Four hundred years ago, in 1612, the north-west of England was the scene of England’s biggest peacetime witch trial: the trial of the Lancashire witches. Twenty people, mostly from the Pendle area of Lancashire, were imprisoned in the castle as witches. Ten were hanged, one died in gaol, one was sentenced to stand in the pillory, and eight were acquitted.
The trial was recorded in unique detail by the clerk of the court, Thomas Potts, who published his account soon afterwards as The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster. It all began in mid-March when a peddler named John Law had a frightening encounter with a poor young woman, Alizon Device. He refused her request for pins and there was a brief argument during which he was seized by a fit. Alizon Device surprised all by confessing to the bewitching of John Law and then begged for forgiveness.
When Alizon was unable to cure the peddler the local magistrate, Roger Nowell was called in. Characterized by Potts as “God’s justice” he was alert to instances of witchcraft, which were regarded by the Lancashire’s puritan-inclined authorities as part of the cultural rubble of ‘popery’ – Roman Catholicism – long overdue to be swept away at the end of the county’s very slow protestant reformation. Alizon explained that she had been led astray by her grandmother, well-known in the district for her knowledge of old Catholic prayers, charms, cures, magic, and curses.
The net was widened further at the end of April when Alizon’s younger siblings, only nine years old, came up with a story about a ‘great meeting of witches’ at their grandmother’s house. This meeting was presumably to discuss the plight of those arrested and the threat of further arrests, but according to the evidence extracted from the children by the magistrates, a plot was hatched to blow up Lancaster castle with gunpowder, kill the gaoler and rescue the imprisoned witches. It was, in short, a conspiracy against royal authority – something to be expected in a county known for its particularly strong underground Roman Catholic presence.
Those present at the meeting were mostly family and neighbors, but they also included Alice Nutter, described by Potts as ‘a rich woman [who] had a great estate, and children of good hope: in the common opinion of the world, of good temper, free from envy or malice.’ Her part in the affair remains mysterious, but she seems to have had Catholic family connections. She was, along with a number of others named by the children, rounded up, and by the time of the trial in August the accused had been joined in the dungeons of Lancaster Castle by other alleged witches from elsewhere in the county. All nineteen were tried in the space of two days, amid dramatic courtroom scenes. Ten of them were hanged the next day on Lancaster Moor, high above the town and overlooking Morecambe Bay.
Alice Nutter and several other defendants defied convention by refusing to offer any confession on the gallows. To many of those present at the hanging this would have seemed like proof of innocence, and it may have been such rumblings about the trial that prompted the trial judges to ask Potts to take the unusual step of publishing an account of it. The Lancashire trial was then cited from the 1620s onwards as the legal precedent in witchcraft cases. Indirectly, the trial of the Lancashire witches may have influenced the notorious ‘witchfinder-general’ trials of the 1640s and even the Salem witch trials of the 1690s in New England.
Adapted from Robert Poole, The Lancashire Witches @ 2012 by The Public Domain Review.
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