The Pendle Witch Trials resulted in ten people being hung at Lancaster in one of the most notorious stories of witchcraft ever told. Ever since, the county of Lancashire has been home to stories of the dark arts. Here is the background story of the legends of Lancashire's witches.
On the side of the tower of St Mary's Church, Newchurch-in-Pendle, there is the carving of an eye, said to represent the "All-Seeing Eye of God". Its original function was to protect the church and the worshippers from the witches who once plagued the area. Outside the doorway to this old church, built around 1540, is a tomb supposedly of one of the witches, Alice Nutter, the richest of the Pendle witches, who lived at nearby Roughlee Hall.
Witchcraft is still taken seriously in this part of Lancashire, even today. In Barley there is a field that is reputed to have been frequented by "Demdike's brook", and one corner of the field is to this day never cultivated because the locals consider it to be poisoned. There is a haunted barn at Huntroyde, where a man is said to have committed suicide because he thought he had been bewitched; and in Trawden people tell of bewitched cattle dancing in the shippon and of calves running wild, trying to climb the walls of their pen, on certain nights of the year. Browse through Samlesbury churchyard and you will stumble across a worn gravestone with iron spikes driven through it by the locals because they suspected the poor woman lying there of being a witch and did not want her rising up again and haunting them.
During Tudor and Stuart times, belief in the power of evil spirits to work harm on man and beast was a very real thing. Ordinary people were inclined to attribute every sudden death, misfortune, or other unusual occurrences to witches or the Devil, or to the malevolent evil spirits who worked their ill deeds without the help of mortal witches.
Even King James I had a deep-rooted fear of witchcraft: he passed a law in which "the punishment for the practice of wicked arts was death", and in 1597 he wrote his famous book Demonology, in which he describes the terrifying powers of the witches. The influence of this book on witchcraft led ultimately to witch trials in many parts of the country, among the most famous of which were those which began at Lancaster Assize Courts in August 1612 and culminated in three generations of witches being marched through the streets of Lancaster and hanged before a large crowd on the gallows at Lancaster Moor, on Thursday 20 August 1612.
This brood is often referred to as "the Pendle witches", because they came from the Forest of Pendle, around Pendle Hill. However, although the Pendle witches are renowned throughout the country, thanks to Harrison Ainsworth's fascinating novel, the county boasted other witches: Grace Sowerbutts of Samlesbury, Marjory Hilton of Catforth, and Widow Lomeshay of Burnley, who was buried at St Peter's Church, Burnley, on 12 March 1612, just before the first enquiry into the actions of the Pendle witches was held.
There were two groups of Pendle witches. The first, the best-known of the groups that have captured the imagination, were Old Demdike and Old Chattox, two poor and decrepit old women who were both over eighty years old and who were so terrified during their examination that they were prepared to admit anything. Each accused the other and added details to their imaginary crimes.
The Clerk of the Court at Lancaster was one Thomas Potts who, after the event, wrote a book, The wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, which not only tells of the trials and confessions of the witches but also gives us a good insight into their background.
According to Potts, the leader of the coven was Elizabeth Southerns, better known as "Old Mother Demdike", who had been a witch for over fifty years. Potts called her "a sinke of villainie and mischief" and later "a damnable and malicious witch". Mother Demdike lived at the Malkin Tower in the forest of Pendle, which Potts described as a "vaste place fit for her profession". (The exact position of Malkin Tower, a half-tumbled-down barn, is not known for sure, but Newchurch, Fence, and Blacko are considered to have been the possible area in which it stood and where most of the leading witches met.)
On 2 April 1612, Roger Nowell of Read, Justice of the Peace, examined certain witnesses at Fence, including Old Demdike and Old Chattox. Demdike readily confessed to the Devil's often having appeared to her in the form of a brown dog and that she had cursed the miller at Wheethead, Richard Baldwyn, because he refused to give her money, that she was possessed of a Devil called Tibb to which she had sold her soul, and that she had made images in clay of persons who she wished to harm, including Baldwyn's daughter, who had died suddenly and in what, under the circumstances, appeared to be mysterious conditions.
As a result of these and other confessions, Roger Nowell committed her for trial at Lancaster, together with her granddaughter Alison Device, Anne Whittle, known as "Old Chattox", and her daughter Anne Redfern. Not long after they had been committed for trial, reports reached Nowell that many witches had met on the following Good Friday at Malkin Tower and had plotted together to blow up Lancaster Castle. As a result, eight more people were arrested and sent for trial: Elizabeth Device, daughter of Old Demdike; John Device, son of Elizabeth and brother of Alison; Alice Nutter of Roughlee Hall; Katherine Hewit and Alice Gray, both of Colne; Jane Bylcock and her son John, and Margaret Pearson of Padiham.
Old Demdike died in the Well Tower of Lancaster Castle before she could be brought to trial, but all the others were condemned by their own confession, with the exception of Alice Nutter, who maintained her innocence to the end.
