When fear overpowers reason…
A week ago today I took the day off and went with my husband to meet friends in order to walk up Pendle Hill in Lancashire. I’ve been meaning to write about it ever since and have finally been spurred to do so by a book review I’ve just read – of which more shortly. I’d never been to this part of Lancashire before and had no idea of how beautiful it is.
Pendle Hill, which is perhaps best accessed via the picturesque village of Barley, is well worth the steep climb that it demands of those intent on reaching the top. It is a windswept plateau unprotected against the elements, even on a fine summer’s day (though a stone circle, grouse-butt style, has been erected as a kind of refuge); once you have arrived at the summit, it is possible to see much of the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales (including the Three Peaks), Derbyshire’s High Peak, North Wales and, on a very clear day, so I’m told, the Isle of Man. The 360˚ view is truly spectacular.
Aside from the wonderful panorama of Pendle Hill, the area is famous as the home of the defendants in the Pendle Witch Trial, in 1612. Twenty people from the Pendle district, sixteen of them women, were tried at Lancaster Assizes for witchcraft. The crimes that they were accused of committing were diverse, varying from murder by witchcraft to ‘bewitching’ people or animals, usually by causing them to fall sick or die. Some of them were sentenced to death; others had to stand in the pillory in the markets of Clitheroe, Padiham, Colne and Lancaster.
Their stories make sobering reading. Those indicted of witchcraft were usually, but not always, old women. One of the most renowned of the Pendle witches was Ann Whittle, alias ‘Chattox’, who lived in the Forest of Pendle. She was indicted on several counts of sorcery and admitted (probably under duress) that some fourteen or fifteen years before her arrest she had sold her soul to the devil. Her daughter was also accused of witchcraft. The nineteenth-century chroniclers of the witches conclude their account of her story as follows: “… no longer anxious about her own life, she acknowledged her guilt, but humbly prayed the judges to be merciful to her daughter, Anne Redferne; but her prayer was in vain.”
The roots of the Lancashire Witch Trials were political: they formed part of the Protestant response to the Counter-Reformation that reached its peak in this country during James I’s reign. More locally, they played on much older superstitions that had survived in rural societies, possibly from pre-Christian times.
What I didn’t know when I visited Pendle Hill was that there was a Lincolnshire equivalent to the Pendle Witches. Two sisters, Margaret and Philippa Flower, were hanged for witchcraft in Lincoln in 1619. They were therefore the exact contemporaries of the Lancashire witches. Their story is told in Witches: a tale of sorcery, scandal and seduction, by Tracy Borman, a newly-published book which was reviewed in The Sunday Times on 11th August and which I shall certainly buy and read. Yet more interesting, from my perspective, is that the Flower sisters were employed as maidservants at Belvoir Castle by the Earl of Rutland and were accused of bewitching his children, one of whom died. Belvoir Castle and Burghley House were the two great houses of the area in which I grew up and I visited them several times during my childhood. I also knew Lincoln well. The present prison was built in the late nineteenth century, in gothic style, and before that prisoners were held in the eighteenth century gaol at Lincoln Castle; the Flower sisters were probably locked in the Castle dungeons. Public hangings took place above the upper town, from the north-east tower, until 1868. (My stepfather’s mother’s family kept a theatrical boarding house in Lincoln and she was a small child there, almost, though not quite, within living memory of the hangings: she died in the 1980s, when she was well into her nineties. She remembered tales of the scene, with cheers and jeers from the watching crowd below.) Taking them as a yardstick of how little progress civilisation had made in the intervening three centuries perhaps makes it less surprising, if no less shocking, that women were being put to death for witchcraft only four hundred years ago. Even more shamefully, old women have been persecuted simply for being old and misshapen during my own lifetime. When I was a primary school child, there was a row of tumbledown cottages that I had to walk past every day. Two of them were home to two ancient ladies with wispy white hair. One was almost bent double. She walked very slowly with a stick, her eyes usually fixed on the ground. She had warts on her face and the prognathous chin that very old ladies sometimes develop. It’s difficult now to say how old she might have been: as she’d spent most of her life without benefit of the National Health Service, she may not have been as aged as she looked. But I remember quite clearly that schoolboys used to shout ‘Witch!’ at her as they passed, if she happened to be standing outside. With hindsight, I shudder at the pain she must have felt, and that she had to suffer because she was old and ‘different’. It can be a pale reflection only, I know, but still it offers some insight into the anguish and terror that the Lancashire witches and Margaret and Philippa Flower had to endure before rough hands finally put them out of their misery.
