European Witch-hunting and the Pendle Witches

As today is Halloween, I thought it would be a good time to explore the witch hunting craze that spread across Europe in the Early Modern period, with a particular focus on the Pendle Witch trials, which are arguably the most famous of the English trials, that took place in Lancashire in the early seventeenth century.

Witch-hunting and the persecution of witches increased in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries across much of northern Europe. Prior to the Early Modern period, Europeans had long held superstitious beliefs of magic and witchcraft, but it is in the fifteenth century that witchcraft became associated with heresy. This was due to the establishment of the theory of ‘diabolical witchcraft’, witchcraft involving the devil and thus becoming a heretical act. Alongside this, new legal developments recognized the existence of witches and facilitated their persecution, the first being the papal bull issued in 1484 by Pope Innocent VIII, Summis desiderantes affectibus.

This idea of ‘diabolical witchcraft’ was diffused across Europe in handbooks such as The Malleus Maleficarium, published in Germany in 1487 and republished 26 times throughout the Early Modern period, highlighting the popularity of such ideas. The text was deeply misogynistic, and expressed that women the weaker sex both physically and morally, and thus more liable to be seduced by the devil.  The Holy Roman Empire adopted the Constitution Criminalis Carolina in 1532, which declared that harmful witchcraft must be punished by death. These legal developments encouraged identification and persecution of witches, and ensured that the German states witnessed high numbers of persecution compared to other European countries: The Bamberg witch trials took place between 1626 and 1631, during which time 900 people were burned at the stake

The fear of witchcraft and black magic formed a crucial part of the popular imagination in the Early Modern period, a fear which James I of England (VI of Scotland) also shared. Following his marriage to Anne of Denmark in 1589, James was influenced by beliefs at the Danish court, and returned to England with an obsessive desire to root out witches. In 1597, James even wrote a book on the subject, Daemonologie, and in 1612, the Pendle witch trials took place in England, which resulted in the hanging of 10 people on charges of witchcraft. 

In March 1612, on a road stretching between Colne and Trawden, a confrontation took place between a local woman and a pedlar from Halifax, Alizon Device and John Law. John Law refused to sell his wares to Alizon and, shortly following his refusal, collapsed onto the road in pain. Historians believe that Law had suffered a stroke. However, in 1612, John Law and his son Abraham firmly believed that Alizon Device had cursed him, for refusing to sell her his wares. As a result, Abraham Law filed this accusation with the local magistrate, Roger Nowell, thus commencing the Pendle witch trials.

When confronted with the accusation of the curse Alizon confessed to what she believed she had done, and at the same time incriminated her mother and grandmother, named Elizabeth Device and Elizabeth Southerns respectively. The Device family were a poor family, headed by the matriarch Elizabeth Southerns, who was known as ‘Old Demdike.’ The Device family rivals were also caught up amongst the accusations of witchcraft, another local family headed by a matriarch by the name of ‘Old Chattox.’

On good Friday 1612, a gathering was reportedly held in the home of the Device family.  Everyone who attended was arrested on suspicion of attending a witches’ sabbath, including a woman named Alice Nutter. Nutter is arguably the most famous of the Pendle witches – she came from a wealthier family than the Devices and had previously been involved in a land dispute with Nowell, which she had won.

The 12 accused Pendle witches were taken to Lancaster in April and imprisoned for several months. Elizabeth Southerns (Demdike) died before the trial took place due to the squalid conditions in which the accused were held. The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster 1613 is the main record of the trial.  The record states that Chattox was charged with the murder of a man and was found guilty. Elizabeth Device (Alizon’s mother) was charged and found guilty of three accounts of murder, supported by testimony from her own nine-year old daughter, Jennet Device. The court also remarked upon how Elizabeth had a squinty eye, interpreted as a mark of the devil.  The verdict was reached after two days, and 10 of the 11 remaining witches from Pendle were sentenced to death by hanging, including Alice Nutter.

The memory of the Pendle witches persists through their occupation within the local landscape, observed in the ‘Witch Way’, a tourist trail from Sabden to Lancaster and through their representation in literature, such as in the recent novel The Familiars (2019) by Stacey Halls and in the children’s Spooks series by Joseph Delaney. However, despite the almost mythic narrative that now encircles the Pendle witches, it is important to consider that these people were merely victims of the European fear of witchcraft that swept the continent in the Early Modern period. In Pendle in 1612, this fear transformed the most vulnerable people in society into scapegoats, onto whom unexplainable misfortunes were pinned, and where the term ‘witch’ was used as a weapon with which to fight local rivalries with, and for officials to abuse their power in the settling of scores.


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