Witch trials and children’s evidence in Seventeenth-Century England

After a sensational trial at the Lancaster assizes in 1612, the talk of the country was not the judges, advocates, witnesses, or defendants. It was the court clerk.

Master Thomas Potts was brought up in the household of Sir Thomas Knyvett, a national hero, famous for having entered the cellars of Parliament just after midnight on the morning of the 5th of November 1605 to find the taciturn Catholic Yorkshireman, Guy Fawkes, along with thirty-two barrels and two hogsheads of gunpowder.

Potts’s legal career remains obscure, although around 1610 to 1611 he served as clerk of the peace for the East Riding. His moment in the sun came in 1612 when he was associate clerk on the northern assize circuit, and for two days in August he was present at Lancaster Castle for an electrifying trial. The following year he was in London, lodging in Chancery Lane, where he wrote up his recollections of the events. The publishers rushed the book out, and it became an instant hit, despite the unwieldy title:

THE WONDERFVLL DISCOVERIE OF WITCHES IN THE COVNTIE OF LANCASTER.

With the Arraignement and Triall of Nineteene notorious Witches, at the Aſſizes and generall Gaole deliuerie, holden at the Caſtle of Lancaster, upon Munday, the ſeuenteenth of Auguſt laſt, 1612.

Before Sir Iames Altham, and Sir Edward Bromley, Knights; Barons of His Maieſties Court of Exchequer: And Iuſtices of Aſsize, Oyer and Terminer, and generall Gaole deliuerie in the circuit of the North Parts.

Together with the Arraignement and Triall of Iennet Preston, at the Aſsizes holden at the Caſtle of Yorke, the ſeuen and twentieth day of Iulie laſt paſt, with her Execution for the murther of Maſter Lister by Witchcraft.

Publiſhed and ſet forth by commandement of his Maieſties Iuſtices of Aſſize in the North Parts. By Thomas Potts Eſquier.

The events leading to the trial were fairly straightforward. Deep in East Lancashire’s Forest of Pendle, a local woman, Alizon Device, had begun boasting that she had lamed a pedlar by using magic. Word soon reached the local magistrate, Robert Nowell, who brought Alizon in for questioning. For good measure, he also collared her mother, Squinting Lizzie, and her grandmother, Old Demdike. To Nowell’s surprise, once questioned, all three admitted familiarity with magic. Alizon, however, went further, revealing that there was a rival family of witches ranged under a matriarch, Old Chattox, and that they had murdered Alizon’s father by magic. Nowell duly then hauled in Old Chattox, who also confessed to skills in the magical arts.

Faced with this village feud, Nowell took no action. But then Squinting Lizzie did something unwise. On Good Friday — the most solemn day of the year, to be spent contemplating Christ’s suffering — she threw a party. This was all too much for the neighbours, who began to point and gossip. Before long, the story was circulating that Squinting Lizzie’s get-together had been a witches’ sabbath.

King James1 had been on the throne of England for nine years, and his views on magic were well known. He was convinced malign witchcraft was real, and was terrified by the power of the Devil’s handmaidens. A few years before riding south to claim the English throne, he had written a cautionary book, Dæmonologie, in which he warned the world of the very real dark forces at work, and the need for all to protect themselves against the evil that walks among us. Everyone therefore knew that witchcraft was one of the king’s hobbyhorses. It was no accident that, only a few years after James’s accession, William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, featuring three witches plotting the death of a Scottish king.

It is not clear, but now Nowell acted. Perhaps he was convinced that Squinting Lizzie’s Good Friday gathering had been a coven of witches. Or maybe he felt he needed to take steps to stem the gossip. Or possibly he simply sought to curry favour with a court led by an obsessive witchfinder. Whatever his reasoning, Nowell committed nineteen of those connected to the two families and to Squinting Lizzie’s ill-conceived party for trial at the assizes.

The trial itself was swift, but dramatic. There were no prosecuting or defending advocates in the modern sense. Instead, statements and confessions were adduced. Some live witness evidence was heard. And then the jury reached a verdict.

The tone Potts takes in his record leaves no doubt as to his views. For example:

This Anne Whittle, alias Chattox, was a very old withered spent and decreped creature, her sight almost gone: A dangerous Witch, of very long continuance; alwayes opposite to old Demdike: For whom the one fauoured, the other hated deadly: and how they enuie and accuse one another, in their Examinations, may appeare. In her Witchcraft, always more ready to doe mischiefe to mens goods, then themselues. Her lippes euer chattering and walking: but no man knew what.

