The Witches of Pendle

 

The story of the witches of Pendle begins with a feud between two families, both headed by old women with a notorious reputation for witchcraft:

 

Old Demdike (Elizabeth Sowthern)

I

Elizabeth Device

I

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                                         I                             I                                 I

Alizon Device           James                         Jennet

 

 

 

 

Old Chattox (Anne Whittle)

I

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I                                               I

Elizabeth Whittle                      Anne Redfern

 

 

Events and Accusations

 

In early 1612, Elizabeth Whittle steals from the house of Demdike and is arrested.

*1. She accuses Alizon Device of witchcraft.

 

Alizon herself now curses the pedlar John Law, who suffers a stroke, and she is interrogated by local Justice of the Peace Roger Nowell as a possible witch.

 

*2. Nowell now accuses Alizon and her family of witchcraft. By April, he has launched a full-scale investigation.

 

*3. Under further interrogation, Demdike confesses to being a witch with a familiar, and implies that she had been guilty of the death of the child of Richard Baldwyn.

 

*4. Chattox tries to get out of trouble by accusing Demdike of witchcraft, and of murdering Robert Nutter. Later, Ann Redfern would be charged with killing Christopher Nutter

 

At the start of April, the magistrate jails Alizon, Demdike and Chattox, together with Ann Redfern

 

On Good Friday (April 10) 1612, the two rival clans held a feast at Malking Tower to try and find a solution, possibly involving breaking their relations out of jail. They are assisted by Yorkshire witch Jennet Preston. This makes the crimes seem all the more serious, as there is now an apparent element of conspiracy and even a "witch's sabbat". Nowell now strikes again and seizes several of the participants, including the remaining members of the Device family. Nowell interrogates them, together with fellow magistrate Nicholas Bannister.

 

*5. Elizabeth Device confesses to killing three people by witchcraft and the use of clay images. Her squint is taken as a witch's mark.

 

Demdike now dies in prison. (At the same time, incidentally, Lancaster Castle is holding the alleged participants in the Salmesbury witchcraft plot).

 

The witches are tried at the 1612 Summer Assizes in Lancaster, under Sir Edward Bromley. The main evidence is the "confessions and mutual denunciations" of the last few months. Crucial to the prosecution is the evidence of nine-year old Jennet against her whole device family. James, Elizabeth and Jennet Device are responsible for implicating others. In the end, the following were executed:

 

James Device                          Alizon Device             Elizabeth Device

Jennet Preston                        Isabel Robey               Katherine Hewit

John and Jane Bulcock            Old Chattox                Anne Redfern

Alice Nutter - wife of Christopher Nutter and mother of Robert

 

Most of the sentences were carried out on the single day of August 20, 1612. (Jennet Device lived on to suffer as a witch in the second great Lancashire trials of 1634)

 

In summary, please note several points here:

1. Witchcraft charges often arose from among the common people themselves, and were not simply imposed by the elite.

2. Some people really did believe that they themselves might have the powers of witches, whether they wanted them or not

3. But a few highly active justices and administrators could transform a handful of rash charges into a major prosecution. Roger Nowell is key to the whole affair

4. Charges often arise as a kind of plea bargaining, as accused individuals offer to throw blame onto some other person for the far more serious crime of witchcraft. However, the more charges are thrown around, the more the atmosphere of panic grows.

5. As this is England, note that the Church appears to play little or no part in the whole process. These are secular trials for secular crimes.

6. With the possible exception of the Good Friday meeting, there is no hint here of "ritual" witchcraft. Everyone involved is accused of causing murder or physical harm by supernatural means

7. Ultimately, the convictions hinge on the courtroom testimony of a child, two senile women and a mentally defective laborer. But this is enough to cause the deaths of ten people.

8. It may be that the charges against Alice Nutter reflect a cynical attempt to steal the property of this woman, the only one of the group to be a person of wealth and social status.

 

Chronology of Witchcraft Law in England

1542  -first attempt to pass a Witchcraft Act

1563  -Elizabethan Witchcraft Act

1566  -first known prosecution, in Essex

1582  -St. Osyth case in Essex

1584  -Reginald Scot, Discovery of Witchcraft

1604  -new witchcraft Act reinforces that of 1563

1612 - great Lancashire trials

1645ff  -Matthew Hopkins campaign in eastern England

1645  -19 executed at Chelmsford trials; great trials at Bury St Edmunds.    Parliamentary Commission forbids swimming test

1649-1650 - Newcastle witch-hunters.

1665 - Bury St Edmunds cases under Sir Matthew Hale

            Somerset witch trials at Wincanton and Brewham

1681  -Joseph Glanvill, Sadducismus Triumphatus

1692 - Salem witch trials in Massachusetts Bay colony

1736  -repeal of the Witchcraft Act

1951  -final repeal of vestiges of Witchcraft Act