The clustering of towns and hamlets around the hill is quite striking. One is rarely visible from the next, tucked away in quiet valleys tumbling off Pendle Hill itself. It is easy to discern a microcosm of secrets and gossip, people talking in hushed whispers about the goings on in the next valley over. The whole place feels witchy in a way the New Forest doesn't. (It feels more piratey.) The energy is palpable. Why Hammer Films set their tales anywhere but here is beyond me.
During the time of the Pendle witches, the top of the hill was apparently wooded, unlike today. Even without tree cover, the top of the hill -which we did not get to on account of the hurricane warnings- seems powerful. Powerful in a Close Encounters way. Strange things happen on hilltops in grimoires. The other immediate impression as you perambulate Pendle Hill is how strategic it is. If you were doing things at its summit that King James would frown upon, you could still see people coming up to disturb you and vanish down another ravine, back to your alibi for the night. Basically, I've added another place to my 'top 5 retirement locations' wishlist.
There is a part of the Pendle Witch story that I have always found weird and incomplete, something I think points to the wider significance of both the trials and the area. It is the decision made after Old Demdike was imprisoned in Lancaster Castle. Some context:
The wild and desolate parts of the parish of Whalley furnished a fitting scene for witch assemblies, and it was alleged that such meetings were held at Malkin Tower, in Pendle Forest, within that parish.
The Justices of the peace in this part of the country, Roger Nowell and Nicholas Bannister, having learned that Malkin Tower, the residence of Old Demdike and her daughter, was the resort of the witches, ventured to arrest their head and another of her followers, and to commit them to Lancaster Castle.
When the old witch had been sent to Lancaster, a grand convocation of seventeen witches and three wizards was held at Malkin Tower on Good Friday, at which it was determined to kill Mr. M'Covell, the governor of the castle, and blow up the building, to enable the witches to make their escape.
The other two objects of this convocation were to christen the familiar of Alison Device, one of the witches in the castle, and also to bewitch and murder Mr. Lister, a gentleman of Westby-in-Craven, Yorkshire.
The business being ended, the witches, in quitting the meeting, walked out of the barn, named Malkin Tower, in their proper shapes, but on reaching the door, each mounted his or her spirit, which was in the form of a young horse, and quickly vanished.
Before the assizes, Old Demdike, worn out by age and trouble, died in prison. The others were brought to trial.
A dozen hillbilly conjurors were going to march on Lancaster Castle? Have you seen Lancaster Castle? It only stopped being a prison a few years ago! Here's what they would have been up against.
On the surface of it, this is an insane plan. It was guaranteed to fail. Something else is going on here, and I suggest it is that the King's fears that Lancashire was a crypto-Catholic stronghold were well-founded. Something tells me those seventeen conjurors would not have been alone in their march on the fortress.
The Northwest English arc encompassing Lancashire and Cumbria has always been a place of curious survivals. This is from the work of Victorian folklorist, John Harland, whose particular specialty was Lancashire:
At other times the horses are unable to draw the empty carts across the farm-yard; if loaded, they are upset; whilst the cattle tremble with fear, not at any visible cause. Nor do the inmates of the house experience any better or gentler usage. During the night the clothes are said to be violently torn from off the beds of the offending parties, whilst invisible hands drag these individuals down the stone stairs by the legs, one step at a time, after a more uncomfortable manner than we need describe. Hothershall Hall, near Ribchester, was formerly the scene of similar exploits; but the goblin is understood to have been "laid" under the roots of a large laurel tree at the end of the house, and will not be able to molest the family so long as the tree exists.
It is a common opinion in that part of the country that the roots have to be moistened with milk on certain occasions, in order to prolong its existence, and also to preserve the power of the spell under which the goblin is laid. None but the Roman Catholic priesthood are supposed to have the power of "laying an evil spirit," and hence they have always the honour to be cited in our local legends. Sometimes, too, they have the credit of outwitting the goblins; and many an old farm residence has the reputation of having thus been freed from these imps of darkness till they can spin a rope from the sands of the Ribble.
Spinning rope from the sands of the Ribble is one of those delightful feats of 'wizard logic' that manages to subdue a demon without subverting the will of God. The Ribble itself may be a crucial piece in the recovery of, shall we say, 'useful Lancastrian folklore'?
We return then to John Harland. I should point out that Harland was no intellectual slouch. He was head reporter for the Guardian (yes, the same one) during his day. You can get his whole book online here.
Such fires are still lighted in Lancashire, on Hallowe'en, under the names of Beltains or Teanlas; and even such cakes as the Jews are said to have made in honour of the Queen of Heaven, are yet to be found at this season amongst the inhabitants of the banks of the Ribble. These circumstances may appear the less strange when we reflect that this river is almost certainly the Belisama of the Romans; that it was especially dedicated to the Queen of Heaven, under the designation of Minerva Belisamæ; and that her worship was long prevalent amongst the inhabitants of Coccium, Rigodunum, and other Roman stations in the north of Lancashire. Both the fires and the cakes, however, are now connected with superstitious notions respecting Purgatory, &c., but their origin and perpetuation will scarcely admit of doubt.
A belief in astrology and in sacred numbers prevails to a considerable extent amongst all classes of our society. With many the stars still "fight in their courses," and our modern fortune-tellers are yet ready to "rule the planets," and predict good or ill fortune, on payment of the customary fee.
