Mention witch trials and most people think of the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts, and Puritans. America wasn’t the only place witches were being hunted and executed, however. One of the most famous – and most deadly – witch trials happened in England in 1612. The Witches of Pendle Forest, as they have come to be called, were ten women and two men who were accused of witchcraft and tried. Also at the trials of 1612 were eight others, the Samlesbury Witches. The aspects of the trial were documented and published, allowing us to have insight into what occurred. The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, by the clerk of the court Thomas Potts, provides detail that would otherwise be lost to legend and myth.
King James, Lancashire, and the Fear of Witchcraft
The trials occurred in County Lancashire, an area that held more witch trials than any other county in the three kingdoms under King James’ rule. It was an area that was thought of as tending towards the lawless, and many people were experiencing varying levels of plight that threatened their livelihood. As is often true with human nature, when bad luck befell many residents, they looked to outside sources as the cause.
Though the people of Lancashire not-so-quietly held to their Catholic beliefs, they clearly agreed with King James on the threat of witchcraft. James became interested in witchcraft after visiting Denmark. He attended the North Berwick Witch trials in Scotland and became increasingly convinced that witches were a major threat to be dealt with. He wrote his own book on the subject, Daemonologie, in 1597. He personally oversaw the torture of women accused of being witches. He encouraged his subjects to not only report on witches, but those who supported witchcraft by going to them for herbal remedies and other assistance.
King James’ fears were even implemented into law. Officials were told to report on those who refused to attend church or take communion. The King’s doctrines led to widespread distrust and fear, so by 1612, a perfect storm of consequences combined in Lancashire to create an environment ready to persecute the smallest slight as witchcraft.
Rival Families: Demdike and Chattox
Along with the heightened sensitivities the area was experiencing, underlying hostilities started coming to the surface. In the Pendle Hill area, two families had been at odds for generations. Six members of the Demdike family, headed by Elizabeth “Old Demdike” Southerns, and the Chattox Family, headed by Anne “Mother Chattox” Whittle, were part of the accused in the Pendle Witch Trials. Though it isn’t clear what began the feud, it is believed that members of the Chattox family stole goods from the home of the Demdike family and that began the feud. John Device, Old Demdike’s son, blamed his ongoing illness (which led to his death) on the Chattox family.
Old Demdike was a known, but accepted, witch in the area. She had been acting as a healer for the village for over 50 years. Though witchcraft was always viewed with suspicion, it was an accepted part of village life for many people in England at the time. A woman who dealt in herbs and medicines, helped those that others couldn’t, and offered hope to the hopeless was common in many small villages. The village turned on her though, when her granddaughter accused her of witchcraft.
If the rising tensions of the area were the kindling that led to the trials, the spark that lit the fire was an altercation involving the peddler John Law. Alizon Device, the granddaughter of Old Demdike, was on the road to Trawden Forest. It was here that she encountered John Law and the goods he was peddling. She asked John Law for some pins – it is not known if she intended to pay for them or if she was merely begging – and he refused. At his refusal, Alizon “cursed” him. We don’t know what she said, if it was merely anger at his refusal or a clear curse for his actions.
A short while later, John Law suffered a stroke. Remembering his meeting with Alizon Device, he blamed her for his malady. He went to the county officials and formally accused her of witchcraft. She was arrested and questioned. Perhaps hoping to bank on the goodwill shown to her grandmother all those years, she named her as a witch as well. Perhaps as an act of revenge, knowing how the crown treated witches, Alizon also accused members of the rival Chattox family of witchcraft.
Further Questioning and Accusations
When the members of the Chaattox family were arrested, the deaths of 4 villagers that had occurred years before were brought up. Ultimately the Chattox family was blamed for their deaths by witchcraft.
Members of each family were questioned. Alizon’s brother admitted that Alizon had cursed a child when she was younger. Elizabeth, Alizon’s mother, said Old Demdike (her mother) had a mark of the Devil. Anne Redferne (Mother Chattox’s daughter) was alleged to have created clay figures and was accused of using witchcraft to get revenge on a local man she’d had a disagreement with. Mother Chattox and Old Demdike both eventually confessed to selling their souls. Based on this evidence, the local JP, Roger Nowell, held Old Demdike, Mother Chattox, Anne, and Alizon to await trial for maleficium, which is causing harm by witchcraft.
What made the matrons of these two families admit to selling their souls? Perhaps they truly believed they had. The more likely scenario is that they were tortured until they admitted witchcraft in order to make the torture stop. They were both in their 80s and nearly blind when they were imprisoned and questioned.
It might have ended there, with no further arrests, but for a meeting, Alizon’s mother Elizabeth held at their home, Malkin Tower. James stole a sheep for the meeting, which led to a judge investigating. Neighbors that had attended out of sympathy for the arrests of Old Demdike and Alizon were now under suspicion of witchcraft. An additional eight people were arrested and slated for trial because of the meeting: Elizabeth and James Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock, Jane Bulcock, Alice Grey and Jennet Preston.
The Witch Trials
Of the twelve arrested, eleven made it to trial. The cold, wet, and unhygienic conditions of the dungeons led to Old Demdike’s death before the trials could begin. Of the eleven remaining, ten were found guilty and executed as witches.
Jennet lived in Yorkshire, so she was not tried with the others in Lancashire. She was tried at the York Assizes on July 27th, 1612. She was accused of murdering a local landowner and pleaded not guilty. She had previously been tried and acquited for using witchcraft to murder a child in 1611. She was found guilty in 1612 of murdering Thomas Lister and sentenced to hanging. She was executed two days later.
The remaining ten were tried at the Lancaster Assizes on the 18th and 19th of August, 1612. Evidence was given by Roger Nowell, who had collected the evidence that led to the arrests, and 9-year-old Jennet Device. Other criminal cases would not have allowed a witness so young, but King James allowed for exceptions in trials involving witchcraft. Jennet testified about who was at the Malkin Tower meeting with the stolen sheep, and gave evidence against her mother, brother, and sister. Of the ten on trial, only one was found not guilty. Alice Grey walked away with her life. The others were found guilty and hanged on August 20th, 1612.
Though many of the eleven fought against the charges, hoping to save their lives, a few maintained belief in their own powers and continued to profess them even in trial. Alizon Device said she called on the Devil to make John Law lame. Documentation says that when John Law entered the courtroom to give testimony, Alizon fell to her knees, confessed, and burst into tears.
Because of the extensive documentation of the trials, the Witches of Pendle Hill have had a lasting impact on the area and in the media. Historical tourism in Pendle is centered around witchcraft and witch trials. The names of the witches in Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, are inspired by Alice Nutter and the Devices. Books, plays, and other media have been written about the trials.
Petitions have been made to pardon the witches posthumously, but they have thus far failed. These twelve, and the hundreds of others who were prosecuted and executed, were either merely providing alternative medicine or swept up in public hysteria. Though we will never know the full truth of who they were and what these witches did, we know they were more than likely victims of an imperfect system that created a means to dispatch anyone, one might have quarrel with.