A woman? Check. In the habit of annoying powerful people? Check.


Perhaps Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor shouldn’t be altogether surprised if she finds herself in a spot of bother in the latest Doctor Who episode, The Witchfinders, which sees the Time Lord and her companions stumble into the midst of a witch trial in 17th-century Lancashire — where any woman challenging the status quo (even if it’s just by grinding up a few herbs) is under suspicion.

But what happened during real-life witch trials — and how did a witch finder (yes, an actual job title) judge whether someone was a witch or not?

When were the witch trials?

The persecution of ‘witches’ began long before the seventeenth century — throughout the medieval and Tudor periods people were accused of practicing witchcraft.

But in England, there was a real spike in the number of witch hunts and trials during the 1600s. Historians have suggested that it’s no coincidence that this craze occurred during a major period of social unrest. King James I lived in fear of a repeat of the Catholic gunpowder plot, while the mid-1600s saw the start of the English Civil War. Paranoia was rife, and people needed scapegoats.

More like this

There was also a rise in professional ‘witch finders’ or witch hunters. The most infamous witch finder was Matthew Hopkins, who became “Witch Finder Generall” (a term mentioned during the episode) after finding six ‘witches’ in 1644 in Manningtree, Essex — the start of a lucrative career for Hopkins, as he and his two assistants would hire themselves out, charging locals for identifying so-called witches wherever they went.

In the total, roughly 230 people were killed after Hopkins identified them as witches.

What happened during witch trials — and what were the Pendle Hill trials?

Doctor Who, The Witch Finders (BBC)

So what happened if you were unlucky enough to raise the suspicions of Hopkins or another witch finder?

The Pendle Hill witch trials of 1612 are among the most famous examples of the period, and they’re name checked by Graham (played by Bradley Walsh) during The Witchfinders. Twelve people (including two men) who lived around Pendle Hill in Lancashire — just over the hill from the fictitious village where the Doctor and friends find themselves — were arrested under suspicion of practising witchcraft. Some were accused of cursing their neighbours, while two women admitting (after questioning) to selling their souls.

One of the ‘witches’ died in custody, and of the other eleven, ten were executed. Locals testified during the trials (often bringing up family feuds and gripes), including a nine-year-old girl — whose mum was one of the women accused. The girl normally would have been considered too young to give evidence, but all normal rules were suspended during witch trials.

How could you tell if someone was a witch?

Doctor Who, The Witch Finders (BBC)

In The Witchfinders, the Doctor and her companions find out about one pretty deadly method used to ‘test’ whether someone was a witch. The accused was bound and thrown into water, or else tied to a ducking stool and held below the surface. The idea behind it is that a witch would have rejected the Church and their own baptism, so the water would repel them and they’d float. If they were innocent, they’d sink — and probably drown.

Other methods included pricking any mark or deformity on the accused’s skin with a needle or pin. If it didn’t bleed, it was a witch’s mark used to suckle imps. Lovely.

Men could also be accused of practicing witchcraft, although historically women were far more likely to be persecuted.

Why was King James I interested in witchcraft?

King James I (played by The Good Wife’s Alan Cumming) is undoubtedly the funniest (and campest) guest character to appear in The Witchfinders. But, as seen in the episode, the real-life king was very superstitious, particularly when it came to witches and, of course, catching witches.

In fact, the only reason that nine-year-old girl was able to give evidence against the Pendle Hill witches was because of a rule James came up with in his self-published book, Daemonologie, which was all about — you guessed it — witches, and methods used to spot and catch them. There’s even a copy of the book shown during the episode (it's owned by that devious Downton Abbey maid — sorry, Siobhan Finneran, who plays a cruel witch finder called Becka).

It's thought that around 50,000 people were executed for witchcraft between 1500 and the 1800s across Europe — and unfortunately King James I's keen interest in witch trials inspired further persecution across the country.

Doctor Who continues on BBC1 on Sundays


This article was originally published on 25 November 2018