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The Trial of the Lancashire Witches

Video about the trial of the 'Lancashire Witches', the first people in England to be prosecuted for Satanic witchcraft. Part of a Futurelearn course.
We’re near the village of Barley in the shadow of Pendle Hill. Nowell said that the witches met in Demdike’s cottage, Malkin Tower, in or near Barley. Lancaster is some 30 miles to the northwest, but Nowell’s Read Hall is eight miles to the southwest, and the village of Gisburn on the Yorkshire border is a mere six miles to the north. That’s significant, because a Gisburn girl had been executed for witchcraft at the York assizes in July. She was a friend of the Pendle suspects, so Nowell wanted to round up the other members of the coven. Now those arrested make us think about the economic context.
They came from two poor and warring families led by two notorious old women with a reputation for witchcraft known as Chattox and Demdike. We don’t know exactly where Malkin Tower was, but sites have been proposed in these fields to the north of Barley, probably close to the reservoir that now exists. Demdike and Chattox belonged to the very poorest sort of England, and this is still a remote, even wild region, and it was hard to scratch a living. The system of poor relief functioned badly, and there weren’t many affluent locals to ask for charity. And as very old, infirm widows, they were economically marginal. It’s plausible that they did anything– stealing, selling magical potions, casting spells– to eke out a living.
Nowell managed to get confessions from Demdike and Chattox, and he had all 11 charged with witchcraft and marched off to Lancaster Castle. They were confined for weeks until the presiding judge, Edward Bromley, and his clerk, Thomas Potts, had ridden over the Pennines from York to here in Lancaster, and they stayed here in Lancaster’s judge’s lodgings. Now this building was slightly rebuilt in 1625. But here in front of it, the people of Lancaster would have gathered, waiting for the trials and looking forward to some public hangings. This painting shows an 18th century assizes, but you can see that the people are in holiday mood.
There are street food sellers, there are entertainers, and the locals were waiting to hear the judge’s royal proclamation of Jacobean policy. And In 1612, the judges would have been urging obedience to Royal Law, vigilance against Catholic extremists, and of course, against Satanic witches. [MYSTERIOUS MUSIC]
Here we are in the very cell where the 11 from Pendle and the eight accused from Samlesbury were confined for weeks before the trial began. Chattox and Demdike had already confessed to Roger Nowell. It’s amazing the others didn’t crack. They were deprived of food, they were deprived of sleep. And poor old Demdike died here before the trial could begin. And so on the 18th of August, the prisoners were brought into the court. They would have seen the judge in his chair, the jury of 12 good men and true, and the witness box, which would prove important. But here sat the clerk of the court, Thomas Potts.
Judge Bromley realised that the charges of Satanic witchcraft were unprecedented in England, and so he instructed Potts to keep a full record. And it’s because Potts did so that the Pendle witch trials are the best documented in English history. Potts’ record, ‘The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster’, was printed on the judge’s orders in 1613. And the trial itself was sensational. Of course, most of the Pendle suspects insisted that they were innocent. That included Demdike’s daughter Elizabeth Device. But Potts’ records show how Elizabeth’s own daughter, Jennet Device, a mere nine-year-old girl, took the stand and denounced her mother and brother as witches, and she named the others who had been at Malkin Tower.
And so the fate of the Pendle witches was sealed. English law did not normally allow such a young child to testify, but James had written in Demonologie that witch trials were not normal and so bairns– children like Jennet– could take the stand. Now came the trials of the Samlesbury accused, including one Jane Southworth, a Protestant Southworth from that largely Catholic family. And once again, the case depended upon the evidence of a young girl. In this case, one Grace Sowerbutts. She testified that she’d seen Jane and others kill a baby, cook it, and anoint themselves with its fat. Now in Demonologie, James had warned that it was as bad to condemn the innocent as to let the guilty witches go free.
Nevertheless, the jury was shocked when Judge Bromley suddenly revealed that Grace had been coached to perjure herself by one Father Christopher Southworth, Jane’s uncle and a chaplain at Catholic Samlesbury Hall. Case dismissed. Potts’s wonderful discovery concludes with guilty verdicts passed on the Pendle witches. They were marched out of the city, up this road or lane, and when they reached the moor’s hilltop, they were hanged. The hill is still known as Golgotha, named, of course, after the place of execution where Jesus was crucified. Judge Bromley and clerk Potts returned to London. What then do these Lancaster witch trials tell us about the state of Lancashire and of England in 1612?
They tell us that Lancashire was a largely poor and transitional region, remote from London, remote from the religious, economic, and administrative reformations that were evident there. And they tell us of tensions between a new Protestant elite and the traditional Catholic families. And they show how James I used the legal system to deal with his real or imagined enemies. And what about the future of witch trials in England? Potts’s account was seemingly crafted to please James I. He cunningly included passages from James’ Demonologie. He showed how the witches conformed to James’ descriptions, and he portrayed the judges as paragons who had skillfully fulfilled James injunction not to condemn the innocent. And Potts and Bromley were rewarded with promotions to higher office.
Perhaps Potts’ accounts of the trials did not convince everyone. Potts wrote that false reports were circulating in London, and James’ royal playwright, Ben Johnson, alluded to the Lancaster trials in his play of 1616, The Devil is an Ass. In that play, he has Satan tell Pug, his incompetent demon, that whilst he was not fit to deceive Londoners, he was suitable for work in Lancashire. By 1616, indeed, James’ obsession with witches was lessening. If there was criticism of the Pendle verdicts, perhaps one legacy of the Lancaster trials is that it helps to explain why Stuart England was spared the furious witch hunts which raged in many parts of early modern Europe.

In this short video you’ll find out more about the trial of the Lancashire witches in 1612.

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:

  • To what extent does the social and economic status of the people accused of being witches explain what happened to them?

  • How did the campaign against witches link to the need to maintain the power of the monarchy?

  • What kinds of questions might historians need to keep in mind when they assess the validity of Potts’ account of the trial of the Lancashire witches?

As usual, our learners are encouraged to share their thoughts by posting a comment.

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

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