The Pendle Hill Witch Trials of the 17th century is perhaps the most notorious and famous witch trial, dark tale of imprisonment and execution recorded at Lancaster Castle.
Paranoia was endemic in England at that time. James 1 was the king who was living in fear of a Catholic rebellion in the repercussion of the gun powder plot by Guy Fawkes. The king had a reputation as an enthusiastic witch-hunter, and even wrote a book known as Demonology. Though there were other witchcraft trials in England during the 15th to 18th century, it was not common for so many people to be accused, tried, and even sentenced to execution at once.
The twelve originally accused all lived around the Pendle Hill area in Lancashire, England. At this time, the region had a reputation of having subversives and trouble-makers that caused lawlessness. In 1612, the local administrator of peace Nowell Roger, was asked to prepare and present the names of accused people in the region, who had rejected to worship in the English church and take communion. This was a criminal offense. At the same time, there was a claim by the son of a peddler against Alizon Device of Pendle for causing a stroke to the peddler using witchcraft.
During questioning, Alizon confessed freely to bewitching the peddler. and that she had sold her soul to the devil. However, she implicated more members of the family as well as members of the neighboring family, the Chattoxes. She accused the neighbors of bewitching and killing four people. The neighbors blamed Demdike and accused her of witchcraft.
At the end of these investigations, twelve people from Pendle Hill were accused. These included; Alizon Device, Elizabeth Southerns, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Gray, Anne Whitle, Jennet Preston, Alice Nutter, Anne Redferne, John Bulcock, Katherine Hewitt and Jane Bulcock. Some of them seemed to believe in their guilt genuinely and considered themselves as witches in the sense of practicing as village healers who practice magic. They would in return get payment for what was a common and accepted part of village life in the 16th and 17th century rural England.
The twelve accused were charged with the murder of ten people using witchcraft. Ten of the twelve underwent their trial at Lancaster Assizes in August 1612. This group also included the prosecution of the Salmesbury witches (Jennet Brierley, Ellen Brierley and Jane Southworth charged with cannibalism and murder), Windle’s Isobel Robey accused of causing sickness through witchcraft and Margaret Pearson (known as the Padiham Witch charged for using sorcery to kill a horse). The trials are collectively referred to as the Lancashire Witch Trials. Elizabeth Southerns who was among them died in prison while Jennet Preston, another accomplice took trial from New York.
The eleven people who underwent the trial, two men and nine women, only Alice Gray was found not guilty. The other ten individuals were found guilty and executed by hanging. Unlike other seventeenth-century criminal trials, Jennet Device a nine-year-old child was a key prosecution witness giving evidence against members of her own family. She asked to be taken out of the court and went on to denounce her mother as a witch, alongside her brother and six people that she knew.
In his Demonology, king James had suspended the normal evidence rules for witchcraft cases. Jennet’s influence went far beyond Lancashire with children giving evidence at the Salem with trials in 1692 where nineteen people were executed. Today, children of any age can provide evidence to the court based on their understanding.
Ultimately though, Jennet became a victim of a similar case twenty years after testifying against her mother. She was accused of witchcraft along with sixteen others by ten year old Edmund Robinson. However, England had skeptically evolved with the need for physical evidence in court trials. Though found guilty by a jury, the judges referred them to the Privvy Council. Eventually, Robinson admitted to lying because of the Pendle Hill Witch Trials he had heard. They remained confined in Lancaster Gaol from where they likely died. The last record of Jennet Device was in 1636.
Pendle Hill continues to dominate the landscape of the area and is still associated with witchcraft. It hosts a hilltop gathering every Halloween. The story of the witches of the Pendle hill witch trials continues to pull in thousands of tourists to the area.