Between around 1450 and 1750, a social phenomenon unlike any other gripped Europe – the witch craze. From the so-called ‘super-hunts’ in Germany to the devilish possessions in French convents, the witch craze took on forms of all kinds across the continent, eventually spreading to the colonies of the New World.
England was no different. In 1612, an intense fear of witchcraft gripped the area around Pendle Hill in Lancashire, in one of the most famous and well-documented witch trial cases in English history.
Here is the story of the Pendle witches:
The lawless Pendle Hill
Following the turbulent 16th century, in 1612 the religious landscape of England was fraught with tension. From Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the Dissolution of the Monasteries to Mary I’s burning of hundreds of Protestants, the Tudor regime had seen some of the most jarring cultural changes in history.
By James I’s rule in 1603, Protestantism was largely the status quo. The king himself had been raised to suspect the wicked ways of Catholics such as his mother Mary, Queen of Scots, and when the Catholic-led Gunpowder Plot was discovered in 1605 James’ assimilation of Catholicism with untrustworthiness only intensified.
In small pockets of the country however, Catholic communities continued to thrive. Viewed by those in London as a wild realm of debauchery and sin, Lancashire in particular was beset with staunch Catholics and treated with high suspicion.
Demdike and Chattox
Amongst the communities of Pendle Hill were two beggar families, each headed by an elderly matriarch known to practice as a ‘cunning woman’. Cunning women were known to have magical gifts, but unlike witches used them for benevolent causes, such healing the ill or telling fortunes.
Demdike, matriarch of the Device family, and Chattox, matriarch of the Redferne family, likely competed for customers in this role, and it is thought the two families had bad blood of some kind. In 1601 a member of Chattox’s family broke into Malkin Tower, the home of the Devices, and stole goods worth around £117 in the modern-day – the grudge this most likely fostered would prove deadly.
On 21 March 1612, Demdike’s teenage granddaughter Alizon Device was walking through the woods when she came across a pedlar named John Law. She asked him for metal pins, perhaps for her grandmother’s use as a cunning woman, yet he refused, rebuffing the girl.
Alizon whispered a curse under her breath, and Law collapsed to the floor. Believing that she had inflicted this, when Alizon went to visit Law at his family home a few days later she openly confessed her crime, begging for forgiveness. The seeds of what was soon to come were sown.
On 30 March 1612, Alizon, her brother James, and their mother Elizabeth were called before the local Justice of the Peace, Roger Nowell. Nowell was a fervent Protestant, and likely knew that incriminating Catholics for witchcraft would score him some valuable favour with the king and those in London.
Here Alizon confessed to have sold her soul to the Devil, with James also claiming she had bewitched a local child. Their mother Elizabeth vehemently rejected the accusations that she herself was a witch, instead incriminating her mother Demdike as having the Devil’s mark on her body.
The accusations unfold
The Devices did not only incriminate their own family however. When Nowell questioned Alizon on the other cunning woman in the area, Chattox, she confirmed that she too was a witch, accusing her of killing 5 men by witchcraft including her own father, John Device, who had died in 1601.
On 2 April 1612, Demdike, Chattox, and Chattox’s daughter Anne Redferne were called before Nowell to answer for these accusations. Demdike and Chattox, both blind and in their eighties, gave damning confessions, claiming to also have sold their souls to the Devil.
Though Anne made no confession, her mother stated to have seen her making voodoo doll-like clay figurines, and Margaret Crooke, another witness, claimed that she had killed her brother after the pair had a disagreement.
After these investigations, Alizon, Demdike, Chattox, and Anne, were all committed to Lancaster Gaol to be tried for witchcraft.
The meeting at Malkin Tower
That might have been the end of it, if it weren’t for a conspicuous meeting at Malkin Tower that occurred a week later. Arranged by Elizabeth Device, friends and family of the accused Devices gathered to commiserate their misfortune, feasting on a neighbour’s stolen sheep.
When Roger Nowell heard of this, it sounded rather like a coven meeting to him. He went to investigate, and the subsequent inquiry resulted in the arrest of a further 8 people, including Elizabeth Device, James Device, and Alice Nutter.
All were tried at the Lancaster Assizes on 18-19 August 1612, except Jennet Preston who was instead taken to the York Assizes on account of her living in Yorkshire.
Alongside the Pendle witches, the trials encompassed a host of other accused witches, including the Samlesbury witches and the Padiham witch, indicating just how severe the witchcraft hysteria was at the time.
With little concrete evidence for some of the accusations, one key witness was called who would change the face of witchcraft proceedings forever: the youngest member of the Device family, 9 year old Jennet.
Elizabeth Device soon found her youngest daughter giving evidence against her and her other children, Alizon and James. When the child first walked into the courtroom, Elizabeth kicked up such a disturbance of screams that she had to be removed.
Jennet proceeded to tell the court that her mother had been a witch for 3 or 4 years, and that both she and her brother used familiars to help with their murders.
Having been present at the Malkin Tower meeting, she also confirmed the attendance of the other accused members, who were each in turn accused of murdering people in the area.
Chattox and her daughter Anne Redferne were also accused of murder by a host of other witnesses, with Chattox eventually breaking down and admitting her guilt.
Following the 2 day trial, 9 of the accused were found guilty, including Alizon Device, James Device, Elizabeth Device, Chattox, Anne Redferne and Alice Nutter, while Demdike died in prison awaiting trial.
On 20 August 1612, they were all hanged at Gallows Hill in Lancaster.
The Pendle legacy
Placing Jennet Device as the key witness of the Pendle witch trials set a powerful precedent amongst future trials. Where previously children were not trusted to give evidence, they could now be called upon in the courts of law and taken as serious witnesses.
This proved to be deadly during the Salem witch trials of 1692 in colonial Massachusetts. Instigated by the accusations of a group of young girls, more than 200 were eventually accused of witchcraft there, with 30 found guilty and 19 hanged.
The witch hunts of the early modern period represent a time fraught with hysteria, borne out of ingrained gender stereotypes, religious discord, and the deep mistrust these fostered. It is important to note that though all of the accused at Pendle were innocent of witchcraft, many at the time truly believed the Devil to be work within their communities.
As Alizon Device had, some ‘witches’ even believed themselves guilty, while others like her mother Elizabeth protested their innocence until the very end.