A Brief History
On August 18, 1612, the trials of the “Pendle Witches” began in England. 22 years later to the day, across the Channel in France, Urbain Grandier was convicted of sorcery and burned alive. Apparently the 18th of August is not a good day to be a witch in Europe, at least not back in the 17th century.
The 12 accused witches of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England were suspected of having used witchcraft to murder 10 people. One of the accused died in prison, and of the 11 who went to trial (two men and nine women), 10 were found guilty and hanged. Only one of the accused was acquitted. From the early 1400’s through the early 1700’s, close to 500 people were convicted of witchcraft in England, and most of them were hanged (as were the witches in Salem, Massachusetts).
The trouble with witches in Lancashire stemmed largely from James I, King of England at the time. James I was fascinated by witches and witchcraft and wrote a book called Daemonologie (1597). In 1612, he feared that witches throughout his realm were conspiring against him, so he ordered the justices of the peace in Lancashire to compile a list of people who did not attend church or who did not support the Church of England, as that area was known to have lingering Catholic sentiments. Those who did not go along with the national religion were suspected of witchcraft and eventually charged with murder, even if their supposed victims had long since died.
The trials of the “Pendle Witches” are unusually well documented because a clerk by the name of Thomas Potts had been directed to write a current account of the proceedings. This account was published in 1613 as The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancaster.
Meanwhile, in France on August 18, 1634, Urbain Grandier, a priest, found himself in Cardinal Richelieu’s disfavor for criticizing his policies, specifically for expressing non-traditional theological beliefs and for questioning celibacy in the Catholic priesthood. Father Grandier became the victim of a political witch hunt and was convicted of having sent the demon Asmodai to do filthy things to a group of nuns in 1632. Allegedly, the mother superior of the convent had her roving eye on Father Grandier, a man known for his sexual prowess. Grandier supposedly rejected her advances, which caused her (a woman scorned!) to seek revenge by accusing him of having used black magic to seduce her.
Although acquitted of seducing the nuns, his criticism of Cardinal Richelieu could not go unpunished, so he was convicted at a second trial and burned at the stake. Part of the “evidence” against Grandier was a pact with the Devil that had been written down in Latin, backwards. Famous writers such as Aldous Huxley and Alexander Dumas incorporated aspects of this case in their works, and the incident was adapted for the stage, screen, and opera.
If you have ever been the victim of a “witch hunt,” you should be able to relate to these poor victims of ignorance and hate.
If you do happen to be a witch, stay away from Sarah Palin’s minister. He actually persecuted witches in Africa!
Question for students (and subscribers): Why have people in early modern to modern times feared suspected witches? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Ainsworth, William Harrison and John Gilbert. The Lancashire Witches A Romance of Pendle Forest. 2012.
Almond, Philip C. The Lancashire Witches: A Chronicle of Sorcery and Death on Pendle Hill. I.B. Tauris, 2012.
Bennett, Walter. The Pendle Witches. Lancashire County Books, 1993.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Graham Demaline of the numbers “1612” painted on the side of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch trials, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.