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Case Study 3 - Were there witches in England? Task Glossary

16th and 17th century England was an age of tremendous religious enthusiasm. Most people believed that God and the devil had a powerful daily influence on their lives. Many, including influential people like King James I & VI also believed that some people made a pact with the devil: these were witches.
About 3,000 people were tried for the crime of witchcraft, nearly all of them women and nearly all over 50. There were occasional outbreaks of mass accusations, as in the activities of Matthew Hopkins, self-styled "Witchfinder-General", in Essex in 1645. He accused 35 women of being witches, of whom 19 were executed and 9 died in gaol. However, the full picture is nothing like so dramatic. Cases of witchcraft cropped up occasionally and most of the accused were found not guilty, or not executed even if found guilty. About 400 people were actually executed for witchcraft in England.
To be a witch was not in itself a crime; what was a crime was to use these powers of witchcraft to cause harm to other people, their families or livelihood. That is why court records list illnesses or deaths of people or animals, supposedly from a curse put on them by a witch. The courts also took great care to make sure the evidence proved the case. It was believed that once a witch had got involved with the devil, his "familiar", in the form of an animal, lived with her and sucked from her body. The accused women's bodies were therefore examined to search for the extra nipple.
The crime of witchcraft died away in the 18th century. People were more sceptical about the whole idea of spells, curses and conversations with the devil. Witchcraft ceased to be an offence in 1736. But were there really, for a time, witches in England?

Case Study 3 Sources
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