What follows is copyrighted material.  Use of this material is restricted.
You may ONLY do the following with this material: (1) Read it, (2) Provide a
link to this page, (3) Distribute an exact print-out of this page, (4) Use any
ideas from this work or make quotations from this work, provided that
the proper credit is attributed to this work with the appropriate citation
format.  All other uses are prohibited without the express permission of
Thomas A. Donaldson.  Permission may be requested by e-mailing the
following address:  I will assert all of my
available legal rights against anyone who violates the terms of this notice.

The Role of the "Familiar"
in English Witch Trials
by Thomas A. Donaldson
December 1995


    In the year 1645, Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed "Witch Finder Generall,"[1]  initiated a brutal campaign against witches in Essex, England.  He used a relatively simple criterion for evaluating a suspected witch: if the suspect possessed a familiar spirit, which usually took the form of a domestic animal, (s)he was probably a witch.[2]   Convicting someone as witch on these grounds was nothing new.  Hopkins' campaign marked the culmination of a century of English witch trials that actively identified suspected witches with animal familiars.  Familiars played a central role in certain English witch trials between 1550 and 1650 in that they provided the main body of evidence.  Therefore it becomes essential to understand what was meant by a "familiar" and analyze the role that it played in the life of a "witch" in terms of these trials.

    Unfortunately, historical scholarship has been cloudy in this area.  Experts in European witchcraft, like Keith Thomas, Joseph Klaits, and Norman Cohn, have only given a passing reference to familiars.[3]   Klaits, for example, offers a one-phrase definition of the term "familiar": "a demon in animal form."[4]   While this brief definition could be considered accurate, his limited treatment conveys the impression that familiars were a side, if not unimportant, issue.  Since definitions of "familiar" and other similar terms have been confused and under-treated by scholars, I will labor to provide a general description of familiars by drawing parallels between the trials at Chelmsford (1556), St. Osyth (1582), Warboys (1593), and Lancaster (1612).[5]

    Familiars were, first and foremost, spirits.  These spirits usually had their own names, communicated to human beings through speech, and sometimes displayed distinct personalities and motives.  Most of these spirits took on the physical form of a domestic animal and established a relationship with a particular person, often a woman with evil intentions.  They helped the "witch" carry out her maleficia; in this respect the trial records depict them as having incredible, unearthly powers.  The familiar was by no means a subservient, faithful helper who followed the witch's every command.  The relationship between the familiar and the witch is better characterized as "give-and-take."  Some familiars played the role of little devils in that they requested a pact (often satanic in nature) before they would perform any services for the witch.  Furthermore, almost all of them craved nourishment in the form of human blood.  They would attach themselves to some part of the witch's body and suck blood out of her, leaving a bruise that witch hunters called the "witch's mark."  The familiars and witch's mark acted as a strong evidence in the many trials.  Matthew Hopkins later exploited these forms of evidence in his massive witch-finding campaign in the middle of the seventeenth century.  Many people were executed on the basic grounds that they kept animals or had a strange mark on their body.  Given this fact, it is amazing that scholarship in this area is so shallow.  As mentioned before, very few studies of European or English witchcraft treat this subject with more than a couple of paragraphs.  The picture of English witch beliefs will remain incomplete until familiars are fully understood.

 The Trials: Chelmsford, St. Osyth, Warboys, and Lancaster

    I have chosen to conduct my study based on four trial records which are especially rich in their depiction of familiars.  Chelmsford, a village in Essex County, sponsored many witch persecutions from 1550 to 1650.  The records I have examined, written by an anonymous author in 1556 and later in 1566,[6]  actually come from a smaller village near Chelmsford called Hatfield Peverel,[7]  but I will refer to the trial in the future as the "Chelmsford trial."  This trial focused on one particular familiar, a cat by the name of "Sathan," and only four[8]  people faced accusations of witchcraft.  In the 1580s, Essex County witnessed a much higher volume of witch accusations,[9]  and the trial at St. Osyth in 1582, in which Lord Brian Darcy accused thirteen women, was no exception.  The  record, written by someone who called himself "W.W.",[10]  documents no less than sixteen distinct familiars and thus provides us with very useful information.  The third pamphlet, from the trial at Warboys (1593), also by an unknown author, describes several spirits which were incarnated into chickens.  This record distinguishes itself from the other records in that it focusses more on the victims than on the "witches."  The Throckmorton family finds itself continually pestered by the evil familiars.  Finally, I have examined Thomas Potts' account of the trials at Lancashire (Lancaster) in 1616.  Thomas Potts recounts in this record a number of familiars which appear and disappear at will, and advise the "witches" on certain charms.  It is important to note that with regards to familiars, these trials do not fit nicely into a developmental model; there is little evidence to support the theory that characteristics of the familiars in one trial were directly passed on to a later trial.  Nonetheless, the parallels between the familiars in these trials cannot be ignored.  Based on these parallels, I will construct my expanded definition of the traditionally under-developed term, "familiar."

    It is important to note the complexity of this undertaking.  The reliability of the trial records raises an immediate concern.  Alan MacFarlane, in his essay on witchcraft beliefs in Essex, noted that the evidence presented in these records was only a portion of what went on during the actual proceedings.[11]   Some trials may actually have involved more familiars than were presented in the record, or perhaps the authors of these trial records found it particularly interesting to focus on familiars and left the other details out.  Thus, it must be kept in mind that we are simply missing some of the information.   The popular means by which confessions were often extorted, physical torture, creates another problem with using the trial records.  Thus, when I refer to someone "confessing" to something, the reader should remember that it may have little to do with what this person actually did or believed.  Despite the problems that arise from using these records, their value is difficult to over-estimate; they provide a window through which witchcraft beliefs of the time can be examined, at least through the eyes of the accusers.

