Come Halloween, the popular imagination turns to witches. Especially in Pendle Witch Country, the rugged Pennine landscape surrounding Pendle Hill, once home to twelve individuals arrested for witchcraft in 1612. The most notorious was Elizabeth Southerns, alias Old Demdike, cunning woman of long-standing repute and the heroine of my novel Daughters of the Witching Hill.
How did these historical cunning folk celebrate All Hallows Eve?
All Hallows has its roots in the ancient feast of Samhain, which marked the end of the pastoral year and was considered particularly numinous, a time when the faery folk and the spirits of the dead roved abroad. Popular belief in this inspirited world endured long after the Christian conversion. This 16th century poem by Alexander Montgomerie evokes the enchantment of All Hallows:
At the hind-end of the harvest, on Hallowe’en,
When our “good neighbours” ride if I think right,
Some mounted on a ragweed and some on a bean,
All tripping in troupes from the twilight;
Some saddled on a she-ape all arrayed in green,
Some riding on hempstalks rising on high,
The King of Faerie and his court with the Elf-Queen,
With many a weird incubus was riding that night.
Old beliefs were preserved in the Christian feast of All Hallows, which had developed into a spectacular affair by the late Middle Ages, with church bells ringing all night to comfort the souls thought to be in purgatory. Did this custom have its origin in much older rites of ancestor veneration? This threshold feast opening the season of cold and darkness allowed people to confront their deepest fears — that of death and what lay beyond. And their deepest longings — reunion with their cherished departed.
After the Reformation, these old Catholic rites were outlawed, resulting in one of the longest struggles waged by Protestant reformers against any of the traditional ecclesiastical rituals. Lay people stubbornly continued to hold vigils for their dead — a rite that could be performed without a priest and in cover of darkness. Until the early 19th century in the Lancashire parish of Whalley, some families still gathered at midnight upon All Hallows Eve. One person held a large bunch of burning straw on a pitchfork while the others knelt in a circle and prayed for their beloved dead until the flames burned out.
Long after the Reformation, people persisted in giving round oatcakes, called Soul-Mass Cakes to soulers, the poor who went door to door singing Souling Songs as they begged for alms on the Feast of All Souls, November 2. Each cake eaten represented a soul released from purgatory, a mystical communion with the dead.
In Glossographia, published in 1674, Thomas Blount writes:
All Souls Day, November 2d: the custom of Soul Mass cakes, which are a kind of oat cakes, that some of the richer sorts in Lancashire and Herefordshire (among the Papists there) use still to give the poor upon this day; and they, in retribution of their charity, hold themselves obliged to say this old couplet:
God have your soul,
Bones and all.
Other All Hallows folk rituals invoked the power of fire to purify and ward. In the Fylde district of Lancashire, farmers circled their fields with burning straw on the point of a fork to protect the coming crop from noxious weeds.
Fire was used to protect people from perceived evil spirits active on this night. At Longridge Fell in Lancashire, very close to Pendle Hill, the custom of ‘lating’ or hindering witches endured until the early 19th century. On All Hallows Eve, people walked up hillsides between 11 pm and midnight. Each person carried a lighted candle and if the flame went out, it was taken as a sign that an attack by a witch was impending and that the appropriate charms must be employed to protect oneself.
What do these old traditions mean to us today?
All Hallows is not just a date on the calendar, but the entire tide, or season, in which we celebrate ancestral memory and commemorate our dead. This is also the season of storytelling, of remembering the past. The veil between the seen and unseen grows thin and we may dream true.
Wishing a blessed All Hallows Tide to all!
- Source: Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain
- Soul Cake Recipes: http://historicalfoods.com/souling-cake-recipe
- Souling Songs may be found here: http://www.informatik.uni-hamburg.de/~zierke/watersons/songs/soulingsong.html
Mary Sharratt is an American writer living in the Pendle region of Lancashire, Northern England. Her acclaimed novel of the Pendle Witches, Daughters of the Witching Hill, is now out in paperback. Illuminations, her new novel exploring the life of visionary abbess and polymath, Hildegard von Bingen, will be released in 2012. Visit Mary’s website: www.marysharratt.com.
Excerpt from Daughters of the Witching Hill
At Hallowtide, Liza insisted on walking up Blacko Hill, as we’d always done, for our midnight vigil on the Eve of All Saints. Under cover of darkness we crept forth with me carrying the lantern to light our way and John following with a pitchfork crowned in a great bundle of straw.
Once we reached the hilltop, after a furtive look round to make sure no one else was about, John lit the straw with the lantern flame so that the straw atop the pitchfork blazed like a torch. With him to hold the fork upright and keep an eye out for intruders, Liza and I knelt to pray for our dead. In the old days, we’d held this vigil in the church, the whole parish praying together, the darkened chapel bright as day with the many candles glowing on the saints’ altars. Now we were left to do this in secret, stealing away like criminals in the night, as though it were something shameful to hail our deceased. I prayed for my mam and grand-dad, calling out to their souls till I felt them both step through the veil to bring me comfort.
In my heart of hearts, I did not believe my loved ones were in purgatory waiting, by and by, to be let into heaven. There was no air of suffering or torment about them, only the joy of reunion. My mam, young and pretty, worked in her herb garden. She hummed a lilting tune whilst her earth-stained fingers pointed out to me the plants I must use to ease Liza’s birth pangs. Grand-Dad whispered his old charms to bless me and Liza and John.
A long spell I knelt there, held in the embrace of my beloved dead, till the straw on the pitchfork burned itself out, falling in embers and ash to the ground. Our John helped my pregnant daughter to her feet, then we made our way home through the night that no longer seemed so dark.
