Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Witch's lair found buried under a Mound

by Deborah Swift

Mother and daughter
from the Chattox family
Darkest December last year - a group of workmen unearth a spooky find.... 

Near Lower Black Moss reservoir, close to the village of Barley in England workmen were digging a trench for a new water main. That was until they suddenly struck rock, and began to find the outlines of walls and doorways.

Beneath a grassy mound in the shadow of Pendle Hill they found a remarkably well-preserved 17th century building. United Utilities' workers were  amazed to find a witch's-style cottage, complete with a mummified cat sealed into the walls. Immediately links were made to the famous Pendle Witches, who were tried for witchcraft 400 years ago this year in 1612. The fame of the Lancashire Witches in England is similar to that of the Salem Witches in the States, so excitement was running high.

Simon Entwhistle, an expert on the Pendle Witches said; "Cats feature prominently in folklore about witches. Whoever consigned this cat to such a horrible fate was clearly seeking protection from evil spirits," His view was that the cottage could even be the famous Malkin Tower, the site of a notorious meeting between the Pendle witches on Good Friday in 1612.

The cottage is said to be in remarkable condition although most of the objects unearthed seem to have been from the 19th-century - artefacts such as crockery, a cooking range and a bedstead, so whether this is really anything to do with the Lancashire Witches is purely conjecture. Still, the Lancashire Witches have such a hold on the local imagination that it is tempting to ascribe any find in this area to those times.

"In terms of significance, it's like discovering Tutankhamun's tomb. We are just a few months away from the 400th anniversary of the Pendle witch trials, and here we have an incredibly rare find, right in the heart of witching country," Mr Entwhistle said.

View of the unearthed cottage walls

And a few months later, we have reached the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witches, when ten people were hanged accused of the deaths of other villagers by witchcraft. They were executed at Lancaster on the 20th of August, 16I2, for having bewitched to death 'by devilish practices and hellish means' no fewer than sixteen inhabitants of the Forest of Pendle. All over Lancashire events are being organised to commemorate the women who died, unjustly condemned to death on the hearsay of their neighbours.

The Demdike family and the Chattox family were the main victims of the witchhunt. Their story was well-documented in "A Discoverie of Witches", a pamphlet of the time. The full story is a complicated one, but almost everything that is known about the trial is in this report written by Thomas Potts, the clerk to the Lancaster Assizes, completed by 16th November 1612. 

At the end of the 16th and into the 17th century Lancashire was regarded by the authorities as a wild and lawless region: an area "fabled for its theft, violence and sexual laxity, where the church was honoured without much understanding of its doctrines by the common people." (Hasted) In addition, James I was obsessed with daemonology and witches, and only fuelled the nation's enthusiasm for finding witches where none existed.

It is from these dark times and this grim northern environment that the two sisters, Sadie and Ella Appleby in The Gilded Lily go on the run. Ella has been involved in a Witch Trial, the story of which is told in The Lady's Slipper.They hope to re-invent themselves and find glitter and glamour in fashionable London.

The Gilded Lily: "A beautifully-written blend of fast pace and historical detail" - Gabrielle Kimm
The Lady's Slipper: "Her characters are so real that they they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf. Highly Recommended." Historical Novel Review

As for the mummified cat - concealing things in old buildings was very common in the 17th century. One of the most common things found in old buildings is shoes. Nobody knows why, but it was supposed that a shoe trapped the spirit of the wearer, and some 1,700 concealed shoes have been found—not just in Britain, but in Germany, Australia, Canada and the United States.
More research on concealed shoes can be found here
More on the story of the Archaeological find here at The Guardian 
And I would be interested to hear if anyone else has come across concealed objects in buildings, and what they were.


  1. Wow... I've never heard of any of it before...

  2. Fascinating subject! Mary Sharratt's "Daughters of Witching Hill", an historical novel that came out about a year or so ago, treats of this same subject of the Pendle Witches. Ms. Sharratt lives up in that area and I quickly felt the strange and beautiful atmosphere of the north country as the characters lived their proscribed lives in the same county, generation after generation. What really delighted and surprised me was the link between the “old religion” of Catholicism and the even older religion of the fey folk and woodland gods, which together formed a staggering contrast to its anti-religion, Puritanism. How cool to have found (maybe) the Malkin Tower!

  3. As much as I love history and would love to visit so many former times, stories like this make me grateful to have been when I was.

  4. Terrible for the poor cat! I wonder if they knew that if the cat were alive, walking around inside and breathing, it would still protect the home against those spirits with allergies?

  5. Mary - I've read Daughters of the Witching Hill and really loved it. Thanks for your comments everyone and Richard, I too was worried about the cat!

  6. I lived at Whalley as a child, and regularly walked Pendle hill and the surroundng area in a school group. Strangely, it never felt spooky at all - just cold, windy and damp!

  7. They weren't particularly unjustly convicted on the hearsay of their neighbours. They had met to conspire to murder a magistrate, feasting on a stolen sheep - either of which would make them liable to the death penalty anyway. They had routinely held themselves out locally to be witches in order to extort money from neighbouring poor people under threat of casting a curse on them or their livestock and had also peddled alleged magic potions (goodness knows what was in these). They were pretty nasty riff-raff by any standards. The best way to understand them is probably to say they were the 17th century equivalent to the nasty families who so often rule over the rougher council estates, intimidating the majority of residents and making the whole place a misery to live in. There's plenty of serious, peer-reviewed, historical writing which essentially bears out this interpretation. The idea that they were poor put-upon old dears judicially murdered in an insane frenzy of witch-hunting which singled out lonely old ladies with cats is completely unhistorical modern prejudice. Two were men, by the way.


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