OK, I admit it. Witches have always fascinated me. Not so much the Hallowe’en type of witch that fans of Walt Disney know and love, but more the real stuff you can find in Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic – made into a great film with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, still a favourite of mine.
Terry Pratchett has real witches in his books too, for all that they still fly around on broomsticks. I’m not a fan of riding broomsticks because I can’t believe in them (except for the sexy treat called Riding the Broomstick – if you don’t know what that is, drop me a line and I’ll walk you through it…)
No, I want witches who are powerful (of course) but live in the real world. And deal with real problems, only much more effectively that I ever could. That’s what Light o’Love is all about, a student witch with a conscience who is still growing into her powers.
I sat down to write with an idea in my head but as I wrote and researched and wrote again, I found myself unearthing old stories again and again. Unfortunately, most of them recorded by people who enjoyed hounding witches. Witness the wickedly tragic things done to those poor people in Salem. Mind you, Salem was a Sunday school picnic compared to what went on in Central Europe where 40-60,000 people were executed.
The most famous English witch trial centred on Pendle in Lancashire. The investigation and trial were carefully recorded and really bring the story to life. What makes the story so intriguing is that everyone is so human, and there are no goodies and baddies. Some of the ‘witches’ were really nasty people but (probably) no more capable of black magic than you or I. And many of the people who sat in judgement were loathsome.
Nine people were sentenced to death. One of them Alizon Device, was aged eleven and actually believed she was a witch.
Light o’Love and Skyler are out walking on Pendle Hill with their lecturer Holly, walking in the mist and listening to the story :
Light o’Love shook her head. Studying the Craft felt strange enough; having some connection to historical witches did not seem possible.
Holly continued. “What I’m telling you is the truth, as near as we know it. If you’re going to understand the Craft and how it survives, you need to know and understand the witches of Pendle. Anyway, going back to what happened.
“Mother Demdike had a daughter, Elizabeth Device, and she in turn had a daughter, Alizon Device. I suppose the story really starts with her. In fact, we don’t know what sort of girl she was. Some would have it that she was flourishing and beautiful, Queen of May, and a friend to all. Almost the all-wise Princess. On the other hand, some speak badly of her… Actually, the first time we hear of her, she was begging beside the road, which doesn’t sound much like a Princess.
“So, there she is, begging, and along comes John Law, a pedlar. Apparently Alizon tried to get him to give her some pins to sell, on consignment if you like, and she will pay for them once she has sold them. But this is Lancashire after all, and the pedlar would not part with anything except for cold, hard cash. They argued, and I’m sure Alizon was still shouting at him as he left. Unfortunately for her, he’d only gone a few steps when he fell down with a stroke. Alive but paralysed.
“That must have been the talk of every house and cottage in the district, and Alizon was the granddaughter of Mother Demdike the witch. A couple of weeks later, they took Alizon for questioning as a witch to the local Justice and Squire, Roger Newell. Concepts of justice, and of guilt and innocence, were not so clear then as they are now. The reason for questioning a witch was not to examine her, but simply to get a confession and evidence against other witches. The whole thing was stupid really, because they tortured people horribly, mostly women and girls, while asking them leading questions. Of course, the poor women would admit to anything in order to stop the torture and Alizon signed a statement admitting to worshipping the Devil. She also implicated her grandmother, and Mother Chattox and her daughter Anne Redfern. The fact that Mother Chattox and her daughter were arrested on the evidence of one of her sworn enemies makes it sound as if Roger Newell was taking the chance of clearing out two families of notorious old trouble-makers.
“Things were bad enough where they stood, but now all of the Demdike family’s supporters gathered at Malkin Tower to hatch a scheme to attack the prison and free Mother Demdike. That was a direct affront to the authorities and they struck back hard. Everyone that could be caught was thrown into prison and labelled a witch. Of course, the confessions and incriminations flowed like water. It must have been appalling in that old prison, people being tortured day after day. Old women, girls, even children, the youngest was only nine. Just think of it.”
A cloaked figure loomed out of the mist in front of them and Light o'Love grabbed Holly’s arm in shock. She tried to say something, anything, to stop Holly as the figure came closer.
“Ah, here we are,” said Holly. “You’ve got to congratulate me. Exactly right, and no witchcraft. What do you think of that?”
The threatening figure in the cloud reduced itself to a concrete survey pillar surrounded by a cobble apron. Light o'Love’s heart slowed again. The cloaked figure had looked so real.
“Sandwich time,” announced Holly, “But I wish the sun would shine.” They squeezed together at the foot of the pillar and dug their lunch from their pockets.
“How do you know this story?” asked Skyler. “Has it been passed down?”
“I suppose it has. The whole affair was famous and we’re lucky that the records are good. I wouldn’t trust folk memories on a thing like that.”
“So what happened next?”
“Well, let me see. The original event, the pedlar John Law getting paralysed, happened at the end of March. By the beginning of April, the old women Demdike and Chattox were in prison along with Alizon and Anne Redfern. The plot at Malkin Tower came at the end of April, and the prison was full of witches from then on. They even brought some completely different prisoners over from Yorkshire to add to the fun.
“They went on trial in August, twenty supposed witches all at once. Old Demdike didn’t get as far as the trial. She had already died. I guess being tortured is not good for eighty-year old women. There are very good accounts of the trial written by the Clerk of the Court, Thomas Potts from London. They make me cry when I read them, it really was awful what they did to people then.
“They used Alizon’s young sister Jennet to convict her, her brother James, and their mother Elizabeth. The things they must have done to that poor child… How could she live with it afterwards? After convicting most of her family? Poor Alizon testified against her own mother.
“If you’re cynical about what was going on, you’ll be even more cynical about the verdicts. All the Yorkshire witches were found not guilty. Just the ones from around here were sentenced to death. Ten of them were hanged on the 20th of August. Including Alizon. She was only eleven.
“Come on, we’re getting cold. Let’s go and see where Malkin Tower used to be.”
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Jacqueline lives in Far North Queensland, on the shore of the Coral Sea. She keeps herself busy with her cats and garden, and by writing books - some of which are far too naughty for her own good. You can find out more about Jacqueline and her books at www.jacquelinegeorgewriter.com