Lancashire Witch

Lancashire Witch

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The Lancashire Witch was built by Robert Stephenson in 1828 for the proposed Bolton & Leigh Railway. The locomotive was a development of the Locomotion that had been built by George Stephenson and Timothy Hackworth for the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825. The cylinders were placed on each side of the boiler that inclined at about forty-five degrees. The pistons drove the front wheels directly. This made her the first locomotive with steel springs on all wheels.

The Lancashire Witch had two furnace flue tubes which joined together at the front into a single chimney. Robert Stephenson also added nozzles in the firegrate through which air was pumped by bellows in the tender. Using this method it was possible to burn coke rather than coal and therefore reduced the amount of smoke produced. Weighing only seven tons, the Lancashire Witch could pull a load of 40 tons up an incline of 1 in 440 at 8 mph (13 kph).

From Graces Guide

The Lancashire Witch was built by Robert Stephenson and Co in 1828 for the Bolton and Leigh Railway.

The locomotive was a development of the Locomotion No. 1 that had been built by George Stephenson and Timothy Hackworth for the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825.

It was carried on four coupled wheels 4ft diameter, with wood spokes and iron tires. The cylinders were 9in. by 24in and the piston-rods were directly connected with the front wheels by the usual rods. Both axles had springs above the bearings which were inside the wheels. The boiler was 9ft. by 4ft and contained two flues, somewhat after the fashion of the Lancashire boiler. Total heating surface - 66 square ft., grate area 12 square ft. The exhaust passed through pipes into a chimney but, in addition to such blast effect as this arrangement produced, forced draught was applied by bellows placed under the tender and worked by excentrics. This addition was provided to overcome difficulties anticipated with coke burning, but was afterwards abandoned as unecessary. Ώ]

The cylinders were placed on each side of the boiler that inclined at about forty-five degrees. The pistons drove the front wheels directly. This made her the first locomotive with steel springs on all wheels.

The Lancashire Witch had two furnace flue tubes which joined together at the front into a single chimney. Robert Stephenson also added nozzles in the firegrate through which air was pumped by bellows in the tender. Using this method it was possible to burn coke rather than coal and therefore reduced the amount of smoke produced. Weighing only seven tons, the Lancashire Witch could pull a load of 40 tons up an incline of 1 in 440 at 8 mph (13 kph).

Description of the Witch Demdike

She was a very old woman, about the age of four-score years, and had been a witch for fifty years.

She dwelt in the Forest of Pendle, a vast place, fit for her profession: What she committed in her time, no man knows.

Thus lived she securely for many years, brought up her own children, instructed her grand-children, and took great care and pains to bring them up to be witches.

She was a general agent for the Devil in all these parts: no man escaped her, or her furies, that ever gave them any occasion of offence, or denied them anything they stood need of: And certain it is, no man near them, was secure or free from danger.

Witches and Catholics

On March 24, 1603, a new ruling dynasty, the Stuarts, took over the English throne, when the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I died. Not everyone greeted the new regime enthusiastically. King James survived two conspiracies against him in the first year of his reign alone. Only two years after his ascension, he very nearly lost his life when disgruntled Catholics, disappointed by continued legislation against their religion, tried to blow up the King and Parliament in what became known as The Gunpowder Plot.

James I of England by John de Critz. Google Images.

The Gunpowder Plot made Catholicism even more suspect. However, it was not only religious dissent that James feared. Witchcraft was a primary concern of his. Laws against the practice existed already. Early in her reign, Elizabeth I had passed the Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments, and Witchcrafts which condemned convicted witches to death- but only if they had committed harm by magic. James, on the other hand, had a manic paranoia about witches, which he believed, like Catholics, were out to get him.

In 1597, before his ascension to the English throne, the King had written the book, Daemonlogie. This book stipulated that it was the duty of every loyal subject of the monarch to denounce witchcraft wherever they might find it. Once he was King of England, James passed a further law against magic to bolster the existing Act. Now he was King of two countries, with potential enemies in both, he was taking the threat of magic very seriously indeed.

On the face of it, Pendle in the northern English county of Lancashire was distant from the affairs of Kings and governments. On the edge of the Pennines, it was a stark, remote area of hills and moorland, dotted with farms and small towns dedicated to the wool trade. The authorities, however, regarded Pendle as a wild and lawless area. It had resisted the dissolution of its local Abbey at Whalley, which provided work and support for many people in the area and eagerly returned to Rome on the ascension of Mary I. In short, it was an area of broad, deep-rooted Catholic sympathies.

The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories

This volume is based on a conference held in April 1999, and it is the first time in English witchcraft studies that a single group of cases has been taken as subject of such a volume. This is an excellent idea, not only because the complex truth about the witchcraft beliefs of early modern Britain probably lies in careful local study rather than in rash generalisation, but also because the local focus seems to liberate the editors to be creative in other ways, offering not only analysis of the events themselves, but also an analysis that from the outset questions the way in which those events were and still are represented to us, the kind of significance assigned to them, and their appeal as topics and stories. Though strong on uncovering facts, the volume is also strong on consideration of how this particular trial has been fictionalised and become part of other kinds of story. The tone is set when the introduction opens by pointing out that, regardless of their importance historically, the Lancashire witches have been elected ‘Truly Memorable’ by popular history, with souvenir stalls and a T-shirt industry.

However, the problem with the volume is also immediately apparent. No-one assays the question of why and how this trial got itself a T-shirt. This is an interesting question, the more so because we learn from the final essay that the ‘usual suspects’, neo-pagans, are not responsible. So who is? We never learn, and there is a pattern here that is repeated throughout interesting observations are not followed through with thorough analysis.

