A Visionary History of Women: Part 3

Old woman (witch or fairy) spinning. Woodcut attributed to Holbein from Boethius, De consolatione philosophiae 1547

The Pendle Witches

As a spiritual person, I am fascinated with women’s experience of the sacred. We women, for the past five-thousand years of patriarchy, have been side-lined and marginalized by every established religion in the world. But in every age, there have been women who have heroically rebelled against this patriarchal stranglehold to claim their authentic spiritual experience. Often it has involved looking within rather than without for spiritual guidance.

Thus far in my essay series, A Visionary History of Women, I’ve discussed Hildegard of Bingen and Margery Kempe who carved out their own woman-centered paths as mystics.

But what about women whose mystical experiences fell outside of the parameters of any organized religion?

One of the most important texts I have ever read was J. Kelly Gadol’s essay, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” She points out that while elite European men were experiencing a Renaissance, women’s rights and lifestyle choices were becoming increasingly constricted during this period. The Renaissance was a very dangerous time to be female–women were the primary targets of the mass witch-hunting hysteria sweeping across Europe. Witchcraft persecutions were not a phenomenon of medieval superstition, as is commonly believed, but of the Renaissance and the Reformation, stretching up to the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment.

Anton Woensam’s idea of the perfect Renaissance woman: silent and obedient

The pre-Reformation Catholic Church, for all its problems and abuses, at least offered a space for female mystical and visionary experience. However, the hard-line Protestantism that followed the Reformation offered no space at all. If you saw visions or whispered prayer charms or left offerings at a holy well or lit a fire on midsummer eve to protect your cattle, you were suddenly seen as a witch, in league with the devil.

In winter 2002, I moved to Lancashire, in northern England. The back of my house looked out on Pendle Hill, famous for its legends of the Pendle Witches of 1612, the amazing real women at the heart of my novel Daughters of the Witching Hill.

In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged as witches, based on testimony given by a nine-year-old girl.

The most notorious of the accused was Elizabeth Southerns, alias Old Demdike. Allow me to introduce you to a woman of power who changed my life forever.

This is how Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, the official trial transcripts.

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

knows. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no

man escaped her, or her Furies.


Bess Southerns was a wisewoman of longstanding repute. What fascinated me was not that she had been arrested on witchcraft charges, but that she practiced her craft for decades before anyone dared to interfere with her or stand in her way. Cunning craft, the art of using charms to heal both humans and livestock was her family trade. When interrogated by her magistrate, she freely admitted to being a wisewoman and healer, even bragged about her familiar spirit Tibb, who appeared to her in the likeness of a beautiful young man.

At the time of her arrest, she lived in a place called Malkin Tower. Widow and matriarch of her clan, she lived with her widowed daughter and her three grandchildren, the most promising one being Alizon, a teenager who showed every promise of becoming a wisewoman as mighty of her grandmother.

In England, as opposed to Scotland and Continental Europe, witchcraft persecutions had been rare. Bess had been able to practice her craft in peace. This all changed when the Scottish King James I ascended to the English throne. King James was obsessed with the occult and had even written a book called Daemonologie—a witchhunter’s handbook—that his magistrates were expected to read.

The tide was turning for Bess and her family.

When a pedlar suffered a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Bess’s granddaughter Alizon, the local magistrate, eager to make his name as a witchfinder, played neighbors and family members against each other until suspicion and paranoia reached frenzied heights.

Alizon, first to be arrested, was the last to be tried at Lancaster in August, 1612. Her final recorded words on the day before she was hanged for witchcraft are a passionate tribute to her grandmother’s power as a healer. John Law, the pedlar Alizon had supposedly lamed, appeared before her. John Law, perhaps pitying the condemned young woman, said that if she had the power to lame him, she must also have the power to cure him. Alizon sadly told him that she lacked the powers to do so, but that if her grandmother, Old Mother Demdike, had lived, she could and would have healed him and restored him to full health. 

Other novels have been written about the Pendle Witches, but mine is the only one to tell the story from Bess and Alizon’s point of view. I longed to give these women what their own world denied them—their own voice, their own story.

May the voices and visions of our motherline guide us to claim our own voice, our own story, our own vision, our own power. May we all be wisewomen walking forward.

Mary Sharratt is committed to telling women’s stories. If you enjoyed this article, you might want to check out her novel Daughters of the Witching Hill and visit her website.

Categories: Feminism and Religion, Herstory, Women's Power, Women's Spirituality

Tags: , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. Thank you Mary. Incredible book and enjoyed post. Have shared and linked to here on the divine feminine app. <3

    Liked by 1 person

  2. beautiful informative essay – your words resonate deeply “May the voices and visions of our motherline guide us to claim our own voice, our own story, our own vision, our own power.” Blessed Be.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, yes, yes, the renaissance was a great period for art and architecture, but it was all for men and nothing for women. You have to pay attention to history before you figure that out. And James I was indeed a witch hunter on the English throne.

    Mary, thanks as usual for all your research and wisdom and for setting it down for us to read, both here and in your books. All of which I have and have read. Of course.

    I hope all’s good where you are in Portugal. Are you safe from the fires? Have they burned across the Pyrenees and across Spain and attacked Portugal yet? I hope you and your husband and your horses are all safe. What are you writing these days?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading, Barbara!

      Unfortunately we’re having drought in Portugal and have had some heatwaves, too. There have been fires across the country, but fortunately only one near us that was put out quickly. It’s much worse in Northern Portugal. Scary stuff.

      I’m writing a new novel. Watch this space!


  4. Another wonderful chapter in the lost history of women brought back to our awareness! Before I read Daughters of the Witching Hill when it was first released I thought of accusations and persecution of witchcraft as an aberration in 17th century society, as if, for example, the hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts was just one instance of mass insanity, an oddity. Your book really helped me understand that the danger of accusations of witchcraft were constant for women and the whole society on both side of the Atlantic had the mindset of being the victim of otherworldly malevolent forces. Now that I’ve been living in New England for more than 30 years, I also see how ubiquitous accusations of witchcraft were here in many towns near where I live. In fact, I recently found out that one of my ancestors was an accuser of one of the men executed in Salem while his son was one of the ministers who helped end the Salem hysteria. All that you wrote about in Daughters of the Witching Hill is not so very far from us in time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fascinating about your ancestors, Carolyn! Yes, the time of witch burnings wasn’t really all that long ago and even today women who are outspoken or considered too strong or not morally pure enough get “burned” by social media hysteria. The mob culture dynamic is still with us!


  5. Wow, what a story. I haven’t read this story of yours. I love your writing and all I have read. This has definitely gone onto my reading list. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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