Anna Stevens

Witchcraft in Southwark

A Case Study of the London Suburb from 1568-1702

  • Faculty Advisor

    Edward Muir

Published On

June 2018

Originally Published

NURJ 2017-18
Honors Thesis

The subject of witchcraft has attracted morbid obsession for hundreds of years. Behind the modern stereotype of pointy hats, warts, and broomsticks, lies a sinister history of accusations, persecution, and loss of innocent life.  In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a frenzy of witchcraft trials occurred in Europe in which tens of thousands of accused persons were sentenced to death. The horrors of witchcraft persecution during this period have long attracted the attention of historians. Cultural fascination with witchcraft has been an enduring trend ever since the invention of the printing press facilitated the wide circulation of stories.  England provides a fruitful area of study in large part because of the immense amount of contemporary literature produced, primarily in the form of pamphlets.

Despite intense scholarly attention, a question that has been consistently neglected is why English witchcraft trials were an overwhelmingly rural phenomenon. Witchcraft beliefs were not confined to the ignorant and uneducated rural masses. Belief in the occult permeated every level of early modern English society, right up to the monarch. Despite the popular conception that London was a  “rational city” – a force of modernization and social change in the early modern period – many urban dwellers continued to share many of the same superstitions beliefs as their rural counterparts well into the seventeenth-century. Why, then, did urban communities experience such a relatively small number of prosecutions compared to the rest of the nation?

The vast majority of accusations arose in the countryside, which accounts for the strong rural image of English witchcraft.  Nonetheless, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a small number of cases arose even in the most urbanized settings in England.  Despite the fact that approximately eighty percent of the population of England lived in rural villages and hamlets, the virtual immunity of urban areas to witch persecution is conspicuous. [1]

1. Bernd Roeck, "Urban Witch Trials," Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 4, no. 1 (2009): 83, accessed December 5, 2017, http://dx.doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/mrw.0.0124.

This thesis investigates witchcraft beliefs and accusations between 1568 and 1702 in Southwark, a suburb of London just south of the river Thames. Southwark provides an accessible and valuable point of investigation of urban witchcraft for several reasons. First, the borough unquestionably qualifies as “urban” in the early modern. By 1600 ten percent of the population of the City of London lived in Southwark, making it the second largest urban area in England. [2] Second, Southwark provides a realistic area of study because of its legal of treatment of witchcraft prosecution. Southwark’s legal records are accessible because felony crime in the borough fell under the jurisdiction of the Justices of the Peace of Surrey and not the Corporation of the City of London. The idiosyncratic criminal justice system and the limited survival of court records in London make legal investigation immensely more difficult in the capital.  Outside of London and Middlesex, England was divided up into six judicial circuits of the courts of assize, made up of groups of neighboring counties. [3] As a felony charge, witchcraft trials took place in the courts of assize, which met twice a year, lent and summer, moving among the main towns in each county.  Unfortunately, of the six judicial circuits, only records from the Home Circuit (made up of the counties of Surrey, Sussex, Essex, Kent, and Hertfordshire) survive in any significant and useful quantity from the period in question.  The Home Circuit records allow for a unique comparison between an area, Southwark, and rural Surrey.

2. Boulton, Neighborhood and Society, 21.

3. Gregory Durston, Witchcraft and Witch Trials (Chichester: Barry Rose Law Publishers, 2000), 193.

In almost one hundred and fifty years, between 1568 and 1701, the legal records show that just eight women were prosecuted for witchcraft in in Southwark, compared to fifty-one in the rest of the county of Surrey.  The relative dearth of formal prosecutions in Southwark appears to confirm the idea that urbanites were liberated from the ignorant traditional beliefs of their rural counterparts. However, further investigation suggests the rational character of urban dwellers has been over exaggerated.  It would be premature to infer from these numbers that urban dwellers were free from the supernatural beliefs held by their rural neighbors. Witchcraft pamphlets and other written sources contain a great deal more information than the brief, limited indictments. They reveal the functionality of witchcraft belief and the social, cultural, and spiritual worlds in which this mindset made sense.  An examination of the print sources indicates witchcraft belief remained strong in Southwark at the turn of the seventeenth century.

