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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds Here we are in Lancaster Castle. And on the 18th of August, 1612, the county’s annual Court of Assizes was about to sit. These days, it’s called a Crown Court. Eight women and two men from Pendle would be the first to be hanged, the first in England to be found guilty of being satanic witches, witches in league with the devil. Now, why was this sad piece of history made here in Lancashire in 1612? The answers lie in the religious, the political, and the economic history of this county palatine of Lancaster. The religious context is the English reformation when England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and from the authority of the Pope.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 seconds In 1533, Henry VIII formed a new Protestant Church of England. He made it legal to read the Bible in English, not Latin. The Reformation was continued by Henry’s son, Edward VI, and his daughter Elizabeth. And then in 1603, James VI of Scotland became also James I of England. So it was James who was King when the Pendle witch trials took place. Henry VIII’s most radical Reformation was the dissolution of the monasteries. He disbanded these Catholic religious houses, confiscated their lands, and gave a lot of them to his allies. And this created tensions in Lancashire between traditional Catholics and the new Protestants. Here we are amid the ruins of Whalley Abbey, which as you can, see was thoroughly dissolved.

Skip to 1 minute and 43 seconds But before it was dissolved, it would have looked absolutely magnificent. Now, the abbey’s Cistercian monks were regarded as an important part of the local community. People didn’t change what traditional religious practices they had just because of a royal decree, especially here in rural Lancashire, because it was so distant from the Royal Court in London. Indeed, some London sophisticates called this the ‘dark corner of the land’. And there was support here for the popular uprising of 1536 called ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace’. Whalley’s last abbot was executed for his involvement. But brutal persecution did not eradicate Catholicism here in Lancashire. Resistance grew.

Skip to 2 minutes and 28 seconds In November, 1605, the Catholic gentleman who organised the gunpowder plot nearly succeeded in blowing up James I and his entire Protestant administration. And so elite Catholic families came under intense scrutiny, and Lancashire had several. We’re outside Samlesbury Hall, home of the Catholic Southworth family. And the authorities raided it frequently. They took away the family’s possessions as fines for not attending Church of England services. And they also looked for Catholic priests concealed in priest holes. Now, Samlesbury had one to the left of the fireplace– you can still see it– which may have sheltered the underground priest, Father Southworth. Now, Samlesbury Hall is significant because eight suspects came from the neighbouring village of Samlesbury.

Skip to 3 minutes and 16 seconds And also, Father Southworth was accused of manufacturing evidence against them. In this period, religion and politics were closely connected. James I left the enforcement of government policy in this dark corner to the High Sheriff of Lancashire and his justices of the peace, or magistrates. In 1612, it was one Roger Nowell who was the JP for Pendle, and he’d been High Sheriff of Lancashire in 1610, the King’s representative here in the North. Now, Nowell’s family was part of the new Protestant elite. Indeed, they had been given some of the Whalley Abbey land, and they built Read Hall on it, and Roger lived there. He was determined to enforce James’s policies and seek out the King’s enemies.

Skip to 4 minutes and 4 seconds Of course, the gunpowder plot had convinced James that he had Catholic enemies. But he thought he also faced more powerful enemies– those witches who were the servants of Satan. So when Roger Nowell received information of satanic witches in Pendle, he swung into action. And he knew what to do because James had published a manual for witch hunters. In 1597, James VI of Scotland had published Demonology, his guide to detecting and prosecuting demonic witches. In England, witches had previously been charged only with maleficium, a Latin word meaning bad or evil deeds. But when James became King of England also in 1603 and had Demonology reprinted in London, he insisted that law officers uncover these truly satanic witches.

Skip to 4 minutes and 58 seconds And Roger Nowell was keen to oblige.

Religious and Social Change

In this short video you’ll find out about the religious and social changes which took place in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in Northern England.

As you watch, you might find it helpful to make some notes about the key issues that relate to Lancaster Castle and its context during the Early Modern period.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • What is the significance of Lancashire’s relatively remote location relative to London – and its distance from other major cities in what is now the United Kingdom?

  • What was the impact of the Scottish king James VI coming to the throne of England as James I?

  • How significant was the dissolution of Catholic religious foundations, such as monasteries and abbeys, in shaping the political and religious environment?

When you have watched the video please share your thoughts with others by posting a comment.

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This video is from the free online course:

Lancaster Castle and Northern English History: The View from the Stronghold

Lancaster University