Bess Southerns a.k.a. Mother Demdike
Destined to be the most notorious cunning woman of Pendle Forest, Bess first comes into her powers at the age of fifty. An impoverished widow, she is walking past the stone pit in Goldshaw at sunset when she encounters Tibb, her familiar spirit, who promises to teach her everything she needs to know about magic. Drawing on herbalism and the Catholic folk charms of her pre-Reformation childhood, Bess heals humans and animals, practicing her craft for decades before anyone dares to interfere with her or stand in her way. Matriarch of her clan, she lives at Malkin Tower, a crumbling old watchtower near the edge of Pendle Forest, with her daughter Liza and her three grandchildren.
Bess’s familiar spirit usually appears to her in the guise of a golden-haired young man, though he can also take the shape of a hare or brown dog. The power behind her every spell, Tibb is Bess’s guide, mentor, even her otherworldly lover. But only Bess herself can choose the road she walks.
Anne Whittle a.k.a. Mother Chattox
Bess’s oldest friend and greatest rival, Chattox resorts to darkest magic when her landlord’s son attempts to rape her daughter and drive her family from their cottage. After the young man’s death, Chattox can never live down the rumours that she is a murderous witch.
Bess’s only daughter, Liza is cock-eyed—marked out as ugly and different. After she gives birth to her mentally handicapped son Jamie, Liza renounces her own dealings with cunning craft. A fierce, hot-tempered woman, she loves her family above all else and will stop at nothing to defend them from harm.
Liza’s husband is a good and tender-hearted man, but his terror of Chattox’s dark magic drives a wedge between Bess and her oldest friend. John dies pre-maturely, convinced that Chattox has cursed him.
Liza’s daughter and Bess’s granddaughter, Alizon is a beautiful and intelligent young woman who shows every promise of becoming a cunning woman as mighty as her grandmother. Yet having witnessed her father die from Chattox’s alleged curse, Alizon dreads the thought of becoming a cunning woman. More than anything, she longs to lead an ordinary life, with no dealings in magic. Yet there will come a day when she can no longer deny her birthright—the powers rising inside her with an unstoppable force.
Alizon’s mentally handicapped brother Jamie is strongly psychic and drawn to magic, the only might he can hope to wield against those who slight him and call him an idiot. The volatile young man cannot begin to understand how his family will suffer from the revenge magic he attempts to wreak.
Alizon’s youngest sister Jennet is a bastard, the bitter fruit of their mother’s fleeting affair with Churchwarden Richard Baldwin. A Puritan’s daughter growing up in Malkin Tower, Jennet knows full well she is the cuckoo in the nest. The precocious child bitterly resents her family of witches and misfits.
The Puritan Churchwarden not only refuses to acknowledge his bastard daughter Jennet, but he is also convinced that Bess has used witchcraft to murder his only legitimate child.
Gentlewoman and recusant Catholic, Alice has been Bess’s staunch ally ever since Bess’s herbal cure helped Alice conceive her son and heir. A wealthy widow, Alice has devoted her life to helping the poor and to concealing priests of the forbidden English Mission in her manor house, Roughlee Hall. Alice will have to pay the highest price for her devotion to her outlawed faith—and for her friendship with Bess’s family at Malkin Tower.
King James I
The reigning monarch hates Catholics and presumed witches in equal measure. Obsessed with the occult, James has written Daemonologie, a witch hunter’s handbook, which presents the idea of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation.
Magistrate of Pendle Forest and High Sheriff of Lancashire, Nowell hopes to curry favour with his King by arresting as many witches as he can. Two decades before the more famous Matthew Hopkins began his witch-hunting career in East Anglia, Nowell has set himself up as Witchfinder General of Lancashire.
Travelling pedlar from Halifax, Yorkshire, John Law encounters Alizon Device in a field outside Colne. When he brusquely refuses to open his pack to show her the pins she wants to buy, Alizon loses her temper and tells him off. Turning his back on the outraged girl, the pedlar walks away, only to fall “stark lame,” paralyzed in one half of his body. He has suffered a stroke, yet he is convinced that Alizon has crippled him with her witchcraft.
A former baronial hunting ground, Pendle Forest is a remote and sparsely populated backwater. Here fervent Protestants struggle to assert their new order in the face of staunch resistance as rebel gentry and commonfolk alike stubbornly cling to the old ways of the pre-Reformation Church. Some, such as Bess and her family, plight their troth to even older beliefs in familiar spirits and the Queen of Elfhame and her retinue. Protestant and Catholic, rich and poor, everyone in Pendle believes that witchcraft is real.