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5 - Politics and the Decline of Magic, 1649–1714

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 February 2022

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Summary

The execution of Charles I in 1649 risked emptying the British monarchy of its magical power, yet the republic that succeeded that event witnessed a flowering of popular interest in magic as government press censorship broke down in the 1650s. Magical ideas inspired several radical religious and political figures of the Interregnum, including many who advocated the return of the Jews to England. This would result in the informal re-establishment of a Jewish community in London in 1656, a hugely significant event that marked the beginnings of tolerance of non-Christian faiths in Britain. Restored to the throne in 1660, Charles II was perhaps more eager than any previous monarch to revive the magic of monarchy, and turned the ancient ceremony of touching for the king’s evil into a major effort to project royal power as magical, as well as reviving royal patronage of astrologers and alchemists. The crises associated with the Catholic James II’s accession to the throne and his overthrow in 1688 produced numerous rumours of the political use of magic. However, it was William and Mary who became the last British monarchs to receive counsel from a practising magician, the Whig politician Goodwin Wharton, who attempted unsuccessfully to reclaim the role of John Dee in the late seventeenth century. However, the excessive use of political accusations of magic during the Civil War ensured that discourse of this kind had become associated with instability and chaos, prompting many to see the decline of witchcraft (whether real or manufactured by an adjustment of judicial policy) as a sign of God’s approval for the restored Stuart monarchy and, later, the Revolution settlement. The political drift towards disparaging rather than embracing allegations of harmful magic prepared the way for the eventual decriminalisation of magic in the eighteenth century.

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Magic in Merlin's Realm
A History of Occult Politics in Britain
, pp. 234 - 277
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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