“A particular Declaration of the most barberous and damnable Practises, Murthers, wicked and diuelish Conspiracies, practized and executed by the most dangerous and malitious Witch Elizabeth Sowthernes alias Demdike, of the Forrest of Pendle in the Countie of Lancaster” – Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster.
The witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries gripped Europe with a feverish, zealous fear. This fear was so all-encompassing that it reached the highest echelons of society. King James I of England, who was on the throne at the time of the Pendle witch trials in 1612, had written a book on hell and how to avoid it – Daemonologie. This book discussed witchcraft in great detail and many believe that it was because of this book that witch trials became so numerous in England – men in power read the book, and surmised that the best way to gain favour with the King was to root out a witch.
So, how do you find a witch? If you were extraordinarily fortunate, like Roger Nowell, you could have one in your area break down and admit to the crime, accusing several more of witchcraft too. It must have felt like a pay day.
Alizon Device was a girl in her late teens. It is stated in court documents that she was walking along the road one day when she came across a pedlar. She asked the pedlar for some pins, and he refused. She cursed him – he fell to the ground and could not move. Alizon felt so guilty about what she had done that she confessed; and during the course of her confession, implicated others.
There was a hysterical reaction to this event. Roger Nowell, excited by what had happened on his patch, investigated further. Eventually, twelve people were arrested.
But, this is where the story gets strange. During the court hearing, a star witness was brought forward. Her name was Jennet Device. She was nine years old and her evidence led to the execution of her entire family. Fascination that so much weight was given to the words of a child was what led me to write my novel, The Hellion. There were at least two other witch trials following this which used the precedent of allowing children to give evidence. One was several decades later, and 3,000 miles away – the notorious Salem witch trials.
The Hellion delves into the lives of three women, three generations of the same family, who met the hangman’s noose following the trials. There are numerous themes that come into play when considering why the trials took place and why these particular women were arrested. There is religion- a Protestant King terrified of Catholic plots, particularly in the dark and backward Lancashire. There is gender- although not all of those accused of witchcraft were women, the vast majority were (and were women without men – widowed or unmarried, looking after themselves). And of course, whilst not all witches were women, all of the prosecutors did share a gender. Then there is economics – the accused (apart from one) were all desperately poor and doing what they could to make ends meet.
It is fortunate that we no longer have to be concerned about the risk of being branded a witch and sentenced to death for it, however it is important to remember the reasons behind the trials. 400 years have passed and although we might not be experiencing a huge cultural shift regarding religion, there are other changes, political and social, going on and it would never do to underestimate the lengths some will go to in order to impress those in power!
You can support Harriet’s debut novel, The Hellion by visiting Unbounders and searching “The Hellion”. It has been 100% funded by wonderfully enthusiastic readers, but you can still support and grab your copy before release date! You can also follow Harriet on Instagram @thesenovelthoughts.