Friday, 1 November 2013

The Lancashire witch-craze of 1612


I don't think I've ever had a guest post before, so please welcome Barry Durham with the inaugural offering. Halloween may have passed but it is still visible over my shoulder, creeping along to retreat into the shadows, so a blog post about witches is entirely appropriate. Take it away Barry!



Witches, victims or pawns? The Lancashire witch-craze of 1612

When the teenage Alizon Device swore at the pedlar John Law for refusing to give her pins on a bright March morning in 1612 she set in motion a chain of events that were to lead to the deaths of 12 people and have far-reaching consequences on both sides of the Atlantic.



During the encounter on the moor road between Pendle and Colne, the poor pedlar suffered a seizure (what would now be described as a stroke) and immediately attributed it to being cursed by witchcraft.

Alizon was the granddaughter of Elisabeth Southern, a somewhat decrepit, nearly blind 80-odd-year-old woman who had a reputation of being one of the area’s ‘wisewomen’. Alizon was often seen leading her grandmother around when she ventured from the cottage (known somewhat incongruously as ‘Malkin Tower’) where she lived on Pendle Hill.

The other ‘wisewoman’ of the district was Anne Whittle.

Southern enjoyed the nickname of ‘Old Demdike’, whereas Whittle was known as ‘Old Chattox’. This latter was probably a contraction of ‘chatterbox’ as she had a reputation of constantly mumbling to herself.

In the absence of any real form of doctoring, both for people and animals, the two had often been called upon by the residents of area to use their abilities to deal with all sorts of ailments and they had been feuding over who was the best for as long as anyone could remember.

Although Alizon later begged, and was granted, forgiveness from the pedlar she had apparently cursed, his son Abraham was not so generous and had her hauled before the local magistrate, Roger Nowell, along with Old Demdike and Alizon’s brother James, who today would be termed as ‘having learning difficulties’, but in those less enlightened times was probably simply known as ‘the local village idiot’.

During questioning, the Southerns brought up their feud with the Whittles and magistrate Nowell must have been rubbing his hands with glee at this turn of events for he had been charged (along with other law officers of the county) by King James I to rid Lancashire of witches and recusants.
King James, it must be remembered, had a morbid fear of witchcraft (as anyone who has taken the trouble to plough through his 1597 work ‘Daemonoligie’ can testify) and, after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, of Catholics.

Those who refused to attend Anglican church services were known as recusants and could be fined or imprisoned. Lancashire, being far from London, was deemed to be somewhat lax in rooting out these folk - hence King James’s edict.

As the accusations between the Southerns and the Whittles became more and more outrageous, Roger Nowell seized the chance to gain favour in the eyes of the king and committed the lot of them to the dungeons at Lancaster Castle to be tried at the next assizes which was in August of that year.

Other witchcraft accusations began to proliferate and several more men and women from Samlesbury, a few miles away, also ended up at the castle.

Nowell then had another stroke of luck.

He heard that friends of the Southerns and Whittles had held a meeting at Malkin Tower supposedly to plot to blow up Lancaster Castle and free the prisoners. This seems somewhat fanciful to say the least and appears to have been more of an excuse to question James Device again - especially as Nowell was led to understand that a certain Mistress Nutter had attended as well.

Now Alice Nutter is something on an anomaly among the so-called Witches of Pendle. She was a gentlewoman of some standing, but she was also a staunch Catholic and it was rumoured - but never proved - that she had been harbouring priests at her home at Roughlee.

She was also in the middle of a land boundary dispute with Roger Nowell.

Needless to say, after Nowell had finished questioning James, she and several others, also ended up in the dungeons of Lancaster Castle.

The trial, when it finally came round on August 17th, became famous thanks to an account published by the Clerk to the Court, Thomas Potts, under the title of ‘The Wonderfull Discoverie Of Witches In The County Of Lancaster’ the following year at the behest of the judges, Sir James Altham and Sir Edward Bromley.

It also gained notoriety for another reason: the main witness for the prosecution was a nine-year-old girl, Jennet Device, the granddaughter of Old Demdike.

Prior to this trial, children of such a young age had not been deemed fit to be witnesses, but the precedent of Jennet’s testimony was used 80 years later in Massachusetts when a witch frenzy gripped the town of Salem and 28 folk were executed, mainly on the words of three children.

The Lancaster trial lasted three days and included 12 from Pendle and eight from Samlesbury. Of the Samlesbury accused, four were released without trial, three were acquitted and one sentenced to the pillory. All the Pendle group were found guilty and sentenced to hang.

Elisabeth Southern (Old Demdike) had (unsurprisingly, given the foul conditions she had been confined in since May) died in prison; ten were found guilty on Jennet Device’s testimony and were hanged on August 20th on a hill outside Lancaster.

Alice Nutter was also found guilty and hanged, but she remained silent throughout her trial preferring, it seems, to sacrifice herself rather than betray her secrets.

Were they really witches? Victims of the times they lived in? Or perhaps, just pawns in some devious greater game?

Barry Durham

Barry Durham (Lulu / Amazon) was born in Manchester in 1947. He was educated at North Manchester Grammar School and Salford Technical College where he studied Maths, Physics and Chemistry for a while before getting extremely bored with Applied Mathematics and dropping out.

He was an insurance clerk for a number of years before trying his hand as a salesman, but his first love of writing kept getting him into trouble as he was often found scribbling down ideas for stories when he should have been working!.

After marrying his wife Barbara in 1968 the couple moved to the Preston area and Barry obtained the post of Junior Reporter on the Garstang Courier at the ripe old age of 23. The next 40-odd years saw him work for a number of newspapers and other publications in the Lancashire area, as well as a stint as a Press Officer and he had several short stories and freelance articles published. He has been a reporter, feature writer, sub-editor, Editor and Group Editor and more recently an Associate Lecturer at The University of Central Lancashire in Preston where he taught Newspaper and Magazine Design to post graduate level until budget cuts seem to have forced his final retirement. This has, however, given him the opportunity to write full time (apart from tending his garden, that is!)

He lives in the village of Chipping in Lancashire with his wife of 40-something years and has two grown-up sons and (at the time of writing) almost three grandsons.

There is a giveaway for Barry's books - click on the image below for more details.
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