The Elizabethan period of English history is defined by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, from 1558 to 1603. Elizabeth's father, King Henry VIII, oversaw the Protestant Reformation in England, but it was only during Elizabeth's reign that Protestantism became firmly established as the national religion. Although it was a religion founded on the worship of God, there was another figure who loomed large in the beliefs of Elizabeth's time -- the Devil.
A Force for Evil
To Elizabethans, the influence of the Devil on human affairs was almost as prevalent as that of God. While God was a force for good, the Devil was a force for evil. The Devil was believed to be able to take on whatever form he chose, human or animal, to tempt his victims to do wicked things. Many people believed that ghosts, too, were the Devil in disguise. One of the most famous Elizabethans, William Shakespeare, refers to this belief in his play ''Hamlet.''
Pacts with the Devil
It was believed that certain people could summon the Devil using magical means, and make a pact to bring them power and wealth in exchange for doing the Devil's work. This is the subject of the play ''Doctor Faustus,'' by Christopher Marlowe. It was commonly believed that witches had made such pacts, as demonstrated by the "Devil's Mark" that was supposed to appear on their bodies. Some people even said that Queen Elizabeth's own mother, Anne Boleyn, carried the Devil's Mark.
In 1562, four years after Elizabeth ascended to the throne, a new law came into force: "An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts." Throughout the rest of her reign, hundreds of people -- most of them women -- were prosecuted for witchcraft under this law. Many of the trials were reported in luridly sensational pamphlets, the equivalent of today's tabloid newspapers, which reinforced the popular belief that witches were people who had regular dealings with the Devil.
Alongside the idea that certain people might make pacts with the Devil, the Elizabethans believed the Devil could forcefully take possession of an innocent victim. In Shakespeare's ''King Lear,'' one character claims to have been possessed in this way by no fewer than five demonic entities. It was commonly believed that the Devil could enter a victim through his mouth as he sneezed, and that this could be prevented if another person said "Bless you." This is one superstition that has survived from Elizabethan times to the present day.
- The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor and Stuart Britain; John Morrill
- The Devil in Tudor and Stuart England; Darren Oldridge
- St. Ives Historical Society: Superstitions of the Elizabethan Era
- Elizabethan Demonology; T. A. Spalding
- Folk-lore of Shakespeare; T. F. Thiselton-Dyer
Andrew May has more than 25 years of experience in academia, government and the private sector. A full-time author since 2011, he wrote "Bloody British History: Somerset" and "Pocket Giants: Isaac Newton" (to be published in 2015). He is a regular contributor to "Fortean Times" magazine, and also contributed to "30-Second Quantum Theory." May holds a Master of Arts in natural sciences from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. in astrophysics.