The Lancashire Witch Trials: Part 1

Mother Chattox, Alizon, and Dorothy.
From The Lancashire Witches, A Romance of Pendle Forest, by William Harrison Ainsworth (1854)

2012 marks the four hundredth anniversary of the Lancashire Witch trials, the biggest peacetime witch trial ever held in England. The Public Domain Review today features an article by Robert Poole about the trial. Like most witch trial accounts, the story is both fascinating and depressing — not because of the occult aspects, but because of the demonstration these trials provide of how credulous and hateful human beings can be.

Unfortunately, these accounts are still relevant cautionary tales to us, today.

Poole’s article covers the history of the trial quite well. I’m going to focus on two specific aspects of the case. In this post, I’ll talk about the anti-Catholic aspects of witch trials. In my next post, I’ll discuss the reliance on (and abuse of) child testimony.

The Anti-Catholic Aspects of Witch Trials

Poole alludes to the fact that vestiges of “popery” — Roman Catholic practices, including the veneration of saints and the belief in the mystical powers of relics — still remained in the Pendle area of Lancashire, some seventy-five to eighty years after the establishment of the Church of England. As Walter Scott puts it, in Letter 8 of the Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft:

It appears that this remote county was full of Popish recusants, travelling priests, and so forth; and some of their spells are given in which the holy names and things alluded to form a strange contrast with the purpose to which they were applied, as to secure a good brewing of ale or the like. The public imputed to the accused parties a long train of murders, conspiracies, charms, mis-chances, hellish and damnable practices, ” apparent,” says the editor [1], ” on their own examinations and confessions,” and, to speak the truth, visible nowhere else.

In fact, according to Poole, that region of England had an especially strong underground Catholic presence. One wonders if some of the “great meetings of witches” that came up during the trial — if they happened at all — might have been secret Catholic masses. There also could have been fear among the authorities that such meetings were held to hatch secret plots against the Protestant establishment. It’s especially telling to me that one of the accused, Alice Nutter, was a wealthy landowner of good reputation; the majority of accused witches throughout this period of history were peasants, and usually lone elderly women — the most marginalized segment of the population. Alice Nutter, on the other hand, was not only rich, but had Catholic connections, perhaps was secretly Catholic herself. And unlike other wealthy women who were accused of witchcraft (Scott tells the story of Lady Fowlis in Letter 5 of The Letters), Nutter was found guilty and hanged, along with nine others.

Scott (in Letter 8 of The Letters) observes that the frequency of witchcraft accusations and trials in Britain and British territories is directly related to the authority of Calvinists during a given period of time, or in a given location. Some of the most infamous witch hunts occurred in Scotland; in England during the reign of James I [2] and during Cromwell’s republic; and in the Puritan areas of New England [3].

On the other hand, witch hunts seem to have been much rarer in Ireland. At the time of Scott’s writing (about 1830), the anti-witchcraft statutes were still on the books, presumably because there had never been enough atrocity committed under the statutes to force their removal. Dr. Andrew Sneddon, author of the book Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland, 1586-1946, found evidence of only three witch trials in Ireland, involving eleven accused — far fewer than the number of accused in Scotland, or even Salem, where two hundred people were accused, and twenty executed.

It’s not that Anglicans were fond of Catholics, either; but (going on Scott’s characterization) Anglicans were more moderate in their dislike, and generally objected most to the mysticism and superstition of many Catholic beliefs and practices (including, say, both the need for and the practice of exorcism). Calvinists, on the other hand, detested the Catholic Church. To borrow what someone once said about The Tea Party and Obama: if the Pope had come out in favor of oxygen, the Calvinists would have stopped breathing, oxygen clearly being a tool of the devil.

We have already stated that, as extremes usually approach each other, the Dissenters, in their violent opposition to the Papists, adopted some of their ideas respecting demoniacs; and we have now to add that they also claimed, by the vehemence of prayer and the authority of their own sacred commission, that power of expelling devils which the Church of Rome pretended to exercise by rites, ceremonies, and relics.

— Walter Scott, Letter 8 of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft

Reminds me of those political and religious groups that whip their base into the fear of “creeping Sharia Law” taking over the United States, while simultaneously behaving as if this country were an especially repressive Christian theocracy. That’s all I’m going to say on the subject, others are more eloquent on it than I am.

Next post: the use and abuse of child testimony in witch hunts.

[1] The “editor” to whom Scott refers is Thomas Potts, clerk of the court during the Lancashire Witch trials, and a bit of a toady towards the rabidly anti-witchcraft King James I. Potts published his account of the trial, The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, in 1613.

[2] I’m not sure if James was actually a Calvinist — his mother was Mary Queen of Scots, who was Catholic — but he was Scot, and had Calvinist tutors. Certainly he was quite enthusiastic about witch hunts.

[3] Scott’s comment on the Salem witch trials: “Even the barbarous Indians were struck with wonder at the infatuation of the English colonists on this occasion, and drew disadvantageous comparisons between them and the French, among whom, as they remarked, ‘the Great Spirit sends no witches.'” (Letter 8)

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