The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials

The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials

Natasha sheldon - November 1, 2017

On August 20, 1612, the single largest trial of witches in English history concluded at the Summer Assises in Lancaster Castle. In April of that year, twelve people from the Pendle area were arrested and charged with witchcraft. Of the eleven who survived to go to trial, all were found guilty. Of those eleven, ten were hung the next day.

The Pendle Witch trials as they became known, were the result of the dogged investigation of local magistrate Roger Nowell, who uncovered the supposed nest of witches in the area under his jurisdiction. This nest included members of two local families and an eclectic selection of their neighbors and associates. Some of the witches implicated themselves in crimes over several decades, including illness, misfortune, and murders by magic.

While a handful of the witches admitted their guilt freely, most of the accused protested their innocence. The evidence that convicted them was also suspiciously feeble. It seems that the political and religious mood of seventeenth-century England may have influence events- and the officials who motivated the trials. So how did the Pendle witches come to face their doom at the end of the gallows- and why?

Witches and Catholics

On March 24, 1603, a new ruling dynasty, the Stuarts, took over the English throne, when the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I died. Not everyone greeted the new regime enthusiastically. King James survived two conspiracies against him in the first year of his reign alone. Only two years after his ascension, he very nearly lost his life when disgruntled Catholics, disappointed by continued legislation against their religion, tried to blow up the King and Parliament in what became known as The Gunpowder Plot.

The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials
James I of England by John de Critz. Google Images.

The Gunpowder Plot made Catholicism even more suspect. However, it was not only religious dissent that James feared. Witchcraft was a primary concern of his. Laws against the practice existed already. Early in her reign, Elizabeth I had passed the Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments, and Witchcrafts which condemned convicted witches to death- but only if they had committed harm by magic. James, on the other hand, had a manic paranoia about witches, which he believed, like Catholics, were out to get him.

In 1597, before his ascension to the English throne, the King had written the book, Daemonlogie. This book stipulated that it was the duty of every loyal subject of the monarch to denounce witchcraft wherever they might find it. Once he was King of England, James passed a further law against magic to bolster the existing Act. Now he was King of two countries, with potential enemies in both, he was taking the threat of magic very seriously indeed.

On the face of it, Pendle in the northern English county of Lancashire was distant from the affairs of Kings and governments. On the edge of the Pennines, it was a stark, remote area of hills and moorland, dotted with farms and small towns dedicated to the wool trade. The authorities, however, regarded Pendle as a wild and lawless area. It had resisted the dissolution of its local Abbey at Whalley, which provided work and support for many people in the area and eagerly returned to Rome on the ascension of Mary I. In short, it was an area of broad, deep-rooted Catholic sympathies.

The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials
Wood engraving depicting witches with a black dog familiar. Google Images

Alison Device and the Peddler

The saga of the Pendle Witches began on March 18, 1612, when a peddler had an unsettling encounter with a local woman. Alison Device was a young woman who lived with her family in the Pendle area, in a hovel rather grandly known as Malkin Tower. The Devices scratched a living from odd jobs and begging. On the day in question, Alison was on the Colne Road, looking for likely targets. She found one, a peddler named John Law who was working away from his home in Halifax. Alison attempted to beg some pins from him- however, Law refused as he said he “would not lose his pack.” He then left Alison and continued on his way.

However, as soon as had he left Alison Device behind him, John Law fell to the road. He found himself paralyzed on one side and unable to speak. Law was undoubtedly the victim of a stroke- but he did not see it this way. In any event, Alison had either departed or would not help, so Law was left to drag himself to an inn in the nearby town of Colne where he lay ‘in great pain, not able to stir either hand or foot.” While incapacitated, he had a letter sent to his son, Abraham, who also lived in Halifax.

Abraham received the letter on March 21. Alarmed to hear his father was ill, he quickly departed for Colne. There he found his father gravely sick and terrified. The elder Mr. Law told his son he had been struck down by the witchcraft of Alison Device. He also claimed she continued to torture him in his sick bed. He had seen a great black dog that he believed to be Alison Device’s familiar. At times, Alison herself attended the dog on his visits, staring at the sick man before silently leaving his room.

