Witch country

Wiccan Rede * Summer 1990 by Terry

I was recently surprised when a Dutch friend mentioned that she was unsure where Pendle Hill was situated. Of course, there is no reason why anyone in Holland should have heard of the place. However, as Pendle Hill has been associated with Witchcraft for centuries, I thought that a short article on the area may interest one or two people.

In a wild windswept corner in the North West of England, about 40 kilometers South of Lancaster, lies Pendle Hill, although it could actually be described better as a mountain. Having walked to the top I can assure you that it seems like a mountain on the way up! However, it is well worth the effort, as from the flat surface on the top there are magnificent views of the surrounding countryside, from Lancaster to the coastline of the Irish Sea. Doreen Valiente says that “One wonders whether something numinous, some psy chic atmosphere lingers upon the Hill of Pendle, from days of long ago when it was a sacred height.”

Pendle Hill is renowned as the haunt of the infamous Witches from the nearby area of the Forest of Pendle. The area is well worth a visit, although it is a little off the beaten track. In the nearby village of Newchurch a ‘tourist’ shop can be found called ‘Witches Galore’, which sells everything from books on herbal remedies to fully test flown broomsticks!

The most well known of the Witches of Pendle were:

  1. Demdike
  2. Chattox
  3. Elizabeth Device (daughter of  Demdike)
  4. James Device (grandson of    Demdike)
  5. Alison Device (granddaughter   of Demdike
  6. Alice Nutter
  7. Katherine Hewitt
  8. Jane Bulcock
  9. John Bulcock (son of Jane)
  10. Alice Gray
  11. Isobel Roby
  12. Margaret Pearson

They were all imprisoned in Lancaster Gaol after enquiries initiated by Roger Nowell, a magistrate who resided in Read Hall.

The Witches were accused of holding their meetings in pendle Forest, in the Malkin Tower, close by the shadow of the great hill. Roger Nowell questioned the Demdike’s half witted grandson James Device, and came away with sufficient incriminating evidence, including a clay effigy and some human teeth which had allegedly been pilfered from a grave in nearby Newchurch, to justify further investigations.

As things unfolded, many serious accusations were made, not least of all, because Old Demdike and Chattox were deadly enemies and rivals. Their main means of subsistence was that of begging and blackmailing money and food with implied threats of Witchcraft. Therefore each had constantly strived to prove herself to be the most powerful Witch, with the result that the credulous neighbours lived in fear of both the Demdike and the Chattox broods.

This fear grew to such an extent that on the 18th of March 1612, when Alison Device tried to beg some pins from a passing peddlar – John Law of Halifax – who refused, she cursed him maliciously, whereupon he collapsed with a fear induced stroke. Naturally, the peddlar complained of a pricking pain which was being caused by Witchcraft.

On questioning by Roger Nowell, Alison felt racked with guilt and readily confessed, so the first specific charge was made. All may have been comparatively well if it had stopped there, but it did not. Alison proceeded to implicate one person after another.

When Demdike was questioned she admitted to having been a Witch for twenty years, and that she had in fact lured her arch rival into the Craft. Accusation and counter accusation ensued, including charges of causing the deaths of several people over the preceding years. The resulting decision by Roger Nowell was to have the Pendle Witches held in Lancaster, to await the August assizes, where they were charged alongside the Samlesbury Witches, giving a grand total of “Nineteen Notorious Witches”!

Of the nineteen, the seven Samlesbury Witches were all acquitted, as was Alice Gray of Colne. Margaret Pearson was sentenced to imprisonment and the pillory. Demdike, who was about eighty years old, died in gaol, and the remaining nine were all executed by hanging on 20 August 1612.

A Master Thomas Potts then wrote the first of several accounts of the events, entitled “The Wonderful Discover y of Witches in the County of Lancaster”. An interesting remark mad e by Henry Fishwick, which is not often incorporated into recent books on these happenings, reads as follows:

“It seems strange that the Lancashire Witches should so easily be led to condemn themselves, and the reason may be either that they expected in doing so to escape capital punishment, or, what is equally likely, that they, having so long lived by the profession of Witchcraft, really did imagine that they had the powers they claimed to possess…”

The title of this article comes from a Romany word used when the Gypsies spoke of this area in whispers. They called it ‘Chohawniskytem’ – Witch Country.


There are some good historically based novels available on the Witches of Lancashire, which make fairly light reading. Here are some which I would recommend:

  • Robert Ainsworth: The Lancashire  Witches
  • Robert Neill: Mist Over Pendle
  • Robert Neill: Witchfire At Lammas
  • Robert Neill: Witchbane

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