Elite Discourse and Witchcraft: Nationalism, Anti-Catholicism and Puritanism.

Firstly, let me apologise for the lack of content here in the past few weeks, as the Newcastle’s Blog Fairy it’s been a bit on the hectic side so some things had to be put on the back burner! Things are calming down now though so normal, weekly service should be resuming!

A little while ago there was a post on here put together by one of our members, Anne, all about Medical Knowledge and Medicinal Herbs in the 17th Century. Anne, who has a lot of knowledge on the subject wrote a fantastic piece for us to put on here and it was really well received. As time goes on and especially over the winter when there are less battles to tell you about, other members of the regiment have agreed to write posts for the blog sharing their areas of knowledge.

For some it’s something they already have a lot of knowledge about, for others it’s a chance to sit down and do some research and reading about a topic they want to know more about as they put together their article. Today’s article is from Beth who was our ‘Meet the Member’ this month. Beth is a History student at the University of Sheffield and for one of her assignments looked into Witchcraft in the 17th Century and agreed to write a shortened version of what she found for the blog, so without further ado, here is a piece all about Witchcraft. Beth has provided a list of sources and book for further reading at the end of this piece for those who wish to find out more.

Witchcraft is a a concept which can often be inconceivable to the modern mind. The modern psyche has been constructed by the rational principles of the Enlightenment, causing us to think of witchcraft as a mark of medieval darkness and superstition. This idea of witchcraft beliefs embodies a modern patronisation of early modern peoples and lacks a consideration of historical context. We must first dismiss such mindless anachronism as through its condescension of witchcraft it neglects the light such beliefs can shed on the contemporary world view and those societal issues which contribute to it.

Witchcraft is but one strand of the persecuting society in the medieval period which, according to R.I. Moore, emerged in Europe between the tenth and thirteenth century and would shape subsequent history irrevocably. The dawn of the true European witch craze, however, came in the period 1450-1750 following the influence of medieval scholarship (Malleus Maleficarum, 1487) and the divisions brought about by the Reformation changes. The witch hunt is mainly associated with France and Switzerland in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and with central and southern Germany throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. England has never had a formalised office of the inquisition in the medieval period and so the persecution of minorities in society had never been systematic or organised. Instead, outbursts of witchcraft persecution in England ran in line with the localised climax of political, religious and social tension. Tension which was influenced significantly by larger religious and political convulsions occurring nationally and producing a nationalistic, anti-Catholic world view.

Witchcraft is a highly complex issue which can be explored through legal processes, popular belief, gender/poverty stereotypes and rural sociology. Of course, there is significant crossover with all of these factors but this article aims to explore the elite discourse in terms of developing nationalism, anti-Catholicism and Puritanism over the period which would lead to ‘in’and ‘out’groups, persecution and ultimately violence. Whilst avoiding providing a historical narrative, I intend to draw upon the events which unfolded in Lancashire in 1612 and those under Matthew Hopkins 1644-47 in the South East as examples to demonstrate my ideas. Before we proceed with these events, I intend to outline the emergence of a nationalistic ideology which originated in the Reformation and Royal Supremacy but developed over the period, especially with the rise of anti-Catholicism and Puritanism. Such ideals, I believe, are partly responsible for providing the conditions for witchcraft persecution in England. This study is by no means a total history, and there are many other factors which could be drawn upon, perhaps in a later blog.

In the century preceding the witchcraft events in England, Europe had undergone a tumultuous transformation instigated by the Reformation. What followed in England was a revolution of politics and religion, resulting in the formation of a Protestant nation with the monarch as both head of state and of church. Despite this change, Catholics still existed in pockets throughout the nation, and notably had a significant presence in Lancashire. Catholics clung to the hope of a Catholic revival and frequently made attempts on the life of the monarch both during Elizabeth’s reign and in James’reign as famously seen in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. On Elizabeth’s death, James I became King of both England and Scotland. James had sailed to Copenhagen to marry Anne of Denmark and, during their return, they suffered terrible storms on the North Sea and had to shelter in Norway. The admiral of the fleet attributed the weather on witchcraft in Denmark (where witch persecution was commonplace). Influenced by this threat to his life, James set up his own tribunal in Scotland, convinced of a witch’s plot to kill him and his newly wedded wife. His conviction led to the North Berwick trials which would influence his subsequent 1597 Demonologie and set the tone for witch hunting in the British Isles. Such a document was unprecedented and particularly unique because the head of state had, in essence, provided an official sanction for witchcraft trials and even a guide for would-be witch persecutors in the seventeenth century. Moreover, a Witchcraft Act was passed under James in 1604 bringing the death penalty to those who invoked evil spirits. The Act also outlawed Catholic exorcism, which had supported the concept of demonic possession, an idea which had previously taken away personal agency and responsibility from the act of witchcraft.