Abraham Law immediately sought out Alison Device and fetched her to the inn. There, he confronted her with her crime and demanded that she remove the spell and heal his father. To everyone’s astonishment, Alison agreed. She even broke down in remorse when she saw John Law’s pitiful state and begged his forgiveness. She freely admitted she had ill-wished him on the Colne Road. Law- probably out of desperation and the desire for a cure -said he forgave her and asked her to lift her curse. Alison promised to do so.

The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials
Read Hall, the home of Robert Nowell, JP. Google Images

The Investigation Begins

If John Law had recovered from his stroke, it is probable that the Pendle Witch trials would never have occurred. However, he did not. Abraham Law, believing that his father was still stricken by magic and no doubt furious at being duped by Alison Device and her promise of a cure, now turned to the law. On March 30, 1612, he paid a visit to Pendle’s local magistrate, Roger Nowell, at his home Read Hall on the edge of Pendle Forest.

Abraham Law repeated his father’s account of the events of March 18 – with a slight amendment. Instead of explaining that John Law refused Alison Device the pins, he claimed his father gave them to her. This lie was a statement of how angry Abraham Law was with Alison Device for withholding a cure. For although Alison had admitted to witchcraft, the refusal of the pins gave some justification to her case. However, if John Law had given her what she desired, she had no motive. It was witchcraft with needless malice.

Roger Nowell had Alison Device brought in for questioning that very day. She repeated her story: she had met John Law on the Colne Road, she had asked him for some pins, and he had refused. So she cursed him. However, Alison also told Nowell just how she enacted the curse. She said her familiar, a black dog had appeared to her after Law rebuffed her. “What wouldst thou have me do at that man?”. What canst thou do at him?” Alison asked. “I can lame him,” the dog replied. Alison agreed and ” before the peddler was gone forty rods further, he fell down lame.”

However, Alison’s confession of her wrongdoing provoked further admissions. When Nowell asked her exactly what this black dog was, she explained it was the spirit to whom she had sold her soul, two-years previously for the “power to do anything she would”. Furthermore, Alison had not just chanced upon this spirit. A member of her own family had guided her to it.

The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials
Witches flying on Broomsticks. Google Images

A Family of Witches

In an attempt to save herself, Alison Device told Nowell that since the incident with the peddler, John Law, she had renounced her familiar. Her conscience now cleared of her misdeeds, she continued to excuse herself by blaming her eighty-year-old grandmother for her corruption. Elizabeth Sowtherns, or Mother Demdike as she was known locally, lived with her granddaughter Alison, her daughter Elizabeth Device and her other grandchildren, James and nine-year-old Jennet.

The old lady was blind, and so Alison often acted as her guide as they were out and about the district. The family had no regular occupation other than begging, supplemented with casual labor. Because of their precarious, marginal existence, they were often abused and scapegoated by wealthier neighbors. However, these neighbors did so at their peril, for according to Alison Device, her grandmother was a very powerful witch.

Alison had seen her grandmother’s witchcraft in action. Some of the old lady’s activities were innocent enough. She was often called upon to cure neighbor’s cattle and once turned a pale of milk that Alison brought home into butter without touching it. However, the old lady also had the power to harm. Alison recalled how when a neighboring farmer, Richard Baldwin had ordered her grandmother off his land; Mother Demdike had made Alison take her out one night. In the darkness, she performed a ritual and the following day, Baldwin’s daughter fell ill. Within a year, she was dead.

Quite why Alison confessed these events is debatable. Possibly she merely wanted to show her power was a family trait and that the Devices only used it to harm when sorely provoked. Perhaps there was a part of her that, now she had the attention of the local magistrate, wanted to show how powerful her socially marginalized family was. Perhaps she thought this would end the matter. She must have been very naïve or simple.

