All Quiet On The Wench Front

Herstory at its fucking finest.

The Pendle Pageant: Hag, Heathen or Harlot?


“Most books on witchcraft will tell you that witches work naked. This is because most books on witchcraft were written by men.” Neil Gaiman

“Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is a witch, whereas I am merely in disguise.” Margaret Atwood, almost.

The Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition opens at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on the 27th July, so we’ve been thinking about the history of witchcraft – warts and all. The exhibition explores cultural depictions of witches throughout the past 500 years, witch, for the most part, seem to fall into three categories – hag, heathen or harlot.

Even histories of witchcraft are full of shakespearian theatrics and typecasts, and while these stereotypes have materialised for a reason, it’s important to remember just how catastrophic an accusation of witch! once was. Witch trials saw the othering of women who didn’t fit the mould of 17th century femininity. They existed as a product of politics, religious persecution, personal ambition, rivalries and royal inconsistencies. Power. Witches were, essentially, political prisoners – and no better example of how complicated and fraught with political tension witchy history really was exists than the Pendle Witch Trials.

Thanks to the publication of the transcripts of the trials, in court clerk Thomas Potts’ The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, the Pendle Witch Trials are the best documented of their time.

They’re particularly significant as they make up 2% of the total executions for witchcraft in England between the 15th and 18th century (less than 500 in total over 300 years, 10 of which occurred as a result of the Pendle trials, the largest series of deaths to result from one “investigation”).

The twelve accused all lived in the area of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, and they were charged with the murders of ten locals through the practice of witchcraft.

All but two were trialed at Lancaster Assizes on 18th and 19th August 1612, along with the Salisbury Witches, in the Lancashire Witch Trials. One was tried in York on 27th July 1612 and another died in prison.

Of the eleven who went to trial (nine women and two men), ten were found guilty and hanged.

Six of the Pendle witches came from two families, the Demdikes and the Chattoxes, both led by matriarchs in their eighties. It’s believed that the allegations first occurred because the families were rivals, both trying to make a living from begging, healing and fortune telling (extortion), so to drive out their competition they accused members of the other family of witchcraft.

Pendle was considered a troubled, lawless place at the turn of the 17th century. Up until Henry VIII dissolved the local abbey in 1537 (and executed the abbot) the lives of the Pendle community had revolved around their religion. They were quick to revert to Catholicism on Queen Mary’s accession to the throne in 1553, but when Elizabeth succeeded her in 1558, and catholics were persecuted once again, the people of Pendle were left to practice their faith in secret.

Folk didn’t know their arse from their elbow in 1562, and it was at this time of religious and political upheaval that laws calling for tougher punishments for those who practiced witchcraft were first introduced. The Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts demanded the death penalty for anyone who killed another through spells and the like. In 1603, when James I came to power, the act was amended to include anyone who harmed another through witchcraft.

James I, having been the target of the Gun Powder Plot seven years earlier, was already very aware of his own mortality and fierce unpopularity. En route home to Scotland after marrying Princess Anne in Copenhagen, the couple’s ship was hit by a vicious storm. James’ had developed an obsession with witchcraft during his visit to Denmark, where witch hunts were as commonplace as pastry, and so he blamed the sea troubles on a curse sent by witches. After originally implicating over seventy people, the subsequent North Berwick witch trials was the first major persecution of witches in Scotland under the amended Witchcraft Act. In 1597, James wrote Daemonologie, a hysterical rant condemning the practice of witchcraft. The king’s obsession reached a climax when he began ‘supervising’ the torture of alleged witches.

The year of the trials, all justices of the peace were ordered to list names of those who refused to attend the English Church. So, Roger Nowell, justice of the peace for Pendle, with these orders in mind, investigated an accusation of harming by witchcraft in March, 1612. It was this that led Nowell to round-up local healers, though it was normal for people to practice healing and medicinal magic in rural England, and much of what was accused of being witchcraft was simply “quasi-Catholic folk magic”, on the reg before the Reformation.

The two judges who charged the hearings were suffering under political pressures too. Sir James Altham, was nearing his retirement, but he’d recently been accused of a miscarriage of justice and was desperate to end his career on a high note. And Sir Edward Bromley was in line for a promotion. Both were looking to arse lick the king and an easy way to do that was to crack down on witches and capitalise on James’ paranoia.

One of the accused, Elizabeth Southerns, Old Demdike and head of the Demdike family, died in prison while awaiting trial. Potts is concerned by her in particular as he sees her as the ringleader and it narks him that she escaped a trial and ultimately, justice. He describes her as;

“…a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man knows. . . . She was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies.”

