Pendle Hill Witches

Why were there so many women accused of being witches around Pendle Hill?

The persecution of witches was a pan European phenomenon that began in

1484 at the instigation of the Pope. Over the following three centuries over

200,000 “witches” were executed. There appears to be no evidence of cases of

witchcraft on a similar scale to the Pendle witches in other parts of Lancashire.

More typical are the individual tales such as the witch in Woodplumpton

churchyard, buried under a large stone to prevent her resurrection.

The Pendle women brought to trial were the victims of family feuds and

disputes over the informal relief of poverty and a particular obsessive

magistrate. They lived in an inward-looking community which was susceptible

to malicious gossip. Their community was not that unusual. However, many

other magistrates would not have given the Pendle gossip any credibility.

Most of the “witches” regularly sought relief from better-off neighbours. They

were accused of witchcraft when they had been refused alms and the persons

applied to suffered some misfortune or ill-health. It may well have been the

case that some of the “witches” were unattractive characters and encouraged

the witch image as a bargaining counter when applying for alms.

The importance of an obsessive individual in prosecuting and publicising

witchcraft cases was seen again in East Anglia in the 1640s when the

“Witchfinder General” wrecked havoc on a much greater scale than had

happened in the Pendle Witch trials.

Over the past 150 years interest in the Pendle witches has been raised through

the novels of Harrison Ainsworth and Robert Neill. They have found an

enthusiastic readership. On the wider front interest in witchcraft has been

generated through films about the Salem witches in the USA, not forgetting

our own “Witchfinder General” film starring Vincent Price in 1968. It is this

interest which local tourism promoters have built on.

John E Harrison

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