You often hear about the Salem witch trials, infamous for the brutality it inflicted on twenty-five people. There have been many witch trials over the centuries. But the one thing I am going to talk to you about today took place in England more than a hundred and fifty years ago. In the English county of Lancashire. More specifically, in the district of Pendle. What makes this witch trial unique is that the ten people that were executed in the Pendle witch trials were all sent to their death by a nine-year-old girl named Jennet Device.
The Story Begins at Pendle Hill, Lancashire
The story has to start somewhere. Witch craft was such a huge fear to the superstitious people of the time. It is little wonder that things spiralled into chaos in the 1600’s. But it is important to start this story off with the true catalyst of the story. Jennet Device is the infamous star of this show. This nine-year-old illegitimate beggar child lived with her mother, two siblings and grandmother. Jennet is an important character in the story of ‘The Pendle Witch Trials’, but it does not begin with her. In fact, the story begins with her older sister. Alizon Device. Who turned out to be the true catalyst of this story?
The First Arrests
The story starts in 1612 when Alizon Device, the sister of the nine-year-old beggar child Jennet Device, meets a peddler named John Law on the road. She asks the man for some pins, but when he refuses, in a moment of anger, young Alizon curses John and he falls to the ground.
We now know that he may have been unwell to begin with and suffered from a stroke, but back in the 1600’s, an otherwise healthy man suddenly being struck down with paralysis, blindness and the inability to speak might have been seen as witchcraft. That was the last straw for those that lived around Pendle Forest. A long string of antisocial behaviour had been hanging over the Device and Chattox house for a long time and John Law’s terrible illness was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.
Alizon was arrested, believing she had genuinely cursed the peddler and confessed to being a witch, but she in turn pointed fingers at Old Woman Chattox and her daughter Anne. Once arrested, they too started pointing fingers and Jennet’s grandmother, Old Demdike, was also arrested. Both Old Woman Chattox and Old Demdike confessed. What else were they to do? Both women were known as cunning women and, by all accounts, witches.
Old Demdike & Old Woman Chattox
So why did these two pillars of the community confess to witchcraft so easily? Both Old Demdike and Old woman Chattox were what was known as ‘Cunning Women’. One of these women was someone who acted as a herbalist, midwife and spell maker as well as imparting any wisdom they might have to share for a fee. It was believed that they were white witches who used their power for good. So, when these two elderly women were convicted what else could they plead?
So who was ‘Old Demdike’? It is said that she was a very old woman and had been a white witch for about fifty years. She made her home in the ‘Forest of Pendle’, which was vast and full of plants she could use for healing. But more common stories about this forest dwelling healer were dark and horrible to behold. It is said that she took great pains to raise her whole family to be witches and that she was an agent for the Devil. It is said that she cursed those that offended or slighted her and no one was safe from her fury.
Old Woman Chattox
Old Chattox was also a very old and decrepit woman, frail and almost blind. She was nothing imposing to look at. She is said to have been a dangerous witch and always the opposite to Old Demdike. These women hated each other bitterly and were always in competition for clients. It is said that Old Chattox’s witchcraft was always more likely to do more mischief than good. She is said to have walked around always chattering to herself. But no one knew what she was saying. She, too, lived in Pendle Forest as well and in the company of many wicked and dangerous witches.
Not a lot is actually known about these women, fact and fiction blur the lines. But it is more likely that these women were competing healers, midwives and spell makers. It is uncertain what fact and fiction is. But I think that it is more likely that much of the devil worship and witch craft is a fabrication. Today we know that herbs can heal the sick and what we knew as a cunning woman was simply someone with know-how. But in these times, God forbids anything to go wrong if you practise any kind of healing using herbs. It may send you to the hangman’s noose.
The Magistrates Plan
Even though these four women were held in prison, the magistrates were not yet done with their witch hunt. The next Sunday, when all good Christian people were in church, the magistrates took note of who wasn’t there. They found out that Alizon and Jennet’s mother, Elizabeth, had held a gathering and at this gathering that her son, James, had stolen a sheep. Now, for a family already under suspicion, the theft of a sheep by alleged witches must have looked an awful lot like something for a ritual.
To make matters worse, both James and Elizabeth were arrested along with any others that attended the gathering. It is said that they were planning to kill a man using witchcraft and, as such, were jailed. James immediately accused his mother but also accused the local Nutter family. This family were from a higher station and quite possibly Catholic, which at the time, under the Protestant King James, was just as bad as witchcraft.
