The Women of the Pendle Witch Trials

Sarah L King is a writer living in West Lothian, Scotland with her husband and young children. A childhood spent in Lancashire listening to stories of the notorious Pendle witches inspired an interest in the history of witchcraft, leading her to complete her undergraduate dissertation on the subject at Lancaster University in 2006. In more recent years, Sarah has channelled her interests into historical fiction, publishing her first novel about the Pendle witches, The Gisburn Witch, in 2015. Her second Pendle witches novel, A Woman Named Sellers, is set for publication later this year.

“Get out of my ground whores and witches, I will burn one of you, and hang the other!” Richard Baldwin, a miller, is reputed to have called out to some unwelcome visitors to his mill-house. The subjects of his angry words were Elizabeth Southerns, alias Old Demdike, an old woman of around eighty years, and her grand-daughter, Alizon Device. [1]

“Revenge thee either of him, or his,” the aged woman uttered in reply. She later confessed that these words were spoken to a spirit familiar named Tibb. [2]

The day after this angry exchange, the miller’s daughter fell ill and a year later, she died. In 1612, Elizabeth Southerns, her grand-daughter, and countless others in the Forest of Pendle found themselves accused of witchcraft. By the summer of the same year, Elizabeth Southerns had died in prison, whilst her daughter and two of her grandchildren had been sent to the gallows.

Academic study of the history of witchcraft accusations has already painted a vivid picture of the sorts of women who were vulnerable to the cry of ‘witch!’: those who were impoverished and living on the edges of their community, those who dabbled in herbal medicine, those who were widowed. Such women were often regarded as suspicious, malevolent, and dangerous. [3]

However, the miller’s choice of words, his furious blending of insults which suggest both sexual promiscuity and devilish practices, underscore a theme which is prevalent throughout the story of the Pendle Witch Trials in 1612. His association of these two words, although doubtlessly uttered angrily and in the heat of the moment, nonetheless betray a psychological link between two forms of unacceptable and threatening behaviour.

It is an unsurprising find; after all, even nowadays the language used to characterise feminine seductive behaviour is often intrinsically linked to witchcraft. If a woman is considered attractive and charming then she is also bewitching, beguiling, and capable of putting men under her spell. In modern western culture, such language might seem whimsical or, at the very worst, irritatingly objectifying. However, a closer examination of some of the women caught up in the 1612 trials reveals that in the early modern period, perceptions of their sexual behaviour were used to both ridicule and condemn them, contributing to the idea that these women posed a danger to their communities.

Illegitimacy in the Device/Southerns Family

One of the ‘whores’ to whom Richard Baldwin referred was probably Elizabeth Southerns. We know from the evidence given at the trial that she had two children, Elizabeth Device (nee Ingham) and an older son called Christopher Holgate.[4] By 1612, Elizabeth was an elderly widow, her husband Thomas Ingham long deceased. It seems likely that her elder child, Christopher, was born out of wedlock prior to her marriage in 1563. [5] If this was the case, this would have been well-known around the small communities of Pendle; a source of gossip at the time and for many years to come, recalled easily to mind as it was by the miller during that angry exchange.

To the further detriment of the family reputation, her daughter Elizabeth Device appears to have followed suit. Elizabeth married John Device in 1590, and together they had three children; James, Alizon, and Henry, who died in childhood. John Device seems to have died in 1600 and, in the same year, Elizabeth gave birth to another daughter, Jennet. Whilst it is mathematically possible (just) for Jennet to have been John’s child, it does seem more likely that the child was the product of an extra-marital affair; certainly, this seems to have been the prevalent belief amongst their neighbours. [6] When questioned by the local Justice of the Peace, Roger Nowell, in spring 1612, Elizabeth confessed that she had bewitched John Robinson to death because ‘the said Robinson had chidden and becalled [her] for having a bastard-child with one Seller’. [7]

In 1612, mother, daughter and grandchildren lived together in an isolated cottage, teetering on the edge of dire poverty, a substantial part of their small income coming from begging. Through the insults and mockery levelled at them by their neighbours, we see a picture emerging of an undesirable family, and the emphasis placed upon their sexual morality plays a significant part in this. If they were so morally bankrupt that they would lie with men outside of marriage, that they bore illegitimate children, just what else were they capable of? How exactly did they ensnare these men; was it simply their feminine wiles, or something altogether more malign? We can imagine the gossiping tongues wagging.

Jennet Preston and the Death of Thomas Lister

Another pertinent example of how this underlying concern with improper sexual conduct played a role in the 1612 trials is found in the case against Jennet Preston. Jennet lived in Gisburn, now in Lancashire but at the time in Craven, Yorkshire. As a result, she was tried separately from the other so-called witches, her trial taking place in York a month before the Assizes in Lancaster.

Jennet was accused of bewitching to death Master Thomas Lister, a gentleman of Westby Hall, Gisburn, and of plotting to kill Master Lister’s son and brother, to which end she was alleged to have enlisted the help of her friends, the Devices. She was found guilty and hanged at Knavesmire, York in July 1612.

