31/10/2012 11:29 GMT | Updated 30/12/2012 05:12 GMT

The Lancashire Witch Trials

Halloween is upon us, and it is time for a haunting tale of mystery, intrigue and witchcraft from the deepest darkest recesses of English history. Between the 15th and 18th Centuries, there were approximately 500 executions following witch trials. Nestled in the beautiful rolling country-side is a place where the largest witch hunt in history occurred. In the autumn of 1612, sixteen women were put on trial for witchcraft in Pendle, East Lancashire. The events provide fertile ground for ghostly tales, best told on a cold, dark eerie winter's evening

The witch trials have to be taken in the context of the events of the time. Elizabeth I passed "An Act against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts" in 1562, with a penalty of death if harm had come following witchcraft. After her, King James I was convinced that the Scottish witches had plotted against him, and developed an avid interest in witchcraft. It didn't help that he was also head of the judiciary of the time.

In the late 1600s, Lancashire was fabled for theft, violence and sexual laxity. Early in 1612, the year of the trials, there was a policy of forced religious conformity. Those who refused to attend the English church and take communion would be committing a criminal offence. Every justice of the peace was ordered to make a list of non conformists. To compound matters, the population was poorly educated and easily believed in superstitions.

This tale involves two large families - the Chattoxes and the Demdikes. Their business was black magic - spells and curses. During their trial, ten witches were found guilty of witchcraft, murder and conspiracy to blow up Lancaster castle. Various allegations were made - for instance, bread was stolen from the church to be used in spells, graves were apparently raised and the teeth of the dead stolen. It was also rumoured that Demdike had a meeting with the devil at the site where a local girl was murdered, apparently at the hands of these witches.

The judiciary at the time ordered that the evidence be collected and published in the public interest. The official publication of the proceedings was written by Thomas Potts in a book called The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster.

Lancashire folklore of 1882 said of Chattox:

"She was indicted for having exercised various wicked and devilish arts called witchcrafts, enchantments, charms and sorceries, upon one Robert Nutter, of Greenhead, in the Forest of Pendle, and with having, by force thereof, feloniously killed him." It continued, "She was further charged with having bewitched the drink of John Moore, and also with having, without using the churn, produced a quantity of butter from a dish of skimmed milk!".
She pleaded guilty in the hope the judiciary would show her mercy.

A confession by another "witch" read as follows -

"The speediest way to take a man's life away by witchcraft is to make a picture of clay, like unto the shape of the person whom they mean to kill, and dry it thoroughly. And when they would have them to be ill in any one place more then an other; then take a thorn or pin, and prick it in that part of the picture you would so have to be ill. And when you would have any part of the body to consume away, and then take that part of the picture, and burn it. And when they would have the whole body to consume away, and then take the remnant of the said picture, and burn it: and so there-upon by that means, the body shall die." The Witches of Salmesbury were charged with bewitching and slaying a child of Thomas Walshams by placing a nail in its navel; and after its burial, they took up the corpse, when they ate part of the flesh, and made an 'uncious ointment' by boiling the bones"

Further gruesome tales can be read here .

The "witches" were executed at Lancaster on 20 August 1612 for having "bewitched to death by devilish practices and hellish means no fewer than sixteen inhabitants of the Forest of Pendle".

Of course, there are two ways to consider the above - an effort to ensure religious conformity, or that witchcraft was lucrative and competitive profession. It is interesting that many allegations resulted from the two families themselves. Each clearly wanted to monopolise the lucrative business of begging, healing, extortion and spell creation.

The Pendle witches were rumoured to have conspired in their own gunpowder plot to blow up Lancaster Castle. It is notable that the record by Thomas Potts, the "Wonderfull Discoverie" was dedicated to Thomas Knyvet and his wife. Knyvet was credited with catching Guy Fawkes and saving King James I.

A petition to request a pardon for the witches was presented to the then Home Secretary, Jack Staw, in 1998. It was decided that the convictions should stand.

This year is the Witch Trial's 400th anniversary. To this day, the county still capitalises on the legend of the witches and their trials, demonstrating yet again the lucrative nature of witchcraft. Of course, there is a rumour that circulates the area - the witches still haunt the buildings and villages. Tourists have reported an aura of anger around the place and the locals fear discussing the events of the witch trial. It has been featured in the "Most Haunted" where TV crews reported an attempt at being strangled by unseen hands and a medium reported being in contact with an accused witch. The message from the other side was claimed to be that there were nine other spirits and they did not want the TV crews to be present.

So if you dare to venture into the murky Lancashire countryside on All Hallows Eve, beware of shadowy figures on Pendle Hill - it may just be the ghosts of witches from times gone by, weaving yet another magical spell.