With only three days left until Halloween, how would you like to hear a witch story?
The year is 1612, nine years into the reign of King James I, who had followed Good Queen Bess to the throne of England. The place? The rolling hills of Lancashire in the north of England, with tiny hamlets battered by rain and icy winds. When the sun is shining, the area rivals in beauty with the nearby Lake District. But when shrouded in mist, it seems to be just the place for dark stories and dark deeds.
One of those dark stories is that of the Pendle witches. The area takes its name from Pendle Hill, a forbidding mass of peat, moss and grit-stone that overshadows the hamlets of Barley and Newchurch-in-Pendle.
The latter is named after St Mary’s Church, from the time when the 16th century church was indeed new. Many tales are woven about this church and if one should look closely, an unusual feature might be spotted, one that cannot be found on any other church in England. Embedded into the old stones of the church tower – the only surviving part of the original chapel of ease – there is an oval-shaped lead plaque, known as ‘The Eye of God’. It was added to the structure shortly after the trial of the Pendle witches, to guard the congregation and the small surrounding graveyard from their revenge and their evil ways. For it is said that several of the accused had once desecrated some of the nearby graves in order to perform their arts.
The story revolves around two local women and their families: Elizabeth Sowtherns (known as Old Demdike) and Anne Whittle (nicknamed Chattox, for her chattering habits).
The events began to unfold in March 1612 with an almighty row between a local peddler and Old Demdike’s granddaughter Alizon. Alizon begged for some pins or money from the peddler, who would not indulge her, so she cursed him. When the man suffered a stroke as a result of the confrontation, many – including Alizon herself – were left in no doubt of her dark powers, and several days later Alizon confessed to using witchcraft to strike him down. She admitted she had a familiar in the shape of a black dog, that she had ordered her familiar to sit upon the peddler and soon after that, the peddler had collapsed. (For the uninitiated, a familiar is an animal-shaped spirit or minor demon believed to serve a witch or magician as domestic servant, spy and companion, in addition to helping to bewitch enemies or to divine information.)
When questioned by the local Justice of Peace, Alizon confessed she had learned the ways of the witches from her grandmother Demdike, and also accused Chattox of practising witchcraft. Soon afterwards accusations start flying thick and fast, and the involvement of Chattox’s family seems to have been an act of revenge. The Demdikes and the Chattoxes had been feuding for years, presumably ever since a member of Chattox’s family had broken into Malkin Tower, the home of the Demdikes, and stolen goods that in today’s money would amount to over £100. And the enmity could only get worse when Chattox threatened to harm the Demdikes with her powers if they did not pay a regular sum for their protection. This gave John Device (Alizon’s father) plenty of reason to blame Chattox for the illness he later suffered from, and which eventually led to his demise.
Thus, the age put its stamp on everyone. It was not just the local folk and the magistrates who were willing to credit dark tales based on little reasonable evidence, but the accused themselves believed in their own powers and in their ability to maim or cure – and demanded a fee as a result, either way. When questioned by Roger Nowell of Read Hall (the local magistrate), Old Demdike and Chattox confessed to having sold their souls. Alizon, Old Demdike’s granddaughter, strongly believed in her own powers too, as she would later declare at the trial. As investigations progressed, several others were brought into the fray: Chattox’s daughter Ann Redfern, who allegedly made figures of clay incorporating fragments of teeth and skulls taken from the Newchurch cemetery; Elizabeth Device and her son James (Alizon’s mother and brother); Katherine Hewitt, the wife of a clothier from nearby Colne; John Bulcock and his wife Jane (local farmers); Isobel Robey and one Alice Nutter from Roughlee. They were all taken to Lancaster to stand trial and by the end of August were convicted and executed on Gallows Hill.
Much was written on the subject of the Pendle witches and their trial in Lancaster, history papers and legends alike. One of the latter is a gripping tale of mystery, ‘Mist over Pendle – a classic novel of witchcraft’, where the author turns the tables on Alice Nutter of Roughlee. In his interpretation, she is the villain of the piece. A woman of substance and lady of the manor, she seeks to augment her own and her son’s fortunes by fair means or foul and uses local superstition to further her ends. Chattox and Demdike, puffed up by their own importance as masters of the dark arts, are nothing but tools in Alice’s hands. And she has many other tools and talents: an excellent reputation – who would dare accuse the mistress of Roughlee? – a keen mind and a good education. She knows her way around the house, the kitchen and the garden, does our Alice, and she grows the strangest plant in a secluded spot up in the hills. A plant that bears dark-coloured berries and features in herbals as Atropa Belladona. But those who taste the acrid, bitter juice learn all too soon why it is also known as Deadly Nightshade…
Today I found that Robert Neill’s ‘Mist Over Pendle’ is still available at Amazon. If you ever get to read it, you will see that the story is beautifully woven and cleverly told, a skilful blend of historical truth and artistic licence.
If you ever find yourself in Lancashire and want to follow in the footsteps of the Pendle witches, you’ll find them mentioned at every turn. In Newchurch, where you must visit St Mary’s Church and the Witches Galore, in Barrowford at the Pendle Heritage Centre and in Lancaster too.
What I would really like to do is join the hundreds of people who still walk up Pendle Hill on Halloween, then sit and read about Alice Nutter’s exploits by the fire, in the lovely and very atmospheric Pendle Inn.
Not this Halloween, but hopefully soon. See you there, the first pint’s on me 😀