The Witches of Pendle Hill

Before I tell you about the witchy ghosts haunting Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England, let’s start with a little history lesson. 

James I of England and VI of Scotland (1566-1625) brought the witchhunting craze sweeping through Europe into the English realm through his marriage to Anne of Denmark (1574-1619). His firm belief in witchcraft led to the passage of law where those charged and found guilty “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” were sentenced to death. The Pendle Witches had the misfortune of being victims of this law. 

The tale of the Pendle Witches centers on two families with elderly widows as their matriarchs, Elizabeth Southerns and Anne Whittle. However, the two widows were known locally by their nicknames, Old Demdike and Old Chattox. I will use these nicknames for the remainder of this article. 

Landscape of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England take from Beacon Fell.
Credit: Dr Greg, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

On various occasions, Old Demdike and Old Chattox had been accused of witchcraft by their neighbors, but it wasn’t until March 1612 that these accusations were accepted by the English courts. On 21 March 1612, Demdike’s granddaughter Alizon Device met a peddler named John Law and his son Abraham on the road to Trawden Forest. She wanted to purchase metal pins from him, which were reportedly used for casting love spells in the 1600s. John Law refused to sell the pins to her. Whether he believed her to be a witch or not is unclear. Alizon cursed John Law in return. Shortly after this altercation, John Law suffered a stroke. The old peddler was certain Alizon’s curse had manifested the illness. 

Around the same time these events occured, the Justices of the Peace in Lancashire were ordered to compile a list of those who refused to attend church, didn’t take communion, and engaged in the dark art of witchcraft. This instance was brought before Justice Nowell, who was at the same time busy compiling that list of no-do-gooders, and Alizon quickly confessed to placing a curse on John Law. When Justice Nowell pushed for the names of other witches, she accused her grandmother, Old Demdike, and other members of Old Chattox’s family of being in cahoots with the Devil. 

Alizon’s accusations against Old Chattox’s family were likely made in vengeance for a longstanding feud between the two families. Reasons for this feud include a Chattox family member breaking into the Demdike home and stealing a £1 worth of items, which would be equal to £100 today, and John Device, Alizon’s father, having an illness that came from a curse placed on him by Old Chattox herself. It seems everyone in the Demdike and Chattox families had a habit of throwing curses around at anyone who crossed them.

Anne Whittle (Chattox) and her daughter Anne Redferne after being accused of witchcraft. From the 1854 edition of William Harrison Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches, an overly dramatized version of events far from historical truth, illustrated by John Gilbert.
Credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Then, the real finger-pointing began. More crimes were laid at the feet of Old Chattox. Four villagers were killed in an event years before Alizon met John Law on the road. However, these deaths were conveniently pinned to Old Chattox. James Demdike accused Alizon of cursing a local child, Old Demdike and Old Chattox confessed to selling souls, and Old Chattox’s daughter Anne was seen fashioning clay figures. 

Judge Nowell held Alizon, Anne, Old Demdike and Old Chattox at Lancaster Castle to await trial. No other witches might have been found if Elizabeth Device hadn’t called a meeting on April 10, 1612—Good Friday. Sympathisers for the Demdike family attended the meeting, and as a result of this, James Device stole a sheep to feed the family. When Justice Nowell heard of what had transpired, he had the people who attended the meeting, eight in all, were questioned for witchcraft and detained for trial. The eight who were detained were Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock, Jane Bulcock, Alice Grey, and Jennet Preston. 

Most of the accused witches were peasants. One who stands out is Alice Nutter. She was a widow who owned her own land and from a wealthy family. Many historians speculate that Alice Nutter hadn’t gone to the meeting called by Elizabeth Device, but rather that she was spotted passing Malkin Tower, where the meeting was held, while on her way to a local meeting with Catholics, as she was devout to the faith. Since tensions between Catholics and Protestants were high during this time, Alice Nutter said nothing about her whereabouts that day to protect her fellow Catholics. During trial, she refused to speak at all, except to plead not guilty. 

Courtyard of Lancaster Castle, where the Pendle Witches were held before trial. Credit: Asharkshooting, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Trials took place between August 17th to 19th, 1612. Along with the ten Pendle Witches, the Samlesbury Witches, John Ramsden, Elizabeth Astley, Isabel Southgraves, Lawrence Haye, Jane Southworth, Jennet Brierly and Ellen Brierly, were lumped into the trial. Then Margaret Pearson and Isobel Robey were also included. 

Old Demdike did not survive up to the trial. Due to the miserable conditions at Lancaster Castle, she succumbed and died. The rest were tried. Gossip, finger pointing, rumors, and inconsistent witness statements made for the bulk of evidence. The chief witness against the witches was 9 year old Jennet Device, another granddaughter of the now dead Old Demdike. She provided eyewitness testimony against her own family, including her mother and sister. This was damning, even if the witness was a child. Alizon Device, who seemed to believe wholeheartedly that she possessed supernatural powers, wept when John Law entered the court to provide testimony against her, which sealed her fate. 

Ten people were found guilty of witchcraft: Old Chattox, Ann Redfearn, Elizabeth Device, Alizon Device, James Device, Katherine Hewitt, Jane Bulcock, John Bulcock, Isobel Robey, and Alice Nutter, who had kept silent to protect her fellow Catholics. Margaret Pearson was also found guilty, but she was sentenced to be pilloried and serve a year in prison. All the Samlesbury Witches were found innocent. On August 20th 1612, the Pendle Witches sentenced to death were hanged at Gallows Hill in Lancaster. 

The year “1612” painted on the side of Pendle Hill in remembrance of the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Hill Witch trials. Credit: Graham Demaline, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

But the Pendle Witches might have had the last say for their wrongful deaths. Their spirits supposedly haunt Pendle Hill’s village and countryside. Eyewitnesses to the ghosts report shadows dashing between hills and buildings, ghostly footsteps, and reports of being hurt by invisible hands. 

In one instance, a group of people used a Ouija Board at Malkin Tower to communicate with the ghosts of the Pendle Witches. A tooth fell on the board in the middle of the questioning. None of the people present had lost a tooth, and it had been identified as belonging to a forty-year-old man. Was this tooth brought along by attention seekers claiming it had dropped onto the Ouija Board, or had it fallen from the jowels of a ghost? The answer might come down to whether or not you want to believe in the ghosts of the Pendle Witches. 


British myths and legends: history and best haunted sites to visit by Ian Vince, Country File

The Curse Of The Pendle Witches (Part 1) – Ghost Dimension: Flying Solo, YouTube video from Janson Media

The Curse Of The Pendle Witches (Part 2) – Ghost Dimension: Flying Solo, YouTube video from Janson Media



Pendle Hill – Pendle Hill, Lancashire on Haunted Happenings

The Pendle witches on The History Press

The Pendle Witches by Ellen Castelow, Historic UK

7 thoughts on “The Witches of Pendle Hill

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  1. I live about 30 miles from Pendle Hill. It’s all got turned into a bit of a tourist thing – people seem to forget that innocent people were executed 🙁 . I found the same sort of thing when I went to Salem.

    1. I went to Salem last fall, and it seemed the only place that provided solemnity to the victims was the graveyard and memorial. I drove past Pendle Hill on my last trip but did not have the chance to stop.

  2. Note that the illustration you use by John Gilbert is from Ainsworth’s 1849 novel about the Pendle Hill witches, which is far from the historical truth.

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