Superstition made living in Europe around 1560–1630 very dangerous for any woman who bucked the norm. Panic was widespread, and accusations soon escalated to executions. Here are three important witch trials you’ve never heard of, but should learn about.
1. THE BERWICK WITCHES
Now, this was far from the first witch trial in England—but it was the catalyst for things being particularly burn-y during the reign of King James l.
In 1590, King James and his new wife, Anne of Denmark, were sailing home from their wedding in Denmark to James’ home in Scotland when their ship was hit by a terrific storm. Though the couple was fine, rumors soon flared up that the storm had been the work of witches determined to murder the newlyweds.
Accusations spread across England, Wales, Denmark and Scotland; with nearly 100 women in Berwick being accused of forming a coven and bringing about the storm.
Fun fact—in Scotland, it was completely legal to torture witches. This little legal loophole unsurprisingly led to some pretty lurid confessions from the Berwick “witches,” including one Agnes Sampson.
Agnes was a healer and midwife for the community, and despite sounding like an all-around good egg, the elderly woman was accused of being the lead witch in the plot to sink the king’s ship. She was questioned and tortured in front of the king at Holyrod Palace. Initially, Agnes pleaded her innocence, but after she was stripped, shaved, and beaten…she admitted her guilt.
Agnes said that the witches had been called to action by Francis Stewart, 5th Lord of Bothwell (who had a claim to the throne, so long as James remained heirless). To cast the spell that set forth the storm, the witches had gathered in churchyards to kiss the devil’s “backside.” They had dug up graves to secure corpses’ fingers for spells, and in one instance, stolen a cat, christened it, tied male genitals to the cat’s legs, sailed out to sea, and tossed the poor kitty into the sea (which sounds totally legit).
Agnes was executed, along with other accused witches in Scotland and Denmark.
Following the trials, James wrote and published a pamphlet which scandalously detailed the events of the trial; and in no small way helped to create the panic surrounding witchcraft that would see thousands of innocent people executed.
2. THE FULDA WITCH TRIALS
It wasn’t just England that got a little…heated (sorry) over witches. Germany also got involved in the epidemic (after all, they are the home of fairy tales!), and my God, did the Germans go all in.
The Fulda witch trials took place over three years between 1603-1606 and saw over 200 people executed. It was one of the worst and largest-scale of the witch trails in Europe during this era.
The trials were triggered by the return to power of Prince-Abbot Balthasar Von Dernbach, following 20 years in exile. Now, though he had an amazing name, the good prince was a bit of a massive dick. Upon coming home he ordered a witch hunt to cleanse the area (as you do). You see, while the prince had been in exile, Fulda had enjoyed a period of relative religous liberalism, and the good prince was not down with this. So naturally, he figured a witch hunt was the best way to “cleanse” Fulda. Nice guy.
The most high-profile of the prince’s 200-odd victims was Merga Bein.
Merga had been married three times, but she was independently wealthy herself, as the now-heir to her two late husbands’ fortunes. This factor seems likely to have played a pretty hefty part in her being “cleansed” by the prince.
Merga was one of the first people arrested. She was accused of being in cahoots with the Devil, of having murdered her second husband and their children, and of having taken part in the Sabbath of Satan. Merga was sentenced to be burned at the stake. she was pregnant. No matter for the good Prince though, he just claimed that the child was clearly the Devils—and so Merga along with over 200 others was executed.
However, her husband argued that executing her was illegal because she was pregnant. No matter for the good [rince though, he just claimed that the child was clearly the Devil’s—and so Merga, along with over 200 others, was executed.
The executions only stopped after the good Prince died. I’m sure all of Fulda was devastated…
3. HAG RIDING Trials
Witch trials were still going on in the 19th century, though they were less commonplace. Kind of awesomely, though, they began to turn towards prosecuting the accusers rather than the accused.
In 1875, the town of Weston Super Mare housed one of these trails, which concerned the fantastically named practice of “hag riding.”
Hag riding was essentially, sleep paralysis. Much of the visions described were just nightmares, but in Weston Super Mare, the accused was was stabbed in the face and hand as a defense against the dreams.
Hester Adams accused her neighbor Maria Pring of appearing in her dreams to terrify her for over two years; Hester claimed that she lived in fear of Maria (an early adopter of Freddy Krueger-based highjinks).
But Hester was an early adopter of, er…knives? (Sorry) She decided that the only way to stop the dreams was to draw Maria’s blood… because logic. The elderly woman stabbed Maria in the face and hand, which put a stop to the dreams (again—logic). In turn, Maria sued.
Though understandably confused by the case bought to them, the magistrates erred on the side sanity (ish) and ordered that Hester give Maria a shilling and agree to keep the peace (and try really hard to not stab her neighbors anymore).
That’s just three notable witch trails that you might not know of—or if you do, you might not know that much about.
You see *gets on soap box* the problem with witch trials is that it’s hard for us to ever know much about the people who were accused. We can only ever have half of the story, because 99.9% of the time we don’t know anything about the people who were accused. These were often people who were poor and lived on the fringes of society; they were easy victims. Often, the only direct information we have from them is their confession—which was false and 9 time out of 10 obtained through torture (not great). It’s important to try and seen the humanity behind the horror. OK *gets off soap box* sorry about that.
Bonus Wicked as way of apology:
This post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission.
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