The Pendle Witches – a high price to pay for some pins!

As mentioned before here on my blog, the characters in ‘The Black Hours’ are named after real victims of the witch hunts. Alice Pendle is an amalgamation of the first name of Alice Molland, a woman executed in Devon in 1685 (find her story here) and the location of a famous prosecution in 1612 in Pendle Hill in Lancashire.


This trial and the subsequent executions are perhaps the most famous of the prosecutions in England. Many were accused in the interrogations that followed, including members of the same families: Elizabeth Southerns, a woman in her eighties (also known as Demdike, another name used in ‘The Black Hours’), her daughter Elizabeth Device, and her grandchildren James and Alizon Device; Anne Whittle, also known as Chattox (the surname given to poor Mary, who suffers in childbirth in ‘The Black Hours’) and her daughter Anne Redferne. Others accused at various points were Jane Bulcock and her son John Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Gray, Jennet Preston (whose first name was used for Jennet Everard in ‘the Black Hours’), Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Brierly, Isabel Robey and Margaret Pearson.


The trial of the Pendle witches was played out against a background of religious turmoil and intolerance, in a place with a strong Catholic background. Under Catholic Queen Mary, the people of Pendle were safe to follow Catholicism, but when Elizabeth came to the throne, Catholic priests had to go into hiding. In Pendle, and other remote areas, however, Mass continued to be celebrated, albeit in secret (leading to the use of priest hides, such as those in Harvington Hall.

Elizabeth was succeeded in 1603 by James I (James VI of Scotland). His ascension was met with hope by Catholics; however, these hopes were soon dashed. And King James also had a strong interest in witchcraft. He believed that witches had caused a storm that threatened a ship carrying him and his wife to Scotland.  He even wrote a book’ Daemonologie’, that instructed his subjects to denounce and prosecute any supporters or practitioners of witchcraft.


Into this atmosphere of religious intolerance, suspicion and superstition came Roger Nowell, Justice of the Peace for Pendle. In 1612 Nowell, along with other JPs in Lancashire, was instructed to compile a list of recusants in the area. These were Catholics who refused to attend the English church and take communion. While compiling this list, Nowell heard a complaint from the family of a pedlar, John Law, who claimed to be a victim of witchcraft.

According to John Law’s family, the poor man was ‘afflicted’ and fell to the ground after refusing to give Alizon Device some pins. This is the accusation that Nowell investigated, and in the course of these investigations, the two families were implicated. The Device family, Demdike, Chattox and Redferne were sent to Lancaster Castle to await their trial for witchcraft. In nearby Salmesbury, another JP, Robert Holden, arrested another eight suspected witches.

Lancaster Castle where the majority of the suspects were held.

Lancaster Castle where the majority of the suspects were held.

Of course, most of those accused never stood a chance of acquittal. Jennet Preston was charged with the murder by witchcraft of a local landowner and was tried first, at the York assizes. Apparently, the corpse bled fresh blood when she touched it. She was duly sentenced to death by hanging and was executed on the 29th of July 1612 on the Knavesmire, which is now the site of York racecourse.

At the Lancaster Assizes, Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock and Jane Bulcock and Isabel Robey  (who was from Windle, St Helens) were found guilty and hanged at Gallows Hill. Elizabeth Southerns died while awaiting trial and Alice Gray was found not guilty.

pendle witches

Of the eight Salmesbury witches, five were released. The other three, Jane Southworth, Jennet Brierley, and Ellen Brierley were accused by a 14-year-old girl, Grace Sowerbutts, of practising witchcraft, and the charges brought against them included child murder and cannibalism. However, under questioning, Sowerbutts admitted that she was lying, and all three were acquitted.

Margaret Pearson was acquitted of both murder and of bewitching a neighbour. She was, however, found guilty of bewitching a horse – a crime for which she was punished by being made to stand upon the pillory for four successive market days in Clitheroe, Padiham and Colne with a sign on her head stating her offence.

These trials are well documented and have spawned many books including Jeanette Winterson’s ‘The Daylight Gate’ which is apparently being adapted by Hammer Films. A search for the Pendle Witches brings up a myriad of results; images, news articles, gift shops selling Pendle witches merchandise, even videos claiming ghostly sightings including ‘Most Haunted’ (watch if you dare!):

There is even a photograph of snow melting on Pendle Hill, seemingly making the form of a witch on a broomstick:

snow witch pendle

It seems then,  more than 400 years on, we are still fascinated by the tale of these poor accused ‘witches’, sacrificed in the name of superstition and ignorance, and all for the sake of a few pins!

Click to access isabel_robey.pdf





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