Halloween Special: Pendle Witch Trials

Pendle Hill in Lancashire casts a dark shadow on England’s history. Around 400 years ago, it was at the centre of one of the most sensational tales of witchcraft in history.

Intro: Brief History of Witch-Hunting in England
Witch-hunting has a long history in England and across Europe. A Papal decree of 1258 announced that witches were no longer to be investigated by the Christian Church, suggesting that they were being hunted in the centuries beforehand. After this brief cessation, the practice began again in earnest. In 1484, the book Malleus Maleficarum, or ‘Hammer of Witches’, written by two priests, became the standard legal textbook for witch trials and inquisitions handled by the Church.

Village healers who dispensed cures were common in medieval rural England. They were known as ‘Wise Women’ and an accepted part of life. But some believed they could also harm you through charms or spells, or make you ill. It is possible some Wise Women took advantage of their power over superstitious minds, and coerced locals to pay ‘protection money’ to avoid a curse. In effect, an early gangster-like operation.

The Church labelled Wise Women charlatans. Their medical remedies, even if they worked, were said to be an interference of God’s will. Thus, even the cure itself was seen as a sin. However, the Church, it should be said, was also seeking to establish a monopoly on ‘remedies’ through their lucrative monastic herb gardens.

Wise Women began to operate in secret gatherings or covens (from the word convene). The word ‘witch’ was often applied to them. Some etymologists say that the word ‘witch’ and ‘wicca’ are related to the word ‘wise’.

The clampdown continued throughout the Renaissance period. The Church accused witches of casting the Devil’s powers, and witchcraft was also labelled as treason against the monarch. Anyone failing to report a witch within 12 days faced excommunication. The public became paranoid. In some English villages today, you will still find witch-marks on fireplaces, or mummified cats hidden up chimneys to ward off evil spells.

In particular, women who’d lost babies were accused of witchcraft and marginalised. Those under suspicion usually confessed after torture. Thumbscrews, the rack, and the ducking-stool were used. Some were thrown into a river or lake. If they drowned, they were declared innocent (!). If they swam to shore, they were branded a witch. The final punishment was burning at the stake or hanging.

Pendle Hill by MatthewSavage.Photography CC BY-NC 2.0

Pendle is a detached area of the Forest of Bowland, just north of the town of Burnley in Lancashire. The table-top Pendle Hill ridge is formed from Pendle Grit, a coarse Carboniferous age sandstone and limestone which gives it a dark hue. The locals have used the hill for millennia as a place of spiritual importance. A Bronze Age burial site was discovered at the summit. In 1652, George Fox claimed to have had a vision while on top of Pendle Hill, during the early years of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). The name Pendle remains strongly linked with the Quakers, giving its name to one of their centres for religious and spiritual study and contemplation in the USA.

In the early 17th century, an old house stood in the dark forest in the shadow of Pendle Hill. Known as Malkin Tower (or slut tower), it belonged to an elderly grandmother Elizabeth Southern. She lived there with her daughter Elizabeth Device, her two grand-daughters, Alison and Jennet, and her grandson, James.

Elizabeth Southern was a ‘Wise Woman’ known locally as Old Granny Demdike or Demdike the Cunning. But she had a rival, Anne Whittle, known as ‘Old Mother Chattox’. Elizabeth Device’s second husband died the same year he had neglected to pay Whittle a debt, leaving the Device family without the main bread-winner. Old Granny Demdike accused Old Mother Chattox of foul play. There was bad blood between the Wise Women, and Pendle wasn’t big enough for the both of them.

One spring day in 1612, 16-year-old Alison Device begged from a pedlar on a country lane. The pedlar refused to help her. She cursed him. He collapsed and was taken to a local inn, possibly suffering from a stroke. Alison went to his bedside to beg forgiveness. The pedlar’s son reported the incident to the local magistrate, Roger Nowell. Alison confessed but also pointed the finger at the Chattox family who counter-accused the Devices. 

Arrests were made. Granny Demdike and her grand-daughter Alison, and Mother Chattox and her daughter Anne Redfearn, were shipped off to Lancaster Castle to await trial.

As Easter approached, an order was sent by the authorities that all locals should attend church on Good Friday. But Elizabeth Device threw a ‘party’ on that day at Malkin Tower. A number of locals turned up. The invitees were branded as a coven of witches. They were accused of conspiring to blow up Lancaster Castle, murder its gaoler and so enable the escape of those held within.

