Strange tale of Pendle Witches survivor
Local historian Barry McCann investigates the untold story of the sole survivor from the infamous family of Pendle witches
The execution of the Pendle witches in 1612 practically wiped out the Device family of Malkin Tower in Newchurch, all of who had been the main focus of the investigations and trial.
But there was one survivor in the youngest of the clan, nine-year-old Jennet whose testimony at the Lancaster assizes put the nooses around her family’s necks, no doubt having been instructed in her accusations to ensure conviction.
But what then became of that young girl? Twenty two years later, the name of Jennet Device was to come up again in a Pendle witch hunt, though in a decidedly different role this time. One cast by another juvenile accuser.
The story goes that, in November 1663, 10-year-old Edmund Robinson, of Newchurch, in Pendle, went picking berries when two hounds appeared, one black and one grey, who he initially thought were coursing a hare. They turned into a woman and a boy, the former of which he recognised Frances Dickonson, wife of John Dickonson. She then conjured the boy companion into a white horse, upon which Robinson was set and carried him to Hoarstones, about a quarter of a mile away.
There he alleged other witches arrived on horseback and adjourned to a barn, where six of them knelt and pulled on ropes hanging from the roof, from which smoking flesh, butter and milk came falling down into basins. Taking fright, Robinson fled the scene and was pursued by some of the witches to a place called Boggart Hole before they gave up.
Edmund’s father, Edmund Robinson Senior, took him from village to village to identify the witches supposedly present. The boy became feted as a witch finder and paraded around local churches, accusing an ever-growing number of people. Other local people added their own accusations to Robinson’s and, after three months, a list of 20 suspects were then arrested and tried at Lancaster Assizes in February 1634. One of them was listed as a certain Jennet Device.
Jennet was charged with the murder of William Nutter’s wife, Isabel, thus re-establishing a link with the Nutter family name. Edmund Robinson was the chief prosecution witness, as she had been 22 years earlier.
Margaret Johnson, a widow 60 years of age, was so convinced of her own guilt that she had handed herself in to the authorities and obliged them with a classic witchcraft confession, including selling her soul to a demon called Mamilian. Mary Spencer, aged 20 of Burnley whose own parents were condemned as witches at the last assizes, denied any knowledge of witchcraft, as did Frances Dickonson.
Seventeen of the 20 were found guilty. However, unlike the unfortunates of the 1612 assizes, they were spared death sentences and able to appeal to the crown. Charles I was now on the throne and, unlike his father, was sceptical about witchcraft.
The Privy Council sent the Bishop of Chester to investigate the case. He had four of the women, including Margaret Johnson, sent to London to be examined by the king’s surgeons and midwives. Their certificates issued July 2 stated nothing unnatural nor anything like a teat or mark had been found, at least no marks that were inconsistent with well-known diseases.
Young Edmund was brought before the Privvy Council and confessed to inventing his story of shape shifting witches to gain “respite from punishment” for failing to bring the family cow home for milking, having been distracted by playing with friends in the fields.
Whether his father actually believed the story or not is unclear, but he saw a money making opportunity and blackmailed the suspects to pay up or be accused, targeting those who gossiping neighbours claimed were witches.
The Bishop of Chester wrote that, “Conceit and malice are so powerful with many in those parts, that they will easily afford an oath to work revenge upon their neighbour.”
The testimonies recorded in this second Pendle witch scare are held by the National Archives and certainly reveal how malicious gossip and grudges between neighbours escalated into accusations which could have cost those accused their lives.
Ironically, the story about being taken to a witch’s gathering was reputedly based on the Good Friday feast at Malkin Tower in 1612, as reported by the star child witness at the subsequent assizes, which the local magistrate interpreted as a meeting of conspiratorial witches. Jennet’s words had come back to haunt her.
The four women were pardoned and the rest back at Lancaster gaol acquitted, but that was not the end of their ordeal. Unable to pay for their keep in prison, they remained incarcerated and, it is thought, died one by one from jail fever.
An official record dated August 22, 1636 lists Jennet Device as still residing in the prison, the last documented evidence of her whereabouts. It is thought she also died there, though without further records this is not certain.
There is also some uncertainty whether this Jennet Device was the child who testified against her family in 1612, or someone with the same name. Nothing is actually known of the young Jennet following the execution of her family, though she may have gone to live with her father or her uncle, Christopher Holgate. She may also have changed her name.
Conversely, nothing is known of the adult Jennet’s background, except she lived in the Pendle area and was about the same age. An entry for the burial records of Newchurch dated December 22, 1635 reads “Jennet Seller alias Devis.” The surname Seller was well established in the area, while Devis is an obvious derivation. And having been acquitted as being a witch, she would not have been denied a church burial.
If this is the same Jennet – and circumstances suggest so – then it is particularly tragic she should end up being tried as a witch on the say so of a manipulated child, and fated to die as a result.
l With thanks to Mark Hetherington.