Agnes 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 innocent, 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.