The Pendle Witches
The Story Of The Pendle Witches
This is the story of the infamous tale of the Pendle Witches, which resulted in the horrific execution of twelve innocent souls at the hands of the English court system in 1612. They are among the most famous trials in English history and some of the best recorded of the 17th century.
England in the early 1600’s was a time of religious persecution and superstition. Indeed, it was a time when witchcraft was not only feared, but also fascinated those from common village folk to King James I. James I had been greatly interested in witchcraft even before he took the throne (in 1603), writing a book, Daemonologie, instructing his readers to condemn and prosecute both supporters and practitioners of witchcraft. The scepticism of the king became reflected in the feelings of unrest about witchcraft among the common people and even brought in the death penalty for those found guilty of the craft.
Witches were marginalised outcasts, but were often sought out to cure ailments. In the 16th century, it was an accepted part of village life that there were village healers who practised magic and dealt in herbs and medicines.
It was a dangerous time for two Pendle families, led by two wily old matriarchs, Demdike and Chattox. Long since widowed, their existence depended on exaggerating the cures they offered to local villagers. This was a lucrative trade, given the many diseases and ailments of the day, and likely the only source of income that they could rely upon. The extent of the spate of witchcraft reported in Pendle at this time perhaps reflected the large amounts of money people could make by posing as witches. In addition, if you had a form of disability or disfigurement, it was often seen as a sign of the witch and birthmarks or moles were identified as the mark of the witch. These people were often marginalised from society and cruelly mocked, ridiculed and persecuted, simply for being or looking different.
It is important to understand the background to the events of these trials. Six of the eleven “witches” on trial came from two rival families, the Demdike family and the Chattox family, both headed by old, poverty stricken widows, Elizabeth Southerns (aka “Old Demdike”) and Anne Whittle (“Mother Chattox”). Old Demdike had been known as a witch for circa fifty years. She ended up passing away in prison in 1612, making her around 72 years old. Other accounts suggest Old Demdike and her rival, Chattox were well into their 80s! These old witches knew a thing or two about healing and preservation!
Demdike had lived with her family in Malkin Tower and are central to the Witchcraft Trial story which is as much astonishing and controversial as it is tragic and unsettling. The name ‘Malkin’ comes from the old English meaning ‘fallen woman’ or ‘slatten’,meaning untidy and grotesque. We can only imagine generations of witches or outcasts occupied this building and thus gave rise to its name.
As the matriarch of the family, Demdike, an old ‘crone’ (an elderly witch or healer) who was, an elderly widow; her husband, Thomas Ingham, long deceased. It seems likely that her elder child, Christopher, was born out of wedlock prior to her marriage in 1563. If this was the case, this would have been well-known around the small communities of Pendle; a source of gossip and scandal at the time and for many years to come. Her daughter, Elizabeth Device was also implicated in the Witch Trials.
The twelve accused lived in the area around in and were charged with the murders of ten people by the use of witchcraft. All but two were tried at Lancaster Assizes on 18–19 August 1612, along with the Samlesbury witches and others, in a series of trials that have become known as the Lancashire witch trials. One was tried at York Assizes on 27 July 1612, and another died in prison. Of the eleven who went to trial – nine women and two men – ten were found guilty and executed by hanging; one was found not guilty.
A Man Is Paralysed
The story began with an altercation between one of the accused, Alizon Device, and a pedlar, John Law. Alizon, either travelling or begging on the road to Trawden Forest, passed John Law and asked him for some pins (it is not known whether her intention was to pay for them or whether she was begging). When John refused, he suddenly fell to the ground, paralysed. He accused Alizon of cursing him, and on questioning, Alizon unwittingly sealed her fate when admitting that she did indeed swear and curse at him when he refused her request.
Abraham Law, the pedlar’s son, hauled Alizon in front of local magistrate, Roger Nowell. Alizon, overawed by the situation confesses and incriminates both her grandmother, Demdike, and her local rival, Chattox. The accusations on the Chattox family seem to have been an act of revenge.
The families had been feuding for years, perhaps since one of the Chattox family broke into Malkin Tower (the home of the Demdikes) and stole goods to the value of £1 (approximately the equivalent of £100 now).
