Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The land battle that sparked the Pendle Witch trials

Unite’s Charlie Clutterbuck has concocted his own special brew of political and social history by marking out an unofficial trail round the sites relating to the Pendle Witch trials.

These resulted in the largest number of executions in Britain for witchcraft with eight women and two men being hanged. And with the 400th anniversary occurring smack bang in the middle of this summer’s Olympics Charlie wants those seeking an escape from the most expensive show on earth to consider a trip to his east Lancashire neighbourhood to discover more.

The trials were made famous by the official publication of the proceedings by Thomas Potts, the clerk to the court, in his Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. Accused of murdering ten people, the ten hung were around 2% of the 500 people executed as witches in Britain from the early 15th to 18th century. Six came from two families headed by a female in her eighties. The Demdike’s and Chattox’s, whose livelihoods of healing, begging and extortion depended on competing against one another, each accused the other of wrongdoing.

One of the key witnesses at the trial was Jennet Device, who was just nine years old. Until James I had succeeded in 1603 to the throne, children under 14 were seen as unreliable witnesses. The Protestant King’s book Demonology however changed the justice system to allow the child to give evidence that helped execute all of her own family. Jennet was herself to later suffer because of this when ten-year-old Edmund Robinson made similar allegations against her in 1633 and although acquitted it’s believed she spent the rest of her life in prison.

Witchcraft, the alleged use of supernatural or magical powers, became illegal in 1542 under Henry VIII, and was punishable by death. This was a period of considerable religious tension, with Catholics and Protestants at each other’s throats.

It’s hardly surprising therefore to find many historians seeing this as being behind the events in Pendle four hundred years ago. Charlie doesn’t entirely rule this out but has noted, “The evidence for organised persecution of Catholics is not that strong”.

He wonders therefore if the terrible events were more to do with the countryside’s most contentious issue. Namely, who owns the land? “The records show that much of the land around Burnley was already enclosed, or being so. Not so Pendle Forest, as it was seen as unobstructed hunting land, and some of those made landless moved there. The landowners didn’t like these troublesome characters.”

It’s a powerful narrative, and the visual evidence is pretty strong. Many of the houses of the rich and powerful from those times are still standing, but long gone are any traces of the simple cottages of those who were executed or their neighbours.

You can see all this for yourself by walking the trail that the agricultural scientist has prepared. It takes a day – those with less time and/or energy can do part of it in half a day – and there’s a chance to stop for a decent pint or two at the Four Alls Inn: standing for The King Rules for all, The Priest prays for all, the Soldier fights for all, the Ordinary Man pays for all. Magnificent.

Landownership in Britain today remains the most unbalanced in the world, with roughly 150,000 individuals – 0.028% of the population – owning 2/3rds of it.

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