Witchcraft

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A classic medieval image of witchcraft
Witchcraft was widespread in Jersey in the 16th and 17th centuries, as it was elsewhere in Europe. This was an era when the traditional Catholic faith was being challenged by Calvinism, Anglicanism and other belieft and many could not risk open displays of their religion, leading to the spread of suspicious and rumours.

The extent to which witchcraft was practiced and the form which devil worship took are a matter for considerable dispute today, and some of the views expressed by major historians such as George Balleine are now challenged by others who have made a detailed study of witchcraft.

Devil worship

Some argue that Pagan gods, who formed no part of the Christian faith, were worshipped as devils. There was such a fear of these devil worshipers that for the well-being of the community it was considered important to seek out and destroy them. However, the opposing view is that "there is no documentary evidence that there was a belief in devil worship in Jersey; there is no evidence at all of any worship of pagan gods in Jersey around the time of the witch trials".

"The nearest to any pagan worship would be the placing of votive offerings for good luck, such as at the Gran Mere in Guernsey. There is no evidence that this was more than folk belief and custom rather than any organised pagan cult, much as people "touch wood" or see omens in numbers of magpies seen even nowadays."

Judgment of God

Were disputes in Jersey settled by The Judgement of God, as it is commonly claimed, with trials by cross, water and fire? The first supposedly required the accused to stand in a position resembling the cross, with arms outstretched. Whoever stayed in this position the longest was adjudged to have right on their side.

The trial by water was unbelievably cruel and devious. A heavy weight was placed at the bottom of a cauldron of water, which was then brought to boiling point. The accused was made to plunge their hand in the cauldron to retrieve the weight and then carry it for a distance of nine feet. Their hand was then wrapped and sealed and had to remain like this for three nights. If, after this time, the hand was healthy, the accused would be judged to be innocent. If it showed signs of scalding, that proved guilt.

The trial by fire was the same, except that here the accused had to carry a red hot iron for nine feet before having their hand bandaged.


A witch is put on trial

But others argue that none of the legal material (the Mirror of Justice etc) gives any evidence for this kind of trial, nor do any of the cases (as reported in Balleine or Pitts). The trials involved imprisonment in Gorey Castle, and repeated interrogation before the lesser courts. Torture as such is not evidenced, Guernsey had thumbscrews but the Jersey records don't mention this, although shaving for witches marks would have been humiliating and degrading, and the time in the cold damp dungeons on bread and water would have also applied duress.

The only trial by ordeal in the earliest records for sorcery (not witchcraft as such) is by casting the victim from a high cliff, which suggests a possible basis for the Geoffrey's leap story, which is possibly a garbled account.

Witches' stones

People were genuinely scared of witches and it was common for crosses to be engraved around any possible entry point into houses - doors, windows and chimneys. An acorn carried in the pocket was also thought to guard against evil and an acorn design was widely incorporated into the stonework and entrances of old buildings. However, steps were taken to welcome witches and encourage them to move on to other houses. Witches' stones were, some claim, stones jutting out of granite chimneys, put there as a resting place for witches. Or were they simply built into chimneys to prevent rain water seeping under old thatched roofs?

Guernsey Bailiff

Jerseyman Hellier Gosselin was Bailiff of Guernsey in the 16th century and presided over a number of witch trials, including the notorious trial which led to a mother and her two daughters being burned at the stake. Gosselin was replaced as Bailiff and imprisoned for his role, although he was later pardoned.

Jersey witch trials

Some sources suggest that over 60 witch trials were held in Jersey between 1562 and 1736, with over half the accused being burned or hanged.

Historian the Rev George Balleine's book Witch Trials in Jersey lists the following:

  • 1562 - St.Brelade; Anne; Executed
  • 1562 - St.Ouen; Michelle la Blanche Vestue; Executed on the gibbet of Hures
  • 1563 - Becquet, Thomasse; Acquitted
  • 15?? - Le Vesconte, Pasquette; Banished
  • 1583 - Corbel, Marion; Died in Castle before trial
  • 1585 - St Ouen; Le Vesconte, Jeanne; Executed
  • 1585 - St Lawrence;Bellee, Michielle; Executed.
  • 1585 - Le Vesconte, Pasquette; Executed after returning to her "tours et mallefices diabolique"
  • 1585 - St Clement;Morant, Jean, son of Phillipe; Executed
  • 1585 - Orenges, Katherine; Executed
  • 1591 - St Brelade; Vauldin, Symon; Executed
  • 1591 - Jamet, Beneste; Executed
  • 1591 - Bertram, Katherine; Executed
  • 1591 - St Peter; Alixandre, Michiel; Executed
  • 1591 - St Peter; Alixandre, Collas, son of Michiel; Acquitted
  • 1593 - St Lawrence; Poret, Marie; Commited to the Castle, fate unknown.
  • 1597 - Fallu, Pernelle; Jury disagreed; Released with a warning
  • 1597 - Le Mestre, Francoise; Jury disagreed; Released with a warning.
  • 1599 - Alixandre, Marie, widow of Michiel Alixandre; Executed.
  • 1599 - Anley, Marie widow of Richard Anley; Commited to the Castle, fate unknown
  • 1599 - Grouville; Le Four, Marie; Unanimously acquitted
  • 1600 - Amy, Collette; Executed
  • 1600 - Hotton, Jeanne; Executed
  • 1600 - Picot, Phillipine; Executed
  • 1602 - St Ouen; Le Rues, Marguerite; Executed
  • 1602 - St Ouen; Rogerez, Marie, wife of Jacques Le Breton; Executed
  • 1605 - Guillame, Pasquette, wife of Jean le Quesne; Arrested several times, executed.
  • 1616 - Du Mont, Collette; Confessed to having had sex with a devil
  • Marie (born about 1640), wife of Jean Le Dain, is said to be the last person in the Channel Islands to be executed for sorcery
  • Thomyne Le Dain (born in 1609) was hanged and strangled for witchcraft

1648 trials

"The war against witches continued, but there was no panic persecution, for each witch was given a fair trial. First the Constable and six sermentés (sworn witnesses) had to be convinced of her guilt, and then the Crown officers had to agree to prosecute. The accused had unlimited right to challenge unfriendly jurors, and five votes out of 24 were enough to secure acquittal.
"Of seven witch trials in 1648, two of the accused were banished, two were discharged with a warning, one was flogged, only two were executed.
"Marie Esnouf, grand-daughter of a former Rector of St John, was accused of 'having by diabolic spells caused many human beings to die, and others to fall into a decline, and also much cattle'. She strenuously denied her guilt, but more than sixty witnesses appeared against her. At her execution in the Market Place, 'no such crowd had been seen since the Prince came to Jersey; men, women, lads and girls, thronged the churchyard walls and the slopes of the Town Hill'. A fortnight later
"Marie Grandin paid the same penalty. 'She was accused', says Chevalier, 'of atrocious acts, and from seventy to eighty witnesses gave evidence against her. The "Devil's Mark" was found on her head'.

Archive presentation

In 2010 staff of the Jersey Archive gave a presentation based on their investigations into records of witchcraft in the island.

Early references

Witchcraft and Devil Lore in the Channel Islands by John Linwood Pitts

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