Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wagstaffe, John

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720506Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 58 — Wagstaffe, John1899Bertha Porter

WAGSTAFFE, JOHN (1633–1677), writer on witchcraft, born in Cheapside in 1633, was the son of John Wagstaffe of London. He was educated in St. Paul's school, and was Pauline exhibitioner from 1649 to 1658. He matriculated from Oriel College, Oxford, on 22 Nov. 1650, proceeded B.A. on 18 Oct. 1653, and M.A. on 9 July 1656. He was incorporated at Cambridge in 1668. On the death of his uncle he succeeded to his estate at Hasland in Derbyshire. Wood says that after taking his degrees he ‘applied himself to the study of politics and learning.’ He wrote little, and injured his health by the ‘continued bibbing of strong and high-tasted liquors,’ and died ‘in a manner distracted’ at his lodgings in Holborn, opposite Chancery Lane, on 2 Sept. 1677, and was buried in Guildhall Chapel. He was unmarried. Letters of administration were granted to his aunt (father's sister), Judith How, on 4 Sept. 1677. In person he was ‘a little, crooked man, and of a despicable presence,’ and his book on witchcraft created much mirth among the wits of Oxford, as he himself ‘looked like a little wizard.’ In his book he threw doubt on the truth of the alleged instances of contracts between spirits and men and women, pronounced them to be ‘ridiculously absurd, and some of them so impossible for all the devils in hell to accomplish.’ He considered the tales as ‘partly founded in mistaken interpretations of Scripture, partly in the knavish and gainful impostures of some men, partly in the vain, foolish credulity of other men.’ His position was assailed by Meric Casaubon [q. v.] in the second part of his book ‘Of Credulity and Incredulity,’ 1670, and in a work entitled ‘The Opinion of Witchcraft vindicated,’ by R. T., 1670. The attacks called forth a second and enlarged edition of Wagstaffe's book. He published:

  1. ‘Historical Reflections on the Bishop of Rome,’ Oxford, 1660.
  2. ‘The Question of Witchcraft debated,’ London, 1669, 1671, 1711 (in German under the title of ‘Ausgeführte Materie der Hexerey, oder die Meinung derjenigen, die glauben dass es Hexen gebe, deutlich widerlegt’).

He contributed a Greek poem to ‘Britannia Rediviva,’ Oxford, 1660.

[Harl. MS. 6670, f. 317; Gardiner's Reg. of St. Paul's School, p. 44; Foster's Alumni; Wood's Athenæ (Bliss), iii. cols. 1113–14; Admon. Act Book, September, 1677.]

B. P.