George Macaulay Trevelyan
England Under The Stuarts

No accusation is more petulantly bandied about between rival races and rival generations than that of inhumanity. Each considers itself humane, because its anger is easily aroused against the cruelty of other places or times; yet the circumstances in every case must be carefully examined before this feeling of self-satisfied superiority can be rightly indulged. A few facts relating to our ancestors' humanity, in the sense of unwillingness to inflict physical pain and discomfort, may interest the speculator in the inexact science of comparative morals.

In the early disuse of torture as a means of extracting confession, English law and custom led the world. Torture for this purpose was unknown in our common law, and the Tower rack was regarded as the special political privilege of the Crown, whereby the Privy Council alone might extort information for want of which the State might be imperilled. Yet even the butcher's last plea of Salus Publici became obsolete in the reign of James I. The torture from which Guy Fawkes had been lifted up to die, shattered in all save his Promethean spirit, was twenty years later pronounced illegal and was not used to compel the murderer of Buckingham to incriminate the King's Parliamentary enemies. Nor in the utmost height of Royal or Roundhead despotism was it again employed. It is impossible to account for this definite change except by the growth of humanitarian sentiment.

In other lands, torture to extract evidence was an important part of the judicial system swept away by the French Revolution, and torture as an accompaniment of capital punishment held a high place in continental codes. The common criminal was broken on the wheel, the witch and the Socinian were burned alive. In Spain, the roasting of the victims of superstition, though necessarily rarer since the extinction of Protestantism, was regarded by the populace as a special delight, and by the priests as an offering to their Pantheon, among whose principal attributes were those of Moloch. But in England ordinary criminals were never put to death by torture. In the reign of James I two heretics who denied the doctrine of the Trinity closed the fiery roll of Smithfield martyrdom. These two brave men, braver than Ridley and Latimer in that no great party pitied their fate or embraced their creed, were the last persons to die for heresy in England. Our statesmanship was at once too humane and too timid to put Catholics to death for their religion even at the block, much less at the stake. 'English people,' says Sir James Stephen, 'were reckless about taking life, but they have been usually averse to the infliction of death by torture.'

When civil war at last broke out in the midst of our peaceful island, its conduct contrasted well in every point of humanity with the uncontrolled destruction that was laying waste the continent. For the English were not a military population; the state of war was rare and unpopular; the combatants were men of the same race, and the religious animosity less intense than in Holland, France, and Germany; the violence of armed Episcopalian and Puritan was as much milder than the devilries of Alva and Tilly, as tho Bishops of the High Commission Court were more mild than the Inquisitors of Spain.

But while the English, by their very insularity, drew ahead of others in their methods of conducting war, and in the disuse of torture as a means of extracting evidence or inflicting capital punishment, there were several respects in which their humanity was low. In their treatment of coloured races, and of white peoples whom they reckoned inferior in civilization, the English were no better than the Dutch and French, or, except for the Inquisition, than the Spaniard. Of the state of our prisons, and of the use of torture as a means of punishment other than capital, we have already spoken. Since corporal punishments were the only alternative to the gallows or the living death of the prison, they were perhaps less abominable for their cruelty to the victim than for their brutalizing effect on others as everyday spectacles. But while we condemn our ancestors for flocking to see the thief faint in the pillory under the shower of filthy missiles, and women suffer agonies under the lash, we must remember that we are ignorant of what proportion of the populace went to these sights and in what spirit.

But the most scandalous blot in English humanity was witch-finding. The inhabitants of continental Europe, brutalized by the continual presence of war, torture, and murder, which rival priesthoods blessed, frenzied by doubt as to the true escape from the lively vision of hell, and taught to see powers of evil in every common event, fell with maniac cruelty upon a class of persons whom old tradition pointed out as the devil's servants. In countries of either faith, old and solitary women perished by thousands amid agonies of torture. Across the guardian waters that divided England from the atmosphere of religious wars, this loathsome infection of the mind was wafted like a plague-blast; but since the material and intellectual causes were less marked, the vile panic was never here quite so horrible or so extensive. The sceptical Elizabeth, perhaps with some pity for her sex, had refused to yield when the pamphlet press called on the Government to enact fiercer laws 'not suffering a witch to live.' The outburst came with the accession of a Scottish King, who, though he rejected the best part of the spirit of Knox, was crazed beyond his English subjects with the witch-mania of Scotland and the continent. His first Parliament enacted new death-laws; at once the Judges and magistrates, the constables and the mob, began to hunt up the oldest and ugliest spinster who lived with her geese in the hut on the common, or tottered about the village street muttering the inaudible soliloquies of second childhood. Many pleaded guilty. and described the covenants they had formed with black dogs and 'goblins called Tibb': some had undoubtedly taken to what they believed to be black arts, to repel or requite the malevolence of their neighbours, or to win money and reputation from their credulity; but many were beaten or terrified into fictitious confessions, or perished denying their guilt to the last. Educated men soon perceived that not a few of these unfortunate creatures were innocent, but this acuteness of perception in no way disturbed the belief of any such observers in the general prevalence of witchcraft. This black business culminated during the civil war under the rule of Presbyterianism, when systematic though illegal tortures were successfully applied by scoundrels like Matthew Hopkins to obtain the death of scores of women. A reaction took place about the time of the rise of the independents to power, and the practice disappeared during the Rationalist movement which found refuge under the banner of the Anglican Restoration. But in its origin the witch-hunt was stirred up by no section; it arose out of a profound and universal belief. Learning, headed by the pedant King, was master of the hounds; science with Bacon, and law with Coke pointed the trail; imagination and poetry blew the horn with Shakespeare and his brother playwrights; religion blessed the chase that she had set on foot; while the discordant pack of vulgar beliefs, fears, and hatreds came yelling on their prey.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.