Witchcraft Act 1735

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Witchcraft Act 1735
Long titleAn Act to repeal the statute made in the first year of the reign of King James the First, intitutled, An Act against conjuration, witchcraft, and dealing with evil and wicked spirits, except so much thereof as repeals an Act of the fifth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Against conjurations, inchantments and witchcrafts, and to repeal, an Act passed in the parliament of Scotland in the ninth parliament of Queen Mary, intituled, Anentis witchcrafts, and for punishing such persons as pretend to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, inchantment, or conjuration.
Citation9 Geo. 2 c. 5
Introduced by
Territorial extentGreat Britain
Dates
Royal assent24 March 1736
Commencement24 June 1736 (1736-06-24)
Repealed22 June 1951 (1951-06-22)
Other legislation
Repealed byFraudulent Mediums Act 1951
Relates toVagrancy Act 1824 s. 4
Status: Repealed
Text of statute as originally enacted

The Witchcraft Act (9 Geo. 2 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. With this, the law abolished the hunting and executions of witches in Great Britain. The maximum penalty set out by the Act was a year's imprisonment.

It thus marks the end point of the witch trials in the Early Modern period for Great Britain and the beginning of the "modern legal history of witchcraft", repealing the earlier Witchcraft Acts which were originally based in an intolerance toward practitioners of magic but became mired in contested Christian doctrine and superstitious witch-phobia.[1]

The law was reverting to the view of the primitive and the medieval Church, expressed from at least the 8th century, at the Council of Paderborn, but contested by witch-phobic Dominican Inquisitors beginning in the mid 15th century, with some success in forwarding a new doctrine among the popes, as seen in the papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus (1484), but with far less success among the bishops. Thus the Act of 1735 reflected the general trend in Europe, where after a peak around 1600, 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.

History of the Witchcraft Act 1735[edit]

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, Sir John Crosse and George Heathcote, the Act received royal assent on 24 March and came into effect on 24 June.[2] 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".[2] 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.[2] According to Davies, 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.[2]

The only figure to offer significant opposition to the Act was Lord James Erskine. 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.[2]

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.[3]

Modern history[edit]

In September 1944, Helen Duncan was jailed under the Witchcraft Act on the grounds that she had claimed to summon spirits. Her followers often contend that her imprisonment was in fact at the behest of superstitious military intelligence officers, who feared that 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 HMS Barham, whose sinking was hidden from the general public at the time. After being caught 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. Duncan has been frequently described as the last person to be convicted under the Act.

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.[4][5]

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.[6]

The South African Witchcraft Suppression Act, 1957, which is still in force, was based on similar 19th-century laws in the Cape Colony which were themselves based on the Witchcraft Act 1735.[7]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Hutton, Ronald (1999). The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford University Press. p. 107. ISBN 978-0-19-820744-3.
  2. ^ a b c d e Davies, Owen (1999). Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951. Manchester University Press. pp. 1–2. ISBN 978-0-7190-5656-7. "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 censuring 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.
  3. ^ "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.
  4. ^ ""Witchcraft Act charges". The Times. London. 27 September 1944. p. 2.
  5. ^ Chambers, Vanessa (24 January 2007), "The Witchcraft Act wasn't about women on brooms", The Guardian, London: Guardian Media Group, retrieved 29 October 2010
  6. ^ "Obituary of Thomas Brooks". The Times. London. 17 February 1958.
  7. ^ "The 1957 Witchcraft Act". Quackdown. 29 August 2011. Retrieved 19 October 2015.