Witchcraft Act

Witchcraft Act

In England, a succession of Witchcraft Acts have governed witchcraft and provided penalties for its practice, or (in later years) for pretending to its practice.

Middle ages

The first Act of Parliament directed specifically against witchcraft was the act De hæretico comburendo, passed at the instigation of Archbishop Thomas Arundel in 1401 . It specifically named witchcraft — "sortilegium" — "sorcery", or "divination", as a species of heresy, and provided that unless the accused witch abjured these beliefs, she was to be burnt at the stake.

This law, however, was directed against an ecclesiastical offence, not technically a felony in common law. Offenders were tried before an ecclesiastical tribunal — the Inquisition, "per se", did not operate in England, but the procedure was comparable.

The penalty of burning at the stake was prescribed for ecclesiastical offences only, since the Church tried to avoid the shedding of blood.

Sixteenth century

It was not until the start of the sixteenth century, however, that religious tensions resulted in increased penalties for witchcraft in England. The Witchcraft Act 1541 [1541 (33 Hen. 8) C A P. VIII] provided that

"It shall be Felony to practise, or cause to be practised Conjuration, Witchcraft, Enchantment or Sorcery, to get Money; or to consume any Person in his Body, Members or Goods; or to provoke any Person to unlawful Love; or for the Despight of Christ, or Lucre of Money, to pull down any Cross; or to declare where Goods stolen be."
Felonies were punishable with death.

A later statute of Henry VIII provided the same death penalty for "invoking or conjuring an evil spirit". This statute was repealed by his more liberal son, Edward VI. During the reign of Edward's successor Mary I no new law governing witchcraft was passed.

England's most notorious Witchcraft Act was passed early in the reign of Elizabeth I. This act of 1563 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 felony without benefit of clergy, and was to be put to death. This law was broadened further by Elizabeth's successor James I, a king who wrote a treatise on "Dæmonologie" and who, as James VI of Scotland, took a personal interest in the trial of some accused witches at Berwick on Tweed.

In 1604, the first year of James's reign, 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. It was this statute that was enforced by Matthew Hopkins, the notorious "Witch-Finder General".

The acts of Elizabeth and James changed the law of witchcraft in two major respects. First, by making witchcraft a felony, they removed the accused witches 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 instead were hanged.

However, by making witchcraft an ordinary crime, they invoked all the penalties of felonies against the convicted witch, including escheat which forfeited the convict's land and goods to the Crown. This gave local officials a financial stake in finding witches to convict, and led to the most pervasive witchhunts in English history.

After the Seventeenth century, the witch hunting gradually died down, the influences of the Age of Reason beginning to take hold on the population as a whole.

1735 Act

This statute was replaced under George II by the Witchcraft Act 1735 [1735 (9 Geo. 2) C A P. V.] that marked a complete reversal in attitudes. No longer were people to be hanged for consorting with evil spirits. Rather, a person who "pretended" 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.

In 1944, Helen Duncan was the last person to be jailed under the Witchcraft Act, on the grounds that she had pretended to summon spirits. It is often contested that her imprisonment was in fact at the behest of superstitious Intelligence officers who feared she would reveal the secret plans for D-Day. She came to the attention of the authorities after supposedly contacting a sailor of HMS "Barham" whose sinking was hidden from the general public at the time . She spent nine months in prison.

Although Duncan has been frequently described as the last person to be convicted under the Act, in fact Jane Rebecca Yorke was convicted under the Act later that same year. [ [http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1997265,00.html The Witchcraft Act wasn't about women on brooms] , "The Guardian".] The last threatened use of the Act against a medium was in 1950. In 1951 the last Witchcraft Act was repealed with the enactment of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951, largely at the instigation of Spiritualists through the agency of Thomas Brooks M.P. [Obituary of Thomas Brooks, "The Times", 17 February 1958]

It is widely suggested that Astrology was covered by the Witchcraft Act. From the 1930s onwards many tabloid newspapers and magazines carried astrology columns but none were ever prosecuted.

The Witchcraft Act was still legally in force in the Republic of Ireland, although it was never actually applied. Most old English laws were repealed 16 May 1983. [ [http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/ZZA11Y1983.html Statute Law Revision Act, 1983.] ]

The British Law is still in force in Israel, having been itroduced into the legal system of British Mandatory Palestine and with Israel having gained independence before the law was repealed in Britian itself in 1951.

Article 417 of the Israeli Penal code of 1977, incorporating much legislation inheritied from British and Ototman times, sets two years' imprisonment as the punishment for "witchcraft", defined as "Pretending to perform an act of witchcraft with the intention of material gain"; the law excluddes the acts of a stage magician who expects no gain other than admission fees (see [http://www.witchcraft.co.il/legal06.htm] ).


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