The Pendle Witches lived in the early 17th Century against a backdrop of suspicion and superstition. Having just survived the Catholic gunpowder plot, the Protestant King James I introduced greater religious persecution as well as a death penalty for those found guilty of witchcraft.
Most of the accused from the witch trials of 1612 lived within the parish. At that time, Pendle Forest was used by the King for his own private hunting parties. Many local families were extremely poor with little or no means of earning a living and so resorted to begging or stealing when they were desperate. Some of them used their own knowledge of plants to make herbal medicines, which was a common practice at this time. They offered these cures for sale or said prayers they knew for specific ailments. Living off whatever they could find meant being looked on as a general nuisance. The authorities in the area wanted them out of the way.
The matriarchs of two local families, Demdike and Chattox, offered such cures.
On a cold March day in 1612, a pedlar from Halifax called John Law collapsed to the ground paralysed. Just moments before Demdike’s grand-daughter, Alison Device, had cursed him. He would not give her the pins that her grandmother wanted for a spell.
The pedlar’s son hauled Alison in front of a local magistrate, Roger Nowell. Overawed by the situation, Alison confesses and incriminates both her grandmother, Demdike, and her rival, Chattox.
Perhaps wishing to enhance their local reputation, the two try to outdo each other with their stories, including the story of meeting the devil in a local quarry. On April 3rd 1612 Demdike, Chattox, Device, and Redfearn are committed for trial for witchcraft at Lancaster Castle.
On Good Friday the Demdike and Device families meet at Malkin Tower and feast on stolen mutton. Later when Nowell hears of this meeting he sends a local constable, Henry Hargreaves to Malkin Tower. There are accusations that they were plotting to free the imprisoned women and blow up the castle.
A constable found human bones and teeth stolen from graveyard at St Mary’s and a clay image. James Demdike confesses to using the image to cause the death of Anne Townley. The others at the alleged ‘Witches Sabbath’ meeting are all rounded up and imprisoned in Lancaster Castle.
The trials in Lancaster began on August 17th. They were conducted in Latin, so the accused would not understand the proceedings. The testimonies used to convict them were given based on fear and superstition, one from a 9 year old girl, Janet Device, which would not be acceptable in a modern court of law. Under trials at this time the accused were not allowed any form of defence. Janet identifies those who attended the Good Friday meeting, including her mother Elizabeth and Alice Nutter.
Alice Nutter was a landowner in the neighbouring village of Roughlee, with a higher social status than many of the other women arrested for witchcraft. Some sources think that she was trying to offer help and support to the victims.
After just three days the trial was over. All the accused were hung, except for Demdike, who died as a prisoner before the trial. After the convicted were hanged their bodies would have been disposed of near to the place of execution. Noone who was executed as a witch was allowed to be buried in a church yard. This law was still in place in the 19th century.