Hi all, this programme differs from the show which was advertised. I spent the better part of three weeks, on and off, on the advertised show – an epic Western transposed to Central Asia in the 1920s. I researched, wrote, recorded a podcast episode – then went back to the script and rewrote to match exactly what I recorded for the blog. I was generally pretty happy. Then a mass shooting happened in Atlanta – which suddenly opened my eyes to the Sinophobic – generally Asia-phobic – spate of violence going on in the USA right now….
My concern with the piece – a glimpse into the life of Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg – a sociopathic warlord who became de facto ruler of Mongolia for a time in 1921 – is that he and his army were responsible for the mass slaughter of Chinese soldiers and civilians.
While I reserve the right to post on some horrible history
I also reserve the right to pull the plug on something if I think
It may upset people, especially if communities of those people are under attack by cretins looking for a whipping boy for the pandemic we are currently living through
There is a chance some fascist goon might get off on something I wrote and share it on a fascist goon message board, to emphasise a point I never made, nor agree with.. Laugh not, ‘Willie the Wimp’ went viral in the wake of George Floyd’s funeral. I had to set the post to private for weeks.
Anyway, see ya later Ungern… we may come back to you some day.
In my minds eye I can picture Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung aboard that Portuguese vessel in 1682. The young man was headed off on the adventure of a lifetime. The 25 year old Chinese Mandarin, and convert to Christianity had been chosen largely for his fluency in Latin, but I’ve no doubt from what little I’ve read – that he was also the kind of personable young man everyone just took an instant liking to. I imagine him pacing the deck, his mind racing, his stomach a flutter- for today he sets sail for the ends of the earth. Sure China sent envoys to the edge of the Roman empire in Augustus’ time. Zheng He supposedly went everywhere, may have even ‘discovered’ the Americas decades before Columbus. Michael, however would be the first Chinese citizen to travel to Europe. He wasn’t just representing himself, but all Chinese – their culture, their long held beliefs – to many powerful people. Yes, I’m projecting here – putting myself in his shoes – but I don’t see how he couldn’t have been both excited and nervous as hell.
However he felt, he set sail from Macau for Europe, in the company of the Flemish Jesuit Father Philippe Couplet. Two other men were to set sail with them, one – a poet and painter named Wu Li was deemed too old, at 50 to make the journey, and left behind in Macau. As an aside Wu would outlive Shen and Couplet by close to three decades. The other will be named somewhere, but no article writer I could find, found him interesting enough to name him. Their ship was wrecked near Batavia (now Jakarta) Indonesia. The unnamed man caught a boat back to China, while Shen and Couplet waited several months for another boat to take them to Europe.
The men, I suppose you could say, were on a mission for God. Their ultimate destination was Rome – where Father Couplet hoped to convince Pope Innocent XI to rescind the order giving Portugal a monopoly on converting any foreigners unfortunate enough to be ‘discovered’ by a Christian explorer. Secondarily he hoped, in presenting a smart, well presented convert like Shen, he might gain approval to start giving Catholic masses in Chinese (currently they were limited to preaching in Latin – making for a very small net). He hoped Innocent would see Shen, Wu and the mystery third man as ideal candidates for the priesthood. They were unsuccessful in their mission. They would meet in 1685, and Innocent agreed to let the two men tour Europe for the next eight years, but beyond that I have no information about their meeting.
What interests me about Shen’s tale is the other people he met.
The two men arrived in the Netherlands in February 1683. From there they found themselves in the company of Louis XIV of France, at the palace of Versailles. The king spoke with Shen, who taught him how to use chopsticks. The Sun King found Shen an honourable enough man that he ordered all the fountains in the gardens of Versailles turned on – something normally only done when other royals came to visit. Louis agreed to send a mission of scientists to China, and had an engraving made of Shen. Shen then sailed for Britain in 1687, where he met King James II, who commissioned a painting of him by Sir Godfrey Kneller – Kneller’s painting, which remains in the Royal collection is the reason most people seem to blog about Shen. While in London Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung met with Thomas Hyde, the Orientalist and chief librarian at the Bodleian library. Shen went through all the Chinese books in their collection, if I’m reading the sources correctly explaining what each book was about – and even which way up they were. Shen made samples of Chinese script, and explained the Chinese calendar to Hyde, the latter giving future Sinologists, historians and scientists a common timeline to work from.
