The Lancashire Witches - A Romance of Pendle Forest
by William Harrison Ainsworth
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"Weel, weel, I dare say you are right," said the King. "But do you think he will keep his word?"

"I am sure of it," returned Nicholas.

"The time is come, then!" exclaimed James impatiently, and looking up at the pavilion.

"The time is come!" echoed a sepulchral voice.

"Did you speak?" inquired the monarch.

"No, sire," replied Nicholas; "but some one seemed to give you intimation that all is ready. Will it please you to go on?"

"Enter!" cried the voice.

"Wha speaks?" demanded the King. And, as no answer was returned, he continued—"I will not set foot in the structure. It may be a snare of Satan."

At this moment, the shutters of the windows flew open, showing that the pavilion was lighted up by many tapers within, while solemn strains of music issued from it.

"Enter!" repeated the voice.

"Have no fear, sire," said Nicholas.

"That canna be the wark o' the deil," cried James. "He does not delight in holy hymns and sweet music."

"That is a solemn dirge for the dead," observed Nicholas, as melodious voices mingled with the music.

"Weel, weel, I will go on at a' hazards," said James.

The doors flew open as the King and his attendants approached, and, as soon as they had passed through them, the valves swung back to their places.

A strange sad spectacle met their gaze. In the midst of the chamber stood a bier, covered with a velvet pall, and on it the bodies of a youth and maiden were deposited. Pale and beautiful were they as sculptured marble, and a smile sat upon their features. Side by side they were lying, with their arms enfolded, as if they had died in each other's embrace. A wreath of yew and cypress was placed above their heads, and flowers were scattered round them.

They were Richard and Alizon.

It was a deeply touching sight, and for some time none spake. The solemn dirge continued, interrupted only by the stifled sobs of the listeners.

"Both gone!" exclaimed Nicholas, in accents broken by emotion; "and so young—so good—so beautiful! Alas! alas!"

"She could not have bewitched him," said the King.

"Alizon was all purity and goodness," cried Nicholas, "and is now numbered with the angels."

"The guilty one is in thy hands, O King!" said the voice. "It is for thee to punish."

"And I will not hold my hand," said James. "The Devices shall assuredly perish. When I go from this chamber, I will have them conveyed under a strong escort to Lancaster Castle. They shall die by the hands of the common executioner."

"My mission, then, is complete," replied the voice. "I can rest in peace.".

"Who art thou?" demanded the King.

"One who sinned deeply, but is now pardoned," replied the voice.

The King was for a moment lost in reflection, and then turned to depart. At this moment a kneeling figure, whom no one had hitherto noticed, arose from behind the bier. It was a lady, robed in mourning. So ghastly pale were her features, and so skeleton-like her attenuated frame, that James thought he beheld a spectre, and recoiled in terror. The figure advanced slowly towards him.

"Who, and what art thou, in Heaven's name?" he exclaimed.

"I am Alice Nutter, sire," replied the lady, prostrating herself before him.

"Alice Nutter, the witch!" cried the King. "Why—ay, I recollect thou wert here. I sent for thee, but recent terrible events had put thee clean out of my head. But expect no grace from me, evil woman. I will show thee none."

"I ask none, sire," replied the penitent. "I came to place myself in your hands, that justice may be done upon me."

"Ah!" exclaimed James. "Dost thou, indeed, repent thee of thy iniquities? Dost thou abjure the devil and all his works?"

"I do," replied the lady, fervently. "My compact with the Evil One has been broken by the prayers of my devoted daughter, who sacrificed herself for me, and thereby saved my soul alive. But human justice requires an expiation, and I am anxious to make it."

"Arise, ill-fated woman," said the king, much moved. "You must go to Lancaster, but, in consideration of your penitence, no indignity shall be shown you. You must be strictly guarded, but you shall not be taken with the other prisoners."

"I humbly thank your Majesty," replied the lady. "May I take a last farewell of my child?"

"Do so," replied James.

Alice Nutter then approached the bier, and, after gazing for a moment with deepest fondness upon the features of her daughter, imprinted a kiss upon her marble brow. In doing this her tears fell fast.

"You can weep, I see," observed the King. "You are a witch no longer."

"Ay, Heaven be praised! I can weep," she replied; "and so ease my over-burthened heart. Oh! sire, none but those who have experienced it can tell the agony of being denied this relief of nature. Farewell for ever, my blessed child!" she exclaimed, kissing her brow again; "and you, too, her beloved. Nicholas Assheton—it was her wish to be buried in the same grave with Richard. You will see it done, Nicholas?"