The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials
Old Chattox. Google Images

The Devices Versus The Whittles

Alison then shifted the spotlight from her own family. Perhaps she wanted to provide Roger Nowell with a wickeder clutch of witches. So she offered him with an account of the misdeeds of another Pendle witch family: The Whittles, who were lead by their elderly matriarch, Anne Whittle or Old Chattox. There was no love lost between the Devices and the Whittles.

It seems that they were rival cunning folk. Alison’s revelations may also have been a form of revenge as she and her family held Old Chattox responsible for the death of her father eleven years earlier.

When Alison was a child, someone broke into Malkin Tower and stole some grain meal and linen. The Devices later reputedly caught the Whittles with the goods. However, despite his powerful mother-in-law, John Device, Alison’s father, was too afraid to take the matter further. He seems to have raised the ire of Old Chattox and so cut a deal with her: he would give her an annual tribute of grain meal- if she would leave the Devices alone. However, it was not long before John Device stopped paying the tribute and he fell ill. On his deathbed, he blamed Old Chattox for his predicament.

Besides killing her father, Alison Device accused Old Chattox of killing a friend of hers, one Ann Nutter just because she laughed at the old woman. She also accused Chattox of bewitching to death a farmer, Hugh Moore who accused Chattox of killing one of his cows with her art. Chattox had even targeted John Moore, a local gentleman from nearby Higham. Mr. Moore had accused Chattox of bewitching his drink (quite how is uncertain) As a response to this, Chattox had said she would “meet” or get even with “the said John Moore, or his.” Chattox then made a clay image of John Moore’s child- who promptly fell ill and died six months later.

The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials
Witches robbing a grave. Google Images

Mother Demdike and Old Chattox

Alison Device had given Roger Nowell sufficient evidence to suggest a veritable nest of witches existed in the area of his jurisdiction. So on April 2, he and Alison traveled to Fence, near Burnley, a town south-east of Pendle Hill and interviewed both Mother Demdike and Old Chattox at the House of a local gentleman, James Wilsey.

Both of the old women freely admitted to practicing witchcraft. Their tales had several elements in common. Mother Demdike had made her pact with her familiar, Tibb when she had turned sixty, some twenty years earlier. Old Chattox had contracted to her own familiar, Fancy, some five years later. Both familiars, who took the form of young men, offered to do the women’s bidding and ensure they wanted for nothing in return for their souls.

Both Chattox and Demdike explained that they did not immediately take up the offers of Fancy and Tibb. In Demdike’s case, she resisted for six years. But in the end, both gave in for the same reason: they were tired of being powerless in the face of poverty, and the ill-treatment and mockery of their neighbors. From then onwards, both women had the power to cure- and kill.

Both women were adamant that they had only ever ill-wished those who harmed them. When questioned about the incident with Richard Baldwin, Mother Demdike explained the man had refused to pay her daughter Elizabeth Device for work she had undertaken for him. He had abused both women when they tried to reason him into paying. So Demdike had taken her revenge on him via Tibb. Old Chattox confirmed Alison Devices’ account of bewitching Farmer Moore’s cows because he favored Mother Demdike over her.

She also made an admission of her own: she had used magic to take revenge on a Robert Nutter of Greenhead who had tried to “have his pleasure” with her married daughter, Anne Redferne. Anne had refused him, and Nutter had threatened to have the family evicted once he inherited the land from his grandfather. However, before this, she had been asked to take the young man’s life by no less a person than Nutter’s grandmother who had also tried to persuade two other local women (who were now dead) to take on the task.

The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials
Clay Poppet. Google Images

Folk Magic and Catholic Prayers

The magic used by both Mother Demdike and Old Chattox combined folk magic and Roman Catholic prayers. Later, other witches would confirm these practices as standard. The first kind of magic was a form of sympathetic magic, which involved the making and using of items that resembled the people they wished to have influence over. The second kind involved charms that combined folk beliefs with elements of Catholic prayers.

