Barbara Steele

A Romance of Pendle Forest: The Lancashire Witches by W.H. Ainsworth (Part One)

The Lancashire Novelist

Largely because of a popular fascination with the occult, The Lancashire Witches is the only one of Ainsworth’s novels to have remained consistently in print to this day, often shelved alongside the work of Dennis Wheatley and Montague Summers (both of whom it undoubtedly influenced). The novel is also one of the mainstays of the Pennine tourist industry, and at time of writing, it is still available in many local museums, railway stations and gift shops. As the Dick Turpin narrative of Rookwood seamlessly passed into the national myth, Ainsworth’s romance of Pendle Forest has supplanted the unusually well-documented history of these unfortunate men and women in Lancashire folklore. This ‘classic tale of the supernatural’ (1) although generally overlooked by scholars of the gothic, therefore continues to exist quietly both as a popular cultural curio and, rather more erroneously, in an extra-literary sense as a genuine history.

The Lancashire Witches is the first of Ainsworth’s ‘Lancashire novels,’ and it is perhaps because of the author’s love for the county of his birth that the book does not suffer from the obviously hasty, and consequently often clumsy, composition that so often marred Ainsworth’s originally interesting ideas. While sharing the Faustian conceit of the Herne the Hunter subplot of Windsor Castle (1843) and the incomplete Auriol (1865), both of which in rushing headlong towards abrupt and unsatisfying conclusions had caused the author much critical ridicule, The Lancashire Witches was subject to uncharacteristically detailed preparation. ‘My desire,’ he admitted towards the end of his life, ‘has really been to write a Lancashire novel, a novel that should please the whole county, and I don’t care whether it pleased anyone else’ (qtd. in Crossley and Evans, 1881).

The Lancashire Witches is set on and around Pendle Hill in early-seventeenth century Lancashire, with an ‘Introduction’ set in 1536. The Cistercian monk Borlace Alvetham is falsely accused of witchcraft by his rival, Brother John Paslew, and condemned to a lingering death. Alvetham escapes by selling his soul to Satan, and returns as the warlock Nicholas Demdike during the Pilgrimage of Grace to witness the execution of the now Abbot Paslew for treason. Paslew dies cursing Demdike’s daughter and, ‘that infant and her progeny became the Lancashire Witches’ (Ainsworth, 62). The remainder of the narrative is set about a century later, when the ancient witch Mother Demdike wields tremendous supernatural power over the area, her evil family challenged only by the rival witches Mother Chattox and Alice Nutter. The elaborate plot centres on the fate of two lovers, the pious Alizon Device (raised by the Demdike clan, but in fact the long-lost daughter of Alice Nutter), and the young aristocrat Richard Assheton. In Book I, Alizon discovers her birth mother is Alice Nutter and resolves to save her soul. Book II chronicles the rivalry between Demdike, Chattox and Nutter, Demdike’s attempts to corrupt Alizon, and the eventual destruction of Demdike and Chattox in a fire on Pendle Hill. Book III follows Alice Nutter’s penitence, a visit from James I, and the final struggle between heaven and hell for the souls of Alice and her daughter. Both are killed in a violent confrontation with Alice’s ex-demon familiar, but they die in prayer and the mark of Satan fades from Alice’s brow. Richard Assheton, who has been cursed repeatedly by various witches throughout, pines away and the lovers are buried in a single grave.

The project appears to have commenced in 1845, three years prior to the first published instalment of the serial in The Sunday Times on January 1, 1848 (2). In dedicating the novel to James Crossley, Ainsworth acknowledges that both the source material and the original idea for the work came from his friend:

To James Crossley, Esq., (of Manchester), President of the Chetham Society, and the learned editor of ‘The Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancaster’, – the groundwork of the following pages, – this romance, undertaken at his suggestion, is inscribed by his old and sincerely attached friend, the author (Ainsworth, 1848).

This is the quintessential Ainsworth/Crossley project, with each text, Crossley’s history and Ainsworth’s romance, complementing the other. Ainsworth’s references to the new novel in his correspondence with Crossley date from the Chetham Society’s 1845 reprint of the Lancaster Castle Assizes clerk Thomas Potts’s record of the 1612 trial of the so-called Lancashire witches (3), and document three years of preparation for what was to become his master work. In late 1845 Ainsworth wrote to Crossley that, ‘I have not yet started the Witches as I want to commence with effect … Pray see Rodd about Whitaker and the Witchcraft books’ (4) (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, December, 1845). In the spring of 1846 he wrote, ‘I have some intention of running down into Lancashire to see the Witch Country once more … what say you to another trip?’ (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, dated May 5, 1846) and, again, in August 1847, ‘I shall soon be in Manchester, as I want to pay another visit to Whalley’ (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, August, 1847).

