Today in History: The Pendle Witch Trials

The trials of the Pendle witches in 1612 are among the most famous witch trial in English history, and some of the best recorded of the 17th century. The twelve accused lived in the area surrounding Pendle Hill in Lancashire, and were charged with the murders of ten people by the use of witchcraft.

What took place

All but two were tried at Lancaster Assizes on 18–19 August 1612, along with the Samlesbury witches and others, in a series of trials that have become known as the Lancashire witch trials. One was tried at York Assizes on 27 July 1612, and another died in prison. Of the eleven who went to trial – nine women and two men – ten were found guilty and executed by hanging; one was found not guilty.

Religious and political background

The accused witches lived in the area around Pendle Hill in Lancashire, a county which, at the end of the 16th century, was regarded by the authorities as a wild and lawless region: an area “fabled for its theft, violence and sexual laxity, where the church was honoured without much understanding of its doctrines by the common people”. The nearby Cistercian abbey at Whalley had been dissolvedby Henry VIIIin 1537, a move strongly resisted by the local people, over whose lives the abbey had until then exerted a powerful influence. Despite the abbey’s closure, and the execution of its abbot, the people of Pendle remained largely faithful to their Roman Catholic beliefs and were quick to revert to Catholicism on Queen Mary’s accession to the throne in 1553.

Witch Trials

York Assizes, 27 July 1612

Jennet was charged with the murder by witchcraft of a local landowner, Thomas Lister of Westby Hall, to which she pleaded not guilty.

Lancaster Assizes, 18–19 August 1612

All the other accused lived in Lancashire, so they were sent to Lancaster Assizes for trial, where the judges were once again Altham and Bromley. The prosecutor was local magistrate Roger Nowell, who had been responsible for collecting the various statements and confessions from the accused.

18 August

Anne Whittle (Chattox) was accused of the murder of Robert Nutter. She pleaded not guilty, but the confession she had made to Roger Nowell—likely under torture—was read out in court, and evidence against her was presented by James Robinson, who had lived with the Chattox family 20 years earlier. He claimed to remember that Nutter had accused Chattox of turning his beer sour, and that she was commonly believed to be a witch. Chattox broke down and admitted her guilt, calling on God for forgiveness and the judges to be merciful to her daughter, Anne Redferne.

19 August

The trials of the three Samlesbury Witches were heard before Anne Redferne’s first appearance in court, late in the afternoon, charged with the murder of Robert Nutter. The evidence against her was considered unsatisfactory, and she was acquitted.

Aftermath and legacy

Altham continued with his judicial career until his death in 1617, and Bromley achieved his desired promotion to the Midlands Circuit in 1616. Potts was given the keepership of Skalme Park by James in 1615, to breed and train the king’s hounds. In 1618, he was given responsibility for “collecting the forfeitures on the laws concerning sewers, for twenty-one years”. Having played her part in the deaths of her mother, brother, and sister, Jennet Device may eventually have found herself accused of witchcraft.

See Wiki of Pendle Witch Trials

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