The Pendle Witches, Lancashire
In 1612 Lancashire saw the most famous witch trial in British history, a trial that led to the death by hanging of 10 of the 11 accused. Though an account of the trial was published by the clerk to the court, one Thomas Potts, it is evidently a polished and altered version of the actual events, and much mystery surrounds the whys and wherefores of the whole affair.
A seemingly innocuous moment sparked the whole sad train of events. A pedlar, John Law, refused to give a poor woman some pins, or by her version to open his pack to sell her some. Shortly afterwards he suffered lameness and a stroke, something put down to a curse put upon him by the spurned customer, Alizon Device. Alizon seems to have believed in her own powers, confessing to Abraham, John Law's son, that she had indeed hexed him.
In the subsequent investigation by local magistrate Roger Nowell things spiralled out of control. There was rivalry amounting to a vendetta between the Device family and their rivals from a few miles away the Whittles. Accusations were made by the Devices and countered with equally dangerous evidence by the Whittles. Nowell had a huge case on his hands.
The two families were headed by blind octogenarian women, who went by nicknames: Elizabeth Southerns was matriarch of the Device clan, and known as Demdike; Anne Whittle was called Chattox. No love was lost between them.
The strangest thing about the Pendle witch trial is that so many of the accused confessed without being tortured to selling their souls to the devil, or making clay figures to be burned and crumbled, bringing sickness to the person so modelled. Jennet Device, the nine-year-old daughter of one of the witches, stood up in court and gave long and detailed evidence against her relatives.
Contrary to the modern view of the falseness of all witchcraft accusations, it seems very likely that the Devices and the Whittles made their way in the world as witches, though this probably entailed begging with menaces of curses to come should the target be mean, of supposed healing with herbs, and selling of charms. Rural Lancashire at this time was a fairly wild place, Pendle being the back of beyond. It was also a place of secrecy and old beliefs, the Catholic faith still being practiced in secret. The failure to say more at the trial of at least one of those eventually hanged was probably to protect her fellow Catholics from discovery.
There were many witch trials in Lancashire at this time, indeed witches from Samlesbury were tried simultaneously with their Pendle cousins.
The Device family further incriminated themselves after the initial problems by holding a meeting at their home, the pleasingly mysterious sounding Malkin Tower, where perhaps they were trying to garner support, or to fix the evidence and prevent further arrests. It backfired, partly because they stole a sheep to feed the gathering, itself a serious crime and one that strengthened the will and the hand of their enemies. For several of the 'witches' it was their appearance at this gathering that sufficed to condemn them.
The trials lasted from August 17 to August 19 1612. Overhanging the assizes at Lancaster was the concerns of the judges, one nearing the end of his career and hoping for a quiet retirement, the other ambitious to move up the judicial hierarchy, about King James and his views on witchcraft. James had written a book on the subject, and took action against witchcraft in Scotland and England. But he also seemed to have become more sceptical.
The outcome of the trials was that 10 men and women were found guilty of maleficium, or harming others by witchcraft, this harm including child killing in some cases.
Only one of those accused, Alice Grey, was found not guilty. So Alizon, Elizabeth and James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John and Jane Bulcock, and Isobel Robey were all hanged as witches at Lancaster Gaol. Demdike died before the trial, but she too was found to have been a witch.
The tragedy for the poor wretches hanged in Lancaster has been a boon ever since for the area: there is a museum dedicated to the events; a multitude of books; even a locally brewed beer named after them - Pendle Witch from Moorhouse's Brewery. And Lancaster Gaol still stands, regularly hosting events explaining the trials at suitably spooky times like Halloween.
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