Home » The Lancashire witch trials
Written by Graham | Created: Thursday 4th October 2018 @ 1215hrs | Revised: Saturday 26th September 2020 @ 0108hrs
Tragedy struck the Stanleys on 16th April 1594 when the 5th Earl of Derby, Ferdinando Stanley, died after a short and mysterious illness, which some suspected had to do with the nefarious activities of powerful witches. In particular, the chronicler John Stowe, who provides an expansive account of His Lordship's final illness, gathers a good deal of evidence for the witchcraft hypothesis.
Ferdinando's mother was Lady Margaret Clifford, the daughter of Henry Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, and Lady Eleanor Brandon, a daughter of Sir Charles Brandon, the great friend of Henry VIII, and Mary Tudor, dowager queen of France and younger daughter of Henry VII. Lady Margaret was a cousin of Jane Grey, who was briefly queen of England. Thus, Lady Margaret was recognised as having a strong claim to the English throne, then occupied by the redoubtable Elizabeth I, in accordance with the Third Succession Act of Henry VIII. As such, Lady Margaret, a practicing Catholic, became the unwitting focus of a number of whispers at court during 1579 and 1580, as the Elizabeth's advancing age made it apparent that no prince or princess would be emerging from the loins of the "Virgin Queen."
However, these mutterings came to have a sinister side, with Lady Margaret implicated in certain sorceries, the ends of which were to determine what would happen in the wake of the Queen's demise. These testimonies shed some light on what part - if any - Lady Margaret may have played in these cabals.
Previously convicted of witchcraft, Alice Brerely is granted a pardon: -
The names Brerly and Scolefeld reappear in a simiar context 44 years later.
Towards the end of March, a fateful meeting took place on the road through Colne, between John Law, an itinerant salesman from Halifax, and a young girl by the name of Alizon Device. Though the accounts of what took place during their brief intercourse and immediately afterwards are contradictory, what is clear is that, soon after their parting, Law fell seriously ill and was taken to a nearby inn, the Greyhound. Some days later, alerted to his father's condition and seeking to discover the cause, Law's son Abraham arrived in Pendle and sought out Alizon, who tearfully admitted to having bewitched the stricken pedlar.
This set off a tragic chain of events which would uncover a story of the black arts being rife in the Forest of Pendle, which primarily centred upon two families who had, since the beginning of the century at the latest, been in a condition of severe enmity. These were led by two beldams reputed to be gravely powerful witches: -
Eventually, these two, along with Alizon and Chattox's luckless daughter Anne Redferne, were hauled off to Lancaster gaol.
That Good Friday, which fell on 10th April, Demdike's daughter and Alizon's mother Elizabeth Device hosted a gathering of friends and well-wishers at the notorious Malkin Tower, which came to be interpreted as a general assembly of witches from thereabouts. Present on that occasion were a number of those who were subsequently involved intimately with the infamous trial, includind many who were arrested and dispatched to the tower (and eventually the gallows on Lancaster Moor): -
Others were present who were either acquitted or were not arrested: -
Other supposed witches from the area escaped justice, most likely by having predeceased this mayhem: -
Additionally, Anne Redferne's daughter Marie was not arrested, despite testimonies suggesting that she participated in the same rituals as her mother and grandmother. Likewise, perhaps, Anne's husband Thomas.
Eventually, of this group, nine were to hang, Demdike having cheated the noose by virtue of her dying in prison. They met their sad end on 20th August.
Though she survived the depredation which had all but annihilated her family, Bessie Whittle, another daughter of Chattox, appears to have been no stranger to Lancaster. The Shuttleworth accounts for 1613 state: -
Also alleged to be present with the Pendle coven at Malkin Tower on Good Friday 1612 was one Jennet Preston of Gisburn, then just over the county boundary in Yorkshire, fresh from her acquittal at the York Assizes on a charge of having betwitched one Dodgeson's child to death. She had earned the enmity of Thomas Lister, the local landowner, who would react to this circumstance by building a case against her for having murdered his father through her malpractise.
Jennet Preston was tried a second time, found guilty, and executed at York on the 27th July.
