To put the Pendle Witch Trails into context, imagine it’s 1612. Witch trials are sweeping through Europe. The shadow of the bloody crusades, finished nearly 200 years ago, still cast their shadow over a continent. Europe is in an era when the power of Rome is being challenged by the Reformation. Christianity has split into Roman Catholic and Protestant. Religious zeal sweeps through the churches along with a growing belief that ancient practices are not just simple folk remedies but the work of the devil.
Superstition is rife. Any ailment, dead animals, misfortune or calamity is often attributed to witchcraft. And so it was in Lancashire, with many in the county believing witches were the source of all their woes.
King James I has ordered that all those not attending Anglican services and partaking in communion have their names recorded. So begins the sorry tale of the Pendle witch trials
Most of the information of the Pendle witch trials and accusations come from an account by Thomas Potts, the clerk to the Lancaster assizes (a court) which was published in 1613. The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster is not as such a verbatim account but recounts the events and the trials.
The majority of the accused came from two families; Elizabeth Southerns (also known as Demdike), her daughter Elizabeth Device and her grandchildren James and Alizon Device. Anne Whittle (also known as Chattox) and her daughter Anne Redfern. The others tried were; Jane Bulcock and her son John Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Gray and Jennet Preston.
These 12 people were charged with murdering ten people via witchcraft. Between the 18th and 19th August 1612, ten of the accused were tried at Lancaster assizes, one at York assizes on 27 July 1612 and another died in prison. Ten of them were found guilty and hanged.
The first clue about the fairness of the Pendle witch trials should come from the length of it – between two days, ten people were tried for murder and found guilty. It was that fast.They were hung one day later on the 20th August. But I’ll come back to that later.
It fell to Justices of the Peace (Someone who was appointed to ‘keep the peace’) to carry out the recording of names of those not attending Church services as ordered by King James I. Roger Bowell of Read Hall was the Justice of the Peace for the area and in March 1612, Nowell also investigated a complaint by a man named John Law who claimed to have been injured by witchcraft. Law claimed he met Alizon Device on her way to Trawden forest who either asked or begged for pins which were used in healing and witchcraft in those days.
Law refused and a few minutes later suffered a stroke but managed to make it to an Inn. On 30th March 1612, Alizon Device, her mother Elizabeth and her brother James were summoned to appear before Nowell and Alizon confessed she had sold her soul to the devil and that she had asked the devil to attack John Law after the encounter regarding the pins. Her brother said she had also confessed to bewitching a local child. Elizabeth Device apparently suggested her own mother, Demdike, had a ‘mark on her body’, one that would have been viewed in those days as being a mark of the devil. It seems that Alizon then went on to accuse members of the Chattox family of witchcraft in revenge for a robbery in 1601 in which a Chattox family member broke into Malkin Tower, home of the Devices’ and stole goods worth £1.
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Alizon accused Anne Whittle Chattox of murdering four men by witchcraft and of killing her father John Device. Anne Whittle was the matriarch of the Chattox family. Alizon said that her father had claimed while on his death bed that his illness was because he had not paid protection money to the Chattox family who practised witchcraft. Nowell then summoned Demdike, Chattox and Chattox’s daughter Anne Redferne. Demdike and Chattox were blind and in their eighties. Both claimed they had sold their soul to the devil. Anne Redferne made no confession but Demdike claimed she had seen Anne making clay figures. Margaret Crooke, another witness summoned by Nowell, claimed her brother had fallen ill due to a disagreement with Redferne. Demdike, Chattox, Anne Redferne, and Alizon Device were all sent to Lancaster gaol to await trial for witchcraft.
Elizabeth Device organised a meeting at Malkin Tower home of the Devices for the 6th april 1612 and for which James Device stole a sheep to feed the crowd. Those sympathetic to the Devices attended along with family and friends. Nowell got word of the event and decided to investigate. As a result of the investigation, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock, Jane Bulcock, Alice Gray and Jennet Preston were all accused of witchcraft and sent to trial. The group were all tried along with the Samlesbury Witches:: Jane Southworth Jennet Brierley, Margaret Pearson, Isobel Robey and Ellen Brierley who were also accused of witchcraft.
Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock, and Jane Bulcock were found guilty and hanged at Gallows Hill in Lancaster on 20th August 1612. Elizabeth Southerns died while awaiting trial. Jennet Preston was tried at York Assizes and also hanged. Only Alice Grey was found not guilty. At the trials, nine-year-old Jennet Device was a key witness for the prosecution who identified those present at Malkin Tower and gave evidence against her mother, brother, and sister.
