The Witches of Lancashire
Four hundred years ago, in 1612, the north-west of England was the scene of England’s biggest peacetime witch trial: the trial of the Lancashire witches. Twenty people, mostly from the Pendle area of Lancashire, were imprisoned in the castle as witches. Ten were hanged, one died in gaol, one was sentenced to stand in the pillory, and eight were acquitted. The 2012 anniversary sees a small flood of commemorative events, including works of fiction by Blake Morrison, Carol Ann Duffy and Jeanette Winterson. How did this witch trial come about, and what accounts for its enduring fame?
When Alizon Device was unable to cure the pedlar the local magistrate, Roger Nowell was called in. Characterised by Thomas Potts as ‘God’s justice’ he was alert to instances of witchcraft, which were regarded by the Lancashire’s puritan-inclined authorities as part of the cultural rubble of ‘popery’ – Roman Catholicism – long overdue to be swept away at the end of the county’s very slow protestant reformation. ‘With weeping tears’ Alizon explained that she had been led astray by her grandmother, ‘old Demdike’, well-known in the district for her knowledge of old Catholic prayers, charms, cures, magic, and curses. Nowell quickly interviewed Alizon’s grandmother and mother, as well as Demdike’s supposed rival, ‘old Chattox’ and her daughter Anne. Their panicky attempts to explain themselves and shift the blame to others eventually only ended up incriminating them, and the four were sent to Lancaster gaol in early April to await trial at the summer assizes. The initial picture revealed was of a couple of poor, marginal local families in the forest of Pendle with a longstanding reputation for magical powers, which they had occasionally used at the request of their wealthier neighbours. There had been disputes but none of these were part of ordinary village life. Not until 1612 did any of this come to the attention of the authorities.
The net was widened still further at the end of April when Alizon’s younger brother James and younger sister Jennet, only nine years old, came up between them with a story about a ‘great meeting of witches’ at their grandmother’s house, known as Malkin Tower. This meeting was presumably to discuss the plight of those arrested and the threat of further arrests, but according to the evidence extracted form the children by the magistrates, a plot was hatched to blow up Lancaster castle with gunpowder, kill the gaoler and rescue the imprisoned witches. It was, in short, a conspiracy against royal authority to rival the gunpowder plot of 1605 – something to be expected in a county known for its particularly strong underground Roman Catholic presence.
The modern fame of the Lancashire witches is down to the publication in 1849 of an imaginative novel by Harrison Ainsworth, a friend of Charles Dickens with local connections and one of the bestselling Victorian novelists. His novel The Lancashire Witches has never been out of print, and it was successful in part because to drew on an edition of Potts’ original book published in 1848 by Ainsworth’s friend James Crossley, the Manchester antiquarian. Ainsworth has in turn inspired many other publications and theories. The trial began to receive serious academic attention in the 1990s, pulled together in a book of essays which I edited for Manchester University Press, The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories. In 2012 an international conference at Lancaster University, Capturing Witches, will bring together the latest work, both factual and fictional. No fewer than five new novels have appeared, most notably Jeanette Winterson’s At Daylight Gate, as well as a book of verses by Blake Morrison, A Discovery of Witches, and a BBC documentary, The Pendle Witch Child.