Who Were the Pendle Witches?:
2012 is the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trials, one of the most famous and well documented episodes of witchcraft in English history.
From March 1612 when it began with a roadside incident and a naive confession, to August when it ended with the execution by hanging of seven women and two men and the death of an eighty year old woman in the dungeons of Lancaster Castle, Pendle and its surrounding villages in the shadow of Pendle Hill were gripped in an atmosphere of jealousy,superstition, fear, accusation,counter accusation and rumors of devil worship, witches' sabbaths and murder.
The so called witches were among the poorest people in the community, members of two competitive families headed by elderly matriarchs. Social outcasts who existed on the edge, some may have had physical deformities or mental handicaps. They lived by begging, casting spells and curses and kept starvation at bay by what amounted to an early 17th century protection scheme. People in the villages had long tolerated them and often gave them what they wanted rather than risk being cursed.
And unlike the Salem "witches", who always protested their innocence and who were pardoned en masse within a decade of the infamous Massachusetts trials, most of the Pendle witches believed in their own powers. No one was ever pardoned and none of the communities involved ever repented of the trials and executions.
Picture the Scene:
Modern hikers and cyclists find the empty heath and high moors below Pendle Hill starkly beautiful. When I discovered it myself while crossing the Ribble Viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle Line I described it as "traveling through completely abandoned country, bleak, alien, monochromatic and strangely beautiful."
But imagine that landscape on a cold winter afternoon in 1612, scoured by winds under a heavy sky, beneath the brooding, 557 meter bulk of Pendle Hill; no lights, scarce food and warmth, remote and cut off from the rest of the world.
With the destruction of the monasteries during the English Reformation, the region was left with little spiritual guidance and no regular clergy. Lancashire still hid pockets of secret Catholics. In an England under the fiercely Protestant James I, the rituals of Catholicism and even a whiff of its Latin tongue were akin to witchcraft.
It was in this area, where superstition was rife, that fears of and beliefs in witchcraft could flourish.
How it Began:
The Star Witness:
Read more about Jennet Device and watch a BBC video about the child witness.
- Lancaster Castle was the scene of the Assizes - or trials by visiting judges - and the accused witches were probably walked for miles across inhospitable moors for their imprisonment there. The Castle was in use as a prison until March 2011 and is considered one of the most haunted places in Britain. Parts of the castle are open to the public for guided tours and a major theatrical production was planned in the Castle Theatre to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Pendle witch trials.
- The Judges' Lodgings - Lancaster's oldest townhouse, near the castle, is where the judges would have stayed during the Assizes. It was once the residence of Thomas Covell, a notorious witch hunter.
- The Malkin Tower? The Malkin Tower was the location of the witches' meeting that the court and local gossip considered a witches' sabbath. Malkin was a 17th century word for slattern and nobody knows why it was called a tower since it was probably a crumbling stone hovel. Just in time for the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witches, water company excavations in Pendle uncovered just such a crumbling stone hovel that had been long buried. A mummified cat was discovered in the wall of the 17th century cottage. There's no real proof that this is the Malkin Tower, but local fancy has it so.
Watch a BBC film about the discovery of the Malkin Tower
- St. Mary's Parish Church, Newchurch in Pendle The tower of this church is pretty much all that remains of the original church, standing at the time of the Pendle witches. Look for an unusual carving, known as the "Eye of God" on the west side of the tower. It was said to protect the church and parish from witchcraft and black magic. One of the defendants in the witch trials was accused of stealing teeth and scalps from the graveyard, which she admitted. It's unlikely, though, that she dug up graves. It was common practice at the time to dig up old graves for new burials and it's likely that skulls (called scalps back then) could have been easily found on the surface. Teeth were often used in remedies and charms for toothache.
Walking With Witches:
More About Pendle Hill:
- A Bronze Age burial mound was discovered at its summit
- In 1652, George Fox felt compelled to climb to the top of the hill. There, he had a vision which led to his founding of the Quaker movement.
- In 1661, Robert Townley conducted barometer experiments at different levels on the hill to discover the relationship between air pressure and density. His discovery is now known as Boyle's Law, but Robert Boyle referred to it as "Mr. Townley's Hypothesis."