These frequent visits to Pendle Hill, the surrounding forest and the ruins of Whalley Abbey add an evocative authenticity to the recreation of the landscape in language, which Ainsworth then makes gothic and sublime:

This glen was in very ill repute, and was never traversed, even at noonday, without apprehension. Its wild and savage aspect, its horrent precipices, its shaggy woods, its strangely-shaped rocks and tenebrous depths, where every imperfectly-seen object appeared doubly frightful – all combined to invest it with mystery and terror.

No one willingly lingered here, but hurried on, afraid of the sound of his own footsteps. No one dared to gaze at the rocks, lest he should see some hideous hobgoblin peering out of their fissures. No one glanced at the water, for fear some terrible kelpy, with twining snakes for hair and scaly hide, should issue from it, and drag him down to devour him with shark-like teeth (Ainsworth, 225 – 226).

In Ainsworth’s magical forest, notions of fact and fantasy blur within the text just as they seemed to in wild, mysterious reality. As Crossley wrote in his introduction to Potts’s Discoverie:

The ‘parting genius’ of superstition still clings to the hoary hill tops and rugged slopes and mossy water sides, along which the old forest stretched its length, and the voices of ancestral tradition are still heard to speak from the depth of its quiet hollows, and along the course of its gurgling streams. He who visits Pendle will yet find that charms are generally resorted to among the lower orders … that each small hamlet has its peculiar and gifted personage whom it is dangerous to offend … that each locality has its haunted house; that apparitions still walk their ghostly rounds (Crossley, 1845).

Leo H. Grindon also wrote of Whalley Abbey that ‘In all Cheshire there is not a locality more desolate, bleak and lonely’ (Grindon, 63).

The Lancashire Witches succeeds because of this tangible tension between the real and the unreal which surrounds the complex aesthetic of the author’s native county. The seventy-two page ‘Introduction’ – which begins with the failure of the Pilgrimage of Grace as warrior monks wait by a beacon on the summit of Pendle Hill – establishes the symbolic nature of the landscape as a place of fire and violence:

As the beacon flame increased it lighted up the whole of the extensive table-land on the summit of Pendle Hill; and a long, lurid streak fell on the darkling moss pool near which the wizard had stood. But when it attained its utmost height it revealed the depths of the forest below, and a red reflection, here and there, marked the course of Pendle Water (Ainsworth, 9).

The signal beacon, rather than the call to arms it was intended to be, marks the end of the rebellion and foreshadows the fire of the sabbat on the hill at the climax of Book I. This ultimately becomes a funeral pyre for Chattox and Demdike and their gateway to hell, the place of ‘oceans of fire, in which miserable souls were forever tossing’ (Ainsworth, 481) and a familiar space within Ainsworth’s fiction. The river of blood snaking through the forest is also the line that Nowell, Potts and Assheton follow into the heart of darkness where Old Mother Demdike reigns absolute.

The shadow of Pendle Hill also falls across the entire text. The innocent locals find it glorious: ‘“I love Pendle Hill”, cried Nicholas, enthusiastically – “Some folks say Pendle Hill wants grandeur and sublimity, but they themselves must be wanting in taste”’ (Ainsworth, 220). The fallen find it ominous; when Alice looks towards it in a moment of peace: ‘One blot alone appeared in the otherwise smiling sky, and this was a great ugly black cloud, lowering over the summit of Pendle Hill’ (Ainsworth, 408), while Potts, the London lawyer, loathes it, declaring to Nicholas that: ‘I hate your bleak Lancashire hills,’ thus marking him as a rogue and a scoundrel in Ainsworth’s universe (Ainsworth, 220). As Mrs. Gaskell also understood, Pendle Hill carried a code of magic, mystery and evil, and she employed it as the sublime backdrop to her moral fable of 1850, ‘The Heart of John Middleton,’ a tale set in Sawley, ‘where the shadow of Pendle Hill falls at sunrise’ (Gaskell, 161). J.S Le Fanu similarly used it as a setting to his short story ‘Dickon the Devil’ (1872), which establishes mood by citing Ainsworth: ‘About thirty years ago I was selected by two rich old maids to visit a property in that part of Lancashire which lies near the famous forest of Pendle, with which Mr Ainsworth’s “Lancashire Witches” has made us so pleasantly familiar’ (Le Fanu, 41).

