Friday 23 May 2014

Still relevant today: The Huntingdon Witches, Witch-hunts and John Gaule

Modern Lessons learnt from seventeenth century pamphlets on “The Witches of Huntingdon, their examinations and confessions” (Norris Museum collection, available in full online at and the voice of relative sanity against the witch hunts by preacher John Gaule “Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcraft (in Norris Museum collection, available in full online at

Fifty-three years after the Witches of Warboys were examined, convicted and hanged (see, England in 1646 was a more insecure place, in the unrest of the English Civil Wars.

One man gathered a team to create the most aggressive witch-hunts ever to occur in Britain,. The perpetrator was Matthew Hopkins, self proclaimed Witch-finder General who acted as an informer with the help of John Sterne. “Witch-pricker” and assorted women knowledgeable in finding “witches marks” on the unfortunate victims ( In 14 months, they travelled to towns in the East of England, then nominally under Parliamentarian control and caused the deaths of around 230 so-called witches, mainly women.

With the Witches of Warboys pamphlet, there seemed to be a more logical thread and you could see the terrible inevitability of how three people came to be condemned. With the examinations and confessions of the Huntingdon Witches, we were in a further fantastical realm of imps in the forms of animals that would suckle at a witch and kill men or cattle in return.

Reading further around the subject after having photographed and uploaded the pamphlets, I learnt why this might be.

It will surprise many who are aware of the bloodthirsty nature of the early sixteenth century, that torture of witches to gain confessions was not permitted in England. This was in marked contrast to the rest of Europe where it was almost an obligation.

However, just as western forces in Iraq were not permitted to use torture to extract information, those with a vicious streak could find alternatives. Matthew Hopkins's practice was to have the accused witches stripped, shaved of all bodily hair, made to sit in painful postures for more than a day, with sleep deprivation. Ducking, although also not legally approved could also be used. The left thumb was tied to the right toe and the right thumb to the left, a rope was tied around the unfortunate victim and they were thrown into the water to see if they sank or swam. If you swam, water was trying to reject you – so you were a witch.

Returning to the pamphlet of confessions of the Huntingdon witches, you now read them as the confessions of people who had been subjected to torture in all but name and who might well have been hallucinating at the end of their trials. They were inevitably convicted by local justices of the peace, hanged and then probably burnt.

John Gaule, a preacher at Great Staughton, mounted sermons against the witch hunters and their practices and his arguments were summarised in his booklet mentioned above. Interestingly, he included a letter by Matthew Hopkins that was trying to belittle John Gaule and also seeking to get assurance of safe passage if he visited Kimbolton to find witches there.

John Gaule himself believed in witches. However made five main arguments in his sermon:

1. That all witches, even if they claimed to act for the good, were actually tempted by the Devil and acting out his work.

2. That there are witches who DO commit evil acts (and who must therefore be caught and punished)

3. That there are those who have been tempted by the devil in spirit but have NOT translated this into active sins or crimes (and who has not had sinful or just plain stupid thoughts). That these should be treated more leniently.

4. That superstition and narrow mindedness make it easy for those who are different to become the persecuted.

5. Therefore, that trials of witches ought to be done dispassionately by a jury of educated people who can better distinguish between accusations through spite and superstition and those that are cases of actual malicious harm by witches.

Whilst from a present day view, John Gaule might not seem that far removed from the witch-finders, his rational arguments did make the authorities take stock and begin to question whether the witches found by their witch finders were really such. Within a year, the “Witch-finder General” Hopkins disbanded his crew and settled down to write a book justifying his view.

By the end of the century, Witch trials and executions were dying out.

The reassuring message from these two pamphlets is, that it is right to seek a fair trial and hearing. And if you think, is it relevant today, just look to our current news with its sometimes volatile views on sectors of society, from gays to gypsies, from immigrants to bankers, on child molestors to visibly different members of any religion. There are still chilling examples where suspicion and rumour have led to the deaths of innocents by those who take the law into their own hands.

Our legal system might appear cumbersome, expensive, sometimes incomprehensible and apparently unfair to the victims. But it does have the ambition of dispassionate justice, uses evidence, argument and counterargument. Just take a look at the news to see what happens otherwise in the rest of the world where the law breaks down or is inaccessible.

Having a justice system that strives to be fair is infinitely preferable to the lynch mob who might otherwise turn up on your street looking for victims and a convenient lamppost.

I’m grateful that John Gaule took a visible stand in England, that eventually brought to an end the type of cruel fate the Witches of Huntingdon had to endure. And where would we be if local museums like the Norris Museum did not exist, who preserve such legacies for future generations.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.