Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Pendle Witches

I am delighted to see that a new novel has been published on the Pendle Witches, Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt. As someone who has long been interested in the subject I look forward to reading this version of the story.

The classic novel on the subject (The Sunne in Splendour of Pendle Hill) is Mist Over Pendle by Robert Neill, which is now rather long in the tooth. But it has sold lots of copies and is still worth a look if you're interested.

For factual background my tip is The Lancashire Witchcraze by Jonathan Lumby. It was this account that made me realise just how much of Neill's novel is fictional!

The context of Lancashire in the 17th century is worth remembering. For a start, the population was about one third Catholic, unexceptional in our more tolerant times but seen as a potential threat to the state in the 1600s. Robert Neill's heroes are always moderates in politics and religion and Roger Nowell of Read the investigating magistrate in Mist Over Pendle is a middle-of-the-road Anglican, not particularly devout and, if anything, on better terms with his Catholic neighbours than with the Puritan ones. In reality Nowell was definitely at the Puritan end of the religious spectrum; several of his relatives were Calvinist divines with a national reputation.

In addition, Nowell had a great-nephew, Nicholas Starkie, whose children were allegedly possessed by demons as a result of witchcraft. In his community, the gentry of Pendle and Craven, there were several alleged cases of witchcraft, including the 'suspicious' death of Mr Thomas Lister of Westby at a wedding which Nowell attended. Moreover, the 'boss' of the County, William Stanley, Earl of Derby had had an elder brother allegedly murdered by witches.

I am sure there are natural causes for all these events. Lister's death, for example, was almost certainly the result of a heart attack or stroke. But in a world where even King James himself fervently believed in the reality of witchcraft we can scarcely be surprised if an obscure squire like Nowell was persuaded that evil was afoot in his back yard.

As to the 'witches' themselves, they were country 'healers' and 'wise-women', but undoubtedly they believed in their own powers and such was the state of the law that such beliefs and practices were dangerous. It seems likely that some of their 'incantations' were nothing more than mangled versions of Latin prayers.

There is a common misconception that witchcraft was more severely punished in the middle ages. In England at least, this is not true. It was under Elizabeth I and James I that the statutes were tightened to their most severe level, with death as the usual penalty.

Nowell and his fellow magistrates subjected the accused to question and answer sessions. These were not recorded verbatim, and probably not contemporaneously. In effect, Nowell could write down his interpretation of what had been said. For example one woman rode to a meeting on a pony, but in the evidence this animal became a familiar spirit!

It is not necessary to see Nowell as a wicked man by the standards of his time - like some detectives of the 1960s, he 'knew' the accused were guilty, and so provided the necessary 'evidence' to ensure they were convicted. (Despite the rather dodgy standards of justice in these times it was by no means unknown for an alleged witch to be acquitted by a jury.) Nowell probably thought he was doing his public duty by ensuring there were no loose ends.

One of Nowell's witnesses was a nine-year-old girl, another a youth with what we would now politely call 'learning difficulties.' This, with the written 'confessions' Nowell had created from the interviews was quite enough to ensure that all the accused were hanged, most at Lancaster, one at York.

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