By 1619 James, according to Borman, was becoming skeptical about witches. None the less, events such as the Belvoir Witch Trial meant that witchcraft remained a topic of much interest.
I’ve posted about the Belvoir Witches previously but just a quick reminder, the Earl of Rutland’s two young sons died. Blame was ultimately placed on Joan Flowers and her two daughters, Margaret and Philippa. They had been dismissed from their posts at Belvoir accused of theft and had left muttering curses. The family had fallen on hard times – probably because Joan’s husband, John, had died. It was rumoured that the three women were offering a range of services to community – at any rate both daughters were described in the records as “abandoned and profligate.” It probably didn’t help that Joan liked a good argument.
Then Henry Manners, Lord Ros died. The doctors had been unable to decide what his illness might have been. Shortly after that the Earl of Rutland’s other son also died. Initially the earl and his wife Cecilia (incidentally a Tresham of Gunpowder Plot connections) didn’t believe that the deaths were witchcraft but ultimately the Flowers women were arrested and taken off to Lincoln for trial where they inevitably confessed.
However, times so far as James were concerned, were changing. When the Leicestershire witch trials took place James was on progress and interrogated the women and their accusers. They were released. James was beginning to develop skepticism. When he wrote a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer he made no mention to the existence of evil in the form of witches – as he lost interest so the number of witch trials declined. It was becoming more common to make jokes about witches rather than to string up hapless little old ladies who had the misfortune to be poor, ill looking cat owners. This was unfortunate for witch hunters who were usually paid by result which probably accounts for the fact that once one was discovered several more popped up in the same place.
Some of the women accused of witchcraft now took the opportunity to take their accusers to court. One of them Agnes Fenn, a Norfolk widow of mature years, went to the Star Chamber and named the men who’d set upon her, beaten her, forced her to sit on knives and set off gunpowder in her face in an effort to make her confess to being a witch. Despite having been terrorised and stabbed in the face the Norfolk gentlemen who had carried out the attack declared themselves innocent of the accusation and Agnes received no further redress – demonstrating that being old and poor wasn’t a good starting point from which to hope for justice.
By the 1630’s killing witches was almost a thing of the past – but then the English Civil War came along and with one thing and another witch hunting once more became a popular pastime.