A Vast Land Fit for Witches, a Pendle journey

On a sunny early summer’s day, the countryside and villages that surround Pendle Hill are beautiful. Green valleys almost glow in the light. I know from bitter experience that on a cold, wet day when the sun doesn’t make an appearance, the area can be far more foreboding. On those days it’s easy to understand why Pendle Hill has a reputation for being sinister. On my recent visit, I was lucky to have blue skies and bright sunlight.

This is an area soaked in history. It’s most famous for its association with the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, when the villages that fall beneath Pendle Hill’s shadow were centre stage in a scandal that saw ten people sent to the gallows for witchcraft. The area has another history though, built on centuries of farming and cloth making. Ancient churches, medieval villages and Victorian-era mills are scattered across the landscape.

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

This history and landscape lend themselves to folklore, and the people who live around here have a very strong sense of place. When I was in the Pendle Heritage Centre in Barrowford, I came across a folk song summing up that feeling:

Oh Pendle … oh Pendle, thou standest alone,
Twixt Burnley and Clitheroe, Whalley and Colne,
Where Hodder and Ribble’s fair waters do meet,
With Barley and Downham content at thy feet.

Oh Pendle, oh Pendle, majestic, sublime,
Thy praises will ring till the end of all time,
Thy beauty eternal, thy banner unfurled,
Thou dearest and grandest old hill in the world.

And when witches fly on a cold winter’s night,
You must not tell a soul, and you’ll bolt the door tight,
You’ll sit by the fireside and keep yourself warm,
Until once again you can walk in her arms.

Oh Pendle, Oh Pendle, o’er moorland and fell,
In glorious loveliness ever to dwell,
Through life’s fateful journey where e’er we may be,
We’ll cease in our labours and oft think of thee.

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

 

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

This area was isolated from much of the rest of the world until the 19th century, one of the reasons why superstitions such as witchcraft held such a powerful influence on local communities. It was also one of the reasons why alternative Protestant religions flourished here. It was on Pendle Hill in 1652 that George Fox had a vision that led to the foundation of the Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers.

Fox recounted the experience as, “When I was come to the top of this hill, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire, and from the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places He had a great people to be gathered …” Following this tradition, the subversive preachings of the Baptists found fertile ground in the area and, later, John Wesley journeyed here, establishing Methodism in the region.

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

I left Barrowford behind and followed the Pendle Witches Trail, which passes along the exact route those accused of witchcraft took to Lancaster to be tried. Today, a mere 405 years after that fateful journey, the route is filled with picturesque villages and beautiful views. I passed through Roughlee and Newchurch, where I bought some Eccles cakes in a shop called ‘Witches Galore’, before reaching Barley which still has a Methodist church.

Further on I passed in front of Pendle Hill, and there were sweeping views of the valley below. Like Fox before me, I swear I could almost see the Irish Sea from this isolated spot.

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

I finally arrived in Chatburn, from here I’d planned to go to Clitheroe to visit its 800-year old castle. I didn’t have enough time on this trip, so headed in the other direction to make a quick stop at the remains of Sawley Abbey. Founded in 1147, the abbey played a role in the Pilgrimage of Grace, the widespread but short-lived uprising against Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

The monks of Sawley returned to the Abbey during the uprising, but once it was defeated they were forced to flee, not before the abbot had been executed though. It’s a tranquil spot that doesn’t seem to attract too many visitors. I had a wander around and then jumped back in the car and headed north towards the Lake District.

The Dark Corners of the Land, on the trail of the Pendle Witches

Four hundred years ago, amongst bewitching Lancashire countryside in the brooding shadow of Pendle Hill, one of the most extraordinary events in English history took place: the Pendle Witch Trials. The discovery, in 1612, of a circle of witches living in this remote area of northern England proved to many that evil supernatural forces were at large. The resulting execution of ten innocent people is now regarded as a tragedy, but was pretty normal for the time.

The Pendle Witch Trials came during one of England’s most turbulent periods, a time of religious persecution and superstition. King James I came to the throne in 1603, inheriting a country recently converted to Protestantism and facing strong Catholic opposition. England simmered with religious divisions that threatened to boil over into outright rebellion.