This is not the only difficulty. One problem of which the contributors are aware is that accounts of the trials themselves are necessarily based on the only detailed source for them, Thomas Potts’s lengthy pamphlet The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire, printed in 1612. The Lancashire Witches is innovative in bringing in the Salmesbury witches of 1612, and of course the arrests of 1633-4, but both are very slenderly documented. The result is that accounts must rest shakily on Potts. His pamphlet is hailed in the introduction (by James Sharpe) as a ‘rich vein’, but little is said to justify this belief, and Marion Gibson in Chapter 3 (‘Thomas Potts's 'dusty memory': reconstructing justice in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches’), at any rate, wants to maximise its compromised status. It may be that the Lancashire witches are not the ideal subject for a case history of this kind, precisely because the evidence does not allow us to compare a pamphlet account with the (equally but differently problematic) assize or session accounts. The evidential reliance upon this pamphlet is a problem for a book that wants to say that pamphlets are not disinterested sources. If the Potts pamphlet isn't evidence, then what exactly is the book about? If it is to be treated as evidence, then how can we decide which parts are reliable, and which not? These questions are often ducked rather than tackled head-on.

Another problem is the restricted theoretical and historiographical range of some of the contributions and of the editor, which limit what the volume as a whole can do and say. The only explanations canvassed in the editorial material are sensible ones: religious conflict, social change. The wilder side of witchcraft studies, drawing on anthropology, folklore and psychoanalysis, is neglected. There is also no attempt to review the historiography of the 1990s, or to locate the volume in relation to anyone but Thomas and Macfarlane, though arguably a kind of tacit review is implied in each contributor’s choice of mentors. This is a pity, as the theses of (say) Stuart Clark, Robin Briggs and Lyndal Roper seem to have some prima facie applicability to the material. Local should not come to mean parochial.(1)

There are some difficulties, too, with how local this volume wants to be. Ironically for microhistory, the first three essays are not interested in the witches or their accusers, so much as in ‘the full range of forces coming to bear on the case of a few miserable witches in a remote corner of England’. It is a return to a top-down history of witch trials, and the splendid innovations of Briggs and Roper (among others) in demanding that we look at what trials meant to participants are sidestepped without explanation. Even Jonathan Lumby’s essay (Chapter 4: ‘'Those to whom evil is done': family dynamics in the Pendle witch trials’) devotes itself in a very effective but curiously old-fashioned way to explaining why someone would be wicked enough to accuse a woman of witchcraft. It is a splendid piece of historical reconstruction, however, and is rightly the centre of the efforts of others to grasp what was happening and what it meant. Lumby argues very persuasively that one of the key movers in the Pendle trial was motivated by dislike of his father’s mistress, Jennet Preston. This is exactly the kind of story that can only be recovered by the kind of patient sifting through dusty archives that Lumby has plainly accomplished, and it is a rebuke to the academic world that the best discovery here is made by someone outside its ranks.

Such simple discoveries, like the mistress story, are extremely welcome, and they point to the kind of painstaking and slow archival work that needs to be done if microhistory is to work. But they do not end the story. We still need to turn to culture and interpretation to understand and how and why a father’s adultery might promote feelings or acts of this kind: honour? lies? manhood? What does it tell us about (neglected) connections between possession by witchcraft and sexuality? The fact that Lumby’s essay stimulates important questions, however, compliments it rather than dispraises it.

In general this volume does boldly go where witchcraft studies have sometimes feared to tread. An especially valuable example is Kirsteen Bardell’s illuminating reading of what she terms the ‘lost’ Lancashire witches, the cunning women and healers tried at the Quarter Sessions (Chapter 7: ‘Beyond Pendle: the 'lost' Lancashire witches’). This is probably the most promising route to understanding two of the oldest of the accused, Anne Whittle and Elizabeth Southern, but for the connection to be fully exploited there needs to be an understanding of how the magic of cunning folk fitted into a system of beliefs about magic. Though it provides new local material, this discussion does not take us conceptually beyond Keith Thomas’s listing of cunning practices in Religion and the Decline of Magic. Indeed, it does not take us even that far. And yet it is only through an understanding of how ‘good’ magic worked that we can begin to comprehend the reasons that maleficium was so feared. One of the most helpful sources are the European anthropological writings by authors such as Michael Herzfeld, Jill Dubisch and Michael Stewart, all of whom work on modern Greek village life, and all of whom offer a mode of analysis that helps to knit together its disparate aspects into something like a series of world-pictures. Of course, these analyses cannot simply be mapped onto early modern England’s very different social structures, but they do provide a model of rather more adventurous and wide-ranging thinking than is on offer in the less ambitious essays here. If we abandon the effort to do this for early modern England, instead making assumptions about how people thought and felt, then we will never understand the historical difference that witch-trials like Pendle seem to mark. It is important to break up premature historical consensus by pointing to local and personal investments, but some attempts at synthesis are also required.