Unlike Elizabeth Southerns and Elizabeth Device, there are no examples of Jennet being mocked or ostracised by her community for her sexual conduct; there are no accusations of bearing illegitimate children or having illicit affairs. Nonetheless, a careful read between the lines of the court transcripts paints a picture of the undesirable, even dangerous behaviour which probably contributed to Jennet’s downfall.

The court clerk, Thomas Potts, takes great pains to stress that Jennet ‘was for many years well thought of and esteemed by Master Lister’ and ‘had access to his house, kind respect and entertainment’. Indeed, Potts says, ‘nothing [was] denied her [that] she stood in need of’. Everyone knew it, he says: ‘which of you that dwelleth near them in Craven but can and will witness it?’[8]

Potts’ words were intended to demonstrate how a kindly gentleman was cruelly tricked by an evil witch who repaid his generosity with her callous and ungodly actions. Yet, they betray something much deeper; behind Potts’ moral posturing, we get a sense of a close, long-standing relationship between Master Lister and Jennet. [9] This begs an inevitable question; was this simply a wealthy man doting on a servant, or something more? Was Jennet, in fact, his mistress? The plot thickens when we consider Master Lister’s dying words:

‘When Master Lister lay upon his death-bed, he cried out in great extremity: Jennet Preston lays heavy upon me, Preston’s wife lays heavy upon me.’ [10]

In front of the York Assizes, these words were interpreted as an accusation; Master Lister, as he lay dying, had told everyone exactly who had caused his demise. [11] But was that his real meaning? Or, could he have been calling out for the one he loved, the one he wanted to lay his weakening eyes upon just one last time? Or, was he stricken with guilt at conducting an extra-marital affair with Jennet, his panicked words forming a sort of dying confession? [12]

Whatever it was, we can imagine the public humiliation for his family; his wife and his children, when news of his dying words spread. In his community, it would have been far more comfortable to interpret them as the denouncement of a witch than as the long-held affection for an absent lover.

Of course, we will never know for certain. But what is interesting is that whilst this evidence may point to a sexual relationship between the two, it is never explicitly expressed in Potts’ record of the trial. Unlike some of her counterparts, any reference to Jennet’s sexual behaviour is skilfully avoided, undoubtedly due to the sensitivities around the fact that there was an esteemed gentleman involved in this case. Poor, uneducated women were reasonable targets to be scorned for their sexual conduct; wealthy men were another matter entirely.

Dangerous Liaisons

There are many reasons why a woman was considered dangerous enough to be suspected of witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As we have seen in the case of the Pendle witches, perceptions of a woman’s sexual morality undoubtedly played a part in this. At the very least, it was another stick with which to beat them, another way in which their character could be called into question. To the early modern mind, their behaviour was undesirable, even ungodly – did their loose morals mean that they were in league with the devil? At worst, their sexual behaviour became a motive to scorn them as a witch – a convenient, convincing accusation when no other might do.

In the early modern period, women who bore children outside of wedlock, or had affairs with other men, or indeed with gentlemen, were seen to be subverting the normal social order. Their behaviour challenged an accepted view of how the world should be, and how women should behave within it.

This made them dangerous, and for onlookers in their communities, it begged the question: if they could do this, what else were they capable of?


[1] Thomas Potts, Potts’s Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, (Chetham Society, 1845), accessed 26th March 2016

[2] Thomas Potts, op. cit.

[3] The academic field of study is vast. Some strong research into the socio-economic context of witchcraft accusations has been laid out in A MacFarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, (London: Routledge, 1970) and K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, (London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1971), whilst the vulnerability of practitioners of midwifery and medicine to witchcraft accusations is explored in Ehrenreich, B and English, D, Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (Writers & Readers, 1976)

[4] Thomas Potts, op. cit. In Pott’s list of those who attended the witches’ Sabbath at Malkin Tower, Christopher Holgate is listed as Demdike’s son.

[5] Some invaluable research into the family history of Elizabeth Southerns has been conducted by John Clayton, advancing the view that Christopher Holgate was illegitimate. See John A Clayton, The Lancashire Witch Conspiracy, (Barrowford Press, 2007), p.198-217

[6] John A Clayton, op cit, p. 218-221.

[7] Thomas Potts, op cit.

[8] Thomas Potts, op cit.

[9] This view is advanced by Jonathan Lumby in Jonathan Lumby, The Lancashire Witch Craze: Jennet Preston and the Lancashire Witches, 1612, (Preston: Carnegie, 1995), p.75-77

[10] Thomas Potts, op cit.

[11] Thomas Potts, op cit. The evidence given by Anne Robinson and Thomas Lister Jr is particularly damning in this regard.

[12] Jonathan Lumby makes a strong case for reinterpreting Lister’s dying words, supporting the theory that a romantic relationship existed between Master Lister and Jennet Preston, and that this ultimately led to the accusations of witchcraft laid before her. See Jonathan Lumby, op cit, p.70-81