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Pendle witches Lancashire witchesfree

(act. 1612)
  • Laura Gowing

Pendle witches Lancashire witches (act. 1612), represented one of the larger groups of witches prosecuted in early modern England and one of the most famous. The mass of confessions and testimonies elicited before and during the trials at Lancaster in 1612 recalled events of up to eighteen years before and involved tensions between mothers and children, siblings, neighbours, and landlords and tenants.

At least nineteen alleged witches were charged at Lancaster assizes on 17 August 1612. Of these at least ten came from the Forest of Pendle and its adjacent townships, while one had already died in prison and a second had been hanged at York two or three weeks earlier. At the centre of the Pendle accusations were two elderly women and their families. Elizabeth Sowthernes [alias Demdike; known as Old Demdike] (c. 1532–1612) was a widow, blind and poor, aged about eighty and living in Malkin Tower in the Forest of Pendle. She was accused of having been a witch for fifty years and bringing up her children and grandchildren in witchcraft—notably her daughter Elizabeth Device (b. before 1572, d. 1612), aged over forty, and Elizabeth's children Alizon Device (d. 1612), James Device (d. 1612), and Jennet Device (b. 1602/3), the last a witness rather than one of the accused. The other principal figure, Anne Whittle [alias Chattox] (c. 1532–1612), allegedly both associate and enemy of Sowthernes, was accused with her daughter Anne Redfearn (d. 1612). Sowthernes never faced trial, having died in gaol between her commitment to prison on 2 April and the opening of the assizes. Her daughter Elizabeth Device, along with her children Alizon and James Device, and Anne Whittle and Anne Redfearn, were all hanged at Lancaster on 20 August. So also were a group who had been drawn into the trials through their reported presence at a feast at Malkin Tower on Good Friday 1612: Alice Nutter (d. 1612) of Pendle, Katherine Hewytte, alias Mould-Heels (d. 1612), wife of John Hewytte of Colne, John Bulcocke (d. 1612), and his mother, Jane Bulcocke (d. 1612), wife of Christopher Bulcocke, both of the Moss End near Newchurch in Pendle.

The relationship of two other witches condemned to the Pendle group is uncertain: they may have been victims of the local fears raised by news of Pendle rather than accused for any association with the group. Certainly there is no established connection with Isabel Robey (d. 1612) of Windle, near St Helens, who was also hanged. Margaret Pearson of Padiham was found guilty and punished by a year in prison and the pillory: this was her first conviction (though her third trial) and her victim had been an animal rather than a person. Anne Whittle testified against her but it is unclear whether she knew her before their shared confinement in Lancaster Castle. Jennet Preston [née Balderston] (d. 1612) of Gisburn in Craven, Yorkshire, had already been convicted at the York assizes of 27 July for the murder by witchcraft of Thomas Lister the elder and hanged two days later; she had allegedly been present at the Malkin Tower feast soliciting help in killing Lister's son Thomas. She continued to protest her innocence on the gallows, and her husband of twenty-five years, William (bap. 1564?), and her kin claimed that she was the victim of a malicious prosecution. She had been acquitted at the previous York assizes of killing a baby by witchcraft. Five of the accused at Lancaster—Elizabeth Astley, John Ramsden, Alice Gray of Colne, Isabel Sidegraves, and Lawrence Hay—were found not guilty, although the judges clearly regarded at least some of them as guilty of witchcraft. The precise charges against them are not known, although Alice Gray had certainly been reported as present at the Good Friday feast. At the same assizes three other women were tried for witchcraft: Jennet Bierley, Ellen Bierley, and Jane Southworth, the so-called witches of Samlesbury. Their case was presented in the published account of the trials, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster (1613), as a counterpoint to the Pendle witches. The Samlesbury women seem to have been the victims of false accusations instigated by Jesuit malice.