©2010, 2011, 2014 Mary Sharratt.
In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest in Lancashire, Northern England were executed. In court clerk Thomas Potts’s account of the proceedings, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, published in 1613, he pays particular attention to the one alleged witch who escaped justice by dying in prison before she could come to trial. She was Elizabeth Southerns, more commonly known by her nickname, Old Demdike. According to Potts, she was the ringleader, the one who initiated all the others into witchcraft. This is how Potts describes her:
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.
Quite impressive for an eighty-year-old lady! In England, unlike Scotland and Continental Europe, the law forbade the use of torture to extract witchcraft confessions. Thus the trial transcripts allegedly reveal Elizabeth Southerns’s voluntary confession, although her words might have been manipulated or altered by the magistrate and scribe. What’s interesting, if the trial transcripts can be believed, is that she freely confessed to being a healer and magical practitioner. Local farmers called on her to cure their children and their cattle. She described in rich detail how she first met her familiar spirit, Tibb, at the stone quarry near Newchurch in Pendle. He appeared to her at daylight gate — twilight in the local dialect — in the form of beautiful young man, his coat half black and half brown, and he promised to teach her all she needed to know about magic.
Tibb was not the “devil in disguise.” The devil, as such, appeared to be a minor figure in British witchcraft. It was the familiar spirit who took centre stage: This was the cunning person’s otherworldly spirit helper who could shapeshift between human and animal form, as Emma Wilby explains in her excellent scholarly study, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. Mother Demdike describes Tibb appearing to her at different times in human form or in animal form. He could take the shape of a hare, a black cat, or a brown dog. It appeared that in traditional English folk magic, no cunning man or cunning woman could work magic without the aid of their spirit familiar — they needed this otherworldly ally to make things happen.
Belief in magic and the spirit world was absolutely mainstream in the 16th and 17th centuries. Not only the poor and ignorant believed in spells and witchcraft — rich and educated people believed in magic just as strongly. Dr. John Dee, conjuror to Elizabeth I, was a brilliant mathematician and cartographer and also an alchemist and ceremonial magician. In Dee’s England, more people relied on cunning folk for healing than on physicians. As Owen Davies explains in his book, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History, cunning men and women used charms to heal, foretell the future, and find the location of stolen property. What they did was technically illegal — sorcery was a hanging offence — but few were arrested for it as the demand for their services was so great. Doctors were so expensive that only the very rich could afford them and the “physick” of this era involved bleeding patients with lancets and using dangerous medicines such as mercury — your local village healer with her herbs and charms was far less likely to kill you.
In this period there were magical practitioners in every community. Those who used their magic for good were called cunning folk or charmers or blessers or wisemen and wisewomen. Those who were perceived by others as using their magic to curse and harm were called witches. But here it gets complicated. A cunning woman who performs a spell to discover the location of stolen goods would say that she is working for good. However, the person who claims to have been falsely accused of harbouring those stolen goods can turn around and accuse her of sorcery and slander. This is what happened to 16th century Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop of Edinburgh, cited by Emma Wilby in Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. Dunlop was burned as a witch in 1576 after her “white magic” offended the wrong person. Ultimately, the difference between cunning folk and witches lay in the eye of the beholder. If your neighbours turned against you and decided you were a witch, you were doomed.
Although King James I, author of the witch-hunting handbook Daemonologie, believed that witches had made a pact with the devil, there’s no actual evidence to suggest that witches or cunning folk took part in any diabolical cult. Anthropologist Margaret Murray, in her book, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, published in 1921, tried to prove that alleged witches were part of a Pagan religion that somehow survived for centuries after the Christian conversion. Most modern academics have rejected Murray’s hypothesis as unlikely. Indeed, lingering belief in an organised Pagan religion is very difficult to substantiate. So what did cunning folk like Old Demdike believe in?
Some of her family’s charms and spells were recorded in the trial transcripts and they reveal absolutely no evidence of devil worship, but instead use the ecclesiastical language of the Catholic Church, the old religion driven underground by the English Reformation. Her charm to cure a bewitched person, cited by the prosecution as evidence of diabolical sorcery, is, in fact, a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ, as witnessed by the Virgin Mary. The text, in places, is very similar to the White Pater Noster, an Elizabethan prayer charm which Eamon Duffy discusses in his landmark book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580.
It appears that Mother Demdike was a practitioner of the kind of quasi-Catholic folk magic that would have been commonplace before the Reformation. The pre-Reformation Church embraced many practises that seemed magical and mystical. People used holy water and communion bread for healing. They went on pilgrimages, left offerings at holy wells, and prayed to the saints for intercession. Some practises, such as the blessing of the wells and fields, may indeed have Pagan origins. Indeed, looking at pre-Reformation folk magic, it is very hard to untangle the strands of Catholicism from the remnants of Pagan belief, which had become so tightly interwoven.
Unfortunately Mother Demdike had the misfortune to live in a place and time when Catholicism was conflated with witchcraft. Even Reginald Scot, one of the most enlightened men of his age, believed the act of transubstantiation, the point in the Catholic mass where it is believed that the host becomes the body and blood of Christ, was an act of sorcery. In a 1645 pamphlet by Edward Fleetwood entitled A Declaration of a Strange and Wonderfull Monster, describing how a royalist woman in Lancashire supposedly gave birth to a headless baby, Lancashire is described thusly: “No part of England hath so many witches, none fuller of Papists.” Keith Thomas’s social history Religion and the Decline of Magic is an excellent study on how the Reformation literally took the magic out of Christianity.
