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The Pendle witches


In August 1612 ten people were charged with witchcraft and sentenced to death. The key witness in the case was a nine year old girl, and three of the people executed as a result of her testimony were her own mother, sister and brother.

The witch-hunting craze swept across Europe during the 17th century, with James I of England and VI of Scotland bringing the craze with him from the Danish court after his marriage to Anne of Denmark in 1589. His first victim was Agnes Sampson, whose stripped and tortured ghost, ‘Bald Agnes’, is said to haunt Holyrood Palace and who is believed by some to be the inspiration behind the Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Denmark has a long history of witch hunts and witch trials, and when James visited the country he became obsessed with rooting out witches. When he brought Anne from Denmark back to Scotland they were caught in a terrible storm and James took it as a sign that a witch had tried to sabotage their journey and murder the king and his new queen. Agnes became James’s first victim, and the king insisted on being present to witness the torture Agnes underwent before she was finally found guilty and executed in Edinburgh on 28 January 1591, her body broken.

Like the rest of Europe, the punishment for being found guilty of witchcraft in Scotland was to be burned at the stake as opposed to being hanged in England and Wales, and thanks to James’s fascination witch fever swept through Scotland long before it reached the extent that it eventually would in England. When Elizabeth I died in 1603 and James assumed the throne as James I of England, he brought his suspicions with him; six years earlier he’d even written his own book on the importance of hunting witches, Daemonologie, which stressed the importance of persecuting witches in a Christian society.

Though perhaps less brutal than the Malleus Maleficarum, also known as the Hammer of Witches, published in Germany 110 years before, it was still a dangerous book that led some, such as the man who would later be known as the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, to believe that they had the right to accuse and torture their neighbours until they were forced to admit to the charges against them. James himself advocated for the importance of only punishing those who were guilty, but by torturing and killing so many himself he had already spread fear throughout his country and set an example of what a witch hunt looked like.

In 1612 the witch hunting frenzy reached Lancashire in what would become the most infamous witch trials in English history: The Pendle Witch Trials.

Lancaster has a long and dark history for a relatively small city – it wasn’t granted city status until the 1930s – and Lancaster Castle was still being used as a prison until 2011, 399 years after its most famous occupants were there. In fact Lancaster hanged the most people in England second only to London, giving it the nickname of ‘the hanging town’.

For many years before the trials, Elizabeth Southerns, more commonly known as ‘Demdike’, was considered a witch by many in her local area. She lived with her daughter, Elizabeth Device, and Elizabeth’s children James, Alizon, and Jennet, and it was not considered unusual that the whole family believed in magic and that they could use it. For a long time ‘witch’ hadn’t necessarily meant ‘evil’, and could often be used interchangeably as a term for a healer or wise woman, and though Demdike and her family had received accusations of casting curses from their neighbours before, it was an event in March 1612 that caught the attention of Pendle’s justice of the peace, Robert Nowell, and sealed the family’s fate.

On 21 March 1612, Demdike’s older granddaughter Alizon Device was on her way to Trawden Forest when she encountered a pedlar from Halifax named John Law, and his son Abraham. It is unclear whether she meant to purchase them or begged them from him, but Alizon requested some pins from John; metal pins were often associated with witchcraft in the 17th century, particularly with love magic which is perhaps why Alizon wanted them. We have no way of knowing if John refused to give them to her because he believed her to be a witch or because he didn’t want to reach into the bottom of his pack for such a small transaction, but either way, Alizon asked for pins and John Law said no. This would be the beginning of the end for Alizon.

Alizon cursed the pedlar before the two went their separate ways, only to witness him stumble and fall moments later. Nowadays we would perceive this as an unlucky coincidence; though we can’t be 100% certain, most historians believed that John Law suffered a stroke after his exchange with Alizon. Remarkably there was no initial accusation against Alizon for having caused John Law’s illness, in fact it was Alizon herself who was convinced of her own powers and felt immense guilt for what had transpired – so much so that she accompanied Abraham Law to his father’s bedside to beg his forgiveness and to attempt to reverse the curse she believed she had placed upon him.

Her belief in her own ability to cause others harm through witchcraft essentially meant that she was admitting to the crime, and it was this that led to Alizon, Elizabeth and James Device to appear before Robert Nowell on 30 March 1612. In early 1612, no doubt inspired by James I’s anti-Catholicism and the north of England’s preference for the ‘old ways’, every justice of the peace in Lancashire was ordered to compile a list of recusants in the area. With witchcraft’s association with Catholicism, a successful set of witch trials and executions would make Nowell incredibly popular in the eyes of the king, so when a guilt-ridden Alizon Device admitted that she had sold her soul to the Devil and ordered him to lame John Law, Nowell had the juiciest case of his career on his hands.

This was not a family that stuck together in times of crisis; Alizon’s brother, James, told Nowell that his sister had also confessed to bewitching a local child, and while there is no record of Elizabeth trying to defend her children she did tell Nowell that her mother, Demdike, had a mark on her body that resembled a witches’ mark – ‘proof’ that the Devil himself had made a pact with the old woman. Whether she was caught up in the frenzy without truly considering the consequences or she was inherently vindictive – which seems hard to believe from a girl so consumed by guilt – Alizon then went on to accuse Anne Whittle, known as ‘Chattox’, and her daughter Anne Redferne of witchcraft.

