This week I have been fascinated while reading Daughters of The Witching Hill, by today’s guest poster and author, Mary Sharratt. It is so good! I also really enjoyed getting a glimpse of the historical rendering of Bess Southerns, which Mary discusses today.
In 2002, I moved to the Pendle region in Lancashire, Northern England. It didn’t take long before the wild, brooding landscape cast its spell on me and inspired my new novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill.
Pendle Hill is famous throughout the world as the place where George Fox received the ecstatic vision that moved him to found the Quaker religion in 1652. But this rugged countryside is also haunted by the legacy of the Pendle Witches. In 1612, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were executed for witchcraft, but the most notorious of the accused, Bess Southerns, aka Old Demdike, cheated the hangman by dying in prison.
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 knowes. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies.
Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was amazed at how Bess’s strength of character blazed forth in the document written to vilify her. Bess freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman. She lived as a matriarch with her family at Malkin Tower and instructed her daughter and granddaughter in the ways of magic. Her neighbours called on her to cure their children and their cattle. What fascinated me was not that Bess was arrested on witchcraft charges but that the authorities turned on her only near the end of her long, productive career. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her.
Cunning craft—the art of using charms to heal both humans and livestock—was Bess’s family trade. Their spells, recorded in A Wonderfull Discoverie, were Roman Catholic prayer charms—the kind of folk magic that would have flourished before the Reformation. Yet she also drew on an even older source of power: Tibb, her familiar spirit, who appeared to her in the guise of a beautiful young man.
Other books have been written about the Pendle Witches—both nuanced and lurid. Mine is the first to tell the tale from Bess’s point of view. I longed to give Bess Southerns what her world denied her—her own voice.
History is a fluid thing that continually shapes the present. As a writer, I am obsessed with how the true stories of our ancestors haunt the landscape. No one in Pendle can remain untouched by the witches’ legacy. As contemporary British storyteller, Hugh Lupton, has said, if you go deep enough into the old tales and can present them in a meaningful way to a modern audience, you become the living voice in an ancient tradition. Bess Southerns’s voice deserves to be heard.
Long after their demise, Bess and her fellow witches endure, their spirit woven into the land, its weft and warp, like the stones and the streams that cut across the moors. This is their home, their seat of power, and they shall never be banished. By learning their story, I have become an adopted daughter of their living landscape, one of many tellers who spin their unending tale.
Thank you Mary for stopping by today!