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Installation on Pendle Hill: photo by Brett Dixon/BBC, 2012.

The Curse of Pendle is a 30-minute documentary, broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on November 23rd, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Lancashire Witch Trials. It is presented by the novelist Jeanette Winterson, who grew up in Accrington, within view of Pendle Hill.

‘We all knew the stories of Chattox and Demdike – names you’d never forget,’ Winterson recalls. ‘Were they witches? Did they still haunt the hill? It scared us kids to death.’

Earlier this year, The Daylight Gate – Winterson’s novel about the witches – was released through the Hammer imprint. Though her stylish prose is evident, it has the feel of a commissioned piece, and disappointingly, does little to challenge the traditional stereotypes of vicious, deformed crones.

However, some descriptive passages from the novel are used to good effect in The Curse of Pendle. Here, Winterson describes the bleak, imposing landscape:

‘An isolated hill, brooding, disappeared in mists, treacherous with bogs, flat-topped, close-cropped like an animal pelt. Sheep graze, hares stand like question marks.’

Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate, recites verses from her deeply humane poem, ‘The Trial of the Pendle Witches’, which also adorns the new 51-mile Lancashire Witches Walk, threading from Pendle Hill along public footpaths to Lancaster Castle where the accused were detained.

Here she describes the alleged witchcraft:

‘From poverty, no poetry

But weird spells – half-prayer, half-threat –

Sharp pins

In the little dolls of death.’

Historian Robert Poole has published a modernised transcript of court clerk Thomas Potts’ 1613 pamphlet, The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster.Originally intended to legitimise the controversial verdict, it now reads as the very model of an unreliable narrative.

Poole’s skilful, unobtrusive reading of Potts’s text – ‘the most complete account we have of any English witchcraft’ – is now available to view online, and in book form.

Diane Purkiss, cultural historian and author of The Witch in History, observes that, 400 years ago, ‘People interpreted material events as supernatural signs, and they didn’t see anything as happening completely at random.’

King James I had published his own treatise on witchcraft, Daemonologie, in 1597. He was fiercely Protestant, and Lancashire was a hotspot for Catholic recusancy. As Winterson remarks, ‘The high mass and the black mass were not that different in his mind.’

Purkiss pinpoints the supposed plot to blow up Lancaster Castle as ‘the real agent of the Pendle witches’ demise.’ Coming just seven years after the infamous Gunpowder Plot, it was perceived as ‘an attack from within the gates.’

Maureen Stopforth, manageress of the Witches’ Galore shop at Newchurch, offers her own, level-headed opinion of Chattox, Demdike and the others. ‘I think they were just simple country folk who made a penny or two from making herb potions and remedies,  relying on knowledge handed down by the family through the generations.’

The accused were held in the Well Tower dungeon at Lancaster Castle, which still stands. They were hanged on Lancaster Moor in August 1612.

Over the years, something of an industry has grown around these unfortunate figures, mostly elderly, poor and female.  But a tour guide admits that they were probably just ‘the convenient scapegoats of their day.’

Carol Ann Duffy meditates on their fate:

‘Away from castle, jury, huge crowd,

Rough rope, short drop, no grave,

Only future tourists who might grieve.’

An eerie soundtrack is provided by local duo Aquilon (meaning ‘north wind’), performing David Lloyd-Moston’s composition, ‘The Fate of Chattox’ on clarinet and piano.

The Curse of Pendle is a timely reflection on what Winterson aptly judges a ‘lesson in delusion’ with ominous portents of the new conflicts and tensions of our own century.

Available to listen again until Friday, November 30, on the BBC website.

Further Reading

Publications from Lancaster Litfest

Books from Carnegie Publishing

Books from Barrowford Press

Artwork by Lancashire Witches 400

Art by Joe Hesketh

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1612 Underture

The Pendle Witch Child