Mother Demdike described how she made a clay model of her victims or ‘a picture of clay” which she used as the focus of her will. Once the clay was shaped to resemble the victim, Demdike dried it. Then, when she wanted them to be “ill in any one place more than another” she would drive in a pin or thorn in the place she wanted to cause illness. When she wanted “any part of the body to consume away” she broke off that part of the image and burnt it. If she wished to kill someone, Demdike took a similar action: she incinerated the whole figure, and the person would die.

Chattox had used another kind of folk magic to curse a cow belonging to John Nutter of Bullhole, according to Alison Device. The old woman had performed a charm over a pail of milk from the cow “with two sticks across it.” Chattox provided Roger Nowell with a rendition of one of her charms, which shows a combination of sympathetic magic and Christian prayer:

three biters hast thou bitten, The heart, ill eye, ill tongue: Three bitter shall be thy boote, Father, son and holy ghost, a gods name. Five pater- nesters, Five avies and a creede, in worship of the five wounds of our Lord.”

The ‘biters’ name the parts to be afflicted, in this case, the heart, eye and tongue. But combined with these folk beliefs are Catholic references. ‘Pater nesters’ were the Lord’s prayer, but the ‘Avies’ referred to the Hail Mary’s of Catholicism. Not only was Chattox cursing but she was also combining folk beliefs and Catholicism in her witchcraft. It was a potent mix.

Either way, Nowell had now heard enough. He had Alison Device, Mother Demdike, Old Chattox and Chattox’s daughter Anne Redferne arrested that very day and sent to Lancaster Castle to await trial.

The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials
One of the possible sites of Malkin Tower, Pendle. Google Images

The Meeting at Malkin Tower

Later that month, it came to Nowell’s attention that on April 10, Good Friday, a “diabolical” meeting had taken place at the home of the Device’s- Malkin Tower. The meeting was in all probability entirely innocent: a gathering of friends and neighbors comforting the distraught Elizabeth Device about the imprisonment of her mother and eldest daughter. However, the date gave the whole affair a sinister cast. It was good Friday, the day of Christ’s crucifixion, a day when all good Christians were supposed to be in church. Instead, a group of people had gathered and feasted in the home of a known witch.

On April 27, Nowell interviewed James Device, Elizabeth’s teenage son about the meeting. James admitted it had taken place and that he had supplied a stolen sheep to feed the guests. However, the Device’s visitors were not a crowd of sympathetic neighbors, but as Thomas Potts, clerk of the court at the later trial of the witches put it, ‘a grand convocation of 17 witches and three wizards

James Device explained the purpose of the meeting. Firstly, the witches had gathered to name Alison Devices’ familiar spirit for her since she was in prison. Secondly, they were answering a call for vengeance from a witch from Gisburn, a nearby town just over the border in Yorkshire. That witch, Jennet Preston had recently been acquitted of a charge of witchcraft at York Castle. However, she wished her accuser, Thomas Lister to suffer and called upon the ‘convocation’ to aid her. However third and most damning of all was the witches’ intention to blow up Lancaster Castle to rescue the incarcerated witches.

James supplied the names of the witches in attendance at Malkin Tower that Good Friday. Besides himself and his mother, they were: “the wife of Hugh Hargrieves of Barley; the wife of Christopher Bulcock of the Moss end, and John her son; the Mother of Miles Nutter, Elizabeth, the wife of Christopher Hargrieves of Thorniholme; Christopher Howgate and Elizabeth his wife; Alice Gray of Colne and one Mould-heel’s wife.”

His little sister Jennet confirmed the involvement of her mother and brother in witchcraft and many of the events of that Good Friday describe by James. Jennet, however, could only identify by name six of the ‘witches’ present at Malkin Tower. None of her names matched her brother’s list. Jennet’s list included: “the wife of Hugh Hargreaves of Pendle, Christopher Howgate of Pendle, Uncle to her, and Elizabeth his wife and Dick Miles his wife of Roughlee; Christopher Jacks of Thorniholme and his wife.”

