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