Monthly Archives: November 2020

THE PENDLE WITCH TRIALS

In these turbulent times, it seems to me that there is a lot of intolerance, rudeness and lack of consideration for others.  It got me thinking about times gone by when there was a lack of tolerance and the often-fatal consequences.

The witch trials in Pendle, Lancashire, is just one example.  In 1612, twelve people were accused of committing murder by using witchcraft.  Ten were eventually found guilty and executed.  One died while in custody.  During these times when witches were actively sought out, about 500 were tried, so ten at once was a high percentage.

It wasn’t uncommon for people to be found guilty of witchcraft in those days, but it was unusual for so many to be tried and found guilty at the same time.  What was even more uncommon was that the trial was officially documented by the clerk of the court in The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster.

The Prevailing Situation in the Country at the Time

Lancashire was, at the time, considered to be a lawless county, but one where most people were still Catholic.  During his reign, King Henry VIII had dissolved the monasteries and expected his faithful subjects to convert to his new Church of England religion. 

Although anyone with any sense overtly converted, those who were staunch Catholics openly reverted when Henry’s first daughter, Mary, became queen.  This was a time of burning heretics – Queen Mary herself would sit in a building near to St Bartholomew’s Hospital to watch heretics being burned.  If you go there, you can still see the place where the burning took place.

There was a complete reversal again when Elizabeth became queen with mass being celebrated in secret in some places.  It was Elizabeth who had an act of parliament passed a law against witchcraft, although the death penalty was only to be imposed where harm had been caused. 

When James I became king on Elizabeth’s death, the country continued to be protestant, at least, that was the theory.  If you refused to attend a Church of England service and take communion, it was a criminal offence.  In 1612, every justice of the peace in Lancashire was ordered to make a list of all those who refused to attend an Anglican services.  James I also had a massive interest in witchcraft and had written a book in which he told readers to prosecute supporters and practitioners of witchcraft. 

The Witches

Six of the witches came from two families, the Demdike’s and the Chattox’s.  The matriarchs in both families were old widows:  Elizabeth Southerns was known as Old Demdike, Anne Whittle was known as Mother Chattox. 

Southerns was known to have been a witch for around 50 years.  It wasn’t unusual for those who had a good knowledge of herbs to be healers and ‘miraculously’ help people who were ill.  If they were good at it, it was a way of making a bit of money.  In fact, if they gathered the herbs etc from fields, it was pretty much all profit. 

The Story

One of the accused, Alizon Device, one of Southerns’ daughters had an altercation with a pedlar named John Law.  Some of the details are a bit hazy, but the essence of it is that Alizon asked Law for some pegs.  He refused to give them to her, so presumably she didn’t intend to pay for them, and she cursed Law. 

A short while after this happened, Law suffered a stroke, and blamed Alizon for it.  Somehow, the local justice found out about it, and when he questioned Alizon she said that she had told the Devil to harm Law.  She also accused her grandmother and members of the Chattox family of witchcraft.  Whether she did this under torture is not known.  It seems that accusing the Chattox’s was revenge for an alleged theft that had happened some years previously.  In addition, Alizon’s father, John Device, blamed Mother Chattox for an illness that subsequently led to his death.  She had threatened to harm his family if they didn’t pay for protection. 

As well as this, the deaths of some villagers that had occurred some years before were brought up and blamed on the Chattox family, as well as various other curses and illnesses, effigies and blood sucking, it all sounds exhausting.  As a result, four of them were detained pending trial.  Soon after, Alizon’s brother stole a neighbour’s sheep, the judge found out and investigated, resulting in eight more people being called for questioning and then attending trial.

The Trials

The trials were scheduled for hearing between 17 and 19 August 1612.  Elizabeth

Southerns didn’t survive the harsh prison conditions to reach trial.  The rest of the accused varied from pleading innocence at one end of the spectrum to believing in their powers and confessing their guilt.  Nine of them, including Alizon, were found guilty and hanged. 

Postscript

A funny thing happened while I was writing this….  I write my posts in Word first, have done for years.  As I was writing this, parts of the text kept disappearing…. The third para under ‘The Story.’  I closed Word, re-opened it and the same thing happened again.  It happened about four times.  As chance would have it, I received a call from the dental surgery telling me I had an emergency appointment 20 minutes hence, so I closed word again and when I got home and started typing again, all was well.  Maybe the ghost of the witches helping me to heal?

© Susan Shirley 2020