Were the men and women accused of witchcraft in Lancaster Castle on trial for their religious beliefs or because they represented a threat to the State? In this article, Oscar Thynne considers the context for the arrest and execution of the ‘Lancashire Witches’.
Dissent Against the State: The politics behind the Pendle witch trial 1612
Posted by Oscar Thynne
The King and the Context
The year was 1603. King James VI of Scotland had become King James I of England, inheriting a country in religious turmoil. James’ predecessor, Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, defeated the Spanish Armada of 1588. The Spanish had wanted to invade England to restore Catholicism. Although James was Protestant, a year later he made peace with Spain. This angered many Spanish Catholics who had hoped for a Spanish invasion of England to enforce Catholicism. There were many Spanish individuals who attempted to assassinate James, however the largest group were the men behind the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The plot to blow up parliament triggered James to fear a Catholic revolution. To regain full control of England, James began to use religion to his advantage. He pleased Protestants by commissioning a new Bible to be written in 1611. The Protestants saw the Catholics as non-conformists. People who adhered to old religious ways were seen as “dangerous dissenters who needed suppressing,” (Gaskill, 2012). James saw himself as an intellectual. When he had been King of Scotland, in 1597, he had written a book entitled ‘Daemononlogie’. This book focused on demonology – particularly witch craft. James began to persecute non-conformists. Some, he branded as witches and in the troublesome parts of England, witch hunts began.
Dangerous dissenters in dark corners of the land.
A fateful gathering
In 1612, Lancashire was the “dark corner of the land,” (Armitage, 2012). Lancashire is over 240 miles from London, where the King was based. This large distance meant it was difficult to keep order in the county. In the year 1612, a group of neighbours in Lancashire met on Good Friday at a party. The family who hosted this gathering, Device, stole and slaughtered a sheep for the meal. The mother, Elizabeth Device, was the local ‘cunning woman’. Her role was to protect the community, whether by overseeing security or acting as a healer. This role was often associated with witchcraft, however if the neighbours accepted the ‘cunning woman’ into their community, they would never turn her over to the authorities as a witch. Yet, in the eyes of the state, the role of cunning woman was seen to be an old non-conformist practice. As Gaskill stated, non-conformists were seen as dissenters. Simon Armitage described the difference between a cunning woman and a witch. He said a cunning woman was a ‘healer’, whereas a witch was a ‘stealer’.
All but one who attended the gathering was later to be accused, tried over two days and hanged for witchcraft. Elizabeth’s daughter, Jennet Device aged nine, would be the main witness and the eventual downfall of her family and neighbours.
Accusations of Treason
One of the main accusations used against the group who attended the party, was conspiring to blow up Lancaster Castle. Further evidence from the account of the trials written by Thomas Potts, the court clerk in ‘The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster’ (Potts, 1613), suggests links to a gunpowder plot. Potts dedicated the book to Lord Thomas Knyvett and his wife. Lord Knyvett led the cellar search in 1605 which found the gunpowder and Guy Fawkes (who was later hanged, drawn and quartered for the Gunpowder Plot). This dedication suggests there may be some link between the foiled Gunpowder Plot in London and the Lancaster Castle plot being thwarted. The suggestion that this group of poor men and women could have obtained the wherewithal the blow up a castle they had never seen stretches the imagination, and it is important to note, some historians believe the plot to blow up the castle was fabricated by the prosecutors during the trial. This insinuates that the evidence from Pott’s book may not be fact as there is a strong possibility the prosecutors lied (or falsified evidence) during the trial.
Jennet Device aged nine, would be the main witness.
A further reason the people who attended the gathering were seen as dissenters was the fact that, “…every loyal subject [to Church of England] should have been in church,” (Armitage, 2012).This group had not attended on Good Friday, therefore seen as not conforming to a religious tradition set by the State. After being arrested at the gathering the Devices told the authorities that the Nutter family had also been present. It’s important to note here that the Nutter family were Catholic. Two of Anne Nutter’s relatives had been hanged drawn and quartered in 1600 for being Catholic priests. Many followers of this religion at that time were dubbed witches as they did not conform to Protestantism, which was the predominantly followed religion in England in the 17th Century. There is a possibility that the Nutter family were arrested by Roger Nowell as he hoped to gain the King’s favour by arresting Catholics as well as witches. This further suggests followers of religions believed to be ‘old’ were seen as dissenters against the state as they were non-conformists. As a way to control non-conformists, arrests were made and the non-conformists’ situation was manipulated so that they looked like an enemy of the state. Firstly, this may have intimidated other people so they then conformed to the state due to a fear that their life was at risk. Secondly, trials like the Nutter’s may have been a form of propaganda used to change people’s view of non-conformists to encourage conformity and alleviate threat to the state.
...trials like these may have been a form of propaganda.
In conclusion, trials like the Pendle Witch trial were encouraged by King James I in the early years of his reign to suppress non-conformists in the “dark parts of the land”. Seen as dissenters, the unfortunate men and women who attended the gathering on Good Friday 1612 were labelled dissenters as they all did not conform to the norms of the state – the Nutters were Catholic and Elizabeth Device was a ‘cunning woman’, both seen as old traditions. In the end, on the 20th August 1612, all but one of those put on trial in 1612 was hanged on the moor overlooking Lancaster.
REFERENCES & FURTHER READING
Armitage, S. (2012). The Pendle Witch Trial.
Gaskill, M. (2012). The Pendle Witch Child. (S. Armitage, Interviewer)
Potts, T. (1613). The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster. London: W. Stansby.
Poole, Robert (2011) Thomas Potts, The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster. Carnegie Publishing, Lancaster, UK.