Sunday, 19 August 2012

In Memory of the Pendle Witches


Here is a copy of the paper I read at the Capturing Witches Conference this weekend at Lancaster University. Academics, writers, and independent researchers from all over the world gathered to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Lancashire Witch Trials. 

This weekend marks the 400th anniversary of the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials. Throughout the region people will be commemorating this solemn occasion. It’s my sincere hope that these events portray the accused witches not as some ghoulish sideshow but as real people who suffered and died unjustly because of other people’s ignorance. 

As a novelist, I wanted to devote my work to honouring these people, to raising them from the ashes. I wanted to give voice to the voiceless. An expat writer, I have lived in a number of different countries, but no place has touched me as deeply as the Pendle region in Lancashire, my home for the past ten years.

Evocation of place is my passion. The question I ask myself is what makes this place I’m in now unique, unlike any other place I’ve ever been? What song does the land sing? What stories does it have to tell? What ancestors and elders cry out from the depths of this earth? I am obsessed with local history and regional folklore, how these stories merge with the landscape itself. History is a fluid thing that, together with folklore and myth, continually shapes the present. As contemporary British storyteller Hugh Lupton has said, if you go deep enough into the old tales and can present them in an evocative and meaningful way to a modern audience, you become the living voice in an ancient tradition—the highest aspiration I have for my own writing.   

I arrived here knowing next to nothing about the Pendle Witches, but I soon became haunted by the images of witches I saw everywhere. In Pendle, witches are inescapable. They appear on pub signs, beer mats, bumper stickers, the sides of buildings, an entire fleet of double-decker buses. In the beginning I believed these witches on broomsticks belonged to the realm of fairy tale and ghost story. The truth, when I took the time to learn it, was far more disturbing.   

In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged as witches, based on testimony given by a nine-year-old girl. In court clerk Thomas Potts’s account of the proceedings, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, published in 1613, he paid particular attention to the one alleged witch who escaped justice by dying in prison before she could even come to trial. She was Elizabeth Southerns, more commonly known by her nickname, Old Demdike. According to Potts, she was the ringleader, the one who initiated all the others into witchcraft. This is how Potts described her: 

            She was 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. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no 
man escaped her, or her Furies. 

Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was amazed at how her strength of character blazed forth in the document written to condemn her. This is the kind of heroine every novelist dreams of creating—except Mother Demdike was better than any fiction. She was real. 

I immersed myself in the local studies section of Clitheroe Library and read everything about the Pendle Witches I could get my hands on, including the novels already written about them. Robert O’Neill’s Mist over Pendle is my favorite work of fiction devoted to the Pendle Witch lore and yet, as delightful as O’Neill’s prose is, I was disappointed that he cast Mother Demdike as a sad and pathetic figure when the primary sources seemed to be pointing out that she was much, much more than that!

Then I turned to more recent research in witchcraft studies such as Robert Poole’s The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories and Jonathan Lumby’s The Lancashire Witch-Craze, which drew me into a mysterious lost world, where recusant Catholicism rubbed shoulders with popular folk magic. Emma Wilby’s watershed book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits helped me decipher Mother Demdike’s testimony in the trial documents, such as her first encounter with her spirit Tibb in the quarry in Goldshaw Booth outside Newchurch in Pendle, and place her firmly in her historical context as a cunning woman. This research allowed me to recast Mother Demdike, so often maligned in fiction and popular culture, as a tragic heroine. 

I had to tell Mother Demdike’s story in the first person. It was important to me to give her story back to her, let it unfold from her point of view, allowing her to shine forth like the firebrand she was. I yearned to spin her tale as best I could so my writing could be a mouthpiece for this mighty cunning woman that the authorities had worked so hard to silence. In the course of working on my novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, Demdike, who I called Bess, became a true presence, a shining light in my life. An ancestor of my heart, if not my blood.

Bess Southerns’s life unfolded almost literally in my backyard. Her essence seemed to arise directly out of the wild Pennine moorland outside my door. Writing about her wasn’t a mere exercise of reading books, then typing sentences into my computer. To do justice to her story, I had to go out into the land—literally walk in her footsteps. Using the Ordinance Survey Map, I located the site of Malkin Tower, once her home. Now only the foundations remain. My horse’s livery yard is near Read Hall, once home to Roger Nowell, the witchfinder and prosecuting magistrate responsible for sending Bess and the other Pendle Witches to their deaths. Every weekend, I walked or rode my chestnut mare down the tracks of Pendle Forest. Quietening myself, I learned to listen, to allow Bess’s voice to well up from the land. Her passion, her tale enveloped me. 

As I sought to uncover the bones of Bess’s story, I was drawn into a new world of mystery and magic. It was as though Pendle Hill had opened up like an enchanted mountain to reveal the treasures hidden within. Every stereotype I’d held of historical witches and cunning folk was dashed to pieces. 

Once in a place called Malkin Tower, there lived a widow, Bess Southerns, called Demdike. Matriarch of her clan, she lived with her widowed daughter and her three grandchildren. What fascinated me was not that Bess was arrested and imprisoned but that the authorities only turned on her near the end of her long, productive life. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her or stand in her way. 

