LETTER: Pendle Witches - the fact and fiction

David Penney raises an interesting point in relation to the promotion of the Pendle Witch trials by the local tourist industry.

In general, David’s argument for the witches having been the victims of a miscarriage of justice is sound. Where there is history, there is an extremely tangled web of truth and half-truth, the gaps often being filled with supposition. Such is the case within the popular view of the Pendle Witches.

Just to clarify a couple of points made by David; Roger Nowell (not Newell as stated) was not High Sheriff of Lancashire at the time of the trials. This position was filled by one “Bad Sir Cuthbert Halsall” who appears to have been an inveterate gambler and was instructed to hand pick a (rigged) jury for the trials. Neither did Roger Nowell preside over the trials, as this was the duty of Judges Bromley and Altham.

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As for Alice Nutter, I would be interested to know, if possible, which communicant list she appeared on as this has escaped me.

In most texts on the subject, Jennet Device is commonly said to have been nine in 1612 but, as we now have the baptism records for the family. We know she turned 12 in that year. Further, Demdike was probably 72 when she died in prison in May, 1612, and Chattox would have been much the same age. It might come as a surprise to many to learn these two principals among the witch group were probably from relatively well-off farming families. The description of “poor” within the agrarian Pendle Forest was usually applied to the sub-group of landless workers but this should not be taken to have the same meaning as that applied to the genuine poor within cities.

We have recently finished filming a documentary for the BBC on the subject and the research from this has uncovered some surprising results. One particular facet of the story is that the trials took the form of preconceived judicial ritual based on an earlier show trial that took place in the south. This latter was little more than a circus for the titillation of the great and the good and the prosecution “evidence” in the Lancaster debacle was an almost verbatim re-run. The diabolical stories of familiars, Sabbaths, clay effigies, casting of spells etc. we see in the Pendle Witch story is, then, absolute nonsense lifted directly from fairy stories created to entertain.

Furthermore, the commonly held view that Roger Nowell instigated the Pendle witch round-up is incorrect. He was acting as a conduit for the powerful family who presided over the southern trial.

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Our view of the witches, then, has a basis within fiction and fantasy. The image of the black-clad, pointy-hatted, broomstick-bound hag with a huge warty hooter is as accurate as the description of Cinderella with hobnailed boots and smoking a heroin pipe. For centuries, medieval dramatists and social commentators propounded our perceived version of the witch attending the diabolical Sabbath, consulting demonic familiars and selling their souls to the devil. It is safe, therefore, to discount most of the account left to us by clerk Thomas Potts as sheer propaganda, based on medieval fictional concepts, and reiterated in the cause of self-aggrandisement.

The popular notion of the Pendle Witch legend, then, is nothing other than medieval broadsheet fantasy. However, as David points out, there is another story here that is often overlooked; to my mind at least, the realities of the events surrounding the witchcraft trials are of far more value to our local history and culture. The early 17th Century was a period within which many years of high inflation and population increase had taken its toll; the purchasing power of the average weekly wage was the lowest for three centuries; terrorists threatened the fabric of authority; the gap between rich and poor was widening as never before; the Anglican Church was under pressure from without and within; tensions in Europe were high; corruption was rife; there were constant territorial wars abroad and supplies of food were largely controlled by a handful of forward traders. Sounds familiar? We can only hope history in this case does not repeat itself as the social and religious tensions of the period ended in civil war!

So - should the tourist industry continue to exploit the fascinating events that took place on our doorstep? Well, it is certainly not my place to tell people they should put a brake on the publicity machine. Perhaps a compromise would see the tourist-led witch story balanced by a more factual promotion so the two sides of the events could then be taken in context. As for an official pardon of the witches - there is a moral ethic here that is beyond my capabilities and so I leave this to those more qualified.

Finally, if anyone is interested I will shortly be publishing the latest historical and archaeological findings on the witch story as The Pendle Witch Fourth Centenary Handbook; this will be available from local book shops.