Cunning Women: How the Pendle Witches Cast Their Spell on Me

Cunning Women: How the Pendle Witches Cast Their Spell on Me

by Mary Sharratt

In 2002, I moved to rural Lancashire, in northern England, an incongruous place for an American expat. Our house is at the foot of Pendle Hill, famous throughout the world as the place where George Fox received his ecstatic vision that moved him to found the Quaker religion in 1652. But Pendle is also steeped in its legends of the Lancashire Witches.

In the beginning I made the false assumption that these witches were creatures of folklore, but when I took the time to study the sobering facts, it changed everything. Not only were these Witches of Pendle real people, but at least two of the accused-Mother Demdike and Mother Chattox-had established reputations as cunning women, or traditional healers and magic practitioners.

In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged for witchcraft at Lancaster. The most notorious of the accused, Bess Southerns, aka Mother Demdike, cheated the hangman by dying in prison. This is how Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster:

She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had
been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast
place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man
knowes. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no
man escaped her, or her Furies.

Quite impressive for an eighty-year-old lady! Once I read this, I knew I had to write a book about this amazing woman. Mother Demdike became the guiding voice and power behind my new novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill.

Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was astounded how her strength of character blazed forth in the document written to vilify her. She freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman, and she instructed her daughter and granddaughter in the ways of magic. Her neighbours called on her to cure their children and their cattle. What fascinated me was not that Mother Demdike was arrested on witchcraft charges but that the authorities turned on her only near the end of her long, productive career. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her.

Mother Demdike’s life unfolded almost literally in my backyard. To do justice to her story, I had to go out onto the land-walk in her footsteps. Using the Ordinance Survey Map, I located the site of Malkin Tower, once her home. Now only the foundations remain. I also found the location in West Close, near Fence, where her sometimes friend, sometimes rival Chattox dwelled. My beautiful Welsh mare boards at a stable near Read Hall, once home to Roger Nowell, the witchfinder and prosecuting magistrate responsible for sending Mother Demdike and the other Pendle Witches to their deaths. Every weekend, I walked or rode my mare down the tracks of Pendle Forest. Quietening myself, I learned to listen, to allow Mother Demdike’s voice to well up from the land. Her passion, her tale enveloped me.

History is a fluid thing that continually shapes the present. As a writer, I am obsessed with how the true stories of our ancestors haunt the land. Long after their demise, Mother Demdike and her fellow witches endure. This is their home, their seat of power, and they shall never be banished. By delving into their story, I have become an adopted daughter of their living landscape, one of many tellers who spin their unending tale.

Mary Sharratt’s acclaimed new novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL, is published April 7 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Visit her website: and join her on her virtual tour: . To learn more about historical witches and cunning folk, visit her blog: .

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