* Halloween season is upon us. To mark the event, here’s a story from last year on a spooky motif, based around an anniversary that never quite lived up to its potential.
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It’s a tale of dark arts and superstition, political intrigue and religious persecution.
It was one of the largest witch trials in British history, whereby seven women and two men were sent to the gallows on August 20, 1612.
This year Lancashire marks 400 years since the macabre events that propelled the remote northern enclave, the sole seat of the Duchy of Lancaster in the north, into the national spotlight.
The Pendle Witch Trails continue to fascinate us even today.
“People are always drawn to the dark side of history and the witches lived long enough ago to have taken on the quality of a legend,” says Christine Goodier, author of 1612: The Lancashire Witch Trails, (published by Palatine Books).
“As modern people, we like to think we don’t believe in the Devil. But, 400 years ago, everyone from the King down lived in fear of a clear-cut sense of good and evil.”
The story starts with a young beggar girl, Alison Device, who cursed a peddler on the road to Colne on March 18, 1612. He collapsed in a fit but Alison confessed to witchcraft and, under questioning by the local magistrate, Roger Nowell, incriminated her own family, the Demdikes, and a rival family, the Chattox.
The accused were sent to Lancaster Castle to await trail for witchcraft on April 3.
In response, the Demdike family called a Sabbat, or gathering of witches according to legend, at their home, Malkin Tower, on Good Friday. When Nowell heard of this, he sent a local constable to investigate.
Those present were subsequently accused of plotting to blow up the castle, leading to the imprisonment of several more members of both families, plus Alice Nutter, a local gentlewomen associated with the family.
In reality, all of the accused were probably guilty of little more than working with healing herbs, stealing bones from local churchyards for superstitious rituals and expressing an interest in Catholicism.
The trial was less about witchcraft and more a case of local magistrates keen to find favour with the King. A show trial would, after all, ingratiate Lancaster with the Royal court and dispel its reputation as a Catholic stronghold.
Having survived the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, whereby Catholic plotters tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, the protestant king, James I, unleashed a fear-fuelled backlash against the Catholic faith.
He had already published the book Daemonology, linking it to witchcraft, in 1597, and passed an act in 1604 to make it a capital offence “to consult, entertain, employ, feel or reward any evil and wicked spirit, or to utter spells.”
This summer visitors can follow the Lancashire Witches Driving Trail, a 40-mile self-guided route through the former hunting grounds of the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The trail, leading from Barrowfield to Lancaster, follows the route to the gallows of the Pendle witches.
A further couple of short walking trails, starting from the village of Barley, delve deeper into the landscape and folklore of the tiny, lost-in-time villages around Pendle Hill, the bleak, exposed landmark at the heart of Lancashire’s witch country.
I set off along the driving trail from the Pendle Heritage Centre at Barrowford, having first digested the small exhibition devoted to the story of the witches. Looming Pendle Hill dominates the first villages along the trail, notably Newchurch where St Mary’s church, dating from 1554, has an Eye of God painted on the façade to ward off evil spirits.
After Clitheroe with its Norman castle and the remote hamlet of Dunsop Bridge, the road narrows and heads into the twist-turning lanes of the Trough of Bowland.
I follow the increasingly precarious roads, sheep-grazing pasture and stoic, stone-built farmhouses, lashed by the elements, the only stark signs of life on the horizon. The low-slung mist adds a frisson to the foreboding atmosphere of the drive.
I descend towards Lancaster and follow the brown signs to Lancaster Castle, arriving in time for one of the regular tours of the castle, first founded in 1093 as a modest motte-and-bailey keep. The tour takes in the Shire Hall with its display of heraldry and the eerie old cells, but it’s the leather-bound Law Library that has the most evocative feel.
On August 18 and 19, 1612, the Pendle witches were brought before the court in this very room, disorientated and weakened by five months in the dungeon in the Well Tower (today known as the Witches’ Tower).
The witches had no defence and the star witness for the prosecution was a child, Jennet Device, the granddaughter of the family matriarch, who testified against her own family while under the care of the court.
It set a legal precedent as Jennet would have been around 11 years old at the time and, ironically, would go on to be tried as a witch herself in 1633.
“I do admire Roger Nowell in a strange way,” says Graham Kemp, Deputy Manager and tour guide at Lancaster Castle. “I think he was a clever – not evil – man for presenting Jennet as his star witness.”
“I’m sure he did his best to push the case through the court – and, no doubt, boost his own career in the process.”
The tour finishes with a visit to the Well Tower dungeon, newly opened to the public for the anniversary. The descent down stone steps leads through twin iron gates to a claustrophobic enclosure cut off all from all sensory stimulation.
A tiny trickle of water still glistens on the wall, the only distraction from the complete darkness. The guide’s candle illuminates two iron rings on the floor to which the inmates would have been chained day and night.
Court records, recorded in detail by a London court clerk, Thomas Potts, and later published as The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, served as propaganda for the judgment of Sir Edward Bromley. It was a blatant attempt to cover up the flaws in the evidence and the controversial use of the testimony of a child.
Potts described one of the defendants, grandmother Chattox thus: “A very old, withered, spent and decrepit creature … her lips ever chattering and walking, but no men knew what.”
Alice Nutter was an educated women but may have chosen to remain silent throughout the proceedings to avoid implicating Catholic friends. She went to the gallows without uttering a word.
The next day, the condemned were taken by cart through the streets of Lancaster, past jeering crowds, to the gallows at modern-day Williamson Park, above the city. On the way, they were granted one last drink at a local hostelry.
Today that pub is the Golden Lion on Moor Lance, its place in history marked with a plaque dedicated to “All those who suffered through prejudice and intolerance.”
Next door, the Dukes arts centre is staging Sabbat, its famously part-fictionalised telling of the witch trials. The production, staged in the round, then tours over summer.
“Drama is great at putting you in the shoes of other people,” says Joe Sumison, the Director of the Dukes.
“The earthy, physical quality of the production makes you empathise with the human story behind the hysteria.”
Local people are careful not to celebrate the anniversary this summer – it was, after all, one of the darkest chapters in British history.
The Vicar of Lancaster Priory, the Revd Chris Newlands, whose parish is adjacent to the Castle, has spoken passionately about the need to learn from history. Plans by the Barrowford artist, Philippe Handford, to spray the numbers 1612 in 500ft high, dye-based figures on the side of Pendle Hill have been scrapped following local protests.
There are even calls for the Pendle witches to be pardoned – the 20 victims of the 1692 Salem witch trials in New England were exonerated and a formal apology issued in 1957.
But, most of all, the anniversary is about remembering the injustice of the times. “The witch trails are part of our local history in Lancashire,” says Joe Sumison.
“But, on a wider level, they tell a story about victims of political interference and socio-economic conditions.”
“Those lessons,” he adds, “are still valid today.”
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* This story first appeared in Discover Britain magazine in 2012. Liked this? Try Art Deco Blackpool.