Popular Superstitions - Repeal Of The Witch Act
( Originally Published 1884 )
Craftsman, Feb. 21, No. 503.
RACHEL FORESIGHT TO MR. D'ANVERS.
SIRS Since you have already done the fair sex justice, as to their political capacities, and professed your readiness to do it, upon all other occasions, I must put you in mind of one endowrnent, for which they have been famous in all ages; I mean the spirit of prophecy.
The oracles of the ancient Sibyls (who were all women) have acquir'd such an established reputation in the world, that they will for ever do honour to our sex. One of them, who resided at Delphos, had so much authority among the Grecians, that no important enter-prise was undertaken without her advice ; and the writings of another, who liv'd in a cave at Cum, were held in such high veneration amongst the Romans, that two religious officers were appointed on purpose to consult them, upon all great occasions, by order of the Senate.
There are very few nations in the world which have not produc'd some of these female sages. AEgypt was so famous for the art of divination, that a gypsy, or AEgyptian, is a common name for a fortuneteller to this day ; and if we may judge of the antient race by their pretended descendants, there were more women than men endow'd with this gift.
But no country in Europe hath been more productive of these female astrologers and magicians than our own. Lancashire, my native county and place of residence, was always look'd upon as a colony of witches; and the western Isles of Scotland have been equally renown'd for a certain kind of soothsayers, call'd second-sighted persons. But I shall confine myself, at present, to that celebrated Yorkshire Sibyl, Mrs. Ursula Shipton, commonly called Mother Shipton, who flourish'd in the reign of Henry VIII. ; and since Merlin, the Welsh oracle, has lately had so much honour done him, I think it a little hard that no notice should be taken of his sister in the same art.
This great prophetess came into the world, like her brother Merlin, in a very extraordinary manner, being begot by a daemon in masquerade, on the body of a poor young girl, whom he found bemoaning her condition by the side of a river.
Many notable pranks are recorded of her, during her childhood, as setting women upon their heads, and transforming men into horned beasts ; and her fame soon spread through the kingdom, multitudes of all ranks resorted to her for the knowledge of future events, which she explain'd to them in several mystical prophecies, particularly Cardinal Wolsey's downfall, and the reformation of religion ; but the following is the most remarkable of them all.
This prophecy is interpreted as follows : the cow meant K. Henry, who gave it in his arms as E. of Richmond, and the bull betoken'd Mrs. Anne Bulloigne, whom the king took to wife, either because the first syllable of her name was bull, or because her father bore the bull's head for his crest. The rest of the prophecy is apply'd to the suppression of monasteries, in that reign, with which it agrees well enough. But that the cow should signify the king, and the bull the queen, seems to be so inconsistent with the character of Henry VIII. that I submit it to you, and the publick, whether the whole will not bear some other construction.
Whatever might be meant by this prophecy, the great character Mother Shipton bath so justly obtain'd by her other predictions, puts it beyond all doubt that it either bath been, or will be fulfilled some time or other ; and I humbly propose it to the ladies of Great Britain, who have the honour of their sex and the interest of necromancy at heart, that a magnificent statue be erected to her memory in some place of publick resort, with Mother Bunch on one side, as her Prime Minister, and Mother Osborne, as her Secretary, on the other.
I am the more free in expressing my concern for the honour of female magick, since a bill is order'd to be brought into the House of Commons, for repealing that pernicious Act of K. James I., which seems to have been calculated to destroy all the conjurers in the kingdom, except himself ; for without some proficiency in that art, it would have been impossible for him to smell out a gunpowder plot in the letter to Lord Monteagle, if he had no other intelligence. Yet such a terrible enemy was he to all people, possess'd of the same faculty, that he not only wrote an ever memorable treatise, call'd Daemonology," against them, but caus'd that severe Act to be pass'd, and enjoin'd all his judges to put it strictly in execution. This, no doubt, was a terrible discouragement to the gifts of prophecying; and though the Act made no distinction of sexes, yet ours was much the greatest sufferer by it ; for it was come to that pass at last that a woman could hardly grow poor, old and ugly (which are curses enough, in all conscience, of themselves) without danger of being hang'd for a witch.
Neither do I suppose that the repeal of this Act is intended purely as matter of favour to us ; for as we have some great men amongst us, who have justly acquir'd the reputation of being wizards, or conjurors, their enemies might take an opportunity of putting this law in force against them, for want of other means to gratify their bloody-minded vows and resentments.
Since the persons included in this . Act are, I. Conjurers ; who make use of invocations, or magick words, to raise the devil, and compel him to execute their commands. Now, I'll appeal to you, Mr. D'Anvers, whether several things, both at home and abroad, could have been lately brought to pass, if a certain gentleman, who shall be nameless, had not had some dealing with another gentleman in black.