King James VI & I’s ‘Witch Hunter Guide’
In the year 1597, King James VI of Scotland created and published a compendium all about witchcraft and the hunting of those mistresses of the Devil. This book was called ‘Daemonologie’. When it comes to this story’s timeline, the English King James I also published this book when he ascended to the throne. This was in the year 1603.
This book highlights how to identify witches as well as what punishments and trials they should merit. The Daemonologie is split into three parts:
- Magic & Necromancy
- Witches & Sorcery
- Spirits and Spectres
Why Was James I so Scared of Witches?
Daemonologie takes the form of dialogue, which is popular with didactic works. This is why there are three sections in this infamous book. But why was King James so obsessed with witches? It is said that after the witchcraft panic spread in 1590, he came to believe that he and his Danish bride, Anne, had been targeted by witches. The conjuring of storms at sea which almost killed the royals rooted this fear deep in the king of England.
So why is this important to our story? Well, let me tell you. The law had made it clear that those considered minors were not to bring evidence in a court of law but with King James’ witch hunter guide called ‘Demonology’, the line started to blur, especially in cases of witch trials. This book states ‘Children, women & liars can be witnesses to high treason against God.” which now gives the magistrate permission to bring in a new witness. Jennet Device.
Jennet Device’s Mother Brought to Trial
On the day of her mothers trial Elizabeth was beside herself, screaming and protesting at learning that her daughter would be giving evidence against her. Some part of her must have known that this would mean her demise. She became so irate that she had to be removed from the courtroom so that Jennet could give her testament in peace.
What Did Jennet Device Say?
When her mother was gone, Jennet was placed on a table and denounced her mother and family as witches. In her own words she 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.” It is said that she was extremely calm and in control throughout her confession. But because of what she said, nine people were executed as witches, including her sibling and mother. Old Demdike died in prison before the trial even began.
No one knows why Jennet turned on her family the way she did. Was she shunned? As an illegitimate beggar she must have had a hard life even at home. Was she coached and pressured by the magistrates? Or did she simply not understand what she was doing? Regardless of the why, the nine-year old beggar was the reason nine people lost their lives during the 1612 Pendle Witch trials. After the trials there was no record of the Jennet Device. That is until almost 20 years later.
Yet Another Child Witness
The Childs Tale
When 10 year old Edmund Robinson came home late one night and spun a fantastic tale to his father. He spoke of two greyhounds which transformed, one into a woman and one into a stallion. They swept him away to a house filled with witches. The house had ropes hanging from the ceiling and food materialised out of thin air. Or so the child said.
What Happened as a Result
When Edmunds Edmond’s father heard his son’s tale he allegedly blackmailed his neighbours into paying him so that his son would not point them out as being at the witch’s house. One of the people who could not pay was Jennet Device. But 20 years had passed and there was a new king on the throne.
King Charles I, who was far more sceptical of witches than his father. He had gotten several magistrates in trouble for executing women who had not been guilty of their alleged witchcraft crimes. But times had changed and the courts took a far more careful approach to trials involving witchcraft. Especially those that had children as their key witnesses.
Edmund gave his account of what happened. But unlike Jennet, he was not as calm or confident and his story crumbled. As if prison was not enough, each of the so-called witches was subject to a physical examination. This was where their bodies were checked for a ‘devil’s mark’. None of them had this mark and they were all set free.
The End of Jennet Device?
Things did not end well for Jennet. As a poor beggar, she had no money. In those days you were expected to pay for your room and board when you were sent to prison. So, even if you were innocent, if you could not pay the fee you were simply kept in jail. It is unknown what happened to Jennet. As a peasant there are few records of her. But it is likely that she was unable to pay her fee and died in prison like her grandmother.
As if her death was not enough, her legacy would bring about more witch hunts and trials in the future. A man named Thomas Potts wrote a book on the Pendle Trails called ‘The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster’ This book detailed Jennet’s part in catching witches. This book and a book called ‘The Country Justice’ spread throughout England and its Colonies. It later came to inspire the Salem Witch trials. Where three children accused their neighbours of witchcraft and nineteen people were hanged as a result.
That is the story of Jennet Device and the Pendle Witch Trials. I hope you learned a lot and found this to be an interesting story. Personally, I enjoyed finding out about these alleged witches. I think what I found most fascinating was the blurring of truth from fiction. The fear of the unknown spurred rash decisions and condemned people who were probably innocent of their crimes.
The fact that several factors from this trial spurred on other witch hunts is an interesting point. The puritans and their superstitious beliefs at the time would bring yet another trial to the New World. That, along with the ‘Country Justice’ published in England, would only fan the flames that would be a witch hunt. Resulting in the death of several innocent men, women and children.