I thought it might be interesting to begin this blog with one of the more bizarre aspects of the trials I focus on in my doctoral thesis: women who claimed to have married the Devil.
This is an extract from a paper I gave at the Perspectives on Progress Conference at the University of Queensland, in late 2013. In my thesis I examine sexual congress between witches and the Devil, but in that larger discussion the detail of the ‘wedding’ of the accused witch Rebecca West. My aim is to keep these posts to around 1,000-2,000 words, but I’d love some feedback on whether people want more detail – or less!
Photo Credit Sheilagh Ilona O'Brien*
“[A]nd he wold be a husband to her...”: Marriage to the Devil in the East Anglia Witch Trials
A Little Background:
In March of 1645, in and around Manningtree in Essex, a number of women confessed to being witches. The first to confess was a young girl, Rebecca West, whose mother had previously been brought to trial for witchcraft, but had been found not guilty.[i] Rebecca and several other local women – including her mother – were caught up in the accusations of a local tailor, John Rivet, who claimed his wife had been bewitched. After Rebecca’s confession named several local women, they were duly accosted, interrogated, and watched. After several days of harassment and sleep deprivation they began to confess their crimes.
The second witch to confess, Elizabeth Clark, was described by one of her watcher’s, John Stearne, as confessing “that the Devil had had carnall copulation with her in the likenesse of a man”[ii]. Stearne's famous – or perhaps infamous – associate, Matthew Hopkins, recalled Clarke’s confession as well, and informed the authorities that on the 24th of March she had confessed to him that:
she had had carnall copulation with the Devil six or seven yeares; and that he would appeare to her three or foure times in a weeke at her bed side, and goe to bed to her, and lye with her halfe a night together in the shape of a proper Gentleman, with a laced band, having the whole proportion of a man, and would say to her, Besse I must lye with you, and shee did never deny him.[iii]
The witch panic which had begun in Manningtree quickly spread, and by June more than thirty accused witches were languishing in Colchester Castle, awaiting trial. And they were merely the first victims of a witch panic that would kill over a hundred men and women, or nearly 1/5 of the estimated executions for witchcraft in early modern England.[iv] It is there that Matthew Hopkins visited young Rebecca West. It is likely Hopkins was hoping a co-operative Rebecca would provide more details with which her mother – who had already escaped conviction for witchcraft a few years earlier – and her associates could be successfully prosecuted.
Rebecca West’s Gaol Confession:
Rebecca did indeed elaborate extensively on her previous confession, and gave a rather extraordinary account of her own relationship with the Devil. Hopkins claimed that when he met with her in gaol she confessed that:
“the Devil appeared to her the said Rebecca, as shee was going to bed, and told her, he would marry her, and that shee could not deny him; shee said he kissed her, but was as cold as clay, and married her that night, in this manner; He tooke her by the hand and lead her about the Chamber, and promised to be her loving husband till death, and to avenge her of her enemies; And that then shee promised him to be his obedient wife till death, and to deny God and Christ Jesus[.]”[v]
The Context of Rebecca’s confession:
Imagining the Devil in human form tempting the witches with lust and disappointing intercourse was not a new idea. In fact, it was an important feature of many witch-trials in continental Europe and Scotland.[vi] From the earliest publications on the continent, most notably the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), women were portrayed as more at risk of making diabolic pacts. In part this was because a connection between the Snake’s deceit of Eve, and Eve’s seduction of Adam, with modern witches, who were thought to be deceived and seduced by the Devil’s lies. This connection allowed the writers of the Malleus Maleficarum to link dangerous female sexuality with the power of witchcraft. The Malleus claimed that one of the four main crimes of witches was that they “engage in the Devil’s filthy deeds through carnal acts with Incubus and succubus demons”[vii].
