To say that life in Britain during the 17th Century was precarious is putting things very lightly. Plague, rebellion, civil war, revolution and flames distinguished the century as one of the most turbulent and blood-soaked within our collective history. The era also bore witness to the bulk of UK witchcraft accusations, prosecutions and executions. Scores of men, women and children were put to death in the 1600s, many convicted on the basis of hearsay or other flimsy evidence, the type of which would make a modern prosecuting lawyer blush with shame. Precarious living gave rise to precarious justice.
In 1612 the Lancashire borough of Pendle became embroiled in what was perhaps England’s most notorious set of witch trials – the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612. The star witness during the trial of the 12 witches from Pendle was a nine-year-old girl, named Jennet Device. Her evidence helped send 10 people to the gallows, including most of her neighbours and her entire family. It is said that her mother screamed in terror as Jennet began to give her testimony. The child calmly responded to her mother’s protestations by requesting that the Judge have her removed from the packed court room. She did not want to tolerate the witch’s presence.
The Pendle witches found themselves in the dock of the Lancaster Assizes following a minor altercation between one of the accused and a Halifax man named John Law. Soon after the dispute, Law suffered a malady of some type and took to his sick bed. His son was convinced that his father had been cursed and sought out the assumed perpetrator – Alizon Device, sister to 9-year-old Jennet. Alizon allegedly confessed to using black magic against John Law and begged for forgiveness when confronted.
Once reports of Alizon’s confession reached local magistrates, the Device family soon fell under the paranoid eye of the law. King James had made the discovery and elimination of witches a priority of his government and encouraged local officials to take whatever steps were necessary to succeed in this task and purify his kingdom. As a result, any and all accusations of witchcraft were treated extremely seriously by authorities, no matter how unsubstantiated they were. Alizon was interrogated vigorously, as was her brother and mother. The outcome of the interrogation was that four people, including Alizon, her grandmother and two other women (both of whom had been entirely unconnected to the original incident involving John Law) were committed to jail to await trial.
Jennet’s starring role came later in the ordeal that was the Pendle witch trials. Weeks after her sister and grandmother had been packed-off to a Lancashire dungeon, the remainder of her family plus the majority of her closest neighbours came under suspicion as well. Her mother, Elizabeth Device, was accused of hosting a party on Good Friday, which was enough to warrant attention from the jittery authorities. After all, faithful Christians should have been at church on Good Friday, commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Local prosecutors convened an inquiry, and as sure as night follows day, they discovered more witches. Eight more people thus joined the original four in jail to await trial for the crimes of witchcraft and murder.
At the eventual trial, Jennet gave damning evidence against her mother, sealing her fate at the gallows. She claimed that her mother had been practicing witchcraft for at least 3 years. She also alleged that her mother had a witch’s familiar, who would manifest as a talking brown dog named Ball. Ball would give diabolical commands to Elizabeth Device, including commands to assist with the murder of several local men. Jennet did not reserve all of her accusations for her mother. She also helped condemn her brother, James Device, by alleging that he too was a witch. According to Jennet, she had seen her brother conversing with a black dog. They were discussing plans to commit a murder.
Jennet was a key witness at the trial of the Pendle witches. Her evidence ensured that her mother, one of the few accused not to confess during interrogation, would not escape the gallows. In all, ten of the twelve accused individuals were executed for the crime of witchcraft and for the murder of ten local people. One of the accused died whilst awaiting trial in jail. Only one was found not guilty.
The trial of the Pendle Witches was preserved for posterity in the form of a written report of proceedings – The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster (1613). This pamphlet was written by Thomas Potts, the court clerk at the Lancaster Assizes. Potts was instructed to write the account by order of the trial judge.The account is not a verbatim recital of proceedings, but instead is based on recollection and written evidence submitted during the trial. Nonetheless, it offers a relatively trustworthy account of the trials. To see scans of an original copy click below.