James sought to uniformly identify witches as instigators of their own fate and to remove the possibility to abdicate responsibility for their witchcraft by asserting the demonic pact. An atmosphere of nationalism and fear began to emerge in England, a nationalism which identified Catholics as foreign and thus enemies of the state, cultivating suspicions of religious deviance and maleficent forces (both Catholics and witches) vying to overturn the divinely appointed Protestant monarchy. England saw its largest witch craze in the Hopkins trials of 1645-47 in the South East within the context of the English Civil War.

Religious divisions can be cited as a primary cause of the civil war, especially with mounting suspicion over the influence Catholicism, especially from abroad. This was due to Charles I’s perceived Catholic sympathies, especially through his marriage to the French Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria. Charles’moderation towards Catholics because of his marriage agreement with Henrietta was seen as acceptance and thus cause for concern amongst avid Protestants. Laudianism was a religious expression which Charles personally affiliated with, which asserted the importance of ceremonies, church status and community in christian worship and life. Their ideal in ‘the beauty of holiness’was dangerously close to the ritual and iconography identified at the time as Catholicism. So Charles’approval of the Laudian system was a bone of contention, particularly in Puritan circles. There had been a few generations since the Reformation and as people had become more religiously aware there was a growth and development in Puritanism from Elizabeth’s reign right up to the civil wars. Puritanism drew heavily upon the calvinist doctrine of pre-destination whereby human souls are split into the ‘elect’and the ‘reprobate’which also extended to England as the elect nation, as God’s Israel (see Figures 1 & 2), further building the aforementioned nationalism. Moreover, the Second Coming featured heavily in Puritan rhetoric and language. Scripture advises that the Second Coming will be marked by the temptation of the anti-Christ and a spiritual battle. This battle was seen by many Puritans to be exemplified in the the struggle with Catholics, the anti-christ being the Pope (see Figure 3) and, later, the English Civil Wars as the ultimate apocalyptic struggle of the godly over the anti-Christ and his agents (e.g. recusant Catholics, crypto-Catholics, jesuit priests and witches). For Puritans, the Second Coming was imminent and so therefore it was necessary to prepare and cleanse England for the arrival of the Saviour, meaning the eradication of popery and of witchery. It had become a priority in the early 17th century to preserve and promote true English religion in the face of satanic and Catholic forces threatening the English Protestant nation.

The Pendle witch trials is most comprehensively recorded in Thomas Potts’‘The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster’. Potts was the clerk for the Northern Circuit and was ordered to produce this account of the legal proceedings. The Discoverie is thought to have been a decisive move in Potts’political career which he dedicated to his patron at court, Thomas Kyvnet, the very man who apprehended Guy Fawkes in 1605. Moreover, the trial itself reveals a painstakingly dedicated effort to correlate the proceedings exactly with the recommendations laid down by James I in Demonologie. Potts’loyalty to James and the interests of the nation was rewarded richly by James with “the keepership of Skalme Park …for the breeding and training of hounds”and later, “the office of collecting the forfeitures on the laws concerning sewers, for twenty one years”, meaning he could appoint deputies. Clearly, then, this trial was set to be one snapshot of the political and religious issues playing out on a national stage. Law officers played on the 1605 scare and placed the witches firmly in the ‘enemies of the state’camp when they discussed an alleged plot to blow up Lancaster Castle. Catholicism was particularly widespread in Lancashire in the period and was generally tolerated with the exception of the Lancaster Martyrs. Recusancy was common practice for the elite Catholic families, and those in the lower orders with less money to pay off fines and officers were crypto-Catholics, as sanctioned by the Pope at the time to protect their families from persecution (see Figure 4). Jennet Device recites her family’s spells in court, some of which exhibit a confession and amalgamation of Catholic prayers, rural popular ideas and the new Protestantism. Indeed, Alice Nutter (one of the twelve accused witches) was directly related to Robert Nutter, a Catholic priest who was executed at Lancaster in 1600. Moreover, religious differences fostered hostility between families in the region, e.g.. the Protestant Nowells and the Catholic Southworths as they struggled for power.

Roger Nowell, the key Justice of the Peace associated with the Pendle Witch trials was a zealous Puritan of the time who, like Potts, astutely took on the trial for his own political ends. That Potts and Nowell composed and orchestrated witchcraft trials in line with James’demonological work is evident as all of the criteria for identifying witches set down by James are fulfilled in the trial. This situation couldn’t be more convenient for Nowell as a puritan in his war against Catholicism and the ungodly in the county. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration even to suggest that popular beliefs were transformed to fit with elite discourse in such accounts. The Wonderfull Discoverie was not an innocent document. Potts, therefore had a clear agenda which fed into the religious divisions locally and the religious fears nationally and even internationally. It could be argued, therefore, that the Pendle Witch trial was just one of many events in the struggle for Protestant England, for support of James and his Protestant monarchy.

