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Scary True Stories: The Pendle witches

Meet author Catherine Cavendish. While I’m hanging out with the pharaohs, Catherine has kindly agreed to entertain you with the scary true story of the Pendle Witches. I’ll respond to your comments and return blog visits when I get back.

Take it away, Catherine!

My novel – The Pendle Curse – has some of its roots in a true story. One as chilling now as it surely must have been then.

In August 1612, ten men and women were convicted, in Lancaster, England, of crimes related to witchcraft and subsequently hanged on Gallows Hill. They became known to history as the Pendle Witches. The trial was faithfully and uniquely (for the time) recorded by Thomas Potts, a clerk of the court, and then published in his book, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster.

One factor of the case has resonated down the years for reasons which could not have been foreseen at the time. Eighty years later – in 1692 – in a town thousands of miles from the wild, rugged Lancashire countryside, another trial took place in Salem, Massachusetts.

Here, between June and September, nineteen men and women were carted off to be hanged at a location also known as Gallows Hill, but the name of their place of execution wasn’t the only thing the two sets of trials had in common.

In both trials, the testimony of a child was crucial to the success of the prosecution. The Lancashire Witch trials broke new ground in allowing and conducting testimony from an underage minor. In Salem, they used Mr. Potts’s handbook on how to do it.

The true story of the Pendle Witches

It is not certain how old Jennet Device was when she testified against her mother, brother, and sister, as well as their friends and their bitter rivals. She is variously recorded as having been nine, eleven or thirteen but, by all accounts, she was under the age of fourteen. Until then, this had been seen as the youngest permissible age at which reliable testimony could be allowed in court.

So, who was she and why did she do it?

Jennet Device was the youngest (most likely illegitimate) child of widowed Elizabeth Device and lived with her older brother and sister, James and Alizon, younger brother William, and grandmother (Elizabeth Southerns, known locally as ‘Demdike,’ or demon woman.)

The women in her family were the local ‘wise women’ of the area. Their knowledge of herbs and ability to fashion ‘cures’ for ailments of both animals and humans, made them a meagre income, which they supplemented with begging, but their bitter rivals were another family – Anne Whittle (known as Chattox, for her chattering teeth) and her daughter Anne Redferne. Each family had their own set of clients and woe betide anyone if one was stolen. Whether these families had special powers or not, they certainly seem to have believed they did. Under the witch-hating King James I, they laid themselves wide open to accusations of witchcraft, but none could have suspected their chief accuser would come from within their own ranks.

Women hung for witchcraft in England

When questioned by the judge as to Jennet’s age, ambitious local magistrate Roger Nowell responded that she was “old enough.”

At the trial, Jennet could not be heard over the rowdy audience. Nor could she be seen, as she was so small. A table was brought in and she stood on it before pointing her finger, as directed by the chief prosecutor, Roger Nowell. When prompted, Jennet said, “My mother is a witch and that I know to be true. I have seen her spirit in the likeness of a brown dog, which she called Ball. The dog did ask what she would have him do and she answered that she would have him help her to kill.”

Pendle Witches on Trial

She then went on to give evidence of a witches’ sabbat, allegedly held on Good Friday of 1612. “At 12 noon about 20 people came to our house. My mother told me they were all witches.”

Her mother screamed out that the child didn’t know what she was saying and then rounded on Jennet herself. The child demanded her mother be removed from the court. Then Jennet continued with her testimony and condemned all her remaining family – with the exception of little William – to the gallows.

Why would she do such a thing? We will never know for sure of course. She may have been the only illegitimate child in the family (although she did have a younger brother) and something of an outcast. Maybe she was exacting revenge. We cannot discount the influence of Roger Nowell, who may have persuaded her that this was the only way to save herself from a similar fate to that of her family.

Whatever her motivation, Jennet disappeared from history – only to reappear in 1633 when she herself stood accused of crimes relating to witchcraft. In a bitter twist of fate, she was accused at her trial (along with sixteen others) by Edmund Robinson, a ten-year-old boy. The precedent she had unwittingly set came back to haunt her.

True story of the Pendle Witches

Jennet was found guilty and imprisoned in Lancaster Castle, where her family had been held. But times had changed and the verdict was overturned by the Privy Council some time later. Edmund Robinson admitted he had lied, saying he had been influenced by accounts of the Pendle Witch trials. Jennet was free to leave prison except for one overriding problem. Guilty or innocent, prisoners had to pay for their board, or must remain incarcerated until they could. For Jennet this would have been impossible, so she would have to stay. She was last heard of in 1636.

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Four hundred years ago, ten convicted witches were hanged on Gallows Hill. Now they are back…for vengeance.

Laura Phillips’s grief at her husband’s sudden death shows no sign of passing. Even sleep brings her no peace. She experiences vivid, disturbing dreams of a dark, brooding hill, and a man—somehow out of time—who seems to know her. She discovers that the place she has dreamed about exists. Pendle Hill. And she knows she must go there. But as soon as she arrives, the dream becomes a nightmare. She is caught up in a web of witchcraft and evil…and a curse that will not die.

Here’s a short extract from the beginning:

His spirit soared within him and flew up into the storm-clad sky as blackness descended and the rain became a tempest.