The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials
The Pendle Witches Dungeon in Well Tower, Lancaster Castle. Google Images

The Witches in Well Tower

During these revelations, James Device admitted that, like his sister Alison, he had been initiated into witchcraft by his grandmother. Following the general pattern in the other witches’ accounts, he too had initially resisted before succumbing to the temptation to take revenge on those who wronged him. At the same time as making this admission, he implicated his mother. He said he had seen Elizabeth Device making clay poppets and witnessed her familiar, a dog-named Ball. He also confirmed she had aided his grandmother and other witches in their malicious activities. On this basis, James and his mother quickly joined the other accused at Lancaster Castle in the dungeon in Well Tower.

Out of those witches named at the meeting at Malkin Tower, only those on James Device’s list seem to have been arrested. They included John and Jane Bulcock and Katherine Hewitt (Mould Heels). But there were more to come. The pressure of being incarcerated in a small cell, without ventilation or proper sanitation, in the company of nine other people had proved too much for a woman of Mother Demdike’s age. In May, she died, therefore avoiding her trial and any conviction of witchcraft.

The death of her old adversary seems to have loosened Chattox’s tongue. Quite what she believed it would gain her is uncertain, but on May 19, she gave the name of Margaret Pearson of Padiham as another witch, while at the same time denouncing Jennet Preston as the killer of her employer. Preston was consigned to York castle to stand trial for witchcraft for the second time that year.

Margaret Pearson meanwhile joined the growing company in the Wells Tower. During Nowell’s search for independent witnesses to substantiate the witch’s statements, another name came up: that of Isabel Robey. She swiftly joined the other ten witches.

The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials
The Pendle Witch Trials. Google Images

The Trial of Old Chattox, Elizabeth and James Device

Trials could only occur when judges visited the towns that formed part of their judicial circuit. In the case of Lancaster that was just twice a year. So the accused witches languished together in their dungeon for five months before they had their day in court. Finally, the trial of the Pendle witches began on August 18, 1612.

By this time Jennet Preston was already dead, tried, found guilty and hanged in York. Old Chattox’s acknowledgment of her as a witch was all that was needed to secure the conviction. There was no other evidence. The same was to prove true for most of the Lancashire witches. However, on the first day of the trial, at least, the witches in question damned themselves with their confessions. They were Old Chattox, Elizabeth Device and James Device.

Potts in his description of the accused goes out of his way to portray them as archetypical witches. He described Chattox as ‘ very old withered spent & decrepit, her sight almost gone: a dangerous witch……her lips ever chattering and walking: but no man knew what.” He mocked Elizabeth Device in her turn, saying she was “branded with a preposterous mark in nature, ……her left eye, standing lower than the other; the one looking up, the other looking down, so strangely deformed, as the best that were present ……did affirm they had not often seen the like.”

However, the overwhelming impression these descriptions give to the modern eye is rather more pitiable. Chattox seems more like an infirm elderly lady, rendered decrepit by her age and experiences in the dungeon- not a dangerous witch. Elizabeth Device is similarly pitiful. However, it is perhaps the teenage son James Device who cut the most pathetic figure. James had tried to kill himself in prison and was insensible and unable to stand at the time of his trial. He was so severely injured that he had to be held up throughout the proceedings.

The court charged Chattox with the murder of John Nutter, to which she pleaded ‘not guilty’ despite having admitted to it in her earlier testimony. Elizabeth Device also pleaded not guilty, to the deaths of James and John Robinson, who she was said to have killed because they insulted her. James Device was likewise charged.

The chief witness against Elizabeth and James was nine-year-old Jennet Device whose youth and close relationship to the accused swayed the court. Elizabeth was so distraught at her daughter’s damning testimony that she became incoherent with rage and had to be removed so the child could testify. All three were found guilty: Chattox’s own words damned her. In the case of Elizabeth and James Device, the final nail in their coffins was dealt by their daughter and sister.

The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials
Jennet Device. Google Images

August 19: The Final Day

The next day, it was the turn of Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Jane and John Bulcock, Alison Device, Isabel Robey and Margaret Pearson to face justice. The evidence against the accused was even thinner than the day before- except in the case of Alison Device, who was the only one of the eleven witches to plead guilty, Once again, nine-year-old Jennet Device had a crucial role to play.

