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A history of witchcraft in Kent: How 'ritual magic' lead to torture and executions across the county

The mysterious world of witchcraft will forever capture the imagination of people far and wide.

Upon hearing the word, many of us might picture curious figures in pointy black hats, whizzing through the air on broomsticks, casting spells and cooking up potions in cauldrons. The wondrous adventures of Harry Potter and Halloween parties also spring to mind.

Witchcraft was a crime punishable by death until the 18th century. Picture: The History of Witches and Wizards, 1720
Witchcraft was a crime punishable by death until the 18th century. Picture: The History of Witches and Wizards, 1720

But if we look back at what witchcraft meant to our ancestors, thing suddenly become rather more sinister, with those accused of sorcery destined for death rather than Diagon Alley.

A Devil's Mark? Burn her at the stake

Witchcraft was made a capital offence in Britain in 1542, during the reign of Henry VIII. Although, it was deemed heresy - a belief contradictory to religion - for hundreds of years beforehand, derived from Old Testament laws against ritual magic.

A 'witch' was essentially anyone said to behold supernatural powers used to control people or events. Suspects were considered evil and to have relations to the Devil.

From 1484 until around 1750, an estimated 200,000 'witches' were tortured, burnt or hanged in western Europe, with some 500 people executed in England.

Most of the accused were usually older, poor women. Those unfortunate enough to have a hairy lip, snaggled tooth or wart had even more chance of being picked on.

And if you had a feline companion, things wouldn't be looking too good either - cats have been associated with witchcraft long before Sabrina was on the telly.

Both children and adults were encouraged to inform the authorities if they suspected relatives or neighbours were practising sorcery, and it's thought around 25% of claims were made by minors.

Initially, the accused was stripped naked to search for the 'Devil's mark' - a wart, mole or bite - from which 'Satan could suckle'. This included internal examinations of the anus and sexual organs. If nothing was found, bodies were then pricked and scratched all over to try and find a spot insensitive to pain.

Where such evidence was discovered, the unlucky victim would be subject to horrific torture or even death.

Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins was responsible for more than half of the witch executions in England. Picture: National Portrait Gallery, London
Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins was responsible for more than half of the witch executions in England. Picture: National Portrait Gallery, London

Confessions were obtained using beatings, sleep deprivation or being walked continuously, while the person was flooded with endless leading questions.

Other disturbing methods included thumb screws, iron 'caspie-claws ' - leg irons heated over a fire, the infamous ducking stool or 'ordeal by water'. The victim's legs and thumbs were tied together before they were flung into water and there was no winning. If you sank, you were innocent but if you floated it was clear you had renounced baptism when entering the Devil's service, and would be murdered by other means.

Many would be hung or burnt at the stake - a favoured method in Europe as it was considered a more painful way to die.

One of the most notorious witch-hunters was Matthew Hopkins, who became known at the Witchfinder General.

With the help of his colleague John Stearne, he was responsible for the executions of 300 women during a three-year period in the 1600s- 60% of all ‘witches’ killed in England.

Hopkins would jab warts, moles or bites on the skin with his special needle to work out whether they were 'Devil marks'. If the prod hurt, they were safe. However, there was a catch - the spike had a spring-loaded handle.

The witch-craze in Kent

Long before the Witchcraft Act was brought into the court of law in the 16th century, penance for 'diabolical divinations' was written into church law by the dubious Theodore of Tarsus - an Archbishop of Canterbury during the 7th century.

He penned handbooks for Priests explaining the punishments for the sin of witchcraft, including fasting on bread and water for a year.

But the real witch-craze began in the 16th and 17th century, when more than 20 executions took place in Kent.

A ducking stool stick hangs over the River Stour in Canterbury
A ducking stool stick hangs over the River Stour in Canterbury

One of the county's earliest recorded cases was Eleanor Cobham - the second wife of Duke Humphrey, lord warden of Dover Castle.

When Henry VI was crowned king, he became suspicious of Duke Humphrey, who was then second in line to the throne.

It was then learned Eleanor had consulted astrologers who told her the king would suffer life-threatening illness. But when Henry VI's own entourage asked the question themselves, they found no such predictions. So Eleanor was accused of treason, along with several of her acquaintances. A well known 'witch', Mary Jourdemain, was also arrested.

Eleanor denied most of the charges but did admit asking Mary for potions to help her conceive.

One of the suspects died while being tortured for information in the Tower of London and the other was hung, drawn and quartered for their acts against the crown. And the 'witch', Mary Jourdamain was burnt at Smithfield.

Eleanor, examined by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Leeds Castle and also declared a witch, would have normally been doomed for the stake but her high birth saved her from this destiny.

Instead, she was made to walk the streets of London holding a burning taper - a punishment usually reserved for prostitutes. She was then forced to divorce her husband and spend the rest of her life in prison.

The first recorded witch trial in Dover was in 1558. Clement Baker and his wife were found guilty for "their evil demeanour and behaviour". However, they got off lightly for those days - their punishment: banishment from the town for a year. It was also rare for a man to be accused of sorcery.