"I will—I will!" replied the squire, in a voice of deepest emotion.

"And I likewise promise it," said Sir Ralph Assheton. "They shall rest together in Whalley churchyard. It is well that Sir Richard and Dorothy are gone," he observed to Nicholas.

"It is indeed," said the squire, "or we should have had another funeral to perform. Pray Heaven it be not so now!"

"Have you any other request to prefer?" demanded the King.

"None whatever, sire," replied the lady, "except that I wish to make full restitution of all the land I have robbed him of, to Master Roger Nowell; and, as some compensation, I would fain add certain lands adjoining, which have been conveyed over to Sir Ralph and Nicholas Assheton, only annexing the condition that a small sum annually be given in dole to the poor of the parish, that I may be remembered in their prayers."

"We will see it done," said Sir Ralph and Nicholas.

"And I will see my part fulfilled," said Nowell. "For any wrong you have done me I now freely and fully forgive you, and may Heaven in its infinite mercy forgive you likewise!"

"Amen!" ejaculated the monarch. And all the others joined in the ejaculation.

The King then moved to the door, which was opened for him by the two Asshetons. At the foot of the steps stood Master Potts, attended by an officer of the guard and a party of halberdiers. In the midst of them, with their hands tied behind their backs, were Jem Device, his mother, Jennet, and poor Nance Redferne. Jem looked dogged and sullen, Elizabeth downcast, but Jennet retained her accustomed malignant expression. Poor Nance was the only one who excited any sympathy. Jennet's malice seemed now directed against Master Potts, whom she charged with having betrayed and deceived her.

"If Tib had na deserted me he should tear thee i' pieces, thou ill-favourt little monster," she cried.

"Monster in your own face, you hideous little wretch," exclaimed the indignant attorney. "If you use such opprobrious epithets I will have you gagged. You will be taken to Lancaster Castle, and hanged."

"Yo are os bad as ey am, and warse," replied Jennet, "and deserve hanging os weel, and the King shan knoa of your tricks," she vociferated, as James appeared at the door of the pavilion. "Yo wished to ensnare Alizon. Yo wished me to kill her. Ey was only your instrument."

"Stop her mouth—gag her!" cried Potts.

"Nah, nah!—they shanna stap my mouth—they shanna gag me," cried Jennet. "Ey win speak out. The King shan hear me. You are as bad os me."

"All malice, your Majesty—all malice," cried the attorney.

"Malice, nae doubt, in great pairt," replied James; "but some truth as weel, I fear, sir. And in any case it will prevent my doing any thing for you."

"There, you have ruined my hopes, you little wretch!" cried Potts, furiously.

"Ey'm reet glad on't," said Jennet. "Yo may tay me to Lonkester Castle, boh yo conna hong me. Ey knoa that fu' weel. Ey shan get out, and then look to yersel, lad; for, os sure os ey'm Mother Demdike's grandowter, ey'n plague the life out o' ye."

"Take the prisoners away, and let them be conveyed under a strict escort to Lancaster Castle," said James.

"And, as the assizes commence next week, quick work will be made with them, your Majesty," observed Potts. "Their guilt can be incontestably proved, so they are sure to be found guilty, sure to be hanged, sire."

As the prisoners were removed, Nance Redferne looked round her, and, catching the eye of Nicholas, made a slight motion with her head, as if bidding him farewell.

The squire returned the mute valediction.

"Poor Nance!" he exclaimed, compassionately, "I sincerely pity her. Would there was any means of saving her!"

"There is none," observed Sir Ralph Assheton. "And you may be thankful you are not brought in as her accomplice."

As Jennet was taken away, she continued to hurl threats and imprecations against Potts.

Another officer of the guard was then summoned, and when he came, James said, "One other prisoner remains within the pavilion. She likewise must be conveyed to Lancaster Castle but in a litter, and not with the other prisoners."

Attended by Sir Richard Hoghton, the monarch then proceeded to his lodgings in the Tower.


Notwithstanding the sad occurrences above detailed, James remained for two more days the guest of Sir Richard Hoghton, enjoying his princely hospitality, hunting in the park, carousing in the great hall, and witnessing all kinds of sports.

Nothing, indeed, was left to remind him of the sad events that had occurred. The prisoners were taken that night to Lancaster Castle, and Master Potts accompanied the escort, to be ready for the assizes. The three judges proceeded thither at the end of the week. The attendance of Roger Nowell, Nicholas, and Sir Ralph Assheton, was also required as witnesses at the trial of the witches.