The Matthew Hopkins witchcraft trials are those which have formed the 20th century conception of witchcraft in England, particularly for its use of torture. Occurring during the English Civil War, this is the peak of radical puritan, nationalistic and anti-catholic discourse in the period.  Moreover, the Hopkins trials are unique for their close similarity with continental witchcraft cases and for the presence of a self appointed ‘Witch Finder Generall’. The breakdown of administration and local political structures in the civil wars has been cited to account for the sheer number of witchcraft executions in East Anglia at the time.

In 1643, there were two lynchings as people took scapegoating into their own hands. Instability manifested in East Anglia when Manningtree lost both its rector and its lord of the manor then, as Charles I’s personal rule advanced the judges were also lost 1641-42. A key source of discontent in the region originated in the threat of Catholicism. Matthew Hopkins saw the English Civil War as a conflict akin to a spiritual crusade which would function to restore true religion and stop the regression into Catholicism which the 1630s had exhibited in Laudianism. The attempted restoration of ceremonial and sacramental religion was offensive to the godly and given the popularity of Puritanism in the South East, it was an especially unapologetic factor in some of the witchcraft accusations. This is shown specifically in the denunciation of John Lowe, a Laudian minister whose orthodoxy was loathed in the area that he was therefore brought down by witchcraft accusations in order to cleanse the religion of the community. Religious antagonism had gone so far that an essex man floated the Book of Common Prayer then burned it. Just like papists, witches were servants of Satan and their loyalties signified Armageddon against the backdrop of gunpowder smoke in the civil wars.

Hopkins’motives and personality have been widely discussed. It has been suggested that his nationalistic Puritan zeal was a key motivation in his persecution of witchcraft . It has also been suggested that Hopkins exhibited a crisis in masculinity as he didn’t own property or have status and he hadn’t served in the wars either. Therefore his witch finding provided him with an identity as a hero which bolstered his unstable masculinity. It is suggested primarily by Gaskill that the motivation is entirely simple, it was just genuine fear of underground witchcraft undermining the social and religious order, leading souls astray and damaging the fabric of society. All considered, I would argue that Hopkins’motives derived from 1640s millenarian ideas and informed a self conscious, messianic desire to fulfil his obligation to cleanse society of its religious enemies. Hopkins and his accomplice, John Stearne identified as christian soldiers in an ungodly society where they would fight for Catholics and Witches to perish for the good of the elect English nation.

This article aimed to outline the way in which nationalistic, anti- Catholic ideals arose from religion in the wake of Elizabeth’s reign, ran through the Jacobean period and how, with the development of Puritanism, they created the millenarian world-view necessary for rationalising witchcraft persecution at the time. The Reformation had thrown up a division in society between those for the Royal Supremacy and those against, those for English Protestantism and those against, generating a gulf which would allow for persecution and capital punishment. Some brief examples were drawn from 1612 Pendle and from the mid 1640s in the South East to demonstrate how persecutors of witchcraft utilised these ideas. It is notable that in this age of the witch-hunt, Catholic countries hardly feature at all. We remember Catholic history for the Inquisition, but they don’t persecute witches in the Mediterranean like they do in Northern Europe during this period. It has been argued, therefore, that this ‘craze’is associated directly with enthusiastic Protestantism. In England, such enthusiasm takes it’s form in seventeenth century Puritanism which was dedicated to both anti-Catholic and nationalistic rhetoric.

Despite the fact that these ideas were constant throughout the period, their uses differed. They were used to persecute Catholics and witches alike, to bolster political careers and control rural communities. In the early 1600s, they had served to protect and praise a King, where later the very same ideas contributed to the demise of the monarchy in 1649. Other significant factors in witchcraft persecution could have been explored here and, while avoiding the narrative itself, there are many more issues which caused outbursts of witchcraft cases. This considered, some key components of contemporary discourse have been explored in this blog which are relevant not only to witchcraft persecution but also to the wider contemporary issues which, arguably, would lead to the execution of a King and even into the 1688 Glorious Revolution.



1.William Perkins, A Faithful and Plain Exposition upon Zephaniah (1593)

William Perkins was the most popular Puritan author of our period.

‘God has been as good a God to us as he was to them [Israel] and we have been as unkind a people to him as they were to him

For us in England the case stands thus. Our church doubtless is God’s cornfield and we are the corn heap of God …But withal we must confess we are full of chaff, that is of profane and wicked hypocrites whose hearts and minds abound in sins and rebellions …Alas, the pure wheat how thin is it scattered? How hard to find a man, at least a family which dedicate themselves to the Lord in holy and sincere obedience? …England being so full of chaff must look to be winnowed…’

2.Thomas Gataker, A Sparke toward the kindling of sorrow for Sion (1621)

Thomas Gataker was a famous Puritan.

