I have just got a copy of ‘The Wonderfvll Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster’, a copy of Thomas Potts’ original book of the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612.
This is one book I couldn’t not buy – who doesn’t like a good witch story? And this is one of the most famous, when 20 people, largely from 3 families, were put on trial. I even love the old font they use, and how they are so inconsistent in the use of u and v.
The woman who seems to have been the main leader was Elizabeth Sowtherns, aka Old Demdike, described as:
..”‘their damnabel and malicious Witch, of so long continuance.. of whom our whole businesse hath such dependence, that without the particular Declaration and Record of her Euidence, with the circumstaunces, wee shall neuer bring any thing to good perfection; for from this Sincke of vilainie and mischeife, haue all the rest prodeeded…
She was a very old woman, about the age of Fourescore 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 commited in her time, no man knows.
Thus liued shee securely for many yeares, brought vp her owne Children, instructed her Graund-children, and tooke great care and paines to bring them to be Witches. Shee was a generall agent for the Deuill in all these partes; no man escaped her, or her Furies, that euer gaue them any occasion of offence, or denyed them any thing they stood need of: and certain it is, no man neere them, was secure of free from danger.
But God, who had in his diuine prouidence prouided to cut them off, and tooke them out of the Commonwealth, so diposed aboue, that the Iustices of those partes, vnderstanding by a generall charme and muttering, the great and vniuersal resotr to Maulking Tower, ” the common opinion, wiht the report of these suspected people, the complaint of the Kinges subiectes for the losse of their Children, Friendes, Goodes, and Cattle, (as there could not be so great Fire without some Smoake,) sent for some of the Countrey, and took great paynes to enquire after their proceedinges, and courses of life.”
All this sounds robust enough, and much echoes reports of other witch trials, but there are two points that shed genuinely new light on witch trials for me.
The incidents happened at an interesting time. Early that year the last trial for heresy had been held. James I was on the throne, one of the 17th century’s experts on witchcraft, and struggling to establish Protestantism on a still largely Catholic nation.
In the Preface, it is further noted that “many Protestants regarded the Catholic mass and the doctrine of transubstantiation as being examples of witchcraft.”
As far as I know, all witch trials were by Protestants, acting in part out of nervousness from their new status as a religious group, but also many of the terms and accusations do sound very like Catholic rituals, or perversions of them.
In the preface to his book it is also mentioned: “the Date of Good Friday may well be significant. Was Alice Nutter on her way to a secret mass rather than a Witches’ Sabbat? To have revealed that would not only have put her own life in peril, but those of her Catholic friends as well. Far better to keep silent and face the consequences alone as a secret (and as yet unrecognised) Catholic martyr. ”
This is an intriguing suggestion, especially as many of the witches were convicted on their own confessions, which seems an odd thing to do given that they faced certain death, but is likely if they were covering up.
But as in many other cases, can we actually believe that the confessions were made voluntarily? That is something we will never find out.
Unless they really were witches and can get in touch to clarify what really happened.