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A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 17

As to the existence of witches


No

doubt Browne's words confirmed the sentiment of the court room and strengthened the case of the prosecution. But it will not be overlooked by the careful reader that he did not by any means commit himself as to the guilt of the parties at the bar.

When the judge found that the prisoners had "nothing material" to say for themselves he addressed the jury. Perhaps because he was not altogether clear in his own mind about the merits of the case, he refused to sum up the evidence. It is impossible for us to understand why he did not carry further the tests which had convinced Kelyng of the fraud, or why he did not ask questions which would have uncovered the weakness of the testimony. One cannot but suspect that North's criticism of him, that he had a "leaning towards the Popular" and that he had gained such "transcendent" authority as not easily to bear contradiction,[16] was altogether accurate. At all events he passed over the evidence and went on to declare that there were two problems before the jury: (1) were these children bewitched, (2) were the prisoners at the bar guilty of it? As to the existence of witches, he never doubted it. The Scriptures affirmed it, and all nations provided laws against such persons.

On the following Sunday Baron Hale composed a meditation upon the subject. Unfortunately it was simply a dissertation on Scripture texts and touched upon the law at no point.

justify;">It is obvious enough to the most casual student that Sir Matthew Hale had a chance to anticipate the work of Chief Justice Holt and missed it. In the nineties of the seventeenth century, as we shall see, there was a man in the chief justiceship who dared to nullify the law of James I. It is not too much to say that Matthew Hale by a different charge to the jury could as easily have made the current of judicial decisions run in favor of accused witches all over England. His weight was thrown in the other direction, and the witch-triers for a half-century to come invoked the name of Hale.[17]

There is an interesting though hardly trustworthy story told by Speaker Onslow[18]--writing a century later--that Hale "was afterwards much altered in his notions as to this matter, and had great concern upon him for what had befallen these persons." This seems the more doubtful because there is not a shred of proof that Hale's decisions occasioned a word of criticism among his contemporaries.[19] So great, indeed, was the spell of his name that not even a man like John Webster dared to comment upon his decision. Not indeed until nearly the middle of the eighteenth century does anyone seem to have felt that the decision called for apology.

The third noteworthy ruling in this period anent the crime of witchcraft was made a few years later in Wiltshire by Justice Rainsford. The story, as he himself told it to a colleague, was this: "A Witch was brought to Salisbury and tried before him. Sir James Long came to his Chamber, and made a heavy Complaint of this Witch, and said that if she escaped, his Estate would not be worth any Thing; for all the People would go


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