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Wicked Enchantments: A History of the Pendle Witches and Their Magic by Joyce Froome

With its 400th anniversary approaching, the Pendle witch trial of 1612 is once again the focus of historical discussion. What was the largest investigation of its kind in England (until the Matthew Hopkins purges in East Anglia some thirty years later) is now, ironically, a mainstay of the East Lancashire tourist industry.

In 2007, John C. Clayton’s The Lancashire Witch Conspiracy brought a new focus on local history and genealogy to the now legendary case. This year, Joyce Froome, an assistant curator at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, has brought her own knowledge of magic to the table.

While it is probably true that, if tried in England today, the ‘Pendle witches’ would not be found guilty of any serious crime, nonetheless it seems quite likely that at least some of the accused practiced magic, or were known as witches.

Focussing mainly on the Devices and the Redfernes, the two warring families at the heart of the case, Froome builds a picture of a rural peasantry, living in reduced circumstances, and trading on their reputations as ‘cunning folk’ or ‘wise women’ with an ability to heal through herbs and magic. In a society where few could afford to pay a doctor, the cunning folk were much in demand. But it was a precarious calling at best, and failure or ill-will between neighbours could lead to accusations of witchcraft.

Previous historians have tended to portray Alizon and James Device, siblings on the cusp of adulthood, as malignant tearaways of very low intelligence. This derives from their apparent eagerness to confess and accuse others, and their wretched appearances in court. However, through careful analysis of their evidence (as recorded in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, published by court clerk Thomas Potts in early 1613), Joyce Froome arrives at a rather different conclusion.

Potts’ account was written for a very specific purpose; to justify the actions of the court, and the defendants’ convictions. Therefore it cannot merely be taken at face value, and modern readers must consider how the facts were presented, and what evidence may have been omitted. Pamphlets of this kind, retelling sensational news stories, were sold nationwide at markets and fairs as popular literacy began to spread.

With a sharp eye for detail, Froome points out anomalies in the text. For example, the most heinous charge against James Device was the ‘bewitching to death’ of Anne Townley after an argument. Though her husband, Henry Townley, was interviewed by Roger Nowell, the local magistrate who oversaw the investigation, his deposition is not included. Townley, a landowner, also attended the trial. It’s possible that while he may have suspected James of some wrongdoing, his belief that James had committed an act of ‘maleficia’ (ie black magic) was not damning enough to serve the prosecution.

The incident which triggered Nowell’s witch-hunt occurred in March of 1612, when Alizon asked a travelling pedlar, John Law, to give her some pins. When he refused, Alizon grew angry and ‘cursed’ him. A black dog appeared, and gave chase to John Law. After running about a hundred yards, Law collapsed. He was taken to an inn where he was visited by his son, Abraham Law, who then informed Nowell. Reading between the lines, Froome speculates on why Alizon may have wanted the pins, then an expensive commodity. Using historic examples, Froome shows the widespread use of pins in healing, protective, and especially love magic – the very purpose that a teenage girl like Alizon might have sought them for.

Thomas Potts referred to a Nicholas Baldwyn, ‘a late schoolmaster at Colne’, who was approached by Thomas Redferne during the 1590s to mediate between his mother-in-law, Anne Whittle, and Robert Nutter, a landowner’s son. Interestingly, Froome suggests that Baldwyn might have been a magician – and as a schoolmaster, he would have been literate and possibly fluent in Latin. The ‘charms’ used by the Devices contained fragments of old Latin prayers, probably adapted from memory by Elizabeth Southerns. Significantly, they contained no references to devil worship, just as the alleged ‘curses’ against neighbours may have simply been outbursts of bad temper, and did not appear to have any ritual basis.

Alizon was later arrested and charged with ‘laming’ John Law (who had recovered enough to testify against her in court that summer.) With medical science being still in a rudimentary state, a natural cause of Law’s collapse, like a stroke or heart attack (he was described as stout) seems never to have been considered. In the course of her interrogation, Alizon admitted that her aged grandmother, Elizabeth Southerns, was a healer of some renown.  Believing another elderly widow, Anne Whittle, to be responsible for her father’s death more than a decade earlier, Alizon also named her as a witch.

One can hardly begin to guess how intimidated the poor, uneducated Alizon was as she confessed her ‘crimes’ to Nowell at his grand house in Read. Turning once again to James, Froome speculates that he may have been badly beaten, if not tortured while on remand in Lancaster Gaol, where conditions were appalling (and indeed, his grandmother, Elizabeth Southerns, would perish there before her trial). In his initial statements, James comes across as a shrewd, if impulsive young man. But by the time he came to court, James could barely stand and his reactions were described by Potts as ‘insensible’.