Anne Whittle Chattox was accused of the murder of Robert Nutter. Along with her earlier confession made to Howell, James Robinson who had lived with the Chattox family 20 years before gave evidence that she was commonly known as a witch. She broke down and admitted to being guilty, begging the judges to be lenient on her daughter Anne Redferne.
Elizabeth Device was charged with the murders of James Robinson, John Robinson and along with Alice Nutter and Demdike the murder of Henry Mitton. When nine year old Jennet stood to give evidence against her mother, Elizabeth screamed at her causing her (Elizabeth) to be removed from the court. Jennet said she believed her mother had been a witch for 3-4 years and had a familiar in the guise of a brown dog called Ball. James Device also gave evidence against his mother saying he had seen her making a clay figure of John Robinson. James Device was found guilty on the evidence of his sister Jennet and also because of his earlier confession to Nowell. Anne Redferne was found not guilty of the murder of Robert Nutter but in her second trial for the murder of Robert’s father, Christopher, she was found guilty.
Witnesses said Anne Redferne was a witch more dangerous than her mother . She gave no evidence against any of the others. Jane Bulcock and her son John Bulcock both denied they had attended Malkin Tower but Jennet Device gave evidence they had. They were both found guilty of the murder of Jennet Deane. Alice Nutter pleaded not guilty to the murder of Henry Mitton by witchcraft. It was alleged that she, along with Demdike and Elizabeth Device, had caused his death after he refused to give them a penny which they had begged for. She was found guilty mainly because James Device claimed Demdike had told him of the murder and Jennet Device in her statement said that Alice had been present at the Malkin Tower meeting.
It is possible that Alice Nutter may have called into Malkin Tower on her way to a secret Roman Catholic mass which were outlawed and refused to confess her whereabouts in order to save her fellow Roman Catholics.
Katherine Hewitt was found guilty of the murder of Anne Foulds. James Device claimed she and Alice Grey had told the gathering at Malkin Tower that they had murdered a child, Anne Foulds, from Colne. Jennet Device also picked Katherine Hewitt out of a lineup and said she had been at Malkin Tower. Alice Gray was also found guilty of this murder. Alizon Device collapsed during her trial where her accuser John Law appeared in court to give evidence against her. She confessed in court and was found guilty.
There are a lot of strands at play in the Pendle witch trials.
Unlike modern court systems in the UK, the courts in the 1600s were a lot more ‘crude’. The judge was not bound to accept the jurors verdicts, nor did the jurors have to disclose how they arrived at a decision. Jurors took into account their knowledge of the locality and the person standing trial. So if a person had a history of robbery, a juror was expected to know and take into account this aspect of the persons history. People were imprisoned for months at a time awaiting the assizes (quarterly or half yearly courts) often in filthy, cramped conditions (think the dungeon of the Lord’s castle). After spending a lengthy time like that they were hauled up and expected to defend themselves, perhaps even having undergone torture and abuse in the meantime! Unlike today, lawyers for the defence did not really attend the court, but helped prepare the defence case but it is unlikely that someone considered a witch could afford a lawyer. Add to this that one of the key witnesses for the prosecution was a nine year old girl and the Pendle witch trials begin to look very shaky.
Most people have an image of a murder trial lasting for days, if not weeks. That’s a very common occurrence, but in medieval England, trials were shorter – a lot shorter. A murder trail could be held in the morning, another in the afternoon. In this case, the trials took place at two locations over over days – all for ten people. They were hanged within 24 hours. Appeals against the court decision were non-existent.
The ‘witches’ themselves were often folk healers and beggars, probably old and frail. The Pendle witches are interesting because the age profile spans across the family hierarchy. After being held in inhumane conditions, the bad blood between two families, both known for plying the same trade, (healing and petty extortion i.e. give me money or you’ll fall sick) was easily dragged out into the open. These were two families living in close proximity to each other (roughly 3 miles apart) and when plying the same trade, competition and bad blood were inevitable. Accusation piled on top of accusation against each other, with the addition of poor 9 year old Jennet Device giving evidence against her own mother and family.
Place all this against the backdrop of religious fervour and the widespread suspicion that witches were responsible for every blight that crossed someone’s path and it’s relatively easy to see that folk healers, medicine women, old and deranged women ran a particular risk of being labeled a witch. That their detention and trial would be inhumane and unfair and the fate of the Pendle witches was just about a predetermined outcome. If the Pendle witch trials (assuming there was such a crime as ‘witchcraft’) were to take place today, they would have proper defense counsel, a humane detention and more than simply wild accusations. The trial of so many people would surely last weeks rather than two days!