A convicted Witch's sentence varied. She could be killed, banished, imprisoned, or assigned a lesser penalty like penance. Religious courts used non-lethal penalties more frequently than secular courts did. But since secular courts held most of the trials, the most common penalty for a Witch was death.
All executions were carried out by the secular authorities.
Religious courts who sentenced a Witch to death handed her over
to the government for actual execution, to "keep the
Church's hands clean", so to speak.
In England and New England Witches were hanged; elsewhere the
most common form of execution was burning. Burning, by the way,
didn't mean being burned alive. If you recanted (admitted you'd
made a mistake and were sorry), you were killed beforehand, and
then your body was consigned to the flames. Nobles were beheaded,
commoners were hanged -- being burned alive was an extreme and
unusual punishment except in Spain and Italy where the
Inquisition did regularly burn people alive.
Executions were popular events. The largest had thousands of
attendees, who often travelled many miles to see the deaths.
Crowds were so large that the Inquisition would sometimes erect
bleachers, so that everyone could see and hear.
Why did the Church care about the spectators? Because
executions were dramatic "teaching" tools. Scholars are
beginning to study the ways in which executions helped spread
Witch hysteria. Before the actual execution, an official (often a
priest) would stand before the crowd and deliver a sermon against
Witchcraft. At the very least, he'd recite a list of the Witch's
crimes. Thus by attending executions, the "average"
person could learn a great deal about what Witches were
"supposed" to be like. Executions are one of the
avenues through which intellectual stereotypes (from, say, the
Malleus Maleficarum) made their way into popular culture. They're
one of the reasons why the longer trials went on in a country,
the more they all sounded alike.
The actual hanging or burning could be preceded by a bout of
monstrous public torture, especially where local officials
controlled the trial. The case of the Gamperle coven (see the
biographies) gives a graphic example of how inhuman these
tortures could be.
The manner of your execution also depended on who you'd tried
to bewitch. Treasonous magick -- attempting to harm the king,
queen, or local noble -- was treated most harshly. One Baltic
Witch who was convicted of killing the Count of Audru was
sentenced to be "repeatedly squeezed with red-hot irons,
have his limbs severed at the joints, his heart ripped out, his
head chopped off and impaled upon a stake by the roadside, his
In England the sentence for using Witchcraft on Queen
Elizabeth was "ye shall be drawn through the open City of
London upon hurdles to the place of execution, and there be
hanged and let down alive, and your privy parts cut off, and your
entrails taken out and burnt in your sight; then your head to be
cut off and your body divided into four parts, to be disposed of
at her Majesty's pleasure." (Did you see the movie
"Braveheart"? If so, the execution at the end was an
accurate, slightly watered-down version of a real treason
England also had a crime called "petty treason,"
treason against a lesser "lord" than the Queen. A
servant who killed his master or a woman who used magick against
her husband was a petty traitor and could be sentenced to be
burned alive. Thus there actually were a handful of English
Witches who were burned at the stake.
I point this out because many Gardnerian Books of Shadows
(handwritten collections of rituals supposedly handed down from
generation to generation of Witches) mention the danger of being
burnt alive. This is often cited as evidence that these books are
not ancient, since English Witches were hanged, not burned. While
I agree with this line of reasoning, I also believe it's
important to note that there were English Witches who were burned
alive and, as one historian points out, "many people still
had a confused idea that [burning] was the appropriate penalty
for a witch in England, as it was on the Continent." We know
that at least one English magistrate (Brian Darcy) threatened to
burn accused Witches who wouldn't confess, even though legally
speaking this was impossible. Therefore the fact that Gardnerian
Books of Shadows mention the stake doesn't automatically make
them modern inventions.
Practice stayed pretty close to theory. The only thing writers
neglect to mention is that a priest or minister generally
escorted the Witch to the stake or gallows, pestering her all the
while to confess and make peace with God. There was nothing like
a good stake-side confession and recantation to reassure the
populace that the court had done the right thing.
Why were Witches burned? Margaret Murray theorized that they
wanted to be, that the victims of the Burning Times were willing
sacrifices who wanted their ashes to be sprinkled over the crops
to ensure fertility. This is nonsense. Murray only produces one
Witch who said that she wanted to be burned. I could easily show
you a thousand more who begged not to die by the fire. One of the
most successful "interrogation" techniques was to offer
a Witch a merciful death in exchange for her confession. When
they knew that there was no way they could prove their innocence,
many Witches jumped at any chance to escape the flames.
Witches weren't burned because they wanted to be, they were
burned to protect the community. A Witch's dead body was
considered tainted and polluted. Fire cleansed it, and broke any
residual spells that might linger. Throughout much of Europe it
was thought that the body of a dead Witch would cause the plague.
Christians, like Pagans, believed in the purifying power of fire
and burned the body to prevent disease. One Witch hunter reports,
"It was a received opinion amongst many that, the body of a
witch being burnt, her blood is prevented thereby from becoming
hereditary to her progeny in the same evil, which by hanging is
not." In other words, burn a Witch and her family is
cleansed of the "taint" of Witchcraft. As early as 1459
a Witch was burned and her ashes thrown into a river "so
that no further harm may ensue therefrom."
1. Summerlands.com, Jenny Gibbons (2012) Stage #9: sentencing and ecucution. Retrieved from http://www.summerlands.com/crossroads/remembrance/_remembrance/sent_execute.htm