Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar: The Political and Religious Origins of the 1563 Witchcraft Act

Ahead of this evening’s session of the IHR’s Parliaments, Politics, and People seminar, Lewis Brennen, PhD candidate at the University of Southampton, summarises the themes that he covered in his paper, ‘The Political and Religious Origins of the 1563 Witchcraft Act’, at our last session…

The 1563 Witchcraft Act, formally titled an ‘Act agaynst Conjuracons Inchantments and Witchecraftes’, was one of the most significant pieces of early modern English legislation. It formally criminalised witchcraft and imposed the death penalty in certain circumstances. This was England’s second (but arguably most important) witchcraft statute and was fundamental to the entirety of the English witch-trials.

Since the early eighteenth century there have been two competing explanations for the introduction of the 1563 Act. The first of these is that Bishop John Jewel delivered a powerful sermon before Queen Elizabeth calling for legal action to be taken against witches, and this led directly to the Act. The second explanation is that there were a series of alleged Catholic conspiracies against the Protestant-Elizabethan regime from 1558 to 1563. These so-called conspiracies made use of, or were otherwise associated with, some form of magic, and drew attention to the need for anti-witchcraft legislation, while giving William Cecil (the Queen’s chief minister) the means to achieve it. How convincing are these explanations? Let’s explore them in a little more depth.

Bishop John Jewel by Unknown artist

The argument in favour of Jewel’s sermon as the prime motivation for the Act was first made by the early eighteenth-century historian John Strype in his Annals of the Reformation. This argument remains influential today, but its influence may not be fully deserved. There is, in fact, no direct evidence indicating that Jewel’s opinions on the subject of witchcraft were a key motivation for the Act. Instead, the argument rests on two main pieces of evidence: a sermon that Jewel delivered before the Queen in later 1559 or early 1560 and a letter he wrote to a fellow reformer, Peter Martyr, in late 1559. In both cases a few brief remarks have been seized upon in an attempt to show Jewel’s allegedly great interest in the subject and, thus, his potential to have inspired the Witchcraft Act. However, both of these pieces of evidence have been taken out of context. In fact, Jewel’s remarks in his sermon were a rhetorical tool used to discredit English Catholics. Likewise, his comments about witches in his letter to Peter Martyr were simply part of a long list of complaints, all relating to the trouble apparently being caused by Catholics. An analysis of Jewel’s wider writings reveals a very similar picture. In no case did Jewel elaborate on the issue of witchcraft for its own sake: it was always used as a polemical device to discredit Catholicism. Seen in this light it becomes hard to see witchcraft as the kind of issue that Jewel might have campaigned on in any sense and so it becomes harder to credit him as an important influence or inspiration behind the Witchcraft Act.

The second explanation of the origins of the 1563 Witchcraft Act has more merit and important work has been done on this by scholars such as Norman Jones, Francis Young, and Michael Devine. From November 1558, when Elizabeth acceded to the throne, through to 1563, five so-called ‘plots’ were identified by the government. Some of these were real and some were not, so words such as ‘plots’ and ‘conspiracies’ should be taken with a pinch of salt. Though all contributed towards the fear of Catholic sorcery within government that provides the context for the Witchcraft Act, the most important were the fourth and fifth: the Waldegrave Conspiracy and the Pole-Fortescue treason. The Waldegrave Conspiracy involved a group of Catholic recusants meeting in secret to worship according to their faith; however, important figures in the government suspected that they were also practicing ‘magicke & conjuration’. The Pole-Fortescue treason was the episode that most deserves to be labelled a ‘plot’. A group of Catholics surrounding Arthur Pole and Anthony Fortescue conspired to depose Queen Elizabeth, gain foreign aid, invade England, declare Pole the Duke of Clarence, and place Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne. In the course of these activities they allegedly resorted to some kind of witchcraft.

It is notable that various forms of magical activity were suspected to be present in all five of the alleged plots. It is unsurprising, then, that over the same period the regime became ever more fixated on the issue of witchcraft. An anti-witchcraft statute was introduced in 1559 but fell by the wayside as matters relating to Reformation took precedence. Anxieties re-emerged in the spring of 1561 and, in the course of investigating the Waldegrave Conspiracy, Bishop Grindal explicitly called for new punishments to deal with those making use of conjuration or witchcraft. The unearthing of the Pole-Fortescue treason in late 1562 was the final straw and William Cecil was able to use the threat it posed as a tool to manage some of the legislative agenda of the upcoming Parliament. It was in this context that anti-witchcraft legislation was approved by Parliament in 1563.

Aspects of the Witchcraft Act’s parliamentary history remain unclear. What is clear, however, is that anti-Catholic feeling and rhetoric within the early Elizabethan regime provided an essential context. Bishop John Jewel was probably not the primary inspiration behind the Act, though his contribution to the rhetorical links being made between witchcraft and Catholicism are, at least, worth noting. More important, however, was the regime’s suspicion and fear of Catholic plots in the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. These proved an immediate and underlying concern when the Parliament of 1563 met, and played a vital role in the passing of the Witchcraft Act in March of that year.


You can find the full schedule for this term’s IHR PPP seminar here.

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