James I believed in witches and the dark arts. In 1603 he wrote a book ‘Daemononlogie’ in it he instructs the reader to condemn, inform on and prosecute all supporters and practitioners of witchcraft. When James came to the throne, this fear became personified in the common people and a law was passed in 1612 that each Justice of the Peace in Lancashire should write up a list of all those who refused to attend church or take Holy Communion. That was a criminal offense. So when we look at the Pendle ‘witches’ we have to look at them at the point in time in which they were accused.
Firstly Lancashire, at the time, was infamous as a lawless society. This was probably more to do with its loyalty to Catholicism than anything else. It was at Pendle Hill, during the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, that resistance to the closure of the local Cistercian Monastery was most highly contested. They also reverted straight back to Catholicism once Mary took to the throne.
Secondly it was a very common thing in that age to have a village ‘healer’. There was no chemist you could just pop down to for some paracetamol or antiseptic, you would have gone to the local wise woman who, through her extensive knowledge of herbs and plants, would have given you the best hope of a painless recovery.
With this background in mind we can now look at the individuals involved. Most of the accused came from two rival families, the Demdikes and the Chattox family.
Both families were headed by old women, Elizabeth Southerns aka ‘old Demdike’ and Anne Whittle aka ‘Mother Chattox’. Both families were living in poverty.
The story began with a lady called Alizon Device who was travelling or begging at the side of the road going towards Trawden forest when she came upon a peddler called John Law. At this point she asked him for some pins and he refused, it’s not clear whether she begged for them or offered to pay but upon his rejection she cursed him. Sometime after their meeting John suffered a stroke which he blamed on Alizon. Due to the seriousness of the accusation Alizon was bought before the local justice, a man called Nowell and she confessed immediately. She told Justice Nowell that she had asked the devil to lame John Law. I think Alizon truly believed that she had powers.
It wasn’t long before she accused her grandmother ‘old Demdike’ of being a witch and members of the Chattox family. Alizon’s mother told how her mother ‘old Demdike’ had a mark on her body where the devil had sucked her blood. Then John Device (Alizon’s father) accused ‘Old Chattox’ of causing him illness. In truth the two families had been feuding for years after the chattoxs had broken into Malkin tower, home of the Demdikes, and stolen money. John also accused her of threatening to curse him if he didn’t pay her money for protection.
The deaths of four villagers many years before were also bought up and blamed on ‘Old Chattox’. Upon questioning both old ladies confessed to selling their souls to the devil. Chattoxs daughter Anne was also accused of making clay dolls. When Nowell had heard all of the evidence he detained Old Demdike, Old Chattox, Anne and Alizon to wait for a trial. During the wait for trial Elizabeth Device called a meeting at Malkin Tower on Good Friday when all good citizens should have been at church. Many who were sympathetic to the family attended and James Device stole a neighbour’s sheep to feed them. Sadly this gathering was reported to Nowell who felt he needed to investigate further. In all a further eight people were arrested, questioned and put to trial.
The trials were held on the 17th, 18th and 19th August 1612. Poor Old Demdike never made it to trial after succumbing to the conditions of the prison in which she was being kept. Normally in this period children were exempt from giving evidence but with a ‘witch’ trial all normal rules went out of the window. Most of the trial hinged on the evidence of 9 year old Jennet Device. She testified against many who had attended the meeting at Malkin tower and against her own mother, brother and sister. The crowd were enthralled by her every sentence and as her mother, Elizabeth, listened she eventually had to be dragged from the room screaming and cursing when she heard her daughter giving evidence against her.
When John Law, the peddler, was bought before Alizon she fell to her knees confessing her guilt in tears.
Of the eighteen sent for trial eight were acquitted and ten were executed. These were;
Anne Whittle alias Chattox
Anne Redferne daughter of Chattox
Elizabeth Device daughter of Demdike
James Device son of Elizabeth Device
Alizon Device daughter of Elizabeth Device
John Bulcock son of Jane Bulcock
Katherine Hewitt alias mould-heels
It is worth noting that most of these unfortunate people continued to protest their innocence until the end.
All were sentenced on flimsy circumstantial evidence but in the treacherous climate of the reign of james I and for a long time after they wouldn’t be the last ‘witches’ to be tried just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The ten condemned were hung on the now infamous Gallows Hill. It is not known what happened to their bodies thereafter.