Written by: Isabelle Sher
Extracts taken from the work that earned Thomas Potts the King’s favour – and which is entitled The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster.
Thomas Potts triumphantly abandoned his quill and took up the finished manuscript in his hands. He could not help but smile, for it was this work that would make his name. This was how history would remember him, for accounting a trial so bizarre and wonderful that it was almost certain to attract the attention of readers throughout the kingdom, maybe even King James himself. Stretching, he rose and made his way to the fireplace. Outside the wind raged and rattled the windows. With every gale the rain changed direction, so that sometimes it hit the glass with a force that made him jump and his ink smudge. It was five in the evening and very dark. He would not have the shutters closed yet however. Thomas relished the brutality of a cold and bleak November evening.
He turned to the completed work that now lay dormant on his writing bureau. The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. A spectacle that he had witnessed and after which the judges, Sir James Altham and Sir Edward Bromley, had commissioned him to compile for publishing. Who better than the clerk of the Lancaster Assizes? His mind fleetingly turned to the irony of the situation – as ten witches hung, their lives at an end, his own future was about to begin. How much did he owe to the testimony of that scruffy nine-year-old girl, Jennet Device?
He poured himself a little wine and leaned heavily against the mantelpiece, glass in hand, reminiscing on the events of that day and, more importantly, the testimony of that strange little girl…
18-19 August 1612 – Lancaster Castle.
Thomas Potts cleared his throat. His fingers quivered slightly as he squinted at the papers before him. The atmosphere of the courtroom was distracting. The air was sticky and still, a horrid hot sweat lined his back, cold as his clothes pressed into him. He turned to look at the magistrate, Richard Nowell, the man responsible for the organisation of the proceedings taking place today. Nowell was a man of ambition, what he had achieved would no doubt set a precedent for future trials of this kind. Thomas glanced to the judges, Sir James Altham fumbled with one of his rings, nodding thoughtfully as Sir Edward Bromley spoke in a hushed whisper. The jury was mostly silent. Thomas tapped his fingers on the wooden desk before him as a general hush signalled the beginning of the proceedings. Thomas quickly took up his quill, poised to start.
One by one the women and men stood before the judges. Thomas wrote diligently, the quill scratching audibly against the paper. A part of him wanted to glance upwards to witness what was taking place before him but he did not want to see Nowell. He did not want to look upon the smug face that had brought these people to trial, however heinous their crimes.
Allison Device, the young girl who had bewitched a pedlar resulting in his death, left the dock, her mother Elizabeth taking her place. It was Elizabeth’s mother, old Demdike, who had been known as the local ‘cunning woman’. Since her imprisonment however, she had passed away in the prison. As the two women swapped places Thomas abandoned his quill to the desk and, unable to resist, allowed himself one fleeting look at the woman. He was horrified by the figure that stood before him. She was hunched, frail and filthy, grasping at the railings with horrible thin fingers. Her face was evil, her mouth pulled downwards into a grimace, her chin sagged, her skin so grey it almost shone. It was her eyes however that revolted him most. He began to write:
This odious Witch was branded with a preposterous mark in nature, even from her birth, which was her left eye, standing lower than the other; the one looking down, the other looking up, so strangely deformed, as the best that were present in that Honourable assembly, and great Audience, did affirm, they had not often seen the like.
It was then that her youngest daughter, Jennet, was brought out to testify against her own mother. The old hag screamed such violent threats, such appalling language as made the court gasp and the judges shake their heads. Thomas was appalled, they were such words as could not be repeated in writing. No doubt overcome by the circumstances in which she had been placed, the young girl began to weep bitterly, saying that she would only testify if her mother was removed from the room. The screaming woman was dragged from the dock. Thomas wrote again:
In the end, when no means would serve, his Lordship commanded the Prisoner to be taken away, and the Maid to be set upon the Table in the presence of the whole Court
Jennet clambered on to the table and spoke calmly and articulately of the crimes her mother had committed. Thomas was in awe. From a group of individuals imprisoned in the castle, she also picked out all those who were present at the Good Friday meeting of the witches at Malkin Tower, the home of her grandmother. Each was taken by the hand. One of the judges then attempted to trick Jennet, creating a fictional character of the name Ioane a Downe, and asking if she had been present on Good Friday. The little girl testified that she had not seen the woman, nor had ever heard of her name. Thomas looked again at Jennet. The girl was surely speaking the truth. She looked unflinchingly back at him.
The court was spellbound.
All of Jennet’s family were put to death. Ironically, in 1633, Jennet Device would be in court once more, accused of witchcraft by ten-year-old Edmund Robinson.
Image: Salem witch trial. Witch trial in Salem, Massachusetts, lithograph by George H. Walker, 1892. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-pga-02986)