Witchcraft, a perceived facility to summon evil spirits and demons to do harm to others, was linked to religion to the extent that the medieval Church had powers to punish those who dabbled in magic and sorcery. Its priests were able to exorcise those who had become possessed by malign spirits.
During the 16th century, many people believed that witchcraft, rather than the workings of God's will, offered a more convincing explanation of sudden and unexpected ill-fortune, such as the death of a child, bad harvests, or the death of cattle. Witch-hunting became an obsession in some parts of the country.
In 1542 Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act which defined witchcraft as a crime punishable by death. It was repealed five years later, but restored by a new Act in 1562.
A further law was passed in 1604 during the reign of James I who took a keen interest in demonology and even published a book on it. The 1562 and 1604 Acts transferred the trial of witches from the Church to the ordinary courts.
Formal accusations against witches – who were usually poor, elderly women – reached a peak in the late 16th century, particularly in south-east England.
513 witches were put on trial there between 1560 and 1700, though only 112 were executed. The last known execution took place in Devon in 1685.
The last trials were held in Leicester in 1717. Overall, some 500 people in England are believed to have been executed for witchcraft.
In 1736 Parliament passed an Act repealing the laws against witchcraft, but imposing fines or imprisonment on people who claimed to be able to use magical powers.
When it was introduced in the Commons the Bill caused much laughter among MPs. Its promoter was John Conduit whose wife was the niece of Sir Isaac Newton, a father of modern science, although keenly interested in the occult.
The Act was repealed in 1951 by the Fraudulent Mediums Act which in turn was repealed in 2008.
In 1824 Parliament passed the Vagrancy Act under which fortune-telling, astrology and spiritualism became punishable offences.