The story of the Witches of Pendle is one of the most sinister and troubling tales to come out of Lancashire. It does not feature cackling old hags riding broomsticks across the night sky, but real living beings, victims of time and circumstance. The broad facts are well-known locally, but lest you be unaware, in 1612, twelve people, mostly from relatively feral and impoverished backgrounds around Pendle Hill, (sometimes referred to as the Forest of Pendle) were accused of maleficium – malevolent sorcery, causing harm, including murder, by witchcraft. One having died in prison, eleven were brought to trial and eight were executed, seven of them women. Three other women, from the Lancashire village of Samlesbury, were tried of witchcraft at the same time as the Pendle Witches, but acquitted.
Lancashire has something of a reputation as ‘witches’ country’. Is this justified? You need to get away from the busy, belching, bright light conurbations, delve into its rural parts, listen to the talk, keep your eyes open – and draw your own conclusions. Close by Pendle Hill is the Forest of Bowland, a desolate and largely uninhabited piece of land at its worst, once an ancient hunting ground where wolves and wild boar freely roamed. The countryside south of Bowland and around Pendle is peaceful and beautifully verdant, with attractive scattered hamlets and farms built of old local stone. This, then, was the area that the Pendle Witches knew, that they called home. The photographs in this article show some of the places associated with their story and their final journey to prison and the gallows.
A bit about witches
Witchcraft has been with us since the dawn of humanity. Practitioners employ supernatural powers, possibly (though not exclusively) by summoning evil spirits and demons, to achieve particular ends. The medieval church, of course, was wary of anyone other than its own priests dabbling in the supernatural. It declared that witches, wizards, sorcerers – those it perceived to be dealing in magic or the occult – were malevolent beings, almost certainly in league with the Devil Himself. Ways to identify witches were clear: a witch may have a third nipple; an unusual birthmark, scar, a boil, a growth; they may have a familiar, an attendant spirit or demon, possibly taking the form of an animal, such as a cat. However, irrefutable proof could be obtained by tying up the suspect and throwing them into a pond or river: if they floated, they were a witch; if they drowned, they were probably not.
The legal position on witchcraft
In 1542, the English King Henry VIII passed a Witchcraft Act that declared witchcraft to be a crime punishable by death. The act was repealed by his son, Edward, in 1547, but a new act in 1562 placed responsibility with the Courts, rather than the Church, and distinguished between minor offences, punishable by imprisonment or public humiliation, and capital offences. Merely turning milk sour might be considered a relatively minor issue, whereas killing someone by casting a spell on them – in other words, murder – was obviously very serious. Similar acts were passed in Scotland and Ireland. In 1603, James VI of Scotland also became James I of England. James had long had a particular interest in, or fear of, the supernatural and in 1597 had even published a book about it, Daeomonologie. This book included sections on magic and necromancy, witchcraft and sorcery and spirits, ghosts and spectres. James was a dyed in the wool believer. That fact, his book, and a further anti-witch act in 1604, helped set the tone for a fashionable bout of witch-hunting in late 16th and early 17th century Britain. Hundreds of alleged witches were put on trial in England, of which (according to the UK Parliament) some 500 were executed. The situation was worse in Scotland where, according to the National Museums of Scotland, between three and four thousand people were tortured and executed as ‘witches’ in the late 16th and 17th century. The fashion extended across the Pond. The witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, resulted in the execution of 19 alleged witches in 1692-3.
Most of those accused of witchcraft in 17th/18th century Britain were poor, elderly, and female – spinsters or widows with no regular income and no one to look out for them. Some had a local reputation for herbal remedies and healing and, perhaps, they eked out a living that way. Some were possibly simple-minded, or senile.
The last known execution for witchcraft in England took place in Exeter, Devon, when Alice Molland was hanged in 1685. The last execution for witchcraft in Scotland took place in the little town of Dornoch in 1727, when Janet Horne was smeared in tar and publicly burned at the stake.
In 1736, the UK Parliament repealed the laws against witchcraft, but imposed fines or imprisonment on those who claimed to have magical powers. This was repealed in 1951 by the Fraudulent Mediums Act. This, in turn, was replaced by new consumer protection regulations in 2008 – the end of the line for witchcraft legislation. In the UK, it is illegal to falsely claim to have conversations with the dead, cure ailments by applying disgusting potions, incapacitate useless bureaucrats, politicians, accountants, estate agents or anyone else by muttering incantations, sticking pins in dolls – and so on. To be clear, if anyone tries that kind of malarkey in the 21st century and it doesn’t work, you can sue them.
In 2022, the then First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, issued an apology for the historic persecution and execution of accused witches, describing it as “injustice on a colossal scale”. All of those concerned drew considerable comfort from Nicola’s magnanimity. Obviously, she did not apologise to any English witches.
