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On the trail of the Pendle Witches

The Pendle Witches lived at a turbulent time in England's history. It was an era of religious persecution and superstition. James I was King and he lived in fear of rebellion.

He had survived the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 where the Catholic plotters had tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in an attempt to destroy his Protestant rule. His fear and angerbrought a backlash of harsher penalties against anyone keeping the Catholic faith. His suspicious nature led to an obsession with witchcraft.

England was a country divided and the county of Lancashire, which had long been a Catholic stronghold, was under the eye of suspicion. The Earl of Derby had described the county in 1583 as 'this so unbridled and bad an handful of England'. The confession by two of the gunpowder plotters that they were going to start a rising in Lancashire against the King added to Lancashire's reputation as a dangerous, lawless place.

In 1612 the King ordered Justices of the Peace in Lancashire to report anyone who did not take Protestant communion in church and prosecute them. The dividing line between magic and religion was not clear cut in the 17th century.

Protestants often spoke of Catholic practices as a form of conjuring, and considered their prayers as charms. King James was obsessed with witchcraft and his book Daemonology showed local magistrates what to look for when tracking down witches after making the practice of witchcraft a capital offence. Local magistrates became zealous in their pursuit of witchcraft, knowing that convictions would find them favour with the King.

When the Pendle Witches were put on trial a London court clerk, Thomas Potts was asked to make a record of the trial to send around the country as a warning and a guide on finding evidence of witchcraft. The document was dedicated to Sir Thomas Knyvett - the man who arrested Guy Fawkes in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament in the year 1605.

The events of 1612

Early 1600s
Two rival peasant families live on the slopes of Pendle Hill. They are led by two old women called Demdike and Chatrox. The men of their families are dead, leaving them in poverty to beg and find work where they can. Many local people live in fear of them, believing them to have special powers.

March 18th 1612
Alizon Device, grand-daughter of Demdike, is begging on the road to Colne. A pedlar refuses her some pins and she curses him. Suddenly a black dog appears and she orders it to lame the pedlar who collapses, paralysed on the left side.

March 30th 1612
Alizon Device is hauled before the Justice Roger Nowell and confesses to witchcraft. Forced to give an account of her family's activities she tells how Demdike had been asked to heal a sick cow which then died. She also told Nowell that Demdike had cursed Richard Baldwin after which his daughter fell sick and died a year later. Describing her family's feud with the Chattox family she reports how Chattox turned the ale sour at an inn at Higham and bewitched the landlord's son to death using a clay image.

April 2nd 1612
Nowell orders Demdike, Chattox and her daughter Ann Redfearrn to give evidence. Demdike confesses to evil deeds, claiming that the Devil came to her in the shape of a little boy called Tibb. She had met him in a quarry near Newchurch and he had sucked her blood leaving her 'stark mad'.

April 3rd 1612
Nowell sends Demdike, Alizon Device, Chattox to Lancaster Castle to await trial for witchcraft.

Good Friday 1612
Twenty people gather at Malkin Tower, home of Demdike and the Devices. They feast on stolen mutton and make a plot to blow up Lancaster Castle. They also plan to kill Thomas Covell, the Keeper of the Castle, and free the imprisoned women.

Late April 1612
An investigator is sent to Malkin Tower. Human bones are unearthed, stolen from graves in Newchtirch, and a clay image is also found. Nowell sends for James and Jennet Device and their mother Elizabeth for questioning. James confesses to causing the lingering death of Anne Towneley by slowly crumbling a clay image of her after she had accused him of stealing peat for his fire. Nine-year-old Jennet names the people who were at the Good Friday gathering including Alice Nutter, a gentlewoman of Roughlee. Nowell sends the supposed witches to join those already at Lancaster Castle. Demdike dies in prison, before the trial.

August 17th 1612
The trial opens at Lancaster Castle. The accused are not provided with a defence lawyer. Nowell produces Jennet as a witness and she gives evidence against her own family and other villagers. Her mother Elizabeth Device is dragged from the court screaming at her daughter and shouting curses at Roger Nowell. The judge decides to test Jennet's evidence by holding an identity parade in court at which Jennet goes up and takes Alice Nutter by the hand, identifying her as one of those present at the Good Friday gathering. Alizon Device faints when confronted with the pedlar she is said to have lamed, but when she is revived confesses her guilt. Chattox weeps as she hears the evidence against her and asks God for forgiveness. She pleads for mercy to be shown to her daughter, Ann Redfearn. The judge finds them all guilty but admits that he is moved by "the "ruine of so many poore creatures at one time".

August 20th 1612
Chattox, Ann Redfearn, Elizabeth, James and Alizon Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Jane Bulcock and her son John are hanged in Lancaster in front of huge crowds.

The Witches came from Pendle, near Bowland Forest. Live the experience yourself and join our Yorkshire Dales, Lake District & Between tour.



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