19 August 1612: the Lancashire witch trials

Ten people were convicted and sent to the gallows on the evidence of a nine-year old girl on this day in 1612, in the infamous Lancashire witch trials.

When James I (or VI) came to the throne, he brought with him a zeal for witch-hunting. Witches were the popular evil of the day – they provided a very convenient scapegoat, and a way of clamping down on seditious (ie, Roman Catholic) elements.

In Lancashire, quite a few people clung secretly to the Catholic faith, something their Puritan neighbours wouldn't have taken too kindly to. On top of that, there was a fair amount of folk magic going on.

In the summer of 1612, things started to get out of hand. It all started when a traveller, John Laws, suffered what we recognise now as probably a stroke, after arguing with a local woman, Alison Device, at the roadside. Device claimed to have cursed him. When she failed to cure him, she implicated her grandmother, Old Demdike, who in turn incriminated others, who were arrested.

But it was the testimony of nine-year-old Jennet Device that sent ten people to their deaths. She and her brother, who also ended up being hanged, concocted a story of a great meeting of witches, who were plotting to blow up Lancaster castle and free their imprisoned brethren. Present at the meeting was Alice Nutter, a prominent local gentlewoman with unfortunate Catholic connections. To the local magistrate, Roger Nowell – keen to curry favour with the king – it had a whiff of a Popish conspiracy about it. And that wouldn't do.

Nineteen people were tried in the subsequent witch trials, where the evidence of Jennet Device was eagerly heard. “My mother is a witch and that I know to be true”, said Jennet. “I have seen her spirit in the likeness of a brown dog, which she called Ball. The dog did ask what she would have him do and she answered that she would have him help her to kill.”

On 19 August, ten people were found guilty. They were hanged on the moors above the town the next day (we tended to hang witches in England rather than burn them).

In 1613, Thomas Potts, the clerk of the court, published his own account of the affair, called “The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster.”

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