When most people think of a notorious witch trial, their minds automatically go to Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. However, the title of the most influential trial in the 17th century goes to the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612. Twelve people were accused of witchcraft. However as one died in custody and one was tried in York, only ten made it to the trial in the Lancaster Assizes. This trial was a first in England for several reasons. Not only was it well documented in a publication titled The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, it was also the first example of the witness testimony of a child accepted in a trial. This precedent on the use of child witnesses was later used in America, leading to the hysteria in Salem.
The majority of the accused in the Pendle Witch Trials were from the Demdike and Chattox families. Both were headed by elderly widows living in poverty: Elizabeth Southerns, known as ‚ÄòOld Demdike‚Äô, and Anne Whittle, better known as ‚ÄòMother Chattox‚Äô. These women were casually referred to as ‚Äòwitches‚Äô, as they were the accepted village healers, dealing with herbs and medicines. King James I viewed this type of healer with suspicion, as a previous attempt was allegedly made on his life by a group known as the Berwick Witches. His 1597 book Daemonologie was intended to convince people of the existence of witchcraft, but also to inspire the persecution of witches with new fervour. This persecution extended to those who did not appear to support the religion of the land, Protestantism. The Pendle Witch Trials occurred less than a century after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a period when England was still suspicious of any sign of Catholicism. Lancashire, where the trial was held, was always seen as a lawless area by those in the South, as the people retained Catholic values (they reverted to Catholicism on the return of Queen Mary Tudor). During 1612, each Justice of the Peace was to compile a list of those who refused to attend church or take communion.
The persecution in Pendle began with an altercation between Alison Device and a peddler named John Law. She asked him for some pins and he refused, concerned she was a beggar. Alison cursed him, and shortly after he collapsed and temporarily lost his speech and the ability to move. Modern medical knowledge would determine this was a stroke, but in 1612 his ailments would have been evidence of witchcraft. This was reported to local Magistrate Roger Nowell. Following his questioning, Alison confessed she had asked her devil familiar to lame John Law. On further questioning, Alison accused others of witchcraft, including her grandmother, ‚ÄòOld Demdike‚Äô, and members of the Chattox family. This was an act of revenge for the longstanding feud between the families. Her father, John Device, had blamed his fatal illness on ‚ÄòMother Chattox‚Äô, who had repeatedly threated to harm his family should he not make an annual payment.
During Nowell‚Äôs investigation, Alison‚Äôs brother confessed she had cursed someone before, and their mother Elizabeth further incriminated her mother by confessing she had a mark on her body. Known as a ‚Äòwitches mark‚Äô, it was believed to have been where the Devil had sucked blood, thus cementing them as a witch. Anne Redferne, daughter of the elderly ‚ÄòMother Chattox‚Äô, was also said to have created clay figures, arousing suspicion she was also a witch. Alison Device, Elizabeth Southerns, Anne Whittle and Anne Redferne were all arrested and prepared for trial.
On Good Friday in 1612, when Protestants would have been in church taking communion, a group met at Malkin Tower. This meeting could have been a collection of sympathisers, as the property was owned by Elizabeth Southerns. However it was most likely a Catholic gathering as members of a good standing family were present. On the testimony of Jennet Device, daughter of Elizabeth Device, a further 8 people were taken into questioning. These were Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John and Jane Bulcock, Elizabeth and James Device, Alice Gray, and Jennet Preston. Elizabeth Southerns died before trial and Jennet Preston was tried at the York Assizes where she was found guilty. The trial lasted three days in August of 1612, with 9 year-old Jennet Device being the key witness. Jennet gave evidence against her family and all those at the Malkin Tower meeting, leading to a guilty verdict for all but Alice Gray. All nine were sentenced to death by hanging, which occurred on August 20th 1612 at Gallows Hill in Lancaster.
It is still inconclusive whether the trial of the Pendle Witches stemmed from a genuine witchcraft hysteria, or if they were persecuted for their Catholicism. Whatever the reasons behind it, this case set a legal precedent that is still used in not only England but America as well.
Girl Museum Inc.
It’s fascinating to know that the reason children were able to give evidence in court was because of the precedent set by a witchcraft case! For people who are interested in learning further, there’s a wonderful BBC documentary available on YouTube called “The Pendle Witch Child.” It covers the case and goes into the later life of Jennet Device, and how her involvement in the trial ended up having repercussions for her as an adult.
So interesting! Thanks for covering this, Devon!