Stage #9: Sentencing and Execution

by Jenny Gibbons

Stage #9: Sentencing and Execution

A convicted Witch's sentence varied. She could be killed, banished, imprisoned, or assigned a lesser penalty like penance. Religious courts used non-lethal penalties more frequently than secular courts did. But since secular courts held most of the trials, the most common penalty for a Witch was death.

All executions were carried out by the secular authorities. Religious courts who sentenced a Witch to death handed her over to the government for actual execution, to "keep the Church's hands clean", so to speak.

In England and New England Witches were hanged; elsewhere the most common form of execution was burning. Burning, by the way, didn't mean being burned alive. If you recanted (admitted you'd made a mistake and were sorry), you were killed beforehand, and then your body was consigned to the flames. Nobles were beheaded, commoners were hanged -- being burned alive was an extreme and unusual punishment except in Spain and Italy where the Inquisition did regularly burn people alive.

Executions were popular events. The largest had thousands of attendees, who often travelled many miles to see the deaths. Crowds were so large that the Inquisition would sometimes erect bleachers, so that everyone could see and hear.

Why did the Church care about the spectators? Because executions were dramatic "teaching" tools. Scholars are beginning to study the ways in which executions helped spread Witch hysteria. Before the actual execution, an official (often a priest) would stand before the crowd and deliver a sermon against Witchcraft. At the very least, he'd recite a list of the Witch's crimes. Thus by attending executions, the "average" person could learn a great deal about what Witches were "supposed" to be like. Executions are one of the avenues through which intellectual stereotypes (from, say, the Malleus Maleficarum) made their way into popular culture. They're one of the reasons why the longer trials went on in a country, the more they all sounded alike.

The actual hanging or burning could be preceded by a bout of monstrous public torture, especially where local officials controlled the trial. The case of the Gamperle coven (see the biographies) gives a graphic example of how inhuman these tortures could be.

The manner of your execution also depended on who you'd tried to bewitch. Treasonous magick -- attempting to harm the king, queen, or local noble -- was treated most harshly. One Baltic Witch who was convicted of killing the Count of Audru was sentenced to be "repeatedly squeezed with red-hot irons, have his limbs severed at the joints, his heart ripped out, his head chopped off and impaled upon a stake by the roadside, his body burnt."

In England the sentence for using Witchcraft on Queen Elizabeth was "ye shall be drawn through the open City of London upon hurdles to the place of execution, and there be hanged and let down alive, and your privy parts cut off, and your entrails taken out and burnt in your sight; then your head to be cut off and your body divided into four parts, to be disposed of at her Majesty's pleasure." (Did you see the movie "Braveheart"? If so, the execution at the end was an accurate, slightly watered-down version of a real treason execution.)

England also had a crime called "petty treason," treason against a lesser "lord" than the Queen. A servant who killed his master or a woman who used magick against her husband was a petty traitor and could be sentenced to be burned alive. Thus there actually were a handful of English Witches who were burned at the stake.

I point this out because many Gardnerian Books of Shadows (handwritten collections of rituals supposedly handed down from generation to generation of Witches) mention the danger of being burnt alive. This is often cited as evidence that these books are not ancient, since English Witches were hanged, not burned. While I agree with this line of reasoning, I also believe it's important to note that there were English Witches who were burned alive and, as one historian points out, "many people still had a confused idea that [burning] was the appropriate penalty for a witch in England, as it was on the Continent." We know that at least one English magistrate (Brian Darcy) threatened to burn accused Witches who wouldn't confess, even though legally speaking this was impossible. Therefore the fact that Gardnerian Books of Shadows mention the stake doesn't automatically make them modern inventions.

Practice stayed pretty close to theory. The only thing writers neglect to mention is that a priest or minister generally escorted the Witch to the stake or gallows, pestering her all the while to confess and make peace with God. There was nothing like a good stake-side confession and recantation to reassure the populace that the court had done the right thing.

Why were Witches burned? Margaret Murray theorized that they wanted to be, that the victims of the Burning Times were willing sacrifices who wanted their ashes to be sprinkled over the crops to ensure fertility. This is nonsense. Murray only produces one Witch who said that she wanted to be burned. I could easily show you a thousand more who begged not to die by the fire. One of the most successful "interrogation" techniques was to offer a Witch a merciful death in exchange for her confession. When they knew that there was no way they could prove their innocence, many Witches jumped at any chance to escape the flames.

Witches weren't burned because they wanted to be, they were burned to protect the community. A Witch's dead body was considered tainted and polluted. Fire cleansed it, and broke any residual spells that might linger. Throughout much of Europe it was thought that the body of a dead Witch would cause the plague. Christians, like Pagans, believed in the purifying power of fire and burned the body to prevent disease. One Witch hunter reports, "It was a received opinion amongst many that, the body of a witch being burnt, her blood is prevented thereby from becoming hereditary to her progeny in the same evil, which by hanging is not." In other words, burn a Witch and her family is cleansed of the "taint" of Witchcraft. As early as 1459 a Witch was burned and her ashes thrown into a river "so that no further harm may ensue therefrom."

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