Another area relatively neglected is religion it is mentioned often, but in terms of local conflict, persons rather than discourses. In a fine piece of local history, Michael Mullet offers an account of the dissolution of Whalley Abbey (Chapter 6: ‘The Reformation in the parish of Whalley’), but this is only related to the witch-trial in the last paragraph, and then by persons rather than topics, as is the tendency in this volume as a whole. The fact that some of the leading figures in the Pendle trial lived on what had formerly been church lands has relatively little explanatory force, and certainly cannot be used to assert that there were ‘new Protestant clerical demands for the intensive policing of public conduct, a line of interventionist approach that culminated in the Pendle dragnet of 1612.’(p. 102)

Yet there is ample evidence in the trial reports, doctored or not, that religion was a vital factor. One of the most significant elements in the trial narrative is the lengthy quotation from one of Old Demdike’s spells, a spell that contains clear recusant elements, and also what may just be a Gaelic word. It is possible, of course, that Potts doctored the text to make it look more guiltily recusant, and it is also possible that the deponent garbled it through misunderstanding. But it is also possible that this charm is garbled because it was garbled by its user, that it represents a moment when religion, in decline, but surviving, becomes magic. To interpret this text aright, we need other texts that we do not have: a copy of the local mystery plays, pre-reformation breviaries, songs and dances, nursery rhymes, perhaps some receipt books that brush up against magic. Differentially, we need other pamphlets by Potts on similar subjects. But the fact that none of this is available does not mean we can never risk reading these texts. We can and must read them and we can and must see that they point sharply to religion as a major focus for the participants in the trial not as a badge of social exclusion or inclusion, but as a way of thinking about the world. If religion ceases to be that, what does it become? It becomes horror, otherness, magic. How can the children not condemn the parents in such a space?

The final chapters on literary representation are extremely welcome, but it is difficult to justify the inclusion of a piece on modern paganism (except that it is always fun). The problem with Joanne Pearson’s article (Chapter 11: ‘Wicca, paganism, and history: contemporary witchcraft and the Lancashire witches’) is that it is never clear whether the goal is to uncouple modern paganism from history altogether or to see history as a kind of theme park in which pagans (and anyone else) are free to invent themselves in relation to it. Is it really all right for modern Lancashire witches either to neglect or to invoke their forbears, without too much regard to historical accuracy? Where do we draw the line? Like many others, Pearson appears to draw the line at the frivolous historical invocation of the Holocaust. It is nice to see this argument reiterated, but its implications should be allowed to disturb us considerably more than they do here. At what point do fantasies about witches become permissible? Or is historical truth always to be asserted, spoiling some otherwise benign parties?

What also remains questionable is the place of the essay in the volume, since central to its argument is the irrelevance of modern paganism to the Lancashire story, past as well as present. One might ask whether modern paganism is not being unreasonably privileged over other aspects of popular culture I would have liked to hear more about the tourist industry tantalisingly described in the introduction, the infantilisation of witches in that industry, and what this suggests about the packaging of the past. Much more interesting and far more relevant is the lively chapter by Jeffrey Richards on Harrison Ainsworth’s novel The Lancashire Witches (Chapter 10: ‘The ‘Lancashire novelist’ and the Lancashire Witches’), a fat and marvellous historical blockbuster sniffed at by modern critics, but deserving of a much wider audience. Correctly historicised in terms of medievalism and romantic nostalgia, it is a pity that the Ainsworth discussion is not allowed to inform the discussion of modern paganism, which could claim a similar discursive ancestry.

Alison Findlay’s sound essay on The Late Lancashire witches (Chapter 9: ‘The Late Lancashire Witches: sexual and spiritual politics in the events of 1633-4’), while neglecting the comic potential of the play, nevertheless teases out useful connections between the tale-tellers of 1633, Margaret Johnson and Edmund Robinson, and the play’s own concern with fiction and story. A subtle reading of the witch as ‘surplus’ and a careful examination of the possible links with Laudian church reform are enriching and powerfully suggestive. It is interesting that this is the only essay in the collection to engage both with recent re-thinkings of witchcraft historiography (especially Clark) and with high theory, notably Bataille. Less satisfying, but still stimulating, is Richard Wilson‘s vivid and intriguing analysis of Macbeth in relation to the Gunpowder Plot (Chapter 8: ‘The pilot's thumb: Macbeth and the Jesuits’). It is also the only piece to address the superstition of recusancy, the transformation of Catholic rituals, symbols, prayers and objects of devotion into inscrutable or mumbled mutterings, magic mumbo-jumbo. This is an important – perhaps the important – issue in these trials. But in the reading of Macbeth this is done with so heavy a hand as to carry little conviction. There seems little reason why the cauldron ingredients should make us think especially of relics, and even if it did it is hard to see why this should be further grounds for reading Shakespeare as himself Catholic, an always-tendentious argument which indeed has a great deal to do with local politics (local politics now, that is, and the wish to make Shakespeare as native to Lancaster as possible through the identification of him with the William Shakeshafte who served in a recusant household). Were this identification to be sustained, the tourist industry around Pendle would be less reliant upon witches. This might be a pity in more ways than one, because this volume proves conclusively that their stories are not yet exhausted, but still have much to teach us about the past. The field is now open for other, similar volumes – on the Northern circuit, on the St Osyth or Hopkins trials, perhaps. This volume sets a demanding standard for those future editors to meet.

10 historical figures that changed Lancashire forever

Which figures from history have affected Lancashire the most?

The county of Lancashire has a long and winding history that drives into the very root of England&aposs past.

It has been invaded and held by Vikings, laid low by Romans and even hosted some of the most infamous witch trials in the history of Britain.

We&aposve looked at some of the people from the last 2,000 years that have had the biggest impact on Lancashire.

Here is a list of just ten people who changed the county and made it the place we love today.

1. Roger De Poitou

Norman landowner and aristocrat.

Also known by the name Roger the Poitevin, this Norman lord was likely the first owner of substantial holdings in the area we know as Lancashire today.

Following his successful conquest of England, William I held the county of Lancashire, with his Domesday Book of 1086 showing the lands there to be under his control.

The monarch later granted substantial holdings to Roger in 1092, giving him control of the lands north of the River Ribble to the River Lune.

