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In 1606, as Shakespeare staged Macbeth, James I had published his book on witchcraft and the supernatural called Daemonology, and witch trials were rampant across the UK bringing women of all ages and classes before a court hearing for acts of anger, revenge, and even mental illness, all of which called them under suspicion of evil magic. The presence of witches on stage was not merely theatrical for Shakespeare’s plays but also represented a cultural reality for turn of the 17th century society in which witches, spells, magic, and the consequence of delving into the supernatural were active in the lives of Elizabethan England. One particularly harsh case of witchcraft in 1578 occurred when Shakespeare was just 14 years old, and saw a woman named Elizabeth Stile brought before the court for her acts of anger, considered so threatening that Elizabeth I had her famous magus and astrologer John Dee perform acts of counter magic to defend against Elizabeth Stile. Here this week to share the story of what happened to Elizabeth Stile, why she was charged as a witch, and what these incidents tell us about Shakespeare’s presentation of witches in Macbeth and Henry VI part 2, is our guest and author of Witchcraft in Shakespeare’s England for The British Library, Carole Levin.

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Carole Levin about: 

  • We think of witches as fake, for the most part, and when we see them in plays as an audience, there’s not an expectation that we are seeing real witch behavior on stage. However, when Shakespeare was writing about Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester conjuring a spell to determine the fate of Henry VI in Henry VI part 2, for Shakespeare and the audience of 1590s England to which he was presenting this play, that scene was much more real than we take it today. Carole, was that scene based on a real incident Shakespeare would have been familiar with?

  • When it comes to the case of Elizabeth Stile in 1578, what did she do specifically that brought her to court?
  • Carole writes that Elizabeth Stiles claimed that two women had gotten her involved in witchcraft, Mother Devell and Mother Dutton. Carole, why are these women called “Mother” as a title, and what was the “image magic” they were said to practice? 

….and more!

Carole Levin is Willa Cather Professor of History at the University of Nebraska where she specializes in early modern English cultural and women’s history. She is the author or editor of nineteen books, including The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power (2nd edn., 2013) and the co-authored (with John Watkins), Shakespeare’s Foreign Worlds (2009). She is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and was a Fulbright Scholar the University of York in 2015.  She is also the author of the one woman, one act play, Elizabeth I in Her Own Words, most recently performed at part of the 2019 United Solo Theatre Festival, New York City, October 2019. Her current research projects on royal women during in the late medieval and early modern England. 

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    The weird sisters, hand in hand,
    Posters of the sea and land,
    Thus do go about, about:
    Thrice to thine and thrice to mine
    And thrice again, to make up nine.


    Macbeth (I.3)

    3 Sisters from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Wellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-31):  CC-BY-4.0 | Source

    “Weird” had a different definition for Shakespeare

    Today we ascribe the word “weird” to anything that deviates from the established norm, or things that behave in ways that are gross, surprising, or even unnerving. Carole explains that for Shakespeare, and the 16th century audience that he was living in when he produced Macbeth, to describe the three witches as “weird” was specifically to attach them to the supernatural. 

    Weird, spelled w-y-r-d in the 16th century, had other meanings than what we think of today. It can mean the principal power or agency by which events are predetermined (fate/destiny) can also mean magical power and enchantment…

    Dame Eleanor gives gold to bring the witch

    Father John Hume

    Henry VI Part II (I.2)

    The Duchess of Gloucester forced to walk through the streets as punishment for necromancy. Carnegie Museum of Art – Pittsburgh, PA (United States) | Dates: 1900 Dimensions: Height: 124.46 cm (49 in.), Width: 215.9 cm (85 in.) | Medium: Painting – oil on canvas | Public Domain | Source


    Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, really did conjure a witch

    The real Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, lived almost a hundred years prior to Shakespeare so while his grandparents would have known of this woman and her exploits into the occult, for Shakespeare, he is believed to have based his version of Eleanor on the history accounted in Holinshed’s Chronicles. Eleanor was a very ambitious woman who sought out a witch to try and determine the date of Henry VI’s death. Henry not having any living children, Eleanor was vying for the position of Queen. As Carole explains, however, in a 15th century society of England, there were very rarely any secrets and in Eleanor’s case, her actions were reported by someone from within her own household. Carole explains, 

    Someone in her household let the government know and she was then–it shows the real difference for aristocracy than someone lower class, the conjerur and the servant associated with this event were executed, but she did have to walk the streets of london carrying a candle barefoot and was banished. 

    Score one for team Shakespeare on the historical account of Eleanor, as Shakespeare’s version also sees Eleanor banished. If you’re interested in the disparity between classes when it comes to punishment and execution, check out our episode on Public Executions here.

    Hang her, witch!

