2012 marks the 400th anniversary of the hanging of the Pendle Hill Witches, in Lancashire. The trials ran from Spring of that year, until August, when they accused were executed. Since that time the outlook on witchcraft has changed dramatically.
In 1612, James 1 was on the throne and he was paranoid that he was being plotted against by witches. He encouraged people to turn in known witches. At the time it was common practice for neighbours to turn on each other and accuse each other of witchcraft or being in cahoots with the devil. Anyone who was strange or different would be accused. Local healers were a target too as anyone having knowledge, especially women, was frowned upon. This included local midwives.
During that year 12 people were accused in Lancashire including Elizabeth Southerns known as Demdike, and her family. Some of the accused were arrested for cannibalism and child murder. Whether these events actually happened or it was lies made up against the accused, is unclear. Over the next few months trials were held and nine of the accused were found guilty and hanged at Gallows Hill.
It was one of the biggest witchcraft trials in British history. The Witchcraft law was only scrapped on June 22, 1951 in Britain. In the early 20th century the law was still being used, alongside the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951, against mediums and occultists, though ironically they were in high demand especially during war time when it came to contacting family members. Of course many mediums were frauds, looking to make money on the bereaved but there were genuine mediums too. It was the protests of local spiritualist that aided in the law being repelled.
Hysteria, fear and plain ignorance were the biggest influences in those days and indeed if someone from those times were here today, they would see ‘witchcraft’ everywhere.
Wicca, Paganism and other nature based religions are much more openly practiced nowadays. Wiccan weddings known as handfastings are now legally binding in Ireland.
While not everyone’s attitude has evolved from those times, there is still a lot of prejudice, it is a big step forward. Spiritualism is a rapidly growing form of religion and more people are open minded today than they were in the past. Perhaps if they were like this 400 years ago, this atrocity would never have taken place.