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Roger&aposs loyalty to his Norman country men granted him further landholdings in Cumbria and at the end of the 11th century had established himself as an influential force in Anglo-Norman politics with landholdings in Salfordshire, Lincolnshire, Suffolk, Derbyshire and Lancashire to name but a few.

The Norman soon lost all his influence in Lancashire however, when in 1102 he decided to rebel against Henry I and supported his opponent Robert Curthouse to the throne.

He died at around 1140 with no lands or influence in England.

2. Eric Morecambe

Morecambe and Wise were hugely influential comedians with careers that spanned four decades in the entertainment business.

The duo may have changed so much about comedy, television and popular culture throughout England during their heyday but it was Eric Morecambe that changed things for Lancashire.

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Using his hometown as part of his stage name, Eric Morecambe put his hometown was put on the map.

To this day, the legendary figure is association with Morecambe with a statue of Eric on the beach front turning the town into a real tourist attraction.

3. John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster

The son of Edward III not only took the duchy of Lancaster, he turned the county name into a monarchical dynasty.

John of Gaunt&aposs direct descendants would rule England from 1399 to 1462, establishing a hold on England that would not budge until the rise of the Yorkist dynasty and securing the crown of France.

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His royal house ended the rule of the ancient Plantagenets and secured the English royal family for the next millennium, in fact every monarch that came after him in Scotland and England was descended from his bloodline, including those from the house of York.

The name of Lancaster and the later county of Lancashire became such an integral part of English history and the monarchy because of John and it also earmarked the area as a land of intense interest to the English monarchy.

4. Gnaeus Julius Agricola

After Caesar came, saw, conquered and then left the shores of Britain, in 54BC, Emperor Claudius decided it was time to finish the job his predecessor had failed to finish.

In AD43 the emperor began a full-scale invasion of the island known as Britannia but it would be another 30 years before the Roman&aposs reached the north.

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Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a Gallo-Roman general who formally held positions in Asia and as a Plebeian tribute, was appointed governor of Britain in AD77 and was tasked with crushing the remaining resistance in Britain.

He would later beat the Brigantes, the Celtic tribe who dominated the lands in the north which included Lancashire.

His actions as a general would lead to a smattering of Roman buildings across Lancashire including a hill fort which would later become Lancaster Castle and another that at Ribchester at the Ribble river.

5. Alizon Device

Everyone knows that Pendle and the surrounding area is riddled with the history of the infamous Lancashire Witch Trial, one of history&aposs best recorded, most well known and bloodiest persecutions.

In 1612, 12 people from the area of Pendle were put on trial for the murders of ten others with the accusations that witchcraft had been used to carry out the crimes.

Amongst them was Alizon Device, who&aposs encounter with a peddler called John Law, led to her and much of her family being accessed and brought before authorities.

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Due to the beliefs at the time that Witchcraft was part of a family collective, Alizon&aposs relatives were dragged into the trial and, through their statements, so were the Chattox family who the Devizes had an on-going grudge with.

Ten of the 11 charged with witchcraft were found guilty following a trial at Lancaster castle. They were subsequently hanged on Gallows Hill in the city.

The well documented trial and the mass executions of the witches, relatively uncommon in England, immortalised the trial in Lancashire history and put Pendle on the map.

6. Oliver Cromwell

Lord Protector of England and rebel.

Many tout Oliver Cromwell as a man of freedom who took down the tyrant King Charles I and fought for the liberties of parliament.

In reality Cromwell was as much of a tyrant as Charles as his lack of toleration for Catholicism provoked action from many figures in the north-west.

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Notably Lancashire figures like Charles Towneley fought against Oliver Cromwell during the 17th Century, leading a division of Royalists at Marston Moor where he sadly met his death.

Cromwell&aposs clamp down on Catholicism in Britain would have sowed the seed of resistance in the highly Catholic county of Lancashire.

Preston also saw one of the decisive Roundhead victories during the civil war, with Cromwell defeating the Royalists in 1648.

7. James Hargreaves

Britain was once a titan of industry and, for an extensive period prior to the World Wars, one of the richest countries in the world.

Whilst Sheffield became the centre of steel production and the canals of Manchester and Liverpool continued an extensive trade of manufactured goods it was Lancashire that boomed in the textile industry and James Hargreaves played a huge part in kick-starting that boom.

A weaver and carpenter by trade, living in the 18th Century, Oswaldtwistle&aposs James Hargreaves invented the Spinning Jenny, a device that originally allowed one person to work eight or more looms at once.

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Later models increased this to 120, meaning that the production of cloth could be moved into a factory setting, sparking the Industrial Revolution in Lancashire.

By the 1830s some 85% of all cotton manufacturing occurred in Lancashire.

8. Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan Ragnarsson

Before the Norman invasions England was visited by wave after wave of Viking attacks in the 9th Century, with Danish raiders targeting the British shoreline.

In 865, the Vikings decided that they preferred full blown invasions to raiding and the brothers Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan Rangersson took Northumbria, which at the time encompassed lands from Liverpool across to York and up into southern Scotland, including Lancashire.

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Ivar and Halfdan would be dead by 877 but not before they had taken East Anglia, Nottingham and Mercia, leaving much of England under Danish control.

Their conquests would lead to Viking dominance of Lancashire and much of England and the establishment of Viking law across the Danish lands in 866.

9. Richard de la Legh

Richard is the second Norman landowner to feature on this list and one who gave birth to the Towneley line that has been involved in Burnley&aposs political landscape for centuries.

Having inherited the lands from his father he would take the name Towneley for the first time

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As well as being an important servant to Edward III and his son John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster, Richard served as an MP and the sheriff of Lancaster on several occasions.

