Witchcraft Act 1735

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The Witchcraft Act (9 Geo. II c. 5) was a law passed by the Parliament of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1735 which made it a crime for a person to claim that any human being had magical powers or was guilty of practising witchcraft. The maximum penalty set out by the Act was a year's imprisonment.

It thus marks the end point of the period Witch trials in the Early Modern period for Great Britain and the beginning of the "modern legal history of witchcraft", repealing the Witchcraft Acts which were based on a widespread belief in the genuine existence of magic and witchcraft.[1]

The law was described as "a heavy-handed piece of Enlightenment rationalism", reverting to the view of the medieval Church[2] that witchcraft and magic were illusory, treating as an offence not the supposed practice of witchcraft but the superstitious belief in its existence.[1] The Act reflected the general trend in Europe, where after a peak in the mid-17th century, and a series of late outbursts in the late 17th century, witch-trials quickly subsided after 1700. The last person executed for witchcraft in Great Britain was Janet Horne in 1727.

A portrait of James Erskine by William Aikman, painted in 1720. Erskine was the only Member of Parliament to voice significant opposition to the Act.

Initially presented to the House of Commons on 27 January 1735/6 by John Conduitt, John Crosse and Alderman George Heathcote, the Act received Royal Assent on 24 March and came into effect on 24 June.[3] In the words of Davies (1999), the new law meant that witchcraft was "no longer to be considered a criminal act, but rather an offence against the country's newly enlightened state".[4] Up until 1772, it was illegal for the newspapers to report on parliamentary debates, meaning that there is a lack of archival material on the parliamentary debate on the implementation of the Act.[3] According to Davies (1999), it appears that the Act "generated only a modicum of debate" within parliament, with several amendments being suggested in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.[3] The only figure to offer significant opposition to the Act was Lord James Erskine (1679–1754), a Scottish member of the House of Lords. Erskine not only fervently believed in the existence of witchcraft, but, it has been argued, also held beliefs that were deeply rooted in "Scottish political and religious considerations" and which caused him to reject the Act. His objection to the Act "marked him out as an eccentric verging on the insane" among Members of Parliament, and in turn his political opponents would use it against him; one of his staunchest critics, Robert Walpole, who was then the de facto Prime Minister of the country, allegedly stating that he no longer considered Erskine to be a serious political threat as a result of his embarrassing opposition to the Act.[3]

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 was frequently invoked in the early years of the 19th century in an attempt by the political elite to root out "ignorance, superstition, criminality and insurrection" among the general populace, and even more so under a new statute brought in to reinforce the 1735 act in 1824.[5] The Witchcraft Act of 1735 remained in force well into the 20th century, until its eventual repeal with the enactment of the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951.

The last person convicted under the Act was Jane Rebecca Yorke of Forest Gate in east London. On 26 September 1944 at the Central Criminal Court, Yorke was convicted on seven counts of "pretending...to cause the spirits of deceased persons to be present" and bound over.[6]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Hutton. p. 107.
  2. ^ expressed from at least the 8th century, at the Council of Paderborn, and first officially overturned at the end of the Middle Ages in the papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus (1484)
  3. ^ a b c d Davies 1999. p. 2.
  4. ^ "The responsibility of all men of authority was reversed. Instead of instigating the scratching or swimming of a witch, the justice of the peace now turned to censoring those who took it upon themselves to perform such actions. Instead of overseeing the weighing of witches against the church Bible, Anglican clergyman now preached that the mother of all witches, the Witch of Endor, was nothing but a mere impostor. The fight was now not against the evil of witchcraft, but, instead, against the evil influence which such 'ignorant' and 'superstitious delusions' had on the minds of the uneducated masses." Davies 1999. p. 1.
  5. ^ "In Owen Davies's reconstruction of events, a change in attitudes occurred at the opening of the nineteenth century, as members of the social elite came to perceive that a faith in magic seemed to be as prevalent among the populace as it had been a hundred years before, even while a growing political turbulence among commoners gave their rulers a new interest in the idea of education and civility as stabilizing forces. Ignorance, superstition, criminality and insurrection seemed increasingly to make up a single package, and one result of this realization was a growing number of prosecutions under the 1736 Act and then considerably more under a new statute which was brought in to reinforce it in 1824."Hutton. p. 107.
  6. ^ "Witchcraft Act charges". The Times. 27 September 1944. p. 2.

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