Lancashire, in the early 17th Century, was one of the poorest and least populated counties of England, where even many gentry families had an income of less than £100 a year. The Forest of Pendle, which lies between Burnley, Colne, Clitheroe and Whalley in a remote corner of the county close to the Yorkshire border, has been described as ‘wild, bleak and backward.’ (1)
Pendle was not a forest in the normal sense of the word, but a former royal hunting preserve with particular customs of its own. Much of it was moorland, and most of the rest pasture of moderate quality, with little in the way of arable farming, the climate and the quality of the soil imposing severe limitations. Although in the 21st Century it is a relatively prosperous area, few of its 17th Century inhabitants were well-off. Most survived as farm labourers or servants, and many were close to destitution, particularly those who were aged or infirm. Because of the customs of the area, it was however possible to enjoy a cottage with ‘squatter’s rights’, even though that cottage might be a miserable hovel.
There was also the matter of religion. It is commonly said that Lancashire at this time was one third Catholic, but this is probably an understatement, particularly in rural areas such as Pendle. The Puritan element in Lancashire tended to be clustered in towns such as Manchester and Bolton, where many of the inhabitants were independent cloth workers. Of course, it must be understood that not all Catholics were recusants; some attended the Church of England services from time to time in order to avoid fines, and the exact religious sympathies of many families is hard to discern with assurance. It is certain that some at least nominally Protestant families had a more benign attitude to their Catholic neighbours than did others. Equally it should be understood that practically all so-called ‘Puritans’ remained full, observant members of the Church of England and were not, at this time, a separate denomination. Indeed, the Jacobean Church of England was firmly Calvinist in outlook – something which is not always recognised – and the Armenian innovations of Charles I and Archbishop Laud were still some years in the future.
King James I saw witches as his enemies, not least because of the alleged attempt of the so-called North Berwick witches to drown him and his wife on their way back from Denmark. His obsession with witchcraft led him to write a book on the subject. After the Gunpowder Plot, he had a similar view of Roman Catholics. Any magistrate who wanted to win the King’s approval could do no better than to crack down on supposed witches and Catholics. As far as witches were concerned, a great deal of firm evidence was not necessarily required. After all, a sovereign capable of believing that witches were able to sail the sea in sieves (as the North Berwick witches were supposed to have done) was not short of credulity in this matter. The best “evidence” (if it could be procured) was the confessions of the alleged witches themselves. The techniques for obtaining such confessions were not necessarily fair or pretty. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act was still far away in the future.
In Pendle there were two rival families of alleged witches, each headed by an elderly grandmother. In the red corner, so to speak, were Anne Whittle (alias Chattox) and her daughter, Anne Redfearn. In the blue corner, Elizabeth Southerns (alias Demdike) with her daughter, Elizabeth Device, and grandchildren, Alison Device, James Device, and Jennet Device. These people somehow eked out a living by a combination of begging (sometimes with threats), casual labour on farms, possible “outwork” for the local textile trade based in Colne and, doubtless, “healing services” for local animals and people. In an age before vets, farmers often relied on the local wise woman to heal their sick animals. Also, such doctors as existed were well beyond the pockets of the poor, who could only make use of herbal remedies or prayer if they fell ill.
It is quite possible that some of the alleged “incantations” of the “witches” were nothing more sinister than mangled versions of Latin prayers. In The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy describes the use of such prayers in Chapter 8, Charms, Pardons, and Promises. What was once seen as a harmless request for God’s assistance, was now seen as, at best, a form of superstitious magic and at worst an appeal to the Devil. The fact that Catholic belief still had a grip in rural Lancashire, and that “official” Christian ministry was rather thin on the ground in the area may also have contributed to the continuation of ancient traditions.