Ainsworth coverIn addition to Potts’s Discoverie, Ainsworth made good use of another Chetham Society publication, The Journal of Nicholas Assheton, which was the fourteenth volume of the same series that loosed Thomas Potts once more upon the world. Only the entries covering 1617-18 had survived, fortuitously including an account of the King’s visit to Lancashire in 1617, of which Ainsworth made much use, moving the event back five years in time with a historical novelist’s eye for dramatic pacing in order to place the witches in the royal presence.

Assheton is one of Ainsworth’s principal characters, essentially playing Mercutio to his cousin Richard’s Romeo, and the vivid accounts of country life in the journal found easy purchase in the sympathetic mind of the author, who obviously felt a great affection for the young squire: ‘Oh, Nicholas, Nicholas!’ cries the voice of the narrative at one point, ‘I am thoroughly ashamed of you, and regret becoming your historian. You get me into an infinitude of scrapes’ (Ainsworth, 181). Perhaps because both historian and subject were kindred spirits; Ainsworth’s portrait of Assheton is one of his best, and the complex personality which he ascribes to Assheton appears, on the strength of the journal, to be perfectly accurate. Assheton, writes Ainsworth on introducing the character, ‘might be considered a type of the Lancashire squire of the day,’ expertly combining piety and hellraising:

A precision in religious notions, and constant in attendance at church and lecture, he put no sort of restraint upon himself, but mixed up fox-hunting, otter-hunting, shooting at the mark … foot-racing, horse-racing, and, in fact, every other kind of country diversion, not forgetting tippling, cards, and dicing, with daily devotion, discourses, and psalm-singing in the oddest way imaginable (Ainsworth, 78).

In corroboration, the journal records, in the brief period covered, sixteen fox-hunts, ten stag-hunts, and a further fortnight spent hawking, shooting and fishing. There are also nineteen confessions of inebriation, ranging from the merely ‘merrie’ to ‘sicke with drinke’ (Raines, 1969). Sadly, there is no record of a wild dance with the saucy phantom votaress, Isole de Heton, as featured in Ainsworth’s account, but from what survives of the journal nothing would surprise me.

In early 1848, Ainsworth wrote to Crossley, ‘I hope you like the “Witches.” They find favour here; and satisfy the Sunday Times’ (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, dated February 15, 1848). Further correspondence suggests that Crossley genuinely approved of the novel, and Ainsworth was also right to claim that the novel was popular with public and publishers alike. He had received £1,000 from The Sunday Times for the complete serial (copyright to revert to the author upon completion), which was the same deal he had accepted from them in 1841 for Old St. Paul’s – that his fee had not risen in seven years is an indication of his increasing commercial stagnation. Nevertheless, the serial was a hit, as was the complete novel upon its release the following year. Regrettably, this time the work was not illustrated by George Cruikshank, whose style would have perfectly suited the subject. It remained unillustrated until the third edition of 1854, which contained twelve drawings by Sir John Gilbert, all of which contribute to the fairy tale qualities that are often apparent in the text by depicting the witches as pointy-hatted, warty old hags with flying broomsticks.

The Lancashire Witches was to be Ainsworth’s last major, national success and marks the end of his literary celebrity, at least in the South of England, although a further twenty-eight novels were yet to be written. It is also, however, the first of an irregular series of works devoted to the history of his beloved Lancashire, which would result in the epithet of which he was so proud: that of ‘The Lancashire Novelist.’

Live at the Witch Trials

There were in fact two notorious cases of supposed witchcraft in Lancashire in the first half of the seventeenth century. The first was prosecuted in 1612, dutifully chronicled by Master Potts, and forms the basis for Ainsworth’s novel. The second occurred in 1633 and is similar to the first inasmuch as the most damning testimony came from young children. In this case however, the judges were considerably less credulous than those of 1612 and four of the seven accused were acquitted after the matter was referred to Charles I himself for consideration. The key witness, an eleven-year-old boy named Edmund Robinson confessed many years later to having been suborned by his father to give false evidence against women towards whom he bore an unspecified series of grudges. Although three people had been executed no-one was ever brought to justice for perjury.

