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Who were the Pendle Witches?

Visitors to our shop might have noticed the many witches we have flying around! These aren’t just Halloween decorations (although they make wonderful ones) they’re based on real people – those accused during the Pendle Witch Trials.

Hannah and Katherine the witch hanging out at the shop

 

What were the Pendle Witch Trials?


The Pendle Witch Trials are probably the most famous witch trials in England’s history. Whilst the 17th century ‘witch craze’ saw thousands of innocent people executed in Europe (which is a whole other story) there have been relatively few executions for witchcraft in England, with only(!) about 500 people in total over three centuries. So the fact that ten people were executed at once (out of twenty tried) in the trials of 1612 in Pendle, Lancashire, is a very high number.



Hannah and Katherine the witch reading a book

 

Who was accused, and why?


The social history and motivations of the Pendle witch trials are a lot to go into in just a short blog post! There’s a lot of background information of the time period that influences what went on. For instance, this was a point in history when the supernatural was commonly believed in, and there were witches in every village. These ‘witches’ were generally accepted as normal members of society – magical healers who provided cures and cast benevolent spells made with herbs and plants. However, it was when James I came to the throne that the witch craze spread to England. When he visited Denmark to marry Anne of Denmark, he became fixated on witch-hunting, and brought his obsession with ‘evil’ witches back with him to first Scotland and then England. This also tied in with the religious unrest at the time – everyone was required by law to attend church, with penalties for those who refused.


As was usual with accusations of witchcraft at that time, the accused Pendle witches came from impoverished families with ageing, single matriarchs. This was a common theme – often those accused of witchcraft would be older, single women, who were coincidentally the people who society saw as having the least ‘value’ being no longer wives or capable of having more children.

At the centre of the trial were two families – the Demdike family headed by Elizabeth Southerns “Old Demdike” and the Chattox family headed by Anne Whittle “Mother Chattox”. These families were both known locally for being involved with witchcraft, and they did not get along.


The accusations started when Old Demdike’s granddaughter, Alison Device, cursed a pedlar named John Law for refusing to give her some pins. Soon afterwards he suffered a stroke, and Alison felt so guilty for cursing him, believing this to be the reason for his illness, that she begged his forgiveness. This was seen as admitting to a crime, the incident went to trial and Alison confessed to witchcraft and upon further questioning also named her grandmother and Mother Chattox and her daughter Anne as witches.

This accusation might have been revenge due to a longstanding feud between the families, that may have started with a member of the Chattox family breaking into the Demdikes’ home and stealing from them, or may have just been general rivalry as the families competed for a living eked out by being village witches and healers. It could also just have been Alison’s misplaced guilt. Alison also blamed Mother Chattox for the illness that her father John ended up dying from, and for the deaths of a further four village men who’d died years before.


Subsequent accusations and confessions led to Old Demdike and her granddaughter Alison, and Mother Chattox and her daughter Anne being detained for trial in Lancaster castle – Demdike, Chattox and Alison all confessed to witchcraft. Only Anne didn’t. They were followed by a further eight people being arrested when Elizabeth Device (Alison’s mother) held a meeting about the events at the family home and Robert Nowell the judge overseeing the trial found out about it.


Those who were arrested for trial were:


Elizabeth Southerns (Old Demdike), Elizabeth Device (Demdike’s daughter), Alison Device (Elizabeth’s daughter), James Device (Elizabeth’s son), Anne Whittle (Mother Chattox), Anne Redferne (Chattox’s daughter), Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock and Jane Bulcock, Alice Grey, Jennet Preston.


Hannah and Katherine the witch having drinks

 

What happened at the trials?


Jennet Preston was from across the border and so was tried at York assizes, found guilty and hanged before the rest of the group in July 1612.


Only Alice Nutter was kept apart from the rest of the accused, as she was a wealthy landowning widow, rather than peasant-class like the rest of those involved. However, she was also a Catholic, in a time of Catholic persecution.


The main trials took place in Lancaster in August 1612. At this point Old Demdike, who was frail, blind and in her 80s, had already died in the horrible prison conditions the accused were kept in.


The main witness for the trial was Jennet Device, who was nine years old at the time. Usually, a child so young would not have been allowed to supply evidence at trial, but these rules were overlooked for witch trials on James I’s ruling.

Jennet Device provided lurid evidence against pretty much everyone at the meeting, including her mother Elizabeth, and her brother and sister James and Alison. The general social unrest at the time, plus perhaps some group hysteria, led to the trials getting out of control. Some of the accused maintained their innocence (despite ‘questioning’ at the time often including torture) but some of them – such as Alison Device – seemed genuinely convinced of their own guilt.

It's uncertain why Jennet Device provided the accounts she did. Perhaps she also wanted revenge for being poorly treated by her family, or perhaps she was being pressured by adults to say what she did.


Those executed by hanging at Lancaster were:


Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock and Jane Bulcock


Only Alice Grey was found not-guilty.

 

A final word on witches


Our witches for sale in our shop are handmade by a small, family-run UK business - we think they’re lovely and hope you do too! While we’re having fun with the photos, it’s important to spare a thought for those who’ve gone before us and lost their lives due to their circumstances, appearance and practises. Even today, in some countries people – especially women, and other marginalised folk - are still killed due to being accused of witchcraft, and witchcraft is still illegal in some places, with Saudi Arabia still having the death penalty in place for those convicted of witchcraft. So we are very grateful and happy that we are now able to continue own our magical and spiritual practices freely, and to run the Suzie K shop as a safe and welcoming place for everyone!


And we hope you enjoy the photos of our Hannah hanging out with her favourite of our Pendle Witch dolls, Katherine Hewitt!

Hannah and Katherine the witch watching Criminal Minds!

 


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