In 1631, a Mrs Reynold was swum and hung for being a witch in Sandwich and in 1645, Widow Drew met the same fate, with her possessions sold at auction after she was killed.

Witch-hunts, like most crazes, waxed and waned over the years, with a spike of hysteria during the 1640s, fuelled by an atmosphere of unrest created by the Civil War.

Eleanor Cobham and Duke Humphrey lived in Dover Castle before Eleanor was put on trial for witchcraft
Eleanor Cobham and Duke Humphrey lived in Dover Castle before Eleanor was put on trial for witchcraft

One of the county's most famous witch trials happened during this period - that of Joan Wallingford, Joan Cariden, Jane Hott and Elizabeth Harris.

All found guilty of practising witchcraft in Faversham, the first three were hung from a tree near the town pump in September 1645.

The accusations were rumoured to have come from a man who was laughed at for falling out of a tree and hurting his rear. Angered by the ridicule, he blamed Joan Wallingford for the accident, saying it was witchcraft.

Joan confessed she was a witch and named three other accomplices. Following the usual interrogation, Joan Cariden and Elizabeth also confessed. Jane denied witchcraft but did admit "a thing like a hedgehog but as soft as a cat had paid regular visits to suckle from her." They were swum but floated before all were executed apart from Elizabeth. It is not clear what happened to her, but it's likely she was killed soon after the others.

In the same decade, Nell Garlinge of Coldred, near Dover, was thrown into the village pond but drowned and therefore declared innocent. And, another woman, known only as Esther, was dragged three miles from her hut in Nonnington to a pond where she too was flung into the cold water. Esther floated and the crowd, "mad with superstitious wrath, pelted the poor woman with stones." A farmer sent his men to rescue her but by the time they arrived, it was too late.

As the years went on, executions became rarer and so when Hanna Baker of Elham, near Canterbury, was found guilty of ‘inchanting cattell’ in 1703, she was instead sent to prison for a year.

When did witchcraft stop being a crime and what remains now?

The last known execution for witchcraft was in Devon in 1685, with the last trial taking place in 1717.

As the witch-craze fizzled out, in 1736, Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act, stating such persons should be punished as vagrants or con aritsts and slapped with fines or imprisonment as oppose to death.

It was still officially illegal to be a witch until the Act was finally repealed in 1951.

The bones of a possible suspected witch were found in Hoo. The girl was finally given a proper funeral after 700 years. Picture: Matthew Reading
The bones of a possible suspected witch were found in Hoo. The girl was finally given a proper funeral after 700 years. Picture: Matthew Reading

However, we are still sometimes reminded of the horrific tales of past suffering when passing near Old Weavers Restaurant in Canterbury, where a medieval ducking stool jutts out over the River Stour. Another is kept inside Fordwich Town Hall.

And back in the early 2000s, a female skeleton was dug up near a Hoo church, thought to be from the 14th or 15th century. Her skull had been removed and laid beside the body. Excavators suspected it could have been an accused witch, as suspects were not given a Christian burial or funeral. In 2009, more than 200 people attended a funeral for the girl, when she was laid to rest in Hoo St Werburgh Parish Churchyard.

Apart from these eerie reminders of times gone by, witchcraft in the criminal sense has pretty much vanished in Britain. But there is still a small group who practice modern variations of such beliefs.

Wicca, also known as Pagan Witchcraft, spread across the nation during the 1950s after the need for secrecy disappeared. Based on pre-Christian traditions, it follows practices of witchcraft and nature worship.

Covens of 10 to 15 members meet up for rituals, meditation and to celebrate the new and full moon, summer solstice and Halloween, which they call Samhain.

Mandy and Ian Bullock, from Broadstairs, have been Wiccans for most of their lives
Mandy and Ian Bullock, from Broadstairs, have been Wiccans for most of their lives

There are more than 11,000 Wiccans in England, according to the last UK census and plenty of these are in Kent.

Ian Bullock and his wife Mandy, from Broadstairs, have been Wiccans for most of their lives, and even run their own coven.

For them, Wicca is a "way of life". Mandy said: "It’s who you are, the way you think. It’s everything."

She added: "We don’t have a church. We can worship anywhere. If we can get outside then that’s where we prefer, on the beach, or in the woods.”

Deborah Samuels-Stuck, from Medway, claims magical powers were what brought back her stolen scooter.

The witches of Sheppey casting spells on the beach at Minster
The witches of Sheppey casting spells on the beach at Minster

And last year, walkers stumbled across a coven casting their spells on a Sheppey beach, cloaks and broomsticks in hand.

Stunned joggers witnessed head witch Charlotte Clark and her group of Wiccans summoning the spirits at The Leas, Minster.

When she was a girl, Charlotte was convinced she could make things happen in the school playground just by twitching her nose and later discovered she could hear spirits.

The group was later invited to appear on ITV's This Morning for a Halloween special.

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