Perhaps the most notorious witch trial of the 17th century, that of the Pendle witches, is one of the tales of imprisonment and execution at Lancaster Castle. Twelve people were accused of witchcraft; one died while held in custody, eleven went to trial. One was tried and found guilty at York and the other ten were tried at Lancaster. Only one was found not guilty. It was an unusual trial in that it was documented by the clerk of the court therefore has remained available to be read. Also, just over three centuries saw witch trials held in England but fewer than 500 people were executed for this crime. This one series of trials in the summer of 1612 therefore accounts for 2% of all witches executed.
Six of the “witches” on trial came from two rival families, the Demdike family and the Chattox family, both headed by old, poverty stricken widows, “Old Demdike” and “Mother Chattox”. Old Demdike had been known as a witch for fifty years and many villages had healers in the 16th Century who practised magic and dealt in herbs and medicines. The extent of the spate of witchcraft reported in Pendle at this time perhaps reflected the large amounts of money people could make by posing as witches. This was a time when witchcraft was not only feared but also fascinated a whole range of people from common village folk to King James I himself. James I had been greatly interested in witchcraft even before he took the throne in 1603, writing a book, Daemonologie, instructing his readers to condemn and prosecute both supporters and practitioners of witchcraft. The scepticism of the king became reflected in the feelings of unrest about witchcraft among the common people.
The king’s views became law in 1612 with lists compiled of all those who refused to attend Church or take communion (a criminal offence). Lancashire had been regarded as a wild and lawless society, and it was with this background of unease that the judges made their investigations and sentenced the Pendle witches.
The story began with an altercation between one of the accused, Alizon Device, and a pedlar, John Law. Alizon, passed John Law and asked him for some pins. He refused and Alizon cursed him. Soon after he suffered a stroke, for which he blamed Alizon and her powers. Alizon confessed and after further questioning accused her grandmother, Old Demdike, and also members of the Chattox family, of witchcraft.
The deaths of four other villagers that had occurred years before the trial were raised and the blame laid on witchcraft performed by the Chattox family. On further questioning both Old Demdike and Chattox confessed to selling their souls. After hearing this evidence, the judge detained Alizon, Old Demdike and Old Chattox and waited for trial.
In all a further nine people were summoned for questioning and then trial.
The trials were held at Lancaster between 17th and 19th August 1612. Old Demdike never reached trial; the terrible dungeon in which they were imprisoned was too much for her to survive. As was often the case with witch trials, a nine year old youngster, Jennet Device gave evidence against those who attended the meeting at Malkin Tower but also against her mother, sister and brother! When she gave evidence against Elizabeth (her mother), Elizabeth had to be removed from the court screaming and cursing her daughter. Some of the Pendle witches seemed to be genuinely convinced of their guilt whereas others fought to clear their names. Alizon Device was one of those who believed in her own powers and confessed.
Lancashire was exceptional in the number of witch trials that were held, in comparison to other regions who experienced the same degree of social depravity. The money that could be made from claiming powers in witchcraft in the 17th century probably caused the declarations made by the two families; they could also have been in competition for the best reputation for witchcraft in the area. This backfired with the Pendle trials, and the wild accusations escalated, fuelled by a general feeling of fear of witchcraft across the country, making this the biggest and most notorious witch trial in England.