In 1612, in Lancastershire, north England, a nine-year-old girl called Jennet Device stood on the table in a courtroom and condemned her entire family for witchcraft. Her testimony led to ten people being hanged as witches: the entire Device family, as well as others in the village.
Twenty-two years later, a young boy called Edmund Robertson told a story of a mysterious encounter with witches, and with the help of his father picked out thirty people living nearby that he said had been present. All were arrested — Jennet Device among them. They were all tried for witchcraft, but this time they were acquitted.
Jennet Device (Deh-viss) is the subject of a 2011 documentary by poet Simon Armitage. It reminds me of the schmying surrealism of John Cooper Clarke’s documentary on Confessions of an Opium Eater, but what makes it even stranger is the animations.
Jennet Device was a bastard and lived with her family in a place called Malkin or Mockin Tower in Pendle. (Malkin is local slang for slut, and mockin is local slang for shit). The main breadwinner was Granny Demdike, a cunning woman or white witch, believed to use magic but for benevolent purposes. There was another cunning woman in the village called Old Chattocks, and the two were competitors for business.
Panic and unease were rife, especially about witches and Catholicism: this was just seven years after the Gunpowder Plot. King James himself was raised by the Presbyterian Kirk in Scotland and was taught both to despise Catholics and to suspect witches around every corner. He wrote a book called Demonology on how to recognise and punish witches and even sat on trials himself in north Berwick.
The Devices’ trouble started when Alison, Jennet’s half-sister, ‘cursed’ a passing pedlar and left him insensible. (Armitage: this was almost definitely a stroke). Terrified of her power, Alison confessed to everything and was locked up awaiting trial.
Shortly after, in an incongruously fascist move, King James ordered every citizen of the country to attend church on Good Friday or be branded a Catholic and suffer the penalty. Instead of attending, however, the Devices had a party, and stole a sheep to feast on. All were discovered, arrested and put in prison. Old Chattocks and two members of a powerful local family, the Nutters, were also said to be in attendance. It’s unlikely that the local posh people were spending Good Friday eating stolen mutton in Shit Tower with the local beggars, but who knows what really happened.
Jennet was the only person not imprisoned, and became star witness for the prosecution.
The judge in the case was keen to be seen by the King to take a rough stance against witches. Armitage: “He liked his witches desperate and contrite.”
At twelve noon about twenty people came to our house. My mother told me that they were all witches.
My mother is a witch and that I know to be true. I have seen her spirit in the likeness of a brown dog, which she calls Ball. The dog did ask what she would have him do, and she answered that she would have him help her to kill.
She recited spells her family had cast: quarter or half-understood prayers or rites or rituals that sounded sinister to the listener. Her brother James indicted their mother in his testimony, but Jennet condemned him, too. And one by one, she picked the arrested individuals out of a line-up. The ten prisoners were executed shortly after at Gallows Hill.
Jennet was either terrified and desperate to save herself, or suddenly had a chance to vent her anger and alienation at being a bastard and poor — and took it, wholesale. The prosecution, in their turn, were plainly ticking boxes — their case, with clay figures, animal familiars, and unexplained injuries — perfectly matched the criteria set down in King James’ Demonology.
Armitage: the most chilling part is that Jennet might have been there at Gallows Hill, watching her entire family be executed and knowing she was responsible. That site is now a playground.
Why should we care about this case from four hundred years ago in a “dark and remote place of England?” Because it featured in a book by Thomas Potts called The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. This in turn led to its inclusion in the preeminent contemporary legal handbook: Dalton’s Country Justice of 1618.
People under the age of 14 weren’t considered to have a developed enough conscience to be able to speak in a courtroom, but Potts and Dalton said that Jennet and her brother were credible witnesses, despite their young age. At the time, witchcraft was considered not just a crime, but treason against the crown. It was a special case. They were evil.
One about nine years of age [Jennet], the other of fourteen [James], did upon their oaths give evidence against their mother, then prisoner at the bar.
Dalton’s handbook was used by magistrates and chiefs of justice in England and the colonies, including the USA. It was even on the table during the Salem Witch Trials, which also relied heavily on the testimony of children. Today, testimony of children as young as three can be used in a UK courtroom. The Devices’ case undoubtedly contributed to that paradigm.
Twenty-two years later, Edmund Robinson from Pendle told his family the following story of why he was late.
I was picking berries when I saw two greyhounds. I tried to get them to chase a hare, but they didn’t run, so I beat them with a stick. One of the dogs turned into a witch, and the other into a boy. The witch then turned him into a horse. The witch took me away on that horse to a house — Hawstones. And their barn was full of witches. Maybe sixty of them. And from the ceiling there were all these ropes hanging down. And they were pulling on the ropes. And amazing food came falling down. I was so frightened so I ran away. And they chased me for ages. And before I got home I met a boy with cloven hooves. So I fought him. That’s why I’m so scruffy. It’s not my fault.
Mysteriously, his parents took this as truth, and Edmund’s father spent the next three months taking the child from village to village to stand in churches and and point out the witches he’d seen in the barn. About 20 people were put in prison and seventeen were convicted.
Jennet Device was among them. Now 31 years old, she was said to be a witch — and to have killed Isabelle Nutter. We know nothing else about her life.
But twenty years had passed. The new king — Charles I — was far more sceptical about witches, and his wife was Catholic. We know that he’d recently interviewed a 12-year-old boy whose testimony had led to nine people being hanged for witchcraft. And he had found that that boy was a liar.
It was in this ‘new’ age of scepticism, not suspicion, that rather than getting a one-way ticket to Gallows Hill, many of the accused witches — not Jennet — were sent to London to be examined by the Privy Council and the king himself to determine if they should be executed.
This time, there was none of the respect and unease that faced Jennet when she stood on the courtroom table and condemned her family. People found witches funny. Londoners could attend the public court proceedings in the morning, and see a play written about Robinson’s story in the afternoon.
Another blow to the case came from the search for witches’ marks on the bodies of the plaintiffs. Witches were said to have paps or nipples on which the Devil could suck. Jennet had been said to have two marks in her ‘secrets’ (that refers to where you think it does). But the King’s chief physician was sent to examine these witches for marks — along with five physicians and ten female midwives — and all the paps were deemed to be natural.
Armitage: the practice of witch-hunting was undone in the UK not through rubbishing witches’ existence wholesale, but through requiring a higher standard of proof.
Robinson was questioned by the King’s Privy Council, and as any 12-year-old would do, he cracked. The story was inspired by stories about the Device family. Edmund’s father had blackmailed people to stop his son naming them.
The Robinson family had some fine new cows.
The judge, relying on more than just a line-up of people presented to a nine-year-old, had no choice but to acquit them.
And yet in the prison records of 1636, Jennet and some of the others were still imprisoned. Lancaster castle inmates had to pay for their board and stay until their debt was cleared, which for Jennet might have been impossible. We don’t know how long she stayed there.
Jennet Device was undone by her testimony 22 years after she gave it, because its power inspired another to condemn people to death by virtue of a strange tale. Jennet was responsible for death, may have caused untold other deaths, and has changed British law forever.