Robinson’s accusations also formed the basis for the other fictional works on the subject. The Late Lancashire Witches by Thomas Heywood and Richard Broome of 1634 took much of its supernatural material from Robinson’s descriptions, and this play was later partially rewritten by Thomas Shadwell in his comedy of 1681, The Lancashire Witches, and Tegue O Devilly The Irish Priest. Shadwell dramatised protagonists from both trials, casting Mother Demdike of 1612 alongside Mother Dickenson of 1633 while setting the story in his own political present. Ainsworth begins his novel with an epigraph from Shadwell in a line lampooning the credulous and/or devious figure of the witch-finder, personified by the lawyer Matthew Hopkins, the infamous ‘witch-finder general’ active during the Civil War. This epigraph is taken from a speech given by Sir Jeffery Shacklehead, a bumbling Justice of the Peace who bears more than a little resemblance to Ainsworth’s representation of the ‘rascally attorney’ Thomas Potts: ‘Is there a justice in Lancashire has so much skill in witches as I have? Nay, I’ll speak a proud word; you shall turn me loose against any witch-finder in Europe. I’d make an ass of Hopkins if he were alive’ (Shadwell, I).

To Shadwell, Hopkins and his kind were asses anyway; this was still a dangerous assertion in the seventeenth century but a statement of fact by the nineteenth. Charles Mackay, for example, chronicles the stupidity of centuries of paranoia and persecution in a retrospective chapter of his Extraordinary Popular Delusions entitled ‘The Witch Mania,’ which also includes a couple of pages on the Lancashire witches (referring to this second group of 1633). It is worth noting that the great moralist did not have the same problem with the gothic that he had with Newgate writing, concluding his argument:

Still, it is consoling to think that the delirium has passed away; that the raging madness has given lace to a milder folly; and that we may now count by units the votaries of a superstition which in former ages numbered its victims by tens of thousands, and its votaries by millions (Mackay, 564).

Mackay is of course referring to a deluded minority who still believe in witchcraft, but his comments can just as easily apply to purveyors and consumers of occult fiction. (In the same work he also had a long go at ghost-seers.) Intriguingly, Ainsworth and Shadwell both ridicule the beliefs of the witch-finders of the day while still representing these beliefs as actually true. There are initial suggestions of mesmerism and drug use in the early part of Ainsworth’s novel as a frame of explanation, for example when Mistress Nutter ‘fixed a searching look on Jennet, and then raising her hand quickly waved it in her face’ causing the little girl to faint when she was about to say something inopportune in public, but the broomsticks come out shortly thereafter (Ainsworth, 176).

In 1612, the ‘nineteene notorious witches’ of Potts’s account are made up of three separate cases: the Pendle Forest group, the Samlesbury witches, and two independents from Padiham and Windle. The Pendle witches present at the August Assizes at Lancaster Castle were Anne Whittle (alias Mother Chattox), Elizabeth, James and Alizon Device (this is Potts’s spelling and is probably pronounced Davies, which it became in the written reports when the family appeared again in the 1633 case), Anne Redfern (Nance in Ainsworth’s version), Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt and John and Jane Bulcock. The famous Old Mother Demdike (Elizabeth Southerns) was not in attendance, having died while in custody awaiting trial. Jennet (Janet) Device, the nine-year-old daughter of Elizabeth, was a key witness for the prosecution and was herself not accused. As Potts tellingly writes of the Magistrate Roger Nowell: ‘by his great paines taken in the examination of Iennet Deuice, al their practises are now made knowen’ (Crossley, 1845). Jennet was later hanged in the 1633 fiasco.

Potts DiscoveryThe Pendle problems began when the licensed beggar Alizon Device was accused of laming by witchcraft one John Law, a peddler from Halifax, on the evening of March 18, after a dispute over some pins. Law suffered a stroke and his son took up his cause, leading to Roger Nowell’s examination of the entire Device family and their friends, many of whom were Catholics, which may well have contributed to the magistrate’s reported fervour, given the new King’s views on the Old Faith. Demdike, Chattox, Redfern and Alizon Device were immediately detained and despatched to the dungeons of Lancaster Castle. Understandably concerned, friends and relatives held a meeting at Malkin Tower on Good Friday and reports of this ‘sabbat’ resulted in further arrests. At the Assizes, surprisingly all but Elizabeth Device confessed to witchcraft, consorting with the devil and being attended by familiar spirits. They were therefore duly convicted and condemned. We can assume this was tortured out of them. These statements of satanic practices form the body of Potts’s account, although Pendle Hill is never mentioned, and Ainsworth takes his inspiration for many of the supernatural events in his novel from these testimonies. The Pendle witches were hanged together at Lancaster Castle on Thursday August 20, 1612, early victims of James I’s Witchcraft Act of 1604 and the increasing influence of the continental Inquisition.

