Scott Eaton

In 1645, a widow named Mary Bush confessed the following to the witch-finder John Stearne:

[T]he Devil appeared to her in the shape of a young black man, Winding, by her bed side, which spoke to her with a hollow voice, and came into bed to her, and had the use of her body, and asked her to deny God and Christ…she said he was colder then [sic] man, and heavier, and could not perform nature as man, and that soon after she had consented to the Covenant and given her blood, there came two things more like mice, which used to suck her about twice a week.

The East Anglian witchcraft trials elicited many similar confessions featuring sex and demonic magic. The trials, which lasted from 1645 to 1647, amidst the turmoil of the English Civil Wars, represent England’s most intensive bout of witch-hunting, and resulted in the execution of about one hundred individuals, the vast majority of whom were women over the age of fifty. During the interrogations, witch-finders Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne compelled the accused to divulge evidence of diabolical witchcraft. Unlike the witch-finders who were focused on demonology, accused women’s confessions combined their understanding of the devil with sexual fantasy. When frightened and under duress, the women who confessed witchcraft offered narratives about demonic sex. Their vernacular language of sin was wrapped in sexuality.

Image 1: Matthew Hopkins, The discovery of witches (1648). This picture shows two witches calling their familiar spirits by name. In the middle is Matthew Hopkins the witch-finder who identified witches across East Anglia. (Wikimedia Commons)
Matthew Hopkins, The discovery of witches (1647). This picture shows two witches calling their familiar spirits by name. In the middle is Matthew Hopkins the witch-finder who identified witches across East Anglia. (Wikimedia Commons)

By 1645, communities had been fractured by the English Civil War; religious and political divisions separated Royalists and Parliamentarians, Anglicans and Puritans. With Church, monarchy and government destabilised, many sought to reshape England as a godly society, sometimes driven by fears of the impending apocalypse. Hopkins and Stearne were determined to purge their local communities of sin, restore order and create the godly society they desired. To achieve this, the subversive influence of diabolical witches had to be eliminated. Informed by English demonologies and accounts of earlier witchcraft trials, they set out to enact their ideas of reform by locating, interrogating and prosecuting witches through the legal system.

The witch-hunt began in the small village of Manningtree, Essex. Hopkins and Stearne collaborated with locals to identify and prosecute individuals suspected of practicing witchcraft. Alleged witches were detained, interrogated, sleep deprived and tortured until they offered a satisfactory confession. To uncover physical proof of witchcraft, female suspects were stripped naked, possibly shaved, and searched by a group of women for the witch’s mark, a supernumerary nipple from which demons fed. Once the witch-finders collected sufficient information against a witch, locals and Justices of the Peace (JPs) composed official legal documents to be used as evidence at the Assize courts.

ulrich_molitor_von_den_unholden_teufelsbuhlschaft
Ulrich Molitor, De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus (Constance, 1489). This woodcut depicts a woman being seduced by the Devil. (Wikimedia Commons)

Systematic witch-hunting of such intensity was new to England, but the intellectual tradition underpinning the witch-finders’ actions was not. Many demonologists believed women to be the weaker sex, ruled by their carnal desires and more prone to the Devil’s temptations than men. The Malleus Maleficarum (1487) is perhaps the most famous witchcraft text propounding these ideas. Authors Kramer and Sprenger presented women as being predisposed to Satan’s advances. They were thought vulnerable because, in a woman, ‘Everything is governed by carnal lusting, which is insatiable in them… for this reason they even cavort with demons to satisfy their lust.’ Similarly, in Daemonologie (1597), King James VI and I commented about women, ‘that sexe is frailer than man is, so is it easier to be entrapped in these grosse snares of the Devil.’ By the 1640s, Hopkins and Sterne had internalized such ideas: Hopkins explicitly referenced Daemonologie and his partner asserted that women were ‘fit instruments for the Devil’.

Demonologists believed that Satan approached a woman to become his instrument, offering supernatural powers in return for her soul. In England, this contract was often thought to be made through familiar spirits. ‘[The Devil] appears in several shapes,’ described Stearne, ‘and then maketh the league, and confirms it with blood, and then sends them Familiars.’ Once she agreed to the pact, the witch became part of Satan’s kingdom. It was believed that witches in league with the Devil formed an anti-society that functioned as an inversion of Christianity. Witches were therefore presented as bad mothers, blasphemers or licentious women – characters that threatened Christian society.