The court convicted Ann Redferne on no other evidence other than the testimony of James Device. Despite the enmity between the Devices and the Whittles, James claimed to have seen Ann making a clay image of Christopher Nutter, the father of Robert Nutter. Despite being a witch himself, he was taken at his word.

The majority of the accused, however, were convicted by the joint evidence of James Device and his younger sister Jennet. This was despite the fact that the sibling’s testimonies differed regarding the people at the meeting at Malkin Tower. The prosecution may have prepared Jennet for her court appearance. Such coaching was not improbable. Her willingness to testify against her relatives, coupled with her youth and her freedom from the taint of witchcraft made her the best witness they had.

The cases against Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt (alias Mould Heel) and John and Jane Bulcock were based on James Devices unsubstantiated accusations and Jennet Device’s identification. James’s original statement had named them all as attending the meeting at Malkin Tower. James’s had also provided particulars of their crimes. Alice Nutter was supposed to have helped Demdike murder a Henry Mitton. James stated Katherine Hewitt had killed a child, Ann Foulds and the Bulcocks had bewitched a woman into madness and death.

There was no physical evidence linking any of the defendants to these crimes beyond this hearsay. Jennet Device had named none of them as being in attendance at Malkin Tower in her original statement. But at the trial, Jennet picked them all out, despite court officials trying to test her. Her positive identification was enough to convict the four as witches.

Margaret Pearson and Isobel Robey concluded events. Pearson was only charged with causing harm by magic. Both were found guilty on equally flimsy evidence as the rest, but in Pearson’s case, she was lucky. As she had not killed anyone, her crime was a misdemeanor. She was sentenced to the pillory.

However, the rest of the convicted were sentenced to hang. The next day, the ten Pendle witches were taken from the castle to the moors above Lancaster, and their sentence was carried out.

The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials
Statue of Alice Nutter set up to mark the 400th anniversary of the execution of the Pendle witches. Google Images

Hidden Agendas

Although five of the Pendle witches admitted their witchcraft, the rest did not. Indeed, many of the later accused seemed wholly out of place from the original defendants, regarding location, social standing- and the evidence against them. These discrepancies suggest that in the cases of some of these later witches, there was a hidden agenda.

Jennet Preston was one. A Yorkshire woman, it seems she was attached to the list of accused because of a long-standing grudge held by Thomas Lister, the man who prosecuted her in April 1612. Lister was the son of Preston’s former employer. Lister senior had favored Preston, who may even have been his mistress. When he died, Lister accused her of his father’s death by witchcraft. However, he had no evidence with which to charge her.

Lister, however, was acquainted with Roger Nowell. Preston had only been acquitted days before the Malkin Tower meeting. The Lancashire witch investigation must have seemed the perfect opportunity to put Preston back in the dock. The statements of James Device and Old Chattox, both implicated Jennet Preston. Were they prompted to name her?

As for Roger Nowell, he had his own agenda. Early in 1612, every Justice of the Peace had been ordered to compile a list of those who refused to attend Protestant church services- in other words, secret Catholics. Roger Nowell was one of the magistrates who had agreed to round up and prosecute Catholics after that Easter. The papist elements in the witches’ curses made an implied link between witchcraft and Catholicism- and so the perfect excuse to catch a few Catholics in the same net. Thus the investigation was a double feather in Nowell’s political cap.

Alice Nutter was the victim of this. A member of the landed gentry; she did not fit the demographics of the rest of the witches. However, she came from a staunch Catholic family. Her conviction of witchcraft, on non-existent evidence would have sent out a strong message to other prominent Catholics that no one was safe.

Ironically, Alison Device, the girl who started the whole sorry affair was the only witch who pleaded guilty and the only one to show true remorse. She truly believed she had special powers, as did her grandmother and Old Chattox. Perhaps these women needed to think they possessed otherworldly skills that gave them power over others; skills which allowed them to seek their own justice and retribution. If the Pendle witch trials illustrate anything, it shows that for marginal people like the Devices and Whittles, there was little hope of it from the law.