Today, Towneley Hall, the neighbouring park and its illustrious history all stand today because of his legacy.

10. Thomas Clifton and Sir Henry Hoghton

Without the ingenuity of these two figures the sea resort of Blackpool would never have flowered into the tourist attraction it is today.

Before the 18th century Blackpool was a Hamlet that happened to intersect seven-miles of beach and coastline with the 1801 census showing its population to consist of just 473 people.

But in the mid-1700s a trend of "sea-bathing" to cure disease become fashionable in high society, prompting both Thomas Clifton and Sir Henry Hoghton 6th Baronet to build a road to the hamlet.

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They also established a private coach service from Manchester and Halifax to bring the upper classes to the shoreline with the attraction of Blackpool only increasing as Britain experienced the introduction of railways and the birth of the middle-class.

Whilst Henry Banks is seen as the "father of Blackpool" he would have been nowhere if it wasn&apost for Clifton and Hoghton.

A Dark History

A glimpse into the history of Lancaster Castle and its use as a place of punishment offers a revealing insight into the nation’s changing attitudes towards crime in general, as well as religious and cultural beliefs through the centuries.

The castle has been the scene of notable trials, scores of executions and has housed prisoners of various categories until as recently as 2011.

Our guided tours unlock the fascinating, often macabre heritage of this imposing, historically significant monument.

Crime & Punishment

Lancaster Castle provides a unique snapshot of the history of the judiciary and penal reform in the UK. It has been a place of adjudication and incarceration for centuries and still houses one of the oldest working crown courts in the country.

HMP Lancaster

Lancaster Castle has served as a prison since the mid-17th century. Its latest incarnation was as HMP Lancaster, a Category C prison which was operational on this site right up until late 2011.


Until 1800, condemned criminals at Lancaster were executed at a place called Gallows Hill, on the moors close to Williamson Park

Lancashire Witch Trials

One of the most famous and dramatic events to take place in Lancashire occured almost 400 years ago in 1612, and has since formed the basis of novels, and radio and television programmes.

The Lancashire Witches

Four hundred years ago, in a Lancaster courtroom on Wednesday 19 August 1612, a fourteen year old girl called Grace Sowerbutts gave evidence relating to the eighteen witches who were tried for murders at the Lancaster Assizes in England – more commonly known as The Lancashire Witches.

Speaking to the investigating magistrate Robert Holden, Grace’s evidence – recounted in the book The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches – was against three women of Samlesbury: her grandmother Jennet Bierley, her aunt Ellen Bierley, and Jane Southworth, three of those who were tried for murder at Lancaster. The significance of Grace’s testimony though resides in the fact that it is the first story of witchcraft in England that significantly incorporates elements of European witchcraft, notably, infanticide, cannibalism, a Satanic Sabbath, and sex with the Devil.

According to Grace, she went one night with her grandmother and her aunt Ellen Bierley to the house of Thomas Walshman in Samlesbury. All the household were asleep, and the doors were locked. Somehow, Jennet Bierley opened them, and the three of them entered the house. Jennet Bierley went alone into the room where Thomas Walshman and his wife were asleep. She brought out a small child that had been in bed with its parents, and then sat Grace down by the fire with the child. Jennet Bierley then took a nail and thrust it into the child’s navel. After that, she took a quill, placed it in the hole made by the nail, ‘and did suck there a good space.’ [1] She then placed the child back in bed again. Jennet and Ellen then returned with Grace to their own homes. Grace told Robert Holden that neither Thomas Walshman nor his wife were aware that the child had been taken. And she added that, when Jennet pushed the nail into the child’s navel, it did not cry out. The child had not thrived from that time on, she informed him, and had subsequently died.

Grace further testified that, the night after the child had been buried, she accompanied Jennet and Ellen to the graveyard. There, they ‘did take up the said child.’ [2] Jennet Bierley carried the body to her own house. Some of it she boiled in a pot, some of it she roasted on the fire. Both Jennet and Ellen ate some of each. They tried to persuade Grace, and also Ellen’s daughter Grace Bierley, to eat some of the child with them, but they refused to do so. Jennet and Ellen Bierley then boiled the bones of the Walshman child in a pot. According to Grace, they said that they intended to anoint themselves, ‘that thereby they might sometimes change themselves into other shapes.’ [3] This was all too much for the magistrate Robert Holden and he closed the first examination of Grace Sowerbutts.

When Robert Holden had Grace Sowerbutts re–sworn, and began his interrogation of her again, she did not disappoint him. According to Grace, about six months earlier, in late 1611, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Bierley, Jane Southworth, and Grace met at a place called Red Bank, on the north side of the River Ribble every Thursday and Sunday night for a fortnight. They had crossed the river magically from the Samlesbury side of the river, with the help of ‘foure blacke things’, that stood upright, yet did not have the faces of humans. [4] At Red Bank, they found magical food which the other three women ate. Although Grace was encouraged to eat by her grand–mother, the food looked too strange to her, and she did not eat it. After they had eaten, the three women together with Grace danced, each of them with one of the black things. After their dancing, she assumed that the three women had sex with three of the black things, for she herself too believed that ‘the black thing that was with her, did abuse her bodie.’ [5]

The Famous History of the Lancashire Witches, c. 1780.

Infanticide, cannibalism, and Sabbatical orgies on the banks of the Ribble – all very much a world turned upside down. It is the first English description of an assembly of witches on English soil that incorporates European traditions of witchcraft and demonology. English witchcraft has no tradition of infanticide and cannibalism. There is no evidence to suggest that all this was the invention of the examining magistrate Robert Holden. So how did a fourteen year old girl know of such things?

