Stage #8: Free Confession

by Jenny Gibbons

Confession and Free Confession

Confessions extracted under torture are suspect. Everyone, from the lowliest peasant to the highest judge of the Spanish Inquisition, recognized that tortured people will sometimes say anything just to make the pain stop.

To counter this, courts that allowed torture usually demanded a "free confession" as well. The day after torture, a judge would read the confession back to the accused and ask if the information in it was correct. If s/he said no, the confession was thrown out as a fake, the product of pain only. If s/he said yes it was accurate, the court said that s/he "freely confessed". This second confession was called "free confession" because it was made when the accused was "free" from the danger of torture. Having been tortured once, s/he could not be tortured a second time.

That was the theory. Of course, as we've seen, the limitations on torture were one of the first legal safeguards the courts discarded. By the height of the Burning Times, an accused Witch could be tortured as many times as the court pleased. Now, a Witch asked to freely confessed was faced with a horrible dilemna. If she freely confessed, she was guilty and had to depend on the court's mercy. If she retracted her confession, she would be tortured again. And again and again, until the court tired of this. If she hadn't been able to withstand the first torments, how could she endure a second, third, or fourth bout?

Faced with the spectre of endless torments, many Witches caved in and "freely confessed", hoping to win the court's mercy or, at least, as painless a death as possible. Ironically, even when a Witch could be tortured forever, the courts still insisted on calling this second confession a "free confession."

This terminology caused massive confusion in the 20th century. When Margaret Murray developed her "European Witch Cult" hypothesis, she repeatedly ran into trials where the courts said that Witches had "freely confessed" to various things. Murray was not a medievalist or a historian, and she did not realize that in most of the trials she was using, "free confession" was a specific legal term. She assumed that a "free" confession was a "voluntary" confession, one made with little coersion or torture! This led her to claim that many Witches freely confessed and went happily to the stake, glorious martyrs whose voluntary deaths ensured the fertility of the crops.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Most Witches insisted they were innocent and it took hideous torments to force them to say otherwise. To get confessions, courts had to use tortures that were far more extreme than those inflicted on any other sort of "criminal". Murray does cite a couple of Christian intellectuals who claimed that Witches confessed freely and joyously, but she neglects to mention that their point of view was a minority one.

King James I, the man who commissioned the "King James Bible," was more in tune with the sentiments of the time when he said, "Loath they are to confess without torture, which witnesseth their guiltiness." In England, where torture was illegal and uncommon, John Cotta said that a Witch's "own free confession . . . happeneth very rare and seldom." Taciturnity, the ability to remain silent, was one of the principal powers of Witches. Many countries adopted torture because of Witches, because most people accused of Witchcraft just wouldn't confess unless they were tortured. As I mentioned before, in some countries like Sweden Witchcraft was the only crime where torture was allowed and in many others courts invented extreme tortures just for Witches because it was so difficult to make them confess.

There simply is no evidence that a large number of the Witches killed during the Burning Times were voluntary martyrs. If you examine the historical record you'll see that the vast majority did not confess until they were either tortured or threatened with torture, and the longer a Witch was tortured, the longer her confession would be. As one Witch said, when he was told he would be tortured, "I will say anything that you want. I will admit that I ate children, and will tell about all the evil deeds that you want to hear." "[I] would rather lay this crime upon [myself] and shorten [my] life," said a Norwegian Witch, "than suffer more torture than strictly necessary."

We do have a handful of cases where the Witches apparently confessed of their own free will. One English butcher voluntarily traveled twelve miles to meet Matthew Hopkins, the English Witch hunter. He confessed that he was a Witch, showed Hopkins his Witch's mark, and was promptly executed. Cases like this are exceptionally rare but they do exist. Here the man appears to have been mentally ill. For other Witches, voluntary confession was a form of suicide. Sir George Mackenzie described one such "Witch's" reasoning:

"I went when I was a Justice-depute to examine some Women, who had confest judicially, and one of them, who was a silly creature, told me under secresie that she had not confest because she was guilty, but being a poor creature, who wrought [begged] for her meat, and being defam'd for a Witch, she knew she would starve, for no person thereafter would either give her meat or lodging, and that all men would beat her, and hound Dogs at her, therefore she desired to be out of the World."

During some panics, as many as 14% of all the Witches killed died by their own hands. We can understand why someone would prefer to hang in her cell rather than face the thumbscrews and the rack, but why would a Witch give a false confession? Isn't being burned alive one of the most horrific ways to die? Yes, it is. But Witches who confessed were almost always given a relatively painless death. Usually they were strangled, and then their corpses were burned at the stake. Moreover, Catholics who found themselves accused of Witchcraft didn't have many other options, if they wished to die. Suicide is a grievous sin in Catholicism, one that damns your soul. Lying, on the other hand, is a minor thing, easily forgiven. A Catholic "Witch" who gave a false confession would die, but she'd still have hope of reaching her Heaven.

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