Sir Richard Assheton and Dorothy had returned, as already stated, to Middleton; and, though the intelligence of the death of Richard and Alizon was communicated to them with infinite caution, the shock to both was very great, especially to Dorothy, who was long—very long—in recovering from it.

Nicholas's vivacity of temperament made him feel the loss of his cousin at first very keenly, but it soon wore off. He vowed amendment and reformation on the model of John Bruen, whose life offered so striking a contrast to his own, that it has very properly been placed in opposition by a reverend moralist; but I regret to say that he did not carry out his praiseworthy intentions. He was apt to make a joke of John Bruen, instead of imitating his example. He professed to devote himself to his excellent wife—but his old habits would break out; and, I am sorry to say, he was often to be found in the alehouse, and was just as fond of horse-racing, cock-fighting, hunting, fishing, and all other sports, as ever. Occasionally he occupied a leisure or a rainy day with a Journal,[6] parts of which have been preserved; but he set down in it few of the terrible events here related, probably because they were of too painful a nature to be recorded. He died in 1625—at the early age of thirty-five.

But to go back. A few days after the tragical events at Hoghton Tower, the whole village of Whalley was astir. But it was no festive occasion—no merry-making—that called forth the inhabitants, for grief sat upon every countenance. The day, too, was gloomy. The feathered summits of Whalley Nab were wreathed in mist, and a fine rain descended in the valley. The Calder looked dull and discoloured as it flowed past the walls of the ancient Abbey. The church bell tolled mournfully, and a large concourse was gathered in the churchyard. Not far from one of the three crosses of Paulinus, which stood nearest the church porch, a grave had been digged, and almost every one looked into it. The grave, it was said, was intended to hold two coffins. Soon after this, a train of mourners issued from the ancient Abbey gateway, and sure enough there were two coffins on the shoulders of the bearers; They were met at the gate by Doctor Ormerod, who was so deeply affected as scarcely to be able to perform the needful offices for the dead. The principal mourners were Sir Richard Assheton of Middleton, Sir Ralph Assheton, and Nicholas. Amid the tears and sobs of all the bystanders, the bodies of Richard and Alizon were committed to the earth—laid together in one grave.

Thus was their latest wish fulfilled. Flowers grew upon the turf that covered them, and there was the earliest primrose seen, and the latest violet. Many a fond youth and trusting maiden have visited their lowly tomb, and many a tear, fresh from the heart, has dropped upon the sod covering the ill-fated lovers.


Behold the grim and giant fabric, rebuilt and strengthened by

"Old John of Gaunt, time-honour'd Lancaster!"

Within one of its turrets called John of Gaunt's Chair, and at eventide, stands a lady under the care of a jailer. It is the last sunset she will ever see—the last time she will look upon the beauties of earth; for she is a prisoner, condemned to die an ignominious and terrible death, and her execution will take place on the morrow. Leaving her alone within the turret, the jailer locks the door and stands outside it. The lady casts a long, lingering look around. All nature seems so beautiful—so attractive. The sunset upon the broad watery sands of Morecambe Bay is exquisite in varied tints. The fells of Furness look black and bold, and the windings of the Lune are clearly traced out. But she casts a wistful glance towards the mountainous ridges of Lancashire, and fancies she can detect amongst the heights the rounded summit of Pendle Hill. Then her gaze settles upon the grey old town beneath her, and, as her glance wanders over it, certain terrible objects arrest it. In the area before the Castle she sees a ring of tall stakes. She knows well their purpose, and counts them. They are thirteen in number. Thirteen wretched beings are to be burned on the morrow. Not far from the stakes are an enormous pile of fagots. All is prepared. Fascinated by the sight, she remains gazing at the place of execution for some time, and when she turns, she beholds a tall dark man standing beside her. At first she thinks it is the jailer, and is about to tell the man she is ready to descend to her cell, when she recognises him, and recoils in terror.

"Thou here—again!" she cried.

"I can save thee from the stake, if thou wilt, Alice Nutter," he said.

"Hence!" she exclaimed. "Thou temptest me in vain. Hence!"

And with a howl of rage the demon disappeared.

Conveyed back to her cell, situated within the dread Dungeon Tower, Alice Nutter passed the whole of that night in prayer. Towards four o'clock, wearied out, she dropped into a slumber; and when the clergyman, from whom she had received spiritual consolation, came to her cell, he found her still sleeping, but with a sweet smile upon her lips—the first he had ever beheld there.

Unwilling to disturb her, he knelt down and prayed by her side. At length the jailer came, and the executioner's aids. The divine then laid his hand upon her shoulder, and she instantly arose.

