Witchcraft first became a criminal offense in its own right in England and Wales in 1542 when a paranoid Henry VIII added it to the statute book. Although the act was repealed in 1547, it reinstated in a much more severe form in 1563. Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I had suffered a fright when on royal progress after wax poppets in her image were discovered. Witchcraft was once more a royal concern. It was in this atmosphere that witch trials in Britain began to become sensationalist fodder for the masses.
One of the earliest British witchcraft pamphlets was“A Rehearsall both Straung and True, of Hainous and Horrible Actes Committed by Elizabeth Stile, alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Deuell, Mother Margaret, Fower Notorious Witches” Published in 1579, the pamphlet recorded the case of 65 year old Windsor widow, Elizabeth Stiles who had been charged with witchcraft the previous year. Stiles was a bad-tempered beggar, known for railing at those who refused her alms. Her odd reputation was enhanced by her unusual choice of a rat for a pet. One day, a local innkeeper refused Stiles’ pleas for food. Soon afterward, he became ill.
Convinced the old woman had cursed him, the innkeeper set about breaking the spell. So he accosted Stiles and scratched her to make her bleed- a sure-fire remedy against the curse if she was the guilty witch. Blood flowed and the innkeeper recovered. As for Mother Stiles, she was arrested. In custody, Stiles described how together with three other old outcasts known as Mother Margaret, Mother Dutten, and Mother Devell she had practiced “image magic’; the practice of creating a poppet of their intended victim which they stabbed with pins. The women were also associated with a Father Rosimunde who was reputedly able to assume “the shape and likenesse of any beaste whatsoever he will.”
Stiles and her accomplices were tried, found guilty and hanged on February 26, 1579. While the inclusion of shadowy figure of Father Rosimunde helped connect the women’s witchcraft with the by now equally dubious “âpopish superstitions’ of Catholicism, religion was not the only motive behind their conviction. For women were increasingly being associated with witchcraft- especially those women with no set place in society. Old, deformed, marginal figures were at risk- especially those with only pets for company. The pamphlet telling the tale of Mother Stiles helped shape the image of the witch that remains with us to this day.
Women who challenged the status quo were also at risk.