The Familiars by Stacey Halls

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It makes a refreshing change to read a book which treats the Pendle Witch Trials as what they were, the state-sponsored persecution of vulnerable people, resulting in the judicial killings of eight women and two men, rather than as some sort of Gothic romance or Disneyfied fairytale. I understand the desire to bring tourists into the Pendle area, but I could scream every time I hear the X43 bus route, linking Manchester to Colne and passing within a few hundred yards of my house, called “The Witch Way”, and see silly pictures of pointy hats and broomsticks on the sides of the vehicles. This book, whilst it features real people, is fictitious, but set against the background of the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612, and ties the story of Alice Gray (or Grey), the only one of the accused to be acquitted, to that of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the then mistress of Gawthorpe Hall near Burnley.

See what I mean!!

 

It’s the author’s first published novel, and that does show: it’s lacking a bit in style and polish, and some of the language is anachronistic … but very few people produce Gone With The Wind at the first attempt, and it’s a pretty creditable first effort. The author’s not a historian, but she’s clearly done a lot of research into this particular subject. Whilst most of the characters are real people – including the Shuttleworths, the people accused of witchcraft, Roger Nowell who was the magistrate presiding over the trials, and Thomas Potts who was the clerk of the court – the story is fictional, but Stacey Halls hasn’t really messed with the known facts, and has explained clearly in the afterword that this is a work of fiction. If only all authors would do that!

It’s very much a book about women, told in the first person with Fleetwood Shuttleworth as the narrator. In fact, none of the men come out of it well at all. Fleetwood’s husband Richard Shuttleworth is keeping a mistress (the character is Judith Thorpe, another real person, who did later become his second wife). Alice Gray’s father doesn’t care about her plight. Roger Nowell is more interested in furthering his own prospects than in seeing justice done, and will manipulate anyone and anything he can in order to get a result. It emerges late on that Fleetwood, as a child, was abused by a man her family planned for her to marry. And Fleetwood has a very low opinion of the king.

The question of motives in the Pendle Witch Trials is fascinating, especially as we can only guess at how people’s minds were working. Why did some of the “witches” confess? Were they genuinely convinced of their own powers, or were they tortured to a point where they’d have confessed to anything? Why did some of those involved denounce their neighbours and even members of their own families – were they settling old scores, or thinking that doing so might save their own skins, or, in superstitious times, did they genuinely believe what they were saying? To what extent was misogyny a factor? In witch trials everywhere, the majority of those accused were women. Even now, the word “witch” is often used as a term of abuse against women in positions of power, whereas “wizard” is used as a compliment.

Were Roger Nowell and others hoping to win favour by convicting people of witchcraft, knowing how strongly King James felt about the subject? How much was this about the authorities trying to impose control in what was then a fairly remote area? How much of it was motivated by anti-Catholic feeling? Catholicism remained strong in the Pendle area, as in many other parts of the North, long after the Reformation. And, as is so often the case in any form of state-sponsored persecution – the Spanish Inquisition’s probably the best historical example, and the anti-gay laws in Brunei prove that this is still an issue – religion, in this case Protestantism, was both a motivating factor and an excuse. And, once an idea’s taken hold, hysteria soon sets in, and the situation takes on a life of its own.

We don’t see much of the actual “witches” here, but Roger Nowell features prominently, and is very much shown as being out for himself, whilst other people are caught up in the panic and ready to believe that witchcraft is at work. We all struggle to accept that things can just happen: we want a reason, an explanation. In times when there was little scientific knowledge to provide that, if a family member suddenly died or suffered a life-changing illness, or a horse dropped dead, or a cow stopped producing milk, or a crop failed, it was all too easy and convenient to put the blame on a “witch”. It may have been to settle a personal score or it may have been genuinely believing, whilst distressed and grieving, that someone had done harm. And the reign of James I, and, later, the Civil War period, provided very fertile soil for that.

