Open main menu

Wikipedia β

The Lancashire Witches

First edition title page

The Lancashire Witches is the only one of William Harrison Ainsworth's forty novels that has remained continuously in print since its first publication.[1] It was serialised in the Sunday Times newspaper in 1848; a book edition appeared the following year, published by Henry Colburn. The novel is based on the true story of the Pendle witches, who were executed in 1612 for causing harm by witchcraft. Modern critics such as David Punter consider the book to be Ainsworth's best work.[2] E. F. Bleiler rated the novel "one of the major English novels about witchcraft".[3]


Biographical background and publicationEdit

The subject of the Pendle witches was suggested to Ainsworth by antiquarian and long-time friend James Crossley, President of the Chetham Society. During 1846 and 1847 Ainsworth visited all of the major sites involved in the story, such as Pendle Hill and Malkin Tower, home of the Demdikes, one of the two families accused of witchcraft. He wrote the story in 1848, when it was serialised in the Sunday Times newspaper. On completion of the work, Ainsworth was paid £1,000 (equivalent to about £78,600 as of 2008),[a] and the copyright reverted to him.[5]

As was common practice at the time, the novel was published in a three-volume set, known as a "triple decker". The first edition was produced by Henry Colburn in 1849, with the subtitle "A Romance of Pendle Forest". At £1 11s 6d, about the amount that a skilled worker could earn in a week, it was expensive. Routledge published an illustrated edition in 1854, reissued in 1878.[6] The twelve full-page illustrations were by John Gilbert.[7]


Ainsworth based his story largely on the official account of the Lancashire witch trials written by the clerk to the court, Thomas Potts, first published in 1613 under the title The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. Potts himself makes an appearance in the novel, as a "scheming and self-serving lawyer".[8]

Book one is set against the backdrop of the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, an uprising by northern Catholics against the English Reformation instituted by King Henry VIII.



  1. ^ Comparing relative purchasing power of £1,000 in 1848 with 2008[4]


  1. ^ Richards (2002), p. 166
  2. ^ Richards (2002), p. 169
  3. ^ Bleiler (1983), p. 3
  4. ^ Officer, Lawrence H. (2009), "Purchasing Power of British Pounds from 1264 to Present", MeasuringWorth, retrieved 29 April 2010 
  5. ^ Richards (2002), p. 168
  6. ^ Richards (2002), pp. 168–169
  7. ^ Slater (2009), p. 13
  8. ^ Collins, Steve (24 July 2006), "William Harrison Ainsworth: Manchester's Historical Novelist" (PDF), Manchester Regional History Review, 17ii, ISSN 0952-4320, retrieved 21 May 2010 


  • Bleiler, E. F. (1983), The Guide to Supernatural Fiction, Kent State University Press 
  • Richards, Jeffrey (2002), Poole, Robert, ed., "The 'Lancashire Novelist' and the Lancashire witches", The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories, Manchester University Press, pp. 166–187, ISBN 978-0-7190-6204-9 
  • Slater, John Herbert (2009), Early Editions a Bibliographical Survey of the Works of Some Popular Modern Authors, Richardson, ISBN 978-1-115-84797-1 

External linksEdit