Lancashire in the 17th century
When we think of witches today, it is normally in a reasonably benign way, and often associated with a highly sanitised version of Halloween – a very ancient festival. It was very different four hundred years ago, when what we would regard as superstition was part of everyday life and religion exerted an enormous influence on people’s outlooks. Fairies, elves and goblins could lurk round every innocent corner, in ponds and rivers, under stones, in the woods. The Devil and His agents were real – and a constant danger. Spoilt ale, a lame horse, a poor harvest, or premature death, could all be attributed to malign, magical, influence. Conditions such as epilepsy, or even simple bad behaviour in children, could be regarded as evidence of demoniacal possession. Charms could be written to guard against such misfortunes – and were taken seriously. Perhaps these beliefs were even more prevalent amongst the uneducated and in remote rural communities. Add in the ingredients of ignorant prejudice against the few who are manifestly different from the majority, with a generous dose of religious fear and bigotry, and your cauldron of malice is bubbling away nicely.
Lancashire was one of the ‘Dark Corners of the Land’, a term used in the 16th and 17th centuries by extremist Protestants to describe parts of the country where the light of the Reformation had not fully penetrated. Observance of the Roman Catholic faith was illegal in England and Lancashire had the largest community of ‘papists’ in any of England’s shires. Indeed, in the early 17th century, their numbers were increasing, a hotbed of the old ways, with adherents at all levels of society meeting in secret to say Mass. To some Protestants, Catholicism was as bad as witchcraft – and one might even encourage the other.
The story of the Pendle Witches is well documented, because the Clerk to the Judges of the Lancaster Assize in 1612, one Thos. Potts Esq, published a book,
“The Wonderfvl Discoveries Of Witches In The Covntie Of Lancaster”
Which tells you all you need to know and much that you do not. Sadly, the good public servant Thomas was hardly an objective witness. Moreover, it is at times a confusing tale, so all we can do here is attempt to summarise. Let us begin by trying to sort out who’s who. Most of the action centres around two matriarchal families, each headed by their very own, very old, allegedly cunning, chief witches – Demdike and Chattox.
‘Demdike’ (possibly meaning ‘demon woman’) was the nickname of Elizabeth Southern or Southerns. In 1612, she was around eighty years old and blind. Demdike was a self-confessed witch who claimed to have a familiar called ‘Tibb’ that initially came to her in the form of a little boy and, later, as a dog. Mr Potts said she had been a witch for fifty years.
Demdike’s daughter, Elizabeth Device (sometimes ‘Davies’), had been widowed in 1601. She had a squint, with one eye pointing up and the other down. She is said to have been ignorant, unlovable, unstable, subject to fits of uncontrollable passion, with a spirit named ‘Ball’
Christopher Holgate was an illegitimate son of Demdike’s and, though said to be witches, he and his wife were not brought to trial in 1612.
Alizon Device was a teenager, possibly quite bright, but who seems to have got by in life through begging.
James Device comes across as nasty, generally useless, a beggar and a thief. He was also intimidated by authority, keen to please and possibly not very bright. He claimed to have spirit in the shape of a brown dog named ‘Dandy’, which he met near the village of Newchurch.
Jenet Device was about nine years old in 1612, possibly illegitimate and resentful. She was also the key witness in the trials. Her testimony resulted in the execution of her own mother, sister and brother. She was herself imprisoned for witchcraft in 1633.
Demdike, daughter and grandchildren all lived in a mysterious building called ‘Malkin Tower’, location unknown. It could have been somewhere near the villages of Newchurch, or Blacko – where visitors often mistake the Victorian Stansfield Tower for Malkin.
‘Chattox’ or Anne Whittle was described by Potts as “a very old withered spent and decrepit creature, her sight almost gone… Her lippes ever chattering and walking; but no man knew what”. It isn’t clear whether her nickname is a variation of another surname, ‘Chadwick’, or a reference to the frequent tendency to mumble or talk to herself – ie ‘a corruption of ‘chatterbox’. She had a familiar named ‘Fancy’.
Daughter of Chattox, Anne Redfern, made figurines of clay, used to cast spells on victims.
Another daughter of Chattox, Bessie, was a convicted thief.
The Chattox family lived in a cottage by a stream in West Close, not far from the village of Higham, on land belonging to the Nutters of Greenhead.
