written by guest contributor: Verna Sorrentino

Graham Demaline, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the late Middle Ages, witch-hunting fever swept across Europe.

Scotland’s King James V1 who succeeded Queen Elizabeth 1st to become King James 1st of England, had a particular hatred of all things connected to witchcraft.

Witchcraft was already a capital offence in Scotland when James was born in 1566 but it wasn’t until he brought his Danish bride, Anne of Denmark, across the North Sea and ran into a perilous storm, that he became obsessed with the idea that they had been targeted by a coven of witches.  

Once back in Scotland, his obsession grew and panic set in and he quickly approved witch trials, where under extreme torture, many older women and a few men, confessed that the devil had asked them to plot the destruction of the monarchy.

Not surprisingly, at their trials, hundreds were found guilty and burned at the stake.

By 1612 the witch hunting craze had reached Northern England and led to what would become one of the most heinous witch trials in history.  The trials of the Lancashire Witches of Pendle.

East Lancashire in the late Middle Ages was a thinly populated, remote and lawless place.  It’s inhabitants were mostly uneducated and mired in myths and superstition.  Because of the poor condition of the roads, there were areas that had little to no contact with the rest of the county, and people rarely travelled more than a few miles from home.

Among the scattered hamlets of the Pendle Forest sits Pendle Hill, rising above the ancient hunting grounds of a Royal Forest, where wild boar, deer and wolves roamed.

Pillar on top of Pendle Hill, Lancashire England
By Michael Graham, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13938231

In the old times, it was known as Pen Hul (Pen is the Celtic word for hill ), but by the 1600s it had evolved into Pendle Hill and it, and the surrounding villages and hamlets will forever be associated with the Pendle Witches.

Many families in the district practised healing, sometimes using talismans or charms, and competition was fierce in this money-making enterprise.

Two families in particular were always at loggerheads, perhaps because they were both trying to survive on their meagre earnings from healing and begging in the area.

Elizabeth Southern, whose nickname was Old Demdike, was the matriarch of one family, she lived with her daughter Elizabeth Device and her children, James, Alizon, and Jennet Device.

Anne Whittle known locally as Mother Chattox, Demdike’s rival, lived with her daughter, Anne Redfearn.  Anne had a facial deformity and was known as Squinteye.

The story starts innocently enough when Alizon Device is asked by her grandmother Old Demdike to bring her some pins. It is not known whether Alizon was meant to beg, buy or steal the pins, but when she encountered a pedlar from Halifax named John Law, travelling with his son Abraham, and asked for some pins,he refused to give her any.  So most likely she was begging. 

When she realized the the pedlar was not going to part with any pins for her, Alizon let loose with a stream of invective, and cursed him as he turned away.  Just a few moments later, she saw him fall to the ground.

Today, historians believe that John Law had suffered a stroke after this altercation , it was just an unfortunate coincidence.  Alizon, however, was so confident in her abilities as a witch, that she confessed to putting a curse on him and begged his forgiveness.  She later visited him at his bedside and made a futile attempt to reverse the curse.

When this reversal didn’t happen, Abraham, John’s son, went to a local Protestant magistrate named Roger Nowell and described the events of the day.  Nowell quickly interviewed Alizon, who confessed to practicing witchcraft and related to him how she had sold her soul to the devil 2 years previously, and that she had a familiar in the shape of a black dog.  Whether she was caught up in a frenzy or coerced in to doing so, Alizon went on to accuse her grandmother and, possibly for revenge, Anne Whittle, ( Chattox)  and her daughter Anne Redfearn. She accused Chattox of murdering 5 local men a number of years previously.

Both Demdike and Chattox were in their 80s and blind but nevertheless when questioned by Nowell both women admitted to selling their souls to the devil and practising witchcraft. It’s possible that these confessions were made in the hope that their reputations would be enhanced, unfortunately this rebounded on the families.

