It remains a source of debate amongst scholars as to why the main phase of witch persecution in England occurred during the 16th and 17th Century. Many of the most infamous episodes occurred around then, including the Pendle and Berwick witch trials or self-styled “witchfinder-general” Matthew Hopkins’ reign of terror in East Anglia. The natural assumption is that belief in witchcraft is associated with scientific ignorance and superstition, yet rational thought was far more developed at this point in history than it had been during the medieval period, when hysteria over witches was considerably less pronounced.
Numerous factors have been invoked to explain why witchcraft became such an issue at this time. As with all historical processes, socio-economic dynamics are an obvious driving force and many accusations of witchcraft were certainly borne out of both rivalry between competing landowners or class resentment. Such allegations were an effective way of claiming the property of a neighbour or by which a poor member of the community could exact revenge on one of the emergent middle class families who had failed to show appropriate charity.
However, these influences were similarly present during the Middle Ages and cannot adequately explain why witch hysteria grew more pronounced during later centuries. What sets the 16th and 17th Century apart seems to be the religious strife which swept through England in this period with the Reformation, Counter-Reformation and Civil Wars. The theological foundations of these revolutions generated a more intense religiosity amongst the general populace, begetting movements such as Puritanism, for whom the Devil was very real indeed, and a febrile atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust between opposing denominations.
The work of the Reverend Oliver Heywood makes an excellent case study in this regard. Heywood, a fascinating and formidable character, is regarded as one of the leaders of Nonconformism (an umbrella term for religious groups who rejected state worship) in northern England during the 17th Century. He spent much of his career based in the Coley and Northowram area, although he travelled widely across the surrounding district, with one source estimating that he would regularly clock up over ten thousand miles in a year. He also kept extensive diaries which are now regarded as a crucial source of social, religious and local history.
Heywood was born in Bolton in 1630 and graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1647 at the age of seventeen. By 1650, he was the Nonconformist minister of the old church of St. John the Baptist at Coley, which he ran along Presbyterian lines. He was not impressed by what he perceived as the immoral behaviour of the local populace, writing “Oh, what rioting, rebelling, gluttony, drunkenness, abominable beastly luxury, lechery scarce heard of among the heathen.” This severe, disapproving attitude inevitably made him many enemies in the parish, who snubbed his sermons and even tried to disrupt provisions to him.
The religious authorities were also disturbed by Heywood’s activities and in 1659 he was briefly jailed for contravening the Act of Uniformity, which required all clergymen to use a standard English prayer book, and in 1662 he was excommunicated for the same offence. Following this, he lodged briefly with the former Parliamentarian officer, Captain John Hodgson, at Coley Hall before being forced back to Lancashire by the Five Mile Act of 1665, which forbade excommunicated ministers from preaching within five miles of their former parish.
This legislation was repealed in 1672, whereupon Heywood returned to Northowram to found a Presbyterian chapel by royal license. During this period, he lived at Northowram House which was also used at their place of worship. However, his license was revoked in 1674, whilst in 1685 his persistence earned him yet another excommunication, fine and brief spell in jail for “riotous assembly”. With the succession of James II and the Act of Toleration, he was finally able to build a congregation unhindered. The Heywood Chapel opened in 1688 at Northowram (where the United Reform church stands today) and he preached there until his death in 1702.
From Heywood’s diaries, it is clear that witchcraft was much feared by his congregation, especially the practice of “maleficium” (the use of magic to cause harm). Heywood was regularly consulted on these matters by sympathisers from across the surrounding region. In October 1665, for instance, he was called to Wakefield to see a “possessed” youth by the name of Nathan Dodgson. The boy was often seized by bursts of anger so violent several strong men could not restrain him or fits in which he would fall into a catatonic state. When he recovered he often claimed to have seen the apparition of the woman believed to be bewitching him.
In February 1672, Heywood travelled to Ripponden to the funeral of Richard Hoyle’s fourth son, who had succumbed to a mysterious illness thought to have been wrought by witchery, whilst he records in his diaries of February 1674 that a local man named Joseph Hinchcliffe hanged himself after he was accused of being a witch. However, despite Heywood’s Puritan inclinations, he remained sceptical of many such accusations and it is true that by the late 17th Century, whilst witch hysteria was still rife amongst the general populace, learned authorities tended to dismiss it as superstitious fancy.
In May 1683, a local member of his Northowram congregation by the name of Judith Higson sought his advice concerning her twelve year old son. The child was stricken with a strange distemper which left him swollen and insensible. One Dr. Thornton had informed the family that the illness was not natural and rather than prescribe medicine, recommended a cake mixed from wheatmeal, horseshoe stumps and the boy’s urine and hair. The doctor claimed this would break the power of his possessor and cause the witch to reveal herself. Heywood, however, was having none of it and recommended that Mrs. Higson pray and fast for her son’s recovery.
Nor was Heywood himself exempt from allegations of witchcraft and it exemplifies how the religious friction of the period was fertile ground for breeding such hysteria. As a radical Nonconformist preacher, who believed that private faith alone was sufficient for salvation rather than adherence to the religious laws of the state, Heywood must have appeared to many pious Anglicans, and indeed certain rival Nonconformist sects, as the very agent of the Devil. Accusing religious dissenters of witchcraft was a common response to unfamiliar forms of worship, not to mention an effective way of limiting their influence and competition.
Thus, during a gathering at the Rastrick house of rival minister by the name of John Hanson, somebody referred to only as N.C. is recorded as commenting that people dare not approach Heywood’s house for fear of witches. A rumour was abroad that the wife of B. Jagger had been seen leaving Heywood’s residence one Sunday night, during which time she was supposed to have “got power” over a maid of Anthony Waterhouse. The servant girl was soon “distempered and strangely taken” and in her delirium claimed to see the apparition of Jagger’s wife. She died within a fortnight.