The Lancashire Witches
About four hundred years ago, in 1612, Northwest England was the scene of England’s largest peacetime witch trial: the trial of the Lancashire witches. Twenty people, mostly from the Pendle area of Lancashire, were imprisoned in the castle as witches. In the end, ten were hanged, one died in jail, one was sentenced to the stockades, and eight were acquitted. How did this witch trial come about, and what accounts for its static fame?
We know so much about the Lancashire Witches because the trial was recorded in unique detail by the clerk of the court Thomas Potts who published his account soon afterwards. Robert Poole recently published a modern-English edition of their book, together with an essay piecing together what we know of the events of 1612. It reveals how Potts carefully edited the evidence, and also how the case against the “witches” were constructed and manipulated to bring about a spectacular show trial.
It all began in mid-March when a peddler from Halifax named John Law had a frightening encounter with a poor young woman, Alizon Device in a field, near the town of Colne. He refused her request for pins, and there was a brief argument during which he was seized by a fit that left him with “his head drawn awry, his eyes and face deformed, his speech not well to be understood; his thighs and legs stark lame.” We can now recognize this as a stroke, perhaps triggered by the stressful encounter. Alizon Device was sent for and surprised all by confessing to the bewitching of John Law, and then begged for forgiveness. [ ]
When Alizon Device was unable to cure the peddler the local magistrate, Roger Nowell, was called in. “With weeping tears,” Alizon explained to Nowell that she had been led astray by her grandmother, “old Demdike,” well-known in the district for her knowledge of old prayers, charms, cures, and curses. [ ] Nowell quickly interviewed Alizon’s grandmother and mother, as well as Demdike’s supposed rival, “old Chattox.” Their panicky attempts to explain themselves and shift the blame to others eventually only ended up incriminating them, and the four were sent to Lancashire prison in early April to await trial at the summer courts. [ ]
Adapted from Poole, R. “The Lancashire Witches, 1612-2012." The Public Domain Review.