James I (of England, 1603-1625) and VI (of Scotland, 1567-1625), was in many ways an excellent king at a very difficult time, had a real bee in his bonnet about “witches”, apparently partly due to getting it into his head that witchcraft caused the storm which nearly sank the ship carrying him and his new wife Anne of Denmark from her home country to Scotland. There were witch trials in many places in the period from around 1450 to 1750, but James was particularly obsessive about the subject. In 1597, he published a book called “Daemonologie”, about witchcraft, and apparently he even personally supervised the torture of women accused of being witches. “Daemonologie” is mentioned several times in this book. It was hugely influential.

The Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, part of the Lancashire Witch Trials which also involved alleged witches from other parts of the county, became very well-known because so many people were involved, and because of the publication of the proceedings by Thomas Potts. “The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster” – copies available on Amazon for around a fiver, four centuries later! Then, in 1848/9, William Harrison Ainsworth wrote a “romance” based on the trials – not at all historically accurate, but very popular. And, just over a century later, Robert Neill wrote another one. Today, you can buy “witch” costumes and little models of “witches” from shops in the Pendle area, the Pendle tourist info office by the Boundary Mill car park near Colne will provide you with all manner of leaflets about “witch trails” in the local area, and, as I’ve already said, the X43 bus route linking the Pendle area with Manchester is called “The Witch Way”. I get the desire to bring in tourists to boost the local economy, but I find it to be in rather poor taste. Nine people were judicially murdered (and an tenth in a separate trial, and one died whilst awaiting trial). We’re not talking about Mildred Hubble and Miss Cackle.

So what did happen? The known facts are explained in this book, as part of the story. A young woman called Alizon Device, on her way to Trawden Forest (note to self, must get to Wycoller Country Park some time this spring), got into an argument with a pedlar called John Law, and cursed him. He suffered a stroke shortly afterwards, and his son accused Alizon Device of witchcraft. This opened a can of worms, much of which seems to have been due to a feud between two local families, the Demdike/Device family and the Chattox/Whittle family. Various allegations were made of harming and even murdering people by witchcraft, and then there was a meeting at Malkin Tower, the home of Alizon Device’s grandmother, on Good Friday 1612, which (may well have been a secret Catholic service, but) was alleged to have been a witches’ coven.

Twelve people were arrested. Family members, notably Alizon’s nine-year-old sister Jennet Device, gave evidence against each other, and some of the “witches” confessed. It really isn’t clear why they would have done that, although they may well have been genuinely convinced of their own powers. In a poor area, at a time when it was difficult to keep body and soul together, especially for women – and with the safety net of the convents long gone – being a “wise woman”, or even claiming to have magical powers, was a way of earning a living. Or maybe they were tortured to the point where they gave in and gave the inquisitors what they wanted.

The book suggests that Jennet Device may have hoped to be adopted by the Nowells. Her story’s particularly interesting: a nine-year-old child wouldn’t normally have been allowed to give evidence at a trial, but James I was so obsessed with witches that he allowed the normal rules of court to be suspended in cases of witchcraft trials. It would have been easy to depict her as a frightened little kid being manipulated by powerful authority figures, but that’s not how she comes across here, and she makes a fascinating character. It’s also suggested that the Devices made allegations against the Chattoxes to try to divert attention from their own family, which certainly seems realistic. However, whilst it’s generally accepted that Alizon Device, in particular, did genuinely believe herself guilty, it’s suggested here that those who confessed did so only because of torture. At the end of the day, we just don’t know: we can only surmise. But the account given does suggest that Alizon confessed in court when confronted by John Law – which doesn’t happen in this book, which shows Law as being so badly affected by his stroke that he was unable to speak clearly. Having said that, what’s in the account given by Thomas Potts may not be 100% accurate. It’s not thought to be wildly inaccurate, but it should be noted that both he and Roger Nowell did indeed do quite nicely careerwise out of it all.

