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Updated: Sep 6, 2023

Judge: I call forward Alice Nutter… Please state your name for the court Alice: Alice Nutter

Judge: Alice Nutter, under the Witchcraft Act of 1542, you are accused of attending a witchcraft meeting on Good Friday in 1612, later causing Henry Milton’s death, how do you plead?” Alice: Not Guilty Judge: And how do you, the jury, find the defendant? Jury: Not guilty

The ceremony had begun. We were one hundred and fifty (mainly women) gathered in the walls of Lancaster Castle, where the ‘Lancashire Witches’ had been tried. It was 411 years later. We were rewriting history.

I’ve always had the sense that ceremony has the power to change the past and the future. Remember in ‘Back to the Future’ where Marty is looking at the photograph of his brother and sister and they’re disappearing and reappearing? It feels like that – ceremony literally changing the events of the past.

As each of the 21 accused stepped forward (mostly women) they pled not guilty, and we, the jury, found them not guilty. If there’d been a photo of them from 1612, they’d be disappearing from the gallows.

I’d travelled to Lancaster from my home on the Isle of Skye. Called to be there to honour the Lancashire Witches and in particular the Pendle Witches. Thirteen accused, twelve tried, one in York and eleven tried in Lancaster, ten executed. Initially deciding not to go, as it was my birthday weekend, having plans instead to spend time with my family. But as it neared, the thought of not going felt impossible! My family told me to go.

Alice Nutter; Elizabeth Southerns; Elizabeth Device; Alizon Device; James Device; Anne Whittle; Anne Readfearn; Katherine Hewitt; Isobel Robey; Jane Bulcock ; John Bulcock; Jennet Preston; Alice Grey

These names felt so familiar to me, their stories linked with mine. Today was 20 August, my birthday and the date on which they’d been hanged, after being taken from their homes in Pendle and being held for 4 months in squalor in the well tower of the castle, Old Mother Demdike already dead by the time of the trail.

Two days before the honouring ceremony I’d been to visit my parents and just by chance my mum had the family tree out. It was my maternal grandfather’s line, traced back to the mid 1700s. And there was my great, great grandmother Priscilla Nutter, born in Burnley. A descendent of Alice? Was I a descendant of Alice Nutter?

As each woman or man stepped forward to state their name, hear the alleged charges against them, plead not guilty and be found not guilty. A plaque with their name was laid in a circle around an altar and a child and her sister stepped forward to lay a posy of flowers… heather, lavender, on the plaque. I felt tears prickle, it was poignant, not least because of the story of Jennet Device, the daughter of Elizabeth and sister of Alizon and James Device, all three found guilty and hanged, based on Jennet’s evidence. It was the first time a 9 year old’s evidence had been taken into account in court and was instrumental in what later happened in Salem.

Fifteen were invited to pick up the plaques (some of the 21 names written together on one plaque) to carry the plaques to our next destination, the memorial garden. My body stepped forward. “Oh! Apparently I’m carrying one!”. Of course I wanted Alice Nutter’s, but already I found I was stealing myself for the disappointment of not getting to the plaques in time… not finding her… not having any to carry. And told myself to let go of carrying Alice.

And then I was stood in front of the circle of names. The one in front of me was Elizabeth Southerns and as I reached for her plaque, I hesitated, I knew she wasn’t mine to carry. But there above her was Alice Nutter! I picked her up and immediately my tears started flowing.

The ceremony, like others I’d done, felt like a constellation of sorts, where each person in the constellation, takes the energy of the one they’re embodying. It wasn’t that I was walking with Alice Nutter, or even that I was embodying her… I was her! My tears are often an indicator of connection and this was no different.

I stood waiting for my friend, but as the procession started and she hadn’t appeared I stepped into the line next to another woman, Emma, whose friend had also not returned in time for the procession to start. I looked down to see she held the plaque of Elizabeth Southerns. “Ahhh she was meant to carry her!”. We connected, sharing we were both from Pendle. It wasn’t until later I heard she was the film maker responsible for creating The Witch’s Daughter, a telling of the story of 9 year old Jennet Device.

I shivered as we, Emma and I, Elizabeth and Alice, walked under the archway of the gate together realising Elizabeth Southerns, Old Mother Demdike never made it out of the gate. The shiver… a felt sense of the past changing.

As we walked through the city, with the bewildered folk of Lancaster looking on, I thought that being Alice, I’d feel fear. I didn’t. I thought I’d be terrified to be walking to my death. I wasn’t. I was sad this was happening. I was sad for those around me. I didn’t even feel I was railing against the injustice. Perhaps I was accepting that this is what had to be. Or… perhaps history… herstory… was already rewritten, with today’s jury finding her… me… ‘not guilty’. What I did notice as I walked, was a feeling of pride, but it didn’t feel like my pride, it felt like hers, in the way I held my… her… chin. An honouring of her. An honouring of the truth. Setting the score straight.

We processed into the memorial gardens. It seemed a strange place to be. The war memorial. With 1939 – 1945 engraved in stone I assumed it was for the Second World War, but later found out it was built to remember those lost in the First World War, extended for the second. It felt a masculine space, all angular corners and hard stone, wars decided by men, battles fought by men. We were a group of 150 (mainly) women. Why here? I noticed the bronze angel holding a palm branch to symbolise peace and the words “Other Conflicts” and something shifted in my thinking. What happened over 300 years of persecution was a war! A war on women, a war on connection between women, a war on knowing and insight, a war on wisdom, a war on natural healing, a war on nature connection, a war on ceremony. 3000 died in Scotland and 1000 in England, most of them women.

As we laid down the plaques, Cali White, who held the ceremony invited a few women to step forward and speak, if they felt called. My body did that thing again… it stepped forward! My head screaming “what??? But what are you going to say? You’ve not prepared anything! What are you doing?”

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