All those who attended were arrested, except nine-year-old Jennet Device. Other locals were implicated, such as the respected land-owning Catholic family, the Nutters (families with that surname still live locally). In the end, the magistrate Nowell sent another eight to join the original four awaiting trial: Jane Bulcock, John Bulcock, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Grey, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Nutter, and Jennet Preston.

The 12 accused were kept in a cell 20-foot x 12-foot. The cell was in a part of the castle called the ‘Witches Tower’. In the four months awaiting the trial, Granny Demdike died in prison. Meanwhile, Jennet Device was taken into custody.

As Jennet Preston was from Yorkshire, she was tried separately in York, found guilty, and hanged before the Lancaster trial had even taken place. The trial at Lancaster began in August 1612. The ten remaining in the Pendle group were joined by nine others from the region also accused of witchcraft: Elizabeth Astley, Ellen Brierley, Jennet Brierley, Lawrence Haye, Margaret Pearson, John Ramsden, Isobel Robey, Isabel Southgraves and Jane Southworth.

The Pendle ten were charged with ten murders by witchcraft. Collectively, the charges also included:

  • Child murder.
  • Cannibalism.
  • Bewitching a local child.
  • Using witchcraft to cause sickness.
  • Killing a horse.
  • Laming.
  • Selling the soul to the Devil.
  • Having a mark on a body regarded as having been left by the Devil after he had sucked blood.
  • Having secret devil worshipping meetings.

The star witness was Jennet Device. She was brought in to testify against her mother. Elizabeth screamed and railed against her daughter and she was taken from the court. In her absence, Jennet jumped up onto a table and calmly denounced her mother as a witch: “I have seen her spirit in the likeness of a brown dog called Ball” “The dog was ordered to murder men.” “My mother told me that all at the party were witches”. James also denounced his mother. He said she had dug up three skulls from graves and taken them to Malkin to be used with poppet dolls for curses. Jennet then turned on her brother: “I have seen his spirit kill three people and heard his curses.” Jennet then picked out all the other accused in an identity parade.

The prosecutors seemed to have it in for Elizabeth Device, perhaps as she had deformed features. Meanwhile Alice Nutter seemed to be convinced of her own guilt. After the hearings, ten of the 19 were found guilty and sentenced to hang: Jane Bulcock, John Bulcock, Alison Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Nutter, Anne Redfearne, Isobel Robey and Anne Whittle. One day later, they were taken to executed by hanging at Gallows Hill in Lancaster. They died of slow strangulation. Margaret Pearson was jailed for a year. Elizabeth Astley, Ellen Brierley, Jennet Brierley, Alice Grey, Lawrence Haye, John Ramsden, Isabel Southgraves and Jane Southworth were acquitted.

In trying to understand the trials, the historic circumstances should be taken into account. They took place just seven years after the Gunpowder Plot. This was a foiled attempt to destroy the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up the Houses of Parliament and killing King James I. James was paranoid about conspirators. His mother’s head had been hacked off by the English enemy. The Gunpowder Plotters had taken refuge in Lancashire which was described as a subversive shire. The people of Pendle remained largely faithful to their Roman Catholic beliefs during the Reformation and continued to celebrate mass in secret. The practice of Catholicism was seen as anti-Christ and devil worship.

James I had acceded to the English throne in 1603. He was obsessed by witchcraft. William Shakespeare knew this well, which is why he wove the witches into Macbeth, his ‘Scottish play’ written for the king. James wrote his own book in 1597, Daemonologie, instructing his followers that they must denounce and prosecute any supporters or practitioners of witchcraft. The King James Bible published in 1611, a year before the trial, contained the line: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

Almost everything that is known about the Pendle Witch Trials comes from a 1613 report of the proceedings written by Thomas Potts, the clerk to the Lancaster Assizes: The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. Potts dedicated his book to the man who arrested Guy Fawkes, Thomas Knyvet.

Was Jennet Device being exploited by Nowell? Was she reciting pre-rehearsed lines? Under 14s were not generally allowed to give evidence at court. Jennet’s testimony set a precedent. Children were subsequently allowed to testify at witch trials. Their bodies often being examined for ‘witches marks’.

In 1633, there was another investigation connected to Pendle. Ten-year old Edmund Robinson came home late from picking berries. He said he saw two hounds that had turned into a witch and a boy. The witch then turned the boy into a horse. Edmund said the witch took him to a coven. For three months afterwards his father said that he had taken him from village to village to pick out the witches he had seen. 20 locals were put on trial in Lancashire in 1634. Amazingly, Jennet Device, now aged 31, reappeared in the dock: She was charged with killing Isobel Nutter. Edmund Robinson testified against Device. So now it was she who was being accused by a child!

