The Pendle Witches: How a Nine-Year-Old Girl Sentenced Her Family to Death 

Written by Marnie Camping-Harris

On the 18 August 1612, a bustling courtroom heard the cries of a mother as she begged her own daughter to spare her life. At only nine-years-old, Jennet Device was the key witness in the trial of the Pendle witches. Twelve villagers were accused and ten of them executed; four of whom were part of Jennet’s immediate family. 

Jennet’s catalytic role in the hunt is emphasised throughout Thomas Potts’ The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, which serves as the foundation for our knowledge of the trial. However, it must be viewed as a reflection on the trial’s events rather than a report, due to the source’s provenance. Firstly, Potts openly stated in his introduction that The Wonderfull Discoverie was commissioned by the trial’s judges. From an analytical perspective, this hinders the validity of the source. As the judges would have had influence on what Potts wrote, they would have altered it to their liking in order to portray themselves and their actions as more definitive and appropriate. Moreover, The Wonderfull Discoverie was dedicated to Thomas Knyvet, who was the courtier that uncovered the Gunpowder Plot, saving the life of King James I. This dedication highlights the parallels that the judges and Potts desired to highlight between their actions in Pendle and Knyvet’s in London; emphasising how they believed to be saving the King’s life through the discovery of this coven. Therefore, once this information is brought to light, the reliability of the source and the true intentions of those behind it can be questioned. 

In order to examine the reasoning behind Jennet’s decision to stand against her family and those close to her, the series of events leading to the trial in August must be examined. For years a feud had been in place between Jennet’s grandmother, Old Demdike, and the other local healing woman, Old Chattox. This feud had started over ten years prior and had allegedly resulted in the death of Jennet’s father, John. However, this feud would have no real effect on the escalation of the witch-hunt, only serving as a demonstration of the dark works associated with the families. 

Suspicion fell onto the Device family initially through Jennet’s older sister, Alizon, who was arrested in March for cursing a pedlar and, with the help of a familiar, causing him to fall into a ‘witchcraft induced illness’. She had encountered John Law on a walk through Trawden Forest, where she asked him for some pins. The desiring of pins is what interested prosecutors, as at the time pins were heavily associated with witchcraft and were often cited as evidence of dark magic in other trials. Upon being refused, a black dog appeared to Alizon and she cursed Law. He subsequently suffered a stroke but managed to get to the nearest town. Despite Law not making any accusations, it appears that Alizon was convinced of her own powers, confessing to the crime and begging forgiveness from him. After preliminary questioning of other members of the Demdike and Chattox families, a meeting was arranged for Good Friday at Malkin Tower, the home of Jennet Device, where the suspicions of the judges and Alizon’s arrest were to be discussed. All those invited were anxious to avoid the prosecutors’ suspicion. The date of the meeting was also curious to the judges, as in Protestant England, Good Friday was still a day of mourning, not a meeting of friends with a sheep being slaughtered for the occasion. It was in this inquiry that nine-year-old Jennet Device emerged as a key witness who, by the virtue of her age, could not be complicit in the actions of her family or those surrounding her. According to Jennet, the meeting was called to give a name to Alizon’s familiar and decided that all those who attended, including her family, were witches. 

This emergence of a nine-year-old as a key witness would not have been permitted in other seventeenth-century trials, however King James I had noted in his Daemonologie that the normal rules of evidence must be suspended for trials of witchcraft and, wanting to appear good in the King’s light, Potts and the judges were willing to make this a strong feature of the trial. Jennet managed to identify all those in attendance at Malkin Tower that Good Friday, and she was also able to give evidence against her own family. On her mother, Elizabeth, Jennet told the prosecutors that she had a familiar in the shape of a brown dog called Ball, and that together they made a clay image of John Robinson in order to crumble it. On her brother, James, Jennet claimed that his familiar was called Dandy, and that at Malkin Tower James had summoned him in order to kill Anne Towneley. James and Elizabeth had confessed to their accused crimes earlier, but at court they had both plead not guilty. It was the evidence that Jennet presented against them that resulted in the jury finding James and Elizabeth guilty, resulting in their execution via hanging.  

However, the reason as to why Jennet was so willing to give over damnable evidence against her own family has always been questioned. It appears that most of the accused, certainly Alizon herself, truly believed in witchcraft and were convinced of their own powers. This honest acceptance of magic and witchcraft could have been enough to make Jennet fearful of her family’s behaviour and when the opportunity to “do right” was put to her, she decided to state her truth. Jennet may have also been overlooked within her family. She was the youngest family member in her home and, according to all the evidence, the only one who did not participate in witchcraft. As the practice of maleficium is sometimes perceived to be a collaborative task, Jennet may have often felt left-out or neglected as she was not involved in the magic her family were exercising. This rejection could have been enough to motivate her to speak out against her family. Yet, the most plausible explanation for Jennet being a key witness to the trial, is that she was persuaded to by Potts and the judges. As mentioned before, a nine-year-old key witness would have certainly pricked the ears of readers of The Wonderfull Discoverie, due to it being so unheard of at the time. The judges would have acknowledged the amount of information Jennet possessed, as well as how detrimental it would be to their trial. Whether she was bribed or not, no-one can say. However, I believe Jennet’s motivation to be a combination of all three. 

The 1612 trial of the Pendle Witches was unique for numerous reasons. The in-depth documentation of the court proceedings was unprecedented, as was the inclusion of a child as key witness. However, the component of this trial that always stands out is how the words of a nine-year-old girl resulted in the death of her grandmother and the execution of her mother, sister and brother, for crimes we know today were never truly committed. 


Bibliography

Walter Bennett, The Pendle Witches (Lancashire County Books, 1993).

Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford University Press, 1999).

John A Clayton, The Lancashire Witch Conspiracy (Barrowford Press, 2007).

Peter Davies, The Trial of the Lancaster Witches (Frederick Muller, 1971).

Marion Gibson, “Thomas Potts’s Dusty Memory: Reconstructing Justice in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches”, in Robert Poole (ed.), The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (Manchester University Press, 2002).

Rachel A C Hasted, The Pendle Witch Trial 1612 (Lancashire County Books, 1993) 

James Sharpe, “Introduction: The Lancaster Witches in Historical Context”, in Robert Poole (ed.), The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (Manchester University Press, 2002) 

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