Clerics and Witchcraft, Part Two

02/11/2015 in British Isles, Parish Research Today, ritual, devotion and religious change, the clergy

In my first blog entry, we looked at some examples of clerics who warned of the evils of witchcraft and magic, and also met Richard Napier, a cleric who preferred to heal victims of witchcraft and other patients through performing natural magic in the name of God.  However (and perhaps more interestingly), not even members of the Church were safe from magic and witchcraft accusations!  Gilbert Smythe, the minister of Swithland in Leicestershire brought a complaint against Christopher Moncke in 1620 for public slander and for accusing him of being a sorcerer and forsaking God. Moncke also accused Smythe of breaking of his wife’s arm and the reason for his son cutting his own throat, and that Smythe and his three sons were felons.  Smythe further claimed that by slandering him by petition to the King, the mayor of Leicester, the circuit judges and the people of Mountsorel, Leicester and London, ‘hee hath adventured my lyfe goods and reputation thereby and the undoinge of my wife and famylie which lyve by my breath’.  Moncke brought a counter-complaint, noting that he had attempted many times to solve a crime against him, and ‘has been put off by various great men’, as the judges apparently did not look at his case with any degree of seriousness:

The premises considered the faithful Justices of the County of Leicester dare not deale with Gilbert Smyth his approved pilfery, foreknowne periury, suspected sorcery and murther least money and freinds should lull the Judges asleepe as in the County of Darby they have beene and laughed to scorne by the favorites thereof.

Meanwhile, Thomas Johnson, the curate of Cranwell, Lincolnshire was indicted in 1603 at Spalding Court of Sewers, for acting as a wise man, and for administering ‘physic’ to sick people without a licence.  He was also accused of using witchcraft, charms and conjuration, calling up spirits, and deceiving the poor so that he could find stolen goods and foretell the future.  In doing this, he was not fulfilling his religious duties in instructing the people and youth of Cranwell in the North Kesteven district of Lincolnshire, on the articles of faith as laid down in the Elizabethan Religious Settlement.

Some clergymen and physicians were known to practice as cunning-folk, mostly to increase their incomes.  In 1606 the Royal College of Physicians intervened to stop the Reverend John Bell from writing words on a piece of paper to treat fevers, and in 1637, the vicar of Fleckney, Leicestershire, was accused of making charms to treat toothache.   Non-conformist clergy were also accused, as in the case of Nicholas Gretton of Tamworth, cunning man, astrologer and leader of a Lichfield Independent congregation in 1654, who ‘was there discovered to be a fortune teller, or an Inchanter, a Wizard that tells people lyes for mony’.

George Fox was born in the strongly puritan village of Drayton-in-the-Clay, Leicestershire, (now known as Fenny Drayton), and, given to ‘wander[ing] around the Midlands’ in his early youth, he became the acknowledged founder of the Quaker movement after his ‘enlightenment’ in 1647, at the age of twenty-three.  Attempts by some ministers and justices to accuse Quakers of witchcraft led to George Fox himself being denounced as a witch or sorcerer, who rode around on a large black horse converting people to Quakerism by holding their hands or touching their foreheads.  The meeting places of the Quakers, in woods, commons and in houses ‘most solitary and remote from Neighbours, situated in Dales and by-places’, stimulated speculation and fear.   The strange noises that could be heard emanating from their meeting-places, and the trembling and shaking of the Quakers during their meetings were associated with Satan and demonic possession.

Other cases, adding to our narrative on the clergy, include that of the vicar of Cawnton, Nottinghamshire who was convicted of sorcery in 1472 at Southwell Minster, and was compelled to resign.  Additionally, the minister of Hope, Derbyshire, a Mr. Jones, gave a woman, distraught after hearing a warning in the Communion service against profane livers, an ‘amulet, viz. some verses of John i written in a paper to hang about her neck, as also certain herbs to drive the devil out of her’.  The role of the clergy, particularly in rural communities after the Reformation, often combined both ministry and medicine, with sometimes little difference compared to the methods of the local cunning folk and healers.

Consequently, the same accusations of magic and witchcraft applied to the ministers as well as the lay communities.  Even charges of petty sorcery served on the clergy, as we can see above, were brought before the ecclesiastical courts.  The need for assistance when faced with illness or loss provoked a search for whoever was deemed able to provide such solace – whether this was a witch, a cunning man or a man of God, and whatever methods they used to provide some comfort, was often not important.



Leach, Arthur Francis, Visitations and Memorials of Southwell Minster (London, 1891), p. 15.

Lincolnshire Archives, Sessions Papers, Spalding Sewers/460/1/6.

Lincolnshire Archives, Diocesan Court Papers 58/2/70.

Reay, Barry, The Quakers and the English Revolution (Hounslow, 1985), pp. 7, 70-71.

Stocks, Helen (ed.) & Stevenson, H., Records of the Borough of Leicester, 1603-1688 (Cambridge, 1923), pp. 193-94.

Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1971), pp. 311, 328-29.

Wood, A. C. (ed.), ‘The Nottinghamshire Presentment Bills of 1587’, Thoroton Society Record Series, XI, A Miscellany (1943), p. 22.



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