    The other main problem in attempting to define what was understood by a "familiar" involves the various terminology used in the different trial records.  Some of the other words used in exchange for "familiar" were "imp," "devil," "demon," or "spirit."  Also, the words "personal" or "familiar" were sometimes interposed in front of these words (i.e. "familiar spirit").  It is evident that these words can be distinguished by subtle differences.[12]   In order to avoid using similar inconsistencies in my own analysis, I will primarily employ the word "familiar."  In general, a familiar could appear in the form of a human or an animal, or take no shape at all.  However, in these English witch trials, animal familiars were clearly the most prevalent.  It is this aspect upon which I will concentrate my study.

 Familiars: Their Forms and Functions

    What means did a witch employ to acquire her familiar?  The records show two possible answers to this question; either she[13]  inherited the animal from another witch, or the animal approached the witch on its own.  None of the records I examined indicate that the familiar was conjured or summoned by the witch herself.  In the Chelmsford trial (1556), a "whyte spotted Catte" by the name of "Sathan" (an older spelling of Satan) was passed down from witch to witch.[14]   Twelve-year old Elizabeth Frauncis received the cat from her grandmother and later gave it away to Agnes Waterhouse.  Margerie Sammon, in the trial at St. Osyth (1582), also inherited her familiars:

                [Margerie] confessed that she had in truth these
                two imps given to her by her mother...Her mother
                had said if she did not like to keep them old Joan
                Pechey would be glad of them.[15]

Margerie's mother obviously felt like she had to pass them on to somebody; she could not just get rid of them.  As the familiars were her primary vehicle for maleficia, transfer of familiars meant transfer of witchcraft power.  This inheritance system  fits in well with the common belief that witchcraft practices generally stayed in a particular family and were handed down from generation to generation.

    Most of the time, the familiar itself initiated the contact with the witch.  It would choose a person to attach itself to, and that person rarely had any choice but to keep it.  In the Chelmsford trial, Sathan approached Joan Waterhouse (the daughter of Agnes Waterhouse) and offered his services.  All of the familiars in the trial of the Lancaster witches (1612) also "appeared" in front of the person of their choosing.[16]   A spirit called "Ball" appeared to Elizabeth Device in the form of a brown dog, and later approached her son, James Device.[17]

    Practically all familiars possessed names.  However, for the most part, the records do not suggest that their names were bestowed upon them by witches.  They already had names and usually shared them with the witches.  A black dog in the Lancaster trial, who appeared before James Device, "then euer after bidde this Examinate to call it Dandy."[18]   All of the "spirits" in the trial at Warboys (1593) volunteered their names as well.[19]   Finally, when Mother Waterhouse happened upon the cat in the Chelmsford trial, he "wild [willed] her to cal him Sathan."[20]   Thus the names of the familiars for the most part were not given by the witches.  Matthew Hopkins, in describing describing some of the familiars he had come across, made the remark that "no mortall could invent" their names.[21]

    The fact that animal familiars already had their own names, a seemingly strange phenomenon, actually fits well into the general scope of magical beliefs in this time period.  These animals were commonly perceived as spirits who just took the form of animals.  Manuals and treatises on the conjuration of spirits, such as The Key of Solomon, elaborate "the whole hierarchy of angels and demons, each with their own names and attributes."[22]   People commonly believed that all spirits possessed names, and for this reason it makes sense that familiars, who were essentially spirits, also had their own names.

    As mentioned above, the forms that familiars took varied widely.  They commonly assumed the form of some kind of domestic animal, usually a cat or a dog.  Other possibilities included toads, hares, lambs, birds, and cocks.[23]   To further complicate the issue, some spirits took on many different forms.  For example, Sathan originally took the form of a cat, but was also seen as a toad or a dog.[24]   A spirit by the name of "Tibb" in the Lancaster trial appeared first as a little boy, then as a brown dog, and finally as a cat or a hare.[25]   Since these familiars were "half-animal, half-demon,"[26]  to use MacFarlane's phrase, many witnesses indicated that they could tell when something was wrong with a normal animal.  In the Warboys trial, a witness was questioned about a chicken suspected of being a familiar: "Being asked whether it was a naturall chicken, she saith it was not, she knoweth it was no naturall chicken."[27]

     Familiars were sometimes portrayed as creatures who did not actually exist, although child witnesses often contributed to this notion.  A nine-year old child testified against Alice Hunt in St. Osyth:

                The chief witness against her [Alice Hunt] was her
                little daughter-in-law, Phoebe, of the age of eight
                or thereabouts, who deposed to her having two little
                things like horses.[28]

These "horses," named Jack and Robbin, were so tiny that Alice Hunt apparently kept them in a pot by her bed.  In the same trial, Agnes Dowsing deposed against Agnes Heard:

                Then spoke Agnes Dowsing...aged seven years, who,
                asked if her mother had imps, said yes.  In one
                box she had six "avices" or blackbirds, and in another
                box six like cows as big as rats.[29]

In the Chelmsford trial, Joan Waterhouse became angry that her neighbor Agnes Brown would not share any cake with her.  Agnes Brown, age twelve, testified that she later saw "a thynge lyke a black dogge with a face like an ape, a short taile, a cheine and a syluer [silver] whystle (to her thinking) about his neck, and a peyre of hornes on his heade."[30]   Thus when young children acted as witnesses, it appears that they let their active imaginations do the talking.  This is not to say that the children were not believed.  After Phoebe's testimony against Alice Hunt, Phoebe took the trial officials to the house and showed them the place where her mother kept the little horses.  Of course they were not there, but Brian Darcy, who presided over the trial, convicted her anyway.