Shen would leave Britain just prior to James II’s removal for William and Mary. He would take holy orders in 1690, and set sail for China soon after. Unfortunately he died of a fever off the coast of Mozambique, September 2nd 1691.
Why am I sharing this Tale today? There is a poem by William Carlos Williams – The Red Wheelbarrow –
so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens
Setting aside it’s Oriental influence (though not a haiku, it feels very haiku-ish) I can’t help but tackle this tale the same way as the poem. Like Williams’ poem, the sources give us a simple picture of a moment in time. It is up to us to view it, and find significance in it. With the Red Wheelbarrow I could count the ways the barrow earns its keep, from labour saving device to shelter from the storm for the poor chickens, caught out in the rain. With Shen I could picture his joy in ‘discovering’ Europe, and it’s peoples. The many sights and sounds, the food and drink. Though China were in so many ways the ‘developed world’ at this stage, and Europe the back blocks – one could imagine the great joys of sightseeing. The pleasures of breaking bread with welcoming strangers. Perhaps a sense of elation at being seen as novel, fascinating and kind of exotic by an audience – not out to ‘other’ you – and genuinely riveted by the tales of your culture.
Everything I read about Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung, the first person from China to visit Europe, is he was met with kindness wherever he went.
Am I giving a sneaky sermon today? A parable on mutual respect and being a good host… a timely reminder in the midst of this horrible, miserable time to not be a reactionary dickhead and scapegoat immigrants who bear as little responsibility for this pandemic as you do? Maybe. In this case we should all be the Sun King. Be magnanimous. Be welcoming. Don’t assault strangers cause we’re all going through an unpleasant year – and we all beat the virus when we all work together.
I’ll be back in four weeks, with new Tales – both in blog and podcast form.
Check out the previous post , last week for part one of this essay.
ill met by moonlight, John Law…
In March 1612 Justice Roger Nowell was visited by a pedlar named John Law. Law claimed he had been hexed by a witch, causing him to fall ill. On the 21st March, Law was travelling through Trawden Forest when he crossed paths with Alison Device, a young woman of repute in the area as the granddaughter of Elizabeth Southerns – an elderly wise woman known as ‘Old Demdike’. Her whole family were outsiders, presumed to be witches. Device asked Law to sell her some pins. Law refused – maybe because metal pins in 17th century England were expensive and he didn’t believe she had the money, or maybe because witches used pins to cure warts, for divination, and to cast love spells.
Whatever the reason Law told Device it was not worth the bother of unpacking half his bag on the roadside for so small a sale. They argued for a while, Alizon claiming Law called her a thief, then went their separate ways. Seconds later Law collapsed. John Law struggled back to his feet and stumbled into a nearby inn.
The best guess these days is he suffered a minor stroke, but to add context it was almost half a century before a Swiss doctor called Johan Wepfer began to unravel what caused these apoplexies- as they were then called. There was no real understanding among experts, let alone everyday people to explain what happened to John Law.. so magical thinking did not seem unreasonable. At first John Law didn’t believe he had been hexed, but in the following days his son Abraham convinced him this is exactly what had happened.
Alizon Device, on the other hand needed no convincing. From a family of wise women, folk healers with a magical edge, she truly believed she had supernatural powers, and that day had caused the devil to strike John Law down. When Abraham Law came round and took her to see John. Alizon broke down and confessed to hexing him, and begged him for forgiveness.
On the 30th March 1612 Alizon, her mother Elizabeth, and her brother James were summoned to appear before Justice of the Peace Roger Nowell.
