-  1612: FACT AND FICTION -  

 

THE PENDLE WITCH STORY:

FACT AND FICTION

 

Almost since its inception the story of the Pendle Witches has been embellished by the story-telling of local people and the writers of fictional romance. This has led to centuries of  rumour, legend and a general half-remembered tale of murderous events deep within the cold, inhospitable depths of the Pendle Forest.

 

The truth, as far as it can be ascertained through a structured study of the available evidence, is much different to general perception of the events of 1612.  

 

 

 

FICTION:

 

Jennet Device was a 9 year old child at the time of the trials.

 

FACT:

Jennet (Jeneta) was baptised at Newchurch-in-Pendle in the year 1600 - this means she would have been at least 11 years old but more likely 12 at the August 1612 trials. At this time her brother James was 21 or 22 and her sister Alison (baptised Alicea) was 18 or 19. Their mother, Elizabeth Device, would have been around 46 and their Grandmother around 71 or 72.

 

FICTION:

Pendle Hill features prominently within the Pendle Witch story ie. Some of the witches lived on Pendle and they held their meetings on the hill.

 

FACT:

Pendle Hill is not referred to in the contemporary record of Thomas Potts. The word Pendle is used by some of the accused to place certain people as living either in Pendle Forest or in one of the farms known as Under Pendle. The Hill does not feature in the story at all. Further to this, stories relating to ghostly happenings on the the Hill  - as per the ‘Most Haunted’ television programme etc.) - can have no foundation in historical reality. If people wish to be titillated by the hunt for ghosts then that is their prerogative. However, when the subject is offered as a serious alternative to genuine research then our heritage is relegated back into the Dark Ages!

 

FICTION:

My surname is Nutter and I have been told by my mother, grandmother, aunt etc. that I am descended directly from Alice Nutter.

 

FACT:

The family line of Nutter, through Alice Nutter’s children, appears to have died out. There are, however, direct descendants through her daughter Elizabeth and son Miles but these would be people with other surnames among which are Hargreaves, Jackson and Robinson. Certainly, a number of local families with the Nutter surname will be distantly related to Alice Nutter’s husband, Richard Nutter.

 

FICTION:

Alice Nutter was accused of witchcraft because magistrate, Roger Nowell, was in a boundary dispute with her over farm land.

 

FACT:

There is no documentary evidence for this - the Court Rolls relating to Pendle do not show any evidence for Roger Nowell of read being directly involved in Roughlee lands. However, the latest research indicates that Alice’s family at Roughlee had been involved in long-running disputes over inheritance of neighbouring farms and this is a promising line of ongoing reseach.

 

FICTION:

Alice Nutter was a very wealthy lady.

 

FACT:

Although  she was described by Thomas Potts, in 1612, as being relatively wealthy this was intended as a comparison between Alice Nutter and the other accused people. She certainly owned a dower portion of one-quarter of a 33 acre copyhold (rented) farm at Roughlee but this did not constitute real wealth. It is possible, however, that Alice had rights to lands formerly owned by her parents.

 

FICTION:

Alice Nutter definitely lived at the much-photographed Old Hall in Roughlee.

 

FACT:

Gladys Whittaker (Roughlee Hall - Fact and Fiction) makes a very strong case for Alice Nutter and her husband, Richard Nutter, having lived on the old family farm of Crowtrees, at Roughlee. However, Alice’s mother-in-law appears to have brought another farm into the family and this might possibly have been where the Old Hall was built. (c.1584). The Hall consisted of two houses and farm outbuildings - Alice and her husband could have farmed here until the death of her husband’s brother when they took over at Crowtrees?

 

FICTION:

All of those hanged for witchcraft in 1612 were born and bred in the Forest of Pendle.

 

FACT:

It is probable that of the 13 people listed for trial (discounting the Salmesbury accused) on the 17th and 18th August eight had been born in the Forest. Demdike and daughter, Elizabeth Device, were probably born on the very southern edge of the Forest while Alice Nutter, Katherin Hewitt, Alice Grey, Isabel Robey and Margaret Pearson were all born outside of Pendle.

