Witch Trials and The channel islands: annoyingly hard to research

tw: mention of torture, bodily harm.

Eight islands lie between the English and French coasts, the largest being Jersey and Guernsey. Although the populations of these two islands are rather small they suffered more from the witch trials than any other country within the British Isles. Their proximity to mainland Europe, continued practice of Catholicism and sheltering of Calvinist Protestants have all been suggested as possible reasons for such a high percentage of trials.

Guernsey has a bloody history of witchcraft trials. Between 1558 and 1649 between 75 and 100 residents were tried for witchcraft in Guernsey (Ogier 1996). A number which, when you account for a population of less than two thousand, is remarkably high. At least 50 were convicted, an alarmingly high rate in comparison to their English neighbours. All received horrific punishments, for example burning, whipping and having their ears cut off (Ogier 2010). Although burning witches was incredibly rare in Britain the proximity of the channel islands to France meant there was a heavy French influence – including, and not limited to, the use of burning as a punishment for witchcraft.

Many of the accounts of witchcraft in Guernsey mention ‘black ointment’ – a unknown concoction that would be rubbed on the skin before any practice could take place. In 1617 Isabel Becquet recalled their experiences after covering their body in black ointment – they had been transported immediately to Rocquaine Castle where they ‘coupled’ with the devil, who had appeared in the form of a very large dog stood on its hind legs… but with surprisingly human-like hands (Gragg 2015; Murray 1921). A number of historians (Gragg 2015; Ogier 2010; Pitts 1886) have hypothesised that this ointment had intoxicating effects, causing the user to hallucinate. Perhaps this could explain the sheer number of witches who admitted to witchcraft on Guernsey… or perhaps it’s due to the horrific torture they were regularly subjected to while under arrest.

Although Jersey did not escape the witch craze, they have a substantially lower number of cases than their neighbour. Between 1562 and 1736 the island of Jersey was home to 66 witch trials – 33 resulted in execution while a further 8 were banished (Ogier 2010). There is little information readily available about this period of Jersey’s history. The main reason we know the exact number of cases is due to Jersey’s connection to a series of infamous witch trials in another part of the world. Philipee d’Anglois, or Philip English, was born in Jersey but emigrated to northern America in 1670. After settling in Salem, Massachusetts, he was made Town Selectman and became a successful tradesperson. However, he was accused of witchcraft alongside his wife Mary in 1692 (Le Beau 1987). After almost ten weeks of imprisonment Philip and Mary escaped, seeking refuge in New York where they would stay until their return more than a year later.

I would love to write more about the witch trials of the Channel Islands. Their proximity to mainland Europe and heavy French influence while largely operating under British law puts them in a unique position amongst the British Isles. However, there is little information readily available about the witch trials – even the total number of cases in Guernsey varies wildly. I will do my best to find information about those who were accused so I can share their stories with you.

Closed Access:

Le Beau, B. (1987) ‘Philip English and the Witchcraft Hysteria’ in Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Vol 15. pp 1-20.

Open Access:

Gragg, L. (2015) ‘Witchcraft in the Early Modern West’ in Comparative Civilizations Review, vol 72.pp 137 – 148.

Books:

Murray, M. A. (1921) The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ogier, D. (1996) Reformation and Society in Guernsey. Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer.

Ogier, D. (2010) ‘Glimpses of the Obscure: The Witch Trials of the Channel Islands’ in The Extraordinary and the Everyday in Early Modern England London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pitts, J. L. (1886). Witchcraft and Devil Lore in the Channel Islands. Paris: Guille-Allès library.