committing maleficium, rather of having consorted with Satan, and thus being a heretic. During this time, Hopkins is suspected of executing 300 alleged witches, or 60% of all cases in a period of 300 years of English history. His 1647 account of witch-finding, The Discovery of Witches would later influence the witch craze in New England, including the madness that was the Salem witch hysteria of 1692-1693.
 Thomas, K. (1971). Religion and the decline of magic: Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth-century England.
 Macfarlane, A. (1970). Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A regional and comparative study.
 Hopkins, M. (1647). The discovery of witches: in answer to severall queries, lately delivered to the judges of assize for the county of Norfolk. And now published by Matthew Hopkins Witch-finder, for the benefit of the whole kingdome.