Eight reputed witches from Samlesbury were also arrested and tried at Lancaster in 1612. Of five of these, little else is known apart from the fact that they were acquitted by the jury. Their names are: -
The other three, Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley and her daughter Ellen Bierley, along with a mysterious figure known as Old Doewife or Doewise, were the subject of a host of lurid tales by the chief witness against them, Jennet's own granddaughter Grace Sowerbutts, though the judge at the trial, Sir Edward Bromley, decided to bind them over rather than hang them as it transpired that Sowerbutts had been under the tutelage of one Christopher Southworth, a.k.a. Thompson, a Catholic priest, presumed to be pursuing a vendetta against the group due to their attendance at the Anglican church.
Alongside the Pendle witches on the gallows was Isabel Robey of the village of Windle near St. Helen's, who seems to have proven a general nuisance in the area. One witness testimony, that of Peter Chaddock, taken before Sir Thomas Gerrard, notes that, in order to counteract Robey's malevolence, he had secured the services of one James the Glover, reputed to be a cunning man, who told him: -
Another witch, Margaret Pearson of Padiham - who had previously been convicted twice of the same offence - was sentenced to imprisonment and a spell in the pillory.
Sir Edward Bromley is back up to his old tricks at Lancaster, sentencing Cicilia (or Cecilia) Dawson, wife of William, of Walton-le-Dale, to the gallows for bewitching Elena Moldinge (or Modinge) of Hoghton to death, and having "wasted and destroyed" George Harrison of Cuerdale and Thomas Wynkeley.
Dawson is said to have: -
The Shuttleworth accounts note that, on 26th May, payment was made: -
Ellel man John Willson alleged on 20th August that he had been bewitched by Jennett Wilkinson. Furthermore, he explains that: -
A Jennett wife of Robert Wilkinson was still being held in Lancaster Castle as late as 1636 on charges of witchcraft.
Mary Shawe of Crofte appears at the Quarter Sessions on 22nd July on accusations of healing and magic, with Anne Urmeston stating: -
Urmston also stated that Shawe had told her that "she hadd done good, and never did any Hurt, but that shee could doe some litle thinges, but never tooke any money, but what she would geve her of good will," and that she had healed the swine of one Nicholas Hadfield, after which she had become "very sicke," and Hadfield himself said she affected the cure with "some swyne grasse [...] in sweete milke."
Another witness, Robert Gaskell, also claimed to have witnessed Shawe: -
According to the 19th century historian Edward Baines, one Utley was hanged at Lancaster for bewitching Richard Assheton: -
Burke's A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Extinct and Dormant Baronetcies of England, Ireland, and Scotland of 1844 gives the following notice: -
Richard, who was a boy of around five years old at the time of his demise, was buried at Middleton two days after his death.
On All Saints' Day 1633, one Edmund Robinson, a lad of about ten years, claimed to have a strange encounter with two greyhounds, one of which transformed into a neighbour of his, Frances Dicconson. Eventually, according to young Robinson, he was spirited off to Hoarstones, a newly-built house (incidentally, his father, also Edmund, a.k.a. Roughs, had worked in construction thereof), where he witnessed a great feast attended by a vast array of witches, wizards and warlocks. In total, Robinson's allegations implicated between eighteen and twenty people, with several distinct lists of names showing slight differences. The names of those present can perhaps be gleaned as: -
By this point, young Edmund was getting a reputation as a witchfinder: according to John Webster, the esotericist who was, in 1634, curate at Kildwick in Yorkshire, Edmund, his father and another man appeared in his parish one Sunday. Tellingly, his attempts at getting a one-to-one interview with young Robinson were strongly rebuffed.
Eventually, Dicconson, Alice Higgin, Jennet Loynd and Jennet Hargreaves, along with Margaret Johnson, Mary Spencer and John Spencer (probably Mary's father), along with the Robinsons, were summoned by the Privy Council to London. Fortunately for them, Charles I was far less sympathetic to lurid claims of witchcraft such as these than his father was, though this would not save them from an extended spell in gruelling conditions, which claimed the lives of Higgin, Loynd and John Spencer. Whilst in London, Edmund Jr. - who was examined three times between the 10th and 15th July - admitted that he had made up much of his story, though based upon local whisperings of witches, as well as stories he was told of the Good Friday meeting at "Mocking Tower," which influenced his description of the feast at Hoarstones. His final testimony mentions "Frances, wife of John Dicconson, Jennet, wife of Henry Hargreaves, Jennet Devys, William Devys, her half brother, and [...] Beawse," and "the wife of John Loynd." Edmund Sr. appears to have got his comeuppance, being confined to the Gatehouse jail on the 28th June.