    Once the familiar established itself with the witch, it carried out various functions.  The trial records show that familiars inflicted injury or killed both people and animals.  When Sathan was with Elizabeth Frauncis, he killed a man who refused to marry her.  Later, when he was with "Mother Waterhouse," he killed three of her neighbor's hogs.[31]   In the St. Osyth trial, Ursley Kempe actually assigned specific roles to her familiars:

                Bursting out with weeping and falling on her knees,
                she [Ursley] said, yes, she had the four imps her
                son had told of, and that two of them, Titty [a gray
                cat] and Jack [a black cat] were "hees" whose office
                was to punish and kill unto death; and two, Tiffin
                [a white lamb] and Piggin [a black toad], were
                "shees", who punished with lameness and bodily harm
                only, and destroyed goods and cattle.[32]

As noted in the above quotation, Kempe had her male familiars commit the murders while the female familiars did comparatively lighter work.  The animals also showed the capacity to damage property.  Alice Manfield's familiars in the St. Osyth trial, four black cats, established themselves as noteworthy vandals.  Among other things, they allegedly burned down a barn that contained a great supply of corn.[33]

    The fact that these witchcraft trials were brought about in response to a slain animal, a sickened person, or destroyed property was nothing new.[34]   However, in these trials the witch was often not accused of doing the bewitching herself; she was accused of having an animal or spirit who did the bewitching for her.  Alan MacFarlane created a simple but helpful diagram to illustrate this matter:[35]

                Witch                          Familiar                            Victim
                (motive: anger)             (power, from Devil)

    The witch, angry at a particular individual, invoked her familiar to carry out her maleficia.  This notion contains an interesting implication: witches did not possess any power themselves (whether inherent or given to them by the Devil).  They had evil motives but needed a vehicle, a familiar, to carry them out.  This theory, however, does not hold true for all "witches" who possessed familiars in the trials I examine.  Some did most of the bewitching themselves, showing that they had their own power.  Ursula Kemp, the owner of four familiars, displayed that she also had magical powers: "Ursula came in unbidden, turned down the bedclothes, and took her [victim] by the arm, when immediately she gasped and died."[36]

    Haunting or generally harassing people provided another frequent activity for familiars.  As mentioned before, the most common way that a witch acquired her familiar was by the animal approaching her.  Some simply did not want the thing and tried to stay away from it as much as possible.  In the St. Osyth trial, a spirit called Suckin [a black dog] pestered Elizabeth Bennet:

                Suckin came unto her and took her by the coat, and
                held her so that she could not go forward nor
                remove by the space of two hours asking her if she
                would go with it.[37]

Elizabeth refused him and he eventually went away.  But the next day, Suckin came to her house and tried to kill her by pushing her into the oven.  Sometimes a witch would send her familiar out to haunt others.  The Warboys trial best demonstrates this tendency.  A family of three (the Samuels) was charged with bewitching another family in the village (the Throckmortons).
The primary victims of the alleged witchcraft were the five Throckmorton children, who were continually pestered by spirits.[38]   The haunting spirits especially loved Joan Throckmorton, so much in fact that they actually fought with one another in competition for her attention.[39]   Also, the dog who scared young Agnes Brown in Chelmsford still "haunted her" when the trial record was written.[40]

    The haunting familiars frequently communicated through speech, jeering or threatening their victims.  The trial records from Chelmsford, Warboys, and Lancaster all provide actual dialogues between people and familiars.  Speech is less prevalent in the St. Osyth trial; only two of the numerous animals in the trial showed the ability to talk.[41]   The familiars' speech sometimes proved helpful to the witches.  Most of the familiars in the Lancaster trial gave specific advice on enchantments.  The following formula came up several times in the trial:

                [a black dog] bad this Examinate [James Device]
                make a Picture of Clay, like unto the said Mistress
                Towneley: and that this Examinate with the helpe
                of his Spirit (who then euer after bidde this
                Examinate call it Dandy) would kill or destroy the
                said Mistris Towneley.[42]

The clay model, once dry, was to be pricked and prodded to cause pain in different areas of the victim's body.

    In the trial at St. Osyth, Ursley Kempe's lamb, Tiffin, actually played a role as an indirect witness.  Accused witches, it will be remembered, were often allowed to testify against one another.  Ursley Kempe gave the following "informed" testimony:

                she [Ursley] said that Mother Bennet had two
                imps...and that Hunt's wife had a spirit, too,
                for one evening she [Tiffin] peeped in at her
                window when she [Ursley] was from home, and saw
                it look out from a potcharde from under a bundle
                of cloth, and that it had a brown nose like a
                ferret.  And she [Ursley] said that her spirit
                Tiffin informed her of all these things.[43]

Kempe's charges against Elizabeth Bennet and Alice Hunt were  based on information from Tiffin, a white lamb.  Brian Darcy investigated Bennet and Hunt and convicted them of witchcraft along with Ursley Kempe.  Could it be that the realm of credible witnesses was expanded even beyond young children and confessed witches in this trial?  This appears to be the case.

    To summarize, witches acquired their familiar through an inheritance or through the familiar approaching the witch on its own.  Familiars were mainly spirits who incarnated themselves into common domestic animals who committed maleficia for the witch.  This general description of "familiar" holds true in most cases with regards to the four English witch trials I have studied.