Now if you’re thinking poor Alizon and her family, about to face some Kangaroo court over this nonsense… well… fair enough, but what unfolded next might stretch your sympathies a little. The Demdikes are not the easiest of families to warm up to.
At the summons Alizon fessed up to hexing John Law, stating immediately after their fight, the devil appeared to her in the form of a black dog and asked what he should do?
“What canst thou do at him?” she asked the dog. The dog answered “I can lame him”. Alizon thought this was a fantastic idea… then 300 yards down the road John Law fell.
Alizon went on to implicate her grandmother, Old Demdike, in the killing of a cow through witchcraft. Her brother James added to their troubles, claiming Alizon had bewitched a young child. Elizabeth mostly stayed silent but when pushed admitted Old Demdike had a strange mark on her, of the type the devil leaves when he sucks your blood.
Next Alizon, maybe hoping to take the heat off of her, maybe out of revenge for a previous dispute turned in another family of wise women from the town, the Chattoxes.
Ten years earlier a member of the Chattox family had broken into the Devise home and stolen from them. Under questioning Alizon accused the matriarch of the family, Anne Whittle, of the murder of 4 men, including her own father, John Devise.
On 2 April 1612 Old Demdike, Anne Whittle and her daughter, Anne Redferne were brought in. Demdike and the elder Chattox quickly confessed to being witches. Redferne refused to say anything, but old Demdike claimed she’d seen Anne Redferne making clay figures, something like voodoo dolls. Another witness, Margaret Crooke, backed this up, claiming Anne Redferne killed her brother by witchcraft after an argument.
“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty” bringing it back to Bertrand Russell. Would people, in a simpler time be a little terrified at these alleged serial killers turning each other in like this? Honestly, crazy as it all seems now, I could see fear directing a judge into an atrocious ruling. We’ll come to this, but first let’s take a quick ad break.
(Short excerpt from Ishtar’s ‘Space Radio’)
Hi folks welcome back. Where we left off Alizon Device, old Demdike, old Chattox and Anne Redferne had faced justice Roger Nowell on what began as a single charge of witchcraft, and quickly indicted themselves in multiple acts of murder and malice. On April 10th 1612 friends and family got together to discuss what to do now, and the suitably witchy sounding Malkin Tower. I come Malkin Towers…
The name Malkin tower immediately makes me think of witchcraft. My reasoning there’s a line in Shakespeare’s Macbeth where one of the witches calls to her familiar “I come Greymalkin”. Truthfully grimalkin is a medieval word for cat, and malkin can mean cat, a woman from a low born family, a weakling or even, a mop. I Google image searched Malkin tower and come across a lone tower on a windswept looking hill. Desolate and spooky it looked exactly like the kind of place where wise women would brew potions … then I began to dig a little to find it was a Victorian folly called ‘Blacko tower’ Malkin tower, the home of Alizon’s grandmother old Demdike was demolished long ago, was probably a normal old cottage, the exact location lost to history.
On the 10th April Alizon’s mother Elizabeth called friends and family to malkin tower to plan to save their loved ones. The meeting could have gone unnoticed but for James Device stealing a neighbour’s sheep to provide food. The neighbors reported the theft, and meeting to justice Nowell…who concluded the meeting must have been a coven of witches. He arrested eight more people for witchcraft, following an inquiry on April 27th 1612. Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock, Jane Bulcock, Alice Grey and Jennet Preston were all brought in. Preston would be tried separately – she lived across the border and fell under the jurisdiction of York. A digression into being buried alive…
Jennet Preston faced the courts first, at the York Assizes on 27th July. Presiding judges were witch hater James Altham and the desperate to re-locate Sir Edward Bromley. Preston had previously beaten a charge of using witchcraft to kill a child in 1611. She was now charged with the murder of a nobleman, Thomas Lister, four years earlier. On his death bed, surrounded by family and friends, Lister had cried out “Jennet Preston lyes heauie vpon me, Preston’s wife lies heauie vpon me; helpe me, helpe me“
What damned Jennet Preston was when she was viewing Lister’s body, laid out in state, he began to bleed profusely. Superstition has it if a corpse bleeds in someone’s presence the deceased is pointing out their murderer from the other side.
