It were enough to crack an hangman's heart.
Old, ragged, with chains about their ankles,
they were fetched to where I waited on the hill,
hissed and spat at by the sweating mob
and convinced to the end - the end of a rope -
that the power they stood accused of
were a power they truly possessed.
Each crossed herself as she climbed the steps
and none cried out as I tied the noose.
Witches? These were not witches,
only weak and half-cracked biddies
undone by wicked gossip and revenge.
It were enough to snap an hangman's heart
but not - I'm pleased to tell you, sire - the rope.
- Blake Morrison, A DISCOVERIE OF WITCHES (Faber: October 2012)
She was a very old woman, about the age of four-score years, and had been a witch for fifty years.
She dwelt in the Forest of Pendle, a vast place, fit for her profession: What she committed in her time, no man knows.
Thus lived she securely for many years, brought up her own children, instructed her grand-children, and took great care and pains to bring them up to be witches.
She was a general agent for the Devil in all these parts: no man escaped her, or her furies, that ever gave them any occasion of offence, or denied them anything they stood need of: And certain it is, no man near them, was secure or free from danger.
- Description of Elizabeth Southern also known as Witch Demdike. Read her 'confession' HERE.
With most people, both rich and poor, simple and educated, peasant and royalty, believing in magic during the 16th and 17th century much of rural Britain was living in fear of witches and none more so than in Lancashire, England, in which in the autumn of 1612 twenty people (sixteen of whom were women) were committed and tried ......
Causing madness, making clay images, and murder .... in other words, witchcraft.
The evidence against them?
A mix of memories, hearsay and superstition.
Take for example the afore mentioned Elizabeth Southern and her granddaughter Alison/Alizon. A woman in her 80's, Elizabeth, the head of her family, lived by begging and had a reputation as a wise woman who had the power to not only heal but also to remove curses.
It was when she was out begging on the 18th of March 1612 that Alison happened across one John Law, a pedlar from Halifax, asking him for some of his pins which he refused.
Supposedly cursing John, it is said he collapsed, lying paralysed and unable to talk, whilst it is now believed he had suffered a stroke, with no one willing to believe Alison the matter was brought to the attention of the then magistrate, Roger Nowell, who promptly had Alison arrested, hearing her confession that not only implicated herself but also a number of neighbours and even members of her own family, her grandmother, Elizabeth, included.
With the exception of one who, though condemned to the pillory (a device made of a wooden or metal framework erected on a post, with holes for securing the head and hands) and one years imprisonment, escaped with her life, ten others were not so lucky and were sentenced to death by hanging. Thankfully Elizabeth died before she could stand trial.
Sources: The Telegraph newspaper, Pendle Witches.co.uk, Visit Lancashire.com