    The next question which must be answered is one of great importance: what were the dynamics of the relationship between the witch and her familiar?  This issue has been confused and over-simplified by historians.  Keith Thomas says that the familiar "performed useful magical services for his mistress."[44]   This gives the impression that it was a servile creature who did whatever the witch asked it to do.  The majority of the trial records indicate that this notion is largely untrue.  It is difficult to tell who was really the one in charge.  The familiars in the Lancaster trial rarely stayed with a witch.  They would appear and disappear (literally) at will, and it was up to them when they visited the witch.  A passage in the St. Osyth trial shows that some were not so easy to control.  Joan Pechey apparently said the following to her imps:

                "Yea, are you so sawsie; are ye so bold; you were
                not best to be so bold with me.  For if you will
                not be ruled, you shall have Symonds sawse;[45]  yea,
                said the said Joan, I perceive if I do give you
                an inch you will take an ell."[46]

The familiars often did perform services for the witches, but the relationship was not one between mistress and servant as Thomas suggests; it was a give-and-take relationship in which each of the parties had something to gain.  The familiar at the very least required some form of nourishment, usually blood.  In some trials, however, it demanded some kind of pact or promise from the witch.

    The fact that neither the familiar nor the witch completely controlled the entire relationship leads to an interesting disruption of English societal views in the early modern period.  In An Ordered Society, Susan Dwyer Amussen makes the argument that the English family structure in combination with gender and class inequality created a hierarchical society:

                In the village, hundred and county (as well as the nation)
                those of higher status were to govern and care for their
                inferiors, and in return receive obedience and respect
                from the governed.[47]

In any given relationship between two people, Amussen held that one person (by virtue of their gender or rank) necessarily held a higher position than the other and consequently governed the other.  For example, men generally dominated their relationships with women.  However, the relationship between the witch (usually a woman) and familiar (a spirit in the form of an animal) could not easily be incorporated into this hierarchical system.  The problem necessarily arises from the dual nature of the familiar.  Women generally had the responsibility of caring for and controlling domestic animals in English villages, but the fact that the familiar was also a spirit disrupted the hierarchy.  The spirit portion of the familiar tended to dominate the woman (witch) by demanding her body and soul, even though she saw it as an animal and attempted to control it as she normally would be expected to do.  Thus the dual nature of the familiar helps explain the unusual give-and-take character of the relationship between familiar and witch, which will be analyzed in further detail below.

 A Pact with "Sathan"

    Historically speaking, witches in Europe since the late Middle Ages were characterized by a central defining factor: they made a pact with the Devil.  The Devil seduced and tempted his victims, and many believed that he could take the form of an animal.[48]   Seen in this light, the Lancaster and Chelmsford trials, whose animal familiars demanded agreements from the witches, did not stray too far from "mainstream" witchcraft beliefs.  Some may have believed that the cat Sathan from the Chelmsford trial was the Devil himself; similarly, the familiars in the Lancaster trial, who bargained for souls, certainly appeared to be the Devil's agents.

    Let us first revisit the cat "Sathan" and analyze the dynamics of the give-and-take relationship between witch and familiar.  Elizabeth Frauncis inherited the cat from her grandmother.  Already aware of his powers, she immediately asked him if he could make her rich; Sathan promptly produced eighteen sheep.  Unfortunately for Elizabeth, the sheep all died shortly after Sathan had created them.  Elizabeth, still intent on becoming rich, asked her cat if he could arrange a marriage between her and wealthy man.  This time there was a price:

                Item, when she had gotten these shepe, she desired
                to haue one Andrew Byles to her husband...and the
                cat dyd promyse she shold, but that he sayde she
                must fyrste consent that this Andrew shuld abuse
                her, and she so did.[49]

Sathan did not keep up his end of the bargain.  Andrew refused to marry Elizabeth, so at her request Sathan killed him.  Sathan promised that she could marry another husband (one who was not as rich) if she once again committed fornication.  Elizabeth agreed to this proposal, but after she got married she quickly became miserable.  She hated both her husband and the daughter she later conceived.

    It is evident that Sathan's main goal was not to perform services for Elizabeth.  He based all of his actions on deception and trickery.  He probably produced the sheep for no "fee" to show what kind of power he possessed, although the sheep were of no use to her because they all died!  He then forced her to commit fornication twice, one leading to a thoroughly unhappy marriage, the other to no marriage at all.  Elizabeth paid a great price for these apparent "services."  Sathan's actions certainly made him worthy of his name, for he can essentially be characterized as a devil in the body of a cat.

    In fact, the stakes could get much higher.  Sathan demanded of one girl her "body and sowle."[50]   This form of agreement was especially abundant in the trial of the Lancaster witches.  The familiars in this trial more often than not would ask for the person's soul before they performed any service for them.  Alison Device was faced with the following scenario:

                there appeared vtno her, this a thing like vnto a
                Blacke Dogge: speaking vnto her, this Examinate,
                and desiring her to giue him her Soule, and he
                would giue her the power to doe any thing she

She accepted the dog's proposition and exchanged her soul for witchcraft powers.  Tibb, a spirit who took different forms, assumed the shape of a boy and made Elizabeth Sowthern the same offer.  The spirit called "Ball" (a brown dog), told James Device that in exchange for his soul, "he should be reuenged of any whom hee would."[52]   The price for having a "faithful" animal familiar at your side was thus extremely high in the trials at Lancaster!

