L.H. DAVIES looks back at the infamous Pendle Witch Trials of 1612

Pendle Hill, situated between Burnley and Clitheroe in Eastern Lancashire, rises 557 metres above sea level. This natural landmark lends its name to the surrounding borough of Pendle; now renowned for what has become known as England’s Salem, it is perhaps the most well-known witch trial in the country.

Though the most famous of British witch hunters was no doubt Matthew Hopkins in the 1680s, the accusers of the Pendle Witches, sent to trial in August of 1612, were Justice Roger Nowell and Nicholas Bannister.

Suspicious of the actions of those present at the Great Assembly and Feast at Malkin Tower, the men ventured out on the night of Good Friday into Pendle Forest; their aim was to capture those, who, it was said were partaking in the ways of the devil, of whom there were a total of 19.

Names of the Pendle Witches

Most notorious of these witches, was Elizabeth Southerns, also known as Demdike, and Anne Whittle, known as Chattox. Both women had initiated close family members into their group: Demdike’s children and indeed, her grandchildren, whilst Chattox had initiated her daughter, Anne Redferne. Another witching family involved was the Device family, consisting of Elizabeth and her children, James and Alison.

Pendle Witches hang at Lancaster Castle

In her ultimate confession to the court, Demdike describes how she became a witch. She stated that 20 years previously whilst returning home from begging, she was met by the spirit of a boy near a stone pit at Gouldshey, within the forest. The spirit bade her remain with him and informed her that were she to give him  her soul, she could have anything she wished in return.

Confessions were also drawn from Alison Device, James Device and Chattox, though how these confessions were obtained it is not said. Of the original 19 accused, 11 were sentenced to be executed, however only 10 of them were eventually put to death after Demdike died whilst still incarcerated.

The 10 were executed for the crimes of ‘bewitching to death by devilish practices and hellish means’, at least 16 fellow inhabitants of Pendle Forest; another supposed victim of the witches was pedlar John Law, who it is said was bewitched to lose the use of his limbs after refusing Alison Device pins without payment.

It is interesting to note that there were eight acquitted of these supposed crimes and there seems little to no evidence as to how it was the accusers found those they executed more guilty or why the eight who survived were spared their lives.

It is fair to say that to be exonerated when accused of such crimes in these times, was exceptionally rare, and so perhaps we can at least be grateful that there were eight who were spared the tragic fate of their fellows.


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