This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
“One voice for 10 dragged this way once by superstition, ignorance. Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
So begins the first verse of Carol Ann Duffy’s 2012 tribute to the so-called Pendle witches – the eight women and two men who were sent to the gallows following one of the most sensational witch trials in British history.
Lancaster Castle, where the alleged witches were tried at the August assizes of 1612, must have been a formidable sight to the men and women who had travelled to Lancaster on foot from the remote village of Pendle, some 50 miles away.
Dating back to the Roman period, the castle has held prisoners for much of its long history – serving as a female penitentiary and debtors’ prison in the 19th century, as well as incarcerating religious and political prisoners, such as Quaker founder George Fox, and Catholic recusants of the 17th century. Until 2011, the castle also housed modern-day prisoners, as HMP Lancaster, and is still a working crown court.
From its hilltop location overlooking the town, the 15th-century gatehouse towers above all who walk into its dark interior. Its thick, stone walls, impressive battlements and portcullis would have offered little comfort to the weary group of men and women who arrived for trial just over 400 years ago. (Visitors to Pendle can take the ‘Walking With Witches Trail’, which follows their route across the Ribble Valley, to Lancaster Castle.)
“The trial of the so-called Lancashire witches was England’s biggest peacetime witch trial,” says Dr Robert Poole, guild research fellow at the University of Central Lancashire, and an expert on the case. “But for me, one of the most remarkable things about the Pendle witch trial is that it sprang from such small beginnings.”
Numb and dumb
The story starts with a young woman named Alison Device, who, in the spring of 1612, was out walking near Nelson, in the borough of Pendle, when she met a pedlar who refused to sell her some pins. What happened next is somewhat confused, but the pedlar appears to have become very frightened and fell down from what we would now recognise as a stroke – numb down one side and unable to speak.
The terrified pedlar was taken to a nearby pub and his son was sent for. On his arrival, he found his father a little recovered, but ranting about a black dog who had come to him while he lay paralysed. Convinced that the pedlar’s condition was due to witchcraft, the two men sent for Alison herself, clearly hoping that she could undo the harm she had caused. On her arrival, she apologised to the pedlar, admitted to bewitching him but claimed she was unable to reverse the magic, stating that her grandmother was a witch and that bad things happened around her. Local magistrate Roger Nowell was sent for, and an investigation into witchcraft began.
“When Nowell started delving further, events spiralled,” says Poole. “A Puritan magistrate, Nowell had his own political and religious reasons for wanting to hunt down witches, along with religious dissenters and papists. He interviewed Alison’s mother, Elizabeth, and grandmother, Old Demdike, before casting his net wider and involving neighbours in his investigations, too. The whole trial snowballed from there.
“One thing the investigations threw up was that witchcraft accusations in the community went back 20 years. It seems Old Demdike and her ‘rival’, Old Chattox, had been used by their neighbours for years to perform magic as a means of curing sick cattle, and even to resolve family feuds. The women were clearly utilised by their neighbours – all of whom seem to have believed in magic – but it was only when Nowell started investigating for his own reasons that we see accusations of witchcraft and trials.
“The floodgates of accusations opened and neighbour started to incriminate neighbour (although the families themselves stayed loyal to each other initially) and before long over a dozen alleged witches from the Pendle area were arrested and sent to Lancaster Castle.”
On their arrival, the alleged witches were held in a cell deep below the well tower. The building – also known as the Witches’ tower – still stands, and visitors can peer through the iron-barred door, down the dark, stone stairs that lead to the cell below. The small, bare room, with damp walls and metal rings in the floor, has hardly any natural light and is virtually unchanged in 400 years. The accused were held there for several months while they awaited trial. One of the prisoners, Old Demdike, died – most likely in the cell – before being called to the stand.
Although not currently accessible to the public, just a peek down into the darkness is enough for most visitors to imagine the appalling conditions these men and women were confined in. Largely ignored by their gaolers, living in filth and squalor with little comprehension of what was happening to them, it is little wonder that many began to ‘see’ the black dogs, devils and spirits they later confessed to having encountered.
Witches on trial
“The Lancashire trial was essentially a show trial,” comments Poole. “A call for other witches to be tried had been sent out across the county over the summer – perhaps to demonstrate the true extent of the menace of witchcraft in Lancashire – and a total of 19 witches appeared before the judges at the August assizes.
“But the trial itself – like others of the day – was far from fair and none of those on trial had counsel to defend themselves. All of the accused had given written testimonies which were read out in court as their evidence. These men and women had to sit and listen to their words being selectively quoted against them.”
