The Pendle Witches on Good-Fryday

 

“their Children and Friendes laboured a speciall meeting at Malking Tower in the Forrest of Pendle, upon Good-fryday, of all the most dangerous, wicked, and damnable Witches in the County farre and neere. Upon Good-fryday they met with great cheare, merry company, and much conference…” —  From The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in Lancashire County by Thomas Potts

On Good Friday, April 10, 1612, the men and women who came to be known as the “Pendle Witches” held a feast at Malkin Tower, the home of one Elizabeth (Lizzie) Device.  The group were later arrested by the local sheriff, Roger Nowell. According to Nowell, the witches at the Good Friday feast were planning and plotting — specifically —  to “kill M. Cowell, and blow up Lancashire Castle [using] all their Murders, Witchcraftes, Inchauntments, Charmes, & Sorceries…”

One week before, on April 2, 1612, Lizzie’s mother, Elizabeth (Bess) Southerns (aka “Old Demdike” ) and her sixteen-year-old daughter Alison had been arrested for witchcraft. Also arrested were their neighbors, Anne Whittle (aka “Old Chattox”) and her daughter Anne Redfearne.  The women were being held at the Well Tower  — which was actually a dungeon — in Lancaster Castle  — which was actually a medieval fortress. There they awaited trial, to be held at the August Assizes, which meant four months in prison.

According to Sheriff Roger Nowell, it was entirely plausible that Old Demdike’s daughter would carry out a plan to kill Thomas Cowell (the coroner appointed by King James to investigate the case) and blow up Lancaster Castle in order to free her loved ones.

The Pendle Witch trials are among the most famous in British history, and the only witch trials ever that had a court journalist– one Thomas Potts — who recorded the testimonies and then wrote a book, The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in Lancashire County published in 1613.

But who were the Pendle Witches, why were they so notorious, and did they even commit the crimes they were accused of?

Pendle Forest Cunning-Woman

At the time of her arrest, Bess Southerns was around eighty years old, and had been previously known as a healer and cunning-woman. Her folk magick practices had included midwifery and saving people from plagues and other ailments. She was arrested on charges of consorting with spirits and using charms to instill sickness and death.  Furthermore, years earlier she had supposedly encountered a faerie named Tibb and made a bargain with him:

“Elizabeth Sowtherns confesseth, and sayth; That about twentie yeares past, as she was comming homeward from begging, there met her neere unto a Stonepit in Gouldshey in the Forrest of Pendle, a Spirit or Devill in the shape of a Boy… who bade this Examinate that if she would giue him her Soule, she should have any thing that she would request. Whereupon she asked his name? and the Spirit answered, his name was Tibb: 

and so this Examinate in hope of such gaine as was promised by the sayd Devill or Tibb, was contented to give her Soule to the said Spirit: And next after, the sayd Spirit or Devill appeared at sundry times unto her alwayes bidding her stay, and asking her what she would have?”

During this time, a neighbor named Richard Baldwin had taken sick – after having had a verbal altercation with Bess in which she had  somewhat flippantly told him “I will pray for you.”  (It was largely believed that a witch’s prayers could bring harm…) Soon after, Baldwin’s young daughter became ill and died. Needless to say, the death was blamed on Bess and her pact with Tibb.

Anne Whittle had a similar story. Bess had allegedly been her mentor.

“Anne Whittle, alias Chattox, sayeth, that about foureteene yeares past she entered the wicked perswasions and counsell of Elizabeth Southerns, alias Demdike, and was seduced to condescend & agree to become subject unto that devilish abhominable profession of Witchcraft: Soone after which,  at around Midnight, the Devill appeared unto her in the likeness of a Man…

whereupon the said wicked Spirit mooved this Examinate, that she would become his Subject, and give her Soule unto him:”

Further deaths in the Pendle Forest were blamed on the two women and their so called pact with the devil.

“… many sundry Person haue been bewitched to death, and by whom they were so bewitched: Robert Nuter, late of the Greene-head in Pendle, was bewitched by Demdike, and Widdow Lomshawe, (late of Burneley) now deceased.

And she further sayeth, that she had bewitched to death, Richard Ashton, Sonne of Richard Ashton of Downeham Esquire.”

A Black Dog and Communion Wafers

Young Alison Device had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She had been walking upon a road in Colne when she saw a peddler – a man named John Law. (I am not kidding. His name was actually John Law. No offense to the Police Department 😊 )

In general, the people of Pendle Forest were poor. Many went barefoot with tattered clothes. Alison had the need for some pins to mend her crumbling kirtle. She asked John Law to “open his sack so she might purchase some.” He refused. Alison then shouted some choice words at him, upon which a black dog came running out of the forest. John Law fell to the ground (in modern times we would say he suffered a stroke.) Nonetheless, it was assumed that the black dog was Alison’s “familiar” – a spirit who arrived on the scene to do Alison’s evil bidding.

