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Simon Armitage – one of Britain’s leading poets – was born in West Yorkshire. Like many local children, he would have been raised on stories of the Pendle Witches in nearby Lancashire.

A grimly intoxicating blend of history, crime and folklore is richly evoked in Armitage’s new BBC Four documentary, The Pendle Witch Child. Next year marks the fourth centenary of the notorious 1612 trial, the largest of its kind in England at the time.

Ten people were sentenced to death, and another to hard labour, in the County Court at Lancaster, while a connected case in York saw another prisoner hang for witchcraft. Incredibly, the suspects – mostly poor, uneducated peasants – were even accused of conspiring to burn down Lancaster Castle, which was treason.

The fate of the ‘Lancashire Witches’ had many ramifications – religious, political – but, wisely, this new film considers them from a more specific angle. Jennet Device was, allegedly, just nine years old when she testified against the accused, including her own family. Her evidence led directly to their demise.

Ironically, it seems that Jennet may have been among the accused in a second Lancashire witch-hunt, instigated by a young boy, Edmund Robinson, in 1633. By this time, attitudes towards witchcraft were becoming more sceptical and the case eventually collapsed.

However, Jennet was not acquitted – she was probably unable to pay for her board at Lancaster Castle – and her ultimate fate is unknown.

The rugged, haunting landscape – overlooked by Pendle Hill – is beautifully filmed in subtle shades of green and blue, while the more fantastical elements of the story are re-imagined by animator Phoebe Boswell.

Boswell’s witches are wraithlike, and she vividly depicts the confrontation between Jennet and her furious mother, Elizabeth Device, who whirls like a dervish.  Their pets – dogs and hares, supposedly adopted as ‘familiars’ – are also conjured.

Several historians of the early modern period, including Ronald Hutton, Malcolm Gaskill, Diane Purkiss and Patricia Fara, are interviewed, as well as a descendant of the convicted witch, Alice Nutter.

During the hour-long programme, Simon Armitage visits several linked locations: St Mary’s Newchurch in Pendle, where the suspects worshipped; the mooted site of Malkin Tower, home of the Device family; Lancaster Castle, where the witches were detained and tried; and Gallows Hill, where prisoners were hung.

Armitage also refers to several important texts: King James I’s Daemonologie (1597), which quite possibly influenced the investigation; The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, a rather biased account of the trial by court clerk, Thomas Potts, published soon after its end; and Michael Dalton’s The Country Justice (1618), which recommended the use of child witnesses in witchcraft cases, citing Potts’ text and the example of Jennet Device. (The Country Justice was still being used by US judges during the Salem witch-hunt of 1692.)

The witches’ confessions, and the ‘charms’ recited by Jennet, retain an eerie fascination for contemporary readers. ‘Fear makes demons of all of us,’ Armitage comments, raising tentative comparisons between the vilification of religious dissenters in 17th century Lancashire and the faith-based terrorist scares of our own time.

The Pendle Witch Child was produced and directed by Ros Ereira for Wingspan Productions. It is available to view or download on BBC i-Player until next week.

If you are interested in learning more about the witch-hunts and the Pendle case, I can recommend Malcolm Gaskill’s A Very Short introduction to Witchcraft; Jonathan Lumby’s The Lancashire Witch-Craze; or, for a partly fictionalised take on the world of Jennet Device, try The Witches of Pendle by Rowena Akinyemi.

My own selection of articles on the Pendle Witches is here

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