It is the most famous witch trial of the 17th century, the case of the Pendle Witches. Twelve women were accused of witchcraft, and while one died, eleven went to trial. One was tried and found guilty at York while ten of the ‘witches’ were tried at Lancaster. Only one woman was found not guilty.
Six of the eleven ‘witches’ on trial came from two rival families in Pendle. Elizabeth Southerns (Old Demdike) and Anne Whittle (Mother Chattox) were the old, poverty stricken matriarchs of the Demdike and Chattox families respectively. For over fifty years, Old Demdike had been known as a witch and in the 17th century, it was an accepted part of village life that some village healers practised magic and dealt in herbs and medicines.
The 17th century was also a time when witchcraft was not only feared but also fascinated. King James I was greatly interested in witchcraft even before he became King of England in 1603. One of King James’s literary works, Daemonologie, instructed readers to condemn and prosecute both supporters and practitioners of witchcraft. As the scepticism of the King was heightened, the feelings of unrest and fear over witchcraft became familiar with his people.
The story of the Pendle Witches began with the altercation between one of the accused ‘witches’, Alizon Device, and John Law, a pedlar. While travelling, Alizon passed John Law on the road and asked for some pins though Law refused her request. It is said that Alizon cursed John Law and a short while after he suffered a stroke, for which he blamed Alizon and her mystical powers. When the incident was brought to trial, Alizon Device confessed that she had instructed the Devil to blame John Law. After further questioning, Alizon divulged that her grandmother, Old Demdike, and members of the rival Chattox family regularly practiced witchcraft. The two families had been feuding for years and for the Chattox family, Alizon’s accusations were just an act of revenge.
The trials of the Pendle Witches were held at Lancaster Castle on 17th and 19th August 1612. The dark, damp and dirty dungeon where the ‘witches’ were held were too much for Old Demdike to bear and she died before she could be brought to trial. One of the most surprising things about the Pendle Witch trials was the principal supplier of evidence. Jennet Device was only nine years old and usually wouldn’t have been allowed to testify in a trial because of her age. Under King James I’s system, all standard rules were suspended when giving evidence in a witch trial. Jennet gave evidence against her mother, sister and brother. It was reported that when the young girl spoke against her mother, Elizabeth, the accused witch had to be dragged from court screaming and cursing her daughter.
Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock and Jane Bulcock were all found guilty at Lancaster. They were hanged at Gallows Hill on 20th August 1612. Elizabeth Southern lost her life while awaiting trial, and Alice Grey was found not guilty.
In the present day, Pendle Hill hosts a Halloween hilltop gathering every year and in the Borough of Pendle, the witches have become the inspiration for its tourism and heritage industries.
So this Halloween, why not pay a visit to Pendle Hill and relive the sorcery and paranormal goings-on that occurred there over 400 years ago. You’re sure to be in for a spooky surprise!