The Fate of English Witches: From Water Torture to Divine Retribution

The Fate of English Witches: From Water Torture to Divine Retribution

During the Early Modern period of European history – from the Renaissance (1500) to the French Revolution (1800), hundreds of thousands of witches suffered the terrible fate of being burned at the stake for their beliefs during the so-called ‘Burning Times’. Modern estimates suggest a revised figure of between 40,000 to 50,000 over a period of 300 years, however, following my own researches into witchcraft trials in England, it would appear the reality was far less dramatic, albeit not for the individuals convicted of witchcraft!

Witches’ Sabbath The Great He-Goat by Francisco Goya  (1746–1828) (Public Domain)

Witches’ Sabbath The Great He-Goat by Francisco Goya  (1746–1828) (Public Domain)

Witches in Medieval England

For most of the Medieval period, the authorities turned a proverbial blind-eye on the activities of witches and sorcerers, despite many of them apparently practicing openly, if discretely. They knew witches existed but, as one report relating to 15th-century London put it, the authorities: “were neither eager nor willing to prosecute practical magicians” - which included sorcerers and witches - providing they were not trying to harm or defraud anyone. Intriguingly records suggest that between the years 1066 and 1560 only six people were executed for witchcraft in England.


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