The Witchcraft Acts were historically a succession of governing laws in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and the British colonies on penalties for the practice, or—in later years—rather for pretending to practise witchcraft.

Witchcraft Act 1541

Witchcraft Act 1541
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act against Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorcery and Inchantments.
Citation33 Hen. 8. c. 8
Royal assent1 April 1542
Status: Repealed

Religious tensions in England during the 16th and 17th centuries resulted in the introduction of serious penalties for witchcraft. Henry VIII's Witchcraft Act 1541[1] (33 Hen. 8. c. 8) was the first to define witchcraft as a felony, a crime punishable by death and the forfeiture of goods and chattels.[2] It was forbidden to:

... use devise practise or exercise, or cause to be devysed practised or exercised, any Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to thentent to fynde money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone in his bodie membres, or to pvoke [provoke] any persone to unlawfull love, or for any other unlawfull intente or purpose ... or for dispite of Cryste, or for lucre of money, dygge up or pull downe any Crosse or Crosses or by such Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries or any of them take upon them to tell or declare where goodes stollen or lost shall become ...[3]

The Act also removed the benefit of clergy, a legal device that exempted the accused from the jurisdiction of the King's courts, from those convicted of witchcraft.[3] This statute was repealed by Henry's son, Edward VI, in 1547.[4]

Witchcraft Act 1562

Witchcraft Act 1562
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts.
Citation5 Eliz. 1. c. 16
Royal assent10 April 1563
Other legislation
Repealed byWitchcraft Act 1603
Status: Repealed
Text of statute as originally enacted

An 1562[1] Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts (5 Eliz. 1. c. 16) was passed early in the reign of Elizabeth I. It was in some respects more merciful towards those found guilty of witchcraft than its predecessor, demanding the death penalty only where harm had been caused; lesser offences were punishable by a term of imprisonment. The Act provided that anyone who should "use, practise, or exercise any Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm, or Sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed", was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, and was to be put to death.[5]

Indictments for homicide caused by witchcraft begin to appear in the historical record in the period following the passage of the 1563 Act. Out of the 1,158 homicide victims identified in the surviving records, 228 or 20.6% were suspected of being killed by witchcraft. By comparison, poison was suspected in only 31 of the cases. Out of the 157 people accused of killing with witchcraft, roughly half were acquitted. Only nine of the accused were men.[6]

Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563

Witchcraft Act (Scotland) 1563
Act of Parliament
Long titleAnent the using of witchcraftis sorsarie and necromancie.
Citation1563 c. 9

Under the Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563, enacted effective 4 June 1563, [7] both the practice of witchcraft and consulting with witches were capital offences.[8] This Act stayed on Scottish statute books until repealed as a result of a House of Lords amendment to the bill for the post-union Witchcraft Act 1735.[9][10]

Irish Witchcraft Act 1586

Witchcraft Act (Ireland) 1586
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act against Witchcraft and Sorcerie.
Citation28 Eliz. 1. c. 2 (I)

The Irish act (28 Eliz. 1. c. 2, An Act against Witchcraft and Sorcerie) was largely identical to the English Witchcraft Act 1562. The penalty for causing death by witchcraft was as a felony without benefit of clergy (that is, capital punishment), which was also the penalty for a second offence of causing injury or material loss by witchcraft; for a first such offence, the penalty was one year's imprisonment including six hours in the pillory once per quarter. This was also the penalty for a first offence of using witchcraft to "discover hidden treasure, ... or stolen goods, or to provoke unlawful love"; for a second such offence, it was life imprisonment.[11]

The last prosecution under the 1586 act was the 1711 Islandmagee witch trial.[12] Nobody is known for certain to have been executed under the act. Of those accused of causing death by witchcraft, William Sellor was convicted at the Islandmagee trial, but there is no surviving record of his sentence;[12] Florence Newton died during her 1661 trial;[13] Marion Fisher's 1655 conviction was overturned by Sir James Barry; and the strangling of a suspected witch in Antrim in 1698 was a lynching.[12]

The 1586 act was repealed in 1821.[14]

Witchcraft Act 1603

Witchcraft Act 1603
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits.
Citation1 Jas. 1. c. 12
Royal assent7 July 1604
Repealed24 June 1736
Other legislation
Repeals/revokesWitchcraft Act 1562
Repealed byWitchcraft Act 1735
Status: Repealed

In 1603,[1] the year James I's accession to the English throne, the Elizabethan Act was broadened by Edward Coke and others to bring the penalty of death without benefit of clergy to any one who invoked evil spirits or communed with familiar spirits. The Act's full title was An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits, (1 Jas. 1. c. 12).[15] It was this statute that was enforced by Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witch-Finder General.

The Acts of Elizabeth and James changed the law of witchcraft by making it a felony, thus removing the accused from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the courts of common law. This provided, at least, that the accused persons theoretically enjoyed the benefits of ordinary criminal procedure. Burning at the stake was eliminated except in cases of witchcraft that were also petty treason; most convicted were hanged instead. Any witch who had committed a minor witchcraft offence (punishable by one year in prison) and was accused and found guilty a second time was sentenced to death.[citation needed]

Colonial use

The Witchcraft Act 1603 was employed in the British American colonies, e.g., in the trial of Margaret Mattson, a woman accused of witchcraft in the Province of Pennsylvania. (She was acquitted by William Penn after trial in Philadelphia in 1683.)

