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A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 17

And all the jurie touching hir innocencie


One

other fact must not be overlooked. A large percentage of the cases that went against the accused were in towns judicially independent of the assize courts. At Faversham, at Lynn, at Yarmouth, and at Leicester[28] the local municipal authorities were to blame for the hanging of witches. The regular assize courts had nothing to do with the matter. The case at Faversham in Kent was unusual. Joan Cason was indicted for bewitching to death a three-year-old child. Eight of her neighbors, seven of them women, "poore people," testified against her. The woman took up her own cause with great spirit and exposed the malicious dealings of her adversaries and also certain controversies betwixt her and them. "But although she satisfied the bench," says Holinshed, "and all the jurie touching hir innocencie ... she ... confessed that a little vermin, being of colour reddish, of stature lesse than a rat ... did ... haunt her house." She was willing too to admit illicit relations with one Mason, whose housekeeper she had been--probably the original cause of her troubles. The jury acquitted her of witchcraft, but found her guilty of the "invocation of evil spirits," intending to send her to the pillory. While the mayor was admonishing her, a lawyer called attention to the point that the invocation of evil spirits had been made a felony. The mayor sentenced the woman to execution. But, "because there was no matter of invocation given in evidence against hir, ... hir execution was staied by the space
of three daies." Sundry preachers tried to wring confessions from her, but to no purpose. Yet she made so godly an end, says the chronicler, that "manie now lamented hir death which were before hir utter enimies."[29] The case illustrates vividly the clumsiness of municipal court procedure. The mayor's court was unfamiliar with the law and utterly unable to avert the consequences of its own finding. In the regular assize courts, Joan Cason would probably have been sentenced to four public appearances in the pillory.

The differences between the first half and the second half of Elizabeth's reign have not been deemed wide enough by the writer to justify separate treatment. The whole reign was a time when the superstition was gaining ground. Yet in the span of years from Reginald Scot to the death of Elizabeth there was enough of reaction to justify a differentiation of statistics. In both periods, and more particularly in the first, we may be sure that some of the records have been lost and that a thorough search of local archives would reveal some trials of which we have at present no knowledge. It was a time rich in mention of witch trials, but a time too when but few cases were fully described. Scot's incidental references to the varied experiences of Sir Roger Manwood and of his uncle Sir Thomas Scot merely confirm an impression gained from the literature of the time that the witch executions were becoming, throughout the seventies and early eighties, too common to be remarkable. For the second period we have record of probably a larger percentage of all the cases. For the whole time from 1563, when the new law went into effect, down to 1603, we have records of nearly fifty executions. Of these just about two-thirds occurred in the earlier period, while of the acquittals two-thirds belong to the later period. It would be rash to attach too much significance to these figures. As a matter of fact, the records are so incomplete that the actual totals have little if any meaning and only the proportions can be considered.[30] Yet it looks as if the forces which caused the persecution of witches in England were beginning to abate; and it may fairly be inquired whether some new factor may not have entered into the situation. It is time to speak of Reginald Scot and of the exorcists.


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