Daughters of the Witching Hill: In Search of Historical Cunning Folk


Author: Mary Sharratt

In 2002, I moved to East Lancashire in northern England—the rugged Pennine landscape that borders the West Yorkshire Dales. My study window looks out on Pendle Hill, famous throughout the world as the place where George Fox received the ecstatic vision that moved him to found the Quaker religion in 1652.

But Pendle Hill is also steeped in its legends of the Lancashire Witches. Everywhere you go in the surrounding countryside, you see images of witches: on buses, pub signs, road signs, and bumper stickers. Visiting friends found this all quite unnerving. “Mary, why are there witches everywhere?” they’d ask me.

In the beginning, I made the mistake of thinking that these witches belonged to the realm of fairy tale and folklore, but no. They were real people. The stark truth, when I took the time to learn it, would change me forever.

In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were executed, condemned on “evidence” provided by a nine-year-old girl and her brother, who appeared to suffer from learning difficulties. The trial itself might never have happened had it not been for King James I’s obsession with the occult. His book Daemonologie—required reading for local magistrates—warned of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation.

But just who were these witches of Pendle Forest?

Of the accused, Elizabeth Southerns aka Mother Demdike, had the most infamous reputation. According to the primary sources, she was the ringleader, the one who initiated the others into witchcraft. Mother Demdike was so frightening to her foes because she was a woman who embraced her powers wholeheartedly. This is how Court Clerk Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, his account of the 1612 trials:

She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had
been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast
place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man
knowes. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no
man escaped her, or her Furies.

Quite impressive for an eighty-year-old lady! Although she died in prison before she could even come to trial, Potts pays a great deal of attention to her, going out of his way to convince his readers that she was a dangerous witch of long-standing repute. Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was amazed at how her strength of character blazed forth in the document written expressly to vilify her.

Mother Demdike freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman. Her neighbours called on her to cure their children and their cattle. What fascinated me was not that Mother Demdike was arrested on witchcraft charges but that the authorities only turned on her near the end of her long, productive life. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her.

Cunning folk were men and women who used charms and herbal cures to heal, foretell the future, and find the location of stolen property. What they did was illegal—sorcery was a hanging offence—but most of them didn’t get arrested for it. The need for the services they provided was too great. Doctors were so expensive that only the very rich could afford them and the “physick” of this era involved bleeding patients with lancets and using dangerous medicines such as mercury—your local village healer with her herbal charms was far less likely to kill you.

Those who used their magic for good were called cunning folk or charmers or blessers or wisemen and wisewomen. Those who were perceived by others as using their magic to curse and harm were called witches. But here it gets complicated.

A cunning woman who performs a spell to discover the location of stolen goods would say that she is working for good. However, the person who claims to have been falsely accused of harbouring those stolen goods could turn around and accuse her of sorcery and slander. Ultimately, the difference between cunning folk and witches lay in the eye of the beholder.

Intriguingly, Mother Demdike’s family’s charms recorded in the trial transcripts mirror the ecclesiastical language of the Catholic Church, demonised and driven underground by the Reformation. Her incantation to cure a bewitched person, quoted by the prosecution as evidence of diabolical magic, is a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ as witnessed by the Virgin Mary. This text is very similar to the White Pater Noster, an Elizabethan prayer charm Eamon Duffy discusses in his landmark book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England: 1400-1580.

It appears that Mother Demdike, born in Henry VIII’s reign, at the cusp of the Reformation, was a practitioner of the kind of quasi-Catholic folk magic that would have been commonplace in earlier generations. The Old Church embraced many practices that seemed magical and mystical. People believed in miracles. They used holy water and communion bread for healing. Candles blessed at the Feast of Candlemas warded the faithful from demons and disease. People left offerings at holy wells and invoked the saints in their folk charms.

Some rituals such as the blessing of wells and fields may have Pagan origins. Indeed, looking at pre-Reformation folk magic, it seems difficult to untangle the strands of Catholicism from the remnants of Pagan belief that had become so tightly interwoven. Keith Thomas’s social history Religion and the Decline of Magic is an excellent study on how the Reformation literally took the magic out of Christianity.

But it would be an oversimplification to say that Mother Demdike was merely a misunderstood Catholic. Although her charms drew on the mystical imagery of the pre-Reformation Church, Mother Demdike and her sometimes-friend, sometimes-rival Anne Whittle, aka Chattox, accused each other of using clay figures to curse their enemies. Both women freely confessed, even bragged about their familiar spirits who appeared to them in the guise of beautiful young men. Mother Demdike’s description of her decades-long partnership with Tibb, her familiar spirit, seems to reveal something much older than Christianity.

In traditional English cunning craft, the familiar spirit took centre stage: this was the cunning person’s otherworldly spirit helper who could shapeshift between human and animal form. Mother Demdike described how Tibb could appear as a golden-haired young man, a hare, or a brown dog. In traditional English folk magic, it seemed that no cunning man or cunning woman could work magic without the aid of their familiar spirit—they needed this otherworldly ally to make things happen.

So how did Mother Demdike, a woman so fierce that none dared meddle with her, come to ruin? The triggering incident reads like the most tragic of coincidences. On March 18, 1612, her young granddaughter, Alizon Device, had a bitter confrontation with John Law, a pedlar from Halifax in Yorkshire.

Moments after their blistering argument, the pedlar collapsed and suddenly went stiff and lame on one half of his body and lost the power of speech. Today we would clearly recognise this as a stroke. But the pedlar and several witnesses were convinced that Alizon had lamed her victim with witchcraft. Even she seemed to believe this herself, falling to her knees and begging his forgiveness. This unfortunate event resulted in the arrest of Alizon and her grandmother. Alizon wasted no time in implicating Chattox, her grandmother’s rival, and Chattox’s daughter, Anne Redfearne. Before long, further arrests of family and friends followed. The rest belongs to the tragic history that ended at Lancaster Gallows in August, 1612.

Although first to be arrested, Alizon was the last to be tried at the Lancaster Assizes. Her final recorded words on the day before she was hanged for witchcraft were a passionate vindication of her grandmother’s legacy as a healer.

Roger Nowell, the prosecutor, brought John Law, the pedlar Alizon had allegedly lamed, before her. Again Alizon begged the man’s forgiveness for her perceived crime against him. John Law, in return, said that if she had the power to lame him, she must also have the power to heal him. Alizon regrettably told him that she wasn’t able to, but if her grandmother, Old Demdike had lived, she could and would have healed him.

Long after their demise, Mother Demdike and her fellow Pendle Witches endure, their spirit woven into the living landscape, its weft and warp, like the stones and the streams that cut across the moors. No one in this region can remain untouched by their legacy. This is their home, their seat of power, and they shall never be banished.


Footnotes:
Further reading:

Owen Davies, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History (Hambledon Continuum)
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale)
Malcolm Gaskill, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy (John Murray)
John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore (Kessinger Publishing)
King James I, Daemonologie, available online: http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/kjd/
Jonathan Lumby, The Lancashire Witch-Craze (Carnegie)
Edgar Peel and Pat Southern, The Trials of the Lancashire Witches (Nelson)
Robert Poole, ed., The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (Manchester University Press)
Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, available online: http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=230481
Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin)
John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (Ams Pr Inc)
Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits (Sussex Academic Press)