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.
There 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 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.