The atmosphere in court was electric. The evidence was damning. The presiding Judge Bromley asked the prisoners what they had to say in reply to the evidence presented. They, on their knees and weeping, maintained their innocence and begged him to examine Grace Sowerbutts to determine who had encouraged her or who had it in for them.

The witnesses, gathered behind her, began quarrelling and accusing each other. When quizzed by the judge, Grace Sowerbutts’ face told it all . But she attempted to bluff her way through it. She would admit to nothing. But she did say that she had been sent to ‘a Master’ to learn. He did not, she claimed, have anything to do with this. But Judge Bromley smelled Popery: ‘if a Priest or Jesuit had a hand in one end of it,’ he told the court, ‘there would appeare to bee knaverie, and practise [chicanery] in the other end of it.’ [6] Getting nowhere fast, Judge Bromley adjourned the case, and handed Grace over to the puritan clergyman William Leigh, rector of Standish, and to an Edward Chisnal, also of Standish, both of them justices of the peace. They examined Grace on that same day and made their report to the judge.

Grace was first asked whether the accusation she had made against her grandmother Jennet, her aunt Ellen, and Jane Southworth of ‘the killing of the child of Thomas Walshman, with a naile in the Navell, the boyling, eating, and oyling, thereby to transforme themselves into divers shapes’ was true. [7] If we believe the report, she folded instantly and denied it all. And she laid the blame on Christopher Southworth: ‘one Master Thompson, which shee taketh to be Master Christopher Southworth, to whom shee was taken to learne her prayers, did perswade, counsell, and advise her, to deale… against her said Grand–mother, Aunt, and Southworths wife.’ [8] And she went on to say that she never ‘did know, or saw any Devils, nor any other Visions, as formerly by her hath beene alleaged and informed.’ [9]

Who was Christopher Southworth? He was in fact a Catholic priest, trained in Douai and Rome from 1579-86, hiding out in his family’s house, Samlesbury Hall. Grace Sowerbutts’ mother, troubled by a set of behaviours that strongly suggested Grace was possessed by the Devil, had taken Grace to him, probably in the hope of an exorcism.

Christopher Southworth no doubt took the opportunity to use Grace to implicate Jane Southworth, his widowed aunt by law, and several of his family’s tenants in witchcraft. And he seized the chance to introduce Grace to some of the intricacies of elite European demonology. The information that she in turn gave to Robert Holden must have surpassed the hopes of the most avid witch hunter.

Witches that killed children through sucking their blood were part of a European tradition that went back to the early part of the fifteenth century. But they became a common feature of the persona of the witch that went beyond trial documents and demonologies. Thus, for example, in the dialogue entitled Strix, first published in 1523,and writtenby the Italian humanist Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, we find a description of blood sucking witches that remarkably mirrors that of Grace Sowerbutts. In answer to the question by the sceptic Apistius how the witch, Strix, killed children, she replied,

We entered the houses of our enemies at night, by doors and entranceways that were opened for us, and, while their fathers and mothers were sleeping, we picked up the tiny children and took them over by the fire. There we pierced them under their nails with the needle, and then, putting our lips to the wounds, we sucked out as much blood as our mouths would hold. [10]

Apistius went on to wonder why the children didn’t cry out. ‘While we are doing it,’ the witch informed him, ‘they are so sound asleep that they don’t feel it. But afterward, when they are awakened, they cry out loud, and weep, and wail, and get sick, and sometimes even die.’ [11]

We do not know whether Christopher Southworth was familiar with Pico’s Strix. The Strix was a highly popular work, and went through four Italian editions from 1524 to 1556. So it is not impossible. However, we are on firmer ground with the matter of cannibalism.

As with blood sucking, so with cannibalism. The eating of children by witches was also part of a European tradition that went back to the early part of the fifteenth century, though it had precursors in earlier stereotypes about medieval heretics. It exemplifies the metaphor of the witch as the anti–mother. Rather than blood sucking, this was a tradition of witches killing, burying, exhuming, cooking, and then eating children in their assemblies.

A circle of demons and witches, from Nathaniel Crouch, The Kingdom of Darkness, 1688.

It is the 1486 Malleus Maleficarum of the Dominican inquisitors Heinrich Kramer that we find behind Robert Holden’s account of Jennet Bierley’s cooking and eating of the Walshman child, as told to him by Grace. [12] As the first printed handbook of witchcraft and witch hunting, there is little doubt that Southworth would have been familiar with it.

According to the Malleus Maleficarum, when asked about the method by which infants were captured, a certain sorceress replied,

We prey on babies, especially those not yet baptized but also those baptized. … With our ceremonies we kill them in their cribs or while they lie beside their parents, and while they are thought to have been squashed or to have died of something else, we steal them secretly from the tomb and boil them in a cauldron until all the flesh is made almost drinkable, the bones having been pulled out. From the more solid matter we make a paste suitable for our desires and arts and movements by flight, and from the more runny liquid we fill a container… Whoever drinks from this container is immediately rendered knowledgeable when a few ceremonies are added, and becomes the master of our sect. [13]

According to the evidence of Grace though, the ‘soup’ that had been made from the bones of the Walshman child was so ‘that thereby they might sometimes change themselves into other shapes.’ Even the Malleus Maleficarum did not argue for a real transformation of witches into animal form, but only for the demonically created illusion of it.