However, it would be an oversimplification to state that Mother Demdike was merely a misunderstood practitioner of Catholic folk magic. Her description of her decades-long partnership with her spirit Tibb seems to draw on something outside the boundaries of Christianity.
Although it is difficult to prove that witches and cunning folk in early modern Britain worshipped Pagan deities, the so-called fairy faith, the enduring belief in fairies and elves, is well documented. In his 1677 book The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, Lancashire author John Webster mentions a local cunning man who claimed that his familiar spirit was none other than the Queen of Elfhame herself. The Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop mentioned earlier, while being tried for witchcraft and sorcery at the Edinburgh Assizes, stated that her familiar spirit was a fairy man sent to her by the Queen of Elfhame.
The crimes of which Mother Demdike and her fellow witches were accused dated back years before the 1612 trial. The trial itself might have never happened had it not been for King James I’s obsession with the occult. Until his reign, witch persecutions had been relatively rare in England compared with Scotland and Continental Europe. But James’s book Daemonologie presented the idea of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation. Shakespeare wrote his play Macbeth, which presents the first depiction of a witches’ coven in English drama, in James I’s honour.
To curry favour with his monarch, Lancashire magistrate Roger Nowell of Read Hall arrested and prosecuted no fewer than twelve individuals from the Pendle region and even went to the farfetched extreme of accusing them of conspiring their very own Gunpowder Plot to blow up Lancaster Castle. Two decades before the more famous Matthew Hopkins began his witch-hunting career in East Anglia, Roger Nowell had set himself up as witchfinder general of Lancashire.
What do we actually know about Mother Demdike? At the time of her trial she appears as a widow and matriarch, living in a place called Malkin Tower with her widowed daughter Elizabeth Device, and her three grandchildren, James, Alizon, and Jennet. Her clan was very poor and supported themselves by a combination of begging and by the family business of cunning craft. The trial transcripts mention that local farmer John Nutter of Bull Hole Farm near Newchurch hired Demdike to bless his sick cattle. Interestingly John Nutter chose not to testify against her family in the trial.
Demdike’s family at Malkin Tower had a powerful rival in the form of Chattox, another widow and charmer, who lived a few miles away at West Close near Fence. Chattox allegedly bewitched to death her landlord’s son, Robert Nutter of Greenhead, for attempting to rape her daughter, Anne Redfearne. For social historians it’s interesting to see how having a fearsome reputation as a cunning woman could be the only true power a poor woman could hope to wield.
Unfortunately this could also backfire as it did with Demdike’s granddaughter, Alizon Device, who exchanged angry words with a pedlar outside Colne in March, 1612. Moments later the pedlar collapsed and suddenly went stiff and lame on one half of his body and lost the power of speech. Today we would clearly recognise this as a stroke. But the pedlar and several witnesses were convinced that Alizon had lamed her victim with witchcraft. Even she seemed to believe this herself, immediately falling to her knees and begging his forgiveness. This unfortunate event triggered the arrest of Alizon and her grandmother. Alizon wasted no time in implicating Chattox, her grandmother’s rival, and Chattox’s daughter, Anne Redfearne.
The four accused witches were interrogated by Roger Nowell, and then force-marched to Lancaster Castle, walking over fells and moorland. Both Demdike and Chattox, whose real name was Anne Whittle, were frail and elderly. It was amazing they survived the journey. In Lancaster they were handed over to the sadistic Thomas Covell, the gaoler who reputedly slashed the ears off Edward Kelly, friend of John Dee, when he was arrested on the charge of forgery. The women were chained to a ring in the floor in the bottom of the Well Tower. Although torture was officially forbidden in England, gaolers were allowed to starve and beat their prisoners at will. Being chained to a ring in the floor and kept in constant darkness would certainly feel like torture for those who had to endure it.
On Good Friday following the arrests, worried family and friends met at Malkin Tower to discuss what they would do in regard to this tragic situation. Constable John Hargreaves came to write down the names of everyone present and later Roger Nowell made further arrests, accusing these people of convening at Malkin Tower on Good Friday for a witches’ sabbat, something he would have read about in Daemonologie. The arrests didn’t stop until he had the mythical thirteen to make up the alleged coven. Twelve were kept at Lancaster and one, Jennet Preston who lived over the county line in Gisburn, Yorkshire, was sent to York. Apart from Chattox and Demdike and their immediate families, none of these newly arrested people had previous reputations as cunning folk. It seemed they were just concerned friends and neighbours who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Kept in such horrible conditions, Demdike died in prison before she came to trial, thus cheating the hangman. The others experienced a different fate.
The first to be arrested, Alizon 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 moving tribute to her grandmother’s power as a healer. Roger Nowell, the prosecutor, brought John Law, the pedlar she had allegedly lamed, before her. Again Alizon begged the man’s forgiveness for her perceived crime against him. John Law, in return, said that if she had the power to lame him, she must also have the power to heal him. Alizon regrettably told him that she wasn’t able to, but if her grandmother, Old Demdike had lived, she could and would have healed him.
Mother Demdike is dead but not forgotten. By the mid-17th century, Demdike’s name became a local byword for witch, according to John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson’s Lancashire Folklore. In 1627, only fifteen years after the Pendle Witch Trial, a woman named Dorothy Shaw of Skippool, Lancashire, was accused by her neighbour of being a “witch and a Demdyke.”
History is a fluid thing that continually shapes the present. Long after her demise, Mother Demdike and her fellow Pendle Witches endure, their story and spirit woven into the living landscape, its weft and warp, like the stones and the streams that cut across the moors. Enthralled by their true history, I wrote my novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, dedicated to their memory. Other books have been written about the Pendle Witches, but mine turns the tables, telling the story from Demdike and Alizon Device’s point of view. I longed to give these women what their world denied them — their own voice. Their voices deserve to finally be heard.
