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A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 17

By far the greatest activity seems to have been in Middlesex


The

districts of England affected by the delusion during this period have already been indicated. While there were random cases in Suffolk, Hertfordshire, Wiltshire, Somerset, Cumberland, and Northumberland, by far the greatest activity seems to have been in Middlesex, Cornwall, and Yorkshire. To a layman it looks as if the north of England had produced the greater part of its folk-lore. Certain it is that the witch stories of Yorkshire, as those of Lancaster at another time, by their mysterious and romantic elements made the trials of the south seem flat, stale, and unprofitable. Yet they rarely had as serious results.

To the historian the Middlesex cases must be more interesting because they should afford some index of the attitude of the central government. Unhappily we do not know the fate of the Yorkshire witches, though it has been surmised, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that they all escaped execution.[45] In Middlesex we know that during this period only one woman, so far as our extant records go, was adjudged guilty. All the rest were let go free. Now, this may be significant and it may not. It does not seem unreasonable to suppose that the Middlesex quarter sessions were in harmony with the central government. Yet this can be no more than a guess. It is not easy to take bearings which will locate the position of the Cromwellian government. The protector himself was occupied with weightier matters, and, so far as we know, never

uttered a word on the subject. He was almost certainly responsible for the pardon of Margaret Gyngell at Salisbury in 1655,[46] yet we cannot be sure that he was not guided in that case by special circumstances as well as by the recommendation of subordinates.

We have but little more evidence as to the attitude of his council of state. It was three years before the Protectorate was put into operation that the hesitating sheriff of Cumberland, who had some witches on his hands, was authorized to go ahead and carry out the law.[47] But on the other hand it was in the same period that the English commissioners in Scotland put a quietus on the witch alarms in that kingdom. In fact, one of their first acts was to take over the accused women from the church courts and demand the proof against them.[48] When it was found that they had been tortured into confessions, the commission resolved upon an enquiry into the conduct of the sheriff, ministers, and tormentors who had been involved. Several women had been accused. Not one was condemned. The matter was referred to the council of state, where it seems likely that the action of the commissioners was ratified. Seven or eight years later, in the administration of Richard Cromwell, there was an instance where the council, apparently of its own initiative, ordered a party of soldiers to arrest a Rutlandshire witch. The case was, however, dismissed later.[49]

To draw a definite conclusion from these bits of evidence would be rash. We can perhaps reason somewhat from the general attitude of the government. Throughout the Protectorate there was a tendency, which Cromwell encouraged, to mollify the rigor of the criminal law. Great numbers of pardons were issued; and when Whitelocke suggested that no offences should be capital except murder, treason, and rebellion, no one arose in holy horror to point out the exception of witchcraft,[50] and the suggestion, though never acted upon, was favorably considered.[51]


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