Unlike other places, like Continental Europe and Scotland, English law forbade the torture of suspected witches for a confession, so according to the trial transcripts, Demdike gave a voluntary confession and fully admitted to being a witch (note: beating and starving the accused wasn’t prohibited and prison conditions were known to be appalling – plus Potts is now considered an unreliable source). But we do know Elizabeth considered herself a healer, and she definitely practiced “magic”. Demdike was often called upon by local people to heal anything from rashes to cattle to children, and had been for fifty odd years.

Anne Whittle, Old Chattox, was Demdike’s former friend turned nemisis. She was around the same age as Demdike but managed to survive until the trial. Potts describes her as evil – “the repetition of her hellish practices and revenge; being the chiefest of things wherein she always took great delight”. The locals called her Chattox because her mouth chattered as she wandered Pendle, talking to herself incoherently. According to the transcripts, Chattox too confessed voluntarily but she was adament that Demdike had “seduced” her into witchcraft, adding that it was in Demdike’s home she made her “pact” and under Demdike’s instruction.

The catalyst for the initial inquiry was an incident between Demdike’s granddaughter and another Pendle dweller. Alison Device was arguing with a local pedlar called John Law in town, as she walked away John Law fell to the ground, couldn’t speak and became paralysed on one side of his body. Those who saw the argument believed that Alice had put a curse on John, so Nowell decided to investigate. Scared and convinced of her own powers, Alison became convinced she’d hurt John, continually pleading for forgiveness when Nowell questioned her. Distraught, and being relentlessly interrogated, it was at this point she implicated her grandmother’s rival, Chattox, for a “crime” that had occurred sometime earlier. Town gossip stated that Chattox had bewitched her landlord to death to avenge the attempted rape of her daughter. At first accusations flew between the two families, but as pressure mounted names of other associates, neighbours and even people who didn’t live in Pendle began to crop up in Nowell’s case.

The Pendle Trials have inspired writers for centuries. Ainsworth and Blake Morrison both had a crack, but peronsally I love the way Jeanette Winterson describes the “feverishly paranoid reign of James I” in Daylight Gate. It isn’t short of a pointy-nosed-adage, but Jeanette also understands the religious and political instabilities that plagued villages like Pendle Hill. She very deliberately hones in on the everyday atrocities of England in the middle ages, which puts the supposed “horrors” of witchcraft into perspective;

“Most grotesque and curdling are the visceral depictions of early 17th century Britain – the squalor, inequality and religious eugenics. The subjugation of women and prostituting of children. The degloving and castration of Catholics. Poverty, Sickness, Desperation.”

I also think her take on the Pendle characters are fantastic. She paints Potts as a snivelling brown-noser, a man who’s obsessed with the praise and celebrity that would follow a successful trial, rather than the supposed honour of de-witching society;

“Potts {is} desperate to preside over a trial as sensational as North Berwick. He stakes out Pendle Hill, a landscape of moors and mists, mossy baptismal pools and forests, ready to accost bedlams on their broomsticks.”

Winterson’s female characters are even more intriguing. Gone are the happy cackles of mischeivious old spinsters, having been replaced with “social outcasts, women who vould see most clearly the truth of the violent male world in which they lived.” However, these women aren’t victims. Each one a different personality, bonded by their interest, and indeed practice, of the dark arts. While it’s undeniable that so many women outted in “investigations” like that of Potts’ weren’t witches, Winterson abandons the cloak of “catholic recusant” and describes women who were more savvy, and yes, darker, than the misunderstood innocents we often imagine them as.

Most interesting is her portrayal of Alice Nutter, a rich, single business woman whose association with “the filthy, destitute” witches living on her land led her to play with satanic spells, and ultimately resulted in her death. Winterson says Alice’s “wealth, intelligence and independent nature – not to mention her preternaturally youthful looks – make her an object of suspicion to local men”. Alice has often been the focus when revising the events at Pendle, as a woman with money and relative influence her interest in witchcraft is unnerving – something that can’t be explained away with poverty and uneducated ness.

Thing is, whether they practiced magic or not is irrelivent. The practitioning of magic wasn’t discovered in March 1612, neither were the family coverns outed or the women demasked and Alice certainly wasn’t the first woman with a bit of cash to fall from her middle class pedestal. All this, healing and rituals and spells, had existed long before Potts and Nowell and Demdike. What changed in Pendle that year was the political aggregate, the atmosphere, the trust in authority, religious and cultural freedom diminished, reputations were on the line.

Pendle has continued to provoke interest for historians, novelists and even activists. In 1998, a petition was presented to Jack Straw requesting for the witches to be pardoned, but their convictions still stand. Four hundred years later, and the only power an impoverished old woman yields is if she can cast a spell on you.



/wenCH/ noun Origin Middle English: abbreviation of obsolete wenchel, meaning child, servant, prostitute; perhaps related to Old English wancol, meaning unsteady, inconstant. Definition Girl, woman, probably a right stand-up bird.



her·sto·ry /ˈhərstərē/ noun Shit hot history from a female or feminist perspective.
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