Medieval England had no Inquisition and the independence of the Church from Papal authority had isolated the country from the intellectual and judicial climate of persecution in Europe, where the Malleus Maleficarum of 1486 and an ever-growing canon of Roman Law relating to demonology and witchcraft had long established a general belief in devil-worship. When, for example, Reginald Scot produced his refutation of Satanism in 1584, the Discoverie of Witchcraft, his intellectual opponents were all continental scholars who were still basically occupied in refining the tenets of the Malleus. Shadwell was satirically to quote these authorities to excess in his Lancashire Witches. As historian Keith Thomas has shown, the irony of the English experience was that in the years immediately following Scot’s treatise the concepts formulated by medieval Catholicism were disseminated in England by Protestant writers excited by ideas from abroad, chief among them King James VI of Scotland, author of the Daemonologie of 1597 (5).

Because of Potts’s report, this is the most precisely documented witch trial in English history, but there are still many popular versions of the story which have more in common with the imagination of Ainsworth than with the detailed accounts left us by Master Potts. In his non-fiction account of the history of witchcraft, The Devil and All His Works (1971), for example, Dennis Wheatley wrote with characteristic seriousness that:

In Pendle Forest, a lofty ruin known as Malkin Tower was a favourite place for holding sabbats. Two rival witches, Mother Demdike and Mother Chattox, caused so much trouble in the neighbourhood that a local magistrate had them arrested. On the night of Good Friday, 1612, their covens met at the Tower to cast spells, with the object of freeing their leaders … all that group of witches were seized and went to the stake (Wheatley, 247).

Malkin Tower was, and is, an unremarkable farm near Blacko rather than the impregnable, phallic fortress as written by Ainsworth and unproblematically accepted by Wheatley. Contemporary descriptions of the labourer’s cottage that housed the Devices confirm that it was never lofty, ruined or otherwise. The rivalry between Demdike and Chattox is also an Ainsworthian plot device rather than part of the original account, and the stake was the European punishment while England employed the gallows. Wheatley, of course, follows Ainsworth’s final judgement, which folklore dictated over history. Ainsworth’s audience expected a certain execution etiquette where highwaymen hang, aristocrats lose their heads and witches are burned. Similarly, the Rough Lee boundary dispute between Alice Nutter and Roger Nowell, so often cited as the catalyst for the accusations, again comes from the novel (6). Nowell lived in Read, which is approximately ten miles south west of Rough Lee with several properties in between the two at the time of the chronicled events. Once again, the forgotten novelist has supplanted history.

Creatures of Drama

Ainsworth had finally achieved a narrative that had space to develop and contain his unique synthesis of history, romanticism and what we now refer to as magic realism. In his presentation of powerful women, who have by social necessity embraced the word and world of Satan over God, Ainsworth offers his best and, perhaps, the ultimate, romance of fall and redemption. His Faustian protagonists are not modelled after those of Goethe or Byron, but return instead, at last, to source: to Eve herself.

In such criticism of The Lancashire Witches as we have (my own included), there is a tendency to go down the Shakespearean path with regard to literary witchcraft. Ainsworth’s Edwardian biographer S.M. Ellis concentrates specifically on the Macbeth connection, and I have elsewhere argued that such a reading allows Ainsworth his oft-criticised ambivalence with regard to his blurring of humanism and magic in the text, for example David Punter’s argument in The Literature of Terror:

[The] point appears to be to demonstrate, after Scott, the evils consequent upon persecution … In accordance with this point, the good liberals are all on the side of the witches, and try to defend them against harassment; unfortunately, however, Ainsworth also seems to claim that the witches really are witches, which makes the good liberals appear rather foolish (Punter, I, 158).

These issues do not have to be quite as exclusive as Professor Punter suggests however, there being a dramatic tradition in which the real and the magical are allowed to coexist, the one interrogating the other. For example, in his excellent introduction to the Oxford Macbeth, Nicholas Brooke has argued convincingly that:

In Macbeth it is the opening by the Weïrd Sisters which proposes a relation between supernatural and natural phenomenon. No amount of quotation from King James’s early and credulous Demonology will transfer the Sisters from a category of belief into one of verifiable knowledge. The Weïrd Sisters are, like Ariel and Caliban, essentially creatures of drama, not really naturalistic representations of old women (Brooke, 6).

