In England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland a succession of Witchcraft Acts have governed witchcraft and provided penalties for its practice, or (in later years) for pretending to practice it.
Witchcraft Act 1542
Religious tensions in England during the 16th and 17th centuries resulted in the introduction of serious penalties for witchcraft. Henry VIII's Act of 1542 (33 Hen. VIII c. 8) was the first to define witchcraft as a felony, a crime punishable by death and the forfeiture of the convicted felon's goods and chattels. It was forbidden to:
... use devise practise or exercise, or cause to be devysed [sic] practised or exercised, any Invovacons or cojuracons [sic] of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to thentent [sic?] to fynde [sic] money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone [sic] in his bodie membres, or to pvoke [provoke] any persone to unlawfull love, or for any other unlawfull intente or purpose ... or for dispite of Cryste, or for lucre of money, dygge up or pull downe any Crosse or Crosses or by such Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes [sic] or sorceries or any of them take upon them to tell or declare where goodes stollen [sic?] or lost shall become ...
The Act also removed a right known as benefit of clergy from those convicted of witchcraft, a legal device that spared anyone from hanging who was able to read a passage from the Bible. This statute was repealed by Henry's son, Edward VI, in 1547.
Witchcraft Act 1562
An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts (5 Eliz. I c. 16) was passed early in the reign of Elizabeth I. It was in some respects more merciful towards those found guilty of witchcraft than its predecessor, demanding the death penalty only where harm had been caused; lesser offences were punishable by a term of imprisonment. The Act provided that anyone who should "use, practise, or exercise any Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm, or Sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed", was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, and was to be put to death.
Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563
Under the Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563 both the practice of witchcraft and consulting with witches were capital offences. This Act stayed on Scottish statute books until repealed as a result of a House of Lords amendment to the bill for the post-union Witchcraft Act 1735.
Witchcraft Act 1604
In 1604, the year following James' accession to the English throne, the Elizabethan Act was broadened to bring the penalty of death without benefit of clergy to any one who invoked evil spirits or communed with familiar spirits. The Act's full title was An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits, (2 Ja. I c. 12). It was this statute that was enforced by Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witch-Finder General.
Supporters of the Act included the Earl of Northumberland, the Bishop of Lincoln, the Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, the Attorney General for England and Wales, the Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, and the Chief Justice of the King's Bench.
The Acts of Elizabeth and James changed the law of witchcraft by making it a felony, thus removing the accused from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the courts of common law. This provided, at least, that the accused witches theoretically enjoyed the benefits of ordinary criminal procedure. Burning at the stake was eliminated except in cases of witchcraft that were also petty treason; most convicted were hanged instead. Any witch who had committed a minor witchcraft offence (punishable by one year in prison) and was accused and found guilty a second time was sentenced to death.
Scottish Witchcraft Act 1649
Through the 1640s the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the Commission of the Kirk lobbied for the enforcement and extension of the Witchcraft Act 1563, which had been the basis of previous witch trials. The Covenanter regime passed a series of acts to enforce godliness in 1649, which made capital offences of blasphemy, the worship of false gods and for beaters and cursers of their parents. They also passed a new witchcraft act that ratified the existing act of 1563 and extended it to deal with consulters of "Devils and familiar spirits", who would now be punished with death.
Witchcraft Act 1735
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 (9 Geo. 2 c. 5) marked a complete reversal in attitudes. Penalties for the practice of witchcraft as traditionally constituted, which by that time was considered by many influential figures to be an impossible crime, were replaced by penalties for the pretence of witchcraft. A person who claimed to have the power to call up spirits, or foretell the future, or cast spells, or discover the whereabouts of stolen goods, was to be punished as a vagrant and a con artist, subject to fines and imprisonment. The Act applied to the whole of Great Britain, repealing both the 1563 Scottish Act and the 1604 English Act.
In 1944, Helen Duncan was gaoled under the Witchcraft Act on the grounds that she had claimed to summon spirits. It is often contended, by her followers, that her imprisonment was in fact at the behest of superstitious military intelligence officers who feared she would reveal the secret plans for D-Day. She came to the attention of the authorities after supposedly contacting the spirit of a sailor of the HMS Barham, whose sinking was hidden from the general public at the time. After being caught in the act of faking a spiritual manifestation, she was arrested during a seance and indicted with seven punishable counts: two of conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act, two of obtaining money by false pretences, and three of public mischief (a common law offence). She spent nine months in prison.
Although Duncan has been frequently described as the last person to be convicted under the Act, in fact, Jane Rebecca Yorke was convicted under the Act later that same year. The last threatened use of the Act against a medium was in 1950. In 1951 the Witchcraft Act was repealed with the enactment of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951, largely at the instigation of Spiritualists through the agency of Thomas Brooks MP.
It is widely suggested that astrology may have been covered by the Witchcraft Act. From the 1930s onwards many tabloid newspapers and magazines carried astrology columns, but none were ever prosecuted.
The Witchcraft Act remained legally in force in Northern Ireland, although it was never actually applied.
The Act is still in force in Israel, having been introduced into the legal system of the British Mandate over Palestine; Israel gained its independence before the law was repealed in Britain in 1951. Article 417 of the Israeli Penal code of 1977, incorporating much legislation inherited from British and Ottoman times, sets two years' imprisonment as the punishment for "witchcraft, fortune telling, or magic for pay". The law in Israel applies only to practitioners of witchcraft who charge a fee.
- The Witchcraft Suppression Act, 1957 of South Africa, which is still in force, was based on the Witchcraft Act 1735.
- Gibson 2006, p. 1
- Gibson 2006, p. 2
- Brosseau Gardner 2004, p. 254
- Gibson 2006, pp. 3–4
- Gibson 2006, p. 7
- Larner 1981, p. 78
- Gibson 2006, pp. 5–6
- J. R. Young, "The Covenanters and the Scottish Parliament, 1639-51: the rule of the godly and the 'second Scottish Reformation'", E. Boran and C. Gribben, eds, Enforcing Reformation in Ireland and Scotland, 1550-1700 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), ISBN 0754682234, pp. 149-50.
- Chambers, Vanessa (24 January 2007), "The Witchcraft Act wasn't about women on brooms", The Guardian, retrieved 29 October 2010
- Obituary of Thomas Brooks, The Times, 17 February 1958
- "Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 (c.33)", UK Statute Law Database, Office of Public Sector Information, retrieved 1 November 2010
- Beit-Hallahmi 1992, p. 74
- "Witchcraft Suppression Act 3 of 1957". Government of South Africa. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
- "The 1957 Witchcraft Act". Quackdown. 29 August 2011. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
- Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin (1992), Despair and Deliverance: Private Salvation in Contemporary Israel, State University of New York Press, ISBN 978-0-7914-1000-4
- Brosseau Gardner, Gerald (2004), The Meaning of Witchcraft, Red Wheel/Weiser, ISBN 978-1-57863-309-8
- Gibson, Marion (2006), "Witchcraft in the Courts", in Gibson, Marion, Witchcraft And Society in England And America, 1550–1750, Continuum International Publishing Group, pp. 1–9, ISBN 978-0-8264-8300-3
- Larner, Christine (1981), Enemies of God, ISBN 0-7011-2424-5
- John Newton and Jo Bath (eds), Witchcraft and the Act of 1604 (Leiden, Brill, 2008) (Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions, 131)
- P G Maxwell-Stuart, The Great Scottish Witch-Hunt (Tempus, Stroud, 2007)