“...These are they who by the permission of God disturb the elements, who drive to distraction the minds of men, such as have lost their trust in God, and by the terrible power of their evil spells, without any actual draught or poison, kill human beings.”
“Maleus Malificarum” by Heinrich Kramer,
German Clergyman and Witchfinder, 1486.
“Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.”
King James Bible
The history of witchcraft in England can be traced back to classical antiquity. Woven into pagan ideas, (the activities later to be deemed “witchcraft”), these were originally a collection of actions and beliefs associated with healing, particularly with plants. Practitioners of this “craft” were called ‘cunning folk’, and numbered women as well as men. From the 7th century on, fears of “black magic” were prevalent.
In England, there was never a unified policy of witch-hunting. Periods of breakouts were handled with statutes against witchcraft most notably under the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. King James associated Catholics with witchcraft during his reign. In England, those found guilty of witchcraft were hanged, not burned as in other countries.
Pendle Hill - Image © Meg Twycross 2007
The Pendle Witch Trial was the largest witch trial in English history. The events took place in Pendle Hill, in the East of Lancashire, England. This area was described as “a dark corner of the land”. The trial resulted in the execution of 10 people.
What is unique about this trial is that a young girl of 9 years was allowed to give testimony against the defendants – including her entire family. This initiated a precedent of young children being allowed to witness in witchcraft trials, as witchcraft was treason against the Crown and needed to be stamped out.
The Device family, a poor family of beggars, lived in a slattern house in Pendle Forest, Lancashire, called Malkin Tower. It was home to Elizabeth Southerns (“Old Demdike”), her daughter, Elizabeth Device, and Elizabeth’s children Alizon, James and Jennet.
On March 18, 19-year-old Alizon Device was begging for pins from pedlar John Law on her way to Trawden Forest. He refused her and she mumbled a curse. He fell to the road and died.
When questioned by the local magistrate, Roger Nowell, Alizon confessed to killing Law. She then accused her grandmother and members of the neighboring Whittle family of witchcraft.
Alizon’s brother James in turn accused Alizon of cursing a local child, and James' sister Jennet confessed that her mother had a witch’s mark on her body.
On March 30, Alizon, Old Demdike, Chattox (Ann Whittle) and her daughter Ann Redfearne were sent to Lancaster Castle to await trial. Old Demdike, who was 80 years old, would die in prison before the next assize session.
On April 15, allegations of a Witches Sabbat (gathering) at Malkin Tower were made. Eight people were arrested as a result of investigations by JP Robert Holden. 22-year-old James Device was present at the meeting.
This post originally ran as part of the "The Court Will Come To Order" virtual Education Department event in October of 2021.