All the defendants could have been sent to death. But four of them were sent for re-trial in London. During this time a play was playing to packed London theatres ‘The Witches of Lancashire’ based on young Edmund Robinson’s tale.

But the times they were a changin’: Enlightenment rationality saw one of the earliest instances of forensic evidence used in the four defendants’ case. They were examined for marks on the orders of Dr William Harvey, the man who had made an early discovery of blood circulation. Harvey was the royal physician to King Charles I, son of James I.

Five physicians and ten midwives came to the conclusion that all the marks were not unnatural. And there was no physical evidence of witchcraft. One ‘witch’ called as a witness claimed she used her pet toad for magic. Harvey dissected it in front of her to prove it was just flesh and blood. She flew at him in a rage. He had destroyed the source of her business! Edmund Robinson was then cross-examined by the Privy Council and easily cracked: his story had been influenced by stories he’d been told locally. It turned out his father had been blackmailing the accused, and threatening to accuse them of witchcraft unless they paid up.

All four defendants were acquitted, and the trial of the others collapsed. However, Jennet was still recorded as being incarcerated in Lancaster Castle prison in 1636, 15 months after the trial. She had been forced to pay for her keep and had to stay until the debt was cleared.

Although the London trial showed how scientific thought had changed things, executions for witchcraft continued for almost a century, and the Pendle trials were just part of a number of celebrated witchcraft cases recorded during the 17th century.

For example, In 1616, nine women hanged for witchcraft in Leicestershire on the evidence of a boy aged 12. James I went to interview the boy and found out that he was lying. James then becomes sceptical of child evidence in witchcraft trials. In 1618, still in Leicestershire, Francis Manners, sixth Earl of Rutland, accused two of his servants of witchcraft and the murder of both his sons. The servants went on trial and both were executed. Manners had previously entertained James I at his Belvoir Castle home. The tomb of his sons at Belvoir church mentions sorcery.

Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk was the setting for several witch trials between 1599 and 1694. The Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins had 63 people executed for witchcraft there in 1645.

In 1692, at Salem near Boston in America, preachers Increase and Cotton Mathers rounded up local ‘supporters of Satan’ in another famous series of witch trials. With the court citing the Pendle witch trials as precedence, 19 were hanged.

In the 1712 trial of ‘flying’ witch Jane Wenham in Hertfordshire, the judge ruled there was ‘No law against flying.’ In 1716, Mary Hickes and daughter were hanged in Huntingdonshire. In 1727, Janet Horne from Scotland was believed to be the last woman accused and executed for witchcraft in the British Isles. In all, around 100 were recorded as hanged from the 15th to the 18th century in Britain.

Incredibly, the last person to be tried for witchcraft in UK was within living memory. In 1945, ‘psychic’ Helen Duncan held a séance where she apparently predicted a Royal Navy ship would be sunk. It had already sunk two months beforehand but had not been officially announced. She was found not guilty of witchcraft but imprisoned for nine months for treason. After she was released, Winston Churchill contacted her for a séance.

There were four official Witchcraft Acts in British history: 1542 (in the reign of Henry VIII); 1562 (Elizabeth 1); 1604 (James I); 1735 (George II). The last Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1951, just one year before the reign of the current monarch.

Pendle now thrives on its witching past. Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth wrote a romanticised account of the witchcraft trials which boosted their imprint on the public psyche and encouraged visitors to the Lancashire town. Today, there is a 45-mile long footpath called the Pendle Witch Trail, running from the Pendle Witch Heritage Centre to Lancaster Castle, where the accused witches were held before their trial. The Lancaster Castle courtroom of 1612 survives, and is still a courtroom today. The local bus route has been branded The Witch Way, with some of the vehicles operating on it named after the witches in the trial. Local brewery Moorhouse’s produces a beer called Pendle Witches Brew. No-one is quite sure where Malkin Tower was situated but Pendle Hill continues to be associated with witchcraft and large numbers of visitors climb it every Hallowe’en, though in recent years people have been warned away by the authorities.

A petition was presented to UK Home Secretary in 1998 asking for the Pendle witches to be pardoned, but it was decided that their convictions should stand.

Pendle: any witch way, it casts a spell on you.

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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