He flew. Lost in a maelstrom of swirling mists. Somewhere a baby cried until its sobs became distorted, tortured roars. Beyond, a black void loomed. He saw Alizon’s spirit just ahead and tried to call out to her, but his voice couldn’t reach her.

Beside him, another spirit cried out. His mother. He flinched at her screams before they were drowned in the mass—that terrible parody of some hideous child.

The blackness metamorphosed. An amorphous shape formed as his eyes struggled to see with their new vision—the gift of death. Small baby limbs flailed towards him. Eyes of fire flashed as a toothless mouth opened. Screeching, roaring and demanding to be fed. Demanding its mother.

His spirit reached out for his lover. Tried to pull her back. “Alizon!”

She turned anguished eyes to him. “It calls to me.”

He recognized it instantly. The blazing fire. The devil child. That cursed infant had come for them.

Again he reached out with arms that no longer felt connected to him, but he was powerless to stop Alizon being swept away, deep into the abomination’s maw.

“No!” His cry reverberated around him—a wail of anguish in a sea of torment.

Then…silence. Only he remained, drifting in swirling gray mists of time.

“I will find you, sweet Alizon. One day I will find you. And I will find the one who betrayed us.”

From somewhere, he heard an echo…

You can find The Pendle Curse here:

Amazon Barnes and Noble

Cat Cavendish

Catherine Cavendish lives with a long-suffering husband and ‘trainee’ black cat in North Wales. Her home is in a building dating back to the mid-18th century, which is haunted by a friendly ghost, who announces her presence by footsteps, switching lights on and strange phenomena involving the washing machine and the TV. Cat has written a number of published horror novellas, short stories, and novels, frequently reflecting her twin loves of history and horror and often containing more than a dash of the dark and Gothic. When not slaving over a hot computer, she enjoys wandering around Neolithic stone circles and visiting old haunted houses.

You can connect with Cat here:

Catherine Cavendish  Facebook  Twitter  Goodreads

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17 Comments

  1. Makes you wonder how many innocents were killed in both trials.

    Reply
  2. I’m thinking of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. Humans can be so terrible and seem to be so easily influenced when their fears are used to sway and control them.

    Reply
  3. Thank you so much for hosting me today, JH. Hope you’re enjoying Egypt as much as I did. Alex and Mary- you’re right. It was basically open house on anyone who had a grudge against someone, or on anyone who was a little different or eccentric. Ellen – I often wonder if there had been no Lancashire Witch Trials, would there have been those at Salem?

    Reply
  4. I can only imagine how many innocent people were killed, and how many naturopathic, herbal cures were erased from history because of the ill-informed zealots who had control of the courts. The kids testifying were likely scared, and manipulated into testifying against their own families & community members. Who knows how they were coaxed, cajoled, and fed ideas?
    re: the second book excerpt – good job, Catherine. 🙂

    Reply
    • Thank you, Lisa. I am sure you’re right that many innocent people were killed. Most of these so-called witches were purely wise folk who did indeed know a great deal about natural remedies. As for the children – definitely manipulated in many cases. Thank you foor commenting 🙂

      Reply
  5. Fascinating. There’s a good BBC documentary about this on youtube, The Pendle Witch Child

    Reply
    • There is indeed, Madeleine and it’s well worth watching. Thank you 🙂

      Reply
  6. The horror of those trials still ring in my head whenever I read anything about them. It’s hard to imagine the fear and avarice that was the driving force behind the accusations.

    Reply
  7. It seems to be a way medieval men got rid of “powerful” women, e.g. midwives and herbalists, calling them witches and killing them. The words may have changed, but to some extent the misogyny continues. I love that Cat lives in a haunted house! Wishing her much success!

    Reply
  8. So many people killed that had no involvement in witchcraft. I do think it’s ironic that girl suffered her own punishment.

    The house I grew up in was haunted. Everything that happened was connected to the dining room.

    Reply
  9. This is very intriguing, but also a bit scary. I guess some times are better to live in than others. Although, sometimes, I wonder…

    Reply
  10. Nowadays that girl and the ones from Salem would/should get a good spanking! I often feel like jealousy is at the heart of the matter when you are dealing with a young person because they are then thrust into the centre of attention. It is stupid that she had to pay for staying there but could not earn any money while being in there so how could she pay (unless one has someone to pay from the outside). Your book sounds scary but very intriguing. Good luck!

    Reply
  11. Well, I am intrigued by the excerpt. Who knows what lies beyond the veil . . .

    Sometimes I believe “witch’s” are very early physicians and scientists. Alchemy and herbology.

    Children are impressionable, and almost anyone can influence their “testimony”. And, of course, some evils start in the very very young.

    There may be true “demonic” forces out there, just as there is “angelic” entities. In a universe that is billions of yeas old, who knows what forces actually exist.

    Scary, yes?

    Reply
  12. Thank you to Lee, Lexa, Diane, Liesbet, Birgit and Dolorah for your kind wishes and interesting comments. Much appreciated 🙂

    Reply
  13. I hope your awayness is going well. =) I just got back from mine. Good times.

    Catherine! Such fascinating history. Can you imagine that poor girl’s guilt all those years? Kids do make up so many stories, and for the attention she was getting, it was probably all fiction…which ended up robbing her of family. What a miserable existence!

    Reply

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