It is extremely difficult to conceptualize and reconstruct the mental landscape of early modern Englishmen.  Religion offered a comprehensive view of the world – an explanation for human existence and a promise of future life. Magic beliefs, including witchcraft, provided respite for more temporary problems.  The insecure environment during this period caused a “preoccupation with the explanation and relief of human misfortune.” [4] Magical and religious belief systems mitigated the harshness of daily life and helped Tudor and Stuart Englishmen understand pain, poverty, hunger, sudden sickness, and death. It is the written sources that survive, primarily pamphlets, that offer a glimpse into the social world and mindset of early modern society and the climate of opinion that made accusations possible.

4. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971),5.  

There are just nine sources relating to magical activity in Southwark.  The pamphlets date from 1564 to 1704 and, although few in number, provide evidence that popular interest in witchcraft and supernatural activity was strong, and did not correlate with the dearth of prosecutions.  The fact that the stories of sorcery, supernatural activity, possession and cursing were printed in the first place implies that they were topics of great interest to the community. The small quantity of Southwark pamphlets makes some sense when taking into consideration the fact that nearly all witchcraft pamphlets in England dealt with convicted witches; none of the accused witches in Southwark were found guilty. [5] Most exonerated witches received little or no coverage, much to the dismay of the witchcraft historian.  Fortunately, there is one such case, the exception to the rule, which occurred in Southwark at the turn of the seventeenth century. Three written sources relating to the high-profile case of Richard Hathaway and the falsely accused Sarah Morduck, illustrate the entrenchment of deep-rooted witchcraft belief in the suburb as late as 1700.  

5. Barbara Singleton, “Witchcraft in Middlesex” (MPhil diss. , University of Reading, 1996), 102.

By the turn of the seventeenth century witchcraft prosecutions were few and far between throughout England. The period of decline began at the beginning of the century, peaking only once in the 1640s when the centralized court system failed to contain the religious fervor roused by the Civil War. [6] Judges grew increasingly reluctant to prosecute witchcraft cases as the seventeenth century went on. The English judiciary never took much initiative in the prosecution of witches – local actors drove criminal proceedings; but it was the judiciary who took the initiative to make the Witchcraft Act inoperative long before it was repealed. [7] Although the judges presiding over this period of growing skepticism did not necessarily deny the existence of witchcraft, they came to realize that most of the accused were innocent of any criminal charges. [8] After 1668, only 27 out of the total 513 women indicted for witchcraft in the Home Counties faced indictment. [9] The last certain execution of a witch in England occurred in 1682 in Exeter. This climate of skepticism makes it all the more surprising that the most notorious witchcraft case in Southwark occurred at the very end of the period of formal witchcraft prosecution in England.    

6. Brian P. Levack, “Introduction,” in The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, Oxford Handbooks Online, August 10, 2016, 438. http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com.turing.library.northwestern.edu/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199578160.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199578160-e-1.

7. Levack, The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft, 459.

8. Ibid., 441.

9. Cecil Henry l'Estrange Ewen, Witch Hunting and Witch Trials: The Indictments of Witchcraft from the Records of 1373 Assizes Held for the Home Circuit, 1559-1736 A.D. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1929), 99.

Richard Hathaway, a blacksmith’s apprentice from Southwark, accused Sarah Morduck, the wife of a Thames boatman, of bewitching him. Morduck endued great abuse from the community as a result of Hathway’s accusation.  Churches took up collections in Hathaway’s name and posted bills imploring their congregants to pray for the afflicted apprentice. [10] An angry mob attacked Morduck in the street one day and she fled to London, only to be pursued by Hathaway and his followers who broke into her lodgings.  Morduck was taken before a London alderman who ordered a search of Morduck’s person for teats and other witches marks, and allowed Hathaway to scratch her. Lane then committed Morduck to prison to await trial. Morduck stood trial on July 28th 1701 at the Surrey Summer assize sessions in Guildford for having “bewitched Richard Hathaway, who was wasted, consumed, etc,”[11] Seventeen people - eleven men and six women - endorsed her indictment. Despite being cleared at the assizes, Hathaway continued to successfully mobilize people and influence public sentiment in Southwark against his alleged bewitcher.   The assize records provide the bare bones for the case. However, our knowledge of the background of the case is remarkably detailed due to the survival of three contemporary sources – two pamphlets and a very unusual source: a State Trial report of Hathaway’s trial for being a cheat and imposter.