- Owen Davies, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History (Hambledon Continuum)
- Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale)
- Malcolm Gaskill, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy (John Murray)
- John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore (Kessinger Publishing)
- King James I, Daemonologie, available online.
- Jonathan Lumby, The Lancashire Witch-Craze (Carnegie)
- Margaret Murray, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, available online.
- Edgar Peel and Pat Southern, The Trials of the Lancashire Witches (Nelson)
- Robert Poole, ed., The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (Manchester University Press)
- Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, available online.
- Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin)
- John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (Ams Pr Inc)
- Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits (Sussex Academic Press)
- Benjamin Woolley, The Queen’s Conjuror: The Life and Magic of Dr. Dee (Flamingo)
©2010 by Mary Sharratt.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Author Mary Sharratt has lived near Pendle Hill in Lancashire since 2002. Her novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, inspired by Mother Demdike’s true story, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Visit her website.
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.
— Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancaster, 1613
See us gathered here, three women stood at Richard Baldwin’s gate. I bide with my daughter, Liza of the squint-eye, and with my granddaughter, Alizon, just fifteen and dazzling as the noontide sun, so bright that she lights up the murk of my dim sight. Demdike, folk call me, after the dammed stream near my dwelling place where the farmers wash their sheep before shearing. When I was younger and stronger, I used to help with the sheepwash. Wasn’t afraid of the fiercest rams. I’d always had a way of gentling creatures by speaking to them low and soft. Though I’m old now, crabbed and near-blind, my memory is long as a midsummer’s day and with my inner eye, I see clear.
We three wait till Baldwin catches glimpse of us and out he storms. Through the clouded caul that age has cast over my eyes, I catch his form. Thin as a brittle dead stalk, he is, his face pinched, and he’s clad in the dour black weeds of a Puritan. Fancies himself a godly man, does our Dick Baldwin. A loud crack strikes the earth — it’s a horsewhip he carries. My daughter fair leaps as he lashes it against the drought-hard dirt.
“Whores and witches,” he rails, shrill enough to set the crows to flight. “Get out of my ground.”
Slashes of air hit my face as he brandishes his whip, seeking to strike fear into us, but it’s his terror I taste as I let go of Alizon’s guiding hand and step forward, firm and square on my rag-bundled feet. We’ve only come to claim what is ours by right.
“Whores and witches,” he taunts again, yelling with such bile that his spit sprays me. “I will burn the one of you and hang the other.”
He speaks to Liza and me, ignoring young Alizon, for he doesn’t trust himself to even look at this girl whose beauty and sore hunger would be enough to make him sink to his knobbly knees.
I take another step forward, forcing him to back away. The man’s a-fright that I’ll so much as breathe on him. “I care not for you,” I tell him. “Hang yourself.”
Our Master Baldwin will play the righteous churchman, but what I know of him would besmirch his good name forevermore. He can spout his psalms till he’s hoarse, but heaven’s gates will never open to him. I know this and he knows I know this, and for my knowing, he fears and hates me. Beneath his black clothes beats an even blacker heart. Hired my Liza to card wool, did Baldwin, and then refused to pay her. What’s more, our Liza has done much dearer things for him than carding. Puritan or no, he’s taken his pleasure of her and, lost and grieving her poor murdered husband, ten years dead, our Liza was soft enough to let him. Fool girl.
“Enough of this,” I say. “Liza carded your wool. Where’s her payment? We’re poor, hungry folk. Would you let us starve for your meanness?”
I speak in a low, warning tone, not unlike the growl of a dog before it bites. Man like him should know better than to cross the likes of me. Throughout Pendle Forest I’m known as a cunning woman and she who has the power to bless may also curse.
Our Mr. Baldwin blames me because his daughter Ellen is too poorly to rise from her bed. The girl was a pale, consumptive thing from the day she was born, never hale in all her nine years. Once he called on me to heal her. Mopped her brow, I did. Brewed her feverfew and lungwort, but still she ailed and shivered. Tried my best with her, but some who are sick cannot be mended. Yet Baldwin thinks I bewitched the lass out of malice. Why would I seek to harm a hair on the poor girl’s head when his other daughter, the one he won’t name or even look at, is my own youngest granddaughter, seven-year-old Jennet?
“Richard.” My Liza makes bold to step toward him. She stretches out a beseeching hand. “Have a heart. For our Jennet’s sake. We’ve nothing more to eat in the house.”
But he twists away from her in cold dread and still won’t pay her for her honest work, won’t grant us so much as a penny. So what can I do but promise that I’ll pray for him till he comes to be of a better mind? Soft under my breath, masked from his Puritan ears, I murmur the Latin refrains of the old religion. How my whispered words make him pale and quake — does he believe they will strike him dead? Off to his house he scarpers. Behind his bolted door he’ll cower till we’re well gone.
“Come, Gran.” Alizon takes my arm to lead me home. Can’t make my way round without her in this dark ebb of my years. But with my inner eye I see Tibb sat there on the drystone wall. Sun breaks through the clouds to golden-wash his guilesome face. Dick Baldwin would call him a devil, or even the Devil, but I know better. Tibb, his beautiful form invisible to all but me.
“Now I don’t generally stand by woe-working,” says my Tibb, stretching out his long legs. “But if you forespoke Master Baldwin, who could blame you, after all the ill he’s done to you and yours?” He cracks a smile. “Is revenge what you want?”
