06.03.2016 Spirituality

The Burning Times

Respected Witch and author, Lucy Cavendish explores the Witch craze that swept through Europe in the 1500s, reaching its terrifying climax in the 1600s. In this extract from her recently released book Witches and Wizards she traces its path in Britain.

The Dreaded Matthew Hopkins – The Witch Hunter General

Matthew Hopkins is infamous as the most disciplined, organised and remorseless Witch Hunter of Britain, a man whose incredible court and Church given powers led to more people being executed for Witchcraft within his three-year reign of terror than had been executed for the same 'crime' in the preceding 100 years. Almost certainly a sadist, Hopkins’ heyday was between 1644 and 1647. His appointment was due in great part to the success of his widely-distributed pamphlet, The Discovery of Witches, in which he detailed his own bizarre imaginings which he claimed were the practices of Witches and their Familiars.

One of his most trials was that of poor Elizabeth Clark. During the trial, Hopkins offered as evidence her five Familiars - animals who lived with Elizabeth, animals who, Hopkins claimed, drew power from the Devil in order to offer this energy up to their evil mistress. (A Familiar, in magickal terms, is an animal who works in partnership with a person to lend them their instinctive wisdom - thus a dog could lend its powerful ability to track, a cat dignity, a horse its speed, a bird its perspective, the stag its nobility, for example. Some of this is considered to be literal - and some of this is considered to be a part of trance work, and somewhat metaphorical. )

Therefore, accused in the court was a squirrel, a spaniel who had lost his legs, three kittens called Holt, Sack and Sugar, a black rabbit, and a full-grown cat called Pyewacket. Hopkins' evidence duringElizabeth’s trial was that no human could possibly care for so many animals - and no human could have given Pyewacket its name. It’s hard to read the descriptions of the trial without wondering if Elizabeth Clark was simply a wise woman who loved animals, preferring their company to that of malevolent humans. Thousands of women, some men, and even children died thanks to Hopkins's zealous pursuit of imagined evil. Perhaps, in the end, some justice was done, for Hopkins himself was arrested by angry townsfolk as he headed towards their quiet homes one day. He was tried as a Witch, and found guilty - for only a Witch, the folk said, would know of so many others. A more fitting end is hard to imagine.

How Many People Died?

This is a very difficult question to answer with any real accuracy. The highest counts, which were made in the 1970s, were that some nine million people were executed during what is now known broadly as the Burning Times. Those numbers have recently been revised as the scholarship in this area has increased dramatically -consequently the numbers now vary between academics. Some claim 100,000, some closer to 300,000, but these numbers tend to discount people who died in prison, those who committed suicide prior to execution, those who were in smaller villages where record keeping was poor, and those whose deaths were deliberately attributed to another cause because the victim did not receive a trial, which was law. Most official numbers are based on accused witches who survived imprisonment, trial and torture, and lived long enough to be executed.

The Final Fires: Janet Horne

In 1727, Janet Horne, an old woman, described as confused, who had the misfortune to have given birth to a daughter with a malformed hand, was accused with turning that same daughter into a pony to help her escape the Witch Hunters. Janet Horne and her daughter were both imprisoned at the formidable Dornoch jail in Scotland - both were tried and found guilty of Witchcraft. They were both sentenced to death - but maybe old Janet somehow worked a wee bit of magic, for her daughter escaped, aided perhaps by sympathetic townspeople who had had enough of seeing the old and the different, the misfits and the rebels burnt. Perhaps they’d had enough of the wise women of their towns perishing in the flames - with their deaths they lost their midwives, their herbalists, and the loss left a huge hole in Britain’s villages. But Janet was too old and weakened by prison, torture and trials to run.

The day after her sentencing, the morning after her daughter had fled, old Janet Horne was stripped naked in the streets and rolled in tar. She was placed in a barrel, and it was set alight. And so she died, in a most cruel way. And something about this death disgusted the people. It was wrong. Janet had birthed their babies and healed them when they were sick. She had said the old prayers over the departed. And now she was dead, her daughter was fled, and the inquisitors would move on, and leave them without doctor or wise woman.

Something about this death shifted people’s minds and hearts. Where did evil lie - in the working of these old people who practised the arts of nature, or in the cruelties and tortures of those who said they did God's work. Whatever the truth, Janet Horne was the last woman burned in Britain. Not the last to be prosecuted under the horrible act - but the last to die in this evil way.

The Witch's Cat and Other Familiars

During the 300 years known now as the Burning Times, it was not only women and men - and children - who were burned. Witches' familiars were also tried and executed, thousands upon thousands of times. A Witch's familiar was considered to be an animal that worked alongside the Witch, a kind of conduit for the Devil. Of course this is paranoia of the greatest kind. Magickal alliances between animals and humans are hardly rare. But in the Burning Times, the keeping of a cat, or a bird, a snake or a hare was enough to inflame suspicion. Once accusations were made, lives were ruined, if not taken altogether.

But within the sinister pages of the Malleus Maleficarum lies a story where it was claimed a Witch took the shape of a black cat to harass a servant. This led to the belief that a black cat was almost certainly a Witch in disguise. Cats came to be so identified with Witches and Witchcraft that, throughout Europe in the 1600s, there were mass burnings of live cats. St John the Baptist’s feast day was one such day when cats would meet this awful fate in mass 'executions'. The most cruel were the bonfires of Paris, where thousands of cats were incinerated alive.

In Britain, cats (and occasionally dogs, or birds) were regularly tried for Witchcraft, and if found guilty - which they almost inevitably were - execution was carried out by the court.

Practickal Magick – Take Refuge Beneath the Witch's Tree

Before the Burning Times set the western world alight, it was said that if a Witch was persecuted or hunted, she could find refuge beneath the branches of the Rowan tree. The Rowan would render her invisible, and even help her to remain 'unseen' by anyone wishing her ill luck. The Rowan is a Magickal tree according to the lore of the ancient Celts, and oftentimes sprigs of Rowan were kept above wise women’s doors, or to their cloaks to protect them from those who would do them harm. Strangely, this led to a post Burning Times superstition that Rowan protected people from Witches!

If the working of tree Magick appeals to you, why not grow a protective herb - lemon verbena, rosemary, lavender, or thyme, near your front and back doors. It will lend you some of its powers, and turn away those who approach with malintent.

Witches and Wizards

Lucy Cavendish

Rockpool Publishing – https://www.rockpoolpublishing.com.au

RRP Au $24.99

Lucy Cavendish

Lucy Cavendish is a Sydney-based Witch, author and worker of magick