The story of the Pendle Witches
Some of the crimes the defendants were accused of pre-date 1612 by many years, but it seems that these would have been forgotten had it not been for the events of 1612. In March of that year, (some sources say 1601), Bessie Chattox broke into Malkin Tower and stole clothing and food. Alizon Device spotted Bessie wearing some pilfered garments and reported her. The matter was brought to the attention of the local magistrate, Roger Nowell, who questioned Bessie and Alizon on 13 March at his home, Read Hall, near Padiham. Roger was a wealthy landowner with a strong Protestant background and a reputation as a zealous witch-hunter. As a consequence of his friendly discussions with Bessie, she was dispatched to the cells at Lancaster Castle. However, it appears that Bessie made some counter accusations of witchcraft against Demdike and that Alizon, under questioning, admitted that Demdike had 1) Advised Alizon to become a witch; 2) Bewitched a cow that John Nutter of Bullhole Farm had asked her to cure; 3) Charmed milk into butter and 4) Cursed a Richard Baldwin in 1610, causing his daughter to die.
The next event took place on 18 March 1612, when Alizon was on her way to Trawden Forest to indulge in a little gentle begging. Near Colne cemetery, she came across a pedlar, John Law, from Halifax. What happened next isn’t clear, but it seems that John refused to give (or sell) some pins to Alizon, at which point she cursed him. Minutes later, the pedlar had some kind of seizure and was carried to an alehouse to recover. When his son, Abraham, visited three days later, John could not speak and, apart from his eye, was ‘lamed’ on his left side. This sounds very much like a stroke. It seems that the pedlar did at least partly improve, but when Abraham brought Alizon to visit, the pedlar accused her of bewitching him. Alizon confessed to this, fell on her knees and asked for his forgiveness – which John gave.
Alizon was summoned to appear before Roger Nowell again, this time with her mother, Elizabeth, and brother, James, on 30 March. No doubt terrified, and possibly really believing she was a witch, the poor girl confessed that she had sold her soul to the Devil in the shape of a black dog and that she told the dog to hurt the pedlar in Colne. Bizarrely, James said that his sister had confessed to bewitching a child. Not to be outdone in this display of familial loyalty, Elizabeth told the magistrate that her mother had had ‘a place’ – ie some kind of mark – on her left side. What could Roger Nowell do but assume that Demdike bore a witch’s mark?
In turn, Alizon levied a number of accusations against the Chattox clan. Chattox, she said, had murdered five men, including Alizon’s father eleven years previously, killed a cow, spoiled ale and charmed milk. Two years ago, claimed Alizon, Chattox had bewitched Anne Nutter, daughter of Anthony Nutter of Newchurch, and she died; when John Moore of Higham objected to Chattox bewitching his drink, she cast a spell that killed his child; Hugh Moore of Pendle died after complaining that Chattox had bewitched his cattle; and more.
If you believed in witchcraft – and these people did – this is more serious than the tit-for-tat playground spat it may appear to us. Irrespective of the time that had passed since some of the events had taken place, here were accusations of murder. What could Roger Nowell do but call for Demdike, Chattox – and Anne Redfern – who appeared before him on 2 April. Anne Redfern refused to confess anything or accuse anyone. By fair means or foul, however, the magistrate secured damning testaments of witchcraft from the two old women. Demdike explained how she had sold her soul twenty years previously and had come to curse Baldwin, resulting in the death of his daughter. The suggestion is that the murder was committed by using a clay model of the victim.
Other witnesses then claimed that Chattox and Redfern had caused the death of a Robert Nutter in 1595 by bewitching AND that someone had bewitched his father, Christopher, as well, causing his death in 1593. You have to ask – why wait almost 20 years to make these accusations? Demdike waded in to say she had seen Chattox and Redfern making clay figures. Chattox herself maintained she had given her soul to “a Thing like a Christian man” some fifteen years previously. More claims, accusations and contradictions ensued. The upshot was that Magistrate Nowell committed Demdike, Alizon Device, Chattox and Anne Redfern to Lancaster gaol to await trial.
The next very significant event in the story took place on Good Friday, 6 April 1612, when family and friends gathered at Malkin Tower to discuss the upcoming trial. James Device stole a sheep to help feed the guests. When Nowell got word of this, he decided to interview James, his mother Elizabeth and young sister Jenet. Surely, the whole thing suggested the meeting of a witches’ coven?! James was an enormous help, providing the names of most of the attendees and suggesting that one of the items on the agenda was to discuss freeing the prisoners in Lancaster by blowing up the castle (would a spell not have done the trick?) and to help Jenet Preston of Gisburn kill a Mr Lister of Wisby. Elizabeth and nine-year-old Jenet Device confirmed that those attending were witches. In fact, all three seemed perfectly happy to stitch everyone, including themselves, up by recounting a series of what we would consider to be ludicrous rumours and accusations. Inevitably, seven more people were sent to gaol in Lancaster to await trail and one, Jenet Preston, was sent to York – because Gisburn was at that time in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Those sent were:
- Elizabeth Device
- James Device
- Alice Nutter
- Katherine Hewitt
- John Bulcock
- Jane Bulcock
- Alice Grey
- Jenet Preston
It must have been an awful journey to Lancaster, through villages they knew well and then across the high wilderness of Bowland. Presumably, they were transported in some kind of cart. You can’t help but wonder what went through their minds, though perhaps they failed to appreciate the gravity of their situation. Lancaster must have been terrifying – busy, alien, dirty and dark. They do say that Lancaster hanged the most people in England second only to London, giving it the nickname of ‘the hanging town’ and, in fact, Lancaster Castle was used as a prison right up to 2011.