 

FICTION:

The ‘Nutter grave’ on the southern side of St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch-in-Pendle, contains the burial of Alice Nutter and members of her immediate family.

 

FACT:

It is highly unlikely that a convicted witch would be buried in such a prominent position, and allowed a headstone, within consecrated ground. That said, there were cases where this happened, but usually by subterfuge without the services of a vicar and without a headstone. The ‘Nutter grave’ is that of the southern Pendle Forest Nutters, some of whom were cousins of Alice’s husband.

 

FICTION:

The oval recess in the western face of the tower at St. Mary’s church, Newchurch-in-Pendle, was built into the structure to represent ‘The Eye of God.’  

 

FACT:

The recess is nothing other than a blocked widow through which the sexton would look out from the tower in order to see the approach of weddings and funerals. From inside the tower it is clear that the recess has been blocked up and the representation of an eye pupil painted on it. The feature has a drip mould above (as windows usually did) and was probably copied from Whalley Parish Church, which has the same type of feature.

 

FICTION:

Demdike’s home, the infamous and ethereal Malkin Tower, was sited at Blacko.

 

FACT:

This is highly unlikely. Although there is a Malkin Tower Farm at Blacko this was almost certainly named after a landscape feature on the farm land (Mawkin Hole). The reported incidence of spacial movement of the accused has been carefully plotted into a database and the results show that no activity whatsoever took place within miles of Blacko during the reported period of 1580-1612.

 

FICTION:

Fields at Saddlers Farm in Newchurch were called Malkin Fields and, therefore, this is definitely where Malkin Tower was situated.

 

FACT:

This was propounded by Sabden historian, Dr. Laycock, many years ago when he said that land plans of the area showed the fields named Malkin. This cannot definitely be ruled out but a plan of Saddlers Farm land, as it was in the early 19th century, shows that there were no fields here named Malkin. New evidence has come to light to place the possible location of Malkin Tower to the west of Barley and it is hoped to carry out an archaeological assessment of this site soon.

 

FICTION:

A newly discovered ruin (story released December 2011) at Lower Black Moss, in Barley, was a ‘witch’s meeting house’ because it contained the mummified remains of a cat in the walls - in other words it was Malkin Tower!

 

FACT:

The cottage was never lost and rediscovered as it has been a supra-surface ruin since 1902. The date of the house would c.1680, far too late to have been Malkin Tower (which would date back at least to the 16th century). The cat was not ‘mummified,’ it had been wrapped in a cloth at death and placed in a wall recess. This was common practice as a good luck token for the house and thousands of them still remain to be found. The history of this cottage can be traced using available records and was a standard farm house.

 

FICTION:

The Pendle Witches were part of a coven operating in the area.

 

FACT:

It is clear from the records that the so-called Pendle ‘Witches’, although convicted on charges of witchcraft, never followed a structured methodology of Devil worship. Their ‘spells’ were nothing other than half-remembered Catholic prayers in the form of doggerel. The description of their spirit ‘Familiars’ was concocted evidence based on an earlier witchcraft trial at Chelmsford. These ‘Familiars were almost certainly based on the black dog owned by the Device family and the spotted brown bitch owned by Demdike.

 

It is fair to say that at least some of the statements assigned to the accused were admissions of intent to cause harm to others through the machinations of ritual. However, they never were organised practitioners who sought to enlist the aid of the Devil.

 

FICTION:

The Pendle Witches were very poor wretches because they were said to be beggars.

 

FACT:

Given the social complexities of the time, many ordinary working people were beggars - a licence could be obtained from the authorities to carry out limited begging. This practice was not seen in the same light as it is today - hence the contemporary broadside sheets and songs describing ‘Jolly Beggars’ and ‘Noble Beggars.’

 

It is true that the Demdike family in particular travelled through the district in search of alms but this was a common method of obtaining supplemental food for a large, and often unemployed, family. It is unlikely that any of the accused were in the abject depths of  poverty

 

FICTION:

Katherin Hewitt, of Colne, was nick-named ‘Old Mouldheels.’

