with especial reference to
his witchcraft trials


"There never was an abler, more unbiassed, and upright judge, since England was a Nation, than the Lord Chief Justice Holt. His life is interesting to every Individual, who sets the least Value on the security of his Liberty or Property; his Lordship was always remarkably strenuous in nobly asserting and as vigorously supporting the Rights and Liberties of the Subject…" (1).

"The most influential judge in the history of English witchcraft, by his own strength of will in directing verdicts, contributed very greatly to stopping the delusion" (2).

"In judicial fairness, legal knowledge and ability, clearness of statement and unbending integrity, he has had few if any superiors on the English bench. Over the civil rights of his countrymen he exercised a jealous watchfulness" (3).

"In the Story of English Witchcraft, Sir John Holt bears a justly honoured name. He brought to every trial a mind unclouded by prejudice and a single-hearted desire to give the prisoner every chance. Throughout his career, he showed to all accused persons, whatever their crimes a wide humanity that was all too uncommon in his day, and Sir Richard Steele tells us in The Tatler that every prisoner brought before him knew, 'though his spirit was broken with guilt and incapable of language to defend itself, all would be gathered from him which would conduce to his safety, and that his judge would wrest no law to destroy him, nor conceal anything to save him" (4).

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

What are we to make of testimonials such as these? We live in an age in which public praise of an outstanding individual can either seem like base flattery, concealed self-interest, or an invitation to jealous ridicule. But these testimonials invite our respect, at the very least. Sir John Holt has been dead for almost three hundred years, and yet there are, evidently, still reasons to celebrate his personal qualities and achievements. Through them, we are told, he made a lasting contribution to the social and political life of his country. Modern interest in his life has centred on the pivotal role he played in bringing a century of witch trials in Britain to a close. What follows is a brief account of his life, in which this role is related to the intellectual climate of the times.
John Holt was born in 1642 at Thame in Oxfordshire. He is said to have led a dissolute life as a student at Oriel College, Oxford, and is said to have left there without finishing his studies. In 1658 he went to London to become a barrister at Gray's Inn, aged 16. He was later called to the Bar, where he distinguished himself, and became an eminent barrister. We first hear of him becoming involved in politics in 1678, although it is not clear where his personal sympathies lay. The seventeenth century was a period of religious turbulence, in which people's religious sympathies determined their political loyalties, and were matters of passionate concern.

John Holt, barrister

The pains of the English Civil War (1642-1648) and the subsequent Commonwealth (1649-1653) and Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1653-1660) form the backdrop to Holt's early years, and the heated political life of the time cannot have failed to make its mark on him.

To greatly simplify the complexities of this period of history, the antagonistic relationship between King and Parliament during the English Civil War lived on after the Restoration of Charles II in political power struggles between an aristocratic pro-Roman Catholic (and anti-Nonconformist) faction centred on the King, and a pro-Protestant Church of England Parliamentary faction centred on the House of Commons. In 1673 Parliament succeeded in passing the Test Act which prevented Roman Catholics from holding any public office. In 1678 the King's chief adviser Lord Danby was impeached by the House of Commons for drafting a secret Treaty between the King and Louis XIV, the Roman Catholic King of France. The House of Lords appointed John Holt and two other lawyers to defend Danby in court, "but the Commons, by a vote, which was posted round Westminster Hall and the Parliament-House, prohibited the same upon the severest penalties" (5). We do not know where Holt's political sympathies may have lain in this affair, but he was evidently considered a lawyer of high repute, and his skills as a barrister were perhaps even considered a threat to the impeachment process.

Seven years later, in 1685, Holt found favour with the new King James II, and was granted a knighthood, and other honours including the post of Recorder of London. However relations between the King and the House of Commons deteriorated as it became clear that he wished to rule with absolute power and to restore Roman Catholicism by repealing the Test Act. The following year Sir John Holt was removed from his post of Recorder. "When King James asked him to vote for the Repeal of the Test, he answered, he could not do it in Honor or Conscience; the King said, he knew he was a Man of Honor, but the Rest of his Life did not look like a man of Conscience; (for he was indeed abandoned to Luxury and Vice); he boldly replied, he had his Faults; but they were such that other People, who talked more of Conscience, were guilty of the like" (6). Furthermore Holt is said to have opposed the King's claimed right to hold 'Dispensing Power' to set aside or dispense with the penal law at his discretion. Because he "would not expound this law to the King's design he was put out of his place" (7). However he continued to oppose the interests of the King; in June 1688 he was recommended to represent the seven bishops, including Archbishop Sancroft, which the King had sent to the Tower of London for opposing his plans to suspend all laws against Nonconformists and Roman Catholics. Holt's services were commended to the Archbishop by Bishop Compton "I know he has a hearty desire as well as skill to serve you" (8). His opposition to the King proved a blessing in disguise, for when the 'Glorious Revolution' took place in October of that year, putting the Protestant William of Orange on the throne, Holt was promoted to a favoured place by the new regime. In 1689 he was made the Lord Chief Justice of the Court of the King's Bench, and a Privy Councillor to the King. In the same year the Bill of Rights was published, which laid the foundations of the present parliamentary government of Britain. It was designed to set limits on the power of the monarch, and to define a new role for Parliament, ensuring that finance, law and military power were substantially in the hands of the Commons. It is likely that Holt cast a judicial eye on the Declaration of Right on which this Bill was based. However he continued his work to establish the independence of the judiciary from political influence. "If the years after 1689 saw a new respect for the law as something which stood above both King and Parliament, much of the credit must go to Holt ... He brought a new spirit of tolerance and common sense to the ministering of justice: he refused to have prisoners brought before him in irons, he would not punish dissenters for not attending Anglican services, he dismissed cases of witchcraft and treated prosecutors in such cases as common impostors" (9).

