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Death by Fire: Execution of Witches

Witches and other forms of sorcery were typically punished with a sentence of being burnt at the stake. Accusations and trials that took place over the world (primarily in Europe) were unfair and used extreme tactics to prove whether or not someone was a witch. In this article, you will learn some of the tactics and places where burning witches were well known.

Burning in Denmark

After the reformation of 1536 took place in Denmark, the practice of burning witches became more prevalent. Christian IV of Denmark played an important role when he was the catalyst in hundreds of people being burned at the stake because of convictions regarding witchcraft. A lot of royal rulers warmed up to the thought of burning witches at the stake. The North Berwick witch trials saw to the death of more than 70 people who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland. The reason for the panic was bad weather.

The Constitutio Criminalis Carolina

Dating back to 1532, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina was a penal code that identified sorcery throughout the Holy Roman Empire as a criminal offense. If an accused witch was seen as inflicting injury upon any person, then they should be burned at the stake. Of course, the system was unfair.
Throughout history, people were called witchcraft and blamed for many things completely outside of their capabilities. If a crop produced a bad harvest, several cattle died at one time, or a plague started to take the lives of a community , some people believed it was the work of witchcraft. Over time, the lines of what was consider witchcraft became blurred. In 1572, Augustus, Elector of Saxony put in place a penalty of burning for those accused of a range of witchcraft practices , including telling someone’s future.

Burning in England

There have only been a few cases of accused witches being burnt for their crimes. For the most part, hanging witches was a preferred method of death. It was written that King Arthur had been reluctant to order the burning of Queen Guinevere when it was revealed that she had an adulterous relationship with Lancelot. The Queen’s adultery was seen as treason against her royal husband. When Henry VIII was given the choice between burning Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard alive or beheading the women for acts of adultery, lucky for the women , he chose the latter.

Witch Tests

An example of how the authorities and government would try to prove the legitimacy of a witch accusation included the ‘lake test.’ A lake would be blessed and the accused witch would have their hands and ankle tied together. They were lowered into the lake. If they floated and lived, then he or she was a witch. They would be killed, but if they drowned, then she was not a witch, but it didn’t matter because they would be dead. There really was no way to win. Other methods included the Touch Test (associated with fits), Witch’s Test (pricking with dull pins), and the hot coal test (examination of burns on hands).