Lancaster (also Lancashire) Witches Two notable witch trials of England took place in the Pendle Forest area of Lancaster County, in 1612 and 1633. The 1612 trials are noted for the records kept by the court clerk, Thomas Potts, published as a chapbook, which set forth the hAg stereotype of witches. The 1633 trials involved a boy who was coerced by his father into giving false testimony that resulted in more than 30 arrests and 17 convictions.
The 1612 trials.
About 20 persons were brought under suspicion of witchcraft in the first major witch trials of northern England. The central figures were two old and decrepit women—Elizabeth Sowthern, alias “Old Demdike,” who was about 80 years old, and Anne Whittle, alias “Old Chattox,” who was about 60 years old—rivals in the service of wizardry and magical arts to the local population.
In march of 1612 Old Demdike was questioned by a local justice who had received reports that she was a witch. The woman, who was blind, confessed to being a witch and pointed the finger at her granddaughter, Alison Device, and Old Chattox. The three were taken into custody and held in Lancaster castle.
Old Demdike said that about 20 years before, while returning home from begging, she had been stopped in the Pendle Forest by a spirit or Devil in the shape of a boy, whose coat was half black and half brown. The Devil
said that if she gave him her soul, she could have anything she requested. She asked the Devil’s name and was told, “Tibb.” Old Demdike agreed. For the next five or six years, Tibb appeared to her and asked what was her bidding, but she repeatedly turned him away. At the end of six years, on one Sabbath morning, while Old Demdike had a child on her knee and was in a slumber, Tibb appeared in the likeness of a brown dog and sucked blood from beneath her left arm. The experience, she said, left her “almost stark mad” for about eight weeks.
Old Demdike also testified that her daughter, Elizabeth Device, had helped out one Richard Baldwyn at his mill just before Christmas in 1611. Led by Alison Device, Old Demdike went to Baldwyn to ask for remuneration. Baldwyn replied, “Get out of my ground, whores and witches, I will burn the one of you, and hang the other,” to which Old Demdike retorted, “I do not care for thee, hang thyself.” As the women were leaving, Tibb appeared and urged Old Demdike to take revenge. She agreed, and said, “revenge thee either of him, or his.” Tibb vanished and she never saw him again.
Old Chattox confessed that 14 years earlier she had entered into the “devilish abominable profession of witchcraft” through the “wicked persuasion and counsel” of Old Demdike. The Devil appeared to her in the likeness of a man, and, at Old Demdike’s urging, she promised him her soul and gave him a place near her ribs to suck on. The witches were rewarded with a feast of food and drink. Old Chattox was indicted, according to Potts, for the felonious practice of “diverse wicked and devilish arts called witchcrafts, enchantments, charms and sorceries” to cause the death of one Robert Nutter of Pendle Forest.
Alison Device confessed that after the falling-out with Baldwyn, one of his daughters fell ill the next day, lingered for a year and died. She believed her grandmother bewitched the child to death. Device also was indicted for laming an old peddler.
On Good Friday in April, within a week after the women had been imprisoned in Lancaster castle, Old Demdike’s daughter, Elizabeth, called a meeting of her family and that of Old Chattox to discuss a plan to free them. The meeting took place at Malking Tower, the forest home of Old Demdike, and was attended by about 21 persons, 18 of them women. The group devised a plan in which they would kill the jailer and blow up the castle with gunpowder. Following the planning, the group had a feast that included stolen mutton, and bacon and beef. When the justice, Robert Nowell, got wind of the meeting, he had arrested and sent to the castle nine of those involved: Elizabeth Device and her son, James Device; Anne Redfearne, daughter of Old Chattox; Alice Nutter; Katherine Hewit; Jane and John Bulcock, mother and son; Isabel Robey; and Margaret Pearson. Others involved managed to flee.
