Prior to the British Witchcraft Act of 1735, the infamous witch trails of the Early Modern period saw widespread moral panic sweep through a religiously unstable Europe, resulting in the horrific punishment of individuals for their supposed sorcery. Although no instances of witch drowning or burning have been evidenced in West Sussex, accusations of witchcraft still led to the persecution and punishment of women in our home county. Tales of ‘wise women’ or ‘cunning women’ branded as witches have not only survived through local lore and oral history, but can be found in the religious court records of the 16th and 17th centuries.
While folk belief in witchcraft had existed throughout the Medieval period, the religious instability of Early Modern Europe and the resulting wave of the Protestant Reformation lead to a widespread increase in persecutions. Pope Innocent VIII deemed witchcraft heresy in 1484 following the recognition of the existence of witchcraft as a form of satanic influence, and between 1563 and 1750, roughly 200,000 witches were tortured, burnt, and hung across Western Europe.
Cases of witchcraft were undeniably most prevalent amongst the uneducated rural population, not only disconnected from the religious practices of the educated and ruling classes, but unable to afford the medical costs of trained physicians. ‘Cunning folk’, who practiced healing methods or provided herbal and medical cures, therefore often treated illness and disease beyond basic the understanding of the communities they served. Such folk were branded with the label of witch due to the perceived malevolent magic that aided their practice, and perhaps played on the belief of occult interference when religious solutions had previously failed.
Although the brand of witchcraft was not reserved solely for the lower classes, it was predominantly reserved for women. An estimated 75% to 85% of those accused in the Early Modern period were female. The lack of medical understanding among the general population, meant that a ‘cunning woman’ practicing medical treatments, such as a midwife’s knowledge of menstruation, reproduction, and herbal aids to prevent conception and cause abortion was targeted by the Church as the work of witchcraft. Where midwives were licensed, they were often required to take an oath denouncing witchcraft, and were prohibited from administering any drugs or potions that had not been prescribed by a Latin-reading, educated male surgeon or physician.
A well-known local example of a ‘cunning woman’ prosecuted on a charge of witchcraft is Mother Mary Scutt of Bury, who was accused in 1603. From the Capitular records of Chichester Cathedral, and the proceedings of the Bishop’s court, who had a wide jurisdiction over offences concerning morality, it is well-documented that Mary Scutt treated various illnesses and ailments. With basic knowledge of herbal cures and primitive medicine, she made the jump to abortionist, and administered herbal ‘cures’ to local women, apparently to little success. Similarly, a Jane Westwood of Arundel was said, in 1612, to be a ‘midwife and by reason thereof hath used to minister phisick to women with child’, although the case was later dismissed at the Chichester Quarter Sessions.
As for those women found guilty, the punishments used for a verdict of witchcraft are well established as a cruel and horrific justification of torture. Although there are no records of any women being burned for the crime of witchcraft in Sussex, in 1645 alone two women, Martha Bruff and Ann Howsell, were ‘ordered by the Mayor of Rye to be put to ordeal by water as suspected witches’. A Margaret Cooper of Kirdford, wife of surgeon William Cooper, was tried at the Assizes in 1574 for making ‘children of wax’ with which to bewitch people, reportedly causing at least 3 deaths. Margaret was found guilty on all counts, and was hung.
Thankfully avoiding the attentions of the infamous ‘witch hunters’ and fanatics of the time, the trials of suspected witches in Sussex primarily resulted in acquittal or minor punishments, with many women serving jail time. An earlier incident in Rye in 1607 saw a Susanna Swapper indicted at the Quarter Sessions for consulting Anne Taylor, who was well known as a healer of both physical and spiritual ailments, but both escaped punishment. The Sussex Record Society journal records the fate of Alice Casselowe of Mayfield, a spinster in 1577, who was accused of killing ‘an ox and 3 pigs by witchcraft’, and being found guilty served 1 year in jail and 4 times in a pillory. There is a well-remembered story of a woman accused in Brightling of bringing spirits down upon a Joseph Cruttenden and his wife, resulting in the burning of their house. Although she was taken to Maidstone for trial, she was cleared of all charges and ‘has live’d in Burwash for some time hence’, the entire episode being widely accepted as the mischief of a disgruntled serving girl employed by the couple.
Persecutions of accused witches declined in regularity throughout the late 17th century, culminating with the British Witchcraft Act of 1735, which made it a crime for a person to claim that any human being had magical powers or was guilty of practicing witchcraft. After originating from medieval folklore and pagan myth, the belief and fear in witchcraft once again returned to the stuff of magic and tale, but not before thousands of women suffered execution and torture.