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.