Witchcraft in Hertfordshire

By Jill Barber

'Witch swimming' Tring, 1751
Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies Ref: CV/Tring/12

In the 16th and 17th centuries there was a subtle shift in attitudes to women that had particularly evil consequences.

At a time when life was very precarious and disease and famine could strike at any time, people tried to take some control over their lives by finding someone to blame.  If your cattle died, or even worse your child – then it must be because someone had bewitched them. The focus of your grief could then be to find the person who was to blame and make sure they were punished.

If you suspected someone of being a witch, you could subject them to a number of tests. The most well known was ducking, or ‘witch swimming’. If the supposed witch floated then she was guilty and could be hung; if she sunk she was innocent, but usually died anyway, through drowning.

The first law against witches in England was passed in 1542, in the time of Henry VIII.  In East Anglia, prosecutions for witchcraft reached their peak in the reign of Elizabeth I, and the first surviving record of a prosecution in Hertfordshire dates from 1573.

Witchcraft in Herts (1542-1736)

In cases where indictments for witchcraft have survived, almost 90% of those accused were women (87 women, 10 men).  Accusations included

  • murder by witchcraft
  • causing illness by witchcraft
  • bewitching cattle
  • causing storms
  • causing butter to fail
  • stealing crops by magic.

In Hertfordshire accusations of witchcraft were more common in rural areas than in towns, probably because superstition lingered longer in the countryside, especially it seems (from the geographical spread of cases) in North Herts.

Ardley1Great Gaddesden1
Barley2Little Gaddesden1
Bengeo2Little Munden2
Chipping Barnet1Walkern2

Indictments for Witchcraft in Herts (1542-1736)

By the mid 17th century people still believed in witches, but began to question their power. Others became concerned about the difficulty of getting reliable evidence, and cases rarely came to court.

In 1712, a Hertfordshire woman, Jane Wenham of Walkern, became the last person in England to be condemned to death for being a witch. In 1736, the Witchcraft Act erased the crime of witchcraft from the statute books. However, the drowning of Ruth Osborne at Tring, in 1751, shows that popular beliefs were much harder to change.

This page was added on 16/08/2011.

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