The latest episode of Doctor Who, ‘The Witchfinders‘, saw the Doctor and friends travel back to a village in seventeenth-century Lancashire in the midst of a witch trial.
It’s well known that, throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fear and paranoia surrounding the supposed existence of witches spread across Britain, Europe, and colonial America. These deeply rooted anxieties led to witchcraft trials taking place throughout the western hemisphere. Estimates of the number of people executed for witchcraft between 1450 and 1750 vary from around 35,000 up to 100,000 with approximately 500 people put to death in England.
Now, BlogtorWho has set out to ask, just how accurately did ‘The Witchfinders‘ portray this now infamous period of early modern history?
King James I – Satan’s Greatest Foe!
In ‘The Witchfinders’: King James I arrives in Bilehurst Cragg after hearing of landowner Becka Savage’s crusade against witches in the village. He’s a self-proclaimed expert on witchcraft, who strives to root out Satan wherever he lurks. King James carries his personal collection of witch-hunting paraphernalia with him wherever he goes, which includes his ‘pricker’ for testing witches.
In reality: King James I really was deeply concerned about witchcraft. It’s said that his experience of the North Berwick witch trials of 1590 sparked his intense fear of witchcraft. He became personally involved in these trials, much as his fictional counterpart did in ‘The Witchfinders‘. This was not least because the accused witches in North Berwick had allegedly directly targeted King James and his wife-to-be Anne. Many of them confessed (under torture) to having conjured a storm to attack the king and his fiancée’s ship as they travelled back from Denmark.
James I believed from this point onwards that he was being plotted against by witches. Whether or not he really did carry his own set of witch-finding tools, he was certainly very knowledgeable about witchcraft, and set on rooting it out in his own kingdoms. In 1597, he published his own work, entitled Daemonologie. Through this three-part dissertation, James sought to warn the public of the existence of witches. He also advocated for the practice of witch-hunting. James’ Daemonologie went on to serve as the inspiration for future witch hunts, as will be discussed below…
As well as this, in 1604 he passed a new piece of anti-witchcraft legislation, which was far harsher than its Elizabethan predecessor. It made almost all forms of witchcraft punishable by death. Before this, only killing someone by witchcraft was a capital offence. King James was therefore clearly committed to rooting out the problem of witchcraft throughout England and Scotland.
Witches at Pendle Hill, Lancashire
In ‘The Witchfinders’: The Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham find themselves caught up in a witch hunt taking place in a seventeenth-century Lancashire village known as Bilehurst Cragg, not far from Pendle Hill. This episode sees Old Mother Twiston, a local healer, tested on suspicion of witchcraft. Landowner Becka Savage claims that in her village, Satan has been blighting the crops, bewitching animals, and plaguing people with fits, sickness, and visions.
In reality: Writer Joy Wilkinson has said that the real-life Lancashire witch trials served as her inspiration in creating this episode.
I got this book when I was 10, with its audio cassette (RIP) that I listened to over and over at bedtime, the darkness leaking into my dreams – and now into my #DoctorWho, along with a little light. Hope you enjoy it tonight*. For me it's a dream come true… pic.twitter.com/L9rDNqGLb3
— Joy Wilkinson (@joyofse19) November 25, 2018
One of the most famous witchcraft trials in English history took place in the area surrounding Pendle Hill, Lancashire in August 1612. These trials resulted in the execution of ten people – a large number in terms of English witch trials.
Much as in ‘The Witchfinders‘, the so-called Pendle witch trials were also a family matter. Among the accused were two elderly women, plus their children and grandchildren. These two elderly women were Elizabeth Sowthernes (alias ‘Old Demdike’) and Anne Whittle (alias ‘Chattox’). Their daughters and Sowthernes’ grandchildren were also implicated in the trials and ultimately executed. These families likely influenced the characters of Old Mother Twiston and her granddaughter Willa, as Sowthernes and Whittle were known to be healers.
The events leading up to the trial of the Pendle witches began in March 1612 and did involve an ailment seemingly caused by witchcraft. A pedlar called John Law accused Sowthernes’ daughter, Alizon Device, of bewitching him and paralyzing him on one side after he refused to sell her some pins. Beyond these trials, claims that witches were responsible for the death of or damage to livestock, people, or property were common in testimonies given against suspected witches across Europe.
Duck the Witch!
In ‘The Witchfinders’: Becka Savage, landowner of Bilehurst Cragg, has been using her ducking stool to test whether or not the villagers (and the Doctor!) are witches. She tells the Doctor that the ducking stool was originally ‘invented to silence foolish women who talked too much.’ Mistress Savage announces that if the accused drowns, she is innocent, but if she floats, she is a witch.
In reality: Despite the popular association between witches and ducking stools, it seems that these devices were not actually used in witchcraft trials.
It is true that ducking stools were used as a form of public humiliation for women who were seen as ‘disorderly’ or ‘scolds’ in and around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In addition, a similar ordeal by water to the one depicted in the episode was used to identify witches. This practice was known as ‘swimming’ a witch and involved the binding the suspect’s wrists and ankles together, before being lowered into a body of water by ropes.
King James I himself advocated for the use of this ‘swimming test’ in identifying witches in his book Daemonologie. He asserted that a guilty witch would float, but an innocent person would sink. It seems to be a misconception that an innocent person would be left to drown – they were, in fact, hauled back up out of the water by ropes if they did not float.
Witchfinders in England
In ‘The Witchfinders’: After trying to save Old Mother Twiston, the Doctor claims to be a witchfinder general, with Ryan, Yaz, and Graham being her associates. King James later mistakes Graham as being the witchfinder general, and Ryan and the Doctor as being his assistants. James also mentions a previous witchfinder of his, Scottie, who saved his life at Berwick, before later betraying him.
In reality: ‘Witchfinder’ was not the common or widespread occupation in England the episode depicts it as being. King James I certainly did not have a team of witchfinders at his disposal.
The concept of the witchfinder was made famous by one individual in particular. Matthew Hopkins, who was based in East Anglia during the mid-seventeenth century, declared himself to be a ‘witchfinder general’. This was by no means an official title, but it was one that Hopkins certainly took incredibly seriously.
Matthew Hopkins, along with his colleague John Stearne, is said to have had at least 250 individuals tried, and at least 100 of those executed between 1644 and 1646. Hopkins and Stearne’s activities, therefore, account for an enormous proportion of the people executed for witchcraft in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Although (unlike in Scotland), the use of torture was outlawed in England, Hopkins and Stearne used highly severe methods to extract confessions from suspected witches. They took inspiration from King James I’s Daemonolgie for some of these methods. These included the ‘swimming’ of witches, as well as sleep deprivation, and the ‘pricking’ of witches to see if they bled. As the fictional James explained to Graham and Ryan in the episode, a true witch would not bleed if her ‘mark’ was pricked.
In conclusion, despite some poetic license, ‘The Witchfinders‘ is nevertheless grounded in the reality of the witchcraft trials and fears which swept across Europe, Britain, and colonial America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Becka Savage and King James I’s anxieties about the power and presence of Satan in everyday life might seem irrational to us, but they were certainly shared by many of those who lived through this now infamous period of history.
The Adventure Continues…
Doctor Who continues this Sunday 2nd December with ‘It Takes You Away‘ on BBC One and BBC America.
On the edge of a Norwegian fjord, in the present day, The Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz discover a boarded-up cottage and a girl named Hanne in need of their help. What has happened here? What monster lurks in the woods around the cottage – and beyond?
Guest starring Ellie Wallwork and Kevin Eldon. Written by Ed Hime. Directed by Jamie Childs.