Popular representations of the witch and witchcraft prior to 1645 had made clear that the witch was a sexual creature. The Snake and Eve provided a ready-made template for accounts of English witches, and were cited by both elite demonologists and popular accounts of witchcraft.[viii] And though early accounts may have emphasised their lust for material gain and other humans, by the turn of the seventeenth century a different account of the witches’ relationship with the devil was starting to take shape – and so was the Devil as a well-dressed man.[ix]
The man who promised to be Rebecca’s ‘loving husband till death’ is reminiscent of other cases where the Devil took the form of an attractive man. For example, the man Margaret Johnson claimed to have met in the trial in Lancashire in 1633-4, was clad in black with silk points, and Widow Clarke had confessed to having intercourse with a ‘proper’ gentlemen with a ‘laced band’, just a few weeks before Rebecca’s second confession .[x] A well-dressed stranger who turns out to be the Devil was an aberration in confessions which usual featured animalistic devils. However, as you can see from Margaret Johnson’s confession, the idea of a man-shaped Devil had certainly begun to appear in English witch trials prior to 1645.[xi]
Similar Confessions from 1645:
To return to where we began, the East Anglian trials: Rebecca West was far from alone in her confessions. Around the time Hopkins had visited Rebecca in gaol, the arrests in Essex had sparked accusations in other counties. Hopkins, and his associate John Stearne, along with several matrons who purported to have skill in finding the witches’ mark, had journeyed north into Norfolk and Suffolk. In Suffolk in particular they found witches who, like Elizabeth Clarke and Rebecca West, claimed they had been offered or accepted marriage to the Devil. For example, Briget Bigsby confessed that:
she heard a voyce speake to her wch bad her denie god & Ch. and he wold be a husband to her but she denied it and saw not who it was that spake it, her imps told her theyr names Joweare Johyn & Naturall, and have sucked 5 times since she had them, they told if she wold grant to theyr couenant she shold neuer rest day nor night[…][xii]
Another Suffolk witch, Margaret Wyard, gave an interesting hybrid confession which features both an animalistic familiar (a calf), and a ‘handsome young gentleman’. It is perhaps noteworthy that Margaret’s confession was made following several days without sleep, which might account for her extraordinary tale that:
the deuill appeard to her in the likenes of a calfe and told her he was her husband and asked her to have the vse of her body wch then she did denie, after this he came to her in the shape of handsome yonge gentleman wth yelloow hayre and black cloaths& often times lay wth her and had the carnall vse of her but wld fforme the St of a man & she obserued he had a clouen foote, & he made her denies god and Ch.[xiii]
The most tragic of these confessions is the unfortunate Thomasine Ratcliffe,[xiv] who confessed to her watchers after three days of interrogation that:
a month after the death of her husband there came one to her in the shape of her husband and lay heuy upon her & she asked him if he wold kille her & he answeared in the voyce of her husband no I will bee a loueinge husband to you, and beeinge further demanded if she wold confess no more concerneinge this appeareance she answered she was stopped and cold not but confirmed that that wch she had sayd was true.[xv]
Although the foundation of these confessions were already present before the 1640s, in the physicality of the covenant between the devil and the witch in England, and the growing sexual connotations of that relationship, there remain unanswered (and probably unanswerable) questions about why these women confessed to having been tempted into marriage with the Devil.
However, I think it is worthwhile to speculate on why these women would make such confessions. Two thoughts that come to mind are the context of the Civil War itself, and the wider context of women, Puritanism and pre-marital sex. First, the depredations of the Civil War upon the male population had already reduced the number of possible husbands available to young women who dreamed of the better life a handsome young gentlemen could give them. And secondly, another possible cause of some of these confessions is that the woman in question had actually taken a lover.[xvi] For some women, giving in to pre-marital sex was conditional upon the man in question promising to marry her (a promise some men obviously had no intention of keeping). The consequences of such seductions could leave the female half of the relationship feeling deceived, guilty, sinful, and wicked: a state of mind which could later come to the forefront during interrogation for the crime of witchcraft.
Of course, poor Thomasine Ratcliffe fits into neither of these speculative categories. Thomasine is a new widow, mourning and missing her husband. Undoubtedly we can speculate she had the vivid dreams associated with grief, and that these remained with her until she was interrogated for witchcraft.
In conclusion, whatever the cause of these confessions, they are now part of wider conceit: that witches have a sexual or sexualised relationship with the Devil. Even today, images of women who use witchcraft are often dominated by sexual themes, particularly in representations of witches in films, TV series, and books.[xvii] There is not now, as there was not then, a single representation of witches and witchcraft, but from the medieval period to the present, most ascribe to witches a dangerous sexuality. In the mid-seventeenth century this included a belief that some witches had carnal relations with their devils, whether in human or animal forms and that sometimes the Devil desired, claimed to be, or took the appearance of, the witch’s husband.
[i] Alan Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, (2nd edition. London, 1999): pp. 143, 144; Malcolm Gaskill, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy, (London, 2006): pp. 37-38.
[ii] E.296 ‘H.F.’ [Anon], A true and exact relation of the severall informations, examinations, and confessions of the late witches, arraigned and executed in the county of Essex, (London, 1645): pp. 2-3. Note on pagination in A true and exact relation: there are eight pages in the preface, including the title page and two blank pages either side of the preface text itself. These will be numbered i-viii. The rest of the pamphlet consisting of the trial records of information and confessions was paginated 1-36 at the time of publication. I will use those numbers as they appear in the original pamphlet. See also National Archives Kew, ASSI 35/86/1 Assizes, Essex (at Chelmsford), 17 July 1645.
