On November 9th 1641 Maren Spliid (Splids) was burned at the stake on the Gallows Hill near Ribe. Maren was the best known victim for persecutions of witches in Denmark.
The Gallows Hill in Ribe is nowadays a lovely spot for a walk in the wood
A marble memorial tablet is placed at the house in Sønderportsgade in Ribe where the Maren Splids’ house once was. The memorial was built into the wall in 1904 by Ribe Tourist Association. The memorial text:
"Here lived Tailor Laurids Splid, whose poor wife Maren on the 9th of November 1641 was accused of witchcraft and burned at a fire on the Gallows Hills near Ribe"
The memorial of Denmark's most famous witch, Maren Spliid, in Ribe
Maren Spliid was not a typical witch
Maren Spliid was not a typical witch, because she was a wealthy and respected citizen in Ribe. She was married to the tailor Lauritz Spliid and was a successful landlady of the inn in Lauritz’ house in Sønderportsgade.
Maren was a self-assured lady and probably many thought she ought to be a little more modest and accommodating. Sometimes she lost her temper.
Maren Spliid was accused of being a witch
In 1637 she was accused of being a witch by the tailor Didrik Skrædder. He might have been jealous of Lauritz Splids’ success in business and angry with his own incompetence. He claimed that three women had entered his house at night. Two of them he didn’t know, but the third was Maren. They had held him, and Maren had forced his mouth open and breathed into his throat. After that he had become ill and vomited. In the vomit was a strange lump of living matter. This lump of vomit became the most important proof against Maren. The lump of vomit was shown to all – also the supreme authority in Ribe – the feudal overlord Albert Skeel at Riberhus (See photo of his memorial: Ribe Cathedral). The priests and bishop in Ribe were assembled and everyone believed that the lump could not be a natural phenomenon. A witch had to have had a hand in it.
Maren was put on trial. At first Lauritz Splid succeeded in having the trial dismissed against his wife. But in 1639 Didrik had found some more witnesses and had approached King Christian the 4th himself. It so happened that the king himself was quite obsessed by witches, thinking they harmed him both in wars and at home. So Christian the 4th was directly responsible for having Maren put on trial again in Ribe.
Maren Splids was found guilty. However shortly thereafter she was once more acquitted by another court in Ribe. Then the case was submitted to the Supreme Court of Denmark, where the King himself was judge. Christian the 4th imprisoned Maren in Blåtårn (a tower) in Copenhagen. Maren was then tortured until she confessed being a witch, although it is was prohibited to torture a prisoner before her being found guilty.
Maren reported a number of other witches in her confessions, among them a cripple named Anne. The day after the final sentence Maren Splids was burned at the stake as a witch on Galgebakken (The Gallows Hill) in Ribe. So many people watched her execution that the priest hardly could get through to her. She had had half a pint of mead and a load of gunpowder was tied to her back, so that her death would be hastened. After that she was tied to a ladder and thrown into the high flames.
Witch burning. This painting of a witch burning can be seen in the old inn "Weiss Stue" in Ribe
Witchcraft and witch trials in Ribe
From 1572 to 1652 there were 22 witch trials in Ribe. 18 were charged for witchcraft, and 11 of these were burned at the stake.
The first who were convicted were Johanne Christensdatter Rygge in 1572, she was burned at the stake.
The last one was Anna Bruds who was burned April 7th 1652.
Only one man got a witchcraft charge, namely Niels Holdensen Portner in 1642. He was acquitted.
The vast majority of these trials occurred while Christian 4 was the King of Denmark-Norway (1588-1648).
Visible signs of fear of witches and witchcraft
Many of the houses that were built in the years after the big town fire in Ribe in 1580 had a cross carved into the wooden brackets that held the roof. These crosses were meant to protect against witchcraft in the same way as if someone makes the sign of the cross. You can see these crosses on several houses in Ribe (click on the photo of a bracket on the bottom of this page to see it larger - and you will see the cross)
Maren Spliids' house on the corner of Sønderportsgade and Bispegade does not exist anymore. Instead you find a commemorative plaque (see photo on top of this page) and read more Old Town Walk .
In Ribe Viking Museum you can see the original door from Maren Spliids' house in the stationary medieval exhibition.
At the Old Town Hall can be seen various instruments of torture that were used in Ribe around the time of witch trials. Read more: "Museums and Activity Centers"
Every Midsummer Eve, June 23, are Midsummer Eve bonfires lighted all over Denmark to symbolically burn the evil. In Ribe is a big bonfire on the meadow outside Danhostel Ribe. Here, as in other places in Denmark a straw figure of a witch is burned and "send" to Bloksbjerg, the Brocken mountain in the Harz region of Germany, where the big witch gathering was supposed to take place. A 100 year old tradition that maybe ought to be discussed how suitable it is nowadays.
Medieval Torture and Punishment. The thumbscrews on the photo was used in Ribe for torturing witches and others. They can now be seen in the exhibition in the Old Town Hall
Witch persecutions in Denmark
In Denmark the majority of the approx. 2000 witchcraft trials took place after the Protestant Reformation in 1536. Trials continued in the 1600s and became worse after 1617, when it became illegal to try to heal others with magic. About half of the accused ended up burned at the stake.
After the Protestant Reformation you could no longer buy yourself absolution from the Catholic Church. Instead you could argue you were bewitched to sin. In this way you could still be saved. At a time when the country was harassed by plague, countless wars and major religious changes, and where a large part of the population became poorer and poorer, the hard pressed people needed scapegoats, they could blame for all their trouble.
Especially women – and especially the poor and elderly - were accused and convicted as witches. They had a hard time just to survive and often they had conflicts with their neighbours and fellow citizens. In such conflicts men would resort to physical violence, but women more often used verbal abuses against each other. They might threaten their opponents with all kinds of misfortunes, and if some of them came through – well then women were obvious targets for persecution as witches.
The last witch trial in Denmark was in 1693, when Anne Palis was burned at the stake on the island Falster.
Anneken Hendricks was accused of heresy and burned at the stake in the same way as a witch in 1571 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Jan Luyken copper etching illustration (1685 edition of the Martyrs Mirror)
Witch hunts in Europe
Nobody knows for sure how many were burned at the stake as witches in Europe. Maybe 50.000, maybe hundreds of thousands of people.
Some say about 100,000 people were accused of witchcraft in Europe between 1485 and 1690. Most of them from 1585 to 1620. About half of the accused were executed.
The most intense persecution took place in Central Europe.
All different kinds of misfortunes were explained to witchcraft and both Catholics and Protestants were convicted.
Witches burned at the stake - Witch Burning - 1555 in Derenburg, Germany
Danish and European witch museum
Currently are the local historical museums, Sydvestjyske Museer, planning a witch museum in Ribe. The ambition is to create an European witch museum, because the witch hunts and witchcraft persecutions were so widespread in Europe during the 1500 and 1600s.