“No, Tibb. Only justice.” I speak with my inner voice that none but Tibb can hear. If Baldwin fell ill and died, what would happen to his lawful daughter, Ellen? Her mother’s long dead. Another poor lass to live off the alms of the parish. No, I’ll not have that burden on my soul.
“Justice!” Tibb laughs, then shakes his head. “Off the likes of Dick Baldwin? Oh, you do set your sights high.”
Tibb’s laughter makes the years melt away, drawing me back to the old days, when I could see far with my own two eyes and walk on my own two legs, with none to guide me.
By daylight gate I first saw him, the boy climbing out of the stone pit in Goldshaw. The sinking sun set his fair hair alight. Slender, he was, and so young and beautiful. Pure, too. No meanness on him. No spite or evil. I knew straight off that he wouldn’t spit at me for being a barefoot beggar woman. Wouldn’t curse at me or try to shove me into the ditch. There was something in his eyes — a gentleness, a knowing. When he looked at me, my hurting knees turned to butter. When he smiled, I melted to my core, my heart bumping and thumping till I fair fainted away. What would a lad like that want with a fifty-year-old widow like me?
The month of May, it was, but cold of an evening. His coat was half black, half brown. I thought to myself that he must be poor like me, left to stitch his clothes together from mismatched rags. He reached out his hand, as though making to greet an old friend.
“Elizabeth,” he said. “My own Bess.” The names by which I was known when a girl with a slender waist and strong legs and rippling chestnut hair. How did he know my true name? Even then I was known to most as Demdike. The boy smiled wide with clean white teeth, none of them missing, and his eyes had a devilish spark in them, as though I were still that young woman with skin like new milk.
“Well, well,” said I, for I was never one to stay silent for long. “You know my name, so you do. What’s yours then?”
“Tibb,” he said.
“Your family name.” I nodded to myself, though I knew of no Tibbs living anywhere in Pendle Forest. “But what of your Christian name?” After all, I thought, he knew me by mine, God only knew how.
He lifted his face to the red-glowing sky and laughed as the last of the sun sank behind Pendle Hill. Then I heard a noise behind me: the startled squawk of a pheasant taking flight. When I turned to face the boy again, he had vanished away. I looked up and down the lane, finding him nowhere. Couldn’t even trace his footprints in the muddy track. Did my mind fail me? Had that boy been real at all? This was when I grew afraid and went cold all over, as though frost had settled upon my skin.
First off, I told no one of Tibb. Who would have believed me when I could scarcely believe it myself? I’d no wish to make myself an even bigger laughingstock than I already was.
Ned Southerns, my husband, such as he was, had passed on just after our squint-eyed Liza was born, nineteen years ago. He blamed me for our daughter’s deformity because he thought I’d too much contact with beasts whilst I was carrying her. In my married years, I raised fine hens, even kept a nanny goat. There was another child, Christopher, three years older than Liza and not of my husband, but far and away from being the only bastard in Pendle Forest. The gentry and the yeomen bred as many ill-begotten babes as us poor folk, only they did a better job of covering it up. Liza, Kit, and I made our home in a crumbling old watchtower near the edge of Pendle Forest. More ancient than Adam, our tower was: too draughty for storing silage, but it did for us. Malkin Tower, it was called, and, as you’ll know, Malkin can mean either hare or slattern. What better place for me and my brood?
Still folk whispered that it seemed a curious thing indeed that one such as I should live in a tower built of stout stone with a firehouse boasting a proper hearth at its foot when many a poor widow made do with a one-room hovel with no hearth at all but only a fire pit in the bare earthen floor. In truth, my poor dead mother got the tower given her for her natural life — towers named after slatterns were meant to hide guilty secrets.
When my mam was young and comely, she’d served the Nowell family at Read Hall. Head ostler’s daughter, so she was, and she’d prospects and a modest dowry besides. But what did she do but catch the eye of Master Nowell’s son, then a lad of seventeen years? The Nowells were not an old family, as gentry went, nor half as grand as the Shuttleworths of Gawthorpe Hall or the de Lacys of Clitheroe. The Nowells’ fortunes had risen along with the sway of the new religion. Back when Old King Henry’s troops came to sack Whalley Abbey, the Nowells sent their men to help topple the ancient stone walls. King rewarded their loyalty by granting the Nowells a goodly portion of the abbey’s lands. One of Old Man Nowells’ sons went to faraway Cambridgeshire to make his name as a Puritan divine, or so I’d been told. Far and wide, the Nowells let it be known that they were godly folk. But even the pious are prey to youthful folly.
My mam, before her fall from grace, had been an upright girl, so the young Master Roger could hardly discard her as easy as he would some tavern maid. And that was why Mam was given Malkin Tower for the rest of her life on the condition that she never trouble the Nowells of Read Hall. Far enough from Read, it was, for them not to be bothered by the sight of her, but it was close enough to for them to keep watch of her, should she seek to blacken their good name. My mam and I were never respectable — respect costs money and we hadn’t two pennies to rub together. We’d Malkin Tower to live in but no scrap of land for grazing sheep. Most we could manage was a garden plot in the stony soil. By and by, I think the Nowells had fair forgotten us. When my mam passed on, bless her eternal soul, the tower was in such poor repair they didn’t seem to want it back. So I stayed on, for where else had I to go? It seemed they preferred to have no dealings with me and that it shamed them less to allow me to carry on here like a squatter, not paying a farthings’s rent.