10. James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550-1750 (London; New York: Hamish Hamilton; Penguin, 1996), 228.

11. Cecil Henry l'Estrange Ewen, Witch Hunting and Witch Trials: The Indictments of Witchcraft from the Records of 1373 Assizes Held for the Home Circuit, 1559-1736 A.D. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1929),  Ewen, Witch Hunting and Witch Trials, 265.

The record from the Surrey assize notes that, after Morduck’s acquittal in July, Hathaway was jailed, held under suspicion of fraud. He faced trial on March 25th of the next year. The trial report, which survives in several forms, is a verbatim account of the legal proceedings at Hathaway’s trial.  The testimonies of witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense support the impression that witchcraft beliefs were widespread in the Southwark community. In total, twenty-nine people, including those who signed their names to Morduck’s indictment, sided with Hathaway in the trial. The record makes numerous mentions of the public interest in the case and the involvement of a variety of authoritative members of the community ranging from neighbors, clergy, constables, and magistrates.   The very fact that the crown prosecuted Hathaway for imposture suggests his alleged bewitchment incited significant public fervor. By 1700 the English judiciary had played an active role in the decline of witchcraft prosecution for decades; this initiative resulted in high levels of acquittals. But, very rarely did accusers face prosecution themselves. This high-profile case demanded a strong official response.

The Hathaway case offers proof that witchcraft beliefs endured even in periods of low-level prosecution and illustrates the uneasy coexistence of both judicial skepticism and persistent popular belief in urban areas. In Southwark, there were 60 and 54 years respectively between the last two trials – no witchcraft cases were brought to the assizes between 1587 and 1647, with another half-century passing before Sarah Morduck’s trial in 1701.  Formal accusations may not have been an important aspect of urban life, but this did not mean witch beliefs disappeared, or even significantly declined.

The Hathaway documents exemplify the complexity of each individual accusation. Despite the survival of a nearly thirty-page trial report, Hathaway’s motivations remain unclear. Was he motivated by economic insecurity, mental instability, or straightforward personal animosity? Historians may never know.  The value of the surviving pamphlets and trial report lies in the vivid illustration of three important themes: continuity of witch beliefs, rising skepticism, and shifting conceptions of neighborliness. The case exemplifies how witchcraft accusations increasingly divided opinion in the seventeenth-century. In 1701 the climate of opinion was such that, given the right triggers, accusations and aggressive hostilities could erupt in the urban suburb.  The violent assaults on Morduck expose deeply ingrained fears of maleficent magic. On the other hand, the almost unprecedented prosecution of Morduck’s accuser illustrates rising levels of skepticism. Rarely were those accused of witchcraft granted recourse, as Morduck was. Hathaway’s conviction represents a grander shift in the idea of neighborliness; as the rate of acquittals in witch trials rose it became increasingly apparent that many innocent, vulnerable women had been falsely accused; the tormenter of witches, rather than the witches themselves, became the symbol for un-neighborliness. Hathaway’s prosecution for disrupting public order and inciting unrest in Southwark characterizes a longer-term shift in the ideal of neighborliness. Educated opinion towards witchcraft undoubtedly shifted towards skepticism in the later seventeenth century, especially in the courts. But, the Hathaway case suggests popular attitudes had not made the same transformation. If belief in witchcraft continued to be pervasive in Southwark as late as the early 1700’s, the question remains: why weren’t more cases prosecuted in the early modern period?

