Lancashire Witches
A famous episode of ignorance, superstition, and persecution
in Lancashire, England, which involved a mass trial of 20
alleged witches. Not far from Manchester lies Pendelbury Forest,
where, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, witches
were said to live. Terrified townspeople avoided the place,
imagining it to be the scene of frightful orgies and diabolical
rites. Roger Nowel, a country magistrate, hit upon the plan of
routing the witches out of their den and ridding the district of
their malevolent influence, and he believed he would be performing
a public-spirited and laudable service.
He promptly seized Elizabeth Demdike and Ann Chattox,
two women of 80 years of age, one blind and the other threatened
with blindness, both living in squalor and abject poverty.
Demdike’s daughter, Elizabeth Device, and her grandchildren,
James and Alison Device, were included in the accusation, and
Ann Redferne, daughter of Chattox, was apprehended with her
mother.
Also seized in quick succession were Jane Bulcock and her
son John, Alice Nutter, Catherine Hewitt, and Isabel Roby. All
of them were induced to make a more or less detailed confession
of the communication with the Devil. It is not known how
these confessions were obtained, but considering the age and
condition of the women, their confessions were probably extorted.
Afterward they were sent to prison in Lancaster Castle,
some 50 miles away, to await trial.
Soon after the authorities were informed that about 20
witches assembled on Good Friday at Malkin’s Tower, the
home of Elizabeth Device, in order to arrange the death of one
Covel, to blow up the castle in which their companions were
confined and rescue the prisoners, and also to kill a man called
Lister by means of a diabolical agency.
In summer 1612, the prisoners were tried for witchcraft and
were all found guilty. The woman Demdike had died in prison
and thus escaped a more ignominious death at the gallows. The
principal witnesses against Elizabeth Device were her grandchildren,
James and Jannet Device. When Jannet entered the
witness-box, her grandmother set up a terrible yelling punctuated
by bitter execrations.
The child, who was only nine years of age, begged that the
prisoner be removed so that she could proceed with her evidence.
Her request was granted, and she and her brother swore
that the devil had visited their grandmother in the shape of a
black dog and asked what were her wishes. She said she desired
the death of one John Robinson, whereupon the fiend told her
to make a clay image of Robinson and gradually crumble it to
pieces, saying that as she did so the man’s life would decay and
finally perish. On such evidence, 10 persons were hanged, including
the aged Ann Chattox.
The story of the Lancashire witches became the subject of
Thomas Shadwell’s play of that name in 1681, and a novel by
W. H. Ainsworth in 1848. Twenty-two years after the events of
1612, a similar outrage in the same area of Lancashire was narrowly
avoided, by the shrewdness of the judge who tried the
case. A man by the name of Edmund Robinson thought to profit
by the general belief in witchcraft. He told his young son, a
boy of 11, to say that he had encountered two dogs in the field,
and he tried to get them to catch a hare. When the animals
would not obey his bidding, he tied them to a post and whipped
them, when they immediately turned into a witch and her imp.
The fiction gained such credence that Robinson declared
that his son possessed a sort of second-sight, which enabled
him to distinguish a witch at a glance. He took the boy to the
neighboring churches, set him on a bench, and bade him point
out the witches. The boy identified 17 persons, and the jury
convicted them. They might have been hanged were it not for
the judge’s suspicions about the story.
The judge postponed their sentences and sent some of them
to London for examination by the king’s physician and by King
Charles I himself. The boy’s story was investigated and found
to be false, and the child himself admitted the lie.
Sources
Ainsworth, William Harrison. The Lancashire Witches A Romance
of Pendle Forest. London George Routledge, 1878.
Robbins, Rossell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology.
New York Crown Publishers, 1959.
Whitaker, Thomas D. A History of The Original Parish of Whalley.
London, 1818.