Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster

This August marked the 400th anniversary of the Pendle witch trials. In August 1612, eight women and two men from Pendle were found guilty of the charge of murdering ten people by witchcraft. They were hung after a trial at the Lancaster Assizes. Four hundred years later, the Pendle witches continue to attract considerable attention, interest and debate and a decent tourist trade in East Lancashire.

Pendle Hill rises in isolated splendour from the otherwise rolling Ribble Valley, its distinctive sloping plateau and flat, moorland top making it a distinct local landmark. It is a lonely elevation, separated from the nearby Pennines and the hills of the Forest of Bowland.

Even today, tamed by roads, car parks and visitor centres, it has a looming, atmospheric and wild presence – a piece of untamed landscape intruding on the farmland and towns all around. In the 17th century it was a remote, lawless and much-feared corner of a notoriously superstitious and backward county.

At this time, both belief in and fear of witchcraft was real – both amongst the ordinary people and in the government. In 1562, Elizabeth I’s government had passed ‘An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts’, with execution as the ultimate penalty. By the 17th century, James I, a monarch who brought a personal interest in the subject to bear on government policy, had succeeded Elizabeth.

James had written a book in 1597 entitled ‘Daemonologie’, which called for the extermination of witches and practitioners of the dark arts. It amounted to a “mandate for the British to fight witches”. This would form the backdrop to one of the darkest chapters in British legal history – the Lancashire witch trials of the Pendle and Salmesbury witches.

It started innocuously enough when a young girl called Alizon Device met John Law, a peddler, on the road to Halifax. She asked him to sell her some of his metal pins, and Law refused: either out of fear that they would be used for magic or because the girl could not pay for them. Soon after, Law collapsed but eventually recovered sufficiently to make his way to an inn.

He complained to the authorities that he had been struck by witchcraft. This allegation triggered an escalating investigation into witchcraft in Lancashire, culminating in the trial of 20 people and the execution of 10 of the accused.

Were the villages and farms of east Lancashire infested with witches? Did dark magic weft and weave through the ancient forests and moors of Pendle Hill? Or was the trial the unfortunate result of judicial ambition to please a witch-fearing king and rivalry between two families of outcasts and peddlers?

Another question was to ask whether Lancashire was an unusually godless place, or whether its notably high levels of Catholic recusancy and accusations of witchcraft were a direct result of the creation of a spiritual vacuum following dissolution of the monasteries? The latter could certainly have had an impact in the Pendle area, where Whalley Abbey had exerted considerable pastoral control until is dissolution in 1537.

Most of what we know of the trials comes from a record written by Thomas Potts, the clerk to the Lancaster Assizes. His account, luridly titled ‘The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster’, gives a detailed narrative of the allegations, evidence, confessions and judgements. What comes across is a confusing combination of intense religiosity, ignorance and fear.

Much of the rationale for the guilty verdicts rested on the testimony of a nine-year-old girl, Jennet Device. She gave a detailed account of her mother’s use of spells and the appearance of her familiar, a demonic companion named Ball. An explanation for her implication of her mother and family has never been properly ascertained.

The use of the child’s testimony became standard practice for magistrates across the land and was exported to the American colonies. This would result directly in a far more deadly outbreak of hysteria and judicial murder in the Salem witch trials just 80 years later.

Both the Pendle and Salem witch trials are too complex and rich to be given fair treatment in this blog. It is one of those subjects that may grab your interest and spur you to find out more. If so, the following two books are recommended overviews of the background, society, trials and consequences.


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