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Beware the wicked witch of Pendle Hill

By Frances Burscough

Published 31/10/2015

Frances Burscough
Frances Burscough

I’m writing this column from the family homestead in Preston, Lancashire. My octogenarian dad had a bad fall and fractured his pelvis, so I’m here for a while to look after him.

Although this raises numerous problems for me back in Northern Ireland, it has also given me a rare opportunity to enjoy a very English festivity that I’ve missed since I moved to Belfast 20-odd years ago. Namely, Halloween.

Although modern-day Halloween has become just another consumer-driven jamboree, the original and traditional spirit of the occasion is still very much alive in the part of Lancashire where I grew up. Preston is after all in the shadows of Pendle Hill, the home of the infamous Lancashire Witches. My mum was a local historian and when we were growing up, as part of our Halloween tradition, Mum would tell us the story of the Lancashire Witches.

It was March 1612 when a local woman from Pendle Forest named Alizon Device was walking to market. On her way she encountered a peddlar from Halifax called John Law, who was carrying on his back a hessian sack filled with all his wares. She asked him to stop and to sell her a box of pins. However, he was suspicious of the woman, as pins were said to be used for witchcraft, so he refused and carried on walking. She was so angry she cursed him loudly. Within minutes he began to feel a severe stabbing pain in his chest before he fell to the ground in a fit of apoplexy. He staggered to a nearby inn, where he managed to recount the experience before he drew his last breath and died. 

As a result, Alizon Device was arrested. It didn’t help that King James was obsessed with witchcraft and a new law had just been passed that imposed the death penalty “for making a covenant with an evil spirit, using a corpse for magic, hurting life or limb, procuring love, or injuring cattle by means of charms”.

During her interrogation, Device unintentionally implicated many members of her own family so the numbers grew until 20 of her closest relatives were rounded up and the infamous Lancashire Witch Trials began. The evidence given against the so called Pendle Witches was based on vague memories, hearsay and superstition and would not be considered in a modern court. They were accused of every imaginable misfortune, from family sickness to spells of bad weather and from milk turning sour to crops failing. Of course they couldn’t prove their innocence because they were not allowed to have defence counsel to plead for them, nor could they call any witnesses to speak on their behalf. After three days of hearings, they were found guilty. They were taken to the barren moorland outside Lancaster and hanged.

Of course, it didn’t end there. The Lancashire Witches then became the stuff of nightmares and mythology, which remains to this day.

My mum would read extracts from diaries written at the time and scare the pants of us:

“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 ... ”

One such ‘witch’ was actually buried in our local church yard and legend has it that she kept clawing her way to the surface, so the terrified locals put a huge boulder over her grave to keep her there. So, of course, with a tradition so embedded in our local culture it is no wonder that Halloween is celebrated with such zeal in Lancashire. Often around this time of year a thick fog creeps down from the valleys and smothers as far as the eye can see and the crow can fly. If you have a vivid imagination like I do, then it’s like watching the smoke from a cauldron fill the air so that the witches and their evil spirits can walk abroad at night without being seen.

So all that remains is for me to put on my pointy hat and to cast a few spells of my own.

“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes!”

Online Editors

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