Now keep in mind the test for death at this time was to listen for a heartbeat and check for signs of breathing, and this was rarely done by an actual doctor, we shouldn’t be too surprised people occasionally got buried alive… well possibly more than occasionally – we mostly know just the near misses. A few decades after Thomas Lister in 1661, Lawrence Cawthorn, a butcher from London was accidentally buried alive. He had fallen ill and, his landlord knowing he would inherit Cawthorn’s possessions if he died in his property – sent him off to be buried. As the last sod of earth was loaded on the coffin all in attendance could hear Cawthorn screaming so quickly dug him back up, but not quite quickly enough – they opened the coffin to find he had shredded his shroud and beaten his face to a pulp trying to break the coffin open with his head.
Alice Blunden of Basingstoke was buried in 1674 and was far luckier. A group of children heard her screams, and people were able to dig her out in time. The Irish philosopher John Dun Scotus was accidentally buried alive in 1308, only discovered years later from deep scratch marks on the inside of the lid. I digress but to me at least it makes sense the rumours of Mr Lister’s death were greatly exaggerated, and it makes none that he bled on command to indict his killer.
It also strikes me as odd this incident only came up in 1612. Jennet Preston strongly proclaimed her innocence but was found guilty. She was executed by hanging on 29th July 1612. The others all went to trial at the Lancaster Assizes on the 18th – 19th August 1612.
The Pendle witches weren’t the only witch trial that day; The Salmesbury Witches were charged with using witchcraft to murder, and with cannibalism. Sir Edward Bromley was presiding judge. The court clerk was a man named Thomas Potts. Potts would gain fame from the book he wrote on the trial, The wonderful discoverie of witches in the countie of Lancaster – to this day the main source of information on the Pendle and Salmesbury Witches. The Salmesbury Witches.
The Salmesbury Witches were three women – Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley – who were accused of murdering and eating a baby. Their accuser was a 14 year old relative of the Bierleys, Grace Sowerbutts. They were also accused of using witchcraft to make Grace’s life hell. They all proclaimed their innocence.
Their trial began with a prepared statement from Grace Sowerbutts. Grace claimed her grandmother, Jennet, Aunt Ellen and Jane Southworth could transform themselves into dogs. That they had “haunted and vexed her”, in her own words, for years. These vexings took the form of magically picking her up and dropping her atop a haybail by her hair, and hypnotically convincing her to drown herself.
Grace had also claimed they took her to the house of a Thomas Walshman and his wife, taking their baby outside, then sucking the child’s blood. The baby died the following night. Grace claimed her grandmother and aunt had then stolen the child’s corpse, to cook and eat the body.
Thomas Walshman took the stand, and confirmed he had a child who died suddenly. There was an uproar from the public gallery.
“If what this girl says is true then we need to know more, bring her back up and examine her further”
Under further examination Grace lost it and broke down. Her tale unravelled and a distraught Grace finally started to tell the truth. The Salmesbury witches had all been Catholic, but converted to the Anglican church. They were much happier with the church of England. Jane Southworth’s uncle, Christopher Southworth, sometimes aka Christopher Thompson, was a Catholic priest, who covertly ran his own church. When the ladies converted they had a falling out, and he began to plot revenge on them. His plan, to get 14 year old Grace to make the accusation. Why Grace went along with it isn’t clear, and what happened to her and Christopher has been lost to history, but the Salmesbury Witches were released without charge.
The Pendle witches were not so lucky. They, for one had their own accusatory minor to deal with – 9 year old Jennet Device – Alizon’s sister- was called as a key witness. Even in 1612 the evidence of a child so young was banned, except, thanks to James I, in the case of witch trials. A number of the accused were known Wise Women – pagan folk healers.. Of course a number of guilty pleas had been made already too. Old Demdike, in her 80s when taken into custody, died before the trial started.
