As a Lancastrian, born in the shadow of Pendle Hill, I was raised knowing the story of the ‘Lancashire Witches’ very well. I have trudged up Pendle Hill on scores of occasions, including some scary night walks up there at Halloween.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly during the reign of King James 1, fear of witchcraft became a national obsession in England. All manner of things were blamed on witchcraft, including sickness in families, farm animals dying, crops failing, severe weather and even if the beer went off or the butter didn’t churn properly. i.e. witches were great scapegoats for pretty much anything that went wrong in life.
‘Witchcraft’ was common around Pendle at this time, mainly because women made a living posing as witches in order to save themselves and their families from poverty and starvation during the harsh times of the day. They were basically the village healers, who practised their ‘magic’ in return for payment. Lancashire was a wild and lawless county at the time, where theft and violence was common place, so posing as a ‘witch’ offered women some protection because an aura of fear surrounded them.
Queen Elizabeth 1 approved a ‘Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm, or Sorcery Act of Law’ declaring that anyone who “should use, practise, or exercise any of these deeds” would be put to death. In 1612 every Justice of the Peace in Lancashire was ordered to compile a list of ‘recusants’, i.e. people who refused to attend the English Church and take communion, a criminal offence at the time. This triggered the sequence of events that led to the famous Pendle Witch trials.
A complaint was made by a pedlar, John Law, who said he had been injured by witchcraft. He probably had a stroke, but because it happened immediately after a local ‘witch’, Alizon Device had bought pins from him, a ‘witch-hunt’ started. Twelve local people, known as ‘The Lancashire Witches’; nine women and three men, were ultimately accused of witchcraft, as well as the murder of ten people.
Six of the Pendle witches came from two families, Elizabeth Demdike and her daughter Elizabeth Device, and her grandchildren James and Alizon Device; Anne Chattox and her daughter Anne Redferne. Many of the allegations resulted from accusations that members of the Demdike and Chattox families made against each other because they were rivals, both trying to make a living from healing and begging around Pendle.
The trial took place at Lancaster Assizes in August 1612. Elizabeth Device was charged with the murders of James Robinson, John Robinson and together with Alice Nutter and Demdike, the murder of Henry Mitton. The main witness against Device was her daughter, Jennet, who was about nine years old. When she was asked to stand up and give evidence against her mother, Elizabeth began to scream and curse her daughter, forcing the judges to have her removed from the courtroom before the evidence could be heard. Jennet told the court that she believed her mother was a witch. She also said her mother was visited by a ‘devil’ called Ball, who appeared in the shape of a brown dog. Jennet had witnessed conversations between Ball and her mother, in which Ball had been asked to help with several murders. James Device also gave evidence against his mother, saying he had seen her making a clay figure of one of her victims, John Robinson. Elizabeth Device was found guilty. Ten were found guilty on the flimsiest of evidence and all were hanged.
In 2012 the 400th anniversary of the Lancashire Witch Trials was marked by several special events, including an excellent exhibition, ‘A Wonderful Discoverie’. Pendle Hill itself was marked with the date 1612 using fleece by the artist Philippe Handford. In August, a world record for the largest group dressed as witches was set by 482 people who walked up Pendle Hill.
If you are visiting the north of England, make sure you visit Pendle Hill; it is a very special place, seeped in history and controversy.