 The Witch's Mark

    As mentioned above, the familiars who required a promise or pact were exclusive to the Chelmsford and Lancaster trials.  However, the one aspect that seemed to be common to all of the trials was the familiars' need for nourishment.  The witches sometimes fed milk and bread to their familiars, but this usually did not provide sufficient nourishment.  They really required  human blood.  Few contemporaries sought to explain why blood gave familiars the proper nourishment.  In the late seventeenth century, however, Henry Hallywell, in a scientific treatise called Melampronoea (1681), offered his explanation:

                being so mightily debauched...wear away by a continual
                deflux of particles, and therefore require some nutriment
                to supply the place of the fugacious atoms, which is
                done by sucking the blood...And no doubt but these
                impure devils may take as much pleasure in sucking the
                warm blood of men or beasts, as a cheerful and healthy
                constitution drawing in the refreshing gales of pure
                and sincere air![53]

Hallywell obviously felt that blood provided the necessary nutriment for the survival of the familiar.  His treatise also shows us how beliefs in familiars were deeply intertwined with other aspects of society; in this case, the realm of science enmeshed itself with familiar beliefs, arguing under the clear  assumption that they existed.

    The familiars attained their nourishment (blood) from the witch by pricking a place on her body, causing it to bleed, or by sucking the blood out of her body.  This inevitably caused some kind of blemish on the body which was identified by witch hunters as her "witch's mark."  This mark took many forms.  Sometimes, rather than appearing as a cut or a bruise, it looked more like an extra nipple.  The "witch's mark" must be distinguished from a second type of mark, the "Devil's mark."  Edgar Peel defined the term as "the stigmatum acquired by the witch when she bound herself to Satan."[54]

    Given this definition of "Devil's mark," one could make the case that some of the marks in the Lancaster trial were of this type.  I have shown that the familiars in this trial quite often wanted the witch's soul in exchange for their services.  This proposal obviously mirrored the kind of agreement the Devil himself would offer.  Adding to this the fact that familiars often extracted blood immediately after the promise was made shows that it was more like a Devil's mark than a witches mark.  The following is an example:

                there appeared vnto her a thing like vnto a Blacke
                Dogge: speaking vnto her, this Examinate, and
                desiring her to giue him her Soule, and he would
                giue her power to doe any thing she would: whereupon
                this Examinate being therewithall inticed, and setting
                her downe; the said Blacke-Dogge did with his mouth
                (as this Examinate then thought) sucke at her breast,
                below her Paps, which place did remaine blew halfe
                a yeare next after.[55]

Here Alison Device promised her soul to the black dog and immediately afterward the dog extracted blood from her, leaving a visible mark.  Given the nature of the promise, it is reasonable to assume this is a Devil's mark.  However, for the most part, this kind of mark was left out of these trial records.

    The "witch's mark" found a much more prevalent place in the trial records.  Sathan the cat normally ate bread and milk, but whenever Elizabeth Frauncis required a service of him, he needed blood:

                Item, that euery time that he did any thynge for
                her, she sayde that he required a drop of bloude,
                which she gaue him by prycking herselfe, sometime
                in one place and then in an other, and where she
                pricked her selfe there remayned a red spot which
                was styl to be sene.[56]

In this case, Elizabeth gave herself witch's marks by pricking herself in several places in order to draw blood as an offering to her cat.  The St. Osyth trial placed the emphasis on the familiars sucking blood out of the witch's bodies.  Ursley Kempe's four familiars sucked blood, as well as Margerie Sammon's toads.[57]   When they searched Agnes Glascock's body, they found what the author described as "a few marks like well-sucked spots."[58]   Similarly, the spirits incarnated as chickens in the Warboys trial required the same form of nourishment: "She [Alice Samuel] saith further, that the said dun chicken did first come unto her and sucke on her chin."[59]   The witch's mark as a "teate" was indicated in the autopsy of Alice Samuel: "[the Jailor] found upon the body of the olde woman Alice Samuel, a little lumpe of flesh, in manner sticking out as if it had been a teate, to the length of halfe an inch."[60]  They verified their suspicians when they removed this "teate" and cut it open, finding blood inside.  These examples are only a brief sampling of the references to the witch's mark found in the trials.  The familiar and the witch's mark were evidently an inseparable combination.

    Matthew Hopkins, the professional witch hunter of the 1640s, provides the most telling example of this belief, for he actively sought after the witch's mark as evidence.  Hopkins and his partner, John Stearne, presided over a campaign which ultimately executed over two hundred people for witchcraft, by far the largest witch campaign ever initiated in England.[61]   Hopkins himself has provoked much controversy among historians of English witchcraft.  Keith Thomas believed that Hopkins stirred up a number of witch trials during the 1640s in order to make money for himself.[62]   However, Alan MacFarlane sought to downplay Hopkins' importance in the "witch scare" of the 1640s, and attribute it to other factors:

                The answer seems to lie in a combination of particular
                factors, especially the disruption of local government
                and justice by the Civil War and, possibly, the economic,
                spiritual, and other tensions which war created, with
                beliefs in witchcraft which, though usually kept just
                below the surface, were no less widespread and powerful
                than they had been in the sixteenth century.[63]

My tendency is to side with MacFarlane; the Civil War in England probably drove the persecutions of the 1640s much more than the effort of one single man.

