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Magic moments

18 July 2011

It was Henry VIII who made witchcraft a felony. Before that, the offence did not have a statutory footing as the ecclesiastical courts dispensed their own savage justice, and the clergy went about the business of inquisition as they saw fit.

However, James I took the offence together with its associated misdemeanors to a new level, imposing the death penalty for full witchcraft, and a year’s imprisonment with pillory for some of the lesser offences (1 Jac I, c.12). Jane Wenham was the last to be tried under James’s Act in 1712, but her death sentence was pardoned by Queen Anne. It is a common belief that Jane Wenham’s case was the last witch trial in England, but this is incorrect and many examples can be found in Victorian times.

Before we consider these strange cases, remember that, while society has long ceased to believe in witchcraft, our ancestors lived in pathological fear of the evil eye. This goes some way to explain why the draconia...

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