Burning at the Stake as a Punishment for Witches

Contrary to popular belief, witches were not burned at the stake in England, after the Reformation.

Instead, death sentences were carried out by hanging.

In Scotland, however, the sentence of burning was still inflicted.

However if the witches had confessed what they were ordered to confess, they were accorded the mercy of being strangled before being burnt.

If they refused to confess, they were burnt alive.

This custom was followed upon the Continent.

As well as this accounts for many of the fantastic confessions were recorded as having been made by witches.

Knowing that they had no hope of escape, they confessed whatever was required.

Much of their alleged crimes were an affront to anyone’s intelligence ­ in order to obtain a more merciful death.

The record of witch-burning in Europe as a whole is a sickening one.

How many people actually perished in the years of witch-hunting can only be guessed at.

It is a story which shames Protestant and Catholic alike.

Although the persecution of witches started under the Catholic Church, the Protestants carried it on with equal inhumanity.

The American authority, George Lincoln Burr, from his studies of the history of witchcraft, has given his opinion that a minimum of ten thousand men, women and children were burned for witchcraft in Germany alone.

It is true that Germany was a country in which the mania for persecution raged with particular fierceness.

Witch-hunting established itself as a profitable business.

The reason for this was not all witches were poor people by any means/

The property and estate of a convicted witch were confiscated, sometimes by the Church authorities, sometimes by the State, or even by the local feudal overlord, depending upon individual circumstances.

All the costs of the trial and execution were charged against the witch’s estate.

Grisly documents setting out the actual tariffs for burning witches in Scotland and elsewhere still exist.

The last witch-burning in the United Kingdom took place in Scotland on June 1722, when an old woman called Janet Horne was burned at
Dornoch on a charge of having lamed her daughter by witchcraft.

At least, this is the last Scottish witch-burning of which we have a definite historical record.

There are rumours of later executions in Scotland.

However, by this time in history not the quality of mercy but eighteenth-century scepticism and rationalism were putting the curb on the witch-hunters.

In 1736 witchcraft ceased to be a capital charge, in Scotland as well as England.

In 1743 this fact was publicly denounced by certain Scottish Churchmen, as being contrary to the express Law of God !

Before the Reformation in England, witches had been treated as heretics, and could be burned under the statute De Haeretico Comburendo, passed in 1401.

But before this date, witch-burnings were already being carried out in the British Isles, as in the case of Petronilla de Meath of Dame Alice Kyteler’s coven in Ireland in 1323.

Looking back at the horrifying records of the burning of witches, one is compelled to wonder how the human mind could consent to such

The answer seems to be that fear played a large part in it, the terror of black magic.

The Christian Church did not invent the punishment of death by burning.

There is the case of Theories, a Greek woman of Lemnos, mentioned by Demosthenes, who was publicly tried in Athens and burned for sorcery.

It is certain that people came to believe that a witch’s influence could only really be destroyed by her body being burnt.

In our own times, the remains of Rasputin, the occultist who was regarded as the evil genius of the Tzarist Court of Russia, were torn from their tomb and burned by the revolutionaries-an act that may have been something more than an expression of hatred alone.

Furthermore, on several occasions in the last twenty years, disturbing stories have leaked out of Mexico, of women being killed and their bodies burned, because they were believed to be witches.

The body of the revolutionary, Che Guevara, was burned and the ashes were scattered, by order of the authorities.

There were occasions in England when women were publicly burned at the stake, after the Reformation.

If a woman were found guilty of witchcraft which involved treason, for instance using occult means for an attempt upon the life of the sovereign, this was punishable by burning at the stake.

Also, for a woman to kill her husband, by witchcraft or any other means, was regarded as ‘petty treason’; and this too was punishable by burning at the stake.

Incredible as it appears, this sentence was actually carried out twice in Sussex as late as the eighteenth century.

In 1752 a woman called Anne Whale was publicly burned at the stake at Horsham for poisoning her husband.

Again in 1776, another woman, a Mrs Cruttenden, was found guilty of killing her husband by cutting his throat as he lay in bed ; · and she, too, was publicly burned at Horsham.

There was no mention of witchcraft in either case ; but this kind of execution, which as we have seen survived to an astonishingly late date, has often been mistaken for a witch-burning.

It is a psychologically interesting fact that it was not equally punishable for a man to kill his wife. This was murder, but not ‘petty treason’;
so it carried only a normal death sentence.

The horrific punishment of burning at the stake was in this instance meted out solely to women.

It seems likely that it was in some deep and unconscious way related to the old practice of burning witches.