The trial began on 18 August, beginning with Old Chattox, who was accused of the murder of Robert Nutter some 18 years previously. The trial accounts, written by clerk of the court Thomas Potts, tell of the devil visiting in the form of a black dog; of flying ponies and of curses that could not be undone. It remains the best-documented account of an English witch trial, despite the evident bias of its author, who was writing for an audience willing to believe in the existence of such evil.
“What we see with the events in Lancaster is a witch hunt rather than a genuine trial,” says Poole. “Today, the castle is a symbol of royal authority, with the arms of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster displayed on its walls. But Lancashire in the early 17th century was regarded as one of the dark corners of the land. It had never been properly evangelised by the new Church of England, and Roman Catholic style beliefs and superstitions persisted. It was seen as a place of Jesuits and illegal underground Catholics. The Protestant authorities in Lancashire were embarrassed by this.
“It is against this backdrop that Roger Nowell began his investigations in early 1612. The staunchly Protestant James VI and I had been on the throne of England for nine years and had a strong belief in witchcraft and magic. What better way to impress the king and put Lancashire on the map as somewhere that was engaging fully in the persecution of witches, than to stage a huge show trial using the most up-to-date witch-hunting techniques?”
Another fascinating aspect of the trial is that most of the accusations of witchcraft came from children. James and Jennet Device saw their mother, grandmother and sister taken into custody, and concocted a story about witchcraft in the family. In a bid to avoid being accused themselves, the pair ‘confessed’ to a number of matters relating to witchcraft in the family. Nine-year-old Jennet, however, went a step further, and incriminated her older brother, James, who was arrested and tried alongside his mother and sister, Alison.
“Ultimately Jennet’s accusations and the confessions of the alleged witches themselves saw 10 of those accused sentenced to hang, with another placed in the pillory,” says Poole. “Many of the witches blamed wicked spirits for tempting them into revenge when they had been ill-treated – believing that this would exonerate them. But what most would not have known is that the witchcraft act had changed in 1604, making it illegal to have anything to do with any wicked or evil spirits. No matter how justified their actions may have been, by admitting to having even encountered evil spirits, the accused had effectively placed their heads in the noose.”
Day of destiny
On 20 August 1612, eight women and two men were led by cart to a location near what is now Williamson Park. Poignantly, with what was probably their first view of the sea, over Morecambe Bay, they were hanged.
“The events surrounding the Lancashire witch trials have traditionally been treated as an outbreak of witchcraft in 1612, but what we are actually seeing are long-standing accusations, which haven’t been prosecuted until a political and religious reason was found,” says Poole.
“The trial accounts, published in 1613 as The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, were dedicated to Sir Thomas Knyvet, who played a key role in thwarting the gunpowder plot in 1605. The claim in Lancashire was that a group of witches were planning to release the imprisoned witches by blowing up Lancaster Castle. This was Lancashire’s own gunpowder plot, ‘foiled’ by good Protestant men who were using James VI and I’s own techniques to rid the county of evil.”
Five more places to explore
Brandeston village, Suffolk
Where a witchfinder general instilled fear
During the Civil War, witch-hunting gained momentum again, and self-appointed ‘witchfinder generals’ sprang up. The most notorious of these was Matthew Hopkins, who was responsible for one fifth of the total number of executions in England over the period. One target was John Lowes, vicar of Brandeston, who was ‘swum’ in the moat at Framlingham Castle and hanged in 1642. The castle is still open.
Exeter Castle, Devon
Where English witches died
England’s last executions for witchcraft took place in 1682 at Exeter Castle. Three women from Bideford were accused of using witchcraft against Grace Barnes, who subsequently became ill. Little of the original castle remains but a plaque near the gatehouse names Temperance Floyd, Mary Trembles and Susanna Edwards as the last to be executed in England for witchcraft.
Where a witch was burned
The last execution for witchcraft in Britain took place in Dornoch in 1722, although the exact execution date is unknown. Janet Horne was supposedly stripped, covered in tar and paraded through Dornoch in a barrel before being burned. A ‘Witch’s Stone’ south of the town’s square is said to mark the site where Horne was burned.
Sible Hedingham, Essex
Where a witch was ‘swum’
The last recorded case of ‘swimming’ a witch (a popular way of trying witches after the repeal of the witchcraft statutes in 1736) took place in Sible Hedingham in 1863. The accused, a man named Dummy, was tied up and thrown into the brook (which still flows through the village) as an ‘ordeal by water’. He later died of shock and pneumonia.
Where local justice was administered
In 1751, Ruth Osborne and her husband, John, were accused of witchcraft, dragged from their place of shelter in Tring Church and publicly ducked. Ruth later died; her inquest was held at the Half Moon pub, which still exists, as does the church.
Historical advisor Robert Poole is the author of The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster (Carnegie Publishing, 2011). To find out more, visit lancastercastle.com