Though largely forgotten now, when it is largely seen as a footnote to the tumultuous events of 1612, this case gained some notoriety in its own day, inspiring two stage works during the 17th century.
A brief postscript: an entry in the Newchurch-in-Pendle burial records dated 22nd December 1635 bears the name "Jennet Seller alias Devis." The mother of Jennet Device, Elizabeth, was said in Thomas Potts' account of the 1612 trial to have been accused of having a bastard by a man named Sellers. It should be noted, however, that this entry was written retrospectively, and Jennett Device is, along with Jennett Hargreaves and ffrances Dicconson, mentioned in a list of witches held at Lancaster at the time of the Assizes on 22nd August 1636.
The furore surrounding young Edmund Robinson and his burgeoniong career in witchfinding led to a number of further arrests. Margaret Johnson of Marsden (now Nelson in eastern Lancashire) confessed to having been a witch of long standing, and, repenting, seemed to save herself from the gallows, though her testimonies paint a melancholy tale.
Mary Spencer, along with her parents (who died in prison), were implicated in the second great Pendle witchhunt, seemingly at the instigation of one Nicholas Cunliffe, who bore some malice towards the Spencers.
The mother of Richard Nuttall of the parish of Great Bolton is brought to the house of one William Chisnall, believed to have been bewitched by her due to a prior insult. She offered her help, but said: -
On 26th May, Henry Baggilie of Oldham confessed to having healed people and animals, claiming that he had been taught a charm by his father, which he had learned from a Dutchman, which made reference to the Holy Trinity: -
He added that "frequently for theese two years last paste" he had been employed by clients in order "to bless there freindes or cattell," receiving "onely [...] Meale, or sheep, or comodities of that nature" in payment.
A note written at the bottom of his deposition bears the ominous word: -
A John Garnet is held at Lancaster on suspicion of witchcraft. Lewis and William Rigby, from Upholland, on 21st August, claimed that they had been wrongfully accused of murdering one Humphrey Morecroft of Scarisbrook, after Morecroft's confederates sought to discover from Garnet "what was becomen of him." Garnet apparently stated that the murdered Morecroft's body had been disposed of in the marl-pits near Upholland.
Ellen Pennington and Elizabeth Barker were among four women from Wigan held at Lancaster on charges of witchcraft. The pair were examined by John Bridgeman, Bishop of Chester, shortly before the 11th May, the other two having previously died in custody.
William Ffarington, then Sheriff of Lancaster, lists the names of ten prisoners in Lancaster at the time of the Assizes on 22nd August, described as follows: -
They are: -
Anne Spencer of Lathom was committed for trial on charges of having bewitched to death one Richard Cross.
Aspull blacksmith Thomas Hope is accused of witchcraft and healing after a complaint by Christopher Leigh that Hope had visited one Margery Mullineux. In his statement of 11th May, Hope claimed that, as a boy of ten years, his uncle had taken him to Rome where he was: -
Alice Scholfield of Castleton appears at a Quarter Session on 11th August and confesses to having used "the devellish practiseing with a sive & a paire of sheeres" in order to see if a woman was with child, as well as a means to glean the whereabouts of stolen goods. She further stated that: -
Brearley stated that, during the ritual, "Alis Scholfeild did use many strang words, which this Examinant did not nowe nor understand," while Mary Feilden of Belfield deposed that: -
Famine in Lancashire at this time caused locals to head off elsewhere in search of sustenance. Among these was an anonymous Lancashire woman who ended up involved in a witchcraft trial in Worcester, accused of bewitching a young Droitwich lad.
An October Quarter Session features a petition which mentions the mother of a child suspected of having been bewitched being "tought to get blud [...] to cure the child," which was done, "and the child recovered well."