Sir John Holt's reputation in the 18th century rested on his quality as a lawyer. A prime source of information about his legal career is a monograph of his life published in 1764 as 'The Life of the Right Honourable Sir John Holt, Knight.... By a Gentleman of the Inner-Temple'. It surveys his career, and reviews his most important legal judgements, with points of law resolved by him on evidence in trials at Nisi Prius. It also includes an abstract of his Will and Codicils.

The Biography

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Recent interest in the life of Sir John Holt has been focused on the witchcraft trials over which he presided. Folklore researchers such as Christina Hole (quoted above) have credited him with an important role in bringing the witch-craze to an end. "He was quite unaffected by the witchcraft mania, and he did not believe.... that to acquit a witch was to undermine the constitution or deny revealed religion" (10). The most complete account of these trials is found in An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft by Bishop Francis Hutchinson (London 1718), who had access to Holt's own court records (11). At least eleven trials are recorded, in places as far apart as Suffolk and Cornwall. He secured the acquittal of every person brought before him accused of witchcraft. The following table sets out a summary of the particulars of six of his more notable cases.


Date The Accused Accusation Outcome of trial
1691 Three women (Frome) Bewitching a young girl, Mary Hill One died in prison. Two acquitted by Holt. Girl improves soon afterwards.
1694 Mother Munnings (Bury St Edmunds) Maleficia: casting spell on her landlord causing his death. Having a familiar imp in form of a polecat. Having two black and white imps. Acquitted. Black and white imps believed to have been two balls of wool.
  Margaret Elnore (Ipswich) Accepting familiars from her grandmother (hanged for witchcraft). Having witch's marks on her body. Causing her neighbours to suffer from lice. Acquitted.
1695 Mary Guy (Launceston) Causing possession in a girl, making her vomit pins, straws and feathers. Acquitted.
1696 Elizabeth Horner (Exeter) Causing possession in three children eg. leaping five feet in the air, walking up walls. Acquitted. No reprisals against accused following acquittal.
1701 Sarah Murdoch or Morduck (Southwark) Bewitching Richard Hathaway, causing him to vomit pins, contort his body, foam at the mouth. Acquitted. Richard Hathaway brought to trial for imposture. His employers tried for assault against Murdoch.
Another case is recorded in The Betts of Wortham. Although the historical particulars are not known, and the account has a strong air of the legendary and anecdotal, the details agree with what is known of Holt's temperament and moral qualities. "During a trial, the 'powerful spell' of an accused witch - some words written on a parchment - was brought into court. This the prisoner confessed had been given originally to her, to cure her child of ague (13), and that it had since cured many others. The judge examined the parchment, and then addressed himself to the jury thus: "Thirty years ago", he said, "I and some companions as thoughtless as myself, went to this woman's dwelling, then a public house, and after enjoying, found we had no means to discharge the reckoning. I had recourse to a stratagem. Observing a child ill of ague, I pretended I had a spell to cure it, and wrote the classic line you see on that parchment before you (14). I was discharged that demand of me, by the gratitude of this poor woman for the supposed benefit. Nature did much for the child; imagination the rest. This incident", he continued, "but ill suits my present character and station; but to conceal it would be to aggravate the folly for which it becomes me to atone, to endanger innocence and countenance superstition" (15).
In the witchcraft cases he presided over, Holt was at pains to cross-examine the evidence brought before him. His judicial objectivity stands in contrast to the attitude of one of his predecessors, Sir Matthew Hale (1609-'76), who, despite a reputation for 'discernment and humanity', religiously believed in the existence of witches and allowed false testimony to secure convictions (16).
The intellectual climate of the day was broadly ranged between two opposing positions on witchcraft. The first was convinced of the objective existence of invisible powers and satanic influences mediated by witches, and was championed by writers such as Richard Baxter (1615-'91) (Certainty of the World of Spirits), Richard Bovet (c.1641-c.1720) (Pandemonium), and Joseph Glanvil (1636-'80) (Saducismus Triumphatus, or full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions). The second was a growing spirit of rational scepticism, which ultimately had its roots in the natural philosophy of Sir Francis Bacon. One of its most notable exponents was John Webster (1610-'82) whose The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft of 1677 propounded the view that witches worked evil through their own knowledge and the application of natural laws, rather than with the help of the Devil, and that "there are many sorts of deceivers and impostors, and divers persons under a passive delusion of melancholy and fancy". Influential continental writers such as Balthasar Bekker (1634-'98) and Christian Thomasius ((1655-1728) openly challenged the idea that witches were part of a satanic 'fifth column' bent on overthrowing or subverting the Christian world. While it is not known whether Holt ever read these authors, their sceptical spirit contributed to the intellectual climate in which he was working. He was able to bring an objective and sceptical eye to the cross-examination of witnesses, revealing cases in which deliberate fraud or hysterical imagination had led to the charges of witchcraft. As the 'powerful spell' story shows, he was able to make the logical distinction between 'Nature' and the 'Imagination' which was fundamental to Bacon's philosophy: "Whosoever shall entertain high and vaporous imaginations, instead of a laborious and sober enquiry after truth, shall beget hopes and beliefs of strange and impossible shapes"
(17). With Bacon he insisted on making a practical distinction between verifiable evidence and superstitious hearsay, which reflected 'delusions of the mind'. The 'Idola' or 'phantoms of the mind' described by Bacon were: reverence for authority; common talk or popular opinion; a lawyer's or politician's bias; and the interest and passion which coloured the 'dry light' in one's own mind (18). While we have no documentary evidence that Holt ever read Bacon's work, the facts of his life and his recorded statements accord with Bacon's empirical approach to evidence. However it would be no more than an attractive 'phantom of the mind' to suggest that in 1702 he bought Redgrave Hall, Bacon's family home, because of his respect for the philosopher.

