Have you heard of the Pendle Witches?
In 1612 twenty women were put on trial in Lancashire in the UK. They were thought to be Witches. The Pendle Witches, or The Witches of Pendle Forrest. And The Witches of Samlesbury.
Witches were believed to be capable of many things. And many things were blamed on them. The hard part was determining who had caused your crops to fail, your milk not to churn, your animals to grow sick and die. And men would be no help, they could be put under a spell. It was up to the women to find the perpetrators and the men to get the truth out of them.
A Plague of Witches
Neither rich nor poor were safe from the witches. Or of being accused of being one. Lancashire seemed plagued by witches during the sixteenth century. It was believed that the witches met in the forest of Pendle, at Malkin Tower. Where old Demdike and her daughters lived.
…she was met near Gouldshey, in the Forest of Pendle, by a spirit of devil in the shape of a boy, the one half of his coat black and the other brown, who told her to stop and said that if she would give him her soul, she would have anything she wished for. -Dame Demdike. From Lancashire Folklore, 1882, John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson.
Dame Demdike was sent to prison in the castle where she grew ill and died before her trial. After she was arrested other witches met at the tower to plan her escape. Many of those witches were named, arrested, and brought to trial. Although some made their escape (no doubt on familiars disguised as horses).
Witchcraft was a normal part of life
Villages were filled with healers, midwives, and others who could assist with the things that ailed you. Perhaps they said a prayer whilst they mixed a potion for you to drink to ease your cough. Or maybe a cream was made in a specific way that could have been called a ritual.
Queen Elizabeth created an act – An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts- that allowed a judge to give the death penalty to a witch only if a death had been caused. And King James I instructed the death penalty also be used if the use of magic could be proven where harm had been caused or if a body was exhumed for magical practices.
Sentenced to Death
Out of the original twenty, ten were sentenced to death for having caused the deaths of at least sixteen people, who lived in Pendle Forest, using witchcraft. These were the Pendle Witches. The Witches of Salmesbury were acquitted, as the witchcraft of which they were accused -slaying a child and eating part his flesh, amongst other things- was not believed by the judge and jury.
It’s funny how many of the ways once seen to rid yourself of a witch, or the attention of one, could also be considered witchcraft. Also peculiar, I find, is that many of the suggested things witches once supposedly did to their neighbours have logical explanations. Or at least, they do nowadays. But that’s not to say that witches still don’t get the blame for some things.
And whilst witch trials are a thing of the past in this country, there are still those who consider witchcraft a crime punishable by death.