Today is the release date of “Daughters of the Witching Hill”, a new historical novel by author Mary Sharratt. Sharratt, an American transplant to England, has written a deeply affecting novel based on the true story of the Pendle witches, one of the most (in)famous witch-trial cases in Britain’s history. My family and I were so impressed with our advance copy of “Daughters” that I felt a simple review was insufficient, and instead decided to interview Sharratt about the book, the history behind it, and how her Pagan faith informed the process.
As an American who has relocated to England, specifically the Pendle region of Lancashire, the location of your current novel, what drove you to write about this historical tragedy? Do you feel you might have a different perspective of the history than someone native-born to the area?
When I first moved to this region I knew next to nothing about the Pendle Witches, but I was very intrigued by the images of witches everywhere I went—on private houses, pub signs, bumper stickers, even an entire fleet of buses. When an American friend visited me, these omnipresent witches really freaked her out. Maybe she thought she’d stumbled into some weird enclave with a Wicker Man-like cult. But I told her not to worry—it was just folklore. Like many newcomers, I made the mistake of thinking that the Pendle Witches belonged to the realm of legend.
Fortunately my ignorance was short-lived. When I read the actual history, it was very sobering to learn that these witches were real people.
Could you give my readers a brief summary of the 1612 Pendle witch trials? They are somewhat different that some the more famous witch-persecution narratives.
In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest in Lancashire were executed, condemned on “evidence” provided by a nine-year-old girl and her brother, who appeared to suffer from learning difficulties. Previously, witch trials had been relatively rare in England, compared to Scotland and Continental Europe. The Pendle Witch Trial might never have happened had it not been for King James I’s obsession with the occult. His book Daemonologie—required reading for local magistrates—warned of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation.
Considering the somewhat biased opinions of the legal system concerning “witches” at that time, how did you decide which elements from the trial transcripts and research would be part of the “true” story of these Catholic folk-magicians? What do you personally believe about the condemned? Were they all “cunning folk”? If so, how did you construct their practice for the novel?
All the major characters and events in the novel are drawn from the primary source, court clerk Thomas Potts’s A Wonderfull Discoverie of Witchcraft in the Countie of Lancaster, the official trial transcripts. Since torturing witchcraft suspects was illegal in England, this document supposedly contains the accused witches’ voluntary confessions. But it is a biased text, written to flatter the prosecution and to impress King James that his magistrates were taking this witch-hunting business seriously.
Even so, the accused witches stand out as remarkably strong characters. I was particularly moved by how Potts goes to great length to describe what a dangerous witch Mother Demdike, my heroine, was, even though she died in prison and did not live to stand trial. She was a cunning woman of long standing repute, as was her rival, Chattox. The trial records state that local families called on Demdike to heal both their cattle and their children. Demdike and Chattox’s charms, which incorporate Catholic prayers outlawed by the Reformation, are quoted in their entirety by the prosecution.
Beyond Demdike and Chattox and their immediate families, the other accused individuals did not seem to have any previous reputation as cunning folk—I believe that people like Alice Nutter and John and Jane Bulcock were merely unfortunate friends and neighbours caught up in the hysteria.
To reconstruct the magic, I researched cunning folk and popular magic in this period. The belief in familiar spirits was the cornerstone of traditional English folk magic. No cunning woman could work her charms without the aid of her familiar. So for Demdike, telling the magistrate that yes, of course, she had a familiar spirit who had been her constant companion for decades made absolute sense. A cunning woman without a familiar would be a fraud. Likewise Chattox confessed how she and her daughter, Anne Redfearn, made clay figures to bind her landlord’s son after he threatened to rape Anne. What other recourse did these impoverished women have? Demdike and Chattox’s testimonies have their own internal logic and realism. Their stories seem to present an actual history of these women’s experience.
But Demdike’s grandson James Device’s confessions seem far-fetched and irrational. He talks of hares boxing his ears and of his family’s plot to blow up Lancaster Castle with gunpowder—a highly unlikely scenario but one that fed into James I’s paranoia following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In The Trials of the Lancashire Witches, authors Edgar Peel and Pat Southern came to the conclusion that James Device was probably either very ill at the time of his interview, or possibly had learning difficulties, and that those interrogating him asked leading questions and manipulated his statements. Potts himself states that when James came to trial after four months’ imprisonment, he was so weak that he could neither speak nor hear nor see and had to be carried by two prison guards.
I don’t know if this is common knowledge to your readers, but you’ve been quite open about the fact that you’re a Pagan. Would you like to briefly discuss your personal religious beliefs, and how they impacted your decision to write this story? Did you think your beliefs changed the way you approached issues like magic and familiars in the story?
