Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Judge Not ...

The tomb of Sir James Altham
                  The two judges at Lancaster for the witch trials in 1612 were Sir Edward Bromley and Sir James Altham. Both were judges on the Northern circuit; at the Lent assizes at York, Lord Bromley had overseen the trial of Jennet Preston for bewitching ‘Dodg-sonnes child’, at which she was found not guilty by the jury. In July, at her second trial, for causing the death of Thomas Lister, the judge was James Altham, and he had condemned her to the gallows. We know very little else about Lord Bromley; there is no record of him hanging witches prior to 1612, there are records from Lancaster that in 1614 he order the hanging of Cicilia Dawson, of Walton-le-Dale, for killing by witchcraft Elena Moldinge of Houghton and ‘wasting’ two local men, and in Lincoln on March 11th 1619 he condemned Margaret and Phillip Flower to death for witchcraft  - ‘to the terror of all beholders’. 

The tomb of Sir Edward Bromley

Altham had already hanged a witch, at the Chelmsford Assizes in 1607. He was one of the judges whose opinion was sought by the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Egerton, in two cases of heresy in 1611-2. Bartholomew Legate was a London draper, who began preaching, together with his brothers Thomas and Walter, in the 1590s. Their message would later be taken up by the Seekers (precursors of the Quakers); they rejected the rituals of all established churches, and believed there were prophets to come in the future. Bartholomew was a charismatic figure; good-looking, fluent and well versed in Scripture.  He and brother Thomas were eventually arrested for heresy in 1611 (and Thomas died in Newgate gaol); King James I questioned Bartholomew himself, but they argued about the nature of Christ’s divinity – and the ‘Defender of the Faith’ took his role very seriously. Legate was sent before a Consistory Court, where he was found guilty and handed over to the secular authorities. The Lord Chancellor had, with doubtful legality, to issue a writ ‘de heretico comburendo’, and Altham was pleased to assure him of the legality of this. The writ issued, Legate was taken to Smithfield on March 18th 1612, and before a great crowd, unrepentant, he was burned at the stake. He was the last heretic to be burned in London. 

Burning a heretic

The doubtful distinction of being the last heretic to be burned in England was Edward Wightman. Wightman was also a dissenter, a mercer from Burton, who had become involved with the Puritans, and had investigated the case of The Boy of Burton in 1596, the supposedly possessed child who was exorcised by John Darrel (remember him? - the fraudulent Puritan preacher). As his views became more extreme, Wightman’s preaching and writings brought him to the attention of the Church authorities. Some of his views were reasonable – he denied the existence of the Trinity, argued that infant baptism was wrong and believed the Apostolic creeds also to be wrong. Some of his views were barmy – he was the incarnation of the prophet Elijah, God had ordained him to be the Saviour of the World, he was the Promised Messiah of the Old Testament and that denial of any of this was blasphemy, punishable by death. 

Unsurprisingly, he was sent before a Consistory Court, found guilty and sentenced to death. He was taken to the stake at Lichfield, but when the fires were lit, he quickly recanted and was pulled ‘well scorched’ from the flames. He was taken before the court again, where he changed his mind again and blasphemed ‘more audaciously than before’, so was again sentenced to death. On April 11th 1612, he was tied to another stake in Lichfield and the fires were lit again. Once more, Wightman recanted, but the Sheriff would have none of it, saying he wouldn’t bear the cost of more wasted faggots, and Wightman died in the flames. 

Wightman burning

Again, Altham had given advice to the Lord Chancellor that the required writ to burn him had been legal. However “… such burning of heretics much startled common people” (in the words of Thomas Fuller in The Church History of Britain) and thereafter heretics were left “… privately waste themselves away in the prison, rather than to grace them, and amuse others, with the solemnity of a public execution.” [Ibid.]. 

Witches were executed in England until 1682 (some argue 1684, but there is only one source of this – sentence was passed on Alice Molland, but sentence may not have been carried out), and in Scotland until 1735, until alterations were made to the laws – these revisions remained in force until 1951, when the witchcraft laws were finally repealed. The last person convicted with witchcraft in England was Helen Duncan, in April 1944, who was jailed for nine months, until Prime Minister Churchill visited her in jail and denounced the conviction as ‘tomfoolery’. Her family are still fighting to have the verdict overturned. Allegations of malicious witchcraft are still being made, across the world. People are still being killed on suspicion of witchcraft. The corpses of men, women and children murdered by, or for being, witches turn up with sickening regularity. In the twenty-first century. Across the world.

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