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A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 17

But the alderman of Malmesbury


away. It happen'd that the Witch was acquitted, and the Knight continued extremely concern'd; therefore the Judge, to save the poor Gentleman's Estate, order'd the Woman to be kept in Gaol, and that the Town should allow her 2s. 6d. per Week; for which he was very thankful. The very next Assizes, he came to the Judge to desire his lordship would let her come back to the Town. And why? They could keep her for 1s. 6d. there; and, in the Gaol, she cost them a shilling more."[20] Another case before Justice Rainsford showed him less lenient. By a mere chance we have a letter, written at the time by one of the justices of the peace in Malmesbury, which sheds no little light on this affair and on the legal status of witchcraft at that time.[21] A certain Ann Tilling had been taken into custody on the complaint of Mrs. Webb of Malmesbury. The latter's son had swooning fits in which he accused Ann of bewitching him. Ann Tilling made voluble confession, implicating Elizabeth Peacock and Judith Witchell, who had, she declared, inveigled her into the practice of their evil arts. Other witches were named, and in a short time twelve women and two men were under accusation. But the alderman of Malmesbury, who was the chief magistrate of that town, deemed it wise before going further to call in four of the justices of the peace in that subdivision of the county. Three of these justices of the peace came and listened to the confessions, and were about to make out a mittimus for sending eleven of the accused to Salisbury, when the fourth justice arrived, the man who has given us the story. He was, according to his own account, not "very credulous in matters of Witchcraft," and he made a speech to the other justices. "Gentlemen, what is done at this place, a Borough remote from the centre of this large County, and almost forty miles from Salisbury, will be expended [_sic_] both by the Reverend Judges, the learned Counsayle there ..., and the Gentry of the body of the County, so that if anything be done here rashly, it will be severely censured." He went on to urge the danger that the boy whose fits were the cause of so much excitement might be an impostor, and that Ann Tilling, who had freely confessed, might be in confederacy with the parents. The skeptical justice, who in spite of his boasted incredulity was a believer in the reality of witchcraft, was successful with his colleagues. All the accused were dismissed save Tilling, Peacock, and Witchell. They were sent to Salisbury and tried before Sir Richard Rainsford. Elizabeth Peacock, who had been tried on similar charges before, was dismissed. The other two were sentenced to be hanged.[22]

Ten years later came a fourth remarkable ruling against witchcraft, this time by Justice Raymond at Exeter. During the intervening years there had been cases a-plenty in England and a few hangings, but none that had attracted comment. It was not until the summer of 1682, when three Devonshire women were arraigned, tried, and sent to the gallows by Justice Raymond,[23] that the public again realized that witchcraft was still upheld by the courts.

The trials in themselves had no very striking features. At least two of the three women had been beggars; the other, who had been the first accused and who had in all probability involved her two companions, had on two different occasions before been arraigned but let off. The evidence submitted against them consisted of the usual sworn statements made by neighbors to the justice of the peace, as well as of hardly coherent confessions by the accused. The repetition of the Lord's Prayer was gone through with and the results of examinations by a female jury were detailed _ad nauseam_. The poor creatures on trial were remarkably stupid, even for beings of their grade. Their several confessions tallied with one another in hardly a single point.


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