 

FACT:

She was actually referred to by James Device at ‘Mouldheels’ Wife.’ Katherin’s husband, John Hewitt of Waterside in Colne, was a clothier and as such would have used size to dress his cloth warps. The overdressing of warps was a shady practice and the people who did this were known as ‘Mouldy Warpers’ or (in this case) ‘Mouldy Heels’.

 

FICTION:

When the accused were taken by road from Pendle to Lancaster Castle they stopped for the night at Clitheroe Castle or Houghton Tower.

 

FACT:

It is almost certain that the prisoners were carried by cart, with the more able-bodied on foot. From Read Hall (some from Ashlar House - probably via Read Hall) they would have been taken along the most probable route to Lancaster - this would have been along the long established, and best maintained route of the Roman Road from Lancaster. This ran from Read Hall, through Portfield (now the golf course) down to Whalley, through the Abbey site and on to Great Mitton. Then through Bashall, Dunsop Bridge and Whitewell to Blaize Moss (SD 53N 61W). Then over Quernmoor Brow and along Wyresdale Rd, Langthwaite Rd, across the M6 to Wyresdale Rd, past Williamson Park (the execution site) and along Moor Lane to Lancaster Castle.

 

FICTION:

The Pendle accused were the only people in the district ever to have been accused of witchcraft.

 

FACT:

The accusation of witchcraft was common in all districts. In 1519 Elizabeth Robinson, of New Hey (Clitheroe Parish) admitted before a General Visitation (Church Court) that she intended to ‘Keep a Black Fast’ to invoke vengeance against Edmund Parker. She was ordered to purge herself with the oaths of six of her neighbours.

 

The punishment of witchcraft was, at this time, a Church affair but by 1612 James I declared the offence of witchcraft to be a civil offence akin to treason - Elizabeth Robinson would probably have hanged less than a century later.

 

A number of witchcraft cases were reported in the Padiham area in the 1620s while another Pendle witchcraft outbreak in 1633 showed that people were still convinced that certain of their neighbours were witches. In the 19th century a woman named Hargreaves was ejected from the Higherford Methodist Church (Barrowford) because she ‘Consorted with witches and conjurers’.

 

FICTION:

Old Chattox (Ann Whittle) and her family lived on land belonging to the Nutters of Greenhead.

 

FACT:

The land actually belonged to Lord Shuttleworth. Almost the whole of the former freehold district of West Close (Pendle) and High Whitaker (Padiham) was absorbed into the Gawthorpe estate in the 1570s. Robert Nutter, of Greenhead, was the Steward for the Gawthorpe estate and young Robert, his son, became Lord Shuttleworth’s right-hand man. As such he exceeded his authority by threatening to evict the Whittle/Redfearn family from their home in West Close.  

 

FICTION:

The accused were entirely innocent people who happened to be poor and therefore were an easy target for the greedy gentry to prosecute.

 

FACT:

Many social factors, such as inflation, land shortage, religious insecurity and crop failure conspired to bring about the witch roundup of 1612. However, it is clear that certain people would go to any lengths to gain land. So we see that Elizabeth Nutter, of Greenhead, had approached Chattox to help kill her son, young Robert Nutter, so that his inheritance would go to her side of the family (Robinsons).

 

It is also apparent that some of the family of Chattox and Demdike were not above thieving whenever the opportunity arose. It is likely that the accused were simply the most notorious among an underclass and it suited certain of their neighbours to see them removed from local society.  

 

FICTION:

The accused were practising Catholics and this is why Alice Nutter did not defend herself against the ridiculous charges of helping to kill her neighbour, Henry Mitton, because he had refused Demdike a penny.

 

FACT:

It is highly probable that Alice Nutter was the daughter (possibly granddaughter) of Giles Whitaker of Huncoat. The Whitakers of Padiham, Huncoat and Burnley were landed families and, in general, still Catholics in 1612.

 

However, there is no direct evidence that Alice Nutter was a practising Catholic - even if she was then she could easily have refuted her guilt without implicating any possible Catholic friends.

 

 

 

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