The Wonderfull Discoverie forms the main record of the trial. It was written by the man who had served as clerk of the court, Thomas Potts (fl. 1610–1614). He was brought up in the household of Sir Thomas Knyvett, later Baron Knyvett of Escrick. He served as clerk of the peace for the East Riding about 1610–11, and served as associate clerk on the northern assize circuit in the summer of 1612 (when the Pendle witches were tried) and in the summer of 1614. At the time he was writing the Discoverie he was in lodging in Chancery Lane, London. He published it at the instigation of the two assize judges, Sir Edward Bromley and Sir James Altham; the former revised and corrected the text.

The immediate events which led to the trials began on 18 March 1612, when Alizon Device asked a pedlar to sell her some pins and was refused. He accused her of bewitching him so that he was paralysed on one side. At the end of March the JP Roger Nowell questioned Alizon and her family on suspicion of witchcraft, and subsequently sent her for trial at the Lancaster assizes with her mother, her grandmother Elizabeth Sowthernes, alias Demdike, and Anne Whittle, alias Chattox, and Whittle's daughter Anne Redfearn. While they were there their children and friends held the meeting at Malkin Tower on Good Friday, where they plotted to release the prisoners, blow up the castle, and kill the gaoler. The accompanying feast of beef, bacon, and stolen roast mutton, at which (according to Jennet Device) only two men were present, was readily interpreted as a witches' sabbat. The plot prompted further interrogations (and the flight of a number of people to evade arrest), and at the end of April a series of examinations was obtained implicating the main members of the Device and Whittle families and several others, and telling of meetings with the devil, relations with familiars, charms that combined vernacular prayer and spells, and witchcraft worked on enemies.

Elizabeth Sowthernes confessed to having made a pact with the devil twenty years before, on her way home from begging, by which she promised him her soul in exchange for anything she wanted. After this she was visited regularly by a spirit named Tibb, who sucked her blood. With the aid of clay images she had used witchcraft to harm her enemies, including a local man who had refused to let her on his land. Sowthernes's widowed daughter Elizabeth Device was apparently marked out as a witch by having one eye lower than the other with a strange squint. She confessed to having a spirit named Ball, in the shape of a brown dog, which she had baptized. She was indicted for killing three men by witchcraft, one of whom, Henry Mitton, had allegedly refused her a penny. Elizabeth Device's son James Device, a labourer, confessed that although he had first resisted the persuasions of a hare-shaped spirit sent to him by his grandmother, he gave in when a spirit in the form of a dog showed him a way to revenge himself on a woman with whom he had fallen out. He bewitched her to death using a clay image and had the spirit, which he called Dandy, kill another man who refused him the gift of an old shirt. James's unmarried sister Alizon Device, with whom the trials had begun, confessed that she had been persuaded by her grandmother to allow a 'devil or familiar' in the shape of a black dog to come and suck on her breast, and that she had been present at many of her grandmother's acts of malice; her brother accused her of bewitching a child. Asked in court whether she could restore the pedlar she had stricken to health, she answered that only her grandmother, Elizabeth Sowthernes, could; but by then Sowthernes had died in prison. Elizabeth Sowthernes's son and daughter-in-law, Christopher and Elizabeth Howgate, were also accused of involvement in the Malkin Tower meeting. The key witness in these allegations was Elizabeth Device's nine-year-old daughter Jennet Device, who testified against her siblings, mother, and grandmother with 'modesty, government and understanding'; she claimed to have learned charms from her grandmother and to have seen the others plotting with their spirits (Potts's Discovery of Witches, sig. I). Confronted with her daughter's testimony her mother cursed and threatened her, but made a full confession.