The Pendle Witch Trials…
First up was Anne Whittle. Accused by Alizon of murdering four men she pled not guilty on the charge of killing Robert Nutter. Unfortunately she had made a confession earlier, which was read out to the court. A boarder at her house was also called to the stand. He stated he recalled Nutter claiming she turned his beer sour before he died. A tearful Anne broke down in court, admitted guilt, and begged God’s forgiveness.
Elizabeth Device, Alizon’s mother, was accused of the murders of two men by herself, James and John Robinson, and of helping Old Demdike kill Henry Mitton. She plead not guilty. 9 year old Jennet Device was called in to give evidence and Elizabeth lost all composure and had to be escorted out, screaming at Jennet to stop what she was doing before she signed the family’s death warrant. Unfortunately no one challenged the child’s evidence – Jennet told the court Elizabeth had been a witch for 3 or 4 years, and had a familiar – a brown dog called Ball, who she called on to hex her victims.
Her son James also gave evidence against Elizabeth, though accused of being a witch himself, pleading not guilty to the murders of Anne Townley and John Duckworth. Jennet took the stand again to accuse James. Elizabeth and James Device were both found guilty.
Anne Redferne, daughter of Anne Whittle, also known as Chattox was found guilty the following day of the murder of Robert Nutter’s father, Christopher, based on the evidence of the now deceased Old Demdike. The Bulcocks, Jane, and her son John were up next. They were dragged into this mess because they had attended the Malkin tower meeting- something they denied. Again 9 year old Jennet Device gave evidence against them and they were found guilty of the murder of a woman called Jennet Deane.
Alice Nutter, who had come to the malkin towers meeting to support the family found herself entangled with the murder of Henry Mitton. She was also found guilty. Katherine Hewitt and Alice Grey, both also attendees at the Malkin towers meeting were accused of killing a child called Anne Foulds. Hewitt was found guilty, while Grey was let go, found not guilty.
Finally it was Alizon Device’s turn. The woman who started the whole witch hunt off by wishing ill on the pedlar John Law. This was pretty much a non event. Device sincerely believed she had harmed Law and tearfully confessed to hexing him that day in the forest. She was found guilty. All but Alice Grey were sentenced to hang, a sentence carried out the following day. When I mentioned to my mum I was doing a podcast on the Pendle witches she was particularly interested in the testimony of young Jennet, and said she learned at school Jennet Device gave evidence to get in with the in crowd… sold out her family to be popular. It backfired, she was shunned the rest of her life. I couldn’t find this in the sources, maybe it had become a cautionary tale not to dob your parents in for stuff? Who knows? It does seem very possible though.
There is evidence though a Jennet Device faced a witch trial herself in 1634. Accused by a ten year old boy, Edmund Robinson, she was found guilty of the murder of Isabel Nutter…. The same Nutter family who allegedly lost several family members to the older Devices…. The boy’s evidence was later found to be false, but she seems to have spent the rest of her life in jail regardless. Sir Edward Bromley’s work did please the king, and he got his promotion in 1616. Conclusion.
So that was the tale of the Pendle witches, I hold to my interpretation that it was the result of a combination of primitive superstition, political opportunism, petty revenge, and possibly a need by some young, unreliable witnesses to fit in and/ or be agreeable to authority figures. While, in my opinion there was all kinds of crazy in play here it is also worth noting that in 1998 when it came before parliament to pardon the Pendle Witches, British Home Secretary Jack Straw refused to do so.
On 27th August 2008 the Swiss Parliament ruled the 1782 beheading of Anna Goldi – generally accepted as the last execution for witchcraft in Europe – a miscarriage of justice, and exonerated her. This prompted supporters of the Pendle witches to try again, but yet again the British Government refused to overturn the convictions.
