This being the right time of year for it we took the four year old to Barley and then Newchurch-in-Pendle, Lancashire. I lived as a teenager in the vicinity of Pendle Hill and like all locals soon became very familiar with the tale of the Lancashire Witches. Pendle Hill, a dark distinctive shape, looms out of the Pennine hillscape and seems a fitting place for the stories of one of the largest single groups of witches tried and executed in England.
Newchurch, as well as being the home of one of the families of witches involved in the trials, has a church with an 'eye of God' marked in the stone of the tower. Fittingly for the nature of the area it is supposed to keep watch for evil. Newchurch is picturesque, tiny, and generally only visited by local tourists: those like us with roots in the area on a trip out. Its tiny streets house one little cafe/shop which does a nice line in toy witches, pumpkin soup and mock-ups of the most famous historical residents:
From the start the whole sorry tale was well documented. The whole trial was detailed in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster by Thomas Potts which you do come across from time to time secondhand in various facsimile editions.
And after the facts came the fiction. There are many versions but the best known novels on the subject are the Victorian The Lancashire Witches by William Harrison Ainsworth and more recently Mist Over Pendle by Robert Neill.
There was a brief item on the BBC news today about a petition for the pardoning of witches, and whilst I am not sure that we can rewrite history after such a long time, these petitions do at least recognsise the human cost of these witch trials where lives were lost to hanging on a charge we no longer recognise. It is quite possible that some of the individuals involved were up to no good and some it appears believed in their own guilt, though clearly anyone's claim to be a witch in the sense of being able to cause death by cursing is bound to be viewed my most of us as very unlikely now. A few days ago Kirsty at Other Stories had a very good piece about Jack the Ripper and suggests that in the True Crime fetish that follows the story of the Whitechapel murders we lose sight of the reality of his victims. She notes:
"I suppose it sort of comes back to what I was talking about the other day. People's love and thirst for horror and scariness, and the unknown and unknowable brutal killer falls right into that. Lots of people are fascinated with serial killers (I used to work in a bookshop where the biggest-selling section was True Crime) but the Whitechapel Murders have almost become mythologised now. The humanity of the victims has been completely ignored in the face of books, graphic novels, and movies."
And I have to say that her words were with me when I took that photo of the witches outside the cafe. I did not forgot the women (and two men) who lost their lives in the seventeenth century here, but I do think that what they were and what they did (and indeed what they had done to them) has become lost both the mists of time and the mish-mash of traditions we have over All Hallows Eve. In the end I think, as I watched my daughter enjoy scaring herself by trying to pluck the courage to touch one of the figures, that we need Hallowe'en as part of growing up and that the real people who are the Lancashire Witches have become part of that process. The mock witches are clearly inhuman, the real witches were not and it is still good I think to remember that what happened was a tragedy for those involved.
The Names of the
Witches committed to the
Castle of Lancaster.
Elizabeth Sowtherns alias Old Demdike Who dyed before
shee came to her tryall.
Anne Whittle, alias Chattox.
Elizabeth Device, Daughter of old Demdike.
James Device, Sonne of Elizabeth Device.
Anne Readfearne, Daughter of Anne Chattox.
Alizon Device, Daughter of Elizabeth Device.
Hanged at Lancaster Moor on 20 August 1612.