Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Trials and Tribulations Pt 1

                    The man who arrested Guy Fawkes in the cellars beneath Parliament on November 5th 1605, was Sir Thomas Kynvet. Kynvet was the first domestic resident of Number 10 Downing Street, which later became the home of the British Prime Minister. (10 Downing Street is actually three houses; a mansion known as ‘the house at the back’, a townhouse behind it, and a smaller cottage. The three were combined to produce the current building. The last resident of the cottage, incidentally, was called Mr Chicken). As a boy, one member of the Kynvet household was one Thomas Potts. In time, Potts became Associate Clerk on the Northern Circuit, and in August 1612, he was at Lancaster, where the circuit judges, Sir James Altham and Sir Edward Bromley, ordered him to write an account of the proceedings. In November, Potts had finished his account and handed it to Bromley for his corrections and revisions, and, in 1613, it was published under the title The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster

Thomas Potts - The Wonderfull Discoverie - Title Page - 1613

It is a prolix and repetitive account, but makes fascinating reading nonetheless. What it is not is a verbatim record of the trials; it is a reconstruction, produced later from documents and memories, and omits much of the legal procedures of a Seventeenth Century courtroom. It gives the impression that the witnesses were examined individually, when they would have been tried in groups, and written depositions are presented as if they had been spoken, but it is, in spirit, a trustworthy record.

Lancaster Castle

I don’t know if they still do it, but when I visited Lancaster Castle as a boy, the tour guides would take you into the dungeons, close the door and turn out the lights. It was terrifying. It was bone-numbingly cold, pitch dark, massively oppressive and utterly claustrophobic. After only a few seconds, the relief when the lights were turned back on was palpable. It is unsurprising then, that Elizabeth Southerns, eighty years plus, blind and crippled, died in custody before coming to trial. But ask anyone from East Lancashire to name a Pendle witch, the reply almost certainly will be ‘Owd Mother Demdike’, such is her hold on folk memory, even four hundred years on.


The Pendle witches were not the only Lancashire witches tried on Tuesday August 18th and Wednesday August 19th 1612; there were also the trials of Margaret Pearson ‘The Witch of Padiham’, Isobel Roby of Windle, and seven so-called Salmesbury Witches.

Owd Mother Chattox, Anne Whittle, was the first to be heard. Potts describes her as “a very old withered spent and decreped creature, her sight almost gone … her lippes euer chattering and walking [i.e. speaking], but no man knew what”. Her nickname may come from this constant chattering, as in chatt[erb]ox, or it may be a corruption of Chadwick, perhaps her maiden name, and a common enough name in the area. She was already damned by her own confession to Nowell, but pleaded not guilty, admitted tearfully that the evidence was the truth, asked God for mercy for herself and her daughter Anne, yet to be tried, and ended by saying ‘Fancie’ had stolen away most of her sight, and had last appeared to her as a bear, which had knocked her down when she refused to speak to him.

The next to be heard was Demdike’s daughter, Elizabeth Device (possibly a variant of Davies), also known as Skenning Lizzie or Skenning Bessie. To ‘sken’ is a northern, particularly Lancastrian, verb, meaning ‘to look at’, and also ‘to squint’. Elizabeth was stunningly ugly, who had
 “… a preposterous marke of Nature … her left eye standing lower than the other, the one looking downe, the other vp … so strangely deformed as the best that were present in that great Audience did affirme they had not often seene the like,” (Potts).
Like Chattox, her previous confession had already sealed her fate. When she saw her nine-year-old daughter, Jennet, was in the court she began to rant and rave, and eventually had to be taken out of the room. Jennet, the only member of the family still free, was placed on a table and allowed to condemn her own mother of ‘Witchcrafts, Inchantments, Charmes and Sorceries,’ of consorting with familiars, and hosting the sabbat at Malkin Tower. It seems likely that the child had been carefully schooled prior to this, probably by Roger Nowell. Her mother was brought back in and begged the court’s mercy. Her son James Device was next to be brought before the bench. ‘Soft Jamie’ had suffered greatly in the dungeon, Potts says he was “…so insensible, weake, and vnable in all thinges, as he could neither speake, heare, or stand, but was holden vp,” and hints he may have attempted suicide to avoid the trial. James was weak-minded, and would probably agreed to anything put to him by a person in authority, and, as before, he had already condemned himself. In the evening of Tuesday August 18th Anne Redferne was tried, and for want of evidence, found not guilty of the murder of her would-be seducer Robert Nutter. Apart from her plea of ‘Not Guilty’ there is no word of her own recorded. The jury then returned guilty verdicts on Anne Whittle, Elizabeth Device and James Device.

No comments:

Post a Comment