Man who jailed Pendle Witches

Lancaster has more reason than many places to mark Hallowe'en thanks to the Pendle Witches being imprisoned in the castle. But few people know much about their gaoler – Thomas Covell – who is remembered by the Covell Cross which stands outside the Judges' Lodgings where he used to live. Here, ANthea PURKIS, assistant keeper of the Judges' Lodgings Museum, gives an insight into Covell's life and those who plotted his assassination.

Lancaster has been home to quite a few infamous residents during the last few hundred years. Thomas Covell was probably the most infamous and influential of them all yet he is the least well-known by Lancastrians today.

He lived in the building now known as the Judges' Lodgings until his death on August 1, 1639. The stone cross outside the Judges' Lodgings is called Covell Cross in memory of him.

Although Thomas Covell was well-known in Lancaster during the 17th Century not much is known about him today.

We do know that he was a very important figure in Lancaster because there is some information on his memorial brass that can still be seen at Lancaster Priory.

The positions of authority he held that are listed on the memorial brass include keeper of the castle, coroner, magistrate, Mayor of Lancaster and captain of the Freehold band of the One Hundred of Loinsdale.

Sadly this information does not give us an insight into his daily activities or indeed his popularity.

As keeper of the castle he would have spent most of his time there and we know that he had living quarters in the castle. An inventory

carried out after his death lists the possessions he kept in his castle rooms – they include a feather bed, curtains, embroidered cushions, towels, table cloths and various brewing utensils.

These objects all suggest a more than comfortable existence when he was staying in the castle.

A period of Covell's life that we do have some information on is during the time of the Lancaster witch trials.

As keeper of the castle he would have been responsible for keeping the accused witches imprisoned in their dank cellar.

It was a truly gruesome cell situated below ground with no natural light, no drainage, no fresh air and an iron ring set into the centre of the floor to chain the prisoners to. Covell's luxury at the castle contrasts greatly with the squalid conditions endured by the Pendle Witches.

James Device, Demdike's (one of the Pendle witches) grandson, confessed in March 1612 that a group had met to discuss 'killing the goaler at Lancaster, and before the next assizes to blow up the castle there' in a bid to free the accused witches before they went on trial.

This admission would have shocked the people of Lancaster firstly because Thomas Covell was a well-known figure due to the

prominent positions he held – upstanding Lancastrians would have been shocked at the audacity of the group to even attempt such an unthinkable crime.

And secondly, only eight years earlier, in 1604, Guy Fawkes and his accomplices had been arrested for plotting to blow up the Houses of Parliament – The Gunpowder Plot. Those events were fresh in people's minds and James Device's confession would cause public fear of more

violent disturbances.

There are conflicting reports of Thomas Covell's character. The Rev Henry Burton who was imprisoned in Lancaster Castle in 1637 for 12 weeks described Covell as a 'beastly man'.

Obviously Rev Burton, as a prisoner, would not have held Covell in high regard but being associated for such a long time with Lancaster Castle has indeed cast a dark shadow on Thomas Covell's reputation.

His other positions of authority in Lancaster all show that he was an educated man with the respect of his contemporaries and the

description of him on his memorial brass paints an altogether different picture of him – 'a man soe kind, soe courteous'.

Thomas Covell died aged 78 at home in the building that is now the Judges' Lodgings and was buried in the chancel at Lancaster Priory.

* For further information about Thomas Covell read Thomas Covell of Lancaster, Esquire, by Eija Kennerley.