17 December 2008 | churchofsunshine
Does what it says on the tin
"The Witches of Pendle" does exactly what it says on the tin - a 70 minute dramatisation of one of the more famous so-called "witch trials" ever to be held in medieval England, those of the "Pendle Witches" near Colne in Lancashire which took place in 1612. Twelve men and women were accused (mainly from two families covering three generations), one died in prison awaiting trial, while of the remaining eleven, all but one were found guilty and hanged. This is a re-telling of those events, which for the period, were quite well recorded and published in 1613 as "The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster". My own knowledge of the "Pendle Witch Trials" somewhat lacking, I referred to Wikipedia for some background knowledge of the events leading up to the trial, which is almost word-for-word the same as how things unfold in this 1976 made-for-TV production. Even the cast have local Lancastrian accents, though Hoghton Hall near Preston doubles rather unconvincingly for Lancaster Gaol, which is a shame given how well the BBC does generally when making period drama. Certainly there is nothing wrong with the costumes, even if the "script" (for want of a better word) is poor.
It's probably worth recapping the general story of the Pendle Witches for those not in the know, which begins not that long after the Gunpowder Plot in the year 1612. James is still King, and religious tension between Catholics and Protestants is still rife. The Civil War is still to come. It all begins when a peddlar named John Law met a local woman named Alizon Device who asked for some pins. Whether Alizon intended to pay for them as she claimed, or whether she was begging is open to question, but not long after encountering her, John Law was struck down. These days, we would call it a stroke, but to 17th century simple village-folk it was a sure sign of a curse. Even Alizon seemed convinced of her "powers" as when she was taken to see Law a few days after the incident, she reportedly confessed and asked for his forgiveness. Alizon Device, her mother Elizabeth Device (daughter of Elizabeth Southerns alias Demdike), and her brother James were summoned to appear before local Justice of the Peace Roger Nowell in March 1612. When questioned about Anne Whittle (Chattox), the matriarch of another local family reputedly involved in witchcraft in and around Pendle, Alizon accused Chattox of murdering four men by witchcraft, and of killing her father, John Device, who had died in 1601. Thus many of the allegations made in the Pendle witch trials resulted from members of the Demdike and Chattox families making accusations and counter-accusations against each other. When word of a meeting at Malkin Tower of friends and sympathisers of the Demdike family, held on Good Friday 1612, reached Roger Nowell, he decided to determine the purpose of the meeting, who had attended, and what had happened there. As a result of the inquiry, several more people were arrested and accused of witchcraft. The main prosecution witness would prove to be Alice Device's younger sister Jennet, who at just nine years old was judged to be young and virtuous enough not to have sold her soul to the devil and provided evidence against her own mother Elizabeth. Alizon Device, whose encounter with John Law had triggered the events leading up to the trials, was charged with causing harm by witchcraft. Uniquely among the accused, Alizon was confronted in court by her alleged victim, John Law. She seems to have genuinely believed in her own guilt; when Law was brought into court Alizon fell to her knees in tears and confessed. She was found guilty and along with all of the other defendants save one, sentenced to death by hanging. Somewhat ironically, given her involvement in the deaths of her mother, sister and brother, historians believe that young Jennet Device may eventually have found herself accused of witchcraft as well. A woman with that name was listed in a group of 20 tried at Lancaster Assizes on 1634, although it cannot be certain that it was the same Jennet Device. In that series of trials the chief prosecution witness was a ten-year-old boy, Edmund Robinson. All but one of the accused were found guilty, but the judges refused to pass death sentences, deciding instead to refer the case to the king, Charles I. Under cross-examination in London, Robinson admitted that he had fabricated his evidence, but even though four of the accused were eventually pardoned, they all remained incarcerated in Lancaster Gaol, where it is likely that they died. An official record from 1636 lists Jennet Device as one of those still held in the prison. At this point, the "Pendle Witches" seem to disappear from the pages of history altogether, though the area around Newchurch-in-Pendle enjoys a huge tourism industry based around those events of 1612, almost exactly four hundred years ago now.
It's probably about time a production company decided to re-make the story of the Pendle Witches, as frankly, this 1976 version is quite hard to follow for those not already familiar with the bare bones of the case as outlined above. The whole thing just seems so matter-of-fact. Sure, it tells the truth such as the surviving records from the period show it to be, but nothing about the characters themselves. There's no dramatic or artistic licence to allow us to get to know any of those involved. It's just a straightforward telling of a series of events that hasn't even been put together that well. Maybe the "Pendle Witches" just aren't that interesting, but I think that any dramatisation of the trial could and should have been a lot better than this.