Witchcraft and magic have a strong hold over our collective imagination. These days, our interest is largely for entertainment, but four centuries ago things were very different. When Shakespeare conjured up the three witches in Macbeth (c 1606-7), his audience believed that the Devil’s votaries prowled the land. King James I (1603–25) even wrote a book, Dæmonologie, warning his subjects of the physical reality and perilous malignancy of the kingdom’s witches.
A few years ago, in Roughlee, Lancashire, Councillor James Starkie erected a statue of a local Jacobean witch. “It has proved very popular, with regular visitors coming from afar,” he says. The effigy is of Alice Nutter, and there is a growing opinion around the neighbouring Forest of Pendle and in east Lancashire that Alice was the victim of a cynical and horrific miscarriage of justice.
“Many people believe she was a Catholic,” says Brenda Kean, who has spent years showing visitors around the sites associated with the Pendle Witches. “And the reason she could not defend herself [from being accused of attending a ‘witches’ sabbath’] was that she had been at Mass, which was illegal.”
It is a bold claim, but Mgr Peter Corcoran of St Michael and St John’s in Clitheroe confirms it is widely supported in the area.
The case of Alice and her co-witches is notorious. “The Pendle Witch Trials make up one of the two most famous witch hunts in English history – the other being that of Matthew Hopkins, the ‘Witchfinder General’,” says Ronald Hutton, professor of history at Bristol University and a leading expert on the witch craze.
“The facts were sensational: a wild and scenic area of the Pennines; two criminal families with a long-established bad reputation and a risky sideline in magic; a network of local reforming Puritan gentry; and a national context with a witch-hunting king and a state gripped by the fervour of the first full generation of Protestant converts.”
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