Could such persecution happen today? In Western society, not in its literal form, perhaps, but Arthur Miller’s inspired choice of the Salem Witch Trials in The Crucible to illustrate Senator McCarthy’s irrational pursuit of communists and the Cleveland child abuse investigations both illustrate that modern parallels still exist. Old women may no longer be the prime targets, but we still harbour primitive fears of people who are different, and, motivated by fear, are still capable of turning upon them savagely.
10 thoughts on “When fear overpowers reason…”
Hello Christina ,I met you at the Reading Groups Day at Wakefield 1. I have been reading your blogs ever since.
This one resonates with me. As a child, I and the other children in the street, called witch after the oldest lady in our street. She was odd… In the 1940’s she wore a dirty dark green crinoline gown and carried a parasol! I did one day throw an apple core over our wall, unfortunately she was passing, the core lodged itself between her face and the arm of her glasses! She carried on walking as if nothing had happened.
Now I am in my seventies, the local children regard me as a witch. I shout at them when their football goes in my garden’ Each year we have the latest crop of young boys and the odd girl, playing football outside our house, which is at the widest part of our road. So it appears to us looking out, that the football game is unending.. Even played after ten o clock last night.
Thanks for some interesting reading. marjorie
Marjorie, I remember you and the occasion very well! I’m delighted and very grateful that you have been reading here. I can think of no-one less witch-like, so you are walking proof of the point I am making in this post. Children, of course, are the most likely to find difference difficult to understand and take refuge in attack. They certainly need to be guided by sensible parents, but peer pressure is very powerful. However, I’m glad that you take it all in good part; having a non-stop football game outside would tire the patience of a saint! The old lady that you mention sounds very interesting, a sort of Miss Havisham figure!
Thank you very much for posting this, which I’m sure others will enjoy reading, and I hope that you’ll comment again in future. Many good wishes, Christina.
A sobering tale, but very sensitively told, Christina. I have imagined with horror the fear and dreadful deaths witches must have been subject to in the past. It was so dreadfully irrational and a terrible ordeal. The sad stories of Anne Whittle, and more recently the old lady you used to see (so rare to find such cases now) make me shudder at the cruelty we have the potential for.
Humans can be very herd-like in mentality and quick to follow a cause without really thinking very hard; I find this nightmarish, as I’d like to believe that we are civilised. The mass media, including social media, are worryingly too ready to leap upon bandwagons and suspend their critical faculties. Thank goodness for those individuals who are strong and balanced in their judgement.
Agreed wholeheartedly, Christina. One problem, however, is that sometimes even those who do not willingly jump on bandwagons, do so by failing to object or oppose a wrongdoing. They might even be more commonplace than the jumpers.
Valerie, you are, as usual, absolutely right. Wasn’t it Edmund Burke who said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”? Being a bystander and doing nothing is just as bad. 😦
One of the nice aspects of being older is that I find myself appreciating the wisdom and beauty of those who have lived to a good age and who have so many stories to share.
It’s a shame that our many members of our society don’t always feel the same
Julia, you remind me of a lovely D.H. Lawrence poem, called ‘Beautiful old age’, which, if my memory of it serves me well, sums up what you have so sensitively said. Some old people do achieve wisdom and beauty; we are lucky to find them, to enjoy what they have to offer.
Your last sentence says it all, Christina. I’ll never quite understand why people so deeply fear what they don’t know or what is different but will always try to create a bridge. That sign for the Pendle Inn makes me want to stay there!
Hello, Laura, and welcome! I’m sorry not to have responded earlier, but I have been away.
I’m always struck by how ignorance creates huge psychological barriers to acceptance of difference and change; I’m truly horrified when it causes hurt and harm.
I’m afraid that I can’t comment on the quality of stay in the Pendle Inn, having never set foot inside, but the village of Barley is as picturesque as English villages come, with a clear shallow stream that children cannot resist, stone walls and stiles, woodland, cottages and farms. You would not be disappointed by a visit, especially if you were to add in the walk to the top of Pendle! 🙂