The book doesn’t really go into the witch trials and what was going on with the Devices and Chattoxes in detail, though – the focus in terms of the accusations is on Alice Gray, the only one of the accused to be acquitted. Her name’s normally spelt Grey, but it’s spelt Gray in this book … but spellings of names do vary. More annoying, though, is the spelling of Westmorland as Westmoreland: the extra e does appear in some Georgian and Victorian documents, but it’s certainly not used now and it’s unlikely to have been used in the 17th century. I didn’t really need to see “now Cumbria” added to it, either, but that’s probably just me.

A few other things grate, as well. “Mr” and “Miss” were not used in the 17th century, a gentlewoman like Fleetwood Shuttleworth would not have used her first name when introducing herself to complete strangers of a lower class, “Mum” and “Dad” certainly sound far too contemporary, and there’s the odd bit of language in the narrative that sounds distinctly 21st century American – even though the author’s local. And some of the plot’s very far-fetched: the idea of the heavily pregnant teenage wife of a local squire roaming around remote parts of the countryside on her own, going into alehouses and threatening to shoot people has to be taken with an extremely large pinch of salt. But it is the author’s first published book, and it’s far better than a lot of books I’ve read by long-established authors.

There’s a definite touch of the Victorian Gothics about it, especially with the appearance of animals which we’re presumably meant to think could be “familiars”. A house is set on fire, and that made me wonder if the author had, consciously or unconsciously, been influenced by Charlotte Bronte, who’s known to have stayed at Gawthorpe Hall and to have based Ferndean Manor on nearby Wycoller Hall. Just a thought.

We don’t know why Alice Gray, accused alongside Katherine “Mouldheels” Hewitt of murdering a child, was acquitted. In this book, she’s shown as being a midwife, employed by Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the 17-year-old mistress of Gawthorpe Hall near Burnley. It now belongs to the National Trust, and is quite a nice place to visit. It’s got a painting of a meeting of the Cotton Famine Relief Committee, which I always get excited about! In 1612, the house did indeed belong to Richard Shuttleworth, later High Sheriff of Lancashire and then a Parliamentarian colonel and MP. His first wife was Fleetwood Barton, and we know that they had two sons, one born not long after the trials.
There’s no evidence to suggest any connection between the Shuttleworths and any of the Pendle “witches”, or even that Alice Gray was a midwife, but it’s a plausible idea. “Wise women” were often amongst those suggested of witchcraft, and having being spoken for by someone with influence in the area would explain Alice’s acquittal.

The story is that Fleetwood has suffered three miscarriages and has found a letter which she takes to mean that neither she nor her unborn child will survive her fourth pregnancy. She meets Alice by chance, whilst feeling unwell, and, when Alice gives her some infusions which make her feel better, becomes convinced that only Alice can bring her and her child through the pregnancy alive. When Alice is arrested, Fleetwood is determined to save her. The explanation given for the story behind Alice’s arrest is again, whilst entirely fictional, quite plausible – that she found John Law after his stroke and tried to help him, and that the child she was alleged to have murdered had died of what would now be recognised as an epileptic fit, but that the child’s widowed father, with whom she was romantically involved, had blamed her. It all gets completely melodramatic, with Fleetwood threatening to shoot the bereaved father and persuading him to give her a signed testament saying that Alice was innocent, collapsing on the way home, going into labour, and persuading her husband to read the testament out in court so that Alice would be freed and could come to save her life in childbirth!

As I said, it needs to be taken with a big pinch of salt. But I enjoyed it, I was very impressed by the fact that the author explained what was fact and what was fiction – I do wish all authors would do that – and, most of all, I was so pleased to see someone treating a romanticised episode in our county’s history, and our country’s history, as what it really was. The story of the Pendle witches isn’t about pointy hats and broomsticks, or black cats and cauldrons. It’s about persecution.

In some countries, this still goes on – there are still cases of women being put to death for alleged witchcraft. In many other countries, vulnerable groups of people are persecuted for a wide range of other reasons. It certainly isn’t romantic and it certainly isn’t funny. But the Pendle area is beautiful, and well worth visiting. And this book’s worth reading – not bad at all.

 

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