[iii] E.296 ‘H.F.’ [Anon], A true and exact relation, p. 2. For more on Elizabeth Clark see Sheilagh Ilona O’Brien ‘[A] solemne league and contract with the Devill’: Narratives of Sin and Desire in Elizabeth Clarke’s confessions in A true and exact relation (1645)”, in Sin and Salvation in Reformation England, London: Ashgate, 2015.
[iv] Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness, pp.125, 129-30; Gaskill, Witchfinders, p.283.
[v] E.296 ‘H.F.’ [Anon], A true and exact relation, p. 14.
[vi] See Edward Peters and Alan Charles Kors, ed., Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001, pp. 155-159; Christopher S. Mackay, The hammer of witches: a complete translation of the Malleus maleficarum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009): pp. 25-27, 159-172 ; See also Michael Bailey, “From Sorcery to Witchcraft: Clerical Conceptions of Magic in the Later Middle Ages” Speculum, 76.4 (Oct, 2001): pp. 960-990; See also Hans Peter Broedel, The Malleus maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft : theology and popular belief , (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).
[vii] Mackay, The hammer of witches, p. 120.
[viii] See Philip Almond on the metaphorical seduction of witches. See Philip Almond, The Lancashire Witches: A Chronicle of Sorcery and Death on Pendle Hill, (London, 2012): p. 63.
[ix] Note, for example the witches mark had moved from the face, arms or torso to the ‘privie parts’. See John Cotta. The triall of vvitch-craft she the true and right methode of the discouery: with a confutation of erroneous wayes. (London,1616): p.84.
[x] Gaskill, Witchfinders, 134-135; Alison Findlay, "Sexual and spiritual politics in the events of 1633–34 and The Late Lancashire Witches," in: The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories, edited by Robert Poole, (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002): 147.
[xi] The failure of English witch trials to include a sexual component up until this point (which is not wholly true), if often contrasted with examples from continental Europe where accounts of witches engaging in carnal copulation with Devils was arguably more common than in England because both elite and popular conceptions of witches in the rest of Europe included a sexual component. See C. L'Estrange Ewen, Witch Hunting and Witch Trials (London: Heath Cranton, 1933): p. 52; Wallace Notestein. A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718 (Oxford: Benediction Classics 2012): pp. 127-129; Alan Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (London: Routledge, 1999): p. 139. See also, Keith Thomas, Relgion and the decline of magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Robin Briggs, Witches & Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft, Second Edition (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers):p. 253; Stuart Clark, Thinking with demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford Universty Press, 1997): pp. 152-153, 473-475; Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, Third Edition (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2006): pp. 14-15,117-118, 259; Also see Carlo Ginzberg, The Night Battles: witchcraft & agrarian cults in the sixteenth & seventeenth centuries (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1983) for an unusual example of the interaction between local superstition and elite demonology.
[xii] British Library Add MS 27402, fos. 104–121: f. 110v.
[xiii] British Library Add MS 27402, fos. 104–121: f. 117v.
[xiv] Note, in Add MS 27402, Thomasine is called ‘Tho. Ratlif’ and ‘Ratclife’
[xv] British Library Add MS 27402, fos. 104–121: f. 114.
[xvi] Louise Jackson suggested an argument similar to this in arguing that women in the 1645 Suffolk trials used the narrative and tropes of the witchcraft confession to contextualise their traumatic experiences. Jackson argued that a witch’s confession ‘provided a set framework of meanings within which the accused witch presented and thereby defined her own experiences’. Jackson was building on the work done by Lyndal Roper on confessions and fantasies about witchcraft as systems for understanding and resolving internal and external conflicts. These confessions formed what Marion Gibson described as a ‘privileged view of an element within the development of a very specific and enduring myth’. See Louise Jackson, “Witches, Wives and Mothers: witchcraft persecution and women’s confessions in seventeenth-century England”, Women’s History Review, 4.1 (1995), pp. 63-84; 80; Lyndal Roper, “Witchcraft and fantasy in early modern Europe”, History Workshop Journal, 32, pp. 19-43; Marion Gibson, Early Modern Witches: Witchcraft Cases in Contemporary Writing (London, 2000), p. 9.
[xvii] Though this is not always portrayed negatively, a theme which I hope to explore in a future post.
* This photo was taken by me at the National Archives Kew. It shows the detail of a list of witches from ASSI 35/86/1.