Laura’s London: Pendle Witch Trials 400th Anniversary in Lancashire

2012 marks the 400th anniversary of the famous Pendle Witch Trials in Lancashire. On 20 August 1612, ten people were executed on the moors above Lancaster, having been found guilty of witchcraft at Lancaster Castle. The story has many similarities with the Salem Witch Trials in the US in the 1690s during a time when nonconformity and religious freedom became synonymous with paranoia and injustice. I visited Lancashire to find out more.

Dauber’s Charm (a written witch’s spell) on display at the Pendle Heritage Centre

Overview of the Pendle Witches Story

These most famous witches from English history were persecuted when James I was King. The king imposed harsh penalties for anyone keeping the Catholic faith and his suspicious nature led to an obsession with witchcraft. Local magistrates looking to find favour with the King became zealous in their pursuit of witches. Indeed, Matthew Hopkin – the English “Witchfinder General” – was responsible for the hanging of 68 witches.

Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General – Sculpture Trail

The story starts in March 1612 when a young girl, Alizon Device, was begging from John Law, a pedlar from Halifax. She asked for some pins and he wouldn’t give them to her as she didn’t have any money. She then cursed him and he had what we now suspect to be a stroke but at the time his collapse coincided with the supposed curse. She felt terrible and apologised but the incident led to investigations, trials and executions in August 1612. You can find out more on visitlancashire.com.

This area of Lancashire has long been rife with nonconformist religions. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, is reported to have had a vision on top of Pendle Hill in 1652.

Pendle Hill (from Aitken Wood)

Were the Pendle Witches malevolent people possessed by supernatural powers or innocent victims of a time obsessed with the pursuit and punishment of witchcraft? Sadly, the young and old in our society are often scapegoats. It is hoped a story of tolerance can be learnt from this historic religious persecution.

Pendle Heritage Centre

Pendle Heritage Centre

I started my visit to the area at the Pendle Heritage Centre which has a display about the witches including The Dauber’s Charm, a written spell. The building itself is worth exploring as it’s a 15th century Lancashire farmhouse with a delightful recreated 19th century walled garden. It can also claim a connection to Roger Bannister, the first man to run the four minute mile in 1954, as the Bannister family once lived at the building, many hundreds of years ago.

Sculpture Trail

Aitken Wood – Sculpture Trail

Nearby, in Aitken Wood, Barley, beneath Pendle Hill, there is a new permanent sculpture trail which includes Pendle Witch references such as the life-size solid oak sculpture of Matthew Hopkins, the “Witchfinder General” by Martyn Bednarczuk, and ten stone plaques by Sarah McDade representing each of the ten Pendle Witches. I had a tour of the sculpture trail with Philippe Handford, the lead artist who said, “There are some intriguing shapes in Aitken Wood and we’ve all been touched by a sense of Pendle’s history.”

One of Philippe Handford’s designs in the Aitken Wood Sculpture Trail

There is a Walking With Witches Trail you can explore and if you want to see more of the area, the annual Pendle Walking Festival is on in early September.

Lancashire Witches Driving Trail

I opted to do 45 mile Lancashire Witches Driving Trail which stretches between Pendle and Lancaster and is the route taken by the Pendle Witches (although they travelled by horse and cart). It includes Samlesbury Hall where three more women were accused of practicing witchcraft at the same time as the Pendle Witches (yet they were found not guilty and were acquitted), plus Lancaster Castle where the Pendle Witches were held, tried and executed.

Dunsop Bridge – the geographical centre of the British Isles

Along the way you can stop at Dunsop Bridge which is the geographical centre of the British Isles and may have inspired “Middle Earth” in the Lord of the Rings stories by J.R. Tolkien as he knew the area well.

The route goes through the Forest of Bowland and is a good reminder that Lancashire is 80% rural. The Forest of Bowland is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster which is one of the titles belonging to The Queen and her biographer has said that if the Queen could ever retire this is where she would retire to. Since 1399, every King or Queen has also owned Lancaster Castle.

Lancaster Castle

Lancaster Castle

Although visitors are welcome this is still a working castle. It is a Crown Court (and was a working prison until 2011) so it is therefore illegal to take photos inside the courtrooms. I visited during the court’s summer recess and no trials take place in August. This is not a place of ceremonial use and only the Old Bailey in London has sentenced more to death.

The Crown Court was built in 1795 and is a neo-gothic style. We saw a branding iron which would be used straight after a guilty sentence was passed to brand the letter M, for Malefactor – the Latin for “evil do-er” – onto the left hand. In countries with an English influence on their legal system, we still raise our left hand and swear an oath when giving evidence in court. (Yes, I know it’s the right hand in the US but it still originates from this hand branding.)

Hangings at Lancaster Castle were incredibly popular with around 8,000 spectators attending and school children would get the day off to watch. The condemned would be hanged and then left for an hour as strangulation was the more likely cause of death than a broken neck. This was because it was only a short drop as they stood on a bucket which was then kicked away. This is the origin of the phrase “to kick the bucket” meaning to die.

The last hanging at Lancaster Castle was in 1865 and the death penalty was abolished in England in 1965.

Lancaster Castle ghost?

The castle Keep dates back to 1150 and has a display of shackles, leg irons, handcuffs, etc. It was also the county asylum as authorities didn’t know what to do with people with mental illnesses so imprisoned them.

There are remand cells dating back to 1780 and I tried being locked inside one. It was pitch black and instead of being cold, it got warmer and warmer inside.

What is now the Castle Library was the courtroom where the Lancashire Witches, including the Pendle Witches, were tried. Most trials would last only half an hour so this was a highly unusual case lasting days. There were many witnesses and they were accused of other unexplained deaths before 1612.

Lancaster Prison (part of Lancaster Castle)

Pendle Witches’ Dungeon

As Lancaster Prison is now closed we were able to get access to the actual castle dungeon where the Pendle Witches were held. This area is not normally open to the public and the underground room where all 20 were kept was cold, dark and damp with rings on the floor to attach prisoner’s chains. One of the witches died here even before the trial started.

Inside the Lancaster Castle dungeon where the Pendle Witches were held.

We asked about supernatural activity and a rational prison guard and the Castle Manager, Colin Penny, both told of tales that they couldn’t explain and were aware of more incidents in other rooms in the castle.

The fantastic Pendle Witches story, and its shocking outcome, continues to enthrall and the 400th anniversary is bound to bring new interest to the area.

Photo Gallery

Getting There

The Witch Way bus runs up to every 30 minutes from Manchester to Pendle. Train journeys from London to Manchester are around 2 hours.

If you decide to drive and want to stay over in the area I can totally recommend Mytton Fold Hotel where the family welcome, beautiful setting and peaceful night’s sleep will have me returning again and again.

Comments

  1. avatarshirley jones says

    Laura did a good job putting togeather the history of witch trial,but I enjoyed seeing the
    castle.I never visited any country outside of my own.but just found out my ancestors were
    scottish,thats when I became ingrossed in the history.
    I wish I had learned more about where I came from before I got to old to travel.
    good job Laura
    .

  2. avatar says

    Excellent article with lots of really fascinating facts and useful information Laura. Isn’t it a powerful story and seeing Lancaster Castle where the trial actually happened and the room where it took place, really makes it real. Next time you come up this way I’ll show a few more quirky Lancashire places!

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