The study of ideas of magic and witchcraft in the medieval and early modern period has always been of some general interest to me, with popular cases such as at Salem being in the general historical knowledge of most people. Since my Masters dissertation topic focused on witchcraft in the English royalty (Queen Joan of Navarre and Duchess Eleanor Cobham are two of whom I have also written about in this blog) I thought it would be good to expand this research into cases of witchcraft in England a bit lower down the social ladder.
Despite the popular idea of centuries of witch hunts across Western Europe that generally sits in public knowledge, England was not actually overtly affected with witchcraft hysteria. It’s generally agreed that the witch trials that occurred in England between the early 15th and early 18th centuries (so 300 years worth) resulted in fewer than 500 executions. That is not to say that fears of witchcraft and evil magic didn’t exist in England, clearly it did, but it was not really a major worry for the English and huge inquisitions such as those in Spain (where the Basque witch trials examined 7,000 cases between 1609-14 alone) didn’t happen.
Woodcut of a British witch c. 1643
In this light, I come upon the witch trial that I will be examining today, that of the Pendle witches. The Pendle witches are, under these circumstances, very unusual for English history as they account for some of the largest number of witches hanged together at one time. Ironically, most of the accusations that contributed to their downfall came from one another.
The Pendle witches lived around Pendle Hill in Lancashire which, during the end of the sixteenth century, was regarded as a lawless area of England. The area had stayed strongly Catholic after the dissolution of the monasteries, and, owing to the remoteness of the area, even under Elizabeth I Catholic mass continued to be regularly held in secret. Elizabeth had passed an act early in her reign that made witchcraft which caused bodily harm punishable by death, but otherwise there was not too much interest in witchcraft (with the issue of religious heresy and plots against the Queen’s life by Catholics taking greater importance). By the accession of James I, however, things changed somewhat. James was himself very frightened of witches, believing that Scottish witches were plotting against him in the 1590s, when in 1590 he had attended the trial of North Berwick witches who were convicted of using witchcraft to send a storm against the ship that carried James and his wife Anne back to Scotland. He took such strong interest in witchcraft that he even wrote his own book on the matter: Daemonologie. Nonetheless, James was not fanatical in his beliefs and kept an even head; he was famously sceptical of evidence presented at witch trials, and even personally exposed discrepancies in the testimonies presented against some accused witches.
James I of England with a 1603 printing of his book, Daemonologie
In early 1612, every Justice of the Peace in Lancashire was ordered to compile a list of recusants in the area, in a bid to crack down on illegal Catholics. It was whilst the JP of Pendle was undertaking these orders that in March of the same year he received a complaint by the family of John Law, a pedlar, who claimed to have been injured by witchcraft. It was said that a woman named Alizon Device was begging for pins, which were needed for magical purposes and relatively expensive. When John Law refused, Alizon got angry, and when John walked away from her he suddenly fell to the ground. Initially there were no accusations of witchcraft, but it seems that when Abraham Law, John’s son, took Alizon to visit his father a few days later, she apparently confessed to her crimes and asked for John’s forgiveness.
This turned out to be a very bad mistake by Alizon. Alizon, her mother Elizabeth, and her brother James were soon summoned to appear before the investigating JP, Roger Nowell, on 30th March 1612. Alizon confessed that she had sold her soul to the Devil, and that she had told the Devil to lame John Law after he had called her a thief. James further implicated Alizon by saying that she had also confessed to bewitching a local child. The pair’s mother was more cautious with her confessions, but crucially did admit that her mother, Elizabeth Demdike, had a mark on her body. This may seem innoccuous, but when witchcraft was in the air marks on the body could be regarded as being left by the Devil.
This is when the counter accusations began. Alizon and her family clearly did believe themselves to be able to perform some kinds of magic – probably mostly healing through herbs and spells, something that was fairly common in rural areas and wasn’t always regarded with suspicion. It seems, however, that there was another family in the area who were rivals of Alizon’s who also claimed to have powers of witchcraft. This rivalry had lasted for a long time, with a member of the rival Chattox family reputedly breaking into the home of Alizon’s family in 1601 and stealing goods worth about £1 (a fairly significant sum at the time). When Alizon was questioned about the matriarch of the other family who were being investigated for witchcraft – Anne Whittle Chattox – Alizon took her chance at revenge.
A 17th century woodcut showing a witch on her broomstick followed by the devil.
Alizon accused Anne of murdering four men by witchcraft, and of killing her father, John Device, who had died in 1601. Apparently, on John’s deathbed he had claimed that his sickness had been caused by Anne because they had not paid for protection. This quickly led to members of Anne’s family being summoned by Nowell for questioning. On 2nd April, Elizabeth Demdike (Alizon’s grandmother), Anne Chattox, and Anne’s daughter Anne Redferne, were questioned. Both Demdike and Chattox were blind and in their eighties, and would end up providing ample evidence to implicate themselves.
Demdike claimed that she had given her soul to the Devil 20 years before, and Chattox said that she had given her soul to “a Thing like a Christian man”, on his promise that “she would not lack anything and would get any revenge she desired”. Anne Redferne was clever enough not to confess to anything, but Demdike claimed that she had seen Redferne making clay figures (which were usually used to perform malign magic). Redferne was further implicated by a witness outside of the families who claimed that her brother had fallen sick and died after having had a disagreement with Redferne.
