Throughout the Middle Ages,Lancashire was ripe with tales of cunning folk. In 1595 a conjure man called John Hartley convinced the Starkies of Huntroyde that seven members of their household were possessed by demons. The Starkies were related to Roger Nowell, a Justice of the Peace from nearby Read who spearheaded the infamous Lancashire Witch Hunts of 1612.
King James 1st became ruler of England in 1603 – the same year Jennet Device was born into the Demdike Clan at Malkin Tower – and the same year that a terrible plague swept the land. Two years later Guy Fawkes’ Jesuit Gunpowder Plot failed to blow up Parliament, but it did trigger a nation-wide persecution of priests at a time when Lancashire was still a Catholic stronghold.
Witches, ghosts, and boggarts were a part of English folklore, inspiring many weird and wonderful tales that included Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). The wise women of Pendle Hill worked the superstitious locals to eke out a meager living. They offered a wide range of services from basic herbal medicine to midwifery and abortion – concocting charms, curses, love spells, and potions – claiming they could heal, harm, and foretell the future.
On March 21st in 1612, Old Demdike’s teenage granddaughter – Alizon Device – set off to go begging in Colne. On the way she met a peddler called John Law who refused to give her the pins she demanded and so she cursed him. Moments later Law collapsed, paralyzed down one side of his body. He pointed the finger at Alizon Device and his son went straight to the authorities. Because Alizon was one of the notorious Demdikes the rest of her family were rounded up for examination and before long, the Lancashire Witch Hunts had begun.
(Drawing: Public Domain)
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