Wednesday, 5 September 2012

400 years of history and mystery: The Witches of Lancashire 1612 - 2012

I lived in Clitheroe, Lancashire in the early 1980's and I often visited Pendle Hill. Strangely fascinated by it's eerie and mystical ambiance, I found myself drawn there, time and time again. So it was to my delight, whilst in Lancaster this summer, I came across an exhibition all about Pendle Hill, it's famous witches and the trials. There were even some interesting magical charms and witch stones on display......even the preserved corpse of a witches cat !!! Spooky stuff indeed.

The story of the Witches of Pendle takes place in 1612. Nineteen men and women were imprisoned in the Lancashire in small cells below Lancaster Castle. They were tried at the Lancashire assizes, a travelling court, ten of them were found guilty and sentenced to death. The ten found guilty are famous in Lancashire history. Any child growing up in Lancashire knows the names of the ten, and fears them at night when the lights go out.

The ten were:
Ann Redfearn,
Elizabeth Device
Alice Nutter
Alison Device,
James Device,
Katherine Hewitt,
Jane Bulcock,
John Bulcock,
Isobel Robey
and Anne Whittle (also known as Old Chattox).
Elizabeth Southernes (famously known as Old Mother Demdike), would have also probably been found guilty, but she died in prison before this could happen.

Charms and witch stones

Four hundred years after the fact, children all over northern England are threatened with the Pendle Witches if they misbehave. The sad truth is though, the Pendle Witches were nothing more than old and poor men and women who were pulled before the magistrate because of a quarrel between two families.

Mystical  and superstitious items

Old Mother Demdike (Elizabeth Southernes) lived with her daughter, Elizabeth Device, and grandchildren Alison and James Device. Anne Whittle (Old Chattox), another elderly woman, lived with her daughters Ann Redfearn and Bessie Whittle. Bessie Whittle one day broke into Old Mother Demdike's house and stole some clothes and some food. So Old Mother Demdike reported her to the magistrate. Bessie Whittle then turned around and accused Old Mother Demdike and her family of witchcraft. Alison Device, Old Mother Demdike's daughter, returned the favour saying Anne Whittle's whole family also practised witchcraft and both families were arrested.

Children's shoes found hidden under floorboards and buried in walls

After a long imprisonment and then a trial, ten of the members of the two families were hanged as witches - being found guilty of the murders of 17 people. They weren't dropped though, which would have broken their necks and given them a quick death. Instead they were hung so they strangled slowly in front of a huge crowd who watched their deaths. Nine year old Jennet Device was the only one who was really giving evidence against them though, saying she had seen them flying around on broomsticks and turning people into frogs.

The Pendle witches

To this day, the Pendle Witches are famous all over England. Their names are used to attract tourists to the area, and are a big draw during Halloween, when every neighbourhood child is warned about Old Mother Demdike and Alice Nutter.