Historians of witchcraft must confront a reality problem: how to seriously consider that whose very existence they reject. Witchcraft, with all its associated absurdities - nail-vomiting, human flying, apparitions, witch’s teats, and so on - provides a fascinating challenge.  It is easy, comforting even, to view the unsavory aspects of past ages as categorical mistakes, a surrender to irrationality. The concept of the “rational city” fits neatly into this narrative. Viewing cities as bastions of enlightenment, however, obscures the realities of life in the early modern city as experienced by most inhabitants.  While educated skepticism grew increasingly vocal and persuasive in seventeenth century England, the climate of popular opinion continued to be vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. Witchcraft existed as part of a culturally embedded belief system in the early modern period. Magic and magical thinking were not antiquated deviations from mainstream thought; nor were they marginal to the early modern world, but rather, intrinsic to it.  Along with religion and astrology, magic and witchcraft offered society a way to understand human misfortune and acted as systems of social control.

The eight Southwark cases show that urban Englishmen were not immediately relieved of their superstitions and folk traditions upon arrival to the metropolis.  Where details are known, the Southwark cases conform to the pattern of accusations in rural Surrey. The nature of the cases does not differ greatly; maleficium was the primary offense in most rural indictments, and in all the Southwark indictments. The only great difference is the absence of agriculture-related accusations in Southwark. Maleficium charges concerned with the death or illness of livestock made up a significant proportion of rural charges.  Historian Jeremy Boulton found evidence that resilient communities resembling tight-knight village structures existed in Southwark in the seventeenth-century, in spite of staggering population growth. The continuity, not just in beliefs but also in community structures, between rural agrarian society and urban society help explain occurrence of eight accusations in the suburb. It is, however, far easier to explain why accusations arose in Southwark, however, than it is to explain why they did not.

Searching for simple cause and effect in the investigation of witchcraft prosecution is useless. The spark to ignite accusations could come from a variety of underlying fears and causes. A range of emotions might lie behind accusations, fear and anger, certainly; but sometimes envy, intimidation, and resentment too. It is challenging, and sometimes impossible, to discern the reasons why some hostilities resulted in accusations and why others did not. In the context of urban Southwark, the explanation for the scarcity of accusations requires a multiple-reasons-why approach. Just as there were elements of continuity, there were factors that distinguished life in the urban suburb from traditional agrarian England. It is likely the massive increase in the population of Southwark also played an important part in the decline of witchcraft accusations, especially as the seventeenth century progressed.  Accusations often resulted from years of built up tension and hostility, as well as the accusers’ assurance that their community would support them. High levels of migration to the suburb likely disrupted the tight-knit communities to a degree – enough to impair the processes that gave rise to formal accusations.

The development of superior urban poor relief schemes provides another compelling explanation for the lower number of witchcraft accusations in Southwark.  As the population of London expanded, city authorities were confronted with increasing numbers of poor people, and corresponding social and criminal challenges.  Between 1514 and 1524 the capital and its suburbs adopted a number of negative regulations addressing vagrants and beggars, banning able-bodied vagrants to beg and forbidding citizens from giving to unlicensed beggars. [12] The parish became the administrator of poor relief for its own poor; individual almsgiving was banned and collections were to be placed in a common box. Due to the influx of laboring poor into City, the provision of relief funds was eventually undertaken by the State. Out of necessity, London became the first secular authority to organize poor relief for the public.

12. E. M. Leonard, The Early History of English Poor Relief (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900), 25.

The four parishes of Southwark possessed the normal parochial apparatus of poor relief administered by the Overseers of the Poor as well as permanent charitable institutions like the College of the Poor and St. Thomas’s Hospital.  The influx of vagrants to the metropolitan area necessitated the expansion of the system of poor relief in Southwark beyond the measures prescribed in the national 1601 Poor Law. Centralization occurred rapidly; by the 1620s poor relief in the Boroughside had become a three-tiered structure: The Overseers of the Poor were responsible to Surrey justices; the Warden of the General Poor and the Warden of the College Almshouse were both responsible to the vestry of St. Saviour’s. [13] Each body was responsible for providing different sources of income to distinct categories of poor.

13. Jeremy Boulton, Neighbourhood and Society: A London Suburb in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 92.