Casting doubt on Potts’ description of a pitiful scene where Alizon begged John Laws’ forgiveness, Froome suggests that would have been out of character for the feisty young woman and may have been invented to imply that she confessed in court. In fact, it’s possible that Alizon did not speak at all, except to confirm that the written statement read aloud by the judge represented her previous confession to Nowell.

Conversely, some of the more outlandish stories told by the witches may not have been mere inventions, forced upon them by the authorities, but manifestations of a personal fantasy that they may have sincerely believed. Drawing on Emma Wilby’s pioneering 2005 study, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic, Froome shows that visionary experiences were not unusual in early modern Britain, and the living conditions of many people – working long hours in darkness, enduring hunger, living close to nature and animals, and religious indoctrination  – meant that their conception of reality was radically different to what we now take for granted. And ‘cunning folk’ like the Devices would have been skilled at inducing these ‘altered states’, for example using dreams to identify a thief, or ‘scrying’ in a mirror.

Over three hundred pages (plus another hundred of footnotes), Froome skilfully unravels what might really have happened in Pendle during 1612. She uses examples of charms, spells and amulets, and includes photos of related artefacts from the Museum of Witchcraft collection, and conducts volunteer re-enactments of the Devices’ personalised rituals. This breathes new life into this tragic clash between early modern values (the Protestant Reformation coincided with the emergence of capitalism), and a much older English folk culture, drawn from Catholicism and generations of ordinary people whose relationship to nature was far more instinctive than we can now imagine.

While putting the trials of the Lancashire witches under the microscope, Froome also places them in a wider context of magic and persecution. On the continent, most witch-hunts were instigated by zealous Roman Catholic priests, and torture was openly practiced. English trials were mostly recorded in pamphlets similar to Potts’ treatise, and Froome notes some striking similarities between his text and that of Essex magistrate Brian Darcey’s account of the St Osyth witch trial of 1582 (the largest English outbreak to date before the Pendle case began.)

The nearest comparable scare, however, began in 1594, at the home of Nicholas Starkie at Cleworth Hall in Tyldesley, Lancashire. When his two eldest children experienced fits, Starkie hired an exorcist, Edmund Hartley. However, the children grew dependent on Hartley and their condition worsened. Starkie was the nephew of Roger Nowell, and it seems likely that the family’s ordeal made a grave impression on him. Moreover, ‘wise women’ like Elizabeth Southerns and Anne Whittle would probably have heard of the ‘conjurer’ in their midst, and may have been influenced by those memories when confessing to Nowell years later. The multiple charges made against the Devices and their fellow suspects in 1612 spanned almost two decades.

It was the evidence of Jennet Device, aged between nine and eleven, that would seal the fate of the Devices. She has often been represented as a kind of ‘changeling’, a demonic child who callously betrayed her entire family. Froome challenges this theory by pointing out that much of Jennet’s testimony was confessional, and the young girl was probably fighting for her life.  In any case, the use of a child’s testimony was forbidden by English law, making the resulting convictions even more dubious. (Jennet’s story is a sad one, as she would later be charged with witchcraft during the second Lancashire hunt of 1633-34. This latter trial eventually collapsed, but there is no record of Jennet’s acquittal and she may have died in prison.)

The infamous meeting at Elizabeth Southerns’ home on Good Friday was seized upon by Roger Nowell as an example of a ‘witches’ sabbat’, and twenty local people were later arrested, supposedly named by Jennet as guests. Froome shows that Good Friday had long been associated with protective magic, which the Devices needed dearly after the recent arrests of Alizon and James. Potts claimed that the suspects were plotting to blow up Lancaster Castle, which, if proved, would have been classified as treason. But this charge did not stick and those found guilty of witchcraft were hanged, not burned, according to legal custom.

Wicked Enchantments: A History of the Pendle Witches is too long and detail-oriented to serve as an ideal introduction to the Pendle case, unless the reader already has an interest in magic. The Trials of the Lancashire Witches by Edgar Peel and Pat Southern (first published in 1969), or The Lancashire Witch Craze: Jennet Preston and the Lancashire Witches, 1612 (published 1995), or even Mary Sharratt’s  novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill (2010), are all good places to start.

However, for anyone who has a serious interest in the history of witchcraft, Wicked Enchantments is essential reading. What could have been, in less imaginative hands, a dull, academic tome is rendered an utterly compelling human tragedy, driven by Joyce Froome’s infectious passion for her subject. By acknowledging the reality of magic in early modern Britain, Froome gives some power back to the victims of the witch-hunts; and yet, by exposing the flaws and contradictions within popular accounts of English trials, she also goes some way towards proving the defendants’ innocence.