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Friday, 25 May 2012

Books on The Pendle Witches - 400 years ago this year

I parked in a car park opposite this pub, The Golden Lion, a few weeks ago on the way to the shops in Lancaster. As I passed it I remembered that this was the spot where the famous Pendle witches stopped for a last drink before being taken to Gallows Hill to be executed.

I stopped to read the two plaques that are on the wall. The scroll gives the passer-by a little information, and the brass plaque is like a memorial and lists the names of those who were executed.

The year was 1612, exactly 400 years ago - a turbulent time in England's history, an era of religious persecution and superstition, under the reign of James I. At the foot of Pendle Hill, (later the inspiration to George Fox's Quaker Movement) nine villagers were accused of witchcraft following the deaths of several people in and around the Forest of Pendle, and they were later sent to trial at Lancaster Castle, where they were found guilty and then executed.

In both my books, The Lady's Slipper and The Gilded Lily, the shadow of witchcraft hangs over the women of Netherbarrow in Westmorland. In The Lady's Slipper Alice Ibbotson spends time in Lancaster Castle accused of witchcraft, just as the Pendle witches did, and in The Gilded Lily, Sadie Appleby is terrified of being accused of being a witch because of a birthmark on her face.

In the 17th century witchcraft was blamed for anything that could not be rationally explained, and the fact that James I was obsessed with finding witches did little to help the causes of those people, mostly women, who were accused.This extract showing how people were afraid of witchcraft is from the excellent Pendle Witches website, where there is a wealth of information on the women themselves and on the trials and executions.

"During the sixteenth century whole districts in some parts of Lancashire seemed contaminated with the presence of witches; men and beasts were supposed to languish under their charm, and the delusion which preyed alike on the learned and the vulgar did not allow any family to suppose that they were beyond the reach of the witch's power.

Was the family visited by sickness? It was believed to be the work of an invisible agency, which in secret wasted an image made in clay before the fire, or crumbled its various parts into dust.

Did the cattle sicken and die? The witch and the wizard were the authors of the calamity.Did the yeast refuse to ferment, either in the bread or the beer? It was the consequence of a 'bad wish'.

Did the butter refuse to come? The 'familiar' was in the churn.

Did the ship founder at sea? The gale or hurricane was blown by the lungless hag who had scarcely sufficient breath to cool her own pottage.

Did the river Ribble overflow its banks? The floods descended from the congregated sisterhood at Malkin Tower.

The blight of the season, which consigned the crops of the farmer to destruction, was the saliva of the enchantress, or distillations from the blear-eyed dame who flew by night over the field on mischief bent."
From History of Lancaster 1867 - Thomas Baines.

If you are interested in reading a novel about the Pendle witches then I can recommend Robert Neill's "Mist over Pendle". A nice review of it is over at What Kate's Reading.

Alternatively you might try "Daughters of the Witching Hill". You can read an interview with Mary Sharratt here about her process of writing.

Events to commemorate the Pendle Witches are happening throughout the year of 2012.
Those listed below are just a few. More information from Lancashire Witches 4000

"Sabbat" at the Dukes and Hoghton Tower
Witches Art Trails through the Forest of Bowland
`A Witch-Themed Murder Mystery` at Lancaster Castle
The Crucible by Arthur Miller at Lancaster Priory
Exhibition by Joe Hesketh – The Pendle Investigation, The Dukes
Lecture - Fair Trial or a Foul Bill - The Legal Significance of the Lancashire Witch Trials, Lancaster Priory
Service - In Solidarity with Victims of Persecution and Hate Crime, Lancaster Priory
Exhibition: Spellbound: Superstition, stories and the silver screen
Exhibition: A Wonderfull Discoverie: Lancashire Witches 1612-2012
Witches and Guy Fawkes Festival
Lancashire Witches Guided Walks around Lancaster City
Guided tours of Lancaster Castle.
A multimedia exhibition spanning time and place: “Witch Hunts, then and now”



  1. I saw that Litfest were launching Blake Morrison's poetry collection, 'A Discoverie of Witches', but hadn't realised that 2012 was the 400th anniversary. And I'm a native of Lancaster but didn't know about the plaque at the Golden Lion. I was going to ask you if you knew who or what 'PFNW' might be (PFNW 2001, it says at the bottom of the plaque) but I think Google has answered my question - Pagan Federation North West ...

    1. Hi Mick, yes you're right. It's the Pagan Federation North West. I like the rider at the bottom of the plaque. I'm interested to read Blake Morrison's new collection, I was looking at the Litfest brichure just yesterday and realised I'd missed the launch, but I'll still try to track down the book. For those interested in Litfest events, you can find them at or at