A Tale of Witchcraft

A Tale of Witchcraft

Pendle Hill
Pendle Hill

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.

St Mary s church Newchurch in Pendle
St Mary’s Church, 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.

Nightshade berries
Deadly Nightshade (Atropa Belladona)

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

Mist over Pendle_s

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.

Witches Galore

Pendle Inn_sWhat 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 😀

19 Responses to A Tale of Witchcraft

  1. These appalling witch hunts! It’s good that we’re generally more advanced now, at least where witches are concerned!

  2. I’ve been up Pendle Hill in the past, but never at Hallowe’en. After all, it’s not that far from where we live in North Yorkshire. When the weather is overcast, it defintely has a “spookiness” about it. In that respect, it’s a bit like Loch Ness to my mind. I’d also heard of the Pendle Witches and your telling of the tale is fascinating, Joana.

    Many years ago, we were supposed to be taking part in a car rally/treasure hunt one weekend in late May. The overnight stop was to be camping on Pendle Hill. There was, however, some unseasonably late snow that year and the track was impassable for any of the vehicles involved, even our Land Rover. After several futile attempts to reach the top, we all ended up on Oxenhope Moor near Haworth instead. Not sure I’d make it up there on foot nowadays as I’ve always been rubbish at walking up hills.

    As as P.S., and I can’t say exactly where or when for obvious reasons, I’ve seen the name John Thornton on a prescription in a pharmacy I was working in not that long ago. He was in his 80s and looked nothing like RA. I love it when names like that, or from Jane Austen, crop up in the course of my work!

    • So glad you liked the post, Anji! I keep thinking that someone who knows a lot more about the area and the story than I do (say, someone who lives in Lancashire or perhaps North Yorkshire 😉 ) would pop up to tell me I got it all wrong. I thought my brother-in-law might, he lived at the foot of Pendle Hill for many years and I’m sure he’s heard all the legends.
      Camping up there – wow! I never had the guts. Not so much because of the witches as the wind. I used to love hiking, but that was some 10 years ago. These days I puff and puff at the back of the line and my kids roll their eyes in exasperation, so I’d rather stop at the pub with a book or a notebook, it’s much more fun. LOL John Thornton! So unfair of people to get our hopes up like that. Thank goodness we’re not likely to run into a disappointing Fitzwilliam Darcy 😀

      • The aborted trip to Pendle was way back in the 80s. Not sure I’d want to do it now! We still had some snow on Oxenhope Moor, so it was more Brontë-style Wuthering Heights than the Witches of Pendle.

        I’ve come across a few D’Arcys over the years and even have one as a friend (before she got married and changed her name). Even better, she lives in Southampton. Never a Fitzwilliam, though I have met a few Firths and MacFadyens (have some of the latter in my family tree). Although I’ve encountered a few Bennetts over the years, I’ve never met a Bennet. Earlier this year I met an Emma Willoughby – now there would be a crossover story! It’s what comes of having a profession where I come into contact with the public all day, every day. All these little encounters do bring a smile to my face, even for the poor souls who live on Wickham Avenue!

  3. Fascinating! Being born on Halloween I am possibly a witch myself – thank goodness there are no ducking stools round here!!! I doubt I will be walking up Pendle Hill with you but if I can remember where I put my broomstick I might do a fly past!!!!

  4. Oh, Joana, you have me thoroughly intrigued. I have never read about the witches and this post is so interesting. I am afraid that I will not be joining you on your Halloween trip to Pendle Hill (should you finally get there), but I would love to hear about it when you return. Maybe someday. Now, if you want me to go with you to the Lake District, that’s another thing entirely. 🙂

    • Thanks so much for the lovely comment, Brenda, I’m so glad you liked the post! I’d love to go to the Lake District with you, your lovely company would be such a treat, and luckily the roads are a bit better than in Lizzy Bennet’s time 🙂

  5. While in college I played the part of Abigail in The Crucible: A play by Arthur Miller. I remember being sick with the beginnings of flu and almost fainting for real when I had to scream at the “sight” of a apparition while testifying. The history of the Salem Trials has always interested me. How easily friends and neighbors were led to believe such fantastic ravings!!!

    • It’s so baffling how they could, Sheila! So shocking too. I guess we can’t quite get into that mindset, thank goodness. I can just about come to terms with treating high blood pressure with leeches (coughs with ground woodlice – not so much 😉 ) but people believing in witchcraft make my head spin. Thanks for sharing your college story, I’m so glad you didn’t faint for real!

  6. This reminds me of Salem, Massachusetts where half the stores have witch in their name and they even have a resident ‘witch’. There are also many venues that tell the stories of the witch trials some of which are hyped and some of which are factual.

    • Oooh that’s so exciting! Wasn’t the Salem witches what Richard Armitage’s relatively recent play was based on (hope I’m not getting this wrong and when I say recent I mean last year 🙂 ). I haven’t seen it, I’d much rather think of him as John Thornton, but I heard he was wonderful in it.

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