Cunning craft—the art of using charms to heal both humans and livestock—appeared to be Bess’s family trade. Their spells, recorded in the trial documents, were Roman Catholic prayer charms—the kind of folk magic that would have flourished before the Reformation. Bess’s charm to cure a bewitched person, quoted in full in the trial transcripts as damning evidence of diabolical sorcery, is, in fact, a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ, as witnessed by the Virgin Mary: 

            What is yonder that casts a light so farrandly,
Mine owne deare Sonne that’s naild to the Tree.

Bess herself would have been old enough to remember the Old Church, for the English Reformation didn’t really get under way until the reign of Edward VI, Henry VIII’s short-lived son, who came to the throne when Bess was a teenager. She would have remembered the old ways of lighting candles before statues of the saints, of making offerings at holy wells, of processions around the fields to make them fertile—all practices that English Protestants condemned as pagan and un-Christian. 

Indeed Bess had the misfortune to live in a time and a place where Catholicism became conflated with witchcraft. Even Reginald Scot, most of the enlightened men of the English Renaissance, thought that the act of transubstantiation, the point in the Catholic mass where it is believed that the host becomes the body and blood of Christ, was an act of sorcery. In 1645, in a pamphlet by Edward Fleetwood entitled A Declaration of a Strange and Wonderfull Monster, describing how a royalist woman in Lancashire supposedly gave birth to a headless baby, Lancashire is described thusly: “No part of England hath so many witches, none fuller of Papists.”

So were Bess and her family at Malkin Tower merely maligned and misunderstood practitioners of Catholic folk magic? The truth seems far more tangled. Bess and her sometimes-friend, sometimes-rival Anne Whittle, aka Chattox, accused each other of using clay figures to curse their enemies. Both women freely confessed, even bragged about their familiar spirits who appeared to them in the guise of beautiful young men—otherworldly lovers. Bess’s spirit was named Tibb, while Chattox’s was called Fancy. 

When Bess was in her fifties, walking past the quarry at Goldshaw Booth at sunset—called daylight gate in her dialect—a beautiful young man emerged from the stone pit, his hair golden and shining, his coat half black, half brown. He introduced himself to her as Tibb and promised to be her familiar spirit, her otherworldly companion who would be the power behind her every spell. 

Bess is the narrator of the first part of the book. The second part is narrated through the voice of her granddaughter Alizon, a teenager who showed every promise of becoming a cunning woman as mighty as her grandmother. But Alizon is two generations removed from the rich folk magic and the old ways of Mother Demdike’s youth. The child of a sterner Puritan age, she isn’t finding it so easy to come to terms with the legacy her grandmother wants to pass on to her. Will Alizon accept the call of power or will she refuse it? How will her decision effect her family’s fate? 

The crimes of which Elizabeth Southerns and her fellow witches were accused dated back years before the trial, but for decades on end, no one dared to meddle with her. But in 1612 that all changed. On March 18, 1612, Alizon had a bitter verbal confrontation with John Law, a pedlar from Halifax in Yorkshire. A few minutes after the young woman told him off, John Law collapsed from a stroke. 

Both Alizon and the pedlar were convinced that her anger had struck him lame. Falling to her knees, Alizon burst into tears and begged his forgiveness before fleeing in terror. When witnesses reported Alizon to the authorities, magistrate Roger Nowell wasted no time in arresting her. Possibly through the use of leading questions, he browbeat this young woman into implicating her grandmother and also Chattox, Bess’s rival, and Chattox’s daughter, Anne Redfearne. This was the beginning of the end that saw twelve people from the Pendle region imprisoned in the Well Tower in Lancaster Castle, chained to each other and to an iron ring on the floor. 

Not long after her arrest, Bess Southerns died in prison. Ever the wily cunning woman, she cheated the hangman before she could be brought to trial. Her family and friends experienced a different fate. 

Alizon, first to be arrested, was the last to be tried at Lancaster in August, 1612. Her final recorded words on the day before she was hanged for witchcraft are a passionate tribute to her grandmother’s power as a healer. Roger Nowell brought John Law, the pedlar she had supposedly lamed, before her. Filled with remorse to see the man’s suffering, she again begged his forgiveness. John Law, perhaps pitying the condemned young woman, replied that if she had the power to lame him, she must also have the power to cure him. Alizon sadly told him that she lacked the powers to do so, but if her grandmother, Old Mother Demdike, had lived, she could and would have healed him and restored him to full health. The following day Alizon and the others were hanged and buried in an unmarked grave. 

Long after their demise, Mother Demdike and her fellow witches endure as part of the undying spirit of Pendle. Their legacy is woven into the land itself, its weft and warp, like the stones and the streams that cut across the moors. This is their home, their seat of power, and they shall never be banished. By learning their true history, I have become an adopted daughter of their living landscape, one of many tellers who spin their neverending tale.   

From Daughters of the Witching Hill:
Let my children arise and come home to me.
Neither stick nor stake has the power to keep thee.
Open the gate wide. Step through the gate. Come, my children. Come home. 


  1. Daughters of the Witching Hill is a much loved dog-eared tattered book sitting proudly on my bookshelf.I've read it several times,enchanted by the lives lost 400 yrs.ago.
    I spent several youthful summers in Salem Mass.;home to America's witch hysteria (19 hung,1 crushed to death without confession).The witch bug bit during those childhood summers,and I keep seeking out different presentations,different views of the same sad tales.
    Thanks for keeping the plight of these souls fresh,so they will never be forgotten.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment and for your kind words about Daughters of the Witching Hill. The Salem trials are yet another sad example. May this human tragedy never be forgotten.