Alice Nutter was quite different from the other alleged witches. She was a rich woman, with a good estate and children who were said to be of "great hope". Her family gave no evidence at her trial, and she refused to admit to any crime. She confessed to having gone to Malkin Tower on that fateful Good Friday, because she was a Roman Catholic and had in fact gone to Mass nearby, although to give away her secret would have meant punishment for her fellow Catholics.
Many theories surround the reason for Alice Nutter's arrest, because there is no doubt that she was in no way connected with the others. Perhaps there was jealousy because she considered herself superior to her neighbours; perhaps, as some people suggest, she was the victim of the spite of Nowell himself, because there is evidence to suggest that he was beaten by the Nutter family in a lawsuit. Whatever the reason, evidence was given by Jennet Device, another granddaughter of Old Demdike, that Alice Nutter had been one of the witches at the famous meeting at Malkin Tower. However, since Alice protested her innocence, the judge arranged for the calling of an identity parade - probably one of the earliest recorded. Each time the parade was held, Jennet identified Alice as the one seen at Malkin Tower, and it was mainly as a result of this that Alice Nutter was condemned.
After the trials, Jennet Device was described as being a "young infant, raised up through the wonderful work of God", because she helped to bring the witches to justice. Evidently, Potts and others who made this and similar statements did not know Jennet as well as they should, for in reality, she seems to have had no love for her family or neighbours, and even at the tender age of nine years, she was only too ready to damn her grandmother, mother, brother, and sister with her evidence. It is ironic to note, that she herself was brought to trial for witchcraft in 1633.
During August 1612, a total of nineteen people were tried, including the twelve mentioned. Of these, nine were found "not guilty"; Demdike had, of course, died in prison; Margaret Pearson was sentenced to stand in the pillory at Lancaster, Clitheroe, Whalley, and Padiham, and was also sentenced to one year's imprisonment. The others, as have been seen, were all hanged on Thursday, 20 August 1612, less than twenty-four hours after being sentenced.
The second group of witches stood trial in 1633 after a boy named Edmund Robinson, of Wheatley Lane, told the local Justices of the Peace a long-drawn-out story about the goings on at a local witches' coven, which he claimed to have witnessed.
He said he had put two dogs on a leash and that one of them turned into a witch, while the other turned into a horse, which bore him away to a witches' coven at Hoarstones (now called Fence). There he claimed to have seen six people pulling on hanging ropes from which they obtained smoking flesh, butter, and milk. He also said he had watched them making clay images. He claimed to have had many other adventures both wonderful and curious, which he related in great detail. As a result of these testimonies, Edmund found notoriety as a witch-finder, and his father took him around neighbouring churches, where the young lad seems to have had a lovely time of it, denouncing many members of the congregations as witches. As a result, nineteen or twenty people were hauled off to Lancaster and tried for witchcraft. Later, the boy confessed that the stories he had told were untrue, but by that time the harm had been done.
The names of all the accused are not now known, but we do know that many were relatives of the 1612 witches, including Jennet Device. At the trial, seventeen persons were found guilty, but sentencing was postponed until after they had been examined by the Bishop of Chester, who ordered that four of them be sent to London to be examined by the King's physicians and by the King himself.
It was reported on 15 June 1634 that three of the unfortunates had died in prison while in London, and that the fourth, Margaret Johnson, had confessed to being a witch, saying that she had sold her soul to a man who was dressed in black and whom she met in Marsden (now Nelson).
Another woman who was examined as a result of Edmund Robinson's witch findings was twenty-year-old Mary Spencer of Burnley. She denied the charges, stating that both her father and mother had both been condemned for witchcraft and had both died in prison. She said that on Sunday's she usually went to Burnley Church and, at the request of the Bishop of Chester, repeated the Creed and the Lord's Prayer.
The wife of one John Dickinson of Pendle was also among those examined. She denied that she was a witch and maintained that Edmund had told lies about her because her husband had refused to help the boy's father. Two well-known men, John Hargreaves of Higham, and John Radcliffe of Heyhouses, made impassioned pleas on the poor girl's behalf.
Of course, there were other areas of Lancashire where alleged witches were brought to trial. Many never got into print but passed into folklore and were spoken about in front of the fire on cold winter's nights. In the mid-seventeenth century, the name of Sybil Farclough had only to be whispered to strike terror into the hearts of the good souls of Orrell, for she was alleged to have murdered several people, and her powers of witchcraft, coupled with a malicious and wicked tongue, held people in constant fear of their lives. She was said to have caused the deaths by witchcraft of Anne Corliss and John Naylor at some time between 1634 and 1638.
One Jane Chisnall of Little Bolton complained to the magistrates in July 1634 that her mother had been killed by witchcraft and that her brother and sister had been afflicted by a mysterious illness. She alleged that her brother had, at some time in the recent past, called the mother of one Richard Nuttall a witch. Nuttall warned him to be careful what he said, "for my mother will take courses with thee." The following day Jane's brother had fallen ill, suffering extreme pain, and the family had been forced to call on Mother Nuttal to ask if she would visit him and remove the spell.
Mother Nuttall offered to pray for the lad, and indeed he soon got better, but not long afterwards, their mother fell very ill and within a few weeks was dead, caused, said Jane Chisnall, by Mother Nuttall's transferring the spell from her brother.