I don’t belong to any specific group or trad. My spirituality draws on myth and folklore, and on the land. I’m particularly inspired by how the true stories of our ancestors haunt the living landscape. I also believe that storytelling is a sacred calling and that it can serve ancestral memory.
History is a fluid thing that, together with folklore and myth, continually shapes the present. Myths are timeless, undying stories and their function is to tell the truth. As contemporary British storyteller Hugh Lupton has said, if you go deep enough into the old tales and can present them in an evocative and meaningful way to a modern audience, you become the living voice in an ancient tradition. This is my highest aspiration for my own work.
As a contemporary Pagan, strongly influenced by Ronald Hutton’s debunking of previous histories of witchcraft that proved inaccurate, I wanted to write a novel about historical cunning folk that drew on enough solid history to make it as “true” as a work of fiction can be. Yet genuine authenticity also involved evoking the worldview of this period, in which ordinary people of all levels of society sincerely believed that magic was real. My heroine, Demdike, was a cunning woman because she believed in these powers, as did the local families who hired her for her services. The spirit world and its enchantments belonged to her day to day reality. The original working title of my book was A Light Far-Shining, and I envision that as the light of the Otherworld illuminating this world.
What character in “Daughters of the Witching Hill” do you most identify with? Why? Were you tempted to give some of them a happier ending than what history had handed them?
I fell in love with Mother Demdike as soon as I read Potts’s description of her:
She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score years, and had been a Witch for fiftie yeares. She dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession: What she committed in her time, no man knowes . . . . no man escaped her or her Furies.
I was amazed at how her strength of character comes across so well in a document written to vilify her. She was so frightening to her foes because she was a woman who embraced her powers whole-heartedly.
In contrast, her young granddaughter Alizon seemed to view her own powers with a mixture of bewilderment and terror, and I felt a great deal of compassion for Alizon’s plight and how her refusal of her true calling triggered the downfall of her entire family. Alizon’s final recorded words before she was hanged were a passionate vindication of her grandmother’s legacy as a healer.
Since I was duty-bound to stay true to historical facts, I couldn’t save Alizon from the gallows. But death was not the end of the Pendle Witches. I envisioned Demdike’s spirit guiding her beloved ones to transcendence and to a light that death cannot extinguish.
Unlike other novels relating to the witch-trials you don’t portray the accused as deluded, mentally unfit, or mere innocent victims. These are women who are proud of their magical abilities, and have meaningful relationships with their faerie-world familiars. In a certain sense, within the reality of your novel, they are “guilty” of the crimes they are accused of, and die martyrs deaths for an older faith, perhaps even older than the folk-Catholicism they practice in life. Could you perhaps speak to your decision to take the perspective you did?
Demdike and Chattox’s pride in their profession and their powers came across loud and clear to me when reading their testimonies. In no way did they sound deluded or mentally unfit. Only at the very end, after Demdike died from the horrible prison conditions, did Chattox begin to break down. Her final confession, wrenched from her by the notoriously sadistic prison master, Thomas Covell, sounded over fanciful but at the same time filled with yearning for Demdike, her dead friend and rival. Chattox described how the two women once had a secret feast at Malkin Tower, Demdike’s home, and how they ate all manner of rich foods served to them by their familiar spirits, and how they needed no candle or fire since a host of spirits lit up the place. Even here, she didn’t sound deluded as much as poignant—an old woman kept in utterly degrading, inhuman conditions who was struggling to keep alive the memory of her lost friend and the joys they once shared.
Anachronism is the bane of historical fiction and it would be a gross anachronism to impose a 21st century sense of skepticism and disbelief on these denizens of Jacobean rural England. Demdike and Chattox’s sincere belief in magic and spirits coloured every aspect of their life.
So much has been written about the Pendle Witches, and historical witches in general, both nuanced and lurid. But it was important for me to turn the tables around and retell the story from the cunning woman’s point of view. I longed to give these women what their own world denied them—their own voice.
What lessons do the Pendle witch-trials have for us today? What wisdom would Bess Southerns/Mother Demdike want us to hold on to?
Mother Demdike practiced her craft for decades before anyone dared to interfere or stand in her way. But the tide can turn so suddenly, especially when shifting political currents encourage those who monger any kind of witch hunt. All it took was one unfortuitous mishap—Alizon Device getting in a verbal argument with a pedlar who then suffered a stroke—for a conniving magistrate to seize his chance and begin the arrests and accusations that would see nine people hanged.
What wisdom would Mother Demdike pass on? Seize your power while you can. Treasure it. Learn to use it wisely. There’s much blessing to be found there. Don’t turn away or deny it or flee from it as Alizon tried to do. The refusal of the call only leads to tragedy. Embrace your power and be true to yourself.