Despite the apparent comprehensiveness of the apparatus of poor relief in Southwark, the payments provided by the Overseers of the Poor did not do anything more than supplement incomes.  The typical pension in Southwark was 7-9D. a week, roughly half of the 14D. a week that a laborer might make in a day.[14] Such sums were not enough to support the recipient.  However, residents of Southwark had access to many different types of alternative income. Southwark was an occupationally diverse area. It was not uncommon to pursue different avenues of work; many individuals, particularly poor residents, did not rely on one occupation for their entire income. For the poorer sort, there were ways to survive without having to beg their neighbors for alms.  Pawn-broking provided a means of short-term relief for periods of economic hardship; in hard times, one could supplement income by pawning off belongings to wealthier neighbors. [15] The aged, poor and infirm could often find employment in minor parish or manorial offices, some individuals or households kept livestock to supplement their income, some took in abandoned children, while even more earned money nursing abandoned children. [16] Lodging was a particularly important means of income supplementation in ever-expanding London: well-to-do householders could invest in rental property, but householders of any class could take in lodgers. [17] The influx of migrants and travelers meant that accommodation was always in demand. The dynamic local economy of metropolitan Southwark provided more flexibility for its inhabitants – especially the more vulnerable segment of the population – than a rural economy, with a superior system of poor relief to fall back on.

14. Jeffrey L. Forgeng, Daily Life in Stuart England (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), 129.

15. Boulton, Neighborhood and Society, 265.

16. Boulton, Neighborhood and Society, 84.

17. Ibid., 265.

Was English witchcraft a rural phenomenon? Simply put, it was not.  Improvement in controlling the environment in urban Southwark contributed to the gradual decline of prosecutions.  Urban society provided both superior poor relief and more alternative modes of income for the vulnerable classes. These developments improved social security and control and alleviated some of the types of insecurities that fostered accusations in village communities. Most importantly, urban living and the mitigation of instability and sudden disaster facilitated a shift in mentality just as much as a structural change.  Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries urbanites slowly and unconsciously developed a confidence in their own ability to help themselves, thus weakening the everyday significance of magic and witchcraft.

Modernization is a process, an incorporation of new ideas and technologies that transform the way people live their lives. Modernity, in contrast, is an experience. The world we live in can change in the blink of an eye, but changes in the human psyche are mysterious and difficult to track. There are few easy answers, and still a great deal to understand about the witchcraft phenomenon.  The study of witchcraft in Southwark shows that belief systems transformed gradually. The modernization taking place in the “rational cities” of early modern England did not indicate a quick or complete dismissal of traditional beliefs; but it did nudge popular thought and discourse away from magical customs and practices in the direction of critical reasoning and eventually, a new, modern worldview.


Anna majored in history and minored in political science at Northwestern University.  Her specific academic interests include Tudor and Stuart history and the American Revolution. Since graduation in June 2017 Anna has moved to London where she is currently undertaking a yearlong masters course in publishing at University College London. She continues to haunt the halls of various archives in her free time.


Boulton, Jeremy. Neighbourhood and Society: A London Suburb in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Durston, Gregory. Witchcraft and Witch Trials: A History of English Witchcraft and Its Legal Perspectives, 1542 to 1736. Chichester: Barry Rose Law Publishers, 2000.

Ewen, C. L'Estrange. Witch Hunting and Witch Trials: The Indictments for Witchcraft from the Records of 1373 Assizes Held for the Home Circuit A. D. 1559-1736. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1929.

Leonard, E. M. The Early History of English Poor Relief. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900.

Forgeng, Jeffrey L. , Daily Life in Stuart England (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007).

Levack, Brian P. “Introduction.” In The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America. Oxford Handbooks Online. Accessed August 10, 2016. http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com.turing.library.northwestern.edu/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199578160.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199578160-e-1.

Roeck, Bernd, "Urban Witch Trials," Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 4, no. 1 (2009): 83, accessed December 5, 2017, http://dx.doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/mrw.0.0124.

Singleton,  Barbara, “Witchcraft in Middlesex” (MPhil diss. , University of Reading, 1996).