Lancashire Witches

Lancashire’s own ‘Witchfinder’

Lancashire had its own ‘Witchfinder’ a few years before Matthew Hopkins rose to fame. Roger Nowell was sixty years old in 1612, the year the ‘Pendle Witches’ were hung at Lancaster Castle.  He was High Sheriff of Lancashire and a local magistrate.

He lived at Read Hall near Padiham, a large country estate.  As part of his official duties as a magistrate for the Pendle district, Roger Nowell examined (stripped naked and scrutinised the body of the accused for the ‘witches’ mark’ such as moles, scars, birthmarks, natural skin defects or blemishes) and interviewed most of the twelve suspected witches.

King James 1

Nowell was  a devout Protestant, puritanical and ambitious.  This was his opportunity to impress King James 1.  The King believed strongly in the existence of witchcraft, claiming to be an expert on the subject and passed an Act which imposed the death penalty ‘for making a covenant with an evil spirit, using a corpse for magic, hurting life or limb, procuring love or injuring cattle by means of charms’ which only drove Nowell’s zealous persecution of the accused to the gallows.

The Accused

They were twelve accused by Nowell of witchcraft: Anne Whittle (Old Chattox), Ann Redfern, Alice Nutter, Elizabeth Device (Squinting Lizzie), Alison Device, James Device, Katherine Hewitt, Jane Bullock, John Bullock, Isobel Robey, Alice Grey and Elizabeth Southerns (Mother Demdike).

The Trial

The trial took place in August 1612 and the Prosecutor was Roger Nowell.

The prisoners were not allowed to have a defence counsel to represent them, nor could they call any witnesses to speak on their behalf. At the end of the three day trial at Lancaster Assizes, a total of ten people were found guilty of causing death or harm by witchcraft and were sentenced to death.  All except Alice Grey and Elizabeth Southerns were publicly hanged at Gallows Hill on the moor above the town.

Alice Grey was found not guilty. Elizabeth Southerns (Mother Demdike) died in prison awaiting trial.

The trial was based on wild accusations,  hearsay, forced/coerced confessions and became the biggest and most notorious witch trial in British history.

Witchfinder General

Witchfinder General


Vincent Price in the 1968 Tigon production of Witchfinder General, playing the title character, Matthew Hopkins, who terrorises the countryside during the 17th century Civil War.
The real Matthew Hopkins (c.1620 – 12 August 1647) was an English witch-hunter whose career flourished during the English Civil War. He claimed to hold the office of Witchfinder General, although that title was never bestowed by Parliament. His witch-hunts mainly took place in East Anglia.
Hopkins’ witch-finding career began in March 1643 and lasted until his retirement in 1647. He and his associates were responsible for more people being hanged for witchcraft than in the previous 100 years and were solely responsible for the increase in witch trials during those years. He is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300 women between the years 1644 and 1646. It has been estimated that all of the English witch trials between the early 15th and late 18th centuries resulted in fewer than 500 executions for witchcraft. Therefore, presuming the number executed as a result of “investigations” by Hopkins and his colleague John Stearne is at the lower end of the various estimates, their efforts accounted for about 60 per cent of the total; in the 14 months of their crusade Hopkins and Stearne sent to the gallows more people than all the other witch-hunters in England of the previous 160 years.

St Cuthbert’s Cross

A modern wayside cross fixed into an ancient base in a hedge bordering Lytham cricket field on Church Road commemorates the Saint of Lindisfarne whose body, in its wooden sarcophagus, was carried by monks in their flight from the Danes in the 9th century. The inscribed cross says: According to ancient tradition, the body of St. Cuthbert about the year 882 A.D. once rested here.  The cross was restored in 1912 by Lytham’s blind Vicar, Canon Henry Beauchamp Hawkins. A church dedicated to St. Cuthbert has stood near this spot since the 12th century. St. Cuthbert’s body was carried over the Ribble estuary to Churchtown, near Southport, progressed to Chester-le-Street and finally came to rest at Durham, where the Cathedral now covers his shrine. Years later the tomb was opened and we are told, “whiles they opened his coffin they start at a wonder, they look for bones and flesh, they expected a skeleton and saw an entire body with joints flexible, his flesh so succulent that there wanted only heat…nay, his very funeral weeds were so fresh as if putrefaction had not dared to take him by the coat”.

This is an extract from Lancashire Legends by Kathleen Eyre published by The Dalesman Publishing Company Ltd 1972.