Earlier this year, I read Daughters of the Witching Hill, by Mary Sharratt. It has proven to be one of my favorite books this year, and one of the most harrowing of historicals considering that Sharratt’s tale of the Pendle Witches is firmly based in fact. Here Mary discusses the reality of whether the Pendle Witches were indeed just that, witches.
When Halloween comes around, the popular imagination turns to ghosts and hauntings. And to witches.
Especially in my neck of the woods. I live in Pendle Witch Country, the rugged Pennine landscape surrounding Pendle Hill, once home to twelve individuals arrested for witchcraft in 1612.
In 2004, UK Living TV’s Most Haunted investigated several farmhouses around Newchurch in Pendle. The paranormal investigators not only claimed to have had a direct encounter with the Pendle Witch “coven” in an old house on Lower Well Head Farm, but that the spirit of accused witch Old Demdike attempted to strangle TV psychic Derek Acorah, who has since been outed by his colleagues as a fake.
Unfortunately Halloween seems to drag out all kinds of ghoulish speculation about historical witches and cunning folk in a way that is not only historically inaccurate but disrespectful to the dead. The Pendle Witches were not ghouls, but real people who were held for months in a lightless dungeon in Lancaster Castle, chained to a ring in the stone floor, before being tried without a barrister, condemned on the testimony of a nine-year-old girl, and then hanged. The historical truth is far more chilling than any faked ghost hunt.
During the live “investigation,” Most Haunted’s viewers were invited to text their answer to the either-or-question: Where the Pendle Witches innocent victims or were they real witches with real powers? This question is out of context, given that the accused lived in an era when everyone, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, believed that magic was real.
Cunning craft, or traditional herbal healing, was the family trade for both Elizabeth Southerns, aka Demdike, and Anne Whittle, aka Chattox, the most notorious of the accused. Of course, they believed they had powers. Their very livelihood depended on it.
Were they innocent victims? How does one define innocence in the complex world of Jacobean witch-hunts? Chattox confessed to bewitching to death her landlord’s son by making “clay pictures” of him and then slowly crumbling the clay until he went mad and died. Her motive? The man in question, Robert Nutter of Greenhead, attempted to rape her daughter, Anne Redfearn. He threatened to drive the entire family from their cottage if Anne would not let him “have his way of her.” In an era when the wealthy knew they could get away with rape, a fierce reputation as a cunning woman may have been the only power an impoverished woman such as Chattox could hope to wield.
Was Chattox evil for wanting to protect her daughter? Family love seemed to guide her every action. In the 1612 trial, she broke down and confessed her crime, then tearfully pleaded her daughter’s innocence and begged the gentlemen of the court to let Anne Redfearn go free. But Anne was hanged alongside her mother.
While researching my novel of the Pendle Witches, Daughters of the Witching Hill, I attempted to trace the path between Greenhead Manor, once Robert Nutter’s home, to the site of Chattox’s cottage in West Close, two miles away. No trace remains of Chattox’s hovel but Greenhead Manor still stands. The path was treacherous, almost a minefield. By law, any member of the public has right of way on public footpaths. But it appeared that Greenhead Manor’s current residents had gone to great lengths to make the footpath impassable. I found shards of broken glass and sharp metal wire blocking my way. Further down, the path was overgrown with thorns. Still further a wasps’ nest, buzzing with dangerous life, had somehow come to rest in the middle of the path. Shivering in the autumn wind, I sensed something tainted and menacing, as though the land itself remained poisoned from lingering dark magics committed 400 years ago.
Yet when I soldiered on to reach West Close, it felt peaceful. A rain swollen stream wound close by the site of Chattox’s cottage. The waters gushed between their banks, rich with the red clay that Chattox and her daughter would have used in their spells of self-preservation. In a nearby field, little girls played, happy and oblivious of the fate of any long-deceased landlord’s son. The land around what was once Chattox’s home felt protected in some way, as though the dead still cast their spell over the living landscape.
Mary Sharratt is an American writer living in the Pendle region of Northern England. Her novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She is currently at work on a new novel exploring the life of visionary abbess and polymath, Hildegard von Bingen. Visit Mary’s website: www.marysharratt.com.