‘Can we hear daily reports of our brethren in foreign parts, either assaulted, or distressed, or surprised by Popish forces, and a main breach made into the state of those that are by bonds, civil and sacred, so nearly knit to us, and yet esteem all is nothing, or think that we have no just cause to mourn and lament? Neither let any man say: ‘What is their affliction to us? What are those parts to us? What is France or Germany to England?’For what was Jerusalem to Antioch? What was Judah to Joseph?’

3. Joseph Hall, Roma Irreconciliabilis (1610)

This passage was written by a future bishop, Joseph Hall. In it he explains why any form of compromise with the Roman Catholic church is unthinkable. Note what was the commonplace identification of the Pope as Antichrist and Rome as Babylon.

‘Only this one thing, which God hath promised, we do verily expect; to see the day when the Lord Jesus shall with the breath of his mouth, destroy this lawless man, 2.Thess.ii.8*, long since revealed to his Church; and , by the brightness of his glorious coming, fully discover and despatch him. Not only in the means and way, but in the end also, Rome is opposite to heaven…Rome shall pass away by destruction, not by change. Of us therefore and them shall that old bucolic verse be verified:

         Out of each others; breast their swords they drew,

         Nor would they rest till one the other slew.’

 [* ‘this lawless man’ is identified with the Antichrist and the beast of the Book of Revelation (number: 666)]

4. Copy of a letter from Cardinal William Allen, found in a Catholic’s house, 1592

This letter (by the senior Catholic cleric for England, who lived abroad) notes the degree to which Catholics were allowed by their own authorities to abide (at least temporarily) by what the Protestant government required — these were the ‘church papists’.

‘[Cardinal Allen] requires those that are priests to use great compassion towards such of the laity as, from mere fear,or to save a wife and family from ruin, are so far only fallen as to come sometimes to [Protestant] churches, or be present at their services; for though it be not lawful nor excusable to do so, yet necessity makes the offence less, and more easily to be absolved…They [the priests] must use this mercy, though they [the laity] fall more than once, and though there is fear that they will fall again, and no more severity is to be used than in any other sins. Such matters cannot be subject to certain rules, they must use wisdom and charity..’

Bibliography/Further Reading



Thomas Potts, Discovery of witches in the county of Lancaster, trans. Chetham Society, (London, 1845)

James I, Daemonologie, in D. Tyson (ed.) The Demonology of King James I (Minnesota, 2012)

John Davenport, The Witches of Huntingdon, Their Examinations and Confessions; exactly taken by his Majesties Justices of Peace for the County. Whereby will appear how craftily and dangerously the Devill temptett and seizeth on poore soules, Collection: The Norris Museum, St Ives, Cambridgeshire, UK:


Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, The Discovery of Witches and Witchcraft: The Writings of the Witchfinders, ed. S.F. Davies (Brighton, 2007)

Secondary: Books

Gaskill, M., English witchcraft, 1560-1736. Vol.3, The Matthew Hopkins trials, (London, 2003)

Macfarlane, A., Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England : a regional and comparative study, (2nd edn, London, 1999)

Peel, E., The trials of the Lancashire witches : a study of seventeenth-century, (Newton Abbot, 1969)

Poole, R., The Lancashire witches : histories and stories, (Manchester, 2003)

Purkiss, D., The Witch in History : Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations, (Routledge, 2003)

Sharpe, J.A., English Witchcraft, 1560-1736. Vol. 1, Early English demonological works, (London, 2003).

Sharpe, J.A., Instruments of darkness : witchcraft in England 1550-1750, (Pennsylvania,1996)

Thomas, K., Religion and the decline of magic : studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England, (London, 1971)

Secondary: Articles 

Gaskill, M., ‘Witchcraft and Evidence in Early Modern England’, Past & present : a journal of historical studies (2008)

Gaskill. M., ‘Witchcraft Trials in England’, The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (2013)

Gibson, M., ‘Thomas Pott’s ‘dusty memory’: reconstructing justice in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches’in R. Poole (ed), The Lancashire witches : histories and stories, (Manchester 2003)

Pumfrey, S., ‘Potts, plots and politics: James I’s Daemonologie and The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches’in R. Poole (ed), The Lancashire witches : histories and stories, (Manchester 2003)

Sharpe, J., ‘Introduction: The Lancashire witches in historical context’in R. Poole (ed), The Lancashire witches : histories and stories, (Manchester 2003)


Timbers, F., ‘Witches’ Sect or Prayer Meeting?: Matthew Hopkins revisited’, Women’s History Review (2008)

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