    Hopkins, nonetheless, provides us with evidence of the strong link between familiar and witch's mark.  He mainly sought to convict people of witchcraft on the grounds that they possessed familiars, and therefore had a witch's mark.  In The Discovery of Witches, Hopkins answers a number of skeptical questions concerning his witch-finding technique.  His imaginary opponent contends that there is no way to tell the difference between natural marks (which all people have) and a witch's mark.  Hopkins offers a threefold summary of his method of distinguishing between the two.  First, a witch's mark is found in an unusual place like "bottome of the back-bone."  Secondly, "They are most commonly insensible, and feele neither pin, needle, aule, &c., thrust through them."[64]   The third means of detection involved the familiars themselves.  He would keep a strict surveyance of the witch for about twenty-four hours, making sure that none of her familiars came up and suck blood from her.  Her "teat" in that time would then noticeably fill up with fluid and become visible.  Thus for Hopkins, a witch who had an imp also had a mark; it was just a matter of finding it.

 Trial Dynamics

    If you were a resident of a small village in Essex county in the late sixteenth century, was it dangerous for you to keep a pet around the house for fear that you would be accused as a witch?  If you had a strange mark somewhere on your body, would someone like Matthew Hopkins show up on your doorstep?  Certainly not.  Like all witch trials, the witch trials involving familiars arose first out of the suspicion, usually following some sort of misfortune.[65]   In St. Osyth, for example, much of the livestock in the village had gotten sick and died.[66]   Accusations would also surface as a result of feuds between individuals or families in the same area.  The Warboys trial was really a product of two feuding families, the Samuels and the Throckmortons.  The incident that sparked the Lancaster trial was characterized by both a dispute and a misfortune.  Alison Device got angry at a peddler, John Law, for not selling her some goods.  Shortly after their altercation, the peddler had a stroke and nearly died.  The accusations against Alison Device and others followed quickly after this event.[67]   It was neither familiars nor witch's marks that initiated any of these trials.

    Only when suspicions and accusations changed to formal examinations did familiars and witch's marks play a significant role, that is, as the main body of evidence in the trial.  Once a court official accepted the premise that witches could be identified by their familiars and the marks that result from having them, it was very easy to establish a conviction.  Brian Darcy, who presided over the St. Osyth trial, generally required very little evidence.  He accepted several testimonies from young children and other suspected witches.  The nature of the trial record suggests that familiars were of the utmost importance to Brian Darcy.  At the end of the document, he included a summary of all of the witches and the animal familiars with whom they were associated.  He also searched suspected witches carefully for witch's marks.  Cicely Celles denied accusations laid forth against her but to no avail: "All of which Cicely Celles denied...but denial did her no good, for Cicely had witch marks, so was condemned."[68]   In summary, familiars fundamentally acted as a body of evidence that was used in these trials and often led to a conviction of a suspected witch.

    Indeed, we know what happened to the suspected witches; many were hanged, some went to prison, and others were pardoned.  However, what about the animals who acted as familiars?  Were they found?  If so, what was done with them?  Were they punished just as the witches were?  Unfortunately, these issues are not directly addressed in any of the trial records I examined.  Brian Darcy did make at least one attempt to locate familiars, but was unsuccessful.  The familiars in the trial at Lancaster were so elusive, appearing in different forms and then disappearing again, that they were probably never located if even a search was ever initiated.  Matthew Hopkins claimed to have witnessed a witch call all of her familiars into the room.  In fact, the illustration provided at the beginning of The Discovery of Witches portrays Hopkins standing in a room with two witches and a number of their familiars (see the next page).  Still, there is no mention of what he did with them.

    The only evidence of any action taken against a familiar (that I have been able to locate) occurs in A Treatise of Witchcraft (1616) by Alexander Roberts.[69]   The treatise included a narrative of a convicted witch by the name of Mary Smith.  Her cat, whose name was not given, often visited the house of Elizabeth Hancocke.  Her husband, James Scot, took the following action:

                her husband moued therwith, thrust it twice through
                with his sword: which notwithstanding those wounds
                receiued, ran away: then he stroke it with all his
                force vpon the head with a great pike staffe.[70]

He was eventually able to kill the cat, but it took great effort.  Later, Mary Smith sent some of her familiars, a toad and some crabs, to the house of Edmund Newton.  One of his servants took the toad and cast it into the fire, and it eventually died.  It should be noted that the actions taken against the familiars in this treatise were not at the institutional level but rather at a local level.  In other words, these accounts give us no indication as to what the secular judges may have done with the animals in question.  Thus what was actually done with the animals themselves still remains a mystery.

 Theories and Approaches

    I have shown that the beliefs in familiars were extremely instrumental in certain English witch trials between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries.  If we are to understand these trials better on the whole, it is imperative that we learn the origins of the beliefs in familiars.  How is it that people came to believe that witches employed spirits who took the form of animals?  How widespread were these beliefs? Why was this phenomenon almost exclusive to England?  Surprisingly, scholarship in this area has been virtually non-existent.

    The only theory that I have been able to locate which sought to explain the existence of familiars in trial records was proposed by G.B. Harrison in his commentary on the Lancaster trial published in 1929:

                But the spirits which appear now as men, now as
                animals, are, at first sight, more difficult to
                explain until it is remembered that in the
                witchcraft ritual the members of the coven
                disguise themselves as animals...[the familiars]
                are nothing more than the evil humans who
                were responsible for the whole business.[71]

Harrison believed, then, that the animals that appeared in this trial were only humans disguised as animals.  In order to demonstrate his point, he shows that the way in which animals were presented by Thomas Potts (the author of the trial record) was always indirect.  The following are the examples he uses: "The 'thing in the likenes of a spotted Bitch,' the devil Tib 'in the shape of a black cat,' Fancy 'in the likenesse of a Bear,' a 'thing like vnto a black dog.'"[72]   Furthermore, he claimed that  a contemporary book called The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Alice Murray provided evidence which further illustrated his point.  The pages he cited from this book provide a compilation of data which intends to argue that people disguised themselves as the Devil during witch ceremonies.[73]