Themes of motherhood and sexual deviance were often entangled with diabolical elements in the narratives extracted by the witch-finders. Many 1640s confessions were highly sexualised, describing intercourse with demons. Ellen Driver confessed that, ‘after she were married [to the Devil] he had the carnal use of her but was cold…she further said that being in bed with him she felt of his feet and they were cloven.’ Likewise, Rebecca West slept with and married the Devil. The one-legged widow Elizabeth Clarke had sex with Satan regularly, while Anne Boreham claimed to have witnessed small demons fighting each other for her affection and one emerged victorious and then ‘had use of her body.’ Under the psychological stress of examination, these women drew on past experiences and emotions and fashioned fantasies using the language of demonology. Examiners interpreted unwanted sexual desires as proof of the Devil’s influence over the women’s bodies. The demonic witch-figure came to represent repressed sexual desires.

Familiar spirits, often described as having a demonic or bestial form, featured prominently in English witchcraft. After familiars assigned themselves to a witch, they suckled blood from a new teat on her body. As Stearne recorded in Elizabeth Finch’s confession, ‘the Devil appeared to her in the likeness of a smoky coloured dog…soon after that, there came two more [familiars], black on the backs and reddish on the bellies, which sucked her two or three times a week.’ Confessions such as Finch’s can be interpreted as a parody of breast feeding and of the mother-figure, since familiars suckled from witch-marks. When the accused described child-like familiars, they further expressed the witch-as-bad-mother trope. Elizabeth Hubbard confessed that ‘she had three things came to her in the likeness of Children;’ Alice Wright claimed to have had ‘four Imps…two like little Boys;’ and Margaret Legat ‘said that she had a thing [that] lived by her like a child.’

Francesco Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum (1608). In the bottom left, the witches are roasting a child while in the top right they are preparing to boil an infant.
Francesco Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum (1608). In the bottom left, the witches are roasting a child while in the top right they are preparing to boil an infant. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, feeding familiars from a supernumerary nipple was not the same as breastfeeding a child because the witch’s mark was thought to be located near the genitals. In 1645, for example, Margaret Bayts confessed that ‘when she was at work she felt a thing come upon her legs and go into her secret parts and nipped her in her secret parts where her marks were found.’ Goody Smith reported ‘that her imps hang in her secret parts in a bag and her husband saw it … and that these imps sucked on her.’ Finally, Anne Usher told her examiners that after a polecat scratched her, ‘she felt two things like butterflies in her secret parts with witchings dansings and sucking & she felt them with her hands and rubbed them and killed them.’ In their forced confessions, accused witches described demons as entering their most intimate parts, inverting religious and sexual order.

For religious men, the evidence of carnal relations with Satan was ‘a fearful thing to declare,’ as Stearne remarked. Demonic witches in league with Satan were gradually being discovered and eliminated by the witch-finders, but the more they searched East Anglia, the more witches they found. Due to the large number of witches being prosecuted, judicial scepticism increased and the witch-trials eventually ground to a halt in 1647. We do not know the fate of all those investigated for witchcraft during the 1640s. The example of Elizabeth Clarke is not encouraging. She had been stripped naked and searched for witch-marks by a group of women, and sleep deprived for three days. During the interrogation, Clarke finally confessed to witchcraft and to having sexual relations with Satan. She was then locked in Colchester Castle’s gaol for months until her trial, where she was found guilty by jurors. The following day Elizabeth Clarke and thirteen other condemned women were hanged at Chelmsford.

scott-headshotScott Eaton is a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast researching John Stearne’s A confirmation and discovery of witchcraft (1648) and, more generally, the East Anglian witchcraft trials. His main research interests include witchcraft, magic and religion in early modern Europe.



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2 Comments

  1. Oliver Hill

    An incredible manifestation of evil. Does your research show any community based grievances prior to the outbreak?

  2. Scott Eaton

    Hi Oliver. Yes, there were plenty. William Dowsing carried out widespread iconoclasm in East Anglia a few years prior to the witchcraft trials. In Suffolk, the minister John Lowes was executed as a witch after years of conflict with his laity. And in 1644-46 the Suffolk committee for scandalous ministers was established to root out ‘nonconformists’. Some of the accused witches also had a history of suspicion against them and their families.

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