It is nearly four hundred years since the imprisonment, trial and deaths of the Pendle Witches and people are as fascinated as ever.
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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
Close to Pendle Hill sits Malkin Tower, home to the family at the centre of the witchcraft allegations: Elizabeth Southerns, alias Demdike and her children Alizon, Elizabeth and James Device. The family was very poor and hunger prevailed. While out walking one day Alizon came across John Law, a peddler of blankets, fine goods and food. Alizon begged for a few morsels of food but John Law slapped her and told her to be on her way. All of a sudden a large black dog appeared to Alizon and asked ‘if he should strike the man down’ Alizon agreed. John Law fell to the ground, paralyzed down his left side. After many hours he was stretchered to Colne and his family summonsed.
When his son Abraham arrived Law shouted, “I have been cursed, there is a witch around here you must find her and take her to the magistrate.” Alizon was flattered by the attention and when questioned by the magistrate claimed that her mother, Demdike and Anne Whittle, alias Chattox were also witches. All three were arrested and imprisoned at Lancaster City Gaol.
Two days later the remaining so-called ‘witches’ gathered atMalkin Tower. Into the bubbling cauldron style cooking pot they mixed a potion, the intention, to make something to blow off the gaol gates. The meeting came to the attention of the magistrate and within days many of those present were arrested.
Further incriminating statements of witchcraft and murder were made by the families involved. Demdike died in Lancaster Gaol awaiting trial, the others were sentenced under the terms of the 1604 Witchcraft Act. All the accused were found guilty of crimes punishable by death. On 20 August 1612 the ten condemned prisoners were taken to the moors above the town and hanged.
On the trail of the Pendle Witches
In the shadow of Pendle Hill lie pretty villages, which tell a story of intrigue and witchcraft nearly 400 years old. Start your journey at the Pendle Heritage Centre, in Barrowford near Nelson, and follow the route the Pendle Witches took through the Ribble Valley to Lancaster Castle where they stood trial. Drive the narrow and winding road through the Trough of Bowland; the wild and unspoilt landscape you’ll encounter makes this a dramatic and breathtaking experience. Then as you make the descent into the historic city of Lancasterthere are an astonishing array of views from the hills above the River Hodder to the mountains of the Lake District and on towards the sea.
Once in Lancaster a guided tour of imposing Lancaster Castle, setting for the imprisonment and the trial, will bring the story to life. See the dungeons, grand Jury Room and Courts to make your own mind up. Were the Pendle Witches malevolent people possessed by supernatural powers, or the innocent victims of a time obsessed with the pursuit and punishment of witchcraft?
Follow in the footsteps of the lengendary Pendle witches, download this 7.5 miles walk.