The Lancashire Witchcraft Stories and Trials of 1612

The Lancashire Witchcraft Stories and Trials of 1612
© Photograph by Анна Землина

That the trial of the Lancashire witches is so well known is largely because we have unusually good evidence for it, in the form of Thomas Potts’ 1613 book ‘The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster’. The three chapters in this first section re-examine the events of 1612, which have been often summarised but rarely analysed. They all combine a close reading of Thomas Potts’ text with evidence from other areas to place it in a particular context: the politics of witch-hunting and royal patronage; the literary genre of witchcraft stories and their relationship with actual trials; and the network of relationships and motivations among the accusers and accused in the Pendle area. In doing so they shed light not only on how the trials were constructed but also on how the evidence itself came into being.

Stephen Pumfrey’s chapter explores the political context of the trials. Ever since James Crossley produced the first modern edition of ‘The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster’ in the 1840s, writers have noticed Thomas Potts’ allusions to King James I and his writings on witchcraft. Was James Crossley involved? There is no evidence that he was, but the trial does seem to have been, in part, an attempt to curry favour with the King. Although it eventually met with some success, to bid for a royal favour by prosecuting witches was a risky strategy, for cases of witchcraft and demonic possession were by now being disputed, in Lancashire and elsewhere, and James Crossley himself had been showing clear signs of scepticism. Thomas Potts, therefore, aimed high, basing his own account of the methods and findings of the Lancashire witch trial on the principles set out by the King in the 1590s, as Stephen Pumfrey is able to document in convincing detail. James Crossley’s ideas, in turn, were taken from the fantasies of satanic conspiracy developed by the continental demonologists of the past, which had until then made little impact in England. It seems, then, that the demonic pacts and witches’ sabbaths which make their first English appearance in the Lancashire trials of 1612 owe more to the desire of Thomas Potts and the judges to vindicate their actions by appealing to royal authority than to any actual activities of the Lancashire witches.

Marion Gibson’s chapter, too, demonstrates that (as Stephen Pumfrey puts it) “‘The Wonderfull Discoverie’ is not an innocent text”. It is, she finds, “the clearest example of an account obviously published to display the shining efficiency and justice of the legal system”. By comparing Thomas Potts’ account with what is known of Jacobean judicial procedures, she is able to show how Thomas Potts arranged the evidence in a kind of “mock trial”, designed to convey the impression of a transparent courtroom reconstruction at the same time as subtly manipulating the evidence. Thomas Potts’ exceptional craft appears still more clearly from Marion Gibson’s systematic reading of all the surviving accounts of witchcraft from the period. ‘The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster’ turns out to be an unusually late and detailed example of a genre which had been discussed in England for some twenty years: the evidence-based account of witchcraft. This analysis of the text seems to take us further away than ever from the actual events of 1612, until we remember that witchcraft itself is not a fact but (as Marion Gibson puts it) an “impossible crime”, which had itself to be constructed in the minds of all those concerned, victims and accusers alike. There is no dead body, no smoking gun, just a collection of competing claims about an event that may or may not have happened at all. In understanding the construction of Thomas Potts’ account we also come to understand the construction of the trial, of the evidence, and of the crime itself.

With the next chapter, we move from the judges and their clerk to the prosecuting gentry and magistrates. The importance of Jonathan Lumby’s work lies in the light it sheds on something not previously recognised as important: the related trial of Jennet Preston of Gisburn. Historians have been at a loss to explain why Thomas Potts added an account of this trial in distant York to that of the Lancaster one. The simplistic assumption has been that the Pendle investigation threw up evidence relating to the Yorkshire events, which was duly forwarded and acted upon. Closer investigation reveals the interdependence of the two trials. The Yorkshire events took place only just across the county border, a few miles up the Ribble Valley from the Pendle area.

The gentry accusers and magistrates in both cases were part of the same Protestant social network, and both had family experience of suffering at the alleged hands of witches. The breakthrough in both cases came when Roger Nowell, the Pendle magistrate, extracted from the two child witnesses, James Device and Jennet Device, a string of allegations, and it was this evidence above all that hanged both Jennet Preston and the Lancashire witches. Young Jennet Device’s canny observation that the recently hanged Jennet Preston was missing from the ranks of the Lancashire accused provided one of the climactic moments of the Lancaster trial, but also in a sense of the York trial. It had a powerful impact on the courtroom audience and appeared to validate both convictions. Indeed, it may even be that the York trial helped to bring about the Lancaster one, for Jennet Preston had earlier that year been tried unsuccessfully for witchcraft at York Lent Assizes. The news of this was still fresh as Nowell received the first reports of witchcraft in Lancashire and reacted with such unusual vigour.

Jonathan Lumby’s close attention to the parish registers of Gisburn (where he was a minister at the time of his researches) and neighbouring Bracewell, and to other time-consuming local sources of a kind which academic historians often neglect to follow up, uncovers a whole web of connections, with numerous suggestions of family intrigue and manipulation. The issue of whether Lister senior really did die on the day of his son’’s wedding is obscured by a smudge in a 400-year-old parish register, but the argument does not depend on it: insights at this level of detail into cases of witchcraft are rare indeed. To these perhaps dramatic events, Jonathan Lumby brings an individual perspective on family breakdown, persecution and victimisation, reminding us that historians (fortunately) do not have a monopoly on interpretations of the past.

Taken together, the three chapters in this section show us the full range of forces coming to bear on the case of a few miserable witches in a remote corner of England, from royal policy down to family feuds. At the centre is Thomas Potts, the Clerk of Arraigns, busily organising both trial and text, accusers and victims, evidence and record. The three authors’ expertise ranges widely, but at the core of each chapter is a close reading of Thomas Potts’ account of the trial, not as a mere record of events (although it is in part that) but as both creation and creator of the very events it purports to record. At our closest possible approach to these events, hard facts disappear; it turns out that our evidence is stories and the stories are evidence. Historical texts have to be approached as a kind of narrative claim, rather than as a window on the truth. But far from undermining the possibility of historical knowledge, this approach leads us towards an awareness of witchcraft as an aspect of the past constructed from a mixture of events and imagination. We cannot separate the history from the stories, and our understanding of both is the richer because of it.

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Also published on Medium.

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