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Original artwork by John Gilbert

William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) was a historical novelist and one of the most popular English authors of the later 19th century. Born in Manchester, he trained as a lawyer and practised in London, but his true ambitions were always literary. In his youth, Ainsworth read adventure stories and was an admirer of Dick Turpin, the highwayman whose exploits were the subject of popular legend. The tale of Turpin’s overnight ride from London to York on his steed, Black Bess, featured in Ainsworth’s first novel, Rookwood (1834.)

Among Ainsworth’s nearly forty novels, several were set in his native Lancashire, including his most famous work, The Lancashire Witches: A Romance of Pendle Forest (1848.)

The Pendle witch trials of 1612 were, at the time, the largest witch-hunt in English history, only eclipsed by the infamous Matthew Hopkins in 1645. Ainsworth became interested in the case in 1845 after a partner in his father’s law firm, James Crossley, edited a revised edition of court clerk Thomas Potts’ record of the trial, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire – first published in 1613.

Ainsworth visited Pendle several times while working on his novel between 1846-47. The Lancashire Witches was serialised in the Sunday Times in 1848, and published in three volumes the following year.

The novel’s subtitle, ‘A Romance of Pendle Forest’, seems to allude to Ann Radcliffe’s bestselling Gothic novel of 1791, The Romance of the Forest. Unlike today’s romantic novels, which focus mainly on love, the Romanticism of Radcliffe and Ainsworth was closer to adventure fiction, typically centred on the ‘courtly love’ of a heroic knight and his beloved maiden in peril, with elements of the supernatural.

Though the Pendle trials had a background of early 17th century religious Puritanism, Ainsworth depicts a ‘Merry England’ setting which recalls the pre-Reformation era of the early 1500s. Had he described the harsh, unforgiving nature of early Protestantism with greater historical accuracy, the accusations against the so-called ‘witches’ might have seemed less credible to Victorian readers.

However, Ainsworth does show the decades of religious turmoil which led to the witch-hunts in a long prelude to the main action, wherein a Cistercian monk, Borlace Alvetham, is falsely accused of witchcraft by his rival, Brother John Paslew. Alvetham escapes execution by selling his soul to Satan, and returns as the warlock Nicholas Demdike, grandfather to Elizabeth Southern alias ‘Demdike’, one of the accused in 1612.

This backstory is fictional, but it is interesting to see witchcraft linked to Catholicism from the outset. Lancashire was considered to be a rather lawless and backward region at the time, and it certainly housed its share of Catholic recusants – including two martyrs, executed in the 1590s, both related to Alice Nutter, one of the witches hanged in 1612.

Alice Nutter has long fascinated scholars and authors alike. The widow of a prominent local farmer, she was of a higher social standing than her fellow accused and it has long been assumed that she was mistress of Roughlee Old Hall. This is incorrect, however, and she actually lived at the more humble Crowtrees Farm in Roughlee.

Ainsworth, like other early researchers, mistakenly believed Alice Nutter to be of nobler birth than she really was, and thereby chose to make her the ‘ringleader’ of the witches, though there is no evidence of this.

Using artistic licence, he also portrayed the young peasant girl, Alizon Device, as Alice Nutter’s illegitimate child. Though untrue, this was an effective fictional device – Alizon became a Cinderella figure of genteel origin, set apart from the other, less reputable Devices.

Alizon’s first appearance, as the ‘May Queen’ at the village fair, establishes the ‘Merry England’ myth and our sense of her as the beautiful, good-hearted maiden. Other characters, such as Elizabeth Device, are physically deformed (she has a squint in her left eye), or aged and blind like Demdike or Chattox, and this is said to signify their criminal tendencies.

Ainsworth’s lower class characters speak in a broad Lancashire dialect, but his gentry folk speak in a more literary style. With the exception of Alice Nutter and Alizon Device, Ainsworth depicts the accused witches, mostly poor, as wicked, whereas his educated characters are blessed with the finer human traits, such as courage and honesty – in line with the Christian ideal. Nance Redferne is attractive enough, but also duplicitous and cruel, while Jennet Device, chief witness for the prosecution, is a witch herself in Ainsworth’s retelling. Thomas Potts, the court clerk who recorded the case for posterity, is caricatured as a mean, petty civil servant.

However, the quality of Ainsworth’s research also reaped some benefits. With James Crossley’s aid, he learned that Elizabeth Southern (‘Demdike’) was descended from Isold de Heton, a 15th century noblewoman who was a recluse at Whalley Abbey, before her scandalous affair with a freebooter named Blackburn was uncovered, leading her into disgraced exile. This illustrates how a poverty-stricken old woman like Demdike could, in fact, retain links to nobility – showing that social divisions were perhaps not as rigid as they seemed.

Though Ainsworth enjoyed both wealth and fame in his lifetime, his reputation has not endured quite so well. The superstitions and class prejudices of his era have aged badly, and works such as The Lancashire Witches were essentially middlebrow, written chiefly to entertain rather than to inform or prompt his readers to question the validity of the subject.

As an account of the Pendle trials, Ainsworth’s most celebrated tome is largely unreliable, and his narrative style is laboured and oblique. But the gothic and romantic motifs Ainsworth employed in the story are striking even today, and his details of Lancashire’s history and culture are, partially at least, of genuine value.

Read The Lancashire Witches online at Project Gutenberg