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This blog was written by Nicole Hartland, Archive Assistant (Graduate Trainee).


This blog post will explore the many acts which tried to define and control the practices of witchcraft, magic and divination from 1541 to today. The history of magic and witchcraft is an ancient, complex and emotive one and, unfortunately, the Witchcraft Acts can only tell us part of the story. Here, we’ll trace the general trends in attitudes towards the ‘occult arts’ through the original acts held at the Parliamentary Archives.


Before the famous Witchcraft Act of 1603, there was a patchwork of legislation across England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland which sought to control magic and witchcraft.

The first was An Act against Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorcery and Inchantments passed by Henry VIII in 1541. In this act, magical practices which were disruptive or caused harm to the realm and its subjects were ‘demyde accepted and adjuged Felonye’, a crime punishable by death and forfeiture of goods and chattels. This Act aimed to outlaw magic with ‘unlawfull intente or purpose’ and the named examples in the Act show this, such as to ‘waste consume or destroy any person’ or ‘provoke any persone to unlawfull love’.

In this period, the issue was not with all types of magic, just the spiteful, disruptive and damaging sort. ‘Cunning folk’ were an important part of, especially rural, communities – helping people find lost items, remedy marital issues or healing common ailments affecting people and animals. These people fulfilled an important role in the absence of the local police, doctors or counsellors of today, but utilising somewhat more ‘magical’ methods such as spoken charms, herbal remedies or talismans. It was not this kind of magic authorities sought to control, but the sort of ill-intended charms which harmed neighbours or their animals, stealing money with help from the spirits or any other forms of supernatural spite.

Image of parchment with handwritten text.
An Act against Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorcery and Inchantments, 1541.                                    Parliamentary Archives                                                                                                                             HL/PO/PU/1/1541/33H8n8

The 1541 Act was repealed by Henry’s son Edward VI in 1547, and there would be no further legislation until 1562 during Elizabeth I’s reign. The 1562 Act against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts and the famous 1603 Witchcraft Act, moved witch trials away from church courts into ordinary courts. The 1562 act also amended the terms of punishments to distinguish between minor and capital offences and introduced a two-strikes-and-you’re-out system. For someone’s first or only minor offence, they would face a year’s imprisonment without bail, and a quarterly public humiliation in the market square – 6 hours in a pillory to ‘openly confesse his or her Erroure and Offence’.

Two minor offences or any major offence, such as serious harm or murder caused by witchcraft, resulted in ‘Deathe as a Felon’. Records of ‘murder by witchcraft’ begin to emerge following this 1562 Act. Similar acts were also passed in Ireland, An Act against Witchcraft and Sorcerie (1586) and Scotland, Anetis Witchcraft (1563). The Scottish Anetis Witchcraft Act is much more sceptical about witchcraft, repeatedly referring to the old-fashioned superstition of witchcraft, ‘credence gevin thairto in tymes bygane’. Aiming to quell superstition, as opposed to increasing witchcraft accusations (minor or otherwise), the Scottish act made any practice of witchcraft, or consultation with witches, punishable by death.


A long piece of parchment with handwritten text on it.
An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and 
dealing with evil and wicked Spirits, 1603. Parliamentary Archives                           HL/PO/PU/1/1603/1J1n12

James I’s 1603 Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and dealing with evil and wicked Spirits clearly defined witchcraft, and its relationship to the devil, in order to determine what it actually is and a suitable punishment, a 'better restraining of said offences, and more severe punishing the same'.

The Act kept the Elizabethan distinction between minor and major offences, focussing on harmful and disruptive magic, but with a real focus on the demonic and evil nature of witchcraft as we can see here:

‘use, practise, or exercise any invocation or conjuration of any evil and wicked spirit: or shall consult, covenant with, entertaine, imploy, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit, to or for any intent or purpose; or take up any dead man, woman, or child, out of his, her, or their grave,… to be imployed, or used in any manner of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Charme, or Inchantment,’

This focus on demons, evil and defining what witchcraft really is makes much more sense when we understand James I’s level of personal interest in the subject. James I’s Daeomonologie was a culmination of this, printed in 1597, which included an in-depth look at magic and necromancy (part 1), witchcraft and sorcery (part 2) and spirits, ghosts and spectres (part 3).

Image of page in a book. Has text and an image of a lion rampant in the middle.
Dæmonologie, in forme of a dialogue, divided into three Bookes, 1597. Digitised book available via the British Library

This book was part of a larger debate around the existence of witchcraft, opposing more sceptical texts such as Reginald Scot’s 1584 book The Discovery of Witchcraft. The 1603 Witchcraft Act is the most well-known because of its relationship to the European witch-hunts. The clear and specific way this act defined witchcraft, and its punishment, supported harsh enforcement by the well-known ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins, amongst others.