Chattox was the matriarch of another Pendle family associated with witchcraft, and the two families despised each other. Alizon may have believed that Chattox and Anne were really witches, or she simply saw the chance for revenge; she accused Chattox of murdering five men, including her father John Device, perhaps as recompense for an instance in 1601 when a member of Chattox’s family broke into the Device’s home, Malkin Tower, and stole some goods.

Demdike, Chattox and Anne Redferne were summoned to appear before Nowell on 2 April 1612. Though vulnerable, both Demdike and Chattox were blind and in their 80s at this time, they both admitted to selling their souls to the devil. Anne refused to admit such a thing but, like the Devices, this was another family that believed in all or nothing, for her own mother accused her of making clay figures which she used to practice witchcraft. With three admittances of guilt, it’s no surprise that Nowell sent all four women – Demdike and her granddaughter Alizon, and Chattox and her daughter Anne – to Lancaster Castle to await an official trial at the next assizes.

Perhaps this would have been the end of it, to have rooted four witches out of his town would be a success for Nowell, but on Good Friday – 10 April 1612 – Elizabeth Device organised a meeting at Malkin Tower. Those who were sympathetic to the family’s plight attended, and to feed them James Device stole a neighbour’s sheep. When word reached Nowell and an inquiry was carried out, eight more people who had attended the meeting were accused of witchcraft and seven of them were sent to join the others in Lancaster Castle.

• Elizabeth Device
• James Device
• Alice Nutter
• Katherine Hewitt
• John Bulcock
• Jane Bulcock
• Alice Grey
• Jennet Preston

Jennet Preston lived across the border in Yorkshire, and was therefore sent to the York Assizes for her trial. She was found guilty of witchcraft and was hanged on 29 July 1612.

Of those accused, Alice Nutter was set apart from the rest on account of her class. While the majority of the people caught up in the Pendle trials were peasantry, Alice was from a fairly wealthy family in Roughlee and, now a widow, owned her own land. Today it is thought likely that she was spotted at Malkin Tower on her way to another meeting with a group of local Catholics, for the Nutter family were known to be loyal to the Catholic faith. To keep her fellow Catholics safe, Alice said nothing at all aside from pleading not guilty at her trial.

The trials took place from 18-19 August 1612. The accused were denied witnesses to plead their innocence, and in a remarkable turn of events the key witness for the prosecution was Elizabeth Device’s youngest child, nine year old Jennet Device.

Usually a child of nine would not have been used as a key witness in a case such as this, but in Daemonologie James I made a case that, when trying to punish witches for their crimes, it was acceptable to bend the normal rules of providing evidence at a witch trial.

History has dealt Jennet Device something of an unkind hand. Since 1612 she’s often been remembered as an ‘evil’ child who turned on her own family – which seems like a particularly unfair accusation when so many members of her family had already accused each other of the crimes that led to the trials in the first place – and it’s true that there didn’t appear to be any closeness or affection within the Device household. Jennet was treated poorly by the rest of her family, but we’ll never know for certain whether it was dislike for her family or, more likely, pressure from the adults who were using her as a witness that made her say:

‘My mother is a witch and that I know to be true. I have seen her spirit in the likeness of a brown dog, which she calls Ball. The dog did ask what she would have him do, and she answered that she would have him help her to kill.’

When Jennet appeared in the courtroom Elizabeth Device screamed at her until she was forced to be removed from the room so that the evidence could be heard, knowing that whatever words were about to come from her youngest child’s mouth would be the words that condemned her and the rest of her family to death. James Device also accused his mother of witchcraft, claiming he had seen her make a clay figure of one of her victims, and was in turn accused of witchcraft himself by Jennet’s testimony.

Alizon continued to admit her guilt, and old Demdike did not appear at the trial. She’d died in the horrid conditions at Lancaster Castle while awaiting the assizes. By the end of the trial, the only person found not guilty was Alice Grey. The remaining nine were hanged on 20 August 1612.

Jennet Device disappeared from history until 24 March 1634, when a woman named Jennet Device became one of 20 tried at Lancaster for the crime of witchcraft, accused of the murder of a woman named Isabel Nutter by a ten year old boy named Edmund Robinson. Though Robinson later admitted to fabricating his evidence and the 20 weren’t executed, it is thought likely that Jennet ended her days the same way that Demdike did, dying in Lancaster Castle despite being pardoned. There is no official record of Jennet’s death, but according to a record from 22 August 1636, she was still incarcerated.

In 2012 Lancashire commemorated 400 years since the trials, a time when belief and hysteria led to one of the darkest periods in Lancaster’s history; a statue of Alice Nutter by local artist David Palmer was unveiled in Roughlee. Lancashire has since been called ‘witch county’, and even at Lancaster University one of their colleges takes the name ‘Pendle’ with a witch on her broomstick as its logo.

Today witches are green-skinned, wart-nosed creatures we dress up as for Halloween. Yet, over 400 years on, it’s important to remember what really happened. These were people, not caricatures, and they were only some of the many men and women who suffered during Europe’s witch-hunting frenzy.

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