The status of witches in English literature is traditionally binary and ambivalent. In Macbeth, the primary purpose of the witches is prophecy, ‘weïrd’ meaning ‘Destiny’ or ‘Fate’ in early modern English. This is a classical device as much as it suggests the occult. They do not seem especially powerful, but they still vanish, ‘Into the air; and what seemed corporeal melted/As breath into the wind.’ Unlike Macbeth’s vision of the dagger or Banquo’s ghost, the witches cannot be rationalised as psychological disturbances, although Banquo posits the possibility of such gothic uncertainty with, ‘have we eaten on the insane root/That takes the reason prisoner?’ (Shakespeare, I.3). In Macbeth, says Brooke, ‘illusion mediates between natural and supernatural,’ and ‘offers a thorough analysis of the epistemological relationship between belief and knowledge’ (Brooke, 26, 32), rather than merely flattering James I and symbolically capitalising on the recent Gunpowder plot while indulging the King’s interest in witchcraft as is often argued by critics (7). Dramatic witches can therefore be seen to exist in a space between the world of the stage and the audience, their entrances and exits a combination of smoke and trap doors.

As noted above, the direct literary antecedents of Ainsworth’s novel – the Heywood and Brome, and the Shadwell – are both comedy dramas which, as we have seen, in turn belong to a dramatic tradition that can usefully be traced back to Shakespeare’s Macbeth via, for example, The Witch, a comedy by Thomas Middleton (1616) and The Witch of Edmonton, a tragicomedy by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford (c. 1621). The Witch of Edmonton is a particularly divided text. The witch of the title, Elizabeth Sawyer, is a poor and lonely old woman who turns to the devil because no-one else cares. Persecuted by her neighbours, her demonic pact is an act of desperation to protect herself, and the play often shows a sympathy for the down-trodden and ill-used that would seem at odds with the subject and the times.

As with Ainsworth’s earlier tragic histories, the codes of The Lancashire Witches are also dramatic. Ainsworth makes his link with Shakespeare’s Weïrd Sisters explicit, as can be seen by the following incantations, his witches echoing the famous chant that opens the fourth act of Macbeth:

Head of monkey, brain of cat,

Eye of weasel, tail of rat,

Juice of mugwort, mastic, myrrh –

All within the pot I stir.

––

Here is the foam from a mad dog’s lips,

Gathered beneath the moon’s eclipse,

Ashes of a shroud consumed,

And with deadly vapour fumed;

These within the mess I cast –

Stir the cauldron – stir it fast!

––

Here are snakes from out the river,

Bones of toad, and sea-calf’s liver;

Swine’s flesh fattened on her brood,

Wolf’s tooth, hare’s foot, weasel’s blood,

Skull of ape and fierce baboon,

And panther spotted like the moon;

Feathers of a hornéd owl,

Daw pie, and other fatal fowl.

Fruit from the fig tree never sown,

Seed from cypress never grown.

All within the mess I cast,

Stir the cauldron – stir it fast! (Ainsworth, 195).

There are also very recognisably similar songs in Shadwell, and this intertext is also doubled in the tendency of authors to mix up historical characters from the trials of 1612 and 1633. English literary witches are apparently very closely, if not downright incestuously, related.

Ainsworth Lancashire WitchesWhile Ainsworth’s witches are deliberately shown to perform what is basically the same rite as their Shakespearean ancestors, he also links his text to Shadwell’s by his choice of epigraph. Shadwell’s play was a daring satire on religious bigotry (both Catholic and Anglican), produced at the height of the political battle between Shaftesbury and the Crown for the exclusion of James from the succession. Unlike Ainsworth, this was not a matter of antiquarian interest, and Shadwell had to tread carefully. His play was accused of being ‘seditious,’ ‘treasonous’ and ‘a satyr upon the Church of England,’ but fortunately Charles II saw the funny side and, as the author records in his highly defensive preface, ‘let it live’ (qtd. in Summers, 1927, 93 – 98). Shadwell thus balanced his criticisms of credulous, superstitious members of Church and State unhealthily influenced by continental and Catholic ideas with representations of supposedly authentic black magic (ironically supported by voluminous references to authorities on the black arts printed as endnotes to each act). As his character Sir Edward Hartfort laments, ‘Our new-fashioned Gentry love the French too well to fight against ’em; they are bred abroad without knowing any thing of our Constitution, and come home tainted with Foppery, slavish Principles, and Popish Religion’ (Shadwell, III).