Matters came to a head in March 1612. Alison Device was visiting the Trawden area, either begging or procuring supplies from farms, or both. On the edges of Colne she met a pedlar, one John Lawe of Halifax, and asked him for pins. (It appears these were of the type used to fasten cloth “pieces” onto wooden frames, which demonstrates that the family were probably involved in the textile trade.) Unfortunately Mr Lawe, after a long journey with his pack on his back, was more interested in getting into the pub for a drink than making a small sale. Some sort of argument developed – possibly Alison set her dog on him – and a few moments later Lawe collapsed in the road. In all probability from a stroke. Locals carried him into the nearby Greyhound Inn. Alison took a last look at him and then departed in some haste.
There, had all things been equal, the matter might have ended. Unfortunately for Alison her reputation as a “witch” went before her, and when Lawe’s son arrived in Colne to see his father (who was paralysed on one side) the locals let him know of her history. Abraham Lawe went at once to the “Malkin Tower” (the Device family’s grandly-named residence) to confront Alison and take her to Colne to face his father, who accused the girl of bewitching him. Alison (who may genuinely have believed in her own power) admitted that she had, and begged John Lawe to forgive her, which he did.
Despite John Lawe’s generosity of spirit, Alison was hauled off to Read Hall (several miles away) and put in front of the local J.P., Roger Nowell. Her mother and brother were also brought there.
Somehow, and by whatever means, Nowell extracted a string of confessions from these people that involved Alison, her grandmother and the rival “Chattox” and her daughter and made up a juicy case of alleged witchcraft.
Alison’s grandmother “Demdike”, along with “Chattox” and the latter’s daughter, Anne Redfearn, were brought before Nowell on the basis of Alison’s evidence. Surprisingly (you might think) both “Demdike” and “Chattox”, both elderly and more or less blind, made full confessions, both admitting they had sold their souls to the devil. Anne was more reticent, but was accused by “Demdike” of making clay images of people with intent to injure them by witchcraft. All three, plus Alison, were committed for trial at Lancaster Assizes.
Even this was not the end of it. On Good Friday 1612 there was an alleged gathering of witches at the Malkin Tower, and a conspiracy was hatched to blow up Lancaster Castle and rescue the prisoners. The main evidence for this came from Alison Device’s brother and sister, the latter a girl of about eight. No one seems to have asked the obvious question – how on earth were a group of poor people supposed to obtain and transport sufficient gunpowder to blow up a castle?
On 27th April Nowell and his fellow J.P. Nicholas Bannister, on the basis of reports of this meeting, committed a further eight persons for trial: Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock, Jane Bulcock, Alice Grey and Jennet Preston. The “odd one out” among this group was Alice Nutter, a woman of some local consequence.
In fairness to the “legal system” of the time, such as it was, it must be said that not all witches sent for trial were convicted. Indeed, the three so-called Salmesbury witches, before the court at the same time as those from Pendle, were acquitted. Even Anne Redfearn was acquitted of the first murder charge brought against her, but was immediately brought back and found guilty of another murder.
The star witness for the prosecution was the young child, Jennet Device. As for the rest of the accused, apart from Alison, found guilty of harming John Lawe by witchcraft, nearly all were found guilty of murdering one person or another by witchcraft. The exceptions were “Demdike” who died in prison awaiting trial, and Alice Grey, who was acquitted.
All were hanged; though Jennet Preston, a resident of Yorkshire, was both tried and executed at York.
It is strange to record that in later years James I began to have doubts about “witchcraft”. This was because his own examinations of sundry “witches” and their accusers had revealed examples of fraud that were obvious even to him. However, this change in his attitude came far too late to help the “Pendle Witches”.
(1) Bull, S., The Civil Wars in Lancashire, p.15.
The Lancashire Witch Conspiracy, John A. Clayton.
The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, Rossell H Robbins.
Website: http://www.pendlewitches.co.uk/ (This contains several of the alleged confessions and much detailed information about the case that cannot be included in so short a post as this.)
North Berwick Witch Trials: http://www.witchcraftandwitches.com/trials_north_berwick.html