Alice Nutter statue, Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

Alice Nutter statue, Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

The uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, an attempt by Catholic rebels to kill King James and ferment a country-wide uprising, led to hysteria about Papist plots. A wave of anti-Catholic persecution swept the country, Parliament introduced the Popish Recusants Act, punishing Catholics for their beliefs. An England consumed by fear and superstition was the setting for the Pendle Witch Trials.

Lancashire in the 17th century was an isolated place. Education was almost non-existent in remote villages, many of which had little communication with the outside world, and the area remained strongly Catholic. Many Jesuit priests were in the area to perform illegal religious services for the faithful. Amidst Lancashire’s wild landscapes, Catholicism and superstition thrived, and became entwined in the popular imagination.

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

This included the mind of King James, who firmly believed witchcraft and witches to be real. He wrote an influential book, Daemononlogie, and oversaw the trial and execution of hundreds of people for witchcraft. The 1604 Witchcraft Act imposed the death penalty “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”.

Previously, society accepted ‘wise women’ or ‘traditional healers’ who cast spells for good and bad. These mostly poor single mothers or widows lived in many communities. Now, under King James, all witchcraft was assumed to be evil. Worse though, and with profound consequences for those accused in Pendle, was the belief that witches never acted alone. Where one witch was found, there would be many others.

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pub sign, Barrowford, Pendle, Lancashire

Pub sign, Barrowford, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

In the villages near Pendle Hill, two families of ‘witches’, the Demdikes and Chattox, survived by begging, stealing and providing cures to local villagers. The unravelling of their lives started when Alison Devices of the Demdike clan met John Law, a peddler from Halifax. She demanded he give her some pins for a spell. He refused, she ‘cursed’ him. Bizarrely, he immediately fell to the floor paralysed, probably from a stroke.

Witchcraft was assumed and Roger Nowell the local magistrate was informed. A zealous man keen to impress the government of King James, Nowell cast his net wide. He quickly extracted confessions from barely literate peasants and had nineteen people arrested to await trial in Lancaster Castle – a trial at which they were not allowed to defend themselves.

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Witch, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Witch, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Graveyard in St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Graveyard in St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Amid accusations of murder, causing madness, cursing cattle and bewitching horses, clay models of people and human teeth stolen from graves at St. Mary’s Church in the village of Newchurch were discovered. More damning, a meeting of the families at a place called Malkin Tower was portrayed as a Witches Sabbath. Some confessed to meeting the Devil in a place called Faugh’s Quarry.

What is surprising about all of this, is that those accused seemed convinced of their powers, and even exaggerated them to the authorities. They openly confessed to all manner of things guaranteed to get you hanged in the 17th century. In total, ten people were put to death for witchcraft, one other died in prison. They were hanged on a bleak moor outside of Lancaster. Today, it’s a children’s playground.

Graveyard in St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Graveyard in St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

'Eye of God', St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

‘Eye of God’, St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford, Lancashire

Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford, Lancashire

Contemporary report of Pendle Witch trials, Lancashire

Contemporary report of Pendle Witch trials, Lancashire

Faugh's Quarry where the Devil appeared, Pendle, Lancashire

Faugh’s Quarry where the Devil appeared, Pendle, Lancashire

It’s rumoured that the body of one ‘witch’, Alice Nutter, was returned to Pendle and buried in St. Mary’s Church in what is now called the ‘Witches Grave’. Alice was an oddity amongst the accused. She was from a well-to-do family and never spoke at her trial. It seems likely that she was hiding the fact that she had been attending secret Catholic services, and died condemned as a witch to protect that secret.

There is a statue of this innocent woman in the village of Roughlee, which now forms part of a ‘Pendle Witches Route’. In Barrowford, the route’s start point, the Pendle Heritage Centre does a good job of explaining the story. I visited a number of places associated with the witch trials including Newchurch village, home to St. Mary’s and close to sites such as Faugh’s Quarry, where the Devil is alleged to have been seen.

St. Mary’s Church tower has a ‘Eye of God’ to ward off evil spirits. These symbols were often found in people’s homes, but seeing one on a church is a reminder of the power of superstition.