In witches’ foot­steps

Walk the hill at the heart of a satanic panic that left a bloody stain on the year 1612...

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: GUY PROC­TER

Walk the hill witches call home.

IN 1600S BRI­TAIN fear and sus­pi­cion of witchcraft ran from the bot­tom of so­ci­ety to the top: a witch was to blame for your failed crop or poorly child; King James him­self had a mor­bid fear of oc­cult-or­ches­trated death and wrote a witch-hunter’s hand­book en­ti­tled Dae­monolo­gie to help his sub­jects spot the signs. Like a petrol spill, the vapours were fast-spread­ing and dan­ger­ous to in­hale – and the threat of flash ig­ni­tion in the form of full-blown satanic panic con­stant. The iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties of east Lan­cashire were a tin­der­box, and there was never a more con­sum­ing con­fla­gra­tion than the Pen­dle Witch Tri­als of 1612. Nine women and one man from vil­lages around Pen­dle Hill would be ex­e­cuted amid talk of curses and can­ni­bal­ism; child mur­der and com­mu­nion with the devil.

Walk this 1831ft (557m) hill to­day and you’ll en­joy com­mand­ing views over the Pen­nines to the east, the Bow­land Fells to the north­west, and the West Pen­nine Moors to the south – and a sober­ing per­spec­tive on one of the most no­to­ri­ous episodes of English his­tory, which drains a few de­grees more from the chill au­tumn breeze.

It started in March 1612 when a pedlar named John Law came across a poor young woman called Al­i­zon De­vice in a field out­side nearby Colne. She begged him for a few pins, and when he re­fused, he was struck by a strange palsy that left “his head drawn awry, his eyes and face de­formed, his speech not well to be un­der­stood; his thighs and legs stark lame”. It was not a stroke but a clear case of witchcraft, and for lo­cal mag­is­trate Roger Now­ell, De­vice was to prove a dream col­lar – con­fess­ing swiftly and tear­fully, and read­ily im­pli­cat­ing oth­ers in­clud­ing her grand­mother with the give­away name Demdike (‘de­mon woman’ – real name El­iz­a­beth South­ern), and her arch en­emy ‘Old Chat­tox’, (Anne Whit­tle), ma­tri­arch of a neigh­bour­ing fam­ily of broom­stick both­er­ers. Demdike and Al­i­zon, Chat­tox and her daugh­ter were com­mit­ted to Lan­caster Cas­tle on charges of witchcraft. But it was a pre­cept of witchfind­ing that where there was one witch there were more and the cir­cle soon widened. Partly on the ev­i­dence of Al­i­zon’s nine-year-old sis­ter Jen­net, a cri­sis-meet­ing of Demdike’s fam­ily and friends was soon char­ac­terised as a coven; their talk as a plot to blow up Lan­caster Cas­tle and free the witches. By Au­gust, fully 19 witches had swelled the cas­tle’s brood, though by the trial date Demdike had ex­pired of nat­u­ral causes, and Al­i­zon’s broth­er­witch James had made an at­tempt on his own life. The scope of the trial grew un­til it laid the blame for no fewer than 16 deaths and vir­tu­ally ev­ery mis­for­tune to have be­fallen the com­mu­ni­ties in the shadow of Pen­dle Hill at the feet of ten largely self-in­crim­i­nated un­for­tu­nates. On 20 Au­gust they were hanged.

Part of what led sus­pi­cion to so read­ily take root here is what makes it so com­pelling a place to walk to­day. Pen­dle Hill is a stern-pro­filed whale­back some­how ejected from the rest of the Pen­nine school, and be­tween it and Lan­caster lie the un­fath­omable bad­lands of the For­est of Bow­land. Aca­demic and ex­pert on the tri­als, Robert Poole de­scribes a land­scape “Thinly-in­hab­ited, sparse, un­even and ex­posed; li­able to sud­den changes in light and at­mos­phere; ex­ten­sive and dif­fi­cult for protes­tants to evan­ge­lise, and where the ref­or­ma­tion had still only half hap­pened” – hard coun­try that sup­ported a peo­ple with gothic imag­i­na­tions and great dif­fi­culty ek­ing out a liv­ing. Ea­ger for any ad­van­tage that could be con­ferred by cure or curse – fam­i­lies of beg­gars and odd­balls like the Demdikes and Chat­toxes used witch­doc­tor­ing and spir­i­tual pro­tec­tion rack­ets to sup­ple­ment their beg­ging – and give agency to old grudges.

Their ac­cusers be­lieved they had rooted out a great nexus of evil from the slopes of this for­bid­ding-look­ing Pen­nine moor – rather than com­pound­ing the squalor and su­per­sti­tion of the lo­cals who sub­sisted on it. 400 years later, as you walk this still-stern, still-for­bid­ding peak in iso­la­tion, or trace the jour­ney of the witches from home on Pen­dle Hill to the gib­bet on Gal­lows Hill in Lan­caster on the 51-mile trail cre­ated for the an­niver­sary of their trial – you’ll no­tice some­thing in the air. Fore­bod­ing vapours still sur­round this lonely coun­try – no less un­set­tling for the scent of mo­ral hys­te­ria and man’s in­hu­man­ity to man, than any such thing as real witchcraft.

More info the Lan­cashire Witches Walk – www.forestof­bow­land.com/Lan­cashire-Witches-Walk

More on the trial: The Won­der­ful Dis­cov­ery of Witches in the County of Lan­caster: Mod­ernised and In­tro­duced by Robert Poole.

“400 years later, as you walk this still-stern, still-for­biddi ng peak i n iso­la­tion, or trace the jour­ney of the witches... you’ll no­tice some­thi ng i n the air.”

HELL BREAKS LOOSE High, iso­lated, prone to eerie con­di­tions – life was hard on Pen­dle Hill be­fore the black light­ning bolt of witchcraft struck in 1612.

WITCHY WAYMARKERS Verses from Poet Lau­re­ate Carol Ann Duffy mark at in­ter­vals the 51-mile Lan­cashire Witches Walk.

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