My natural father died some years back, happy and fat and rich. His eldest son, my own half-brother, also named Roger, had become the new master of Read Hall, part of it built from the very stones his grandfather’s servants carted away from the ruined abbey. Younger than me, was my half-brother, by some twenty years. Rarely did our paths cross, for the Nowells went to church in Whalley with the other fine folk, never in the New Church in Goldshaw with the yeomen and lesser gentry. But once, of a market day in Colne, I clapped eyes on Roger Nowell. Impossible to miss him, the way he was sat like some conquering knight upon his great Shire horse, blue-black and gleaming, with red ribbons twisted in its mane. That was some years ago, when my half-brother’s face was yet smooth and unlined. A handsome man, he was, with a firm chin just like mine. I looked straight at him to see if he would recognise his own blood kin. But his sharp blue eyes passed over me as though I was nowt but a heap of dung.
Over the years he’d become a mighty man: Magistrate and Justice of the Peace. We in Pendle Forest were careful not to cross him or give him cause for offence. On account of my being a poor widow, he granted me a begging license. Did it through Constable without speaking a word to me. And so I was left to wander the tracks of Pendle Forest and wheedle, full humble, for food and honest work.
But gone were the days when Christian folk felt beholden to give alms to the poor. When I was a tiny girl, the monks of Whalley Abbey fed and clothed the needy. So did the rich folk, for their souls would languish a fair long time in purgatory if they were stingy to us. In the old days, the poor were respected — our prayers were dearer to God than those of the wealthy. Many a well-to-do man on his deathbed would give out food and alms to the lowliest of the parish, so my mam had told me, if they would only pray for his immortal soul. At his funeral, the poor were given doles of bread and soul cakes.
The reformers said that purgatory was heresy: it was either heaven for the Elect or hell for everyone else, so what need did the rich have to bribe the poor to pray for them? We humble folk were no longer seen as blessed of the Lord but as a right nuisance. When I went begging for a mere bowl of blue milk or a handful of oats to make water porridge, the Hargreaves and the Bannisters and the Mittons narrowed their eyes and said my hard lot was God’s punishment for my sin of bearing a bastard child. Mean as stones, they were. Little did they know. Liza, my lawful-begotten child, was deformed because her father, my husband, gave me no pleasure to speak of, whilst Kit, my bastard, borne of passion and desire, was as tall and beautiful and perfect in form as any larch tree. Ah, but the Puritans would only see what they wanted to see. Most so-called charity they doled out was to give me half a loaf of old bread in exchange for a day laundering soiled clouts.
But I’d even forgive them for that if they hadn’t robbed my life of its solace and joy. In the old days, we’d a saint for every purpose: Margaret for help in childbirth, Anne for protection in storms, Anthony to ward against fire, George to heal horses and protect them from witchcraft. Old King Henry forbade us to light candles before the saints but at least he let us keep their altars. In the old days, no one forced us to go to church either, even for Easter communion. The chapel nave belonged to us, the ordinary people, and it was the second home we all shared. Dividing the nave from the chancel with the high altar was the carved oak roodscreen which framed the priest as he sang out the mass. We didn’t stand solemn and dour during the holy service, either, but wandered about the nave, from one saint’s altar to the next, gazing at the pictures and statues, till the priest rang the bell, then held up the Host for all to see, the plain wafer transformed in a glorious miracle into the body and blood of Christ. Just laying eyes upon the Host was enough to ward a person from witchcraft, plague, and sudden death.
When I was twelve, they finished building the New Church of St. Mary’s in Goldshaw to replace the old crumbling chapel of ease where I’d been christened. Bishop from Chester came to consecrate it just in time for All Souls’ when we rang the bells the whole night through to give comfort to our dead.
Back then we still had our holidays. Christmas lasted twelve days and nights with mummers and guizers in animal masks, dancing by torchlight. The Lord of Misrule, some low born man, lorded it over the gentry to make poor folk laugh. The Towneleys of Carr Hall used to invite all their neighbours, rich and poor alike, to join their festivities. Upon Palm Sunday everyone in the parish gathered for the processions round the fields to make them fertile. After dark, the young folk would go out to bless the land in their own private fashion. Everyone knew what went on, but none stood in our way. If a lass and her young man had to rush to the altar afterward, nobody thought the worse of them for it. I went along with the other girls, arm in arm with my best friend Anne Whittle, both of us wearing green garlands and singing. Cherry-lipped Anne loved to have her sport with the boys, but mindful of my own mother’s fate, I did nowt but kiss and dance and flirt in those days. Only went astray much later in life, when I was a married woman and sore unsatisfied, seeking my pleasures elsewhere.
In my youth, upon May morning, we arose before dawn to gather hawthorn and woodruff. We’d dance round the Maypole and drink elderflower wine till the very sky reeled. At Midsummer’s, upon the eve of the feast of John the Baptist, we carried birch boughs into the church till our chapel looked like a woodland grove. Bonfires blazed the whole night through. Some folk burned fires of bone, not wood, so that the stench might drive away evil wights from the growing crops. Most of us gathered round the wake fire of sweet apple wood where we danced all night, collapsing upon the grass at sunrise. At Lammas the reapers crowned the Harvest Queen and one year, by Our Lady, it was me, a lass of fifteen, crowned in roses and barley, the lads begging me for a kiss.
Old King Henry was dead by then and we lived in hope that the old ways would live again. Crowned in roses, I led the procession of maidens on the Feast of the Assumption, each of us bearing flowers and fruits to lay upon the altar of the Queen of Heaven. Only weeks later, Edward the Boy King sent his men to smash every statue in our church, even that of the Blessed Mother herself, whilst we clutched ourselves, full aghast. They tore down the crucifix over the high altar and burned it as though it was some heathen idol. They destroyed our roodscreen, outlawed our processions, and forbade us to deck the church with greenery upon Midsummer or to bring red roses and poppies to the altar on Corpus Christi. They set fire to our Maypole, forbade us to pray for the dead or celebrate the saints’ feast days.
