Just for Halloween: the Witchcraft Acts in Great Britain
In England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, there have been a series of acts to prevent the practice of witchcraft. The first of those was Henry VIII’s Witchcraft Act of 1542. It was the first to define the practice of witchcraft as a felony and to prescribe a punishment of death for the accused. The convicted would also have to forfeit all goods and chattels to the government. The act forbid all citizens to “use devise practise or exercise, or cause to be devysed practised or exercised, any Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to thentent to fynde money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone in his bodie membres, or to pvoke [provoke] any persone to unlawfull love, or for any other unlawfull intente or purpose … or for dispite of Cryste, or for lucre of money, dygge up or pull downe any Crosse or Crosses or by such Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries or any of them take upon them to tell or declare where goodes stollen or lost shall become.” The act also removed the “benefit of clergy” right for the individual convicted of witchcraft. This legal maneuvering spared anyone from hanging who could read a passage from the Bible. Henry’s son, Edward VI, repealed this statute in 1547.
An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcraft was passed in 1562, during the reign of Elizabeth I. It showed a bit of mercy by demanding the death penalty only when the accused caused harm to another. Lesser offenses resulted in imprisonment. The Act said that anyone who should “use, practise, or exercise any Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm, or Sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed, was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, and was to be put to death.”
The Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 spoke to the practice of witchcraft and consulting with witches. Both were considered capital offenses. The Act was on the Scottish law books until 1735.
With James’ accession to the English throne, the Elizabethan Act was broadened to bring the penalty of death without benefit of clergy to any one who practiced the black arts or who consorted with familiars. The act’s official name was An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits. The self-styled Witch-Finder General, Matthew Hopkins, used the act freely to accuse his victims.
The practice of witchcraft became a felony with the installation of Elizabeth’s and James’s acts. As a felony, the accused was removed from the ecclesiastical courts’ jurisdiction and placed under the judgment of the common court. Burning at the stake was eliminated, except in cases of witchcraft that were also petty treason. As a criminal court proceeding, most convicted were hanged. If a witch was found guilty of a minor offense (punishable by one year in prison) and then committed a second one, he/she was sentenced to death.
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 saw a change in the manner in which “witches” were treated. The change came in the attitude of the educated electorate, who assumed that witchcraft was nothing more than superstition and an impossibility to actually perform. Instead, the punishment was for the pretense of witchcraft. Those who claimed magical powers were punished as vagrants and were subject to fines and imprisonment. The Act applied to the whole of Great Britain, repealing both the 1563 Scottish Act and the 1604 English Act.
Although it was never actually applied, the Witchcraft Act remains legally in force in Northern Ireland. The Act is still in force in Israel, having been introduced into the legal system of the British Mandate over Palestine; Israel gained its independence before the law was repealed in Britain in 1951. Article 417 of the Israeli penal code of 1977, incorporating much legislation inherited from British and Ottoman reigns, sets two years’ imprisonment as the punishment for witchcraft, fortune telling, or magic. The law in Israel applies only to practitioners of witchcraft who charge a fee.