Twelve years ago, I published my novel Daughters of the Witching Hill, drawn from the true story of the Pendle Witches of 1612. The story of these wisewomen and healers still haunts and enchants me to this day.
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.
Twelve years after publishing this novel, these women’s stories and voices feel more relevant than ever in our current age when strong and free-spoken women are shouted down, cancelled, and forced into virtual scold’s bridles. May we resist. May we all be strong, bad-assed wisewomen walking forward.