The significance of pins should be noted. Aside from holding a kirtle together, pins were seen as necessary for certain witchcraft practices (akin to voodoo) such as sticking them into dolls or “poppets” meant to represent people one wanted revenge on. John Law, perhaps knowing the reputation of Alison’s grandmother, may have hesitated to sell them to her.

James Device, the twenty-year-old grandson of Bess, confessed to stealing communion wafers for his grandmother, digging up skulls and bones, and consulting with a familiar he called “Dandy”.  James Device was believed to have what we would now consider a learning disability. After being starved in prison he became so weak he could barely stand up when brought to trial.

“Being brought forth to the Barre, to receive his Triall … James Device was so insensible, weak, and unable in all thinges, as he could neither speak, hear, or stand, but was holden up when hee was brought to the place of his Arraignement, to receive his triall.”

This further leads us to believe that the prisoners received terrible, inhumane treatment in the dungeon, not to mention coerced confessions.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

To make matters worse, in court Alison’s nine-year-old sister Jennet Device testified against her own family, accusing them all of murder.  The child’s stories were taken extremely seriously by the magistrate.

Little Jennet had been in the custody of Roger Nowell since her mother was hauled off to prison. He had most likely coached her to condemn her own family. Nonetheless, Jennet’s accusations became a precedent for children accusing adults of witchcraft. (This practice was later used at the Salem Witch Trials in the American colonies when a group of children accused over 200 people of witchcraft.)

To this day, the outrageous nature of the confessions is questioned by historians.  Some believe that Roger Nowell embellished them. Torture was “forbidden” in England, but other practices, such as starvation and sleep deprivation were often used to coax confessions out of those accused.

King James and the Occult

Roger Nowell had a lot of stakes in the trials. It was to his advantage to prove witchcraft under the reign of King James.  The King, a self-described “witch expert”, had an obsession with the occult and actually believed his throne was threatened by witches.

James himself had written a book about witchcraft titled Daemonologie. He also changed several witchcraft laws to make arrests and convictions easier. This lead to the deaths of many accused. Even Shakespeare’s play Macbeth was written in part as propaganda to appeal to King James, then head of the production company.

Interestingly, the spells recited by the witches in court do not seem devil-based at all, but rather adhere to teachings of the Catholic Church, with references to the angel Gabriel, the twelve apostles and the Mother Mary.  Catholic (Papal) practices had been forbidden under King James, a Protestant. However, the county of Lancashire had always been a Catholic stronghold, and it was known that folks practiced the “Old Faith” in secret.

One such “Good Friday” charm, recited in court by James and Jennet Device is as follows:

A Charme

Upon Good-Friday, I will fast while I may

Untill I heare them knell Our Lords owne Bell,

Lord in his messe With his twelve Apostles good

What hath he in his hand? Light in leath wand

 What hath he in his other hand? Heavens doore key

Open, open Heaven doore keyes, Stuck, stuck hell doore.

Let Crizum child Goe to its Mother mild,

What is yonder that casts a light?

 Mine owne deare Sonne that’s nailed to the Tree.

He is nailed sore by the heart and hand,

And holy harne Panne, Well is that man That Fryday spell can,

His Childe to learne; A Crosse of Blew, and another of Red…

 Sweete Jesus our Lord, Amen.

 

“To Be Hung By the Neck Until You Are Dead”

Various other deaths and sicknesses were blamed on the Pendle Witches. In the end, of the twelve originally arrested, ten were sentenced to death. These were:

Anne Whittle, known as Chattox
Anne Redfearne, daughter of Chattox
Elizabeth Device, daughter of Demdyke
James Device, son of Elizabeth Device
Alison Device, daughter of Elizabeth Device
Alice Nutter
Jane Bulcock
John Bulcock, son of Jane Bulcock
Katherine Hewitt, known as Mouldheels
Isabel Robey

Elizabeth Southerns died in Lancaster Gaol before the trial began. Some say she used her cunning powers to escape trial. Most likely, the hideous conditions of the prison contributed greatly to her demise. (It was quite common for accused women to die in prison of dysentery or malnutrition, especially the elderly.)

What do you think of the Pendle Witches? Let me know in the comments.

Have a blessed Good-Fryday!

 

Pendle Forest

 

 

 

Shakespeare and the Witches

 

a macbeth 2

“All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.

All hail Macbeth, that shall be King hereafter!”

