History remembers Agnes Waterhouse as one of the most influential witches of the Tudor period. Although the Inquisition in Europe started their trails and executions much earlier, Agnes was the first woman to be put to death for witchcraft in England – in 1566.
In 1542, Henry VIII passed an act against witchcraft. It was already considered a problem in the 15th century, but King Henry opened the doors for trials on a larger scale. Some believed that he did it due to his belief that Anne Boleyn (beheaded in 1536) was a witch who manipulated him by her spells.
Beware the Witch!
When the law condemning witchcraft came into effect, Agnes was in her 40s. She may have been born in 1503, although her early life wasn’t well documented. She lived in Hatfield Peverel, Essex, England. To local people she was known as Mother Waterhouse. This nickname suggests her position in society – perhaps as a single woman, who was generally seen as compassionate and helpful. She may have been a healer and wise woman. Her life was calm and normal until 1566, when she was accused of witchcraft along with two other women – Elizabeth Francis and Joan Waterhouse (Agnes’ daughter.
The trial against Agnes took place in Chelmsford, Essex. She was accused of using witchcraft to cause disease and the death of William Fynne, a neighbor. During the 16th century in England people were both fascinated and terrified with witchcraft. On the one hand, since Henry VIII became the head of the Anglican Church, the Catholic inquisition had no power in England. However, witchcraft was still disallowed and sternly punished.
The first recorded pre-trial for witchcraft took place in 1441. In that trial, the Duchess of Gloucester, Eleanor Cobham, stood accused of employing a magician named Roger Bolingbroke and a wise-woman named Margery Jourde mayne to kill Henry VI by sorcery. They were both found guilty – largely to warn others against such practices
The youngest of the accused, 18-year-old Joan Waterhouse said that she was curious about the cat and wanted to see it while her mother was away. She also played with it when it became a toad, but she claimed that she didn’t use the animal to learn anything from it or practice witchcraft. She treated it as a pet and had used it to play a joke on a neighbor, Agnes Brown. The girl was 12 years old, and she described seeing a demon. According to her, it was a black dog with a face of an ape, a short tail, and horns. The girl didn’t see the toad or a cat, but something much scarier. For the judges, this story said that Joan’s mother had put a spell on and wanted to hurt the young Brown girl