Scottish Witchcraft Act 1649

Lord Chief Justice of England Sir John Holt by Richard van Bleeck, c. 1700. Holt greatly influenced the end of prosecutions for witchcraft in England. National Portrait Gallery, London.[16]

Through the 1640s the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the Commission of the Kirk lobbied for the enforcement and extension of the Witchcraft Act 1563, which had been the basis of previous witch trials. The Covenanter regime passed a series of acts to enforce godliness in 1649, which made capital offences of blasphemy, the worship of false gods and for beaters and cursers of their parents. They also passed a new witchcraft act that ratified the existing act of 1563 and extended it to deal with consulters of "Devils and familiar spirits", who would now be punished with death.[17]

Witchcraft Act 1735

Main article: Witchcraft Act 1735

The Witchcraft Act 1735 (9 Geo. 2 c. 5) marked a complete reversal in attitudes. Penalties for the practice of witchcraft as traditionally constituted, which by that time was considered by many influential figures to be an impossible crime, were replaced by penalties for the pretence of witchcraft. A person who claimed to have the power to call up spirits, or foretell the future, or cast spells, or discover the whereabouts of stolen goods, was to be punished as a vagrant and a con artist, subject to fines and imprisonment. The Act applied to the whole of Great Britain, repealing both the 1563 Scottish Act and the 1604 English Act.[8]

The Witchcraft Act 1735 remained in force in Britain well into the 20th century, until its eventual repeal with the enactment of the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951.

The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 was repealed on 26 May 2008[18] by new Consumer Protection Regulations following an EU directive targeting unfair sales and marketing practices.[19]

Other related acts

See also




  1. ^ a b c "WHICH WITCH (CRAFT ACT) IS WHICH?". Parliamentary Archives: Inside the Act Room. 28 October 2020. Retrieved 8 September 2022.
  2. ^ Gibson 2006, p. 1
  3. ^ a b Gibson 2006, p. 2
  4. ^ Brosseau Gardner 2004, p. 254
  5. ^ Gibson 2006, pp. 3–4
  6. ^ Kesselring, K.(2016-05-12). ‘Murder’s Crimson Badge’: Homicide in the Age of Shakespeare. In The Oxford Handbook of the Age of Shakespeare. : Oxford University Press.
  7. ^ Lizanne Henderson, Witchcraft and Folk Belief in the Age of Enlightenment: Scotland, 1670-1740 (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016) p.329
  8. ^ a b Gibson 2006, p. 7
  9. ^ Larner 1981, p. 78
  10. ^ Anentis Witchcraftis, "The Scottish witchcraft act." Church history 74.1 (2005): 39. online
  11. ^ "1586: 28 Elizabeth 1 c. 2: An Act against Witchcraft and Sorcerie". The Statutes Project. 24 January 2019. Retrieved 24 March 2023.
  12. ^ a b c
  13. ^ Sneddon, Andrew (November 2019). "Select document: Florence Newton's trial for witchcraft, Cork, 1661: Sir William Aston's transcript". Irish Historical Studies. 43 (164): 298–319. doi:10.1017/ihs.2019.55. S2CID 197849651.
  14. ^ 1 & 2 Geo. 4 c. 18 An Act to repeal an Act, made in the Parliament of Ireland in the Twenty eighth Year of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, against Witchcraft and Sorcery
  15. ^ Gibson 2006, pp. 5–6
  16. ^ Sir John Holt. National Portrait Gallery.
  17. ^ J. R. Young, "The Covenanters and the Scottish Parliament, 1639-51: the rule of the godly and the 'second Scottish Reformation'", E. Boran and C. Gribben, eds, Enforcing Reformation in Ireland and Scotland, 1550-1700 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), ISBN 0754682234, pp. 149-50.
  18. ^ Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 Schedule 4
  19. ^ "There may be trouble ahead" BBC News, 18 April 2008
  20. ^ "Witchcraft Suppression Act 3 of 1957" (PDF). Government of South Africa. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
  21. ^ "The 1957 Witchcraft Act". Quackdown. 29 August 2011. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
  22. ^ Acts and laws, passed by the Great and General Court or Assembly of Their Majesties province of the Massachusetts-Bay, in New-England. Begun at Boston, the eighth day of June, 1692. And continued by adjournment, unto Wednesday the twelfth day of October following. June 2006. Retrieved 11 February 2018 – via University of Michigan.
  23. ^ The Charters and General Laws of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts. T. B. Wait and Co. 1814. pp. 735-736. Retrieved 11 February 2018 – via Internet Archive.


  • Brosseau Gardner, Gerald (2004), The Meaning of Witchcraft, Red Wheel/Weiser, ISBN 978-1-57863-309-8
  • Gibson, Marion (2006), "Witchcraft in the Courts", in Gibson, Marion (ed.), Witchcraft And Society in England And America, 1550–1750, Continuum International Publishing Group, pp. 1–9, ISBN 978-0-8264-8300-3
  • Larner, Christine (1981), Enemies of God, Chatto and Windus, ISBN 0-7011-2424-5

Further reading[edit]

  • John Newton and Jo Bath (eds), Witchcraft and the Act of 1604 (Leiden, Brill, 2008) (Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions, 131)
  • P G Maxwell-Stuart, The Great Scottish Witch-Hunt (Tempus, Stroud, 2007)