But there was one highly influential exception to this, first published in Paris in 1580, while Christopher Southworth was in France at Douai, training for the priesthood. This was Jean Bodin’s De la Démonomanie des Sorciers. Bodin endorsed the reality of transformation into animal form. [14] Moreover, he viewed infanticide by witches raising their children into the air and then killing them by inserting ‘a large pin into their head’ as one of the key crimes of witchcraft. [15] And he is aware of the use of ointments to enable ‘magical’ travel to witches’ assemblies. [16]

So too with the Sabbath, although Grace’s account was not highly ramified in terms of demonological theories – there is no mention of the Devil, demons, or even evil spirits, for example – these meetings had all the features of a European witches’ Sabbath – with magical transportation, night time gatherings, eating, dancing, and sex with black things, with (perhaps) the faces of animals. Bodin’s De la Démonomanie des Sorciers is again perhaps the most likely source. For all of the features mentioned above can there be found, though much more explicitly. [17]

So in the evidence of a possessed child, we find high demonology, transmitted via a Catholic priest hiding in Samlesbury Hall, his family home. It was, on the face of it, unlikely to endear him to the locals. So why did he do it? Those accused knew the answer to that. They were agreed that they had been incriminated by Southworth for having converted to Protestantism and for having left the Catholic faith. And Thomas Potts added the explanation that, when Southworth had been unable to convert them back to Catholicism, then he devised this plan in revenge.

With the confession of counterfeiting and conspiracy with Christopher Southworth by Grace Sowerbutts, and the revelation that Southworth was conspiring against them for having converted to Protestantism, the case against the Samlesbury witches fell apart. Bromley promptly ordered the jury to find them innocent, which they duly did.

A troubled child, conflict within and between families, religious conflict in early modern England, elite demonologies framing the reality of things and calculated to throw suspicion on women for witchcraft, a Catholic justice of the peace anxious to show that a Catholic too could be loyal to the Crown, part of the give–and–take between northern Catholics generally, powerful Catholic gentry, and Protestant authorities in the North of England, the exposure of fraud by a fourteen year old girl and deceit by a vengeful Catholic priest – all of these played their role in the accusation, trial, and eventual release of the witches of Salmesbury. ■

Philip C. Almond is Professor Emeritus of Religion at the University of Queensland, and author of our new book The Lancashire Witches. He is internationally respected for his work on religion and the history of ideas, especially during the English Enlightenment. His nine previous books include The Witches of Warboys and England’s First Demonologist.

[1] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches (London, 1612), sig. L.2.r.

[2] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. L.2.r. The evidence of Grace was often confused, both with respect to timelines and events. Elsewhere, Grace says that she did not know how they got the body ‘out of the grave at the first taking of it up.’ See Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. L.2.v.

[3] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. L.2.r.

[4] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. L.2.v.

[5] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. L.2.v.

[6] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. M.4.r.

[7] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. M.4.v. As we have seen, at least according to the account given by Potts, Jane had not been implicated in this by Grace.

[8] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. M.4.v.

[9] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. N.1.r.

[10] Quoted by Walter Stephens, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 278.

[11] Stephens, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief, p. 278.

[12] The question of authorship is disputed as to whether it is by Kramer with the participation of Sprenger or by the former alone. For an argument in favour of the former, see Christopher Mackay (ed. & trans.), Malleus Maleficarum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), i. 103–21. I will assume that Kramer was the primary author and attribute the work to him.

[13] Mackay (ed. and trans.), Malleus Maleficarum, pt. 2, qn. 1, ch. 2, 97C–D.

[14] See Randy A. Scott (trans.), Jean Bodin: On the DemonMania of Witches (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1995), book 2, ch. 6.

[15] Scott (trans.), Jean Bodin: On the DemonMania of Witches, book 4, ch. 5.

[16] Scott (trans.), Jean Bodin: On the DemonMania of Witches, book 2, ch. 4.

[17] See Scott (trans.), Jean Bodin: On the DemonMania of Witches, book 2, ch. 4.

Lancashire Witch - History

Not long after ten Lancashire residents were found guilty of witchcraft and hanged in August 1612, the official proceedings of the trial were published by the clerk of the court Thomas Potts in his The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. Four hundred years on, Robert Poole reflects on England's biggest witch trial and how it still has relevance today.


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Woodcut of witches flying, from Mathers' Wonders of the Invisible World (1689) and used in an 18th-century pamphlet about the Lancashire witches.

Four hundred years ago, in 1612, the north-west of England was the scene of England’s biggest peacetime witch trial: the trial of the Lancashire witches. Twenty people, mostly from the Pendle area of Lancashire, were imprisoned in the castle as witches. Ten were hanged, one died in gaol, one was sentenced to stand in the pillory, and eight were acquitted. The 2012 anniversary sees a small flood of commemorative events, including works of fiction by Blake Morrison, Carol Ann Duffy and Jeanette Winterson. How did this witch trial come about, and what accounts for its enduring fame?

We know so much about the Lancashire Witches because the trial was recorded in unique detail by the clerk of the court, Thomas Potts, who published his account soon afterwards as The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster. I have recently published a modern-English edition of this book, together with an essay piecing together what we know of the events of 1612. It has been a fascinating exercise, revealing how Potts carefully edited the evidence, and also how the case against the ‘witches’ was constructed and manipulated to bring about a spectacular show trial. It all began in mid-March when a pedlar from Halifax named John Law had a frightening encounter with a poor young woman, Alizon Device, in a field near Colne. He refused her request for pins and there was a brief argument during which he was seized by a fit that left him with ‘his head … drawn awry, his eyes and face deformed, his speech not well to be understood his thighs and legs stark lame.’ We can now recognize this as a stroke, perhaps triggered by the stressful encounter. Alizon Device was sent for and surprised all by confessing to the bewitching of John Law and then begged for forgiveness.

