When you think of witches in history, two trials will probably spring to mind. These are the Pendle Witch trials of 1612, and the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The Salem brood has cropped up in every TV show from American Horror Story to Sabrina, yet far fewer are aware of the interesting social and cultural issues surrounding the Lancashire Witches at the time of their trial.
Growing up in Lancashire, it’s almost impossible not to come across the story of the Pendle Witches at some point. To this day, bus routes and walking trails mark their route across the county to trial at Lancaster Castle. Brave celebrants spend Halloween night atop Pendle Hill every year, hoping (or not) to catch a glimpse of the ill fated witches. Eerie monuments and witchcraft shops adorn the roads around Pendle. A metal effigy of one Alice Nutter in chains beside her still-standing home in the village of Roughlee is certainly enough to spook an unsuspecting driver as they round the oft misty roads at the foot of the hill. You can even buy Pendle Witch craft beer (here’s hoping the name refers to the theme, and not the ingredients.)
There’s more to the Pendle Witch story, however, than black cats and broomsticks. 1612 was a time of pronounced religious division in England, particularly in the North where people fiercely resisted the Protestantism introduced by Henry VIII, sparking the English reformation. Indeed, church authorities around the time of Henry’s reign viewed the North as a bed of heathenism that had lost sight of Christian values and was too preoccupied with casual sex and raucous alcohol consumption. The Reformation was a convenient way for Henry VIII to separate England financially and politically from Rome, but also gave rise to fundamental Protestants like Oliver Cromwell determined to eradicate any influence of Catholicism whatsoever.
Since the Catholic Church exerted such an influence in local communities however, with many relying on their church to administer judicial issues and effectively act as a council for the community, non-Protestant communities interpreted the reformation as an attack on their way of life. Henry VIII was never one to do things by halves and predictably ignored advice from scholars to gradually reform the influence of the Papacy in England; instead he joined in the tradition of South England dwelling Kings like William the Conqueror in attempting to beat the North into submission. Despite the execution of the local Abbot at Pendle, Catholic masses continued to be delivered in secret.
Mary I’s ascension to the throne after the deaths of Henry VIII and his young, sickly son Edward VI provided a period of relaxation for Catholics, though a now irreversible divide and mutual suspicion had been waged between Catholics and a new, ‘enlightened’ class of Protestants. That isn’t to say the Catholic Church’s influence in England wasn’t without its’ problems, but Henry VIII’s dogged determination to effectively instil himself as England’s pope certainly didn’t do any favours for Catholic-Protestant relations.
The general suspicion around witchcraft grew with the ascension of Elizabeth I to the throne, and her reassertion of Protestant values as the law of the land in England. She passed laws in the 1560s that denied those accused of harm or murder through witchcraft the right to a trial, effectively condemning them to death. Laws like these neglected to remember that ‘witches’ were usually simply women healers who lived in villages and performed minor medicinal procedures on the townsfolk. They were a very common part of village life in medieval England. Laws such as these made them a convenient scapegoat for any ills people might be suffering, such as an illness or unexplained deaths of livestock. They also made old women who happened to be rather financially successful prime fodder for witchcraft accusations up and down England.
The situation was unaided by the ascension of James I (James VI of Scotland) to the English throne. James was fiercely Protestant, having grown up during the Scottish Reformation and surely being handed down stories of the execution of his Catholic mother (Mary Queen of Scots)at the hands of Elizabeth I. If Elizabeth was marginally concerned about the threat witches posed to society, James had a crippling phobia. He was convinced that witches were out to get him, and in 1590 accused the North Berwick Witches of having sent a storm to kill him and his wife at sea en route to Denmark. It is thought that 70 (so effectively all) of the witches sent from North Berwick to trial in Edinburgh died after forcibly extracted confessions. With his book Daemonologie on how to identify witches published in 1597, the treatment of accused ‘witches’ got progressively worse.
