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.”
The saga began in March 1612 when Alizon Device, a villager in the Forest of Pendle, asked a pedlar to hunt in his bag for some pins. He refused, walked on and soon collapsed. Alizon boasted that she had caused his injuries by setting her “familiar” (a demon supposedly obeying a witch), a black dog, on him.
Alarmed, the pedlar’s son sought out Robert Nowell, the ambitious local magistrate. Nowell summoned Alizon, along with her brother and her mother, who was known as “Squinting Lizzie”. Alizon readily admitted witchcraft, and Nowell extracted evidence that Alizon’s grandmother – “Old Demdike”, a woman with a reputation for witchcraft – even had a “Devil’s mark”.
Alizon also mentioned that a neighbouring family headed by “Old Chattox” included witches, and that they had used sorcery to murder a number of men, including her father. On detailed questioning, Alizon, Old Demdike and Old Chattox all confessed to having sold their souls to the Devil; and Nowell locked them up.
Nowell might eventually have dismissed it all as the fancy of overly active imaginations, but things turned more serious when, in an ill-timed move, Squinting Lizzie threw a party on Good Friday, supported by her son James, who stole a sheep to feed the guests.
Inevitably, gossip began. What type of godless people feasted on the most solemn day of the year? Nowell got to hear of the gathering, and concluded that it must have been a witches’ sabbath. He arrested everyone concerned, and committed them for trial.
The hearing was a sham. Nowell saw that a successful witch trial could earn him preferment, and he put on a show. The accused had no legal representation.
The majority of the evidence was given by a nine-year-old, Jennet Device, who reeled off a list of everyone she swore was a witch, including her sister and brother (Alizon and James), her mother (Squinting Lizzie) and her grandmother (Old Demdike), as well as members of Old Chattox’s clan, and some of the families’ more distant kin.
One notable defendant stood apart from the villagers. Alice Nutter was a well-off local landowner. It is possible that Squinting Lizzie’s party was to raise support for the imprisoned women, and that Alice attended to offer help. Or perhaps she was never there. Local lore suggests that Nowell may simply have indicted her to seize and appropriate her lands for himself.
As the trial records say: “For it is certaine she was a rich woman; had a great estate, and children of good hope: in the common opinion of the world, of good temper, free from enuy or malice.”
Nevertheless, young Jennet crossed the courtroom and took Alice by the hand, swearing that Alice had been at the fateful gathering, and the court found Jennet’s evidence compelling:
… although she were but very yong, yet it was wonderfull to the Court, in so great a Presence and Audience, with what modestie, gouernement, and vnderstanding, shee deliuered this Euidence against the Prisoner at the Barre …
Alice maintained her innocence, but – as far as the records show – said nothing to counter Jennet’s claims. These days, a child of any age can give evidence in a criminal trial in England, but juries are required to take special care. In 1612 there were no such safeguards. All the accused were convicted.
On August 20 of that year the witches were led up to Gallows Hill in Lancaster and hanged (and Jennet lost most of her family). Even at the last moment, Alice maintained her innocence. She “died very impenitent, euen in Articulo Mortis: which was a very fearefull thing to all that were present, who knew shee was guiltie”.
All the information about the affair comes from the court clerk, Thomas Potts, who collaborated with the two judges and published the trial records as The Wonderfvll Discoverie of Witches in the Covntie of Lancaster. It was an instant bestseller.
The local theory that Alice was a Catholic is bolstered by the fact that two of her nominal ancestors, the brothers Blessed John Nutter and Blessed Robert Nutter, had been executed a few decades earlier as Catholic priests; their memory is celebrated on a plaque in the Church of St Mary of the Assumption in nearby Burnley.
In August the Times reported that a local chapter of the Knights of St Columba was considering whether Alice’s case should be investigated with a view to seeking some recognition for her, too, as a Catholic martyr.
Marion Gibson is professor of Renaissance and Magical Literature at Exeter University. “Alice Nutter may have been a recusant,” she says, but she cautions that “It is not possible to prove or disprove it given the patchy survival of records and the inherent secrecy of recusancy and other dissident religious activity during the Jacobean period.”
Nutter’s relationship to the martyred brothers is also not universally accepted. John Clayton, an expert on witches of the time, says: “There is no contemporary evidence whatsoever for Alice Nutter having been a Catholic. She was a Nutter by marriage. Her late husband was a distant relative of the martyrs, but her branch was more closely related to the family of Dean John Nutter, Queen Elizabeth’s ‘Golden Ass’ and her favoured scourge of recusants – a very powerful Protestant born in the Sabden area of Goldshaw.” Clayton also rebuts the popular idea that Nutter was in any sort of land dispute with Nowell.
And there the odd case of Alice Nutter will probably remain, unless other evidence emerges. Whatever the truth regarding her activities – “witch” or Catholic – her tragic fate is a reminder of days when anyone choosing to profess a spirituality outside the religious mainstream did so at the risk of their life.
The trial is infamous in Western legal history. Not only did it legitimise the uncritical use of children’s evidence in witch trials, with calamitous results in Europe and the New World, but it also demonstrated that already – 80 years before the catastrophe in Salem, Massachusetts – Puritan theology was actively fomenting witch hysteria.
Dominic Selwood is a historian, author and barrister. Visit dominicselwood.com
This article first appeared in the October 5 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here