Six years on, weakling Edward wasted away and his sister Mary Tudor promised to bring back the old religion. For the five years of her reign we had our holidays again, our processions, our mass with swirling incense and the sea of candles lit for the saints. The Towneleys, the Nutters, and the Shuttleworths paid for the new roodscreen, the new statues, altar cloths and vestments. We had our Maypole and rang the church bells for our ancestors on All Souls’ Night. But our joys soured when the news came of the heretics Mary burned alive, near three hundred of them, their only hope to end their agony being the sachets of gunpowder concealed beneath their clothes. Our Catholic queen was nowt but a tyrant. Before long Mary herself died, despised by her own husband, so the story went.
With Queen Elizabeth came the new religion once more to replace the old. The Queen’s agents stormed in to hack apart our brand new roodscreen. But they could not demolish the statues or the crucifix this time round, for the Towneleys, Shuttleworths, and Nutters had divided the holy images between them and taken them into hiding, in secret chapels inside their great houses. In those early days, some said Elizabeth’s reign couldn’t last long. Anne Boleyn’s bastard, she was, and it seemed half of England wanted her dead. On top of that, she refused to marry and produce an heir of her own religion. Yet the Queen’s religion had endured.
In truth, the old ways died that day Elizabeth’s agents sacked our church. For the past twenty-odd years, there had been no dancing of a Sunday, no Sunday ales like we used to have when we made merry within the very nave of the church. Though the Sabbath was the only day of leisure we had, Curate refused to let us have any pleasure of it. No football, dice-playing or card-playing. Magistrate Roger Nowell, my own half-brother, forbade the Robin Hood plays and summer games, for he said they led to drunkenness and wantonness amongst the lower orders. Few weeks back, the piper of Clitheroe was arrested for playing late one Sunday afternoon.
Curate preached that only the Elect would go to heaven and I was canny enough to know that didn’t include me. So if I was damned anyway, why should I suffer to obey their every command? Mind you, I went to church of a Sunday. It was that, or suffer Church Warden’s whip and fine. But I’d left off trying to hold myself to the straight and narrow. Perhaps I’d have fared no better even if the old church had survived, for hadn’t I been an adulteress? Yet still my heart was rooted, full stubborn, in that lost world of chanting, processions, and revels that had bound us together, rich and poor, saint and sinner. My soul’s home was not with this harsh new God, but instead I sought the solace of the Queen of Heaven and whispered the Salve Regina in secret. I swore to cling to the forbidden prayers till my dying day.
I am getting ahead of myself. Back to the story: that evening, after Tibb first appeared to me, I hared off in the long spring twilight, heading home to Malkin Tower. Wasn’t safe to be about after dark. Folk talked of boggarts haunting the night, not that I was ignorant enough to believe every outlandish tale, but I was shaken to the bone from seeing the boy who disappeared into nowhere. The moon, nearly full, shone in the violet sky and the first stars glimmered when, at last, I reached my door.
Our Malkin Tower was an odd place. Tower itself had two rooms, one below and one above, and each room had narrow slits for windows from the days, hundreds of years ago, when guardsmen were sat there with their bows and arrows, on the look-out for raiders and poachers. But, as the tower had no chimney or hearth, we spent most of our time in the firehouse, a ramshackle room built on to the foot of the tower. And it was into the firehouse I stumbled that night. My daughter Liza, sat close by the single rush light, gave a cry when she saw me.
“So late coming home, Mam! Did a devil cross your path?”
In the wavering light, my girl looked more frightful than the devil she spoke of, though she couldn’t help it, God bless her. Her left eye stood lower in her face than the other, and while her right eye looked up, her left eye looked down. The sight of her was enough to put folk off their food. Couldn’t hire herself out as a kitchen maid because the housewives of Pendle feared our Liza would spoil their milk and curdle their butter. Looking the way she did, it would take a miracle for her to get regular work, let alone a husband. Most she could hope for was a day’s pittance for carding wool or weeding some housewife’s garden.
Ignoring her talk of the devil, I unpacked the clump of old bread, the gleanings of the day’s begging, and Liza sliced it into pieces thin as communion wafer.
Liza, myself, my son Kit, and Kit’s wife, also Elizabeth, though we called her Elsie, gathered for our supper. Kit hired himself out as a day labourer, but at this time of year, there was little work to be had. Lambing season had just passed. Shearing wouldn’t come till high summer. Best he could do was ask for work at the slate pits and hope to earn enough to keep us in oatmeal and barley flour. Kit’s wife, Elsie, was heavy with child. Most work she could get was a day’s mending or spinning.
When we were sat together at the table, my Liza went green in the face at the taste of the old bread and could barely get a mouthful of the stuff down before she bolted out the door to be sick. Out of old habit, not even thinking, I crossed myself. I looked to Kit, who looked to his wife, who shook her head in sadness. Elsie would deliver her firstborn within the month and now it appeared that Liza was with child, as well. First I wondered who the father could be. Then I asked myself how we would feed two little babes when we were hard-pressed to do for ourselves? We were silent, the lot of us, Elsie doling out the buttermilk she had off the Bulcocks in exchange for a day’s spinning. Our Kit gave his wife half of his own share of bread — wasn’t she eating for two?
Then I found I couldn’t finish my own bread, so I passed it to Kit before hauling myself out the door to look for Liza. By the cold moonlight I found my poor squint-eyed broomstick of a girl bent over the gatepost, crying fit to die. Taking Liza in my arms, I held her and rubbed her hair. I begged her to tell me who the father was, but she refused.
