A few years ago my wife and I visited the museum at Lancaster Castle. There was an exhibition area about the notorious trial and execution of the Pendle Witches. They were sent for trial by a wealthy Lancashire magistrate called Roger Nowell. The surname immediately rang bells in my head, as Rebecca Nowell married John Cayley (born in 1716), a clergyman, of the Low Hall Cayleys of Brompton, Yorkshire. I have since confirmed that Rebecca was a direct descendant of Roger.
It was 1612 and during the main English witch-hunting period, which was fully supported by King James I. Fear of witches was used to settle scores, and the odds were stacked against the accused.
All the Pendle witches came from the Pendle Hill area of Lancashsire.
Roger Nowell started investigating complaints by the family of a pedlar called John Law who claimed that John had been injured by witchcraft. Following a hearing on 12 April 1612, Roger committed four women (two of them blind and in their eighties) to Lancaster Gaol to await trial. Two of them – in their eighties and blind – confessed and implicated the others. On 27 April 1612 he and another magistrate committed eight other people, two of them men, to Lancaster Gaol following a gathering they had had on Good Friday (10 April 1612). In the background of all this was a local quarrel, and the theft of a sheep. Just the sort of context that could lead to accusations of witchcraft in small communities, especially where some of those accused were very elderly and probably suffering from some form of dementia.
Their trial took place at Lancaster that summer, along with that of other alleged witches. Most were found guilty and hanged the next day. One died in prison awaiting trial. Only one was found not guilty. They are known as the ‘Pendle witches‘ and this is one of the most infamous witch trials in England in the 17th century.