The Witchcraft Act was introduced in 1542 by King Henry VIII and further Witchcraft Acts were implement in 1562 and 1604.
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 [being able to read a passage from the Bible] to any one who invoked evil spirits or communed with familiar spirits.
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.
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 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 Horninghold priest from 1675 to 1723 was Reverend Humphrey Michel. He kept a diary and recorded the Horninghold Witch Trials. Reverend Humphrey Michel was a colourful character and extracts from his diary are available HERE.
The Witch Trial Process:
Suspected witches had their right thumb tied to their left toes, and their left thumbstied to their right toes. A rope was then tied around their waists, and they were thrown into a pond or river while two men held either end of the rope. If suspected witches floated, then this was interpreted as a sign that the ‘sacred water of baptism’ had rejected them because of their crimes. If, however, they sank, then God’s water had obviously embraced them, thus signifying their innocence.
Mob duckings occurred between the 11th and 18th June, for this was Whitsun week under the old calendar, traditionally seven days of celebration and festivities, often fuelled by the distribution of Whitsun ale.
Horninghold Witch Trials: Reverend Humphrey Nichols recorded in his diary:
‘June 11th 1709 being St Barnabas’ Festival and Whitsun Eve, one Thomas Holmes of Horninghold, a labourer, was dowsed three times for a witch, and did not sink, but swam, though his hands and feet and head were all tied together. All this was done in the Dungeon Pit in Blaston before 500 people.
June 17th, being Whitsun week, one Elizabeth Ridgway and Jane Barlow of Horninghold, were both by consent dowsed for witches, and did not sink … before some thousands of people at Dungeons pit.
June 18th the said Jane Barlow, 40 years old, would be dowsed again to clear herself, but in the Great Close pond, because she said that was not enchanted as Dungeon Pit was; and yet, in sight of many hundreds of people she did sink. Mary Palmer, her sister, a cripple from her cradle, almost 42 years old, was dowsed there for a witch several times, and, though bound hands and feet, did not swim, but sank immediately, like a stone, before us all.’