When Alizon Device was unable to cure the pedlar the local magistrate, Roger Nowell was called in. Characterised by Thomas Potts as ‘God’s justice’ he was alert to instances of witchcraft, which were regarded by the Lancashire’s puritan-inclined authorities as part of the cultural rubble of ‘popery’ – Roman Catholicism – long overdue to be swept away at the end of the county’s very slow protestant reformation. ‘With weeping tears’ Alizon explained that she had been led astray by her grandmother, ‘old Demdike’, well-known in the district for her knowledge of old Catholic prayers, charms, cures, magic, and curses. Nowell quickly interviewed Alizon’s grandmother and mother, as well as Demdike’s supposed rival, ‘old Chattox’ and her daughter Anne. Their panicky attempts to explain themselves and shift the blame to others eventually only ended up incriminating them, and the four were sent to Lancaster gaol in early April to await trial at the summer assizes. The initial picture revealed was of a couple of poor, marginal local families in the forest of Pendle with a longstanding reputation for magical powers, which they had occasionally used at the request of their wealthier neighbours. There had been disputes but none of these were part of ordinary village life. Not until 1612 did any of this come to the attention of the authorities.

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Illustration from James Crossley's introduction to Pott's Discovery of witches in the County of Lancaster (1845) reprinted from the original edition of 1613.

The net was widened still further at the end of April when Alizon’s younger brother James and younger sister Jennet, only nine years old, came up between them with a story about a ‘great meeting of witches’ at their grandmother’s house, known as Malkin Tower. This meeting was presumably to discuss the plight of those arrested and the threat of further arrests, but according to the evidence extracted form the children by the magistrates, a plot was hatched to blow up Lancaster castle with gunpowder, kill the gaoler and rescue the imprisoned witches. It was, in short, a conspiracy against royal authority to rival the gunpowder plot of 1605 – something to be expected in a county known for its particularly strong underground Roman Catholic presence.

Those present at the meeting were mostly family members and neighbours, but they also included Alice Nutter, described by Potts as ‘a rich woman [who] had a great estate, and children of good hope: in the common opinion of the world, of good temper, free from envy or malice.’ Her part in the affair remains mysterious, but she seems to have had Catholic family connections, and may have been one herself, providing an added motive for her to be prosecuted. She was, along with a number of others named by the children, rounded up, and by the time of the trial in August the Pendle accused had been joined in the dungeons of Lancaster Castle by other alleged witches from elsewhere in the county.

All nineteen were tried in the space of two days, amid dramatic courtroom scenes. Ten of them were hanged the next day on Lancaster Moor, high above the town and overlooking Morecambe Bay. It was probably the first time any of them had seen the sea.

Alice Nutter and several other defendants defied convention by refusing to offer any confession on the gallows. To many of those present at the hanging this would have seemed like proof of innocence, and it may have been such rumblings about the trial that prompted the trial judges to ask the clerk of the court, Thomas Potts, to take the unusual step of publishing an account of it. In truth Potts had already had a large hand in organising the trial itself and may well have suggested the publication in the first place. He certainly used it to curry favour with King James I, whose book Demonology he cited several times, proclaiming how the authorities had followed the King’s advice on uncovering cases of witchcraft in the Lancashire trial. The Lancashire trial was then cited from the 1620s onwards as the legal precedent for using child and ‘supergrass’ evidence in witchcraft cases. Indirectly, the trial of the Lancashire witches may have influenced the notorious ‘witchfinder-general’ trials of the 1640s and even the Salem witch trials of the 1690s in New England.

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Thomas Potts as he was imagined in Harrison Ainsworth's The Lancashire witches, a romance of Pendle Forest (1850), illustrated by Sir John Gilbert.

The modern fame of the Lancashire witches is down to the publication in 1849 of an imaginative novel by Harrison Ainsworth, a friend of Charles Dickens with local connections and one of the bestselling Victorian novelists. His novel The Lancashire Witches has never been out of print, and it was successful in part because to drew on an edition of Potts’ original book published in 1848 by Ainsworth’s friend James Crossley, the Manchester antiquarian. Ainsworth has in turn inspired many other publications and theories. The trial began to receive serious academic attention in the 1990s, pulled together in a book of essays which I edited for Manchester University Press, The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories. In 2012 an international conference at Lancaster University, Capturing Witches, will bring together the latest work, both factual and fictional. No fewer than five new novels have appeared, most notably Jeanette Winterson’s At Daylight Gate, as well as a book of verses by Blake Morrison, A Discovery of Witches, and a BBC documentary, The Pendle Witch Child.

The remarkable range of new work testifies to the richness of historical themes thrown up by the trial, but I would like to single out one in particular: children and witchcraft. Much of the key evidence in the trial of 1612 was given by two children, James and Jennet Device, aged about nine and twelve. Caught up in a terrifying web of charges and arrests they panicked, and their stories, designed to clear themselves, ended up in the deaths of most of their own family members, and indeed of James himself. In some parts of the world, children continue to be accused of witchcraft and to suffer horrific maltreatment as a result. A case of a Nigerian child in London, tortured and murdered by their own family for being a witch, recently hit the national headlines. Lancaster, home of the 1612 trials, is also home of Stepping Stones Nigeria, a campaigning charity dedicated to protecting children from accusations of witchcraft and other abuse. It has been adopted as the charity of the Lancashire Witches 400 programme. There could be no better way of marking the anniversary of the Lancashire witches trials than to visit their website and learn more about how witchcraft remains a live issue, four hundred years on.

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