    In order to accept Harrison's theory that familiars were really humans in disguise, one must accept his premise that there indeed existed cults of witches who got together in meetings and sometimes dressed up as animals.  This is the underlying thesis of Murray's The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, on which Harrison relies heavily for evidence.  However, Norman Cohn offered a detailed analysis of Murray's work and has shown that this notion was untrue.  He concluded the following:

                she nevertheless contrives, by the way she arranges
                her quotations, to give the impression that a number
                of perfectly sober, realistic accounts of the sabbat
                exist.  They do not.[74]

Cohn also showed that other recent scholars have dismissed her theories.  In conclusion, the explanation of familiars offered by G.B. Harrison cannot be accepted because he assumes the existence of some kind of "society of witches," and such a society did not exist.[75]

    There appear to be some more plausible ways to examine this vital problem of the origins of familiar beliefs.  In the following paragraphs I will propose some reasonable methods of approach, but will not be so bold as to offer complete solutions.  The complexity of the problem deserves a much longer treatment.  However, since no one (to my knowledge) has ever tried to explain this phenomenon, it would be beneficial to indicate some starting points through which it could be solved.

    A glance at witchcraft statutes in England shows that familiars were addressed by the government.  In the year 1563, Queen Elizabeth issued a witchcraft statute which incurred a penalty for anyone who invoked or conjured "evill and wicked Spirites."[76]   A later statute introduced by King James in 1604 was more specific:

                That if any person or persons...shall use practise
                or exercise any Invocation or Conjuration of any
                evill and wicked Spirit, or shall consult covenant
                with entertaine employ feede or rewarde any evill
                and wicked Spirit [they will be punished].[77]

This statute more than likely sought to include familiars because it addressed specifically the feeding of evil spirits.  There are two possible ways to interpret the relationship (assuming one existed) between these statutes and the trials with familiars.  The government could have passed these laws to correct the problems that they identified in the trials.  A second interpretation follows the opposite line of reasoning: the statutes directed the nature of the trials.  In other words, local court officials who were anxious to convict people of witchcraft may have shaped the evidence (through coercion) in such a way that the suspected witches were in clear violation of the law, namely that they fed or entertained evil spirits.[78]

    Another way to approach the problem is to determine whether familiars were defined by any intellectuals of the time which may have consequently influenced the belief structure.  Book XV of Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) was exclusively dedicated to the conjuration of familiar spirits.[79]   In Daemonologie (1597), King James wrote about devils taking different forms:

                For as to the formes, to some of the baser sorte of
                them he [the magician] oblishes him selfe to appeare
                at their calling vpon him, by such a proper name
                which he shewes vnto them, either in the likenes of
                a dog, a Catte, an Ape, or such-like other beast.[80]

It is clear, then, that literature other than trial records addressed familiars at this time.  Once again, it becomes unclear whether the records influenced the literature or vise-versa.

    An examination of the beliefs on the popular level would also prove fruitful.  George Gifford included a character in his Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcraft (1593) by the name of Samuel, a superstitious countryman.  Peter Haining tells us that the characters in this dialogue were probably based on real-life people,[81]  so we can accept, with caution, Samuel's views as representative of common superstitious beliefs in his own area.  Samuel vehemently asserts that "a spirit in the likenesse of a yellow dun cat" attacked and killed some farm animals.[82]   Views of familiars certainly existed at the popular level, but how widespread were they?  Did they spread from one locality to another over time?  These questions are more difficult to answer.  MacFarlane indicated that a pattern of witchcraft prosecutions seemed to exist in Essex county: "They seem to have started in the area around Chelmsford and were, to a certain extent, concentrated in the central and northern strip of the county."[83]   This and similar patterns may give us an indication to the origins of familiar beliefs at the popular level.

    I have consciously not subscribed to any of my theories regarding the origins of familiars, for each explanation deserves a much more thorough investigation.  As most events in history cannot be attributed to one single factor, my sense is that a wide variety of factors, many of which I have expounded above, contributed to the development of the beliefs in familiars shown in many English trial records.  At the popular level, people in villages needed to be receptive to these beliefs, and the prevalence of domestic animals in combination with preexisting beliefs in witches probably allowed for this receptivity.  At the intellectual level, a treasury of literature concerning the conjuration and incarnation of spirits probably influenced beliefs in familiars.  Finally, at the institutional (or political) level, laws which clearly acknowledged the existence of familiars more than likely helped establish and perpetuate the beliefs in them.  In light of all of these mysteries, one fact remains certain: the familiars in the English witch trials were extremely important and require more historical scholarship.


[1] Matthew Hopkins, The Discovery of Witches (London: 1647);  reprint, Witches and Witch Hunters (Yorkshire: Scolar Press, 1971), from the illustration in the frontpiece.

[2] Peter Haining, The Witchcraft Papers (London: Robert and Hale, 1974), 139.

[3] Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971); Joseph Klaits, Servants of Satan (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985); Norman Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons (London: Pimlico, 1993).

[4] Klaits 2.

[5] Familiars were certainly not exclusive to English witch trials, although Keith Thomas asserts that familiars were a "peculiarly English notion." See Thomas, 445.

[6] The 1566 pamphlet basically reiterates what was mentioned in the 1556 edition.

[7] A.D.J. MacFarlane, "Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart Essex," in Crime in England 1550-1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977) 72-89; reprint, Articles on Witchcraft and Demonology, Witchcraft in England, vol. 6 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1992).

