The Pendle Witches
18th August 1612

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The Pendle Witches

The Pendle Witches


The Pendle Witch trial of 1612 is the most comprehensively documented of all of the British witch trials. At its conclusion, 10 of the 11 accused were sentenced to death by hanging. We know so much about the trials due to the survival of a record of the trials known as The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster - which covered both the Pendle Witches and those also sentenced at Samlesbury. 

The witches in question were primarily members of two families, each headed by a matriarch in her 80s - Elizabeth Southerns (referred to as 'Demdike') and Anne Whittle (who was known as 'Chattox').

The case centered on the accusation that Demdike's granddaughter - the 9 year old Alizon Device - had cursed John Law, a pedlar, when he refused to give her some pins. It was disputed at the trial whether she was begging for pins or had offered to buy them but didn't have sufficient money. Either way, as the pedlar left, Alizon uttered some oath at his back. Within minutes, he seemed to suffer something resembling a a stroke. Somehow, he reached a nearby inn where he recovered. While he initially made no accusation, word soon travelled around the small town that he had been cursed and the news was quick to reach the ears of local magistrate Roger Nowell. Thus was set in train a chain of events that would lead 10 people to the gallows.

Modern scholars believe that the two families were primarily using 'witchcraft' as a means of earning a living - offering succour, protection and threats either from or by witchcraft. Many of the accusations were actually levelled by the two families against each other.

The Wonderfull Discoverie is interesting because of the way in which it uses James I's Daemonologie as the basis of and justification for the prosecution of the witches. James himself had moved to a more sceptical position regarding the reality of witches after he had attained the throne and while the witchcraft act remained on the statute books, it was rarely used in comparison to similar acts on the continent. By 1612 he was more concerned with coming to terms with the continuing presence of recusant Catholics in the country and was taking steps to create a distinction in the public mind between "ordinary" Catholics and what today we would probably call 'radicalised' Catholics who were plotting to convert Britain to Catholocism.

The account was written by court clerk Richard Potts and dedicated to Thomas Knyvet - who was the man who searched the cellars below parliament and discovered Guy Fawkes in hiding there.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 25th August 2013 | © Weird Island 2010-2019
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The Pendle Witches: location




The Pendle Witches: BBC Documentary

The Pendle Witch Child

Documentary presented by Simon Armitage

The Pendle Witch Child

A documentary presented by poet Simon Armitage.

Further reading and recommended books