All the usual indicators of witchcraft were paraded in court, including diabolical familiars.

There appeared vnto her a thing like vnto a Blacke Dogge: speaking vnto her, this Examinate, and desiring her to giue him her Soule, and he would giue her power to doe any thing shee would: whereupon this Examinate being therewithall inticed, and setting her downe; the said Blacke-Dogge did with his mouth (as this Examinate then thought) sucke at her breast, a little below her Paps, which place did remain blew halfe a yeare next after.

In living memory Latin had been the language of godly religion. But now it was a sure sign of devilry. So Squinting Lizzie’s admission that she taught her son to say ‘Crucifixus hoc signum vitam eternam. Amen’ when he wanted a good drink was a cast-iron indicator of her compact with the Devil. The fact the phrase was gibberish — ‘crucified this sign eternal life amen’ — was of little import.

The witches’ methods of killing also drew close scrutiny. Old Demdike gave a vivid account of making clay images of victims, pricking them with thorns or pins to cause injury, or committing them to flames when wishing to hasten death.

There was also scandalous evidence of grave robbing. Twelve years earlier, Anne Chattox had been seen opening up graves and taking eight teeth from three scalps, which she then buried at the west end of her house with a clay image of a woman whom she sought to harm.

The moment of the highest drama, however, came when Alizon’s young sister, nine-year-old Jennet, gave live evidence against her family. King James had declared in Dæmonologie that children and wives could give evidence in witch trials. ‘Barnes or wiues, or neuer ſo diffamed perſons . . . ſuch witneſſes may be ſufficient in matters of high treaſon againſt God’. So there was no bar to Jennet’s testimony being heard. Her mother, Alizon, protested and ‘outragiously cursing, cryed out against the child in such fearefull manner’ that the court felt compelled to take action.

His Lordship commanded the prisoner to be taken away, and the Maide to be set vpon the Table in the presence of the whole Court, who deliuered her euidence in that Honorable assembly, to the Gentlemen of the Iurie of life and death.

Atop the table, Jennet confirmed that her mother and other relatives were all witches. And the court was impressed.

Although she were but very yong, yet it was wonderfull to the Court, in so great a Presence and Audience, with what modestie, gouernement, and vnderstanding, shee deliuered this Euidence against the Prisoner at the Barre, being her owne naturall brother, which he himselfe could not deny, but there acknowledged in euery particular to be iust and true.

When it was over, the jury returned guilty verdicts on ten of the defendants, and the court sentenced them to be executed. In reaching verdicts, Jennet’s evidence had undoubtedly been persuasive, and it sent her brother, James, her sister, Alizon, and mother, Squinting Lizzie, to the gallows. Her grandmother, Old Demdike, was only spared because she had died in prison awaiting trial.

With the scale and drama of the hearing, and the popularity of Potts’s account, children’s evidence became an accepted feature of witch trials. An even more sensational example took place at the end of the century when, in 1692 or 1693, a Congregationalist English pastor, Samuel Parris, arrived in Salem Village, Massachusetts in the colonies. Before long over 200 people were arrested in connection with accusations of witchcraft, culminating in nineteen hangings and five deaths in custody.

The Pendle witches were executed at the peak of the witch craze, which eventually petered out in the early 1700s after somewhere between 40,000 to 60,000 had been put to death. In Britain the number was between 500 to 1,000. In Scotland it was closer to 2,500. In Ireland, where the Reformation had caused fewer religious fractures, it was far lower.

It remains largely incomprehensible how the Church’s ancient and longstanding denial of the existence of magic was so comprehensively overturned in the wake of the religious fractures of the Reformation, and how Tudor and Stuart Britain gave itself over to the unreason of seeing the Devil’s votaries lurking in every squabble and unexplained event, even when the witnesses were children.

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Dominic Selwood was called to the bar by Lincoln’s Inn in 1996, and practised at 2 King’s Bench Walk until 2001. He writes and reviews regularly for national newspapers, and his latest book, Anatomy of a Nation: A History of British Identity in 50 Documents, is published by Constable (2021).

 

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