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The story of the Lancashire Witches

The year was 1612, a turbulent time in England’s history, an era of religious persecution and superstition. James I was King, and feared rebellion having survived the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

His fear and anger brought with it harsh penalties for anyone keeping the Catholic faith and his suspicious nature led to an obsession with witchcraft.

Local magistrates looking to find favour with King James became zealous in their pursuit of witchcraft. When the Pendle Witches were put on trial, a London clerk Thomas Potts recorded the trial and sent it around the country as a warning and a guide on finding evidence of witchcraft.

Despite the trial being one of the best documented in the world, mystery still surrounds how the Lancashire villagers came to be found guilty of witchcraft.

A Tale of Mystery and Murder...

Forget black pointy hats and paranormal events, the real story of the 1612 Lancashire Witch trial takes us back to a time when religious persecution was rife and people lived in wretched fear and poverty...

In August 1612 ten people were executed on the moors above Lancaster, having been found guilty of witchcraft at Lancaster Castle.

The crimes for which they died included causing madness, making clay images, and more importantly using witchcraft to murder sixteen people over a period of nearly twenty years.

The evidence given against them was based on memories, hearsay and superstition, and would not even be considered in a modern court. But things were very different four hundred years ago, and in 1612 this was sufficient to ensure that, in most cases, those convicted ended up at the rope’s end.

The majority of the defendants came from the Pendle area and from among these defendants five were from two families.

At the head of each were two women in their eighties: Elizabeth Southern who was also known as Old Demdike, and Anne Whittle, known as Old Chattox.

They lived by begging and on their reputation as wise women. They claimed the power to remove curses and to heal and seem to have been bitter rivals for this type of work in their neighbourhood.

The event which sparked the case took place on 18 March 1612 when one of Demdike’s granddaughters, Alizon Device was out begging. She encountered John Law, a peddlar from Halifax and asked him for some pins.

When he refused she supposedly cursed him using the help of her familiar spirit who appeared to her in the form of a dog.

The curse appeared to take immediate effect and John collapsed, paralysed and unable to speak.

It seems clear that John Law had suffered a stroke, but everyone who heard the story believed that Alizon had used witchcraft in order to harm him.

The matter was brought to the attention of the local magistrate Roger Nowell, and Alizon was arrested. She confessed to what she had done and then went on to implicate neighbours and members of her own family.

More arrests followed.

A supposed Witches Sabbat was held on Good Friday at Malkin Tower, home of Old Demdike, where among other things a plot was supposedly hatched to blow up Lancaster Castle.

The authorities acted swiftly and in total nineteen people, including a group of suspects from Samlesbury, spent the next four months in the dungeon below the Well Tower of the castle, awaiting trial.

The trials began on 18 August and the key evidence was given by another of Demdike’s granddaughters, nine year old Jennet Device. By the end of the next day ten people had been found guilty.

Among them were Alizon, her brother James and their mother Elizabeth, as well as Old Chattox and her daughter Anne Redfearne. Also condemned were Alice Nutter, John and Jane Bulcock, Katherine Hewitt and Isobel Robey, who came from Windle near St Helens. Old Demdike died before she could stand trial, and one other defendant, Margaret Pearson, (known locally as the Padiham Witch) was sentenced to pillory and imprisonment for a year.

Written by Christine Goodier
Christine recently retired as Manager of Lancaster Castle and has written a book about the trials called ‘1612: The Lancashire Witch Trails’ to coincide with the 400 year anniversary.

This is a very basic timeline of the Lancashire witches story so you can follow the story throughout the year.

18 March 1612

Alizon Device is begging when she encounters a pedlar named John Law, who refuses to give her 'pins'. She is very angry and having walked away from her, John Law is suddenly afflicted and falls to the ground.

Investigations by local magistrate Roger Nowell followed and implicated two families in witchcraft: The Devices and their grandmother Elizabeth Sowtherns 'Old Demdike' and the Whittles, with grandmother Anne Whittle alias 'Chattox'.

30 March – 2 April 1612

The first interrogations. Justice Roger Nowell questions the Device family, Demdike and Chattox.  Demdike, Alizon Device, Chattox and Ann Redfearn are sent to Lancaster Castle to await trial for witchcraft.

10 April 1612- Good Friday

The first British allegation of a Witches Sabbat, a gathering, attended by many alleged witches at Malkin Tower - the home of Old Demdike.

15 April 1612

JP Robert Holden began investigations into witchcraft in his own area of Samlesbury. As a result, eight individuals were arrested, three of whom  (Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley) were accused of practising witchcraft on Grace Sowerbutts, Jennet's fourteen year old grand-daughter and Ellen's niece.

27 April 1612

The breakthrough: James and Jennet Device, the latter only around nine years old, tell of the Good Friday meeting at Malkin Tower and James leads the constable to buried human remains.

27 July 1612

Jennet Preston, the first of the Malkin Tower conspirators, is tried in York Castle and found guilty of the murder of Thomas Lister.

18 August 1612

The trial takes place at Lancaster Castle of the first Pendle suspects: Anne Whittle, Elizabeth Device and James Device.  They were found guilty of witchcraft.

Old Demdike never stood trial. She was an old lady, blind and lame, and died in the dungeon below Lancaster Castle before the trials began.

19 August 1612

The trial takes place at Lancaster Castle of the Samlesbury suspects- they were acquitted. It was thought that Grace Sowerbutts had been coached in what to say by one Christopher Southworth, a Catholic priest with a grudge who was related to Jane Southworth by marriage.

Later on that day the third batch of suspects-mainly from Pendle- are tried: Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewit, Jane and John Bulcock, Alizon Device, Isabel Robey (of Windle, St Helens) and Margaret Pearson (of Padiham).  All were found guilty of witchcraft.

19/20 August 1612

The judgements take place at Lancaster Castle. Margater Pearson alone escapes with her life; condemned to the pillory at the next open market days at Clitheroe, Padiham and Whalley followed by one year imprisonment.

The other ten were sentenced to death by hanging, on the moors above Lancaster. It would have been a long death by strangulation and the final resting places of the accused have never been found.

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