In the 17th Century, England was a very superstitious, God-fearing place. People very much believed in magic, the paranormal and ghosts.

Compared to other European countries, such as Scotland or Germany, England wasn't very strict to those who practised magical arts. The amount of "witches" executed in England pales in comparison with that in the rest of Europe.

However, it was still a nation in which a little old lady could be accused, and subsequently executed, for being a witch if her next door neighbour's pet dog suddenly died.

One of the most famous cases of "witches" in England was that of the Pendle witches of 1612.

The twelve accused lived in the area around Pendle Hill in Lancashire, and were charged with the murders of ten people by the use of witchcraft. All but two were tried at Lancaster Assizes 17–19 August 1612 along with the Samlesbury witches and others, in what became known as the Lancashire witch trials.

The Pendle Witches, 1612

The witches dance with the devil

The arrest and trial of the so-called Pendle Witches is probably the most well-known of the witch trials that took place in the UK in the 16th and 17th Centuries. This has come about for several reasons, not least the fact that unlike many witch trials, the case of the Pendle Witches was documented very thoroughly (if not very open-mindedly!) at the time by Thomas Potts, and the transcript published as a book (The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster). Also, the sheer number of people involved, the surprising confessions, and the conspiracy theories that abounded make the tale a juicy one that has lived on in history.

Pendle Hill, Lancashire, still has a spooky feel about it

Despite received wisdom and lurid B-movies, England wasn't a country that devoted a lot of resources to persecuting accused witches through the courts, compared with most of the rest of the continent. Apart from a brief flurry in the Tudor period and the short-lived antics of Matthew Hopkins, England was reasonably safe for those who were either thought to practice magical arts, or who allowed people to think they did. All over mainland Europe, widespread torture and execution of accused witches was underway at this period, while in England many cases never even made it to the courts, apparently since a lot of magistrates simply didn't believe in witchcraft or black magic. Most claims that did make it to court were for offences such as harming animals or crops using spells, rather than the more outrageous claims of night-flying or demons that proliferated on the continent. However, even for these low-level accusations, any given trial was not a foregone conclusion. Torture was not generally used to extract confessions, and it was not unusual for cases to be dismissed from court due to fabricated evidence or pre-existing animosity with accusers - at the same trials where the Pendle Witches were convicted, other so-called witches were acquitted.

In 1612, James I had been on the throne for nine years, and had already survived one major attempt on his life by Catholic conspirators. The paranoia about Catholic plots was high, and the persecution of non-conformists was a daily fact of life - in the Pendle area at that time there was much concern about the fact that the Catholic faith was still being practised widely in private ceremonies throughout the county. It is also worth noting that James was a strong believer in witchcraft, and while the instances of witchcraft trials were not especially high during his reign, there was certainly the opportunity for young magistrates to try and make their name by taking accusations of witchcraft seriously and prosecuting them publically.

In Pendle at that time were two families - the Demdikes and the Chattoxes - each of which were ruled by old matriarchs who both had reputations locally for being witches. It seems that they did nothing to contradict these reputations and in fact used them to gain work as healers or to extort money writh threats. The two families were also at each others throats over an old debt, and considered each other rivals.

Events Leading Up To The Trial

In March 1612, Alizon Device, the grand-daughter of Elizabeth Southerns (better known locally as Old Demdike), cursed a pedlar who refused to give her some pins. The pedlar collapsed by the side of the road and Alizon was convinced that she was the cause, immediately confessing to him and asking for forgiveness, which he gave.

His son later heard about this and brought the event to the attention of the local authorities, claiming that when the pedlar refused Alizon's begging, a large dog appeared, and then the pedlar fell to the ground and became paralyzed.

She was brought before the local magistrate, Roger Nowell, who does seem to have genuinely believed in magic and witchcraft. Amazingly, she immediately confessed to the crime, although Nowell used no means of torture, "tests" or overt persuasion. As well as fully confessing to the crime, Alizon implicated her grandmother and Anne Whittle (known as Chattox) by recounting tales of how they had caused harm to neighbours and livestock in the area.

In early April, Old Demdike, Chattox and Chattox's daughter Anne Redfearn were also interrogated about their alleged witchcraft. Demdike immediately confessed to her evil deeds, and claimed that the devil had sucked her blood and driven her mad. All four of the accused were sent to Lancaster Gaol until trial.

Shortly afterwards, it was reported to the authorities that there had been a gathering at Malkin Tower, the home of Old Demdike, on Good Friday. This was believed by the courts to have taken the form of a witches sabbat. Bones and clay images were found at Malkin Tower and submitted as evidence of witchcraft.

On questioning, the youngest member of the Device family, Jennet, then aged 9, confirmed the story of the witches sabbat and claimed that during the meeting, plans were made to attack Lancaster gaol, murder the gaoler, and free the accused prisoners. James Device, Elizabeth Device, Alice Nutter, James Bulcock, Jane Bulcock, Margaret Pearson, Katherine Hewitt and Isobel Robey were all identified by Jennet as being present at the meeting and were also sent to Lancaster to await trial. James Device later confessed to all the charges.

Trial and Punishment

An old woman of ill health, Old Demdike died in gaol during the summer while awaiting trial. The trial itself did not take place until August 1612, but when it did, Jennet Device, despite her age, was the star witness. Anne Whittle (Chattox), Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock, Jane Bulcock, and Isobel Robey were all tried and found guilty of the preliminary charges. Anne Redfearn was found guilty on a further charge. They were all sentenced to be hanged. Margaret Pearson was found guilty of a minor offence and escaped the death sentence - instead being sentenced to punishment in the stocks.

On August 20th, the ten were hanged at Lancaster gaol. There is no record of what happened to their bodies.

In an ironic twist, after condemning her entire family as witches at the 1612 trial, Jennet Device was herself to be arrested several years later on charges of witchcraft, and despite the charges being dismissed due to new laws which stated that witchcraft was merely superstition, she is believed by most historians to have died in gaol.

No one will ever know what prompted the confessions that the Devices gave freely - in the absence of torture, it can only be assumed that there was hope that by condeming others they might gain their own freedom - or perhaps Roger Nowell was a skillful manipulator. Whatever the case, the Pendle Witches and their trial have retained their notoriety and their mystery through the centuries and still generate a lot of interest today, among both historians and pagans.

The Witches Today

Pendle today reputedly has a sizeable pagan community, and the tale of the Pendle Witches dominates the local tourism industry, with jam, preserves, beer and all manner of goods bearing their name. Many of the places referred to in the histroical accounts still exist - such as Lancaster gaol, Newchurch, Barley and Roughlee. There are rumours that Alice Nutter was the mistress of Roughlee Hall, and that one of the witches is buried in the graveyard at Newchurch under a stone bearing a skull and crossbones, but these are now considered by historians to be apocryphal. The location of Malkin Tower has been lost to history, and should not be confused with the modern farm of that name, or indeed with Blacko Tower! However, many of the villages in Pendle have retained many of their original buildings, and walking or driving around the hill-country in the steps of the witches still brings history to life. The Pendle Witch Trail and the Pendle Witches Car Trail (see the Transport section for details) are great introductions to the Pendle area and to the atmospheric tale of witchcraft and injustice.