I hope you found this episode interesting. Please subscribe to our podcast, give us a positive review on whatever podcaster you are listening in on. Please share our podcast round with anyone you know who likes history and strange tales. Please follow us on the Tales of History and Imagination podcast Facebook page, more social media pages coming soon – and drop me a line. Music has been provided by Ishtar, who incidentally had a song about Pendle Hill in their set in the mid to late 2000s, research, writing and all that production stuff by me. Thanks for listening, and I will see you in two weeks for more tales of History and Imagination.
[Outro music- ‘Space Radio’ by Ishtar]
This Tale is part two of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.
Hey everyone go check out https://www.podbean.com/eu/pb-3dtwh-bf85d9for the First of our Podcasts! The internet tells me people like choice, so I am posting the transcript on here for the readers out there. It’s long so I’m posting in two parts.
Hi folks and welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, my name is Simone. Today’s tale is about a woman named Alizon Device, and her untimely death on 20th August 1612. This is a tale of witchcraft, allegations of murder and of 10 executions. On the teaser for this podcast I quoted the philosopher Bertrand Russell…
“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom”
Irrational fear definitely helps explain this story, but it really is only one element. Political opportunism and scapegoating are factors, not to mention the lengths a young outsider will go to just to fit in with the crowd. I should also point out, while witch hunts took a massive number of lives in Europe – the figure I was told when younger of 600,000 dead is now thought an exaggeration, the ballpark is still in hundreds of thousands- In England only around 500 people were executed for witchcraft. That a single case lead to 2% of the countries’ total executions makes the story of the Pendle Witches significant.
We’ll get to the case but first today I’m going to spend a little time looking at how we got to the witch trials in England – and while I want to mention a few European milestones, I’m not jumping into the witch trials at Navarre, and Wurtzburg and such.. it is too deep a rabbit hole. I should also say up front – do I believe in witches? Well, I believe many witches were folk healers with pagan beliefs. And, yes I believe some witches wished people misfortune- but that leaves you a long long way from proving anything supernatural. I do believe the witch hunts were an atrocity.. so, without further ado. Welcome to episode 1, Something Wicked This Way Comes.
[Theme music plays, an excerpt from Ishtar’s ‘The Enemy Within’]
Witches in Antiquity.
So, by way of background.. Tales of Witchcraft go all the way back to antiquity. The old testament of the bible mentions witches. In 1 Samuel, written possibly as early as the 10th century BC, King Saul calls on the witch of Endor to summon the ghost Samuel to help the Israelites defeat the Philistines. The witch instead prophesied the deaths of Saul and his sons, which is what the bible says happened. It should not surprise anyone the writers of the bible didn’t love witches… in Exodus, just after dealing with the 10 commandments, the book states “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. If you were to sum up early responses to witches, early people viewed them as frightening, mysterious, but at times useful.
Stories of persecution and execution of witches go way back in antiquity in a number of civilizations – as do stories of turning to witches for assistance. In Ancient Greece for example anyone who was anyone would travel to the Oracle of Delphi for advice on matters of importance. On the flipside you get stories such as the public execution of Theoris of Lemnos and her family in Athens for practicing witchcraft in the 4th century BC. What she did exactly was not recorded by the statesman Demosthenes, but she was believed to practice folk healing, and may, possibly have poisoned someone. Nearly 200 years later Plato would write in his ‘Symposium’ that he saw practitioners of magic as maleficent beings, but tied their powers to the God Eros.
Some earlier philosophers actually courted public belief in their magical powers. Pythagoras had some believing he could be in two places at once, could make predictions, and could bite poisonous snakes before the snakes could bite him. Thales of Miletus surely was risking life and limb a little when he predicted a solar eclipse, and used this knowledge to bring about a truce with the warring Medes in 585 BC. The Medes, thinking it was an open from the gods to cool it stopped. Empedocles was so intent on proving himself supernatural to the locals he jumped into the volcano at Mt Etna, thinking when he disappeared the people would think he flew into the heavens and was a God. When his sandal got thrown back out somehow the people just realized he’d jumped into a volcano, and burned to death… but, we are getting off track a little… so.