That there is "luck in odd numbers" was known for a fact in Lancashire long before Mr. Lover immortalized the tradition. Our housewives always take care that their hens shall sit upon an odd number of eggs; we always bathe three times in the sea at Blackpool, Southport, and elsewhere; and our names are called over three times when our services are required in courts of law. Three times three is the orthodox number of cheers; and we still hold that the seventh son of a seventh son is destined to form an infallible physician. We inherit all such popular notions as these in common with the German and Scandinavian nations; but more especially with those of the Saxons and the Danes. Triads of leaders, or ships, constantly occur in their annals; and punishments of three and seven years' duration form the burden of many of the Anglo-Saxon and Danish laws.
Put a pin in that Anglo-Saxon bit at the end, it will become relevant as the series continues. Historians today may quibble with the 'Minerva' bit but Ptolemy considered the Ribble to be a sacred river to the Gaulish Belisama. A sacred river that required sacrifice... or took it:
The stepping-stones at Bungerley, near Clitheroe, are said to be haunted by a malevolent sprite, who assumes almost as many shapes as Proteus of old. He is not known by any particular designation, nor are there any traditions to account for his first appearance; but at least one life in every seven years is required to appease the anger of the spirit of the Ribble at this place. It was at these stepping-stones that King Henry VI. was treacherously betrayed by a Talbot of Bashall and others; whence may have arisen a tradition of a malevolent spirit at that place.
In a graveyard beside the Ribble is also where this happened:
And you can still visit it today:
The following account was taken from Lancashire Folk-lore by John Harland and T. T. Wilkinson, 1867 where they in turn quote Casaubon.
In the reign of Queen Elizabeth and the year 1560, three judicial astrologers met in Preston, for the purpose of raising a corpse by incantations. They were Dr. Dee, Warden of Manchester (authors note: Dee did not become Warden of Manchester until 1595), Edward Kelly, his assistant, and seer, and Paul Wareing, of Dove Cotes, near Clayton Brook. Casaubon, in his " True and faithful Account of what passed for many years between John Dee and some Spirits," (apparently quoting from Weever's Funeral Monuments) states that
"The aforesaid Master Edward Kelly, a person well skilled in judicial astrology, with one Paul Wareing (who acted with him in these incantations and all these conjurations) and Dr. Dee, went to the churchyard of St. Leonard's, in Walton-le-Dale, near Preston, and entered the burial ground exactly at midnight, the moon shining brightly, for the purpose of raising the body of a person who had been interred there, and who had during his life hidden a quantity of money without disclosing the fact previous to his death. Having had the grave pointed out to them on the preceding day, they opened it, removed the coffin lid, and set to work by various exorcisms, until the body became animated, by the spirit entering it again. The body then rose out of the grave and stood upright before them. It not only satisfied their wicked desires, it is said, but delivered several strange predictions concerning persons in the neighbourhood, which were literally and exactly fulfilled.
Sibley, in his Occult Sciences, relates a similar account of this transaction, and also gives an engraving representing the scene, which took place at the midnight hour in the church of Walton. Another account states that Dr. Dee was engaged with Kelly in this enterprise, August 12th, 1560, and that Paul Wareing, of Clayton Brook, was the other who gave assistance in endeavouring to obtain an intercourse with familiar spirits,"
The above account and the dates it mentions are probably in error. 1560 would be too early for Dee to be working with Kelly. Especially as Edward Kelly (born 1 August 1555) would only have been 5 years old. Also whether Dee actually had anything to do with this ritual regardless to when it took place is probably open to debate.
The only remaining part of the church dating from the sixteenth century is the chancel and tower. The registers for the church begin in 1653 and the oldest grave in the churchyard is dated 1628, which is 68 years after the alleged date of the summoning.
How did this particular church become associated with the Dee legend, then? I see a typological memory of necromantic activities like this taking place here, with Dee and Kelly being cyphers for prominent local conjurors whose names had since been forgotten. The aspect over the Ribble from this church is quite remarkable. A road sits in the way now, but on a cold clear night amongst the graves, the place cries out for sorcery.
Standing there on that spot in the sleet, it feels to me like the names are wrong but the story is right. Over time, hyperlocal legends are absorbed under more famous names, particularly when it comes to magic. Were I to live closer I would certainly consider some further 'extradimensional experimentation'. (I live directly across the Thames from the location of Dee's house at Mortlake so I wouldn't hold your breath for a report while there are lazier options to hand. You know how I roll.)
What does that leave us with, then?
- A geography built for secrets.
- A continuation of Norse/Saxon folk numerology.
- A continuation of the 'magical prominence' of Catholic priests in a county King James kept a permanent weather eye on. This prominence was evident to Victorian folklorists centuries after the Reformation.
- Folk practices that may date back to at least the Roman withdrawal along a river sacred to the Queen of Heaven that may or may not claim its own sacrifices.
- Covens of witches so 'out and proud' they figured they could march on castles.
- A tradition of grimoiric necromancy on the banks of a sacred, murderous river.
We have, by my reckoning and observation, a region that positively embodies a definition of witchcraft as "where the grimoire tradition reacts with the local biosphere". It is an embodiment so unique and so specific to the county that, like some of its cheese, it should really qualify for Protected Designation of Origin.