Saturday, 7 July 2012

Four Hundred Years Ago in Lancashire



                          Seventeenth Century Lancashire was of great concern to the Crown. King James I regarded the whole place with suspicion, as a seething den of papist dissention and potential rebellion. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was proof, if it were needed, of the Catholic threat to him. In the turmoil of the Reformation, Lancashire had remained a Catholic stronghold, and, in spite of the dissolution of the monasteries, the ‘old faith’ remained strong there. It was seen as a wild, lawless place; there were few roads, communication with outside world was difficult, if it existed at all, and there was widespread illiteracy. King James was also highly aware of the dangers that were posed by witchcraft. In the 1590s he believed that a plot against him by Scottish witches had been foiled, and in 1597 he published his Daemonologie, in which he actively encouraged witch-hunting. It is no surprise then that when accusations of witchcraft were brought before Roger Nowell, the ambitious Justice of the Peace at Read Hall, Pendle, that his investigations were zealously undertaken.


Pendle Hill

A pedlar, John Law, from Halifax, claimed that the teenaged Alizon Device had put a curse on him. He had met her on the Trawden Road near Colne, Lancashire on March 18th 1612, where she had asked him for some pins. It may be that Law was unwilling to undo his pack for such a trifle, it may be that Alizon had no money to pay, but a quarrel ensued and Alizon angrily cursed, or swore, at him. Within minutes, Law fell down and his stricken body was carried to a nearby ale-house. He was in great pain, paralysed and unable to speak. Alizon followed Law to the inn, but left after a short while and went off elsewhere to continue begging. A letter was sent to Law’s son, Abraham, in Halifax, which reached him on March 21st. He came to Colne immediately, where he found his father paralysed down his left side ‘all save his eye’, lame, but able to speak. Today, we would recognise that Law had suffered a stroke – he was described as a ‘sufficient stout man of bodie’, and the stress of the argument no doubt played its part, but in those days, the obvious cause was witchcraft.

Law told his story to his son, who sought out Alizon, and brought her to his father, who accused her of having bewitched him. Alizon fell to her knees, confessed, and begged forgiveness, which Law granted her. The following day, March 30th, Abraham took Alizon, her mother, Elizabeth, and her brother, James, to Read and Justice Nowell. We can assume that Nowell spoke informally to the girl, to get her version of the story, and worked up what he heard into a more formal statement later. 

A witch with her familiars

What he heard must have concerned him greatly, as Alizon spoke of how her grandmother, Elizabeth Southerns (also known as Demdike), had told her to let a ‘deuill or familiar’ suck at some part of her, and how one John Nutter of Bullhole in Pendle had asked the grandmother to attend his sick cow, which died the following day, Alizon saying that the cow had been bewitched to death. She told how she had begged some ‘blew’ milk, which she took to her grandmother and how she had produced a quarter pound of butter from it, and how this grandmother had cursed Richard Baldwin of Wheathead, Pendle, whose daughter became sick, lingered for a year and then died. She went on to tell the Magistrate of her family’s feud with the Whittles, another local family, of how Anne Whittle (also called Chattox) had stolen goods to the value of twenty shillings and how her father John had confronted the thief, and agreed to pay her a yearly dole of meal in return of them. One year the dole was not paid, and soon John fell ill, claiming on his deathbed that Chattox had killed him by witchcraft in revenge. Two years ago, said Alizon, she had been at the house of Anthony Nutter, and had been laughing with his daughter Anne, when Chattox came by and thought they were laughing at her, whereupon she cursed them. Anne Nutter fell ill the following day and died three weeks later. More stories of ‘pictures of clay’, curses and deaths followed. Elizabeth Device, Alizon’s mother, told Nowell that Demdike had ‘a place on her left fide by the fpace of fourty yeares’, meaning a witch’s mark, and John Device, Alizon’s brother, said his sister had bewitched the daughter of John Bulcock, of whom she later had begged forgiveness.


The devil and witches

Nowell ordered Alizon to be retained, and three days later he travelled the short journey to Fence to examine Demdike and Chattox for himself.

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