Four hundred years on, the story of the Pendle Witches still captures Lancaster every time Halloween comes around. Not all about pointy hats and riding on broomsticks, this is a story of the witch trial that made history…
The history of witch trials in England is long and bloody, and continued well into the 18th century. At the start of the 17th century, however, King James I was on the English throne. His fear of witches gathering to conspire for treason had made him a notorious persecutor of them in Scotland. Hardly surprising, then, was the order in 1612 to every Justice of Peace in Lancashire to compile a list of those people in the area who refused to attend church. It was this that prompted the zealous Roger Nowell, Pendle’s Justice of Peace, to seriously investigate any claims of non-conformist activity.
Especially in rural England, witchcraft was both widespread and, amongst the general poor, uneducated populace, accepted. Witches like Old Demdike and Chattox, each the respective head of families whose fates would be decided by their actions, were known as healers. They made a living by offering additional magical services like divination or making love potions, and by 1612 had already been practicing magic for nearly fifty years. Bitter rivals, their feud would come to mean the death of not only themselves, but many others.
Though accepted to some extent and certainly, in some cases, a profitable business, the superstition and fear of the people made witchcraft a dangerous profession. From Christian theology the theory emerged that to become a witch an individual had to make a pact with the devil, and furthermore, that witches did not act alone. This set the precedent for mass witch exterminations across England, which was previously unheard of. If a neighbour fell ill, the harvest was bad, something went missing or wrong for inexplicable reasons, more often than not the cause was witchcraft.
When Alizon Device, granddaughter of the witch Demdike was out walking, she met the peddler John Law. Refusing to sell the rare and expensive metal pins she needed for spells, he suddenly stumbled and fell. So firmly rooted in her mind were the prejudices against witchcraft that she became convinced his collapse had been her doing. Feeling guilty, she visited him later to confess and apologize- only to be reported by Law’s song to Roger Nowell, who summoned both her mother Elizabeth and brother John for questioning. Seeing an opportunity to harm the Chattox family, Alizon accused Old Chattox of murdering her father.
This quickly led to a second round of interrogations, at which Old Demdike and Old Chattox and the latter’s daughter, Anne Redferne were present. Both old women, by now in their eighties, deaf and blind made confessions that were to seal their fates. Demdike admitted to selling her soul to the some twenty years past, and acquiring a familiar named Tibb, whilst Chattox confessed to having her soul stolen fourteen years ago and a familiar named Fancy. Both admitted to causing several murders and casting curses, and were thus condemned to trial alongside Alizon Device and Anne Redferne.
This would have been the end, had it not been for one fateful day in April. On Good Friday, Elizabeth Device organised an event at Malkin Tower, the Demdice residence. Family and sympathetic friends attended. Ever suspicious and sensing an opportunity, Roger Nowell accused eight more of this grand convocation of witches and had them sent to Lancaster Castle for trial- among them the remaining Demdice family.
On the day of the trial, nine-year-old Jennet, the illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth Device walked into the court. Her mother let out a shriek of desperation and, by request from Jennet, was removed from the hall. Jennet climbed onto a table before calmly and articulately giving the evidence that would be the end of her own mother, brother, sister and neighbours. They were hanged the next day at Gallow’s hill.
Yet the dark legacy of the Pendle Witch trial goes far beyond Lancaster. Both writings of the trial and Jennet’s evidence were distributed in a handbook to magistrates as far as the American colonies. In 1692, nineteen people were hanged at the Salem witch trials. Most testimony was sought from children. Ironically, Jennet was put on trial twenty-two years later- accused by a ten-year-old boy.