Furthermore, John Device (father of Alizon) blamed the illness that led to his death on Old Chattox, who had threatened to harm his family if they did not pay annually for their protection
Demdike and Chattox are questioned at Ashlar House, and perhaps wishing to enhance their local reputation try to outdo each other with their stories, including the story of meeting the devil in a local quarry.
The deaths of four other villagers that had occurred years before the trial were raised and the blame laid on witchcraft performed by Chattox. James Device confessed that Alizon had also cursed a local child some time before and Elizabeth, although more reserved in making accusations, confessed her mother had a mark on her body, supposedly where the Devil had sucked her blood, which left her mad.
Chattox as described by Thomas Potts
Anne Whittle, alias Chattox, was a very old withered spent and decrepit creature, her sight almost gone: A dangerous witch, of very long continuance; always opposite to old Demdike: For whom the one favoured, the other hated deadly: and how they envy and accuse one another, in their examinations, may appear. In her witchcraft, always more ready to do mischief to mens goods, than themselves. Her lips ever chattering and walking: but no man knew what. She lived in the Forest of Pendle, amongst this wicked company of dangerous witches.
From The Wonderfvll Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancaster, 1613 Thomas Potts(clerk of the court).
A Discoverie of Witches
The story would have ended there had it not been for a meeting held at Malkin Tower by James Device (Alizon’s brother), for which he stole a neighbour’s sheep. Those sympathetic to the family attended but word reached the judge who felt compelled to investigate. As a result, a further eight people were summoned for questioning and then trial.
The trials were held at Lancaster between 17th and 19th August 1612. Old Demdike never reached trial; the dark, dank dungeon in which they were imprisoned was too much for her to survive. Nine year old Jennet Device, Demdike’s granddaughter, was a key supplier of evidence for the Pendle witches’ trial which was allowed under the system from King James; all normal rules of evidence could be suspended for witch trials, someone so young would not have been able to supply key evidence normally.
Jennet gave evidence against those who attended the meeting at Malkin Tower but also against her mother, sister and brother! When she gave evidence against Elizabeth (her mother),Elizabeth had to be removed from the court screaming and cursing her daughter.
Some of the Pendle witches seemed to be genuinely convinced of their guilt whereas others fought to clear their names. Alizon Device was one of those who believed in her own powers and was also the only one on trial who was faced with one of their victims, John Law. When John entered the court, it is documented that Alizon fell to her knees, confessed and burst into tears.
Nine of the accused – Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock and Jane Bulcock – were found guilty during the two-daytrial and hanged at Gallows Hill. Only one of the accused, Alice Grey, was found not guilty.
Almost everything that is known about the trials comes from a report of the proceedings written by Thomas Potts, the clerk to the Lancaster Assizes. Potts was instructed to write his account by the trial judges, and had completed the work by 16 November 1612, when he submitted it for review. Bromley revised and corrected the manuscript before its publication in 1613, declaring it to be "truly reported" and "fit and worthie to be published".
Full reproduction and free download of Thomas Pott’s book of the trial is available here:
Who was William Harvey and what part did he play in the Witch Trials?
William Harvey, a 17th Century physician, born in Folkestone in 1578, was the first physician to recognise the full circulation of the blood in the human body in 1616. It took twenty years for his theory to be accepted.
Because of his contributions to science - and marriage to the daughter of Queen Elizabeth I's physician - William became the 'physician extraordinary' to King James I in 1618.
William had always encouraged his colleagues to ‘search and study out the secrets of nature by way of experiment’ and was sceptical of the idea of witches and superstitions, instead seeking out rational medical explanations for ailments, afflictions and ‘witches marks’.
William was really the unsung hero of the witch trials and helped build their defence, offering a platform to demonstrate his practical theories, often with dramatic performance. Indeed William was a well educated man. He studied at King's College, Canterbury and then at Cambridge University. He then studied medicine at the University of Padua in Italy, where the scientist and surgeon Hieronymus Fabricius tutored him.
Fabricius, who was fascinated by anatomy, recognised that the veins in the human body had one-way valves, but was puzzled as to their function. It was Harvey who took the foundation of Fabricius's teaching, and went on to solve the riddle of what part the valves played in the circulation of blood through the body.
