In the late 1500s and early 1600s in the English county of Lancashire in Pendle Forest a cunning woman known by the nickname Old Demdike served the local populace. Demdike, whose real name was Elizabeth Southerne, lived in the ruins of Malkin Tower with her daughter Liza and her grandchildren James (Jamie), Alizon, and Jennet. In 1612 a local magistrate who wished to attain favour with the witch-hating King James mounted a witchhunt in Lancashire. Demdike, along with nineteen others including her daughter and two of her grandchildren, were charged and jailed. While four were acquitted and set free, one was found guilty of bewitching a horse and sentenced to stand in the pillory; Demdike died in prison before her trial and the remaining fourteen accused, including Demdike’s daughter and two of her grandchildren, were hung.
That is a summary of the facts of the story recorded as part of the very real history of England. Mary Sharratt’s touching novel “Daughters of the Witching Hill” adds flesh, blood, and bone to the impersonal facts.
The story starts with the narrative told from Old Demdike’s point of view. She relates details about her childhood, how life changed as the Kings and Queens of England played their politics transforming the official (legally permitted) religion from Catholicism to Protestantism. We learn how she grew into the role of cunning-woman. We see her as a very real person with real loves, disappointments, and problems which she tries her very best to resolve. And in the background we know that she is doomed thanks to what is really nothing more than politics.
The story switches in the last half to the perspective of Alizon, one of Demdike’s granddaughters, who was the one destined to carry on her grandmother’s Craft and therefore also doomed to face the witchhunters. Alizon is a sympathetic, intelligent, appealing young woman who did amazingly well considering the circumstances. It broke my heart knowing that the end was shrouded in degradation and finally death for all the very loveable main characters.
As with any historical novel the author had to speculate about a lot of the details as we don’t have anything like personal diaries of the main characters from which the story could be told. Despite that the author’s preparation and research were evident – she clearly did her homework in figuring out how life would likely have been for people like Demdike and her neighbors in that period in history. She drew on the trial records to build up a picture of how Demdike likely practiced her cunning-craft, and showed how easy it was to twist evidence to support the claim of Satanic cult activity and destructive magick which was used to condemn the accused.
“Daughters of the Witching Hill” transported me to a sad time in history and helped me to understand the tragedy of what happened. I cried when it was over because I felt so close to the characters and felt grief over their fates. Thank you Mary Sharratt for bringing Demdike, her family, friends, and neighbors to life for me.