A few years ago my friend Bella Stander visited me at my adopted home in Lancashire, England, near the famous Pendle Hill. As I was driving her down quiet back lanes to a riding stable where we planned to go on a country hack, she kept noticing images of witches everywhere we went: on buses, pubs, even road signs pointing out the scenic route to Lancaster. Finally she asked me, “Mary, why are there witches everywhere?”
It’s impossible to live in environs of Pendle Hill and not be caught up in the enduring legend of the Pendle Witches of 1612, the subject of my forthcoming novel, A Light Far-Shining (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).
In 1612, in the most meticulously documented witch trial 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 and her brother, who appeared to suffer from learning difficulties. In Thomas Potts’s 1613 account of the proceedings, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witchcraft in the Countie of Lancaster, he pays particular attention to the one alleged witch who escaped justice by dying in prison before she could 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 describes 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.
Not bad for an eighty-year-old lady! In England, the law forbade the use of torture in extracting witchcraft confessions. Thus, the trial transcripts supposedly reveal her voluntary confession, although her confession might have been manipulated or altered by the magistrate and scribe. What’s interesting, if the trial transcripts can be believed, is that she freely confessed to being a witch and a healer. The local farmers trusted her and called on her to cure their cattle. She talked about her familiar who appeared to her at sunset in the form of a beautiful young man and who taught her all she needed to know about magic. Some of her charms and spells were recorded and they reveal no evidence of diabolical beliefs, but use ecclesiastical language of the Catholic Church, the old religion driven underground in Reformation era England.
So it appeared that she was a practitioner of Catholic folk magic that would have been fairly common before the Reformation. The crimes of which she was accused dated back years before the trial. The trial itself might have never happened had it not been for King James I’s obsession with the occult. Until his reign, witch persecutions had been relatively rare in England compared with Scotland and Continental Europe. But James’ book Daemonologie presented the idea of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation. To curry favour with him, his loyal subjects, such as Lancashire magistrate Roger Nowell (who would have been my landlord if I had lived back then), went out of his way to arrest the Pendle Witches and even went to the far fetched extreme of accusing them of conspiring their very own Gunpowder Plot to blow up Lancaster Castle.
I am absolutely in love with this strong woman who was a widowed quite young and raised her children and grandchildren single-handedly in a place called Malkin Tower. The building no longer exists, but the site is listed on the Ordinance Survey Map. While researching this novel, I hiked on the public footpaths to all the locations mentioned in the trial. I found the quarry where Elizabeth Southerns first met her familiar and the site of where her protégé and arch rival Chattox lived. I also attempted to hike to Greenhead Manor, the home of two of Chattox’s alleged upper class victims, but the public footpath was blocked and booby-trapped with broken glass and a wasp’s nest. I even found the Red Lion Pub in Lancaster where the witches were taken for their last drink before being dragged to the gallows.
Demdike is dead but not forgotten. By the mid-17th century, Demdike’s name became a byword for witch in the local dialect and there are legends that she appeared to poor shepherds to help them find water for their flocks in summer droughts. What impressed me when I first moved here, before I knew anything about the Pendle Witches, is what a mark they left behind. Long after their deaths, they became part of the undying spirit of the region and its folklore.