The Story of the Lancashire Witches
The Lancashire Witch trials took place in 1612. James I was King, and following Guy Fawkes’ thwarted plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, he aimed to rid the country of ‘non-conformists’, particularly those who did not subscribe to his religious views. His paranoia led to an obsession with ‘witchcraft’ and any local magistrates wishing to curry favour with the king set out to find and condemn those who could be accused of ‘unnatural pursuits’.
At the time it was quite commonplace for poorer people to try and eke a living either by offering healing, through spells, herbs and potions, or perhaps simply by extorting money through the use of threats and curses. All these things were used to condemn people as ‘witches’ and bring them to trials which were often based on hearsay and conjecture.
This story began when, having refused to donate food to Alizon Device, peddler John Law suddenly suffered a stroke, paralysing him down one side. Convinced he had been cursed by the ‘witch’, he called for Alizon to be ordered before the magistrate and questioned. This sparked a spiral of events which led to two families being implicated and subsequently convicted in an unprecedented and much reported trial.
Members of the Demdike and Chattox families of Pendle had likely had some history of conflict in preceding years, and, originating with the arrest of Alizon, Elizabeth and James Device, perhaps saw opportunities to incriminate each other and so bring the opposite family into disrepute and worse. In an unprecedented move, evidence was allowed from a nine-year old girl, Jennet Device, leading to the conviction of her entire family. Following a meeting at Malkin Tower, members of the Chattox family plus a number of others were arrested and imprisoned in Lancaster Gaol to await trial.
Of the final twelve accused, eleven went to trial at either Lancaster or York Assizes, one having died in prison. Only one was acquitted; the rest were sentenced to death by hanging.
The proliferation of ‘witchcraft’ in Lancashire at that time was later blamed on unmanageable administrative boundaries – in effect, such a large parish was deemed to have been ineffectually morally guided by the Church of England, leading to this supposed upsurge in lawlessness. Four hundred years on, we can only try to make sense of this series of events and how such a shocking but inevitable conclusion was precipitated by the general mood of suspicion and uncertainty during that period.