The Huntingdon Witch Trials 1593-1716

At the March 2022 meeting of the Warboys Local History Society Stuart Orme, curator of the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, gave a talk entitled “The Huntingdon Witch Trials 1593-1716” which explored the attitudes and beliefs about witchcraft during this period.

Witchcraft was commonly thought to be the reason for disasters in life and society. Those accused of practising it were often different in looks or behaviour to the majority and usually female. They were believed to have made a pact with the devil and to have a ‘familiar’, a demon in animal form, often a cat. Attitudes and punishment for witchcraft varied according to how well life was going and  tended to be harsher during times of significant upheaval caused by extreme adverse weather, political, social, or religious change.

The first law against witchcraft which carried the death penalty was in 1542. Others replaced this during the next two hundred years until 1735 when the laws against witchcraft were abolished and replaced by fines or imprisonment on people claiming to have magical powers. There is no current direct legislation.

Stuart cited three witchcraft trials during this period all of which took place at Huntingdon in a building on the site of the Town Hall. All those found guilty were hung on Mill Common.

In 1593 the Samuel’s family from Warboys were executed for bewitching the powerful Throckmorton family who lived in the Manor House, Warboys.

In 1646, during the time of the self-styled Witch Finder General Matthew Hopkins, nine people from a small area of neighbouring villages to the west of Huntingdon were tried. Four were found guilty and executed.

In 1716, according to a pamphlet printed in London, Mary Hicks and her nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth were both found guilty of selling their souls to the devil and were hung on 28th July. Apart from this pamphlet, now widely regarded as a total fabrication, there is no evidence that this event took place so is likely to have been what we would call fake news.

There is still belief in witchcraft today. In a 2005 poll 13% of people in England believed in it. Witchcraft trials throughout the world are increasing usually in places of civil unrest with poor educational and health facilities.

Stuart concluded by asking whether we are any more sophisticated in our thinking today with our conspiracy theories and the influence of social media on beliefs and attitudes. How would we behave if pushed to the extremes by deprivation and war?

A thought-provoking conclusion to an interesting and informative talk.

Mary Tringham,
Warboys Local History Society

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