Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Witch Trial That Changed Legal History

In modern times, we have seen children as young as three being in court and giving testimony. The effect can be powerful and the testimony truly damning. But in the not so recent past, children under 14 were considered to be unreliable witnesses. This all changed in the 17th century with a notorious witch trial.

 Illustration from William Harrison Ainsworth's 1849 novel, The Lancashire Witches.
In this trial, nine-year-old Jennet Device, an illegitimate beggar, gave evidence in the 1612 Pendle witch trial in Lancashire, England. Her evidence and testimony, allowed partly because of the rampant witch fear spurred on by King James I and his book Demonology, led to the execution of 10 people, including all of her own family.

At the time Lancashire had a reputation for being full of trouble-makers and subversives. Jennet lived with her mother Elizabeth, her grandmother Demdike, older sister Alizon and brother James in the village of Pendle. Villagers dubbed Demdike a "cunning woman.” In March 1612, Alizon cursed a peddler who would not give her any pins. The peddler collapsed and his son reported it to an ambitious local magistrate, Roger Nowell.

Nowell interviewed Alizon, who confessed to “bewitching” the peddler, but also accused the Device family’s neighbors of bewitching and killing four people. The neighbors pointed back at Demdike, calling her a witch. (The families just happened to be feuding.) Norwell arrested all the parties involved (including neighbors Anne Whittle (also known as Chattox) and her daughter Anne Redferne).

In his book Demonology, James I wrote: "Children, women and liars can be witnesses over high treason against God." This influenced the justice system and led to Nowell using Jennet as his key witness. The clerk of the court, Thomas Potts, wrote a book of all the notes he made of the trial, which became a bestseller and spread the story far and wide.

“In The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster”, Potts recounted how Jennet's mother Elizabeth screamed out when her daughter entered the court. Jennet demanded her mother be removed and then climbed on a table and calmly denounced her as a witch.

In the book, Potts writes that this is what Jennet said:
"My mother is a witch and that I know to be true. I have seen her spirit in the likeness of a brown dog, which she called Ball. The dog did ask what she would have him do and she answered that she would have him help her to kill. At 12 noon about 20 people came to our house - my mother told me they were all witches."

She named six people whose names she knew and her mother and brother.
James denounced his mother Elizabeth too but Jennet then turned on her own brother and said he had been a witch for three years. She said she had seen his spirit kill three people.

Her testimony and evidence, as it were, was enough to convince the jury that all those arrested were guilty of witchcraft. The next day they were all hanged at Gallows Hill.

Pott’s writings and Jennets evidence were included in a reference handbook for magistrates, “The Country Justice.” The book was used by all magistrates, including those involved in the Salem Witch Trials in colonial America, in 1692. Most of the evidence there was given by children. Nineteen people were hanged from this testimony. Before Jennet testified against her family, children could not be credible witnesses; she changed that with the broken necks of innocent people.

Twelve years later, Jennet, too, was accused of witchcraft, along with 16 others, by 10-year-old Edmund Robinson. They were found guilty, but the case was referred to a Privy Council, due to lack of evidence (owed in part to England’s growing skepticism over witchcraft). Edmund admitted he lied, because of the stories he read about Jennet and the Pendle witch trial.

Jennet was last heard of in 1636, where she was stuck in Lancaster Castle, being unable to pay for her boarding there during her trial. As a beggar, she would have been unable to pay and thus never able to leave.

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