The other principal accused, Anne Whittle, alias Chattox, was said to be an old enemy of Elizabeth Sowthernes. According to Alizon Device, about eleven years earlier Whittle had stolen clothes and oatmeal from them, and her daughter was seen wearing the clothes. She was also said to have threatened Alizon's father, Elizabeth Device's husband, into paying her a yearly dole of meal as protection from her witchcraft; when he failed to pay it he died. Whittle, too, was an elderly widow, living by carding wool and begging. Potts's description of her is particularly evocative of the contemporary misogyny that fuelled stereotypes of witches: 'a very old withered spent and decreped creature … Her lippes ever chattering and walking: but no man knew what' (Potts's Discovery of Witches, sig. D2). Anne Whittle said that she had been introduced to the devil about fourteen years earlier by Elizabeth Sowthernes. She allowed him to suck on her ribs and participated in a spirits' banquet, in which, as was customary, 'although they did eate, they were never the fuller, nor better for the same' (Potts's Discovery of Witches, sig. B4v). Her familiar appeared to her as 'Fancie'. He helped her drive cows mad and kill them but, she said, he had taken away most of her sight and he sometimes harassed and assaulted her. Like the Devices, Anne Whittle knew charms and spells, and was accused of bewitching adults and children to death, using clay images; firm evidence was furnished by James Device, who dug up from his grandmother's house a set of teeth that Whittle had taken from skulls at a funeral twelve years earlier, and shared with Elizabeth Sowthernes.

Also central to the trials were the Nutter family, minor gentry in Pendle. Robert Nutter the elder owned the land the Whittles lived on. His son Christopher was said to have died of witchcraft about eighteen years before the trial. His grandson Robert was also said to have been bewitched to death about the same time: Anne Whittle confessed that she had been asked to kill him by his grandmother, so that two female cousins could inherit the land; she also said that his death was revenge for his threat to stop her daughter Anne Redfearn living on his property because Redfearn had refused his sexual propositions. A withered clay image of Anne Nutter was among the evidence produced by James Device from his grandmother's house. Another member of the Nutter family, Alice, was herself convicted of witchcraft on the grounds of conspiring with the Devices. While the Devices and Whittles were represented as bearing out contemporary beliefs that witches were most likely to be either poor and therefore easily tempted by the devil, or malicious and vengeful, Alice Nutter was elderly but married, the wife of Richard Nutter, wealthy and of good reputation locally, and she declared her innocence throughout. Nevertheless the evidence of Jennet Device and her siblings was enough to convict her of joining with Elizabeth Device in killing Henry Mitton for refusing Elizabeth a penny, and of conspiring with the rest at the Malkin Tower.

In 1634 the Device and Nutter families appeared again in a fresh series of trials which followed the fabrications of Edmund Robinson. Jennet Device was found to have two witches' marks and was convicted of killing Isabel Nutter by witchcraft. She was not executed but, despite the discrediting of Robinson's story, she still lay a prisoner in Lancaster Castle in August 1636. Robinson was not born until ten years after the original Pendle trials, but in his account of a witches' feast drew on local memory of the Malkin Tower meeting. Among those he named as being present were Jennet's uncle, Christopher Howgate (Elizabeth Sowthernes's son) and his wife, Elizabeth, and Jennet Hargraves, all three of whom had been accused of attending the Malkin Tower feast.

Robinson's accusations formed the basis for Thomas Heywood's and Richard Brome's The Late Lancashire Witches (1634), which also included other echoes of the 1612 case, as did Thomas Shadwell's The Lancashire Witches (1681), which drew on both the 1612 and 1634 trials. The modern notoriety of the 1612 trials dates back to the 1840s, when the Manchester antiquary James Crossley published his edition of Potts's book, and then encouraged his friend William Harrison Ainsworth to write his best-selling historical romance The Lancashire Witches (1848) around the case, the first of several fictional accounts of the events of 1612.

Sources

  • Potts's discovery of witches in the countie of Lancaster, ed. J. Crossley, Chetham Society, 6 (1844)
  • E. Peel and P. Southern, The Lancashire witches (1989)
  • collections relating to witchcraft and magic from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century manuscripts, BL, Add. MS 36674
  • M. Gibson, ed., Early modern witches: witchcraft cases in contemporary writing (2000)
  • J. Lumby, The Lancashire witch-craze: Jennet Preston and the Lancashire witches, 1612 (1995)
  • J. T. Swain, ‘The Lancashire witch trials of 1612 and 1634’, Northern History, 30 (1994), 64–85
  • CSP dom., 1634–5
  • C. H. L. Ewen, Witchcraft and demonianism (1933)
  • J. S. Cockburn, A history of English assizes, 1558–1714 (1972)