In all, 20 persons were brought to trial in August. They testified against each other. The principal witnesses were Elizabeth Device’s children, Alison, James, who was in his twenties, and Jennet (also given as Jannet), a girl of nine. Both testified against their mother. Jennet said that Elizabeth had an Imp named Ball, which she dispatched to murder anyone who displeased her. James said he had seen Ball in the shape of a brown dog and also had seen his mother making clay images. With the testimony of her children, Elizabeth then confessed. Jennet then implicated James, saying he used another imp in the shape of a dog, Dandy, to bewitch persons to death. James confessed.
Anne Redfearne was acquitted on charges of bewitching Robert Nutter to death. This verdict was so unpopular that Redfearne was retried for bewitching Nutter’s father, Christopher Nutter, to death. This time, she was convicted. Alice Nutter, Christopher’s wife, was charged with killing one Henry Mytton and was named by the three Devices.
Ten persons were sentenced to hang: Old Chattox, Elizabeth, James and Alison Device; Anne Redfearne; Katherine Hewit; Jane and John Bulcock; and Isabel Robey. Old Demdike died in prison before her trial, and Margaret Pearson was sentenced to a lesser punishment of the pillory and a year in jail. The rest were found not guilty.
In his account of the trials, court clerk Potts described the defendants as the most wretched of hags. Elizabeth Device was an “odious witch,” a “barbarous and inhumane monster, beyond example,” who was “branded with a preposterous marke in nature, even from her birth, which was her left eye, standing lower then (sic) the other; the one looking down, the other looking up, so strangely deformed, as the best that were present in that honourable assembly, and great audience, did affirm, they had not often seen the like.” Old Chattox was “a very old withered spent and decrepit creature, her sight almost gone.” Old Demdike was “the rankest hag that ever troubled daylight.”
Twenty-one years later, Jennet Device became involved in the second major witch trials of the Pendle Forest area.
The 1633 trials.
This episode in witch-hunting history began with a farmer’s son, Edmund Robinson, about 10 or 11 years of age, who seemed to have a vivid imagination. According to his story, he was out at the edge of the forest one day and saw two greyhounds, which he thought belonged to a neighbour. He tried to set them on a hare, but when they refused to course, he drew a switch and started to beat them. They turned into a little boy and a woman he knew, mother Dickenson. Dickenson offered him money to sell his soul to the Devil, but he refused. She took a bridle out of her pocket and put it on the little boy, who turned into a horse. Grabbing Edmund, Dickenson sprang up on the horse and rode over the terrain until they came to a large barn. It was a witches’ sabbat and there were about 50 to 60 persons gathered for a feast. Edmund observed six ugly witches pulling ropes tied to the ceiling of the barn, which brought down meat, butter, bread, milk that fell into basins, hot puddings and other delicacies. Edmund was so frightened that he managed to escape home.
Edmund’s father made the boy give a deposition to the authorities. Since Edmund did not know the names of all those present at the sabbat, he was sent around the countryside to churches and public places to identify them by sight. For every witch identified, he would be paid a fee. Such an incentive must have been impossible to resist, and, prodded by his father, Edmund accused more than 30 persons—including Jennet Device. Seventeen of them were found to bear the Witch's Mark, were tried and convicted. Among them was mother Dickenson, a young woman who confessed she had sold her soul to the Devil for money which later vanished and another who was accused of making a pail of water run uphill. The latter apparently was in the habit of rolling her pail downhill and running ahead of it.
The local justices suspected that something foul besides witchcraft was afoot and referred the cases to the king’s Council. An investigation by the Bishop of Chester revealed that the elder Robinson had been willing to accept bribes for withholding evidence against the accused. Four prisoners were sent to London, where they were examined for witch’s marks, but none were found. Questioned, Edmund finally admitted that during the alleged sabbat, he had been out picking plums. He had been coerced into making up the story by his father, who had sought to make quick money. The prisoners were released (some had died in jail), and Robinson senior was jailed.
- Harrison, G. B., ed. The Trial of the Lancaster Witches. 1929. Reprint, New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971.
- Hole, Christina. Witchcraft in England. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1947.
- Maple, Eric. The Dark World of Witches. New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1962.