I live a few minutes’ walk from the route of the X43 Trans Lancs Express bus service. Whilst buses operating along all the other Trans Lancs Express services have very pretty long-stemmed red roses painted along their sides, the X43 buses, which link Manchester with the borough of Pendle, have broomsticks painted along theirs, and are referred to by the bus company as “The Witch Way”. Call in at one of the Pendle tourist offices – you’ll find one in Barrowford, alongside a café which does very nice jacket potatoes, and one outside Boundary Mill in Colne, opposite a Thorntons chocolates outlet – and you’ll find all sorts of leaflets telling you about “Walking With Witches” and “The Lancashire Witches Driving Trail”. Newchurch-in-Pendle, thought to be the site of Malkin Tower, where the Pendle Witches allegedly held their covens, even has a witch-related gift shop.
It does my head in. The Pendle Witch Trials resulted in the judicial murder of ten people. An eleventh, an elderly woman, died in prison. It wasn’t some sort of Disney film. Hundreds of people were executed for witchcraft in the British Isles, most of them during the mass witch-hunts of the 17th century. All right, all right, the Pendle Tourist Board’s just trying to help the region’s economy and I suppose they can’t really be blamed for that, and Pendle’s probably a special case because William Harrison Ainsworth decided to romanticise it all. But it still does my head in. It’s a horrible part of our history.
And, as this programme, excellently presented by Suzannah Lipscomb, pointed out, it was really James I – James I and VI, I should say – who kicked the mass witch-hunting off. He had this bee in his bonnet about witches, and he was responsible for the North Berwick witch trial in 1591, and then brought his obsession with witches to England when he succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603. He even wrote a book about witch-hunting. There were witch-hunts in many parts of Europe – and, although witch-hunting is associated with Calvinism, witches were executed in areas with Catholic or Lutheran authorities too – but it’s James who really has to take the blame for the witch-hunting in the British Isles and in New England.
Once this sort of thing starts, it’s very hard to stop. People were denounced as witches by friends, neighbours, even members of their own families – sometimes through ignorance, sometimes because people bore a grudge against them. The alleged witches, mostly women, were often horribly tortured. Birthmarks, the supposed marks of the Devil, were seen as a sign as witchcraft, and, although it wasn’t mentioned in this programme, the horrendous sink or swim test was often used. If you floated, you were a witch. So you were killed. If you didn’t, you died of drowning.
James was a very intelligent man, and it puzzles me why he did have this obsession with witches. Suzannah Lipscomb’s argument, one which makes a lot of sense, was that he never intended for any of this to happen: his book argued that witches should only be convicted where there was some sort of rational evidence against them. Although, even then, what sort of rational evidence could there have been?
The second and final episode in the series, to be shown tonight, will focus on Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General responsible for over 300 killings of alleged witches during the Civil War. It’s got to be telling that this did happen during the Civil War, when other forms of authority had broken down, but the practice of witch-hunting took place over a far longer time period.
The word “witch-hunt” still exists in our language today, and it’s generally used to describe attacks, these days usually in the media rather than physical, on people against whom nothing’s really been proven. Things get out of hand. People attack other people sometimes out of genuine belief that they’ve done wrong but without any evidence, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes because of personal enmity and often because it’s easy to believe what someone else tells you. In the 17th century, in particular, this resulted in torture and, in many cases, in execution. It’s a horrible, frightening part of our past, and one which needs to be remembered, and remembered as what it was.