Witchy Women: Agnes Waterhouse

AAgnes Waterhouse was executed in 1566; she was the first woman in England to be executed for witchcraft.

Executed for witchcraft.

Let that just sink in for a moment, because Agnes Waterhouse is one of many women who were executed for witchcraft. Waterhouse, her daughter Joan, and another of the townswomen, Elizabeth Francis, were accused of witchcraft and put on trial. The recordings of their trial and execution led to the publication of numerous pamphlets on witchcraft and witches, pamphlets which would be used to convict and condemn many other people.

Here’s the story:

It involves a cat, of course. A familiar. And naturally, his name was Satan.

Agnes, Joan, and Elizabeth lived in Hatfield Perevel, a small English township. Elizabeth had a cat–some sources report that her grandmother had given her the cat–that reportedly would do whatever was asked of it if given milk and blood. At the trial, Elizabeth claimed that the cat could speak and that it had helped her perform an abortion and aided her in killing her former lover, among others. It was at Elizabeth’s trial that Agnes was accused, probably as an attempt by Elizabeth to lighten her sentence.

Elizabeth Francis claimed that she exchanged the cat for a cake from Agnes Waterhouse and that she taught Agnes how to do much of the witchcraft that Elizabeth’s grandmother had taught her. At Agnes’s trial, she admitted to first having the cat kill one of her own pigs just to see what it was capable of. After that worked, she used the cat’s powers to kill some of the livestock of her neighbors, who she was in a deep disagreement with. She then claimed to have turned her familiar into a toad.

Agnes’s daughter, Joan, was also accused of witchcraft. She testified against her mother, claiming that she’d used her mother’s toad to exact revenge upon a neighborhood child, Agnes Brown. Brown’s testimony that a demon-dog had come into her room, sent by Agnes Waterhouse, was some of the most damning testimony in the long, convoluted trial.

Eventually, the trials were finished and the sentencing handed down–Joan Waterhouse was found Witchyinnocent, while Elizabeth was convicted and imprisoned for a year (she would later be executed for witchcraft, after another accusation and trial). Agnes Waterhouse was sentenced to death for her crimes, which included using witchcraft to kill her husband and to make a neighbor, William Fynne, ill.

So why did Agnes receive such a harsh punishment?

The answer lies in the historical context. Witchcraft was a growing concern during the early Elizabeth period, not only in England but in Europe at large. In 1563, the “Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments, and Witchcrafts,” was enacted. Among other stipulations, the act required that anyone found guilty of witchcraft that had resulted in a death be put to death themselves; it also made invoking evil spirits a felony offense. Because Agnes was accused of making William Fynne ill, and because he died, her crime was punishable by death under the new law.

The legacy of the Waterhouse trial and conviction was a long one. Mother Waterhouse, as Agnes became commonly referred to, became a central figure in early pamphlets and studies on witchcraft. And Essex county, where the trial was held, was also the hub of witchcraft trials at the time, perhaps due to its close proximity to the capitol (30-ish miles from London, it would’ve been easy to access central authority figure) and a strong Protestant presence that was determined to stamp out heresy.

And so Agnes Waterhouse, who had confessed to witchcraft, was put to death in July of 1566. And while her death might’ve been the first recorded execution in England because of witchcraft, it certainly would not be the last.

*This post is a part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge.
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50 Comments

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    1. 😀 Hooray!

      Agnes Waterhouse was a new find for me when I was getting ready for the challenge. I was so fascinated by her that I had a hard time moving on!

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    1. I think in some ways, yes…But they were also very much in a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation. Pretty often, not confessing would’ve just been seen as evidence of a lie and thus of being in league with the devil. But confessing meant, of course, admission of guilt. So there was just no way to avoid conviction in some cases, but you could get leniency if you either claimed you’d been forced or that you were an apprentice to someone else.

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    1. It is pretty amazing. But I think we have our own versions of these things happening. It’s just easier to see how absurd the witch hunts and the executions for suspected witchcraft were from so far away!

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  1. Great topic. Have you seen the recent horror film “The Witch?” It’s probably not historically accurate but it paints a vivid picture of the psychology of with hunts. It’s meant to be horror, not educational but I did enjoy it.

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  2. I always have a hard time understanding witchcraft. People of certain times seemed to think it was an actual thing, to the point that even the victims believed in it. It’s kind of fascinating… I mean, how could that ever happened?
    Really like this post. Made me think.

    @JazzFeathers
    The Old Shelter – Jazz Age Jazz

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was much easier to believe in all of this when we didn’t have such a wealth of information about science and the universe. When there weren’t microscopes that could see infinitesimally small particles and telescopes that could see huge parts of the galaxy, it was much easier to think that things we now know are natural or just coincidence were in fact caused by spirits. There’s also the elements of anti-Catholic and anti-pagan sentiment that tend to precipitate witchcraft laws and witch-hunts in the West.

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      1. I think that last part is prominent. Ancient cultures had the same ‘problem’ with limited knowledge, but I’m not aware of anything remotely similar to witchhunt.

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  3. I have to join in with the orhers, great theme, but I think I told you that before the challenge started…
    I must confess I never heard of Agnes Waterhouse, and this is really captivating and interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much!

      I’m learning a lot as I go, too. Agnes Waterhouse was a name I ran across as I was doing research, and the whole incident seemed like she was well worth including.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. 🙂 Why thanks.

          I’m trying to use the challenge to kick-start my research and writing again. I’ve gotten super-lax about it over the past few months, and I don’t feel like I’m accomplishing much on the writing anymore. Maybe this will help. 🙂

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    1. Definitely.

      I always have to remind myself, when I start thinking about how I’m “living in the wrong era” that no, no I’m not. I was meant to be a modern woman. lol

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  4. I can’t remember if I told you but yours is probably the theme I am most interested in this year. Have you seen the movie The Witch? I have become a little obsessed with it and the true stories that shaped it. Your theme feeds right into that lol I look forward to reading all month 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hooray!

      I wanted to see The Witch when it came out, but I didn’t make it before it left theaters. I’m definitely going to check it out when it is released on video though!

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      1. Oh you have to see it! But I will warn you it definitely isn’t for everyone. It’s got the slow tension build thing, like “The Shining” does. I loved it but I hear some people thought it was boring :/

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ve heard mixed reviews, but mostly positive things.

          I’m interested in seeing it from a technical side, too, as it looks like it’s beautifully shot.

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        2. I will definitely let you know. 🙂 I’m lucky to have quite a few friends and a husband who are into horror films, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing it when it’s streaming.

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