‘It Is But an Olde Wytche Gonne’: Prosecution and Execution for Witchcraft in Exeter, 1558–1610


  • I should like to thank the members of the History seminar at the University of Warwick – and in particular, Bernard Capp, Steve Hindle and Mark Knights – for their comments on an earlier version of this paper. I am also very grateful to George Bernard, Alistair Dougall, Julie Gammon, the editor of History and the journal's anonymous readers for their helpful suggestions on previous drafts of the text. I am especially indebted to Jannine Crocker and John Draisey for the invaluable assistance which they gave me in deciphering and translating the original documents on which this article is based.


Following the passage of legislation making witchcraft a capital crime during the mid-sixteenth century, magistrates across England found themselves under increasing pressure to investigate the activities of supposed ‘witches’. The present article explores how the Justices of the Peace of one urban community – the city of Exeter – reacted to those pressures. The article shows that, in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Elizabethan statute of 1563, the Exeter magistrates were still prepared to punish those who had been accused of witchcraft in the ‘traditional’ way – by simply banishing them from the city. Attitudes soon became harsher, however, and by 1581, at the very latest, the first execution of a convicted witch at the city gallows can be shown to have occurred. At least one further execution was to follow, in 1610, but – although these cases reveal that the hanging of supposed witches in the south-west began at least a century earlier than was previously thought – the evidence suggests that the Exeter JPs were generally more keen to restrain than to encourage the popular enthusiasm for witch-hunting.