Unlike Shakespeare’s Weïrd Sisters, whose function, as noted, is largely that of prophecy, Shadwell’s witches are much more proactive, their comedy antics assisting the play’s heroines, Theodosia Shacklehead and Isabella Hartfort, in choosing their own husbands, and therefore destinies, rather than those selected as suitable by their fathers. Early in the play, Isabella begins a running conversational battle with her idiot suitor, Sir Timothy Shacklehead (who is incidentally terrified of witches), the first round of which concludes with her boxing his ears when he attempts to kiss her hand. He suspects witchcraft, which is synonymous with any non-feminine assertions of individuality: ‘She has piss’d upon a Nettle today, or else the Witches have bewitched her’ (Shadwell, I). The first act notably concludes with the arrival of the witches, who are immediately followed by the real lovers of the story, Bellfort and Doubty. In response to their overall predicament as marriageable daughters, Theodosia and Isabella unite in a wonderfully gender-exclusive statement of feminist principle:

Isab. Well, we are resolved never to marry where we are designed, that’s certain. For my part I am a free English woman, and will stand up for my Liberty and property of Choice (8).

Theo. And Faith, Girl, I’ll be a mutineer on thy side; I hate the imposition of a Husband, ’tis as bad as Popery.

Isab. We will be Husband and Wife to one another, dear Theodosia (Shadwell, I).

The above issue of female emancipation also transcends class in this text. The peasant Mal Spencer, for example, sexually rejected by Sir Edward’s retainer, Clod (‘a country fellow’), appears shortly thereafter at the Act III sabbat ‘Leading Clod in a bridle.’ At the same event, a new witch, Madge, is inducted, and ordered by Satan to ‘Curse Heaven, Plague Mankind, go forth and be a witch’ (Shadwell, III). At the end of each, act-closing sabbat, the witches go out singing with anarchic, alarming and elemental enthusiasm: ‘They beat the ground with Vipers, they bark, howl, hiss, cry like Screetch Owles, hollow like Owls, and make many confused noises: The Storm begins’ (Shadwell, I).

Such assertions of female freedom and power are interesting. The dramatic witches of Middleton, Heywood and Shadwell all have enormous fun playing elaborate tricks on the male population. They are also sexually liberated to the point of perversion, and in this sense they are sisters to Ainsworth’s underworld women, Edgeworth Bess and Poll Maggot in Jack Sheppard, (1839), as well as to the likes of Mal Spencer. In Middleton’s play, for example, Hecate and her witches cruise around each night looking for young men. If nobody promising turns up, Hecate will have sex with her son, Firestone, or even the cat, her familiar Malkin:

HECATE: Thou’rt now about some villainy?

FIRESTONE: Not I forsooth. [Aside] Truly the devil’s in her, I think.

How one villain smells out another straight! There’s no knavery but is nosed like a dog and can smell out a dog’s meaning. [To hecate] Mother I pray give me leave to ramble abroad tonight with the Nightmare, for I have a great mind to overlay a fat parson’s daughter.

HECATE: And who shall lie with me then?

FIRESTONE: The great cat for one night mother. ’Tis but a night –

Make shift with him for once.

HECATE: You’re a kind son!

But ’tis the nature of you all, I see that.

You had rather hunt after strange women still

Than lie with your own mothers. Get thee gone (Middleton, I.2).

These witches, in their obvious role of gothic Other to patriarchal versions of femininity, are allowed, like a medieval fool, to say and do things that would be completely taboo outside the carnival realm to which such figures belong. Like a playful regiment of Bertha Masons, they torment male authority figures, personify the frustration of the culturally-imprisoned female characters and ultimately facilitate the true desires of such heroines, although they themselves are invariably destroyed in the process, usually by fire. Such a reading applied to Ainsworth’s version of the Lancashire witches opens the text to a new vista of political possibility excluded by the Weïrd Sisters, who do not seem especially powerful: they can only torment the master of the Tiger, they cannot destroy the ship.

To read Part Two of this essay please click here

For Notes and Works Cited please click here

The full text of Ainsworth’s novel can be found at Project Gutenberg

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