11 spellbinding questions we have after Doctor Who: The Witchfinders
Jodie Whittaker's Time Lord visited a 17th-century witch hunt – but how accurate was the history? And what was really going on with King James I?
After travelling back to Civil Rights-era America and the Partition of India, Doctor Who series 11's third historical episode found the Tardis team in the midst of a Lancashire witch hunt, forced to protect the citizens of Bilehurst Cragg from a witch-hungry landowner and King James I.
By the end of the story, the Doctor and her team had saved the day and sent the aliens (mistaken as witches) back to their prison – but if you're anything like us, The Witchfinders (written by Joy Wilkinson) also left you with a few burning questions, which we've tried our best to answer below.
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How historically accurate was the story? What was going on with that giant hat? And did the Doctor actually dodge a bullet (or at least some arrows) by avoiding Elizabeth I's coronation?
Read on below, and we'll try to find out...
Why were the Tardis Team looking for Elizabeth I’s coronation?
Near the beginning of The Witchfinders, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is forced to admit that the Tardis has failed to reach their intended destination, much to the amusement (and slight frustration) of Graham, Yaz and Ryan (Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole).
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However, that intended destination – the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I – might not be the best visit for the Doctor, considering the last couple of encounters the Doctor had with the Virgin Queen saw the Time Lord marry her, abandon her (in The Day of the Doctor) and then flee her wrath the next time they crossed paths (from her perspective anyway), in 2007’s The Shakespeare Code – coincidentally another time the Doctor crossed paths with aliens who seemed like witches.
Sure, this is probably an earlier version of Liz One (she’s not been crowned Queen yet) and she wouldn’t recognise the Tenth Doctor (played by David Tennant) that she knew in the Thirteenth Doctor’s new form, but maybe the Tardis was just playing it safe by giving her a wide berth altogether…
Where have I seen those guest stars before?
Siobhan Finneran, who plays Mistress Becka Savage in the episode, is probably best known as villainous O’Brien in Downton Abbey, and has also held roles in Happy Valley, The Moorside, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Cold Feet and Benidorm among many others.
Scottish actor Alan Cumming, meanwhile, who plays King James I is best known for his work in the US, whether that’s starring in hit movies like Spy Kids, X-Men 2 and Goldeneye or critically-acclaimed TV series like The Good Wife.
Is Bilehurst Cragg a real place?
No, as far as we know this village was invented for the episode by writer Joy Wilkinson, though the nearby Pendle Hill is a real location, and the area of Lancashire around it genuinely was the site of some real witch trials.
As mentioned by Graham in The Witchfinders, many suspected witches were prosecuted in the area around Pendle Hill, Lancashire during the 17th century, their trials and executions among the most notorious in British history.
You can read more about the real history of the Pendle witches, and the witch hunts of Britain more generally, in our in-depth historical look back.
Well, the real King James I was famously paranoid and obsessed with witches as depicted in the episode, personally approving many of the witch-hunting practices of the time (including “swimming witches”, see below).
We can’t say for sure, however, whether King James was quite as theatrical as guest star Alan Cumming makes him – and it’s unlikely he roamed the country in disguise looking for smalltown witch trials to help out with.
Was King James I gay?
The Witchfinders appears to portray King James as gay or bisexual, with the sovereign particularly taking a fancy to Tosin Cole’s Ryan (above) – and there’s a fair bit of historical evidence to back up the episode’s non-explicit suggestion.
Over the years King James was rumoured to have had romantic relationships with various men – including the Duke of Lennox, the Earl of Somerset and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham – alongside his wife Anne of Denmark and supposed mistress Anne Murray.
17th century commentators openly discussed the King’s relationships, some of which were also a fairly open (and controversial) secret at court, so it’s definitely a fair representation of the monarch.
The technique of “pricking” – using a special needle to stab witches in certain points of the body that were said not to bleed – did actually take place, though the use of the ducking stool in the episode is a bit of a myth.
Women really were “ducked” for being scolds or disorderly (dishonest tradesmen were also punished in this way), and sometimes died, but it reportedly wasn’t used as a way to test for witchcraft.
Instead, suspected witches were “swam,” aka tied up and thrown in water to see if they floated or sank (the same metric used by Mistress Savage in The Witchfinders). If they floated, they were considered witches – if they sank, they were considered innocent (but often drowned anyway).
There is an explanation for why Mistress Savage incorrectly uses the stool – she doesn’t really want to look for witches, just hide her own perceived inner evil – and if you think about it, the truth was staring us in the face all along. How could a person sink or float while tied to a wooden chair anyway? She’d be stuck where she was regardless.
Everybody accused of witchcraft in this episode happened to be women, but historically some men were accused, prosecuted and executed as witches as well.
However, the false panic was usually directed at women (particularly older, single women), who suffered in far greater numbers than men.
Who are the Morax, and who locked them away?
By the end of The Witchfinders we learn that the real villains of the piece (apart from Becka Savage) are the Morax, a deadly alien race who were sealed beneath Pendle Hill for undisclosed war crimes a significant amount of time before the episode’s setting (we’re talking hundreds, if not thousands, of years).
As usual this year, the Morax are a new creation – no old baddies have returned except for quick references – and the nature of their jailers is never made clear, though the Doctor’s lack of familiarity with the species suggests it definitely wasn’t the Time Lords who locked them away.
In other words, more mysteries. Oh well!
Why didn’t Graham ever take that massive hat off?
Look, we get it – King James I puts a big hat on you, names you his Witchfinder general and sets you off on a mission. We’d all keep the ridiculous, massive hat on for a bit. It’s only human.
But as the episode continues, it becomes more and more absurd that Graham keeps that hat on. They know you’re not witchfinders any more Graham – take it off! It’s so distracting!
Though perhaps it was all worth it, just to see Jodie Whittaker resplendent in the hat by the end of the episode.
Wait, how did Doctor Who fans watch this episode early?
In a little bit of Doctor Who-appropriate time travel, some fans in the US were able to watch episode eight a few days before it was released, thanks to a bit of a snafu on the Amazon Prime video service.
For a short while, users attempting to watch series 11’s seventh episode Kerblam! were rewarded with a surprise showing of The Witchfinders instead, though the BBC were quick to remove the episode once word got out.
"We're aware that an upcoming episode of Doctor Who was made available to Amazon Prime users in the US in error," a spokesperson from BBC Studios (a commercial subsidiary of the BBC involved in the distribution of Doctor Who) told RadioTimes.com.
"BBC Studios took steps to remove the episode as quickly as possible and is investigating how this happened."
Doctor Who continues on BBC1 on Sundays
This article was originally published on 25 November 2018