On his return from Italy in 1602, Harvey established himself as a physician. His career was helped by his marriage to Elizabeth Browne, daughter of Elizabeth I's physician, in 1604. In 1607, he became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and, in 1609, was appointed physician to St Bartholomew's Hospital. In 1618, he became physician to Elizabeth's successor James I and to James' son Charles when he became king. Both James and Charles took a close interest in and encouraged Harvey's research
So how did Willam Harvey become to be involved in the Lancashire Witch Trials?
Read an account of the trials by Margaret Tonge. Well written and detailed. 83-7-Tonge.pdf (hslc.org.uk)
In the 1634 Lancashire trial (Pendle Witch Trials), seventeen women were found guilty of witchcraft, all on the testimony of an eleven year old boy named Edmund Robinson, who would later confess to having made up his entire story as a means to make some money. Case of false evidence - The National Archives Through the courts this case reached the notice of King Charles Unlike his superstitious father, James I, Charles was a more sceptical man. He ordered that four of the accused women were brought to London to be inspected by a selection of midwives and surgeons, under the guidance of His Majesty’s physician, William Harvey.
The examining midwives located ‘teats’ or marks on the lower bodies of the accused women, especially around the vulva and the anus. William Harvey dismissed the midwives’ witch marks as superstition, implying that the suckling teats they found were simply haemorrhoids.
As a result these women were pardoned by the King. Sadly, the women were then sent back to Lancaster Castle, where they were not permitted to leave until they paid for their room and board for the period they spent there on trial. It is unlikely that any of the women could have afforded such a bill.
Another fantastic anecdote puts William Harvey at the centre of a further accusation of witchcraft. He was told of a woman who lived alone on the edge of the town, who was purported to be a witch. Harvey decided to investigate the claim and set off to visit the woman. In order to gain her trust, Harvey claimed to be a wizard. The women believed this, according to the story, because Harvey had ‘a very magical face’. With his magical credentials established, the women produced a saucer of milk, opened a nearby drawer and began to make a noise like a toad. This noise attracted from the drawer a toad, which came over and began to drink from the saucer of milk. The woman claimed that the toad was her ‘familiar’, a demon in animal form in service to the witch.
Harvey was determined to discover for himself if the toad was indeed a magical beast. He gave the woman a shilling and asked her to go into the town to buy some ale for them to drink together. Once she had left, Harvey immediately captured the tame toad and, as he had done so many times before at home, proceeded to slice open the poor animal to look at its insides. On inspection, the animal was revealed to be nothing more than a toad (not that you’d ever see a spiritual connection), and Harvey was convinced that the woman was not a witch. Naturally when the woman returned she was very upset to find her pet had been cut open, and ‘flew like a Tigris at his face’. Harvey escaped the assault by claiming that he had been sent by the King to discover whether she was a witch, and arrest her if this turned out to be true. This placated the distressed woman enough to allow Harvey to escape.
The tale of Dr Harvey and the frog may be a fanciful tale. It appears in a letter written by an unidentified Justice of the Peace in Wiltshire to an unknown clergyman in Cambridgeshire in 1685. It may be prudent to take this particular toad tale with a pinch of salt. (source, Royal College of Physicians)
However, in his quest to educate and demonstrate his biological theories, William Harvey inadvertently helped to bring an end to the suspicion that fell on witches and thus eventually an end to the trials of witches, through rational scientific explanation.
Whilst this saved many witches lives, we must remember that the craft itself has power and it is indeed real. Although we observe the sensibility of modern science, there is still much us witches know. Intention, vibrational energy, intuition, psychic ability, karma, special connections with our ‘familiars’, are all connections with the soul and not the body. Many have tried to rationalise these connections and perhaps there are indeed scientific explanations, but much is theory and quantum physics that is not yet understood. In a court of law it would be impossible to prove any wrongdoing to an injured party as forensic and physical proof must exist to bring about any conviction. We are free to continue our craft, unhindered and unapologetically.
In times where fear was rife, it was in the witches own interest to promote their powers, not only to earn a coin, but to help others, and have others fear them. Indeed many of the witches were proud of their ‘accomplishments’ and served as a warning to others to cough up, or suffer consequences. Unfortunately these claims, proud and defiant, claiming their power, ultimately led to their horrific execution and prompted any other witches to serve their craft privately and underground. Witchcraft has remained relatively covert ever since and it is even banned in some countries of the world in this present day!