Lancashire Witch Trials (1604-13)


1604 - New witchcraft act in England modifies the law of 1563

March 1612 - Alizon Device meets pedlar John Law and is accused of bewitching him

April 1612 - Old Demdike, Old Chattox and others are implicated

10 April 1612 - Meeting at Malkin Tower, leads to further accusations

August 1612 - The majority of defendants are found guilty at the Lancaster assizes and executed on Gallows Hill, Lancaster

1613 - Thomas Potts publishes 'The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster'

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  • 7 years after the gunpowder plot - trials a manifestation of anti-Catholic hysteria and suspicion

Shared similarities to other 17th century witch trials:

  • Feud between neighbours and rival families at the heart
  • Interrogations and trials were of questionable legitimacy
  • Evidence of pacts with the Devil was sought in all cases.
  • James I had written a guidebook for the authorities to use in the trials - publication of Daemonologie in 1597
  • Groundbreaking trials due to use of child witnesses - before 9 year old Jennet Device in 1612, children under 14 were viewed as unreliable witnesses - Set a dangerous precedent for Salem
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Economic context

  • Early 17th century classed as a pastoral  economy (land used for the rearing of sheep and cattle)
  • Limited arable farming (growing crops, rather than keeping animals) - main focus on oats and cloth
  • Probate inventories (list of belongings after death) show many families engaged in both cattle rearing and manufacture of cloth. 70% owned tools for producing cloth (spinning wheels and looms).
  • Suspects were accused of damaging livestock as well as people (shows importance of cattle to the economy of Pendle)
  • Pendle forest became Crown owned in 1399 but cattle farms continued to be leased to tenants on informal basis until 1507 (arrangements then formalised with fixed rents and entry fines)
  • Rents increased by 39% + inflation increased on agricultural goods, so copyholders benefitted through increased profit.
  • Those who didn't have rights as copyholders had to pay forest entry fines and rents - strained economic situation (faced the constant threat of eviction due to enclosure)
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Social context

  • Reduced mortality rates increased the size of the population
  • 1443 - 24 tenants, 1527 - 100 tenants, 1527 - 400 tenants, 1650 - 1,620 tenants
  • As the population increased, food needed to be produced more efficiently and religious needs catered for (1546 - new corn mill, 1598 - another corn mill, 1544 - New Church consecrated)
  • Copyholders came to blows with the duchy  of Lancaster (territory controlled by the King, as Duke of Lancaster - main source of income) and petitioned in 1608 hoping to keep land.
  • 1609 agreement with duchy had to pay a lump sum of 12 years rent to confirm rights and privileges - many forced to sell or mortgage part of land (increased homelessness and tenants thrown off)
  • Explains lack of charity towards the vulnerable women who were accused of witchcraft
  • Tenants suffered as paid on average 25x more than copyholders in rent - feeling of insecurity heightened by short contracts of only a year or less
  • Illegal squatting and unrecorded tenants became commonplace - many of the accused witches had no legal contracts and were exposed to further economic difficulty
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Religious context

  • Lancashire traditionally refuge for recusant Catholics
  • Any uses of the Church courts were isolated and sporadic - sudden zeal for witch hunting surprising
  • Older witches were charged with using spells based on corrupted versions of old Catholic prayers - Protestant Reformation only had a limited impact
  • Lancashire viewed by authorities in London as an ignorant corner of England where catholicism and superstition could easily be fostered
  • Closure of Whalley Abbey under Henry VIII dissolution of monasteries was devastating on community - loss of irreplacable resource.
  • Abbey's ownership of land provided income through rent which went into providing cloth, grain and money to the poor of Pendle Forest.
  • Abbey taken control by gentry who were anti-catholic, gave them more influence - attempted to clamp down on drunkeness and reduce strength of alcohol in alehouses around Pendle.
  • Witches entering a pact with Devil new to Lancashire - Puritan influence?
  • Believed in 'white magic' - used by village healers and widely accepted
  • Big blur between 'white magic' and witchcraft
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Impact of 1604 statute

  • Before 1604 courts followed a more traditional framework - required members of the local community to make accusations, rather than clergy or professionals - jury drawn from community.
  • Crimes had not changed for centuries - based on accepted, popular beliefs that affected community
  • Maleficium - main accusation during 15th and 16th centuries
  • Until 1604 needed tangible evidence (death or injury) and treated suspects in a similar way to other criminals, like robbers and murderers
  • James I accession an important catalyst to new legislation
  • New statute significance due to inclusion of conjuring spirits as a capital offence - promoting origins of a pact with the devil
  • 1612 trial - evidence that the law was working
  • Lancashire trials a representation of the fusion of continental focus on the diabolical pact and more traditional popular beliefs
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Impact of judges


  • Rose up the legal system to become Baron of Exchequer
  • Father - high profile lawyer (free legal training)
  • Given the role of mediator in HofL by James (shows trust)


  • Knighted by the King in 1605 (shows trust)
  • Similar views to the King - consulted Daemonolgie during the trial
  • Defendants not allowed to prepare a defence - probably didn't know charges until read out
  • Roger Nowell acted as a prosecutor
  • Judges accepted dubious evidence and confessions were most likely made under torture
  • Altham had been recently accused of sending an innocent woman to the gallows

An example of flawed/weak legal system which enabled hysteria to spread.

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Impact of Potts' account

  • As Clerk of the Court had a unique insight into the trial - account is entirely first hand.
  • Ordered by judges to write an account that could be made public - completed on 16th November 1612 (3 months after trial)
  • Both judges took close interest in the production and may have edited or contributed their own account.
  • Aim was to hold up the trials as an example to others

Fufilled two objectives:

  • Provide an account that justifies trials and could be read as a true version of events that had a scholarly air to it
  • Protected the reputations of Potts, Bromley and Altham and could enable them to advance their careers
  • Presents witness statements as though spoken in court to add to the drama of proceedings
  • Edited speeches of Bromley and Altham to improve them - does not bring in legal proceedings which were weak.
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