“It will be right,” I told her. “Not the first time an unwed girl fell pregnant. We’ll make do somehow.” What else could I say? I’d no business browbeating her for doing the same as I’d done with Kit’s father, twenty-two years ago.
After leading my Liza back inside, we made for our beds. I climbed to the upper tower. Room was so cold and draughty that everyone else preferred sleeping below, but of a crystal-clear evening I loved nothing better than to lie upon my pallet and gaze at the moon and stars through the narrow windows. Cold wind didn’t bother me much. I was born with thick skin, would have died ages ago if I’d been a more delicate sort. Yet that night the starry heavens gave me little comfort. I laid myself down and tried to ignore the hammer of worry in my head. Church Warden and Constable were sure to make a stink about Liza. Another bastard child to live off the charity of the parish. They’d fine her at the very least. She’d be lucky if she escaped the pillory. Sleepless, I huddled there whilst the wind whistled through the thatch.
When I finally closed my eyes, I saw Tibb, his face in its golden glory. Looked like one of the angels I remembered seeing in our church before the reformers stripped the place bare. Out of the dark crush of night came his voice, sweet as a lover’s, gentle as Kit’s father was in the days when he called me his beauty, his heart’s joy. Tibb’s lips were at my ear.
“If I could,” he told me, “if you let me, I’d ease your burdens, my Bess. No use fretting about Liza. She’ll lose the child within a fortnight and none but you and yours will know she fell pregnant in the first place.”
My throat was dry and sore. Couldn’t even think straight.
“You’re afraid of me,” he said. “But you shouldn’t be. I mean you no harm.”
“You’re not real,” I whispered. “I’m just dreaming you.”
“I’m as real as the ache in your heart,” he whispered back. “You were meant to be more than a common beggar, our Bess. You could be a blesser. Next time, you see a sick cow, bless it. Say three Ave Marias and sprinkle some water on the beast. Folk will pay you for such things. Folk will hold you in regard and you won’t have to grovel for the scraps off their table.”
What nonsense, I thought. Church warden would have me whipped and fined for saying the Ave Maria — and that was but mild chastisement. Catholics were still hanged in these parts, their priests drawn and quartered. I told myself that there was no such boy called Tibb — it was just my empty stomach talking. I rolled over, pulling the tattered blanket to my ears.
He wouldn’t give over. “It runs in your blood. You’ve inherited the gift from your mam’s father.”
I shook my head no. “My grandfather was an ostler. An honest man.”
“He was a horse-charmer, if you remember well.”
Tibb’s voice summoned the memories. I was sat on Grand-Dad’s knee and he jostled me so that I could pretend I was riding a bouncy pony and all the while he chanted the Charm to St. George to ward horses from witchcraft. Enforce we us with all our might to love St. George, Our Lady’s Knight. Grand-Dad died when I was seven, but he’d taught my mam all his herbcraft for healing beast and folk alike, which she, in turn, had taught me, though Mam herself had no dealings in charms.
What a marvel. Grand-Dad working his blessings in the stables at Read Hall, beneath the Nowells’ very noses. He must have served them well, kept their nags healthy and sound, so that instead of reporting him for sorcery they became his protectors. Perhaps that, indeed, was why the Nowells had given Malkin Tower to Mam — it did no good at all to vex a cunning man by treating his daughter ill.
Still the knowing made the sweat run cold down my back. To think that I carried this inside me. I could not say a word, only pray that Tibb would vanish again and leave me in peace.
“My own Bess, do I need to give you a sign or two? You’ll see what I’ve said of Liza will come to pass. Now I’ll give you more knowledge of the future. Before the moon is new again, Elsie will bear a son.”
In spite of myself, I laughed. “Any fool can see she’s carrying a boy from the way she’s bearing so high and wide. I don’t need a slip of a lad like you telling me about wenches bearing babies.”
My mocking didn’t put Tibb off. He only coaxed me all the more. “They’ll name the lad Christopher after his father and you’ll see your Kit’s father in the little lad’s face, my Bess. You’ll feel so tender that the years of bitterness will melt away.”
Tears came to my eyes when I remembered my lover who had given me such pleasure before he bolted off, never to show his face again, leaving me to bear my shame and endure an angry husband fit to flay me alive and the gossips wagging their tongues and pointing. My husband refused to give the baby his name, so that was why my Kit was named Christopher Holgate, not Southerns. As punishment for my sin, I was made to stand a full day in the pillory in Colne marketplace.
“That’s not all I can tell you of your future,” said Tibb, nestling close, his breath warming my face. “In time, your Liza will marry an honest man who will love her in spite of her squint.”
“Fortune-telling’s a sin,” I squeaked. In this Curate and the priests of the old religion had always been of one mind. A dangerous thing, it was, to push back the veil and look into the future, for unless such knowledge came from a prophecy delivered by God, it came from the other place, the evil place, the Devil. Diviners and those who consulted them would be punished in hell by having their heads twisted backward for their unholy curiosity.
Still Tibb carried on in a voice I couldn’t block out. “Liza will give you three grandchildren.”
How seductive he was. If only I could trust him and believe that my Liza would be blessed by the love of a good man, a happy family.
“Her first-born daughter will be your joy,” Tibb told me. “You’ll love her till you forget yourself, my Bess. A pretty impudent lass with skin like cream. A beauty such as you were at her age. She’ll be your very likeness and you’ll teach her the things that I’ll teach you.” His voice sang with his promise.
“What else can you tell me?” I asked, my heart in my mouth.
Opening my eyes, I dared myself to look him in the face, but I only saw the stars shining in the window slits.
©2010 by Mary Sharratt.