So states witches’ the prophetic message in William Shakespeare’s immortal ‘Scottish Play’.  This prediction, told by the Weird Sisters, sends Macbeth on a tunnel vision mission to destroy reigning King Duncan and take his so-called ‘rightful’ place on the throne.

To believe or not to believe… in the power of suggestion? That is the question!  (Pun intended.  See what I did there?)

The Bard has taken on nearly every subject in human capacity, but have you ever wondered what inspired him to write about witches?  What were the superstitions of the day, the beliefs of Jacobean society?  It is a history worth looking into.

In 1603, James Stuart of Scotland succeeded his aunt, Good Queen Bess, as ruler of England.  Along with his Danish wife and courtiers, James brought strange ideas to the palace, not the least of which was the irrational fear of witches.

Before James, witchcraft in England was considered a mostly benign crime.  Queen Elizabeth was no stranger to magic. She was known to consult super astrologer of the day John Dee.  Also, her own mother Anne Boleyn was rumored to have a ‘sixth finger’ and a ‘witch’s mole’.  (Moles and  other birthmarks could really get you in trouble back then.)   Anne Boleyn had been marginally accused of sorcery.  These factors perhaps contributed to Bess’ liberal attitudes.  At any rate, under Bess the crimes were not considered treasonous and first offenders were let off easily.

Not so with James. Before 1603 he had already tortured and executed dozens of accused witches, convinced that they contrived murderous plots against him.  James had instigated the North Berwick Witch Trials,  which were the first major witch persecutions in Scotland. This led to bigger paranoia.    It has been estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 accused witches may have been killed in Scotland over the years from 1560 to 1707.

James considered himself a virtual witchcraft expert.  He was so much of an expert that he wrote a book called ‘Daemonologie’, which was all about – you guessed it – demons!  James instated the Witchcraft Act of 1604 which put the screws to witches (thumb and otherwise.)  Dabbling in the magic arts became treason.  Healers, midwives, potion makers and soothsayers were all fair game.  Culprits got the noose. This was much different than the previous hand slaps of Queen Bess.

James introduced a whole bunch of exotic and frightening new witch folklore into the social milieu.  You know that story about blood contracts? It was James who propagated it. For those that are unfamiliar, it goes something like this:  A witch signs a blood contract with the devil, guaranteeing him her immortal soul in exchange for earthly powers.  The devil, complete with hooves and horns, eagerly accepts. The two then do the Satanic horizontal bop to seal the deal.  James’ book describes all sorts of other ridiculous notions, such as cannibalism, evil hexes, maiming and murder.  Read this incredible piece of fiction for yourself at   http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/kjd/#begin

James of course did not intend it as fiction.  He was serious as a peasant’s revolt.

James was also an avid theater fan.  He made it his royal business to take over Shakespeare’s troupe, the former Lord Chamberlain’s Men, renaming them simply ‘The King’s Men’.

Will Shakespeare, who was certainly no fool, became eager to write plays that would please his new boss.  Hence he penned Macbeth, set in 11th century Scotland, dealing not only with the Divine right of Kings, but also with witches.  The Bard frequently based his plays on myths, Greek tragedies and historical happenings.  One of his go-to reference books was Holinshed’s Chronicles, a history of Great Britain composed by Rafael Holingshed.  It is from this book that Shakespeare weaved the tragic history of Macbeth.  Ironically, one of his first inspirations came from this picture:

a macbeth

“Macbeth and Banquo encountering the witches – Holinshed Chronicles”

See those three ladies dressed in regalia of the day?  Those are the original witches.  They look pretty normal, don’t they? Yeah.  That’s what I thought.  Your average, every day wise-women.

Holinshed describes the scene:  “It fortuned as Makbeth and Banquho iournied towards Fores…  there met them thrée women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of  an elder world…  the first of them spake and said; “All haile Makbeth, thane of Glammis”’

Three women.  Creatures of an elder world.  Judging from the picture, they would have commanded a bit of respect.

However, with King James in the throes of full blown witch paranoia, it is easy to see why Will hyped up the image, making the women bearded, thin lipped, hunch backed and squint eyed.  They were also prone to kill pigs, raise storms and cut off a pilot’s thumb.  Scary?  You bet.  The play was a box office smash.

However, it did leave us with an uncomfortable legacy.  The association of witches with evil.  I do not blame Shakespeare.  He was just trying to please his boss.  Besides that, the play clearly lays the blame for King Duncan’s murder on Macbeth’s ruthless ambition, NOT on the women of the Elder world.   At no time do the women actually suggest murder.

Much can be said about the power of literature and the ideas that become fixated in the human psyche. However, the next time someone tries to tell you witches are ugly old squint eyed hags, remember Holinshed’s illustration.  The original Macbeth witches.

 

Jasper agrees!

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