All of this evidence led to Nowell committing Demdike, Chattox, Redferne and Alizon to Lancaster Gaol to be tried for causing harm by witchcraft at the next court session. At this time only these four women were implicated, and it may have ended at that were it not for some further unfortunate circumstances. Elizabeth Device organised a meeting at her family’s home on Good Friday, 10th April, 1612. Her son, James, stole a neighbour’s sheep in order to feed everybody. Friends of the family, and those who were sympathetic of their situation with two family members in jail, attended. The gathering was large enough to reach the ears of Nowell, who decided to investigate it. Towards the end of April he and another magistrate, Nicholas Bannister, held an inquiry to determine the purpose of the meeting, who had attended, and what happened.
An illustration of Ann Redferne and Chattox, two of the Pendle witches, from Ainsworth’s novel The Lancashire Witches, published in 1849.
The inquiry led to eight more people being accused of witchcraft and subsequently being committed for trial. Elizabeth and James Device were amongst them, with the others being: Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Jane Bulcock, her son John Bulcock, Alice Grey and Jennet Preston. Jennet Preston lived just over the border in Yorkshire, so was sent to the York Assizes, with the rest joining the original four in prison at Lancaster Gaol.
In July, the trials began. The Pendle witches were tried in a group amongst other accused witches; the Samlesbury witches, the Padiham witch, and the Windle witch. The group was an interesting mix, with some such as Alizon seeming to genuinely believe they had performed malign magic, with others protesting their innocence to the end.
Jennet Preston, the accused witch sent to York, was the first to be tried on 27th July 1612. She was charged with murdering a local landowner, Thomas Lister of Westby Hall, by witchcraft. She pleaded not guilty. However, she had already appeared before one of her judges the previous year after being accused of murdering a child by witchcraft. Despite the fact that she had been found not guilty in that case, this would have probably have already been the nail in her coffin. She was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging, which she received two days later on the present site of York Racecourse.
The Lancaster Assizes were held a few weeks later, beginning on 18th August. The same judges who presided over Preston’s trial were to preside over the trials of the rest, which probably caused some pre-existing belief of guilt. Nowell, as the one who had gathered all of the statements and confessions, acted as prosecutor.
The hanging of the Pendleton Witches at Lancaster Castle from a 17th century woodcut
Alice Nutter and her family (her sister-in law and nephew also being accused) were a strong Catholic family of the respectable land-owning class, and that again added fuel to Nowell’s fire, thinking he would be doubly rewarded from the King for not only catching witches, but Catholic witches no less. In James’ book, Daemonologie, he had written “Children, women and liars can be witnesses over high treason against God” and this became crucial for the Pendle witches.
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Nine-year-old Jennet Device, Elizabeth Device’s daughter, became the crucial witness that sealed the fate of the remaining witches. The clerk of the court, Thomas Potts, wrote a book from all of the notes he made of the trial: “The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster” [which can be read here]. In his book, Potts recounts Jennet’s testamony. Once Elizabeth Device had been removed from the court room, Jennet calmly stood on a table and gave her testimony.
“My mother is a witch and that I know to be true. I have seen her spirit in the likeness of a brown dog, which she called Ball. The dog did ask what she would have him do and she answered that she would have him help her to kill.
“At 12 noon about 20 people came to our house – my mother told me they were all witches.”
Jennet named her mother, Elizabeth, and brother James, as well as six other people whose names she knew. James tried to save himself by also denouncing his mother, but then Jennet claimed that James had also been a witch for three years and that she had seen his spirit kill three people. Jennet’s evidence was damning, and believed by the jury despite her young age (even in these times, children younger than 14 would not normally give evidence in court). After a two-day trial, all of the accused bar one, Alice Grey, were found guilty of using witchcraft to cause death and bodily harm.
Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock and Jane Bulcock were all hanged at Gallows Hill, Lancaster, on 20th August 1612.
It is possible that Jennet Device may have grown up only to have been accused of witchcraft herself; a woman with the same name is listed in a group of 20 tried at Lancaster Assizes on 24 March 1634, although it cannot be certain that it was the same Jennet Device. This Jennet was accused of murder and – ironically if it was the same Jennet – the key witness was a ten year old boy.
Statue of Alice Nutter, one of the accused Pendle witches, in Roughlee, Lancashire, England.
The Pendle witch trials were unusual in many ways. That the majority of the evidence came from the accused parties accusing each other (when it was more usual for a lot more of the evidence to come from outside, injured parties), that so many were executed at once (the Pendle witch executions account for 2% of the total executions in England for witchcraft across three centuries), and that the key witness was just nine years old (when children under 14 were viewed as unreliable witnesses).
In 1998 a petition was presented to UK Home Secretary Jack Straw asking for the witches to be pardoned, but it was decided that their convictions should stand. In 2012, for the 400th anniversary of the trials, a life-size statue of Alice Nutter was unveiled in her home village of Roughlee. In August the same year, a world record for the largest group dressed as witches was set by 482 people who walked up Pendle Hill.
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Further information about the witches, their accused actions, and the timeline of events can be found at the following sources:
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