The Pendle Witch Trials
Witchcraft was widely believed to be effective in 16th century Europe. As Historic U.K. notes “… it was an accepted part of village life in the 16th century that there were village healers who practiced magic and dealt in herbs and medicines.”
And, there was a malevolent side as well. In the 1867 History of Lancashire, Thomas Baines wrote that, “During the sixteenth century whole districts in some parts of Lancashire seemed contaminated with the presence of witches; men and beasts were supposed to languish under their charm, and the delusion which preyed alike on the learned and the vulgar did not allow any family to suppose that they were beyond the reach of the witch’s power.”
When the deeply religious Protestant King James I came to the throne of England in 1603, those who were believed to practice witchcraft were persecuted.
The King’s Book
Before ascending to the throne of England and Ireland, James had been King of Scotland since 1567, when the crown was bestowed upon him as an infant.
In 1590, he married Anne, the daughter of the King of Denmark-Norway. At the time, the Danish court was obsessed with witchcraft. Sailing back to Scotland with his bride, James’s ship ran into a series of storms. In Copenhagen, the foul weather was determined to be the work of sorcerers. Torture revealed the names of those who beset the vessel with tempests and there were burnings at the stake.
James was convinced the Danish witches had conspired with people practicing the black arts in Scotland. Trials followed by executions took place there.
In this atmosphere, James set about writing his book Demonology (1597). In it the monarch wrote about the necessity of identifying witches and stopping the evil they brought to society. Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol says the book “was a mandate for the British to fight witches.”
When James became King of England and Ireland as well as Scotland, word went out from the monarch that magistrates were to round up witches. And that brings us to the village of Pendle in Lancashire.
The Pendle Trials
The village of Pendle is in east Lancashire in an area “regarded as a wild and lawless society” (Historic U.K.).
Roman Catholic sentiments lingered here and that meant opposition from the Protestant king and his lieutenants, one of whom was Roger Nowell.
In March 1612, one Alison Device encountered a peddler. There was an altercation and Alison placed a curse on the man who subsequently had a non-fatal stroke.
Magistrate Nowell heard about this and interviewed Alison. She seems to have been terrified by her own power in striking a man down and confessed, but said another family, the Chattox’s, with which her family was having a feud, was guilty of putting the hex on four people and killing them.
Nowell saw the opportunity to advance his career. A bunch of people accusing each other of witchcraft and bringing them to justice for practicing the dark arts or Catholicism, it didn’t seem to matter which, would be a feather in his cap.
Then, King James issued an order that everybody attend church on Good Friday. Those that refused would suffer a penalty. The Demdike/Devices family decided to skip the devotions, stole a sheep, and had a meeting (some say it was a party). It seems some of the rival Chattox brood enjoyed a taste of roast mutton too.
Arrests were made of members of the Demdike and Chattox families. A few others were scooped up as well.
The Testimony of Jennet Device
In his book unleashing the fury of the state upon witches and warlocks, James I expressed the view that normal due process did not need to be followed in the prosecution occultists. Accused witches were not allowed defence counsel nor could they call witnesses on their own behalf. Also, the king had written “Children, women, and liars can be witnesses over high treason against God.”
So, here we have nine-year-old Jennet Device entering the courtroom to give testimony. Her mother and many members of her family, including her half sister Alison, were the accused in the trial.
Thomas Potts was the Clerk of the Court and from his notes he wrote a best-selling book about the trial called The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster.
He told how when Jennet entered the court her mother, Elizabeth screamed. The child was then hoisted up onto a table and gave her evidence.
“My mother is a witch and that I know to be true. I have seen her spirit in the likeness of a brown dog, which she called Ball. The dog did ask what she would have him do and she answered that she would have him help her to kill.
“At 12 noon about 20 people came to our house - my mother told me they were all witches.”
She accused six people of being witches in addition to her mother and brother. Others had confessed to being witches during questioning.
The jury brought down guilty verdicts against 10 of the accused. The appeal process was simple; there wasn’t one. The day after the trial, August 20, 1612, ten people were taken to Gallows Hill, Lancaster and hanged. They were Anne Chattox, Anne Redfern, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alison Device, Jane Bullock, John Bullock, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Nutter, and Isobel Robey.
- Jennet Device, whose testimony led to the execution of most of her family, was herself accused of witchcraft 20 years later. In a strange echo of the 1612 trial, 10-year-old Edmund Robinson testified against Jennet. She and the other 16 people accused with her had a judge with an independent mind. Even though found guilty by the jury, the judge referred the case to the Privy Council. Edmund Robinson admitted that he had lied and Jennet and he co-accused were deemed innocent.
- In 1692, the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials sent 19 people to the gallows. Much of the evidence against the accused was given by children.
- The upper estimate of the number of people executed for being witches in Europe is nine million of which 85 percent were women. But, many historians believe this is an exaggeration. Most of the executions were by burning at the stake.
- Witch hunts continue today in India and elsewhere. In January 2018, Scientific American reported that “More than 2,500 Indians have been chased, tortured, and killed in such hunts between 2000 and 2016, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau. Activists and journalists say the number is much higher, because most states don’t list witchcraft as a motive of murder.”
- “The Pendle Witch Trial of 1612.”Pendlewitches.co.uk, undated.
- “The Witch Trial That Made Legal History.” Frances Cronin, BBC News, August 17, 2011
- “The Pendle Witches.” Ellen Castelow, Historic U.K., undated.
- “Lancashire Witch Trials.” Lancaster Castle, undated.
- “Witch Hunts Today: Abuse of Women, Superstition, and Murder Collide in India.” Seema Yasmin, Scientific American, January 11, 2018.