Woman in long red dress, wearing chains
Statue in Alice Nutter’s home town of Roughlee, by local artist David Palmer
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Alice Nutter (died 1612) was one of the ten[a]There were 12 accused, of whom one died in prison and another was acquitted. Pendle witchesThe trials of the Pendle witches in 1612 are among the most famous witch trials in English history, and some of the best recorded of the 17th century. found guilty of maleficiumMaleficium is an act of sorcery, historically usually performed by a witch, intended to cause harm or injury.  – causing harm by witchcraft – and executed by hanging. She was the wealthy widow of Richard Nutter, a local landowner, and unique among the accused by being of a “middling sort”; Thomas Potts, the clerk to the court, describes her as “a rich woman; [with] a great estate, and children of good hope: in the common opinion of the world, of good temper, free from envy or malice”.[1]

Nutter’s relative prosperity posed a problem for the trial judges, Sir James Altham[b]Sir James Altham had recently been accused of a miscarriage of justice at the York Assizes, which had resulted in a woman being executed for witchcraft.[2] and Sir Edward Bromley, as the common motivation for participating in witchcraft was considered to be “great miserie and povertie”, added to which the public was becoming increasingly sceptical of convictions for respectable people.[3]

Almost everything we know about Alice Nutter comes from the official account of the Lancashire witch trials of 1612 written by Thomas Potts, and published under the title of The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster.

Background


Alice Nutter of Roughlee was a native of Lancashire, a county regarded by the authorities as a wild and lawless region, “where the [Church of England] was honoured without much understanding of its doctrines by the common people”.[4] In early 1612, the year of her trial, every justice of the peace (JP) in Lancashire was ordered to compile a list of recusants in their area, i.e. those who refused to attend the English Church and to take communion, a criminal offence at that time.[5] Many of those living around Pendle, including Alice Nutter, remained faithful to their Roman Catholic beliefs and had been quick to revert to Catholicism on Queen Mary’s accession to the throne in 1553.[6]

Roger Nowell of Read Hall, on the edge of Pendle Forest, was the JP for Pendle. It was against this backdrop of seeking out religious nonconformists that, in March 1612, Nowell investigated a complaint made to him by the family of John Law, a pedlar, who claimed to have been injured by witchcraft.[7]

Events leading to arrest


As a result of his investigations into Law’s accusations, Nowell arrested several members of the Demdike and Chattox families, the heads of which were both women in their eighties and widely believed to have been witches for many years. They were taken to Lancaster Gaol to await trial,[8] and there the matter might have rested had it not been for a meeting organised by Elizabeth Device at Malkin Tower, the home of the Demdikes,[9] held on Good Friday 10 April 1612.[10]

Friends and others sympathetic to the family attended the meeting at Malkin Tower, and when word of it reached Roger Nowell he decided to investigate. On 27 April 1612, an inquiry was held before Nowell and another magistrate, Nicholas Bannister, to determine the purpose of the meeting, who had attended, and what had happened there. As a result of the inquiry, Alice Nutter and seven others were arrested and sent to join those already awaiting trial in Lancaster Gaol.[11]

Accusations and trial


Alice Nutter was tried at Lancaster Assizes on 19 August 1612, in front of Sir James Altham and Sir Edward Bromley. She made no statement either before or during her trial, except to enter her plea of not guilty to the charge of murdering Henry Mitton by witchcraft. The prosecution alleged that she, together with Demdike and Elizabeth Device, had caused Mitton’s death after he had refused to give Demdike a penny she had begged from him. The only evidence against Alice seems to have been that James Device claimed Demdike had told him of the murder, and Jennet Device in her statement said that Alice had been present at the Malkin Tower meeting.[12] Jennet was about nine-years-old at the time, and her evidence would not have been permissible in many other 17th-century criminal trials. King James however, had made a case for suspending the normal rules of evidence for witchcraft trials in his Daemonologie.[13]

Found guilty, Alice Nutter was hanged at Gallows Hill[14][c]Gallows Hill is on the moors close to the site of present-day Williamson Park.[14] in Lancaster on 20 August 1612.[15] According to Potts’ account she “died very impeninent”.[16]

Modern interpretation


Alice Nutter may have called in on the meeting at Malkin Tower on her way to a secret (and illegal) Good Friday Catholic service, and refused to speak for fear of incriminating her fellow Catholics. Many of the Nutter family were Catholics, and two had been executed as Jesuit priests: John Nutter in 1584 and his brother Robert in 1600.[17]

William Harrison Ainsworth in his fictional novel The Lancashire WitchesThe Lancashire Witches is a novel by William Harrison Ainsworth, first published in 1848. Based on the true story of the Pendle witches, it is the only one of his forty novels that has never been out of print. (1849) portrays Alice Nutter as a powerful witch and the leader of the Pendle witches. More interestingly though a central theme of the story is a boundary dispute between her and the magistrate Roger Nowell, which may be close to the truth of why she was prosecuted. Eighteen years earlier the Nutter family believed themselves to be the victims of witchcraft following a dispute with some tenants in Pendle Forest, resulting in the mysterious death of Christopher Nutter and his son Robert. There is no suggestion that Roger Nowell was involved in the events eighteen years earlier,[16] but there is evidence to suggest that he was involved in a lawsuit with the Nutter family, in which he was the loser.[18] So it seems at least a possibility that Nowell had a conflict of interest when he decided to prosecute Alice Nutter.

Citations



Bibliography


Allinson, R. (2016). Alice Nutter (d. 1612). In C. Levin, A. R. Bertolet, & J. E. Carney (Eds.), A Biographical Encyclopedia of Early Modern Englishwomen: Exemplary Lives and Memorable Acts, 1500-1650 (ebook, p. 336). Routledge.
Bennett, W. (1993). The Pendle Witches. Lancashire County Books.
Hasted, R. A. C. (1993). The Pendle Witch Trial 1612. Lancashire County Books.
Lancashire County Council. (n.d.). Executions – Lancaster Castle. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20091125004231/http://www.lancastercastle.com/html/history/executions.php
Pumfrey, S. (2002). Potts, plots and politics: James I’s Daemonologie and The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches. In The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (pp. 22–41). Manchester University Press.
Sharpe, J. (2002). Introduction: The Lancaster Witches in Historical Context. In The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (pp. 1–18). Manchester University Press.
Whitaker, T. W. (1980). Lancashire’s Ghosts and Legends. Granada Publishing.

Notes

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a. There were 12 accused, of whom one died in prison and another was acquitted.
b. Sir James Altham had recently been accused of a miscarriage of justice at the York Assizes, which had resulted in a woman being executed for witchcraft.[2]
c. Gallows Hill is on the moors close to the site of present-day Williamson Park.[14]