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The Witch Hunt

by Bernadette Weyde

Although the Isle of Man was caught by the wave of persecution which swept over Europe after the publication of the Bull of Pope Innocent VIII against witchcraft in 1468 – a wave which ebbed and flowed in different countries until near the end of the 18th century – the Island appears to have largely escaped the horrors attendant on the prosecution of suspected witches. No doubt in an earlier period Manx witches had suffered death. A persistent tradition connects the Curragh Glass in the Greeba valley with witch trial by ordeal of water, and written mention of Slieau Whallian as a place of execution is at least 300 years old, but no documentary evidence of witch killing there survives in proof.

Only 3 cases stand on record in Man in which the unhappy wretches arraigned for witchcraft were condemned to death. One of these was Alice Ine Quay, in 1569 she was reprieved after examination by a jury of matrons composed of ‘six honest women.’

Another was a woman, Margaret Ine Quane and her son. She was tried in 1617 before a jury of Twelve out of several sheadings, with the advice of chapter quest men or sidesmen of the parishes, and found guilty. She was consequently turned over to the temporal power. At the Gaol Delivery a jury for Life and Death repeated the verdict arrived at in the Ecclesiastical Court, whereupon the dreaded sentence was pronounced: ”That she be brought by the Coroner of Glenfaba to the place of execution there to be burned till life depart from her body.”

The same fate befell her son, who, with his mother, died at the stake erected near the Market Cross of Castletown.

In both these instances the Manx judges and jurymen were probably influenced by contemporary events in Great Britain. The Tudor period was a time of religious intolerance, of fear and suspicion, of plotting in high places, and sudden death by poison or steel, and the atmosphere was suitable for a revival of the witch hunt. The Scottish King, James VI, wrote a treatise in which he showed an extraordinary credulity regarding the reality of demons and witchcraft; and his beliefs provided an excuse for the exercise of a sadistic vein in his character which enabled him to listen with pleasure to the agonised cries of suspected sorcerers put to the torture. The year of his accession to the English throne, 1603, was marked by the passing, at his instigation, of a statute against witchcraft which, for the next hundred years sent numerous victims, innocent and guilty, to the pillory, the scaffold and the stake.

But the burnings in 1617 mark the last time in the Isle of Man when the extreme penalty was exacted for sorcery, and henceforth the pages of Manx history are not stained by the most revolting of the horrors which were to attend the witch hunt in Great Britain (and in Scotland in particular) during the 17th century.

For this, one may thank the Manx Ecclesiastical Courts and the moderation of the average Island juryman, rather than his liberation from superstition. He had as profound a belief in the sinister possibilities of witchcraft as any Calvanist of the time, a belief shared in varying degrees by all classes of the community, but he hated extremes and in particular the shedding of blood. It was a characteristic which was noted by a prominent Manx legislator more than a hundred years ago, when he remarked impatiently upon his countrymen’s reluctance to find a man guilty of a crime punishable with death. ‘It arises exclusively,’ he wrote, ‘from a prejudice almost brahminical against having (as they put it) the blood of a fellow creature upon their hands.’

The cautious verdict returned by Kirk Arbory men in 1666, in a case in which any one of half a dozen counts would have sent a Scottish witch to the fire, is typical:

‘Wee give for answer that forasmuch as wee have not had any proofs that she is positively a witch we doe cleere her and say (being questioned) that she is not guiltie of death, but notwithstanding, the proofs already by us taken into consideration of the spiritual officers, we leave her to be punished at their discretion.’

(source: by David Craine, MA, Journal of the Manx Museum Vol. IV, No.59, 1939; photograph is a printscreen from a short film in the Manx language called ‘Solace in Wicca‘ about the trial and burning of Margaret Ine Quane)

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