Witchcraft-accusation fever gripped Exeter for over a century, according to new research from the University of Southampton, with the city being both the last and possibly first in England to execute people for practising dark magic.
In a new book to be released this year, Professor Mark Stoyle of the University of Southampton, documents new insights into the history of witchcraft accusations and court cases in Exeter, which took place in the 16th and 17th centuries. His research shows that while Exeter has long been known as the final place in England to have executed someone for witchcraft, it may also have been the very first.
Though Exeter is now famous for inspiring JK Rowling’s writings, with Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley and the Leaky Cauldron allegedly drawing from Gandy Street and The Old Fire House pub, witchcraft and wizardry was to be found in abundance long before Rowling studied at the University of Exeter, according to Stoyle’s research. Feverous paranoia seems to have gripped Exeter’s courts for over a century, starting shortly after the first Witchcraft Act of 1542 and ending only some 50 years before the Witchcraft Act of 1735. A reversal of attitudes in the country had taken place, with the Act criminalising the pretence of having magical powers – the underlying assumption being that actually performing witchcraft was impossible.
Speaking on his research, Professor Stoyle remarked that:
In 1683, three elderly women from North Devon … were hanged at Heavitree Gallows, while in 1685, another Devon woman, Alice Molland, was sentenced to death at the Exeter Assizes. What we didn’t realise before was that further alleged witches were also executed in Exeter over the preceding 100 years.
With the initial Witchcraft Act of 1542 having been repealed a mere 5 years later, the long-lasting Witchcraft Act of 1563 may have been first exercised to its fullest extent – allowing the death penalty to be used in sentencing – in the case of two women local to Exeter. Although their final fate is unknown, Maud Park and Alice Mead were found guilty by the city court of causing death and physical injury through the exercise of ‘magic art’. It’s likely they were both then sentenced to death and hanged – which could make them the very first victims of lawful witchcraft executions in England.
It wasn’t just women, however, who fell under suspicion during this period. In 1603 Richard Wilkyns, an Exeter labourer, was convicted of killing and injuring people and livestock through sorcerous means. He was sentenced to death and hanged.
The world-famous witch trials at Salem … have been the subject of many books and films, as has the mass witch-hunt … in East Anglia in the UK between 1645 and 1647. Yet it’s too rarely appreciated that there were other centres of witch-prosecution in Tudor and Stuart England as well. In Exeter, there was a long succession of indictments and prosecutions … which resulted in many unlucky women and men being banished, imprisoned or sent to the gallows.
Thankfully, witchcraft and other magics are no longer considered crimes by our legal systems, and that time of widespread suspicion and fear has long since passed in the UK. Yet such laws still do exist in various countries around the world, with horrific consequences. Just this past decade, for instance, has seen Saudi Arabia – who set up a dedicated ‘anti-witchcraft’ police unit in 2009 – execute numerous individuals for witchcraft, and various countries in Africa still have witchcraft laws on their books, with much of wider society still in the thrall of paranoid superstitions relating to witchcraft and possessions by evil spirits.
The Catholic Church, which has large numbers of followers in Central Africa, is itself effectively a proponent of such beliefs, having formally recognised the International Association of Exorcists in 2014. Indeed Pope Francis himself, speaking earlier this year, said that priests “must not hesitate to refer to exorcists” parishioners whose confessions indicate they may be suffering from a supernatural disorder.
But while the UK populace at large may be free of such dangerously fearful beliefs, witchcraft accusations are still causing harm even today among subsections of the populace (though perhaps not so much in Exeter), with children facing the brunt of them. The Metropolitan Police set up a specialist task force, called Project Violet, in 2005 to deal with child abuse cases related to faith-based beliefs or superstitions. Predominantly, this means cases where children are believed by their abusers, and enablers of their abusers, to be possessed by spirits or demons, or to be witches; the abuse then takes places as a form of ‘exorcism’. This is particularly a problem found among some immigrant communities or families from Africa, with a dangerous mix of Christian and traditional beliefs having built upon one another – with terrible outcomes.
Mark Stoyle, although a Professor of Early Modern History, outside of academia has enjoyed various appearances on TV and radio over the years, including Who Do You Think You Are? and The Great British Story: A People’s History. His book, Witchcraft in Exeter: 1558-1660, chronicles the century of witch-fever that struck Exeter in days gone by. Looking at each individual case; sourced from court documents, birth records, chronicles, and more; he charts the course of occult belief across the Tudor and Stuart eras, and its deadly consequences. Published by The Mint Press, the book is available from 10 November 2017.