" Hath not this present parliament A lieger to the devil sent, Fully empower^ to treat about Finding revolted -witches out ? And has he not within a year Hang'd threescore of them in one shire? Some only for not being drown'd, And some for sitting above ground Whole days and nights upon their breeches, And feeling pain, were hang'd for witches. And some for putting knavish tricks Upon green geese or turkey chicks; Or pigs that suddenly deceased Of griefs unnatural, as he guess'd, Who proved himself at length a witch, And made a rod for his own breech." *
The understanding reader will easily conceive, that this alteration of the current in favour of those who disapproved of witch-prosecutions must have received encouragement from some quarter of weight and influence ; yet it may sound strangely enough that this spirit of lenity should have been the result of the peculiar principles of those sectarians of all denominations, classed in general as Independents, who, though they had originally courted the Presbyterians as the more numerous and prevailing party, had at length shaken themselves loose of that connexion, and finally combated with and overcome them. The Independents were distinguished by the wildest licence in their religious tenets, mixed with much that was nonsensical and mystical. They disowned even the title of a regular clergy, and allowed the preaching of any one who could draw together a congregation that would support him, or who was willing, without recompence, to minister to the spiritual necessities of his hearers. Although such laxity of discipline afforded scope to the wildest enthusiasm, and room for all possible varieties of doctrine, it had, on the other hand, this inestimable recommendation, that it contributed to a degree of general toleration which was at that time unknown to any other Christian establishment. The very genius of a religion which admitted of the subdivision of sects ad infinitum excluded a legal prosecution of any one of these for heresy or apostasy. If there had even existed a sect of Manichaeans, who made it their practice to adore the Evil Principle, it may be doubted whether the other sectaries would have accounted them absolute outcasts from the pale of the church ; and, fortunately, the same sentiment induced them to regard with horror the prosecutions against witchcraft. Thus the Independents, when, under Cromwell, they attained a supremacy over the Presbyterians, who to a certain point had been their allies, were disposed to counteract the violence of such proceedings, under pretence of witchcraft, as had been driven forward by the wretched Hopkins, in Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk, for three or four years previous to 1647.
* Hudibras, part ii. canto 3.
The return of Charles II. to his crown and kingdom served in some measure to restrain the general and wholesale manner in which the laws against witchcraft had been administered during the warmth of the Civil War. The statute of the 1st of King James, nevertheless, yet subsisted ; nor is it in the least likely, considering the character of the prince, that he, to save the lives of a few old men or women, would have run the risk of incurring the odium of encouraging or sparing a crime still held in horror by a great part of his subjects. The statute, however, was generally administered by wise and skilful judges, and the accused had such a chance of escape as the rigour of the absurd law permitted.
Nonsense, it is too obvious, remained in some cases predominant. In the year 1663, an old dame, named Julian Coxe, was convicted chiefly on the evidence of a huntsman, who declared on his oath, that he laid his greyhounds on a hare, and, coming up to the spot where he saw them mouth her, there he found, on the other side of a bush, Julian Coxe lying panting and breathless, in such a manner as to convince him that she had been the creature which had afforded him the course. The unhappy woman was executed on this evidence.
Two years afterwards (1664,) it is with regret we must quote the venerable and devout Sir Matthew Hales, as presiding at a trial, in consequence of which Amy Dunny and Rose Callender were hanged at Saint Edmondsbury. But no man, unless very peculiarly circumstanced, can extricate himself from the prejudices of his nation and age. The evidence against the accused was laid, 1st, on the effect of spells used by ignorant persons to counteract the supposed witchcraft ; the use of which was, under the statute of James I., as criminal as the act of sorcery which such counter charms were meant to neutralize. 2dly, The two old women, refused even the privilege of purchasing some herrings, having expressed themselves with angry impatience, a child of the herring-merchant fell ill in consequence. 3dly, A cart was driven against the miserable cottage of Amy Dunny. She scolded, of course; and shortly after, the cart (what a good driver will scarcely comprehend) stuck fast in a gate, where its wheels touched neither of the posts, and yet was moved easily forward on one of the posts (by which it was not impeded) being cut down. 4thly, One of the afflicted girls, being closely muffled, went suddenly into a fit upon being touched by one of the supposed witches. But upon another trial, it was found that the person so blindfolded fell into the same rage at the touch of an unsuspected person. What perhaps sealed the fate of the accused, was the evidence of the celebrated Sir Thomas Browne, " that the fits were natural, but heightened by the power of the devil co-operating with the malice of witches ;"—a strange opinion, certainly, from the author of a treatise on Vulgar Errors! *
But the torch of science was now fairly lighted, and gleamed in more than one kingdom of the world, shooting its rays on every side, and catching at all means which were calculated to increase the illumination. The Royal Society, which had taken its rise at Oxford, from a private association, who met in Dr. Wilkin's chambers about the year 1652, was, the year after the Restoration, incorporated by royal charter, and began to publish its Transactions, and give a new and more rational character to the pursuits of philosophy.