Monday, May 23, 2022
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Dead Witches’ Lives Matter

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WOMEN who were executed after being accused of witchcraft are no doubt sighing with relief after receiving an official apology from Nicola Sturgeon.

The Scottish First Minister climbed off her own broomstick to acknowledge an ‘egregious historic injustice’.

Some 4,000 suspects, mainly female, were accused of breaking the Witchcraft Act between 1563 and 1736. Many were strangled and burned at the stake after confessions were extracted under torture.

‘It was injustice on a colossal scale, driven at least in part by misogyny in its most literal sense, hatred of women,’ the ever-woker Sturgeon told MSPs at Holyrood this week.

‘Today on International Women’s Day, as first minister on behalf of the Scottish government, I am choosing to acknowledge that egregious historic injustice and extend a formal posthumous apology to all of those accused, convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft Act of 1563.’

There we are, then. Unlike those evil slave traders of the past, spellcasters and cursemongers are now in the clear.

So where does this leave the Pendle Witches, ten of whom were hanged on the flimsiest of evidence in 1612?

For those unfamiliar with the story, it centred around the rivalry between two families, the Demdikes and the Chattoxes, who lived beside Pendle Hill in Lancashire. They were both headed by elderly, poverty-stricken widows, Elizabeth Southerns (‘Old Demdike’) and Anne Whittle (‘Mother Chattox’)

According to Historic UK, ‘Old Demdike had been known as a witch for 50 years; it was an accepted part of village life in the 16th century that there were healers who practised magic and dealt in herbs and medicines. The extent of the spate of witchcraft reported in Pendle at this time perhaps reflected the large amounts of money people could make by posing as witches.’

One of the accused women, Alizon Device, was said to have cursed a pedlar named John Law when he refused to give her some pins. ‘It was a short while after this that John Law suffered a stroke, for which he blamed Alizon and her powers. When this incident was brought before the Justice of the Peace, Alizon confessed that she had told the Devil to lame John Law. It was upon further questioning that Alizon accused her grandmother, Old Demdike, and also members of the Chattox family, of witchcraft. The accusations on the Chattox family seem to have been an act of revenge. The families had been feuding for years.’

In all, 12 suspects were roped into the witchcraft accusations and came to be blamed for ten deaths around Pendleside. They were tried at Lancaster in August 1612. Old Demdike never reached trial; she died in the dank dungeon where they were held.

Incredibly, one of the key witnesses was a girl of nine, Jennet Device. Someone so young would not normally have been allowed to testify but all normal rules of evidence could be suspended for witch trials. Among those she implicated were her own mother, sister and brother.

Most of those accused protested their innocence. It didn’t do them any good and they were hanged within days on Gallows Hill. No appeals in them days.

Growing up in Nelson, in the shadow of Pendle, and now living on the other side of the hill, I have seen the legend of the Witches develop into a major tourist attraction. Many books have been written about them, most famously Robert Neill’s best-selling Mist over Pendle, a fictionalised account of the story.

There are Witch Trails for hikers, Pendle Witch bitter for beer drinkers and a grotesque souvenir shop, Witches Galore, in the village of Newchurch. Visitors come from far and wide to sample what its website describes as ‘all kinds of deliciously devilish merchandise, from gruesome gift ideas like model witches to terrifying treats like T-shirts, gargoyles and CDs’.

I have always found this celebration of some not-very-bright country folk being hanged repugnant. And now La Sturgeon has got on her hind fins to speak out for broom-jockeys, I think it is time for action. Yes, Dead Witches’ Lives Matter.

So now, if you’ll forgive me, I’m off to glue myself to the summit of Pendle Hill.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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