Lucy Worsley Investigates: The Witch Hunts – BBC 2

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Do not get me started on the subject of the “Witch Way” bus route, which runs very close to my house and is so named because it originally linked Manchester with the Pendle area, and some bloke evidently thought that using Pendle Witch Trials as a silly gimmick was appropriate.  It isn’t.  At least they’ve removed those pictures of a very sexy-looking witch, sat astride a broomstick, from the sides of the buses.  And, when I visited Salem in Massachusetts in 2019, I was rather bemused to see the “Witch City Mall”, home to a variety of shops, restaurants and beauty parlours.  I appreciate that tourism is big business, but the witch hunts which took place in Britain, across Europe and in America, mainly from 1450 to 1750, weren’t some sort of Disney film.  Thousands of people, most of them women, were judicially murdered; and we saw Lucy Worsley getting distressed, to the point of tears, as she talked about the horrors to which these women were subjected, the terrible fear that other women must have felt that they could be the next to be accused, and how little we hear of their voices, their real stories.

In Britain, witch hunting on a large scale, with the involvement of the central authorities, really began during the reign of James I of England/James VI of Scotland, who was apparently convinced that witchcraft caused a storm which nearly sank his ship as he returned from Denmark, where witch hunts were already common, in 1590 (at which point he was king of Scotland, but Elizabeth I still ruled in England).  This programme focused on the North Berwick trials, which took place shortly afterwards, and particular on the case of Agnes Sampson, the first to be accused.

As a slight aside, do people still take lucky mascots/charms into exams with them?  I used to take a miniature Good Luck Care Bear (remember care bears?!) and a lump of coal, but my elder nephew (aged 13) recently had school exams, and apparently lucky mascots aren’t a thing any more.  Or maybe they are, but only for girls.  I know that some men have lucky pants or lucky socks which they wear for football matches, but I don’t really want to think about other people’s pants, so let’s not go there.   However, lucky charms/amulets, often used by women in childbirth, were apparently considered a sign of witchcraft by the supposedly “godly” witch hunters – although not as much so as marks on the body.  As Lucy explained, there was a strong sexual element to the witch hunts.   There always is, isn’t there?  Men using religion to try to control women.  People getting caught up in some sort of hysterical frenzy.  And all these people, mostly women, being tortured into making confessions, and horribly executed – with Scotland having one of the highest rates of witch execution of any country.

Thankfully, even Lucy realised that this wasn’t an occasion for dressing up.  We got a lot of shots of her sitting in the back of a car, walking around and reading original texts, but she was dressed in Puritanical black and white, as she explained how the Reformation turned up the religious temperature, and both Protestants and Catholics alike got caught up in an obsessive fear of the devil and his works, with local folk healers/wise women, living peacefully in their communities, generally the main targets.  Agnes Sampson, an ordinary women from a small village, found herself hauled up before the king, and then physically and mentally tortured until, broken, she confessed to whatever they asked, and gave the names of other people as well.

As Lucy described the horrible death which Agnes met, garroted and then burnt at the stake, she did become quite emotional, and was really rather moving.  This is a horrible part of history.  Lucy said that the stories of the witches weren’t well-known.  Well, maybe the stories of the Scottish witches aren’t, but the stories of the Lancashire witches are, because they’ve been turned into novels, and even used as gimmicks by tourist authorities and bus companies.   And the term “witch-hunt” is still widely used, to describe a frenzied campaign against people, often innocent, who are perceived to be some sort of threat.   But, as Lucy said the voices of the real women involved aren’t often heard.  She tried very hard to put those voices across, in what made for a fascinating hour’s TV.   Very, very good programme.