An illustration of Ann Redferne and Chattox, William Harrison Ainsworth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Anne Redfearn, adamantly refused to admit any connection with witchcraft, but her own mother implicated her by telling Nowell that Anne made clay dolls used in the practice of witchcraft.

After hearing these confessions, Nowell sent Alizon, Old Demdike, Chattox and Anne Redfearn to await trial at Lancaster Castle at the next assizes, which would be held in the summer.

Later that month, on Good Friday, Elizabeth Device, Old Demdike’s daughter, arranged a meeting at her home at Malkin Tower, for those sympathetic to the family’s predicament.  In order to feed everyone who attended, James Device, stole a neighbour’s sheep.

Roger Nowell was informed and an inquiry commenced, resulting in 8 more people who had attended the meeting being accused of witchcraft and seven being sent to join the others at Lancaster Castle.

~ Elizabeth Device
~ James Device
~ Alice Nutter
~ Katherine Hewitt,
~ John Bulcock
~ Jane Bulcock
~ Alice Grey
~ Jennet Preston

Thomas Hearne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jennet Preston lived across the border in Yorkshire so was sent to York Assizes for trial.  She was found guilty and hanged on 29th July 1612.

Alice Nutter was a wealthy widow who lived at Roughlee Hall.  She was a staunch Catholic and the current opinion is that she was spotted near Malkin Tower on the night in question because she was on her way to a Good Friday meeting with a group of Catholics.  As Catholicism was illegal and in order  to save her friends, she said nothing at her trial, apart from pleading not guilty.

The trials were held from the 17th to the 19th August 1612.  Old Demdike did not survive the horrors of imprisonment and died before the trial began.  The accused were denied representation and witnesses in their defence.  Most of the testimony against them was given by Jennet Device the youngest granddaughter of Old Demdike.  She was only 9 years old and normally would not have been allowed to give evidence, however, at a witch trial it was deemed acceptable to bend the rules.

Jennet testified against those she claimed had attended the meeting at Malkin Tower and against her own mother, brother and sister, stating that she believed her mother had been a witch for about 4 years.  She also claimed to have seen and heard conversations between her mother and a brown dog, in which the dog had been asked to help her mother commit murder.

Her brother James pleaded not guilty of the murder by witchcraft of Anne Townley and John Duckworth, however, Jennet claimed she had seen him asking a black dog to aid in committing this murder.

This family did not stick together, rather they threw accusations against each other, sealing their own fate in the process.  

The only person found not guilty at trial was Alice Grey. She was accused of attending the meeting at Malkin Tower, but this was not proven and she was released.

The others were hanged on Gallows Hill on 20th August 1612. They were not given a Christian burial, their graves were not marked and it is not known where the bodies were buried.

The site is now Williamson Park, 50 acres of woodland, a popular place of relaxation for local people.

Ironically, over 20 years later, in 1633, a woman by the name of Jennet Device, was accused of witchcraft and tried at Lancaster Assizes on the 24th March 1634.  Her accuser was a 10 year old boy, Edmund Robinson.  Jennet was charged with murder by witchcraft of Isabel Nutter, the wife of William Nutter.  In total 20 people were accused of witchcraft, brought to trial and seventeen of them were found guilty.  They were spared the death penalty however, and allowed to appeal to the Crown.  By this time, King Charles 1st was on the throne, and he was deeply sceptical of witchcraft and under further questioning, Edmund admitted lying.

The women awaiting their fate in Lancaster Castle were acquitted , but were not allowed to leave gaol until they had paid for their board during their time awaiting trial.  The last known record of Jennet Device was made in 1636, when she was still at Lancaster Castle unable to afford her freedom.

Today the towns and villages of Pendle are still steeped in the tales of the Pendle witches and the tourism trade thrives with shops selling every type of witch related souvenirs.  Spectacular trails give visitors the opportunity to walk or bike through some stunning scenery and the lovely village of Barley where visitors start their climb of Pendle Hill.

Over the last 25 years, two petitions have been presented to the UK Home Secretary asking for the witches to be pardoned, but a decision was made to let the convictions stand.



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