Four alleged witches from Haigh are examined, with half their number being committed. The details appear in a letter written by Sir Roger Bradshaigh, who states that he: -
Widow Bridge of Castle Street, Liverpool, along with her sister Margaret Loy, are claimed to be witches in the Moore Rental: -
Joseph Hinchcliff and his wife Susan are ordered to appear at the Assizes as a result of accusations detailed in a Deposition at York Castle, which implicates Susan and the Hinchcliffs' daughter Ann Shillitoe, on the word of one Mary Moor.
Joseph, however, took his own life, and was followed to the grave shortly thereafter by his spouse. Rev. Oliver Heywood describes this sad circumstance thus: -
NB this was listed as having taken place in Lancashire by Wallace Notestein, but, while Heywood was a Lancashire man, it appears more likely it was in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Nevertheless, it is included here as a testimony to the deleterious effect such spurious allegations might have on the poor souls thus accused.
The career of the supposed "Surey Demoniac" Richard Dugdale, who experienced a prolonged series of what are described as "fits," as well as an insatiable urge to dance and various other uncanny manifestations, between the 26th July 1688 and the 25th March 1690.
His case was eventually taken up by a group of Nonconformist divines, led by Rev. Thomas Jollie, who wrote extensively about the case. Jollie's conclusion, that Satan was behind Dugdale's bizarre behavious, was dismissed in a tract by the ever-sceptical Zachary Taylor.
Among the revelations which emerge during the investigation into Dugdale's reliability and character, the testimony of one Edward Slaytor of Billington, a former classmate of Dugdale's at Whalley School, reveal a penchant for histrionics, including allegations of encounters with a witch, one Sadler's wife: -
A woman from Chowbent near Atherton was committed for trial, but died prior to the Assizes.
Death of Mag or Meg Shelton, a.k.a. the "Fylde Hag." She is buried at Woodplumpton near Preston. Meg, also known as Margery Hilton, is reputed to have been a witch particularly associated with the villages of Cottam, Singleton and Catforth in addition to her place of burial. She supposedly dwelt at Cuckoo Hall in Wesham, on the path between Kirkham and Singleton.
Her best-known power was her ability to change her shape, with some legends featuring Meg as a white hart in a forest, associated with William Haydock, the Lord of Cottam, for whose sporting purposes she had agreed to supply a hare as quarry.
On another occasion, she inveigled her way into a farmer's barn in order to purloin grain for her chickens, transforming herself into a sack when she heard the farmer approach. The wise farmer subsequently noticed the surplus sack and prodded it with an implement, causing it to let go a scream and turn back into Shelton's human form.
Her demise came when she was pinned between a wall and a barrel and her burial was attended by strange circumstances: despite the large rock which today marks the spot, Meg managed to claw her way out twice, being buried face down on the third occasion, which seemed to confuse her - for a time.
In all probability, the legend is not ancient (John Porter, in his survey of the Fylde, makes no mention of it). One of the earliest sources for the legend is Joseph Gillow, and is found in his The Haydock Papers, published in 1888. Thereafter, Allen Clarke, a local historian, wrote a series of short stories in the 1920s, which works seem to be the well-spring of the folklore surrounding the Fylde Witch.
Around this time, "wise men" in Lancashire were called upon to furnish charms to those who believed themselves a target for witches around this time. One, from near Burnley, reads as follows (Harland & Wilkinson 1882, p.62-3): -
Another such charm, written in mystical hieroglyphs and strange symbols, was discovered in a barn or shippon at West Bradford near Clitheroe. This was sealed with divine names as follows: -
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, in his diary for 1766, reports a meeting, in Colne, with a certain Ann A---n, who seems to have had something of the "second sight," being able to see the luminous shades of the recently dead or soon-to-be-dead from the ages of around four to seveneen. By the end of this period, poor Ann was becoming increasingly concerned by whispers in the neighbourhood that she was a witch and prayed for these visions to end, which they subsequently did.
John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson mention a Burnley woman who suspected her husband of having bewitched her several times over some years.
Even as late as the mid-Victorian period, witchcraft still loomed large in Lancashire - and not merely in remote rural areas: John Harland & T.T. Wilkinson report the case of a young man living in the Manchester area who believed himself in hank to his mother's dark arts.