Countless lives were lost during the witch trials and, despite our cultural perceptions, most were hanged as opposed to burnt at the stake. The terror of this period remains, the term ‘witch-hunt’ now synonymous with moral panic and unfounded blame.

Dæmonologie, in forme of a dialogue, divided into three Bookes, 1597. Digitised book available via the British Library.

Satan sits on his throne at the centre of a witches' sabbath. Four figures around the throne dance acrobatically and convulsively. Right foreground, two witches cook dismembered infants in a cauldron; left foreground, devils and witches feast on them
Witches and the devil at a Witches’ Sabbath License: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) Wellcome Collection


Until this point, witchcraft was seen a legitimate threat – a force with the ability to cause harm to people, property and societies which should be controlled by the law. The 1735 Witchcraft Act repealed all the acts we’ve discussed so far in this blog post for England and Scotland, however the Irish acts were not repealed until later in 1821. All magic, witchcraft and fortune-telling was now fraudulent, and the practitioners marked as con artists and vagrants.

These two passages from the Witchcraft Act 1735 summarise two major changes. The much broader definition of bad magic, now ‘any kind of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment, or Conjuration, or undertake to tell Fortunes, or pretend, from his or her Skill or Knowledge in any occult or crafty Science’ and the false and fraudulent nature of magical practices, ‘any Pretences to such Arts or Powers as are before mentioned, whereby ignorant Persons are frequently deluded and defrauded’. The last person to be legally executed for witchcraft in the British Isles was Scottish woman Janet Horne in 1727. Under this new act, the accused would face imprisonment for 1 year per offence, replacing the execution as in the previous legislation.

This major shift in the legislation can be explained, in part, by reactions to the horror of the witch hunts in Europe. Also, the Enlightenment period saw many scientific discoveries and promoted the idea of the modern, rational and scientific man. Acts certainly can’t tell us everything about attitudes to the occult. Many famous figures of the Enlightenment had a keen interest in the ‘occult and crafty Sciences’, such as Isaac Newton who wrote extensively on alchemy. Thinking about who was punished under these Acts, and why, tells us a lot about power, status and the law in this period.


Helen Duncan was a Scottish spirit medium, famed for her production of ectoplasm (exteriorized spiritual energy) during séances, and the last person to be imprisoned under the 1735 Witchcraft Act in 1944. The Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), led by prominent spiritualist and Labour MP Thomas Brookes, had been campaigning for less heavy-handed policing under the 1735 Act throughout 1943, but Duncan’s arrest in 1944 prompted calls for significant changes to the law.


black and white photograph of a women blind folded and linked to a manikin
Helen Duncan’s ‘coat-hanger phantoms’, Leaves from a Psychist’s Case-Book by Harry Price. (Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1933)

Throughout the Victorian period and the two World Wars, Spiritualism and spirit mediums saw a meteoric rise in popularity as they were able to channel messages from spirits. As with anything so popular, there were bound to be a few bad eggs. Mediums who deliberately swindled their customers, used cheap tricks for theatrical displays or whose practices were publicly debunked tainted public perceptions of Spiritualism. The 1824 Vagrancy Act named fortune-telling, astrology and spiritualism as punishable offences, showing how big this issue had become.

As Thomas Brookes and the SNU campaigned however, not all mediums were fraudulent and duping their clients for profit as the 1735 Act suggests. The Fraudulent Mediums Act (1951) addressed this issue of deception and fraud and ensured people could only be convinced when ‘it is proved that he acted for reward’ i.e. operated for-profit and not in a spiritual capacity. This put an end to convictions based on hearsay, with the addition of an interesting clause: (5) Nothing in subsection (1) of this section shall apply to anything done solely for the purpose of entertainment.

This clause about entertainment has made its mark on modern spiritual and neopagan practices such as tarot reading and clairvoyance, whose practitioners are able to avoid prosecution in a for-profit scenario. Such matters remain a contentious issue, with fervent supporters on both sides. Below is a passionate letter from Arthur Conan Doyle from our archives, in which he defends his devotion to Spiritualism, ‘This subject is infinitely the most important in the world, and surely deserves more serious treatment.’ Any letter that begins ‘Frankness begets frankness’ is sure to be a great read.

Handwritten letter signed by Arthur Conan Doyle
Letter from Arthur Conan Doyle to Strachey, 6th July 1926, Parliamentary Archives, STR/33/5/63

The 1951 Fraudulent Mediums Act has since been repealed by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, however the debate around mediumship and the law remains. The history of witchcraft and the law is a complex, disturbing and rather emotive one. Since 1541, these Witchcraft Acts have aimed to protect vulnerable people, communities and property but all those wrongly accused and tried should not be forgotten.


Selected further reading:

Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

Witchcraft, UK Parliament Living Heritage

British History Online, Statues Project: Witchcraft Acts

Ronald Hutton, The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present

Early Modern Witch Trials, The National Archives

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