Pendle Hill Witches – Persecution in the 17th Century

shutterstock_12231541The year is 1612 and witches are being persecuted widely throughout England. In a small community called Pendle Hill in Lancaster, as with the rest of the country, there are still many people making their living from a combination of witchcraft and begging. This includes Elizabeth Southern, a wise woman in her eighties, known as Old Demdike, and the majority of her family. Another well-known family of witches in the area, sometimes considered the Demdike’s rivals, is led by Anne Whittle known as Old Chattox who is also in her eighties.

On March 18, 1612 Alizon Device, Old Demdike’s granddaughter, is going through her usual begging routine, when she comes upon John Law. He refuses her request for some pins and, as can only be expected from a witch of the time, she reacts by cursing him. Mr. Law collapses immediately, paralysed and unable to speak. What might be recognised as a stroke in modern society is, based on the current population’s prejudices and ignorance, instantly judged to be witchcraft and Alizon is arrested.

Alizon, also confident that she has accessed the spirit world to Mr. Law’s detriment, confesses to the crime. Not stopping there, however, she goes on to implicate other witches in the area, including some of her own family members. These others are all arrested at a witches Sabbat being held at Malkin Tower, Old Demdike’s house. Twelve of them are from the area and become known as the Pendle Hill Witches.

The group is held on suspicion of using witchcraft to commit criminal acts, and put in the dungeons beneath Lancaster castle while further investigation takes place. In July there is a breakthrough in the case when James Device, another of old Demdike’s grandchildren, leads the constable to buried human remains. The prisoners that are being held are now formally charged with murder by means of witchcraft, as well as more minor charges such as causing people to go mad and creating clay images.

Nance_Redferne_&_ChattoxOld Demdike, being blind and lame, cannot withstand the harsh conditions in the dungeons and dies before ever going to trial. The others are not so lucky and are put on trial in August 1612. Her 9 year old granddaughter, Jennet Device, is the key witness in the case and the main evidence presented is hearsay, memories and superstition. Nevertheless, within two days 10 of the accused are found guilty and sentenced to death. Margaret Pearson, who is to become the sole survivor on the Pendle Hill Witches, is sentenced to pillory and subsequently one year’s imprisonment.

Within the same month, Alizon, her mother, Elizabeth, and brother, James, along with Old Chattox and daughter, Anne Redfearne, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Nutter and John and Jane Bulcock, are all executed on the moors above Lancaster. Their death is a slow and painful hanging.

The final resting place of the Pendle Hill Witches is still unknown. It wouldn’t be surprising if they are still roaming the area, begging for pins and handing out curses to unsuspecting travellers.

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