Victims of Arrogance and Cruelty: The Pendle Witch Trials of 1612

Witch trials are among some of the cruelest events in European history. Thousands of innocent women were murdered by people who provided fake accusations. In England, one of the most famous witch trials, the Pendle witch trials, took place in 1612, during the reign of King James I (b. 1566 – d. 1625). 400 years later there’s a petition seeking a royal pardon for the witches.

When driven by fear of the unknown, some people have always reacted with irrational and cruel actions. Witches were viewed as dangerous creatures to closed-minded people who identified them with evil spirits. Although they never tried to convert the whole world to one religion, witches were seen as a danger to religious doctrines.

Witchcraft was viewed as fascinating but scary during the reign of the Tudors. When Elizabeth I ruled, witches were punished very harshly. However, one of the most famous English witch trials took place a few years after her death, when the crown was in the hands of King James I. The trial is famous not only for what happened, but also because of the thorough descriptions by Thomas Potts. Potts documented the confessions and details of the event. He published that information in ‘ The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster.’

Title page of the original edition of “The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster,” published in 1613.

Title page of the original edition of The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, published in 1613. ( Public Domain )

The Power of Gossip

The trials took place near Pendle Hill in Lancashire. They were the result of the mysterious murders of ten people. Uneducated people who were driven by religion wanted to see the power of the devil behind those crimes.

Twelve women were accused of being a group of witches whose magic spells caused the deaths. In 1612, Roger Nowell, the local Justice of the Peace, was hired to compile a list of possible killers and to accuse them. In the meantime, a Halifax peddler named John Law claimed a criminal offense against Alizon Device of Pendle. He accused her of using witchcraft to cause a stroke.

Pendle Hill marked with the date 1612 on the 400th anniversary of the trials ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ) and Statue of Alice Nutter in Roughlee. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Six of the so-called Pendle witches (also sometimes referred to as the Lancashire witches) came from two families (Demdike and Chattox), others were connected to them for different reasons. Among the accused were Elizabeth Southerns (Demdike), her daughter Elizabeth Device, and her grandchildren James and Alizon Device.

Anne Whittle (Chattox), and her daughter Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Jennet Preston, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Grey, Jane Bulcock, and her son John Bulcock were accused too. They were all charged with the abovementioned murders, but Southworth and both Brierley’s were also said to have killed and consumed a child, Pearson was accused of killing a horse, and Robey was also charged with causing an illness.

Two of the accused witches, Anne Whittle (Chattox) and her daughter Anne Redferne. Illustration from William Harrison Ainsworth's 1849 novel ‘The Lancashire Witches’.

Two of the accused witches, Anne Whittle (Chattox) and her daughter Anne Redferne. Illustration from William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1849 novel ‘The Lancashire Witches’. ( Public Domain )

Some of these people really practiced so-called “witchcraft” – by using healing practices and fortune telling. At that time, various people practiced activities that could be called witchcraft. They provided the services for small payments. “Magic” in the 17th century was generally focused on helping others, and many people secretly sought the aid of these healers and seers.

False Confessions

Pushed by unbearable torture , women and men started to provide “confessions” in the Pendle witch trials. They told the stories that others wanted them to say. The torture they had to face was so painful that they would do anything to end it. Similar situations took place in most witch trials around the world.

Chattox made her confession on April 2nd, 1612, and it was recorded by Thomas Pott in ‘ Discoverie of Witches,’ published in 1613. The following is Pott’s account of Chattox’s confession regarding the murder of Robert Nutter:

”And she further sayth, that Robert Nutter did desire her daughter one Redfearne’s wife, to have his pleasure of her, being then in Redfearne’s house: but the said Redfearne’s wife denied the said Robert; whereupon the said Robert seeming to be greatly displeased therewith, in a great anger took his horse, and went away, saying in a great rage, that if ever the ground came to him, she should never dwell upon his land.
Whereupon she [Chattox] called Fancy to her; who came to her in the likeness of a man in a parcel of ground called, the Laund; asking her, ‘what she would have him to do?’
And this she bade him go revenge her of the said Robert Nutter. After which time, the said Robert Nutter lived about a quarter of a year, and then died.
And she further sayth, that Elizabeth Nutter, wife to old Robert Nutter, did request this her, and Loomeshaw’s wife of Burley, and one Jane Boothman, of the same, who are now both dead, (which time of request, was before that Robert Nutter desired the company of Redfearn’s wife) to get young Robert Nutter his death, if they could; all being together then at that time, to that end, that if Robert were dead, then the women their cousins might have the land: by whose persuasion, they all consented unto it.”

All the confessions sound like they were fake – they were only made to find some relief from the horrendous torture. The trial’s first victim was Elizabeth Southerns, who died during torture. Almost everyone else was found guilty and executed by hanging. The only person not found guilty was nine-year-old Jennet Device.

The Dark Shadow of Witch Trials

The witches of Pendle were probably just people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even if they did practice “witchcraft”, their demise is just another chapter in the dark story of the European witch trials. A few years later, in 1633, the story of the Pendle witches returned – Jennet Device was accused of witchcraft once again. She was charged with the crime and incarcerated in Lancaster Gaol with a few other people. They all died in the prison.

Now, the Pendle witches have a different connotation in society, and they are a popular tourist attraction for the region. The story of the witches is still remembered by local people, especially at Halloween.

'Witches Galore', Newchurch-in-Pendle, Lancashire.

‘Witches Galore’, Newchurch-in-Pendle, Lancashire. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

A Petition to Pardon the Pendle Witches

The Blackpool Dungeon is now collecting signatures for a petition requesting a Monarch’s pardon for those who were hanged for Witchcraft in 1612, stating that “This was a political and religious persecution, a pardon is long overdue & should be granted.” The Blackpool Dungeon website explains that they are “asking the Government to grant a pardon via a Royal Prerogative proposal for the 10 executed Lancashire Witches.”

Robert Poole, Professor of History at the University of Central Lancashire and author of ‘The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster,’ has joined the campaign and says, “The Lancashire witches were the victims of a gross miscarriage of justice. They were convicted of an impossible crime, by methods that amounted to persecution, on the basis of patently false evidence which they were not able to contest. It’s high time they were given a pardon.”

Kenny Mew, General Manager at The Blackpool Tower Dungeons concludes, “Today we take a stance against prejudice and give the power back to these inspiring women to tell their stories.”

Top Image: The Pendle witches were cruelly tortured and most of them were hanged for witchcraft. Source: diter /Adobe Stock

By Natalia Klimczak

Updated on December 1, 2021.

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