2. Witches, or Wizards ; who covenant with evil spirits, and entertain them in their service, by fees or rewards. This is so common and well known a case, that it stands in need of no explanation.
3. Sorcerers or Charmers ; who by the means of images and odd representations of persons, or things, produce strange effects above the ordinary course of nature. I believe nobody will read this article, without casting his eyes on a little, cunning man, who hath been muddling in the black art, and produced several strange effects, certainly above the ordinary course of nature ; for I will defy the wisest man in Europe to prove that the late happy turn of affairs, in favour of the emperor, was the natural effect of his negotiations, for ten years past. By what kind of means he hath done this, whether by the prevailing influence of certain images, or any odd representation of person, I cannot say ; but he is certainly within the statute, as a sorcerer, therefore I shall be glad to see it repeal'd.
I must likewise observe that you have been suspected of keeping a familiar yourself; for how could you otherwise foretell so many remarkable events, which came exactly to pass according to your predictions ?
It is therefore for the good of all parties that this act should be repeal'd ; and we have no reason to doubt it, since it will not only answer the purpose of an act of indemnity and secure the great persons mentioned from any indictment, or articles of impeachment, as conjurors; but, perhaps, give them grace, for the future, to defy the devil and all his works.
I am come to town, with several of my countrywomen, to use my interest, on this occasion ; for I think it is as incumbent upon all persons, who think themselves a little wiser than their neighbours (and that is no inconsiderable party, in this kingdom) to promote the repeal of this law, as the Dissenters do to sollicit that of the Test; but I was sorry to hear that three or four persons should be so indiscreet as to appear, at the last Masquerade, in their proper characters, and perform several magical operations, before we have actually gain'd our point; for I am very apprehensive that this may be esteem'd an insult upon authority, as the law stands at present, and perhaps induce some persons to oppose the repeal of it.
Your unknown friend,
AGAINST THE REPEAL OF THE WITCH ACT
From the World, August 23.
Certain it is that the repeal of an Act of Parliament, meant to restrain the power of the devil by inflicting death upon his agents, must infallibly give him a much greater influence over us, than he ever could have hoped for, during the continuance of such an Act.
That the devil may truly be said to be let loose among us by the repeal of this Act, will appear beyond contradiction, if we take a survey of the general fascination that all ranks and orders of mankind seem at present to be under.
What is it but witchcraft that occasions that universal and uncontroulable rage of play, by which the nobleman, the man of fashion, the merchant and the tradesman, with their wives, sons and daughters, are running headlong to ruin ? What is it but witchcraft that conjures up that spirit of pride and passion for expence, by which all classes of men, from his grace at Westminster to the salesman at Wapping, are entailing beggary upon their old age, and bequeathing their children to poverty and the parish ? Again, is it possible to be accounted for, from any natural cause, that persons of good sense and sober dispositions should take a freak four or five times in a winter of turning their houses into inns ; cramming every bedchamber, closet and corner with people whom they hardly know; stifling one another with heat ; blocking up the streets with chairs and coaches ; offending themselves, and pleasing nobody; and all this for the vain boast of having drawn together* a greater mob than my Lady Somebody, or the honourable Mr. Such-an-one? That nothing but witchcraft can be the occasion of so much folly 'and absurdity, must be obvious to the common-sense of all mankind.
Another and more melancholy proof of the power of witchcraft is, that a wife may be beautiful in her person, gentle in her manners, fond of her husband, watchful for his quiet, careful of his interest, kind to his children, chearful to his friends, and obliging to all ; yet be yoked to a wretch so blind to his own happiness, as to prefer to her endearments the hired embraces of a diseased prostitute, loath-some in her person, and a fury in her disposition. If this is not witchcraft, I should be glad to know of such a husband what name I may call it by. Among the lower kind of tradesmen (for every dealer in broken glass bottles has his fille-de joie) it is a common thing for a husband to kick his wife out of doors in the morning, for his having submitted overnight to a good drubbing from his mistress.
It would be endless to take notice of every argument that suggests itself in proof of witchcraft; I shall content myself with only one more, which I take to be incontestable. This is the spirit of Jacobitism, which is so well known to possess many of his majesty's Pro-testant subjects in this kingdom.
From all these considerations it is much to be wished that a new Witch Act may take place next sessions of Parliament.
To secure yourself within doors against the enchantments of witches, especially if you are a person of fashion, and have never been taught the Lord's prayer, the only method I know of is, to nail a horseshoe upon the threshold. This I can affirm to be of the greatest efficacy; insomuch that I have taken notice of many a little cottage in the country, with a horseshoe at its door, where gaming, extravagance, routs, adultery, Jacobitism, and all the catalogue of witchcrafts have been totally unknown.