Thursday, 2 August 2012

Thursday Tour of NW England - Newchurch and the Pendle Witches

Newchurch in Pendle, a small village in the shadow of Pendle Hill, is famous for being the home of the Demdike family of ‘Pendle Witches’.
© Copyright Peter Standing and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The story is that, in 1612, Demdike's granddaughter, Alizon Device, approached a pedlar called John Law and asked him for some metal pins but he refused. A few minutes after their encounter, he stumbled and fell badly. He recovered enough to reach a local inn and a few days later, his son took Alizon to see him and she confessed to him that she had told the Devil to lame him. The Law family then complained to the local Justice of the Peace, Roger Nowell, that John had been injured by witchcraft.

At the time, village ‘healers’ who dabbled in herbs and home-made medicines were often thought of as witches, because of their seemingly magical powers, and Alizon’s grandmother, Elizabeth Southern, known as Demdike, had long been considered a witch.

In the investigation which followed, Roger questioned Alizon about another family, the Whittles, who were also suspected of witchcraft. There was no love lost between the two families, and so Alizon accused Anne Whittle, known as Chattox, of killing four men by witchcraft. She also claimed that her father had been so scared of Chattox that he had paid her an annual gift of oatmeal in return for her promise not to hurt his family. On his deathbed, he claimed his illness was because he had not paid the annual fee of protection.

An illustration of Ann Redferne and Chattox,
 two of the Pendle witches, from Ainsworth's novel
The Lancashire Witches, published in 1849
(public domain, copyright expired)
When both Demdike and Chattox were summoned to appear before Nowell, they were both in their eighties, and both confessed to witchcraft, saying they had sold their souls to the Devil many years earlier. Witnesses said they had seen Demdike sticking pins into clay figures, and one said her brother had fallen ill after having an argument with Chattox’s daughter, Anne.

Based on the evidence and confessions, Demdike, Alison, Chattox, and Anne were committed to Lancaster Gaol to await trial at the next Assizes for causing harm by witchcraft.

A few days later, Demdike’s daughter Elizabeth organised a meeting at the family home, Malkin Tower (thought to be near the village of Newchurch). Family and friends attended, but Roger Nowell was suspicious about the purpose of the meeting, and following further investigations, eight more people were accused of witchcraft and sent for trial.

The trial was held at Lancaster Castle in August 1612. One of the key witnesses was the Alizon’s nine-year-old sister Jennet Device (something that would not be permitted in other trials at that time but was allowed in cases of witchcraft). Jennet gave evidence against her mother, sister and brother, and also identified all those who had been at the Malkin Tower meeting. She claimed that both her mother both had ‘familiars’ in the shape of dogs.

One of the accused died in prison, another was found not guilty, but the remaining ten were found guilty and hanged.

Was it ‘witchcraft’? Or was it simply local suspicion about eccentric old women, compounded by the bad blood between the two families which led to them accusing each other of witchcraft?

The story of the Pendle Witches has been immortalised in novels and plays, and has provided the Pendle area with a tourist attraction. The only shop in the Newchurch village, Witches Galore, sells all manner of witch-themed dolls and other gifts.
© Copyright Dr Neil Clifton and licensed
for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

This year is the 400th Anniversary of the Witch Trials and there have been several events and exhibitions, both in the Pendle area and in Lancaster, where the trials were held. Last weekend, a statue was unveiled at the village of Roughlee of Alice Nutter, one of the so-called witches, who pleaded not guilty to a murder but was neverthless convicted because she had been at the Malkin Tower meeting. Here's a link to a local newspaper article, with a photo of the state


  1. Fascinating, I love this area of Lancashire, Downham in particular is a delightful little place.
    Gossip and bad feeling and what mayhem it brought. Always feel very sorry for Alice Nutter, I think she was unwittingly dragged into it.(Not that any of them deserved their end).
    Another super post on our part of the world, Paula.

  2. I agree with you about Alice Nutter, and wonder too how much Jennet Device was intimidated by Roger Nowell and/or had no concept of the full implications of the accusations she made.

  3. I studied the history of Witchcraft at uni, including the Pendle Witches. Could write a thesis on it. We're pretty sure they were NOT witches (although some of them may have believed they were) but were victims of the new fashion for using French priests to interrogate suspects. Up to then the typical English witch was a wise woman with a pet cat or dog, giving out cures and love potions and operating alone. The typical French witch was a devil-worshipper and belonged to a coven. Under torture, prisoners say what the torturer wants to hear, hence the sudden appearance of coven-based witchcraft in England

  4. Fascinating comment, Jenny. I've been intrigued by the Pendle Witches for a long time, and agree with you that they probably were simply, uneducated country women who may have felt 'important' at being interviewed and actually convicted themselves without realising what they were doing.

  5. It makes you shudder, doesn't it? Those poor women! They were obviously just simple herbalists and easy targets for those who wanted to hunt them as witches.

    400 years ago - wow - I'm glad I didn't live in those times!

    Thanks for such a facinating post Paula.

    Janice xx

  6. Paula, what a fascinating post about Pendle Witches' trials and tribulations. That was 400 years ago, but it still seems that outsiders are suspect. Loved learning about these women herbalists.

  7. Many thanks, Kathleen. The story of the 'witches' is quite a complex one, and they were the victims of their time as much as anything.

  8. I think the Pendle witches story is a case of two uneducated and none-too-bright families caught in a game of one-upmanship. They had been doing this for some time, but the advent of the witch hunting era made that dangerous - and probably accounts for Alizon's fearful confession - she wondered if she had actually done what contemporary witches were accused of.

    The witch as pursued by authorities was imagined to be someone who effected change via an alliance with an otherwordly spirit. There's very little evidence that the small-time finder of lost objects, conjuror of fortunes and writer of charms had any truck with that - it was an invention of the paranoid. But, of course, there are always people who fancy being seen as powerful by association with 'the dark side, and, bizarrely, the paranoid tracts encouraged some to adopt that line. Doesn't mean they're any more in touch with evil than the rest of us!

    Whatever the case, what a terrible thing to happen to those poor women.

  9. I think you're absolutely right, Diane (er - Esmeralda!). It's all the different factors that contributed to this 'witch trial' which make it so interesting. But, as you say, it had terrible results for this group of simple, uneducated country folk.

  10. Interesting information, Paula! I wonder if "The Crucible" was inspired by this? :-)

  11. The Crucible was inspired by the Salem Witches in MA, Teresa, about80 years later. But the general idea of a 'witch hunt' based on superstition was fairly similar.