[8] Alan MacFarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (New York: Harper & Row, 1970) 255.

[9] The only decade which saw more accusations was the 1640s; MacFarlane, "Witchcraft" 79.

[10] MacFarlane speculates that this was Darcy himself; see MacFarlane, Witchcraft, 85.

[11] MacFarlane, "Witchcraft" 73.

[12] For example, an "imp" usually referred to an animal, while a "spirit" did not necessarily have a corporeal form.  "Demon" and
"devil" imply evil while "spirit" is a more neutral term.

[13] I will use the female pronouns to refer to a "witch" in this paper, as females were more commonly associated with witchcraft during this period.  However, males were accused of witchcraft as well.

[14] from The Examination and confession of certain Wytches at Chensford in the Countie of Essex (1556); reprint cited from Cecil Ewen, Witch Hunting and Witch Trials (London: Stephen Austin and Sons, 1929) 317 (page references are to reprint edition).

[15] from A true and just Recorde of the Information, Examination, and Confession of all of the Witches, taken at St. Osyth in the
County of Essex (London: 1582); reprint cited from  Peter Haining, The Witchcraft Papers (London: Robert Hale, 1974), 55 (page references are to reprint edition).

[16] Thomas Potts, The Wonderfvll Discoverie of Witches in the Couvtie of Lancaster (London: W. Stansby, 1612); reprint cited from The Trial of the Lancaster Witches, G.B. Harrison ed. (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971).

[17] Potts 53, 67.

[18] Potts 68.

[19] The most strange and admirable discouerie of the three Witches of Warboys (London: 1593); names included: Smack, Pluck, Catch, Blew, and White.

[20] Chensford 319.

[21] Hopkins 2.

[22] Thomas 229.

[23] This is not an exhaustive listing of possibilities.

[24] Chensford 320.

[25] Potts 18-25.

[26] MacFarlane, "Witchcraft," 87.

[27] Warboys H1.

[28] St. Osyth 55.

[29] St. Osyth 61.

[30] Chensford 322.

[31] Chensford 318,319.

[32] St. Osyth 54.

[33] St. Osyth 58.

[34] MacFarlane, "Witchcraft," 81.

[35] Alan MacFarlane, "A Tudor Anthropologist: George Gifford's Discourse and Dialogue," reprinted in The Damned Art, Sydney Anglo ed. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977) 147.

[36] St. Osyth 53.

[37] St. Osyth 57.

[38] The form of these spirits is rarely addressed in the trial record.  However, at least three of the spirits (Pluck, Catch, and White) were in the form of "dun chickens" (Warboys H2).

[39] Warboys J2-J3.

[40] Chensford 320.

[41] Ursley Kempe's cat, "Tiffin," and Elizabeth Bennet's dog, "Suckin."  (St. Osyth 54, 58).

[42] Potts 68.

[43] St. Osyth 54.

[44] Thomas 446.

[45] I have not been able to determine the meaning "Symond's sawse."  In the context of the passage, it is obviously some kind of punishment for insubordination.

[46] St. Osyth 54.

[47] Susan Dwyer Amussen, An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988) 134.

[48] Thomas 438, 472-475.

[49] Chensford 317.

[50] Chensford 320.

[51] Potts 140.

[52] Potts 68.

[53] Henry Halywell, Melampronoea (1681); cited in Cavendish, The Encyclopedia of the Unexplained: Magic, Occultism, and Parapsychology (New York: McGraw Hill, 1974) 193.

[54] Edgar Peel and Pat Southern, The Trials of the Lancashire Witches (New York: Taplinger Publishing, 1969), 23.

[55] Potts 140.

[56] Chensford 318.

[57] St. Osyth 53, 55.

[58] St. Osyth 59.

[59] Warboys H.

[60] Warboys O3.

[61] Thomas 457.

[62] Thomas 457-458.

[63] MacFarlane, Witchcraft 142.

[64] Hopkins 4.

[65] MacFarlane, "Witchcraft," 81.

[66] Haining 49.

[67] Peel 20.

[68] St. Osyth 60.

[69] Alexander Roberts, A Treatise on Witchcraft (London: 1616); reprint, Witches and Witch Hunters (Yorkshire: Scolar Press, 1971).

[70] Roberts 54.

[71] G.B. Harrison, The Trial of the Lancaster Witches (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971), xliv.

[72] Harrison xliv-xlv.

[73] Margaret Alice Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921), 65-70.

[74] Cohn 160.

[75] I borrowed this phrasing from the title of one of Cohn's chapters: "The Society of Witches That Never Was" (chapter 8).

[76] from Statutes of the Realm (vol. iv, pt. i, p.19); cited in C. L'Estrange Ewen, Witch Hunting and Witch Trials (London: Kegan Paul, 1929) 16.

[77] from Statutes (vol iv., pt. i, p.659); Ewen 19-20.

[78] In order to validate this second interpretation based on the English Witchcraft Statutes, which seems to be the most likely explanation for familiars, it would be necessary to parallel a clear change in the development of the trials with the changing Statutes.  However, the four trials I examined do not organize themselves neatly into such a model.  More scholarship is necessary to prove this theory.

[79] Cohn 105.

[80] King James the First, Daemonologie (Robert Waldegrave: Edinburgh, 1597; reprint, London: Bodley Head Quartos, 1924), 19.

[81] Haining 76.

[82] George Gifford, A Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcraft (1593); reprint cited in The Witchcraft Papers (London: Robert Hale, 1971), 89 (page numbers are from reprint edition).

[83] MacFarlane, "Witchcraft," 79.