Boggarts and Witches

Pendle Hill, in Lancashire, England. To the ri...

Thanks to JK Rowling, many people now know what a boggart is. There was a time, however, when you needed a Lancashire heritage to understand the word. Lancashire doesn’t have a lot to offer the world other than the dubious delights of Blackpool, which I won’t go into here. Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste and leave it at that. But Lancashire is indelibly connected with the notorious witch trials of 1612, when twenty people, sixteen of them women, were hanged at Lancaster Assizes.

The witches were associated with Pendle Hill, a humpback-whale shaped mountain on Lancashire’s eastern border. Pendle has retained its dark associations to this day and is still a popular place of pilgrimage at Hallowe’en, though I suspect the majority of brave souls who venture there are curious rather than practising pagans or Wiccans. It’s an area with much to offer tourists in the way of natural beauty and a colourful history.

Pendle is the setting for the fourth book in Joseph Delaney‘s “Spook” series, the first volume of which is soon to be filmed as “The Last Apprentice.” (Presumably they thought Americans might misunderstand the meaning of the word spook, which has nothing to do with espionage in this context, though it retains an aura of mystery). In Delaney’s slightly AU seventeenth-century Lancashire, the local spook was the man you turned to if you were having a bit of boggart trouble. His was a harsh and lonely existence, shunned though needed by his fellow men, out in all weathers and frequently fasting in preparation for life-threatening battles with dark powers. In Delaney’s slightly softened world (the books are aimed at older children and young teens), there are people who hang witches but the Spook prefers to bind them indefinitely in pits, where they exist on worms and try to wheedle passers-by into bringing them better food so they can build up their strength. I’m not convinced that is a kinder fate than hanging them, but one of the strengths of Delaney’s writing is that he shows how difficult it can be to form straightforward moral opinions about people. In fact, one of the main sympathetic characters is a reformed witch, and it’s always a matter of debate whether she’ll succumb to temptation and if she can be trusted.

Cover of "The Spook's Apprentice: No.1"
Cover of The Spook's Apprentice: No.1

The Spook’s apprentice is a twelve-year old boy called Tom Ward, from a remote farm on the Lancashire moors. As the seventh son of a seventh son (and a very unusual and mysterious mother, who is clearly not all she seems), he’s able to see things that other people can’t, and the books follow him through adolescence as he learns his dangerous craft. So far, so Harry Potter, but these stories feel very different. Rich in atmosphere and local detail (which is precisely why I love them) they are very firmly rooted in the folklore of this part of the world, and their historical context. There’s something simple and elemental about them which contrasts with Rowling’s sophisticated world-building. Trying to compare the two is pointless – both are excellent in very different ways.

Lancashire has always been remote, wild and unknown. In post-Reformation times it was a hotbed of recusant Catholicism, possibly due at least in part to its proximity to three large rivers facing Ireland, the Mersey, the Ribble and the Lune (from which the county town of Lancaster derives its name). Preston, the settlement on the Ribble, is probably a corruption of Priest-town, and the conurbation associated with the Mersey needs no introduction.

Shakespeare In Lancashire?

There is a theory, argued by E. A. J. Honigmann (Shakespeare: “The Lost Years” – 1985), that has Shakespeare located in Lancashire in the household of the powerful, Catholic Hoghton family.  The link between faraway Lancashire and Stratford, as this theory has it, would have been Shakespeare’s last schoolmaster John Cottom.  The theory is based on rather circumstantial evidence found in a Hoghton will, asking his kinsman to take care of “…William Shakeshaft, now dwelling with me…” along with references to plays, play-clothes and musical instruments.   The theory has it that  Shakespeare was engaged by the Hoghtons as a schoolmaster on Cottom’s recommendation (Cottom being a Lancashire native living near the Hoghtons) and then began, naturally, participating in their private theatricals, and then passed through the Stanleys (who had many holdings in Lancashire) to Lord Strange’s men, a theater company with which Shakespeare was definitely associated.  The theory is presented convincingly in Honigmann’s book, but cannot be demonstrated with certainty.


There’s a school of thought, promoted by Michael Wood among others, that Shakespeare’s family were closet Catholics and, for that reason, he was dispatched to one of Lancashire’s great houses as a tutor during the “lost years” between the birth of his children and his first successes in London. His name, or something similar, is mentioned in connection with a troupe of players in a will, and both Rufford Old Hall and Hoghton Tower claim a connection. However, given the inconsistency in the spelling of names at that time, this appealing theory is difficult to substantiate. To claim, as Hoghton Tower does on its website, to have been “visited by Shakespeare” is taking poetic licence a bit too far.

Anyway, back to Delaney. In the fourth story of his series, “The Spook’s Battle“, the action centres on Pendle and I’ve had a lot of fun finding out how accurate the historical background is. The answer is, surprisingly accurate – there really was a Malkin witch clan and a Malkin Tower where they met with other local clans and allegedly took hostages prisoner. (Macbeth is almost contemporary, so that might be where Shakespeare got his Grimalkin from). The local squire, Roger Nowell, really did exist and did his best to take a rational view of the events, though the more cynical would argue that his motives had more to do with stamping out Catholicism and earning royal favour.

I have always preferred life in the South of England, but there’s something deep in my DNA that stirs when I see wonderful names like Anglezarke in a novel, and it seems to me that this series is a real find. It captures something fundamental about the character of this windswept corner of England, and it’s a great read, too. I nearly jumped out of my skin when my daughter tapped on the window as I was engrossed in it last night!


3 thoughts on “Boggarts and Witches

  1. Well, actually, J.K. Rowling’s portrayal of the boggart, is incorrect. A boggart is NOT an amorphous “ghost” that takes the form of ‘what you fear most”. The fact is, boggarts are (primarily) a type of goblin. I’m from Scotland (Where we have out own boggart legends), but we often refer to them a “bogles” or “bogies”. I’ve studied Fairy lore, all my life (I’m 44, now) and I know the legends well.
    FUN FACT: Many mispronounce the word “Boggart”. Contrary to popular pronunciation, the word is not pronounced: “Bow-gart”, it is pronounced: “Bog-art”.

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