"I am ready," she said, cheerfully.

"You have had a happy dream, daughter," he observed.

"A blessed dream, reverend sir," she replied. "I thought I saw my children, Richard and Alizon, in a fair garden—oh! how angelic they looked—and they told me I should be with them soon."

"And I doubt not the vision will be realised," replied the clergyman. "Your redemption is fully worked out, and your salvation, I trust, secured. And now you must prepare for your last trial."

"I am fully prepared," she replied; "but will you not go to the others?"

"Alas! my dear daughter," he replied, "they all, excepting Nance Redferne, refuse my services, and will perish in their iniquities."

"Then go to her, sir, I entreat of you," she said; "she may yet be saved. But what of Jennet? Is she, too, to die?"

"No," replied the divine; "being evidence against her relatives, her life is spared."

"Heaven grant she do no more mischief!" exclaimed Alice Nutter.

She then submitted herself to the executioner's assistants, and was led forth. On issuing into the open air a change came over her, and such an exceeding faintness that she had to be supported. She was led towards the stake in this state; but she grew fainter and fainter, and at last fell back in the arms of the men that supported her. Still they carried her on. When the executioner put out his hand to receive her from his aids, she was found to be quite dead. Nevertheless, he tied her to the stake, and her body was consumed. Hundreds of spectators beheld those terrible fires, and exulted in the torments of the miserable sufferers. Their shrieks and blasphemies were terrific, and the place resembled a hell upon earth.

Jennet escaped, to the dismay of Master Potts, who feared she would wreak her threatened vengeance upon him. And, indeed, he did suffer from aches and cramps, which he attributed to her; but which were more reasonably supposed to be owing to rheum caught in the marshes of Pendle Forest. He had, however, the pleasure of assisting at her execution, when some years afterwards retributive justice overtook her.

Jennet was the last of the Lancashire Witches. Ever since then witchcraft has taken a new form with the ladies of the county—though their fascination and spells are as potent as ever. Few can now escape them,—few desire to do so. But to all who are afraid of a bright eye and a blooming cheek, and who desire to adhere to a bachelor's condition—to such I should say, "BEWARE OF THE LANCASHIRE WITCHES!"




[Footnote 1: A similar eruption occurred at Pendle Hill in August, 1669, and has been described by Mr. Charles Townley, in a letter cited by Dr. Whitaker in his excellent "History of Whalley." Other and more formidable eruptions had taken place previously, occasioning much damage to the country. The cause of the phenomenon is thus explained by Mr. Townley: "The colour of the water, its coming down to the place where it breaks forth between the rock and the earth, with that other particular of its bringing nothing along but stones and earth, are evident signs that it hath not its origin from the very bowels of the mountain; but that it is only rain water coloured first in the moss-pits, of which the top of the hill, being a great and considerable plain, is full, shrunk down into some receptacle fit to contain it, until at last by its weight, or some other cause, it finds a passage to the sides of the hill, and then away between the rock and swarth, until it break the latter and violently rush out."]

[Footnote 2: Locus Benedictus de Whalley.]

[Footnote 3: This speech is in substance the monarch's actual Declaration concerning Lawful Sports, promulgated in 1618, in a little Tractate, generally known as the "Book of Sports;" by which he would have conferred a great boon on the lower orders, if his kindly purpose had not been misapprehended by some, and ultimately defeated by bigots and fanatics. King James deserves to be remembered with gratitude, if only for this manifestation of sympathy with the enjoyments of the people. He had himself discovered that the restrictions imposed upon them had "setup filthy tipplings and drunkenness, and bred a number of idle and discontented speeches in the alehouses."]

[Footnote 4: "There is a laughable tradition," says Nichols, "still generally current in Lancashire, that our knight-making monarch knighted at the banquet in Hoghton Tower a loin of beef; the part ever since called the sir-loin." And it is added by the same authority, "If the King did not give the sir-loin its name, he might, notwithstanding, have indulged in a pun on the already coined word, the etymology of which was then, as now, as little regarded as the thing signified is well approved."—Nichols's Progresses of James I., vol. iii.]

[Footnote 5: These speeches, given by Nichols as derived from the family records of Sir Henry Philip Hoghton, Bart., were actually delivered at a masque represented on occasion of King James's visit to Hoghton Tower.]

[Footnote 6: Published by the Chetham Society, and admirably edited, with notes, exhibiting an extraordinary amount of research and information, by the Rev. F.R. Raines, M.A., F.S.A., of Milnrow Parsonage, near Rochdale.]


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