Who Were The Pendle Witches?

If you’ve been paying close attention to the headlines of late, you might well already know that there’s a petition currently doing the rounds to officially pardon the Pendle Witches - more than 400 years after they were brutally executed for practising witchcraft.

But who exactly were they and what exactly were their ‘crimes’?

The Pendle Witches themselves actually lived during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, so between 1558 and 1625.

King James I firmly believed in the existence of witchcraft and, as such, he passed an Act imposing the death penalty for “making a covenant with an evil spirit, using a corpse for magic, hurting life or limb, procuring love or injuring cattle by means of charms”.

There were two families caught up in the Pendle case, both of whom were headed up by elderly widows - Anne Whittle (or Old Chattox, as she was known) and Elizabeth Southern (or Old Demdike). 

Family members Elizabeth Device (or Squinting Lizzie), Alison and James Southern, and Ann Redfern were also caught up in the drama, as well as Jane Bulcock and her son John, Alice Nutter, Isobel Robey and Katherine Hewitt (also known locally as Mouldheels).

On August 20th 1612, these ten souls convicted of witchcraft at Lancaster Castle’s Summer Assize were hanged on the gallows on the moors above Pendle. Their crimes? Causing madness, laming and ‘simple’ witchcraft, while 16 unexplained deaths (some of which dated back decades) were also attributed to their sorcery.

The prosecution’s star witness was Elizabeth Device’s nine-year-old daughter Jennet, who told the court of familiar spirits, making clay images to bring about death, and witches mounting ponies and flying off into the night sky.

The petition to pardon the Pendle Witches is supported by Robert Poole, professor of history at the University of Central Lancashire. He said: “This case is important in 2021 as it teaches us that if we identify members of a community, however marginal, as some kind of ‘other’, that it’s going to lead to other miscarriages of justice.”

At the time of writing, the petition - which can be found here - had 1,863 signatures behind it.

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