Lancashire Witch Country
Frank X. Roberts
“Not believe in witches . . . ” cried Nicholas, in amazement. “Why, Pendle Forest swarms with witches. They burrow in the hill-side like rabbits in a warren.”
Harrison Ainsworth, The Lancashire Witches
At the northern end of the Penine Range, which runs up the center of England and has been called England’s spine, lies Pendle Hill. Pendle is about 1,850 in height, missing, it is said, the distinction of being a mountain by some 170 feet. Pendle Hill has been described as having something odd about it, “Something not to be defined . . . something almost disturbing . . . one vast brooding thing” that like it or not compels one’s attention.
Spotted on the slopes of Pendle are small towns and villages such as Read, Fence, Newchurch, Roughlee, Sabden and others, all of which played a part in the sad tale of the times and trials of the Lancashire witches in the seventeenth century.
And below Pendle Hill, to the southeast and northwest respectively, lie two of the larger towns which also appear in the story—Whalley with its ancient church, and its grave markers dating back to the eleventh century, and Clitheroe with the ruins of its fourteenth-century castle towering above the town in the shadow of Pendle Hill.
Today, in towns and villages such as these the legacy of the Lancashire witches has spawned an industry of shops and museums where tourists can purchase a variety of witch paraphernalia, and also learn about the witch trials held in Lancaster, Lancashire’s large county town about 45 miles north of the Pendle area.
It was in Lancaster at the Assizes (sittings of circuit judges and juries) in 1612 that the infamous trials of the Lancashire witches took place. Reminiscent of the equally infamous witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in America, the Lancashire witch trials condemned to death on flimsy, not to say hysterically and superstitiously motivated evidence, hapless individuals whose decrepit old age, or physical and mental disabilities, had placed them beyond the pale of the common community. It was the old story of seemingly sensible and moral people, witnessing behavior they could not understand or thought odd or abnormal, succumbing to superstition, ignorance and fear.
And sometimes, sad to say, a few powerful and cynical individuals taking advantage of the gullibility of others used the trials and trumped-up evidence to condemn certain people who disagreed with their social views or whom they hated for religious or personal reasons. The term “witch hunt,” used so often in contemporary politics, derives its meaning from these events of the seventeenth century in England and in America, as Arthur Miller has shown so graphically in his play The Crucible.
The story of the Lancashire witches and the trials has been written about in fact and in fiction a number of times over the years. The earliest and the most immediately accurate but probably also the most biased report came out the same year as the trials themselves. It is no doubt of great interest to scholars for its contents, but the title of the report is perhaps clue enough to the tenor of its contents for the lay person. The title is quoted here in full as a seventeenth-century literary curiosity.
THE WONDERFUL DISCOVERIE OF WITCHES IN THE COUNTIE OF LANCASTER
With the Arraignment and triall of
Nineteenie Notorious WITCHES
at the Assizes and General
Gaole Deliverie Holden at the
Castle of Lancaster Upon
Munday the Seventeenth of
Published and set forth by
Commandment of His Maigsties
Justices of Assizes in the North
Part by THOMAS POTTS Esquier
In the nineteenth century a volume with a much simpler title: The Lancashire Witches, by Harrison Ainsworth was published. It is a book of some 572 pages (in the Thomas Nelson edition) of mixed history and fiction. And it is an interesting read, full of the atmosphere of Pendle and its environs in the seventeenth century. Ainsworth attempts to achieve local color through the use of the Lancashire dialect from time to time in the story. But mostly the work is written in straight-forward English and tells the tale in all its sad and horrible detail.
For a more recent, but highly fictionalized version of the story of the Lancashire witches, readers should try Robert Neill’s Mist Over Pendle (1951). Neill, too, is good at creating anew the atmosphere of Pendle Forest where Mother Demdike, Chattox, the Devize sisters and Mistress Alice Nutter, among others, lived and were believed by their fearful and superstitious neighbors to be practicing witchcraft.
Little sympathy is expressed, in most of these writings, for the innocent victims of fear and superstition hanged at Lancaster. Time, it seems, not only heals wounds but also deadens sensitivity to the suffering of others. Today the names of Demdike, Chattox, Devize, etc. are used to keep the cash registers ringing and to keep alive the stories of the Lancashire witches in the Pendle area. As already noted, tourists will find in the village shops locally-made models of witches seemingly flying about on their besoms (broom sticks). And the bookmark collector can pick up leather bookmarks like the ones illustrated at the beginning of this article which, in the words of Arthur Miller about the Salem witch trials, commemorate one of the strangest and quite awful chapters in human history.
Note: At the bottom of “The Lancashire Witches” bookmark, illustrated here, appears a bit of Lancashire dialect: “GERRIT SPENT – THI’ DON’T PUPPOCKETS I’ SHROUDS” which broadly and loosely translates as “Spend your money now, you can’t take it with you” i.e., They don’t put pockets in shrouds. A somewhat less than subtle way, one supposes, to encourage the tourists to buy the bookmarks and other witch paraphernalia on sale in the shop.
Bookmark specifications: The Lancashire Witches
Dimensions: 9 1/2” X 1 5/8”
Acquired: Shop in Newchurch, Pendle
Bookmark specifications: Pendle
Dimensions: 6 7/8” X 1 1/2”
Material: Imitation leather
Acquired: Shop in Newchurch, Pendle
Frank’s extensive career in teaching and librarianship began when he taught English in the U.S. From 1961 to 1963, as part of a Columbia University program called “Teachers for East Africa,” he taught English and American Literature in East Africa. There he met his wife, Dorothy. They returned to the U.S. where he simultaneously taught and finished two Masters’ degrees, in Education and in Librarianship. In 1968 they returned to England where Frank taught Library Studies, and adopted Hodge, a cat who later traveled around the world with them. In 1972, Frank was “seconded” for two years to teach at Makerere University in Uganda, East Africa, but left reluctantly after one year when the tyranny of Idi Amin became intolerable. From there it was back to England, then Australia and finally to America in 1979, to Buffalo where Frank earned his doctorate. Later they moved to Colorado, where he was Professor of Library Studies at the University of Northern Colorado until retiring in 1997. Frank published
James A. Michener: A Checklist of his Work with a Selected Annotated Bibliography (Greenwood Press) in 1995. He has written on bookmarks, specifically on medieval bookmarks, his special area of interest. A poet by avocation, he writes eclectically but traditionally. He can be reached at