In Ancient Rome it was a capital offense to use witchcraft to blight crops, or destroy one’s flocks or herds, but a great many Patricians would privately consult witches for political or military advice. The writer Plutarch is one example of a guy who believed in omens, even if he was suspicious of witches and magicians. Some apparent folk healers and the like of course pitched themselves as miracle workers and messianic types in the Roman empire. One gets the sense Jesus was one of many, presuming his reality, plying a trade in healing the sick, casting out demons, and flashy shows of magic.
The Middle Ages
The rise of Christianity brought changes to the view of witches especially as the religion extended out into Europe and met with pagan religions. While Christianity may have started from “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” – seen practitioners of any opposing set of beliefs as a threat, but in the 5th Century AD, St Augustine robbed witches of any perceived power by stating belief in witchcraft was primitive superstition, and witchcraft a bit of a nonsense. At a number of church synods, notably at Elvira Spain in 306 and Ankara Turkey in 314 witchcraft had been proclaimed a sin you could take a penance for, rather than something to be executed for. It became the greater heresy to believe in witchcraft than to practice anything resembling witchcraft for much of late antiquity and the early middle ages.
This is not to say there weren’t incidents. Witch hunts clearly occurred during this era, otherwise why make laws banning witch hunts? Charlemagne – the de-facto first Holy Roman emperor, crowned in 800 AD– shocked at news of a spate of recent witch hunts, proclaimed
“If anyone, deceived by the devil, shall believe, as is customary among Pagans that any man or woman is a night- witch and eats men, and on that account burn that person to death… he shall be executed”
In 1100 King Kalman of Hungary banned witch hunts stating “witches do not exist”. The Lombards, of which Charlemagne had once been king, made it clear killing witches would bring dire consequences… A number of other medieval rulers, however did come to see witchcraft as a danger. In 1080 Pope Gregory VII wrote a strongly worded letter to Harald III of Denmark demanding he stop the widespread murder of witches. King Harald had gotten it into his head witches had caused a spate of storms and crop failures. Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious called for all witches and sorcerers to be killed. In Scotland Kenneth MacAlpin – the Pictish king often thought the first king of Scotland called for sorcerers and witches to be burned to death, if they attempt to invoke spirits.
In 900AD, the Canon Episcopi, a church document dealing with Pagan beliefs re-iterated St Augustine’s views, witches don’t exist. It stated definitively the bigger crime is the heresy in believing in such things. From here on for the next few centuries though, in an effort to be consistent – the church began to prosecute witches as heretics – mostly imposing fines.
The Road to Malleus Maleficarum
From around 1300 a belief began to grow that witches were engaged in malicious behaviour; meeting in secret covens to have mass orgies, and eat babies. A Christian cult known as the Cathars had become very popular in Southern France and Northern Italy their brand of religion probably having arrived from Armenia, Persia or the Byzantine Empire via Bulgaria. Threatened, the church became less forgiving of anything considered heretical, the Cathars themselves eventually all but annihilated. From the 15th Century stories began circulating that witches made pacts with the devil and were obliged to carry out wicked deeds and spread misfortune. By this time the crusades in the Near East had opened up access to classical texts lost to the west but preserved by Islam, while some of these texts fed a rise in Renaissance occultism among the upper classes of Europe, it also reinforced negative views towards witchcraft among the scholastic movement.
Now, on occasion accusations of witchcraft were political – Pope Boniface VIII, who died in 1303 not long after being kidnapped and released by the King of France – was posthumously tried for witchcraft, among a raft of other, more serious charges. When the Knights Templar became a little too wealthy and powerful, as the first multi-national corporation to speak of and a money lender to kings – King Philip the Fair, the same pope kidnapping king of France arrested and executed them for heresy and witchcraft, on Friday the 13th October 1307. It is clear Philip 4th liked to excuse his own bad behaviour by claiming his enemies were witches.
