The Mystery of Alice Nutter: Witch or Catholic?

Secret Catholic or secret witch, the mystery surrounding Alice Nutter remains.

Statue of Alice Nutter in Roughlee, England
Statue of Alice Nutter in Roughlee, England (photo: Hornbeam Arts, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr,

The name Alice Nutter is not well-known. She was hanged as a witch in August 1612. That is how history has remembered her. Recent reports regarding her infamous witch trial has brought her back to prominence, however, at least for British Catholics. There is evidence, largely circumstantial but present nonetheless, that Nutter was no witch but a follower of another, then secret, path: Catholicism.

The case of the Lancashire Witches and the trials that led to the execution of eight women and two men are well-known, occurring as they did during the reign of King James I. This Stuart king of the three kingdoms of Scotland, England and Ireland was interested in the occult and all its many manifestations. He had even published a book on the subject, Daemonologie (1597), a warning against (among other things) witches and their craft. The British king’s interest was not merely academic though. In 1604, the year after the Scottish king’s accession to the English throne, the Witchcraft Act came into force, broadening existing legislation and mandating the death penalty for anyone invoking evil spirits or communing with familiar spirits. This Act was enforced by the likes of Matthew Hopkins. He is known to history as the Witchfinder General and who, during this time presided over at least 100 executions, mainly in East Anglia, of witches.

When James ascended the English throne, Catholics within the kingdom entertained hopes of religious toleration following the persecutions they had endured in the Elizabethan era. He had assured Catholics that he would not persecute “any that will be quiet and give but an outward obedience to the law.” These hopes were dashed, however, just two years later after his accession when the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 came to light. This failed assassination attempt by English Catholics on the Stuart king led to a violent anti-Catholic backlash.  

The Popish Recusants Act of 1605 forbade Catholics from practicing the professions of law and medicine and from acting as legal guardians; and it allowed authorities to search Catholic homes for weapons. The Act also introduced a new Oath of Allegiance, which denied the power of the pope to depose monarchs. Any Recusant Catholic who did not receive the bread at an Anglican communion service at least once a year in his (Church of England) parish church was to be fined £60 or forfeit two-thirds of his land. The Act also made it high treason to obey the authority of Rome rather than the king. In short, Catholics the length and breadth of the land were suspect.

The genesis of what became known as the Lancashire Witch Trials began on Good Friday 1612 when a “party” took place, with those attending subsequently accused of taking part in a Witches' Sabbat. The evidence against those accused was a hotchpotch of rumor and allegation, with a child witness at its center. The confessions and testimonies elicited before and during the trials held at Lancaster recalled events from the previous 18 years and articulated long running tensions both within and between families and their neighbors, as well as between landlords and tenants. Those accused were poor and ill-educated, with one exception. Even today, she stands apart from the others. Her name: Alice Nutter.

Alice Nutter, a widow, was both wealthy and educated. Largely silent throughout the trial, where she was denied access to lawyers and was refused the possibility of calling witnesses in her defense, she maintained her innocence of all charges right to the end. Upon her conviction she was led to Gallows Hill on Aug. 20, 1612. Later she was buried in Newchurch-in-Pendle in the Nutter family plot.

Some have suggested that Alice Nutter was a Catholic. This, they contend, was the reason for her silence about her whereabouts on that Good Friday. Her unwillingness to say where she had been was central to the case against her. If she was indeed a Catholic and had been present at a Catholic service on Good Friday, she would have alerted the authorities to the fact that she had been taking part in an illegal activity. She might well have implicated others by so doing and, as a result, led the authorities to local priests then in hiding as well as to the people who aided these priests in their clandestine ministry. Was this the reason for her silence?

Or is this a convenient re-writing of history?

The area from which all the accused came was in and around Pendle Hill. Less than hundred years earlier, in 1537, the nearby Cistercian monastery at Whalley had been supressed by Henry VIII, a move resisted by local people who, despite the abbey’s closure, and the subsequent execution of its abbot, remained largely faithful to the Catholic faith. Upon the accession of Catholic Queen Mary to the English throne in 1553, they had quickly and publicly reverted to Catholicism. Even when Elizabeth succeeded the throne, and Catholicism was once more outlawed, it was well-known that in the area priests still said Holy Mass secretly.

The name “Nutter” may also be of significance. There were two Catholic martyrs, brothers, of that name from nearby Pendle: the Blessed John and Robert Nutter. Both were priests; John was executed in 1584 and Robert in 1600. Alice was a Nutter only by marriage, however, but it is generally accepted that her husband was a distant relative of the two martyrs.

All of this points to some circumstantial evidence that Alice Nutter may have been part of a clandestine Catholic network then operating in that part of Lancashire, but it hardly constitutes proof.

Another possible explanation for Alice Nutter’s indictment as a witch is the claim that a local justice of the peace, Roger Nowell, had designs upon her property. It is claimed that Nowell knew of Alice Nutter’s secret faith and thus the real reason for her silence about her whereabouts on that Good Friday, but exposing this would not have been as effective in releasing her land as pointing the finger of accusation at her for being a witch. In the England of James I to accuse someone of witchcraft and then to ensure conviction was a sure way of disposing of the person so accused. Perhaps, this was the real reason for her indictment?

Secret Catholic or secret witch, the mystery surrounding Alice Nutter remains. Nevertheless, what is certain is that she was unlike any of the others accused in the 1612 Witch Trials. She was decidedly out of place. Nevertheless, until new evidence comes to light Alice Nutter’s silence during her trial and what it signifies remains a mystery.