The Mayor of Lancaster, the Governor of the Prison a Justice of the Peace interrogated the defendants before trial.
On 27 July, Jenet Preston was tried and found guilty at York. She was hanged two days later on the site of what is now York racecourse.
The trial of the Pendle Witches at Lancaster took place from 17th to 19th August. Reading an account of the trials in ‘The Pendle Witches’ by Walter Bennett, first published in 1957, I am struck not just by the implausible, malicious, claims made, but by the sheer stupidity of most of the accused. At times, it is like listening to children telling tales on one another, or a pointless argument between dim drunks in a pub. Demdike did not make it to trial. An old woman, she could not endure conditions in a dark, overcrowded, insanitary, cell and – possibly thankfully – perished there. The accused had no counsel to guide them or speak on their behalf and were not allowed to call witnesses. Whether they could have conducted an adequate defence anyway is another matter. All they could do was plead ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. The judges, James Altham and Edward Bromley, did not challenge any contradictions in the statements given. Bizarrely, nine-year-old Jenet Device was a key witness for the prosecution, which was led by the impartial Roger Nowell. It was not usual for someone under 14 to be used as a witness, but the King had made it clear that rules could be flexible so far as witches were concerned. Set upon a table for all in the courtroom to see, Jenet shrilly denounced her mother, brother, sister and others. Furious, her mother, Elizabeth, screamed at her daughter and was removed from court.
At the end of the trial, Chattox, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alizon Device, Anne Redfern, Alice Nutter and Katherine Hewitt were all found guilty of murder by witchcraft and sentenced to death by hanging. John Bulcock, Jane Bulcock and Alice Grey were acquitted*. An additional defendant, Margaret Pearson of Padiham, accused of bewitching a mare, was sentenced to stand in the pillory on four market days at Clitheroe, Whalley, Padiham and Lancaster followed by a year spent in Lancaster Gaol.
Alice Nutter stands out from her companion Witches of Pendle. She was not an impoverished, ignorant peasant, but a reasonably wealthy widow and landowner from Roughlee. She was also a Catholic. It is generally thought that her presence at the Malkin Tower party was a diversion from attending a secret, and illegal, service with other local Catholics. As said before, there were many loyal to the Catholic faith in Lancashire. Indeed, two of the Nutter family had been executed as Jesuit priests in 1584 and 1600. It is generally believed that Alice protected her fellow Catholics by keeping quiet and simply pleading not guilty. Even her own children learned nothing from her before she went to the gallows along with all the others. In 2012, a statue of Alice was unveiled in her home village to mark the 400th anniversary of her death.
The sentence is thought to have been was carried out the day after the trial ended, 20 August 1612, on Gallows Hill just outside the town. In 1612, this was a patch of moorland, desolate, windswept, lonely – and terrifying. They would have been taken to the gallows by cart. Once there, they were probably made to stand in the cart as nooses were placed around their necks and the cart would then be pulled away.
Today, Gallows Hill is part of the City of Lancaster’s 50-acre Williamson Park, crowned by the wonderful, but excessive, Ashton Memorial. This remarkable monument was built in the early 20th century by the millionaire industrialist Lord Ashton in memory of his second wife, Jessy. She must have been amazing. Williamson Park is a popular spot with families and the views from the memorial – including of the castle – are terrific. It was close to here that they kicked, choked and died – Chattox, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alizon Device, Anne Redfern, Alice Nutter and Katherine Hewitt. They were joined by Isobel Robey from Windle, St Helens – today part of Merseyside – another elderly woman accused of bewitching people. All were probably buried nearby in unmarked graves and it is assumed their bones, and others, must lay about the place somewhere.
* Many sources on the internet say that Jane and John Bulcock were found guilty and perished on the scaffold with everyone else, but Walter Bennett specifically says they were acquitted.
The Witches of Pendle tour
Most of the buildings associated with the Witches of Pendle have long since vanished. But you can take an attractive tour by road of places the witches knew, starting at the excellent Pendle Heritage Centre in Barrowford (where there is a bit about the Pendle Witches), through Blackow, Roughlee, Newchurch, Barley, Downham, skirting Clitheroe to Waddington, Newton, Dunsop Bridge, the Trough of Bowland and on to Lancaster.