    Mistress Ford

    Merry Wives of Windsor (IV.2)

    An image of a witch and her familiar spirits taken from a publication that dealt with the witch trials of Elizabeth Stile, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell and Mother Margaret in Windsor, 1579. | Public Domain | Source

    Elizabeth Stiles

    By all accounts, Elizabeth Stiles was a very disagreeable woman, regularly angry, cantakerous, and rude. Additionally, she actively practiced the occult, threatening spells on people she had fights with and creating poppets (akin to voodoo dolls) to create pain and harm to others. Stiles would practice this magic for her own benefit but was also hiring out her services to others in the community who wished to cast a spell on someone. Due to her reputation and activities, when Elizabeth I found wax effigies in the dung heap at Lincoln’s Fields, Elizabeth Stiles was under heavy suspicion as a result. Though Stiles was not responsible for those poppets, the event aroused the paranoia of the Queen and her royal advisors, and eventually lead to Stiles’ arrest. Carole explains,

    Richard Gallis [high ranking member of English government with significant power] was upset with [Stiles] around 78/79, the Privy Council heard about her, possibly because Sir Henry Neville  (Justic of the peace, parliament, Henry VIII…) reglar correspondence with Walsingham, so the Privy Council heard that Stile created poppets that were similar ot the ones found in the dyng heap, and while she didn’t create those, there was fear she might have or was involved. Gallis was already upset with other things STiles had done and all that pulled together where Stiles and several other women brought toWindsor Castle on charges of witchcraft.

    Title page of the pamphlet describing Elizabeth Stiles case, published 1579. The British Library. Source

    The association with witchcraft for Stiles, as well as the general aggravation (perhaps fear?) her behavior had engendered in those she lived near become apparrent in the aftermath of the dung heap discover because as Carole explains, it was a neighbor that “immediately blamed” Elizabeth Stiles for Queen Elizabeth’s illness.

    [Stiles] was angry, “lwed, malicious, and hurtful to the people and inhabitants thereabouts” apparently she liked to threaten people, especially her neighbors (see in macbeth the idea of mischief following anger) she liked to beg or ask people for things and then get angry if they didn’t give them. Their fear of her helped her for a while, but got her into trouble with this witchcraft trial. Several records of spite, andpeople have encounters with her and then suffering illness or going mad because of her. People knew what she could do and she offered to curse someone for a modest fee, so she was certainly known as a witch before it ended up in this court case.

    Oil painting Examination of a witch by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1853) Public Domain. Source

    At her trial, Stiles was given a series of examinations to try and imperically prove her guilt or innocence against witchcraft charges. One of the measures to judge if she was a witch was when they examined her body, looking for a witchmark.

    Stiles had a witchmark. [During trials, a] board of matrons [was brought in] to investigate the woman to see if she had a witch mark. It was a mark on her body, it was what the devil put on her body to seal their deal, sometimes a witchmark was used to nurse the familiar. In fact, Stiles did keep a rat named Philip that she nursed with blood, so the witch mark was definitely another way they could tell that she’s a witch. Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, witchmarks not supposed to have feeling and he supposedly used a needle to test the mark but he used a retractable needle. 

    You can read the treatise of Elizabeth Stiles where she confesses to the posession of her rat, Philip, and nursing him with blood, here.

    Matthew Hopkins, Witch Finder General. From a broadside published by Hopkins before 1650. Public Domain. Source

    Carole writes that Elizabeth Stiles claimed that two women had gotten her involved in witchcraft, Mother Devell and Mother Dutton.

    Mother was a mock-respect term for older women who are uneducated. It suggests connections that weren’t actually there. Family connections that didn’t exist. Example “weird sisters” doesn’t mean familial relationships, but could mean sisters as in connected by their witchcraft. Mother is kind of a commonality temr. Theoretically respectful but actually a mocking term. 

    Ultimately, Elizabeth Stiles confessed to being a witch and while the other two women she implicated did not confess, they were executed as well. 

    Interestingly enough, Stiles confessed, and the other women did not. We have Stiles’ confession. She confesses to all sorts of evil magic and witchcraft that she had performed against various neighbors. We don’t know why she confessed. English witches weren’t “tortured” in the traditional way that occured in other placeson the continent. If you keep a woman on her feet, not lettingher sleep, not feeding her, (We don’t know what happened to STiles specifically but we do know what other women went through) it woujld make sense they confess under these conditions.


    Related Episodes You Might Enjoy:

    Ep 143: 1604 Witch Trial with Todd Butler 

    Ep 28: Exploring 16th Century Witches and Witchcraft with Marion Gibson 

    Episode #13: Interview with Barbara Traister exploring astrology, doctors, herbs, and witches in Shakespeare’s England

    Ep 154: 16th C Puppets with Maureen Benfer 

    Ep 152: Public Executions with Murat Öğütcü (This episode explores the topic Carole Levin touches on in Ep 184–the idea that there were different judgements placed on people depending on their class/status. This relates to Eleanor of Gloucester’s banishment)

    Episode 005: Interview with Dr. Paul Menzer about the superstitions, legends, and magic that follow Shakespeare’s plays

    Resources Carole Levin Recommends:

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