In 1486 a Dominican monk and inquisitor named Heinrich Kramer wrote an important book called Malleus Maleficarum, “the hammer against the Witches”. It was a huge best seller, second only to the Bible throughout Europe. It laid out an argument for future, and ongoing inquisitions against witches – covens, human sacrifice, deals with the devil.
All that said, in England concerns over witchcraft were not great…. up till the era of the Stuarts. The Tudor king Henry 8th, possibly more driven by a need to enforce loyalty since making himself head of the Church of England, passed a witchcraft act in 1542 which allowed him to confiscate a witches land, and even put them to death. His daughter, Elizabeth 1st changed the law only allowing the death penalty if someone used witchcraft to murder another. These laws appear largely unused.
Daemonologie… and how to drown a cat….
King James I of England, presided over a time of a great number of witch trials, and this is the time our tale is set in. In 1589 James, then just king of Scotland, was betrothed to Anne of Denmark. In Anne’s first attempt to cross the North Sea she was almost scuttled by a violent storm. James then sailed to her with a fleet of ships. The two of them then almost drowned on the way back – with one of James’ ships was sunk on the return voyage.
The Danish admiral who had attempted the first crossing was sure the bad weather was being caused by witchcraft – he had insulted the wife of a Danish official back in Copenhagen and was sure she had hexed them. This was added to by an official investigation, which pointed the finger at Danish minister of finance, Christopher Valkendorff, for having cheaped out on the ships, but he had managed to defend himself by claiming the incident must be down to witchcraft instead. Several prominent women were tortured, eventually owning up to the attempt on Anne’s life, and twelve women were burnt on the stake as a result.
On his return to Scotland, King James called for his own tribunal, and, unsurprising when you use torture to force confession, found a number of witches. Under torture James’ alleged conspirators confessed to tying a dead man’s genitals to a cat, calling on the devil to kill the royal couple, then throwing the cat into the ocean, among other things.
The North Berwick witch trials themselves deserve an episode, especially the tale of Gellis Duncan, a maid working for one David Seaton whose accusation and torture of Gellis seems more driven out of jealousy and a need to control Gellis – who had of late taken to sneaking out of the house at night, and if you can’t openly punish her for meeting up with a paramour then why not punish her for attempted regicide instead right?
James I wrote a treatise against witchcraft, daemonology, in 1591, which though more nuanced than many of the witch trials were, did state witchcraft had been going on for as long as we have existed and advocated for witch trials. When James claimed the English throne he enacted a witchcraft act in England. But did magistrates believe witches were evil? Some yes, some were no doubt company men, willing to do what the boss asked of them. In 1605 William Shakespeare wrote one of the greatest witch hating, propaganda pieces ever in Macbeth – In the a play the virtuous Macbeth is lead astray by three witches to kill the king and take the crown. Misled by the 3 weird sisters and fuelled by ambition Macbeth sinks Scotland into a repressive tyranny, until the forces of good. children of his slain former friend Banquo, helped by a cast Scottish Thanes and English soldiers defeat him and make all well in the world again – Banquo was an ancestor of James by the way.
Now, Lancaster in the North East of England was a lawless borderland, where theft and violence was common. It was a stronghold of a number of underground Catholic churches, churches who came out of hiding briefly in the reign of Elizabeth’s sister Mary, then went underground in Elizabeth’s reign. There were a number of wise women, the types of folk healers often accused of witchcraft. There were two local judges in the area, Sir James Altham- a virulent witch hater, and Sir Edward Bromley, who was desperate to win James I’s favour and be promoted to a better position closer to London.
By 1612 James was king, and concerned Catholics particularly meant to do him harm, sent out orders to the Justices of the peace to make lists of recusants – those who refused to take part in the protestant church proceedings. In Pendle, Lancaster, this order fell on Roger Nowell. Now this seems a good place to split this script up…