John Law at Colne: Crediting the Devil

The banality and ordinariness of Keighley Road in Colne belies a tragic incident which occurred here 400 years ago. Alizon Device, a woman of low social standing, approached John Law, a pedlar (a travelling salesmen) to purchase a pin. He refused, perhaps on account of her poverty or inconvenience of getting one out of his pack. His refusal met with her cursing him. Minutes afterwards, he fell down, perhaps with a stroke, though he managed to get back up and head to an inn to recover. His son, Abraham Law, heard his dying father’s account of the exchange, and unusually fetched the girl to appear before the dying man. She, believing in her own powers, confessed to cursing him, and begged his forgiveness. Tragically, for Alizon and her family, this would be evidence used against her by the Crown in her famous Pendle witch trial at Lancaster in 1612.

The seventeenth-century mind had a sincere belief in the power of malignant folk to control natural forces with the devil’s help. Alizon’s own father, John, had blamed another local family for his fatal illness in 1601. He had agreed to pay Anne Whittle, its matriarchal head, 8lb of oatmeal each year to ensure no spells would be made against him or his family; he had not yet paid that year’s ‘protection’, and so attributed his decline to her spiteful powers. Little wonder Alizon believed in them and sought them for herself.

The modern mind would say that Mr Law’s stroke was caused naturally, on account of his age, size and exertion, though the stress at having been ‘cursed’ would have doubtless made his journey rather more stressful. Goodman Device had to die of something. Had it happened after the oatmeal payment had been made, he’d have assumed that Whittle has double-crossed him, breaking her pledge. That same modern mind often pities past generations for their ignorance. Jacobean folk were certainly superstitious but they weren’t stupid; in the absence of decent medical knowledge and empirical enquiry, attributing inexplicable strokes and coronaries to malignant propagators of spells and magic was quite reasonable. Even today, I find some Christians blaming misfortunes on the devil if not on witches and warlocks. I remember one man saying the devil had made all the traffic lights turn red on his approach so as to hamper his journey; Pentecostal friends in Preston lamented a carving of an eye on premises opposite which they attributed to malevolent forces seeking to curtail their church’s evangelism. Their pastor, thankfully, was a sensible chap, and discovered that it was an archaic pharmacy symbol, the building having originally housed such an establishment.

I’m no atheistic materialist, blinded to the spiritual realm. Neither am I some liberal nitwit, denuding the scriptures of all demons, angels and resurrections. The devil is all too real, and so are his minions. Yet I would urge caution in attributing events and occurrences to their special endeavours. Such hasty judgments risk giving them a glory they do not deserve. It also brings us in danger of attributing God’s providential counsels to evil. Satan is not omni-present and he cannot personally devote his attentions to Sally Housecoat of Clacton-on-Sea, ensuring her car doesn’t start on a wintry morning. Had John Law not been so quick to blame his illness on witches, ten people might not have been hanged.

Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.”

Genesis 50: 19-20