Indeed, it was a dangerous time to be a woman (though it wasn’t just women who were found guilty of witchcraft.) Those accused could expect to get off lightly with a witches’ (or scold’s) bridle, a device that strapped to the head and cut the tongue of its wearer if they attempted to speak. More frequently, particularly during the reign of James I, women would be randomly accused as a result of bad fortune for the townsfolk that lived with them. By this point, an accusation was an effective death sentence. A nice house made them a particular target; Alice Nutter’s home in Roughlee is particularly grandiose by contemporary (and even modern) standards. What followed accusation would be a ‘witchfinder’ proving the guilt of the accused – if a witch was pricked with a needle, they wouldn’t bleed. Thus, retractable needles were carried by witchfinders to ensure they wouldn’t bleed. It was inexplicably assumed that only witches kept familiars – bad news for anyone whose house happened to contain a cat, even worse news for those with a spider infestation. Witchfinders would also bind the accused in stress positions and berate them to prevent them falling asleep; this frequently resulted in confessions when the torture became unbearable.
That brings us neatly to the goings on at Pendle in 1612. As well as being the height of James I’s vehement anti-witch campaign, it was also a time of renewed tenacity in applying Protestant laws to the whole of England. It was now illegal to be a recusant (refusing to attend and take communion in the Church of England.) Since Pendle was part of the huge borough of Whalley, most of which was rural, it was nigh on impossible for local Justices of the Peace to police the entire area and inspect that Protestant values were being upheld. Thus, Catholicism and previously commonplace practices such as witchcraft had survived healthily into James’ reign. This made Pendle a veritable goldmine of potential convictions for the local Justice of the Peace, Roger Nowell, when the first complaint against the witches was brought to him in March 1612, by the pedlar (wandering trader) John Law. It’s important to note that the desperation to prove the accused guilty of witchcraft may have stemmed partly from James’ emphasis on the need for a fair trial. He would often intervene personally if he thought the evidence was tenuous, despite his distaste for witches.
There is a certain irony here in that many of the residents of Pendle were self-confessed witches, as to them, the term was interchangeable with local healer-for-hire. It’s strange that the entire population wasn’t completely decimated by the witch trials. Some of the deaths the witches were accused of had happened years before 1612, and one had been a well-known witch for 50 years and had never previously found herself on the wrong side of the law. What strange forces could have been at play?
One central character in our story is Mother Demdike (real name Elizabeth Southerns), a local legend in Lancashire (‘who do you think I am? Mother Demdike?’ being a catchphrase of my own Blackpudlian mother when asked to perform impossible tasks.) She’s the well-established witch I just mentioned. Her granddaughter Alizon Device was walking towards Trawden Forest in Pendle when she encountered John Law, wanting to purchase pins. These, despite their handmade nature making them fairly valuable, were commonplace in English witchcraft. Their chief use was treating warts, though they were also used in love magic. Debate exists as to whether Alizon was buying or begging, either way, the pins remained in Law’s possession. Her desire to purchase them would also have informed Law that Alizon was a potential witch. A few moments later, whether out of fear or simply as a symptom of the medieval lifestyle, Law fell to the floor and couldn’t get up. Experts now believe this was due to a stroke, but no definitive medical answer exists. After regaining consciousness, Law managed to stagger to a nearby inn. His survival and reunion with his son Abraham was probably the spark that ignited the fire for the Pendle Witches.
Abraham, John’s son, took Alizon to visit his now ‘lamed’ father a few days later. This traumatic experience would have been bewildering and easily enough to convince someone unfamiliar with a stroke of their own magical abilities. Unfortunately for Alizon, this is what happened, and she confessed her guilt to the bedridden John Law.
That’s the background… would you like to know the full story of the Pendle Witches? Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll dive deep into the eerie demise of the accused at Lancaster Castle and investigate the similarities and differences with other witch trials of the time. Happy Halloween from all at Bloom x