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Sink or Swim: The Swimming Test in English Witchcraft

Veena Patel | University of Leicester

Frontispiece of a seventeenth-century pamphlet
Anonymous – Title Page: Witches Apprehended, Examined and Executed for notable villainies (1613): Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

“They swim…the mark of Satan is upon them. They must hang.”

During the early modern period, Europe underwent what has often been described as a witch craze. A rise in the popular belief in witchcraft resulted in a feeling of underlying anxiety surrounding the presence of witches in a community, and these anxieties reached a degree to which communities decided to act.

Unlike other areas of Western Europe, England experienced a tamer version of witchcraft and witch hunts. Whilst tales of the Devil, demonic pacts and sabbats ruled the Continent, English witchcraft centred around maleficium, the fear of harmful magic in village communities, constructed from society’s own affairs and beliefs. The varying degree in the number of witchcraft confessions on the Continent and in England could also be attributed to the fact that judicial torture was not permitted in England. Many countries, such as the German-speaking territories of the Holy Roman Empire, which experienced severe witch prosecutions were those in which judicial torture was used, whether that be through sleep deprivation or more immediate methods such as pressing.

The crime of witchcraft was one which was simply not amenable to other forms of judicial proof, and therefore further evidence was needed from a more absolute, or in this case, divine point of view. The ordeal of the swimming test originated as an old Germanic rite and was later reinforced in Christian times by the use of water for baptisms. The doctrine of this method was that the purity of water as an element used in the rites for baptism would reject those who had turned to the Devil, thereby turning their back on God.

Prior to the witch craze of early modern Europe, the swimming test was used in the eleventh and twelfth centuries for crimes such as adultery and homicide. However, arguments were raised against the ordeal, primarily that it lacked any secure foundation in biblical texts or Church law. By the thirteenth century, the clergy had withdrawn their support from its use, leading to its widespread abandonment. It was not until the sixteenth century that the idea of the swimming test was resurrected, though historians have no conclusive evidence as to why that may be.

It is important to note that although the swimming test became a frequent method for identifying witches, it was never embraced by learned authorities. It has been suggested that as the belief in witchcraft began to quickly decline and judicial systems became increasingly reluctant to prosecute witchcraft cases, certain individuals (such as witch hunters) looked towards means such as the swimming test as alternative solutions to dealing with witches.

The ordeal usually involved the tying of a suspect’s wrists to their ankles and then throwing the individual into a body of water with ropes attached. Contrary to popular belief, if the suspect sank, they were presumed innocent and hauled up. It was not common for them to perish unless they did so accidentally. Should they float, however, this was taken as confirmation of their alliance with the Devil. The premise of this ordeal was that it provoked direct intervention from God in determining the guilt or innocence of the accused, and the result was therefore seen as a revelation of God’s judgement.

Contemporaries, however, had their doubts about the ordeal’s legitimacy. Theologian William Perkins argued that not all water was the water of baptism, but only that which was used in the very act of baptism, not before or after. Therefore, its sacredness and purity would only be applicable during the ritual of baptism, and it would hold no relevance in determining whether one was a witch or not. Physician John Cotta also wrote that the swimming test sought a miracle where there was none. He argued that people who used the test as a means of judicial evidence failed to grasp the concept of the natural world, which did not distinguish between good or bad people.

A woodcut of witches dancing in a circle with devils.
Witches and Devils Dancing Around in a Circle (1720): Woodcut, 1720. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

That is not to say, however, that there were not some who believed in the validity of the ordeal. Perhaps, most prominent was King James I, who became a firm believer in the presence of witches after suspecting that he had fallen victim to their wickedness. Daemonologie, essentially a manifesto detailing King James I’s beliefs in witchcraft and magic, written by James himself, mentions the swimming test. He asserts that the test was useful in confirming witchcraft accusations; as witches were in alliance with the Devil, they were refused the benefit of baptism and were essentially spat out of the water, which caused them to float. However, although he clearly approved of the swimming test, no evidence shows him enforcing the principle into practice once he came to the throne, and the practice did not reflect English law.

Nonetheless, James’ influence did seemingly resonate in pamphlets narrating witch trials. In 1612, a man named Arthur Bill, reputed to be a witch, was thrown into a pond with his parents and all of them floated. As a result, Arthur was executed. The author of this pamphlet repeated the arguments given by King James I and declared the swimming test as a certain sign of witchcraft that had been discovered with the help of God. However, this trial also raises an issue. Though Arthur and his parents were all thrown into the body of water, it was only Arthur who was executed for the crime of witchcraft; if his parents also floated, as stated by the pamphleteer, then why were they spared if this ordeal was a surety in discovering witches?

The absence of judicial torture meant that trials for English witchcraft took an alternative path to the stereotypical witchcraft trials we see in popular culture today. However, during the height of the English Civil War, individuals were able to take advantage of the disarray caused by the conflict for their own means. Cue infamous witch hunter Matthew Hopkins, associated with the East Anglian witch hunts of 1645. The accusations and confessions of the trials led by Hopkins, and his associate John Stearne, were very different in nature to previous English witch trials. They involved confessions entwined with demonic elements, such as intimacy with the Devil. This was primarily a result of the techniques Hopkins used when he interrogated the accused. His methods coincided with that of the Continent, such as keeping the accused witch under constant guard and forbidding them to sleep.

A woodcut showing a witch riding a broom accompanied by the Devil.
The History of Witches and Wizards: Giving a True Account of All Their Tryals in England, Scotland, Swedeland, France, and New England; With Their Confession and Condemnation. Collected from Bishop Hall, Bishop Morton, Sir Matthew Hale. By W.P. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Hopkins also used the swimming test and specifically referenced King James I and Daemonologie in his own work, The Discovery of Witches. The sink or swim ordeal was used by Hopkins and Stearne until they were forced, by judicial authorities, to discontinue. Interestingly, Stearne had stated that he had never used the swimming test of his own accord unless it was specifically requested by the accused, who wished to clear themselves of any crime or wrongdoing.

As belief in witchcraft began to fade, so too did methods of trial and ordeal. By the end of the seventeenth century, courts began to view the swimming test as a form of assault, and if the accused were to drown, it was seen as murder.

Ultimately, the swimming test was used as a means of informal judicial evidence to identify witches throughout the seventeenth century. However, though frequently used, it was never embedded into the English judicial system, nor was it given the seal of approval by the Church. Instead, due to the absence of judicial torture in the English system, it was a means of informal violence that individuals were able to use as an alternative solution to the perceived problem of witchery.


Further Reading:

  • Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (London: Routledge, 2006)

  • James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550-1750 (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997)

  • Orna Darr, Marks of an Absolute Witch: Evidentiary Dilemmas in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 2011)

  • Robert Bartlett, Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal (Vermont: Echo Point Books & Media, 2014)

  • Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Veena Patel is currently a GTA PhD student at the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on the role of water in healing during the Reformation.


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