Spell it out

Halloween witches are all pointy hats and broomsticks but for the Lancashire women accused of witchcraft in the 17th century it was an all too serious affair

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Anne Whittle, Anne Redfearn, Elizabeth Device, Alice Nutter, Alizon Device, James Device, Katherine Hewitt, Jane Bulcock, John Bulcock and Isobel Robey.

These are the names of the 10 people hanged during the Lancashire Witch Trials over 400 years ago. They were among an estimated 40,000-60,000 people executed during the witch trials of the early modern period. Around 85 per cent were women.

“The women had been kept in the dungeon of Lancaster Castle in appalling conditions.”

A new campaign is calling for the Lancashire Witches’ names to be cleared through an official pardon. It’s being led by scare attraction Blackpool Tower Dungeons, which shares the story of the Lancashire Witches with thousands of tourists annually. It comes at a time when museums and attractions are thinking more carefully about the representations of victims of historical injustice. Parent company Merlin Entertainment has launched a government petition that will be discussed in Parliament if it receives 10,000 signatures.

The campaign is being backed by Robert Poole, professor of history at the University of Central Lancashire, who’s produced a modern edition of The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, the original 1612 account of the trial of the Lancashire Witches.

“The Lancashire Witches were the victims of a gross miscarriage of justice,” says Poole. “They were convicted of an impossible crime, by methods that amounted to persecution, on the basis of patently false evidence which they were not able to contest. It’s high time they were given a pardon.”

At the centre of the Pendle Witch covens tried in 1612 were two elderly widows – Anne Whittle (aka Chattox) and Elizabeth Southerns (aka Demdike) – who were most likely wisewomen. Women like them were common in isolated village life, making small sums as healers, using charms or ointments when doctors were not readily available.

Lame and blind, uneducated and poor they lived outside the patriarchal institutions of the church and what passed for orthodox medicine, and became an obvious scapegoat during a time of religious and political upheaval. In remote areas like Pendle, Catholics continued to practise openly during the English Reformation and stories from the town soon reached King James I, who had two intense interests – Protestant theology and, after a visit to Denmark where he’d attended a witch trial, witch hunting. His book Daemonologie instructed his followers that they must prosecute any practitioners and in his native Scotland witch hunting reached far more brutal extremes.

In Lancashire, local magistrate Roger Nowell began interrogating members of the community, which led to them accusing rival families, neighbours and even their own family members. As well as Pendle, accused women came from Salmesbury and Windle in the county.

Chattox was among those hanged at Lancaster Castle in front of huge crowds – along with her daughter, Anne Redfearn – but Demdike died in prison, aged 80, while awaiting trial. Demdike’s daughter Elizabeth Device, and grandchildren James Device and Alizon Device were also hanged.

“The whole trial took only two days. The women had been kept in the dungeon of Lancaster Castle in appalling conditions, sometimes for months with no access to lawyers,” says Poole. “These poor people were then confronted in court with neighbours and in some cases their own family testifying against them. In some cases confessions gathered through means of coercion and torture were used as evidence to convict the accused. They were just ordinary people caught up in a religious and political persecution by the authorities.”

But did old Chattox, Demdike and their associates see themselves as “normal people”? Demdike had been regarded as a witch locally for 50 years before her arrest – if they believed they had powers for good, would they not also believe those powers could be used for hexes and wrongdoing against those who aggrieved them? Perhaps claiming the title of witch was the only power they had.

Lancaster University academic and witch expert Catherine Spooner says she doesn’t know whether the witches should be pardoned.

“Is the call to pardon them because they were innocent of the crime they were accused of or because, under current British law, the practice of witchcraft is no longer recognised as a crime? If the latter, then they and all other convicted witches deserve a pardon. However, if we are judging them by the laws of their own times then it is much more complicated.”

This was the conundrum faced in 1998 by then Home Secretary Jack Straw who was asked by Pendle MP Gordon Prentice for a pardon for the Lancashire Witches. Straw ultimately decided the convictions should stand because they were made according to the law of the time.

“There is no doubt that the witches’ confessions were achieved under duress and the evidence manipulated, and that they were the victims of religious and political persecution,” says Spooner. “However, at a distance of 400 years it is impossible for us to know exactly what the witches believed about themselves.

“The way we talk about the witches now says more about us, and what we want them to stand for in our own culture, than it does about the witches themselves.”

Self-styled modern witch Semra Haksever believes the Lancashire Witches should be both pardoned and celebrated for their witchcraft.

“For a long time, there has been a narrative attached to witches that they are scary women in pointed hats cooking up potions and performing curses,” says Haksever, who describes herself as an empath and healer. “We need to demystify what a witch is and challenge the stereotypes. In my community there is no such thing as a ‘bad witch’. Our witchcraft that we practice is all about self-empowerment and being in tune with nature, acknowledging the energy that surrounds all of us.

“It’s about time that those convicted in the Pendle Witch Trials had their names cleared and their legacy upheld. These people were mistreated, victimised, tortured and ultimately murdered by the authorities. It’s important that we honour their spirits.”

Visit petition.parliament.uk/petitions/598232 to sign the petition for a royal pardon for the Lancashire Witches 

Photo: Semra Haksever

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