Sir John Holt undoubtedly played an important role in bringing the witch craze to an end. "To destroy the myth, to drain away the pool.... the whole intellectual and social structure which contained it, and had solidified around it, had to be broken. And it had to be broken not at the bottom, in the dirty sump where the witch-beliefs had collected and been systematised, but at its centre, whence they were refreshed. In the mid-seventeenth century this was done. Then the mediaeval synthesis, which the Reformation and Counter-Reformation had artificially prolonged, was at last broken, and through the cracked crust the filthy pool drained away... The stereotype of the witch had gone" (19). Holt was a man close to the centre of power, where the important example he set as Lord Chief Justice undoubtedly swung the balance of legal opinion against witchcraft prosecutions within the State, and would have contributed towards a decisive shift in informed public opinion.

Sir John Holt was offered the post of Lord Chancellor by King William III in 1700, but he modestly declined the honour. He continued his career as Lord Chief Justice under Queen Anne, and died on March 5th 1710 at his house in Bedford Row, London, aged 68. Principal lawyers, members of the nobility and students joined his funeral procession as it left London (20). He was interred in Redgrave Church, Suffolk, where he is commemorated by an elaborate monument in Baroque style carved by Thomas Green of Camberwell. He represented sitting in his judge's robes, flanked by allegorical figures of Justice and Mercy:

... the watchful upholder, the keen defender,
the brave guardian of Liberty and the Law of England.

The Holt Monument

  1. Anon, 'The Life of the Right Honourable Sir John Holt, Knight, Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench'; London 1764; p.iii.
  2. Rossell Hope Robbins, 'The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology'; Bookplan, London 1964; p.247.
  3. 'Encyclopaedia Britannica' 11th Edition.
  4. Christina Hole, 'Witchcraft in Britain'; Granada, London 1979; p.162.
  5. Anon, ibid; p.3.
  6. Tindal's Continuation of Rapin's 'History of England', quoted in Anon; p.4.
  7. Anon, ibid; p.4
  8. Edward Carpenter, 'The Protestant Bishop'; Longmans, Green & Co, London 1956; p.120.
  9. Derek Jarrett, 'Britain 1688-1815'; Longman, London 1965.
  10. Christina Hole, ibid.
  11. R. Hope Robbins; p.248.
  12. ibid.
  13. Ague = a malarial fever spread by mosquitoes, once common in Britain; not improved by living in damp and unheated homes.
  14. A belief in the efficacy of spells was widespread in the 17th century. For a handwritten spell against the ague see Warren R. Dawson's article: A Norfolk Vicar's Charm against Ague (original papers of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society vol.24, pt.2).
  15. Katharine F. Doughty, 'The Betts of Wortham in Suffolk: 1480-1905'; John Lane, London 1911; p.133.
  16. R. Hope Robbins; p.240.
  17. Francis Bacon, 'Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Human'; Book II.
  18. John Nichol, 'Francis Bacon His Life and Philosophy', Part II; Blackwood, Edinburgh & London 1889; p.153.
  19. Hugh Trevor Roper, 'The European Witch-Craze'; in Max Marwick (Ed), 'Witchcraft & Sorcery', Penguin, London 1970; p.145.
  20. Jean Sheehan, 'Redgrave Reflections'; Redgrave History Group, Redgrave 1993; p.3.
T.D. Holt-Wilson, 2001
  • Sir John Holt cited in a pamphlet from 1800: Opinions on the Subject of Negro Servitude in the Province of Nova Scotia.
  • A biographical article on Sir John Holt in the Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911.

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