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Witchcraft Acts: Wikis


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


Witchcraft Act 1542

It was not until the 16th century that religious tensions resulted in serious penalties for witchcraft in England. Henry VIII's Act of 1542 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.[1][2] 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 ...[3]

The Act also removed a right known as benefit of clergy from those convicted of witchcraft, a legal loophole that spared anyone from hanging who was able to read a passage from the Bible.[3] This statute was repealed by Henry's son, Edward VI, in 1547.[4]

Witchcraft Act 1562

England's most notorious Witchcraft Act was passed early in the reign of Elizabeth I.[5] This act of 1562 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, who himself wrote a treatise on Dæmonologie and as James VI of Scotland had taken a personal interest in the trial of some accused witches at Berwick on Tweed.

Witchcraft Act 1563

The Parliament of Scotland passed a Witchcraft Act in 1563. This Act made not only the practice of witchcraft a capital offence, but those consulting with witches were also subject to the death penalty if found guilty.[6]

Witchcraft Act 1604

In 1604, the year following James' accession to the English throne,[7] 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 new act's full title was An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits.[8] It was this statute that was enforced by Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled 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 convicted instead were hanged.

Secondly any witch who had committed a minor witchcraft offense (punishable by one year in prison) and found themselves accused for a second time would be punishable by death if found guilty.

After the 17th century, witch hunting gradually died down as the influences of the Age of Reason began to take hold on the population.

Witchcraft Act 1735

This statute was replaced under George II by the Witchcraft Act 1735,[9] marking 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 jailed under the Witchcraft Act on the grounds that she had claimed to summon spirits. It is often contended, by her followers, that her imprisonment was in fact at the behest of superstitious military intelligence officers who feared she would reveal the secret plans for D-Day. She came to the attention of the authorities after supposedly contacting the spirit of a sailor of the HMS Barham, whose sinking was hidden from the general public at the time. After being caught in the act of faking a spiritual manifestation, she was arrested during a seance and indicted with seven punishable counts: two of conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act, two of obtaining money by false pretences, and three of public mischief (a common law offence). 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.[10] The last threatened use of the Act against a medium was in 1950. In 1951 the 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 MP.[11]

It is widely suggested that astrology may have been 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 remained legally in force in the Republic of Ireland although it was never actually applied. Most old English laws were repealed in Ireland on 16 May 1983.[12]

The British law is still in force in Israel, having been introduced into the legal system of the British Mandate over Palestine and with Israel having gained independence before the law was repealed in Britain in 1951.

Article 417 of the Israeli Penal code of 1977, incorporating much legislation inherited from British and Ottoman 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 excludes the acts of a stage magician who expects no gain other than admission fees.[13]


  1. ^ 1541 (33 Hen. 8) C A P. VIII
  2. ^ Gibson 2006, p. 13
  3. ^ a b Gibson 2006, p. 14
  4. ^ Brosseau Gardner 2004, p. 254
  5. ^ 1562 (5 Eliz. I)
  6. ^ Gibson 2006, p. 15
  7. ^ 1604 (2 Ja. I)
  8. ^ Gibson 2006, pp. 15–16
  9. ^ 1735 (9 Geo. 2) C A P. V.
  10. ^ The Witchcraft Act wasn't about women on brooms, The Guardian.
  11. ^ Obituary of Thomas Brooks, The Times, 17 February 1958
  12. ^ Statute Law Revision Act, 1983.
  13. ^
  • Brosseau Gardner, Gerald (2004), The Meaning of Witchcraft, Red Wheel/Weiser, ISBN 978-1-5786-3309-8 
  • Gibson, Marion (2006), "Witchcraft in the Courts", in Gibson, Marion, Witchcraft And Society in England And America, 1550–1750, Continuum International Publishing Group, pp. 13–18, ISBN 978-0-8264-8300-3 


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