Elizabethan Witches and Witchcraft

The Elizabethan Period brought in a renewed belief and interest in the supernatural. This included the belief in witches, witchcraft and witch hunts. Society and culture of England were changing and the number of poor was increasing. The era also introduced the persecution of Elizabethan Witches and Witchcraft.

Before the Elizabethan Era witches were divided into two categories: White- and black witches. The white witches were seen as helpful members of the society. Their knowledge of the healing effect of various plats, roots and herbs were passed down through generations and they were the ones providing those in need with help. They were seen as being wise women, cunning folk or healers. The Black witches were witches who practised dark magic and the secret arts in order to harm others. Meanwhile the difference between the two kinds of witches was lost in the newfound interest in the supernatural.

In the Elizabethan Era unexplainable and mysterious events were blamed on witches. On of the major events was the Black Death, which there was no cure for. The fear of this horrible and frightening disease was pointed at the witches, because they made an easy – and obvious – target. When people or animals died from indescribable diseases or when disasters such as houses burning down to the ground happened, witches were blamed, because they made an obvious target.

Women were usually the once accused of being witches. With 270 witch trials happening in England in the Elizabethan Era, only 23 were trials involving men. The most common ways of being accused for being a witch or practising witchcraft were if you were old, poor, single or a widow. Single women and widows often keep pets as company, seeing them as their familiars. These pets were said to be demons assuming the form of an animal, furthermore some believed the pets to be incarnated witches.
Access to doctors and medicine were minimal, therefore all women were expected to make cures for most minor illnesses, all as a part of their house keeping. “Wise women” would also use herbs like cannabis, mandrake and hemlock (etc.) for this purpose. These were and are all herbs with psychedelic effects.
Because of the fact that women now made their own mixtures and ointments the Catholic Church included anyone with knowledge of herbs in there definition of witchcraft. “Those who used herbs for cures did so only through a pact with the Devil, either explicit or implicit.” Any possession of herbs like cannabis, mandrake and hemlock (etc.) resulted in execution.

If a witch were accused of murder done by witchcraft he or she would be executed by hanging from a stake. If the crime were of minor significance the witch would normally be pilloried. In Spain and France the witches would not only be hanged from the stake, they would be burned alive hanging there. The reason why the penalties were much milder in England than in other parts of Europe are believed to be because Queen Elizabeth I’s mother, Anne Boleyn, had six fingers – one growing from her small finger – and a mole on her neck. These deformities were seen as signs of her being a witch. Another reason for Elizabeth’s leniency towards the witches could be the fact that Elizabeth herself was very interested in Astrology.


Written by Tobias, 3.b