Senior Tutor, Matthew Uffindell, researches the story of the Pendle Witches – and the echoes of an extraordinary event which continue to reach us from the distant past.
Pendle Hill, isolated from the main range of the Pennines, rises above the Ribble Valley in Lancashire. In July and August of this year, this beautiful area will be the focus of an anniversary of the horrific events which resulted in the condemning to death of 10 people and the persecution of many more.
In 1998, the keenly felt injustices occasioned the petitioning of the Home Secretary and Blackburn Member of Parliament, Jack Straw. However the convictions of the men and women of Pendle were ordered to stand, and no official pardon was granted. Nine years later in 2007 The Lancashire Telegraph newspaper ran the story again, the petition was resurrected by Gordon Prentice, the M.P. for Pendle, and handed to the Scottish Parliament. A local councillor called the whole affair ‘a miscarriage of justice’.
You may well be wracking your brains, trying to remember which particular recent episode of injustice this is. Well, do the following names ring any bells? Jennet Preston, Anne Whittle, Elizabeth, James, and Alizon Device, Anne Redferne, Jane and John Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt?
Any the wiser? Probably not, because these names come to us, not from the 21st but from the early 17th century, and ‘the miscarriage of justice’ was perpetrated 400 years ago. Twelve locals were accused, one died in prison before the trials (held in York and Lancaster in July and August), and of the nine men and two women who survived the questioning, ten were found guilty and hanged – for witchcraft.
Why does this 400-year old horror endure, apart from our general desire to keep alive the lurid events of the past? Why, in particular, are these early 17th century men and women remembered so faithfully, and the locality of the hill still associated with witches, magic and hauntings? After all, while much is written about witchcraft (and in the popular imagination an orgy of hangings and burnings of witches regularly occurred throughout the 15th to 18th centuries) it has been calculated that only about 500 executions took place in the 400-year period.
One explanation is that such relatively low numbers over such a long period does mean that 10 executions from the small area of Pendle Hill, considered wild and isolated in the 17th century, has had a significant and lasting impact on a closed community.
Even 400 years ago the community itself appears to have been at odds about the guilt or innocence of its members. As in all times of fear, it was an opportunity for friends and relations to settle old scores and grievances by denouncing their neighbours. But why an upsurge in persecutions at that particular time?
One theory is that the region had strong roots in Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Elizabeth’s accession to the throne in 1558 led to the celebration of the Mass in secret. Religion practised in secret, unfamiliar rituals and the association of political and religious power led to suspicions which fed prejudice and fear, fatefully linking Roman Catholicism and witchcraft in the minds of many.
In addition, eight years before the trials (in 1603), James I had became king. James was fascinated – and appalled – by witchcraft. He himself attended witch trials and believed that witches were plotting against his life. In 1597 he wrote his tract against witchcraft, Daemonologie, in which he complains of: ‘The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchaunters.’
In 1604 a law was enacted in parliament, ‘against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits’, imposing the death penalty for causing harm by the use of magic or the exhumation of corpses for magical purposes. Then there was the sensationalism of the discovery of another Catholic outrage in 1605 – the Gunpowder Plot.
Add to this the mysterious and sudden onset of disease in man and beast alike, the claims of cures, the potions of protection against disease and the works of the devil, pedaled by the innocent, the genuinely knowledgeable or the swindlers, and we can see reasonable cause for the groundswell of popular prejudice, acting against those victims of 1612.
But why a petition in the 21st century and what keeps the memory of this 400-year old injustice alive? One reason is that we have a vivid contemporary account of those macabre events. In 1613 the proceedings of the Pendle witch trials were published by the court clerk, Thomas Potts, in his The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. Interestingly the book was dedicated to Thomas Knyvet and his wife Elizabeth – and Knyvet was the man credited with apprehending Guy Fawkes.
Crucially, however, stories of witches are embedded, not simply in folk memory but in the great literature of the age. James I’s Daemonologie provided material for Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth. A year before the 1612 trials saw the publication of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the story of which is partly based on a contemporary account of a shipwreck off the Bermudas, what an official report calls ‘The Devil’s Ilands’. The island of the play, appropriated by the magician and dispossessed Prospero, had been the domain of the witch Sycorax.
The figure of the witch is a powerful metaphor of the individual or group standing outside the conventions of society; and the fear of the unfamiliar is potent. So perhaps it is not surprising that the Pendle witch trials continue to fascinate us in the 21st century. In 1952 Arthur Miller recognised the Salem witch trials (1692 and 1693) as a symbol for the McCarthy hunt for dangerously subversive communists.
We have become used to the infantilised, fantasy witches of the modern media and the ‘gothic’ soap operas of horror and children’s stories – but witches are artefacts of the deep past. What reason tries to suppress or mock, time has a habit of resurrecting. As Charles Lamb recognises in his 1821 essay Witches and Other Night Fears, these aberrations of our shadowy past ‘may reproduce themselves in the brain of superstition – but they were there before. They are transcripts, types – the archetypes are in us, and eternal.’
So, we might well ask, as we remember the Pendle witches, who are today’s witches? And for which hapless victims of today will we be asking pardon in the year 2412?