The Late Lancashire Witches

"The Late Lancashire Witches" is a Caroline era stage play, written by Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome, published in 1634. The play is a topical melodrama on the subject of the witchcraft controversy that arose in Lancashire in 1633. [Laird H. Barber Jr., "The Late Lancashire Witches," "Notes & Queries" 9 (1962), p. 29.]


The play was performed by the King's Men at the Globe Theatre. It was a popular success; it ran for three days straight in August 1634, at a time when plays were normally changed daily in a repertory system.

Date and collaboration

It was once thought that Brome revised an old play by Heywood to make it pertinent to the situation in the early 1630s, generating a work that is roughly 90% Heywood and 10% Brome. [Clarence E. Andrews, "The Authorship of "The Late Lancashire Witches"," "Modern Language Notes" 28 (1913), p. 163.] Modern scholarship argues that the dramatists' extensive use of court documents shows that Heywood and Brome wrote a new play in 1633–34 to capitalize on a current public affair, producing a work that is much closer to an equal collaboration. [Robert Grant Martin, "Is "The Late Lancashire Witches" a Revision?", "Modern Philology" 13 (1915), p. 253.] [Heather Hirshfield, "Collaborating across Generations: Thomas Heywood, Richard Brome, and the Production of "The Late Lancashire Witches," "Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies" 30.2 (2000), p. 340.] The 1634 quarto was printed by Thomas Harper for the bookseller Benjamin Fisher, with a Prologue addressed by Heywood to the Earl of Dorset.


"The Late Lancashire Witches" belongs to a sub-genre of English Renaissance drama that exploited public interest in the scandalous subject of witchcraft. The most famous of these plays is Shakespeare's "Macbeth" (c. 1603–6), though Middleton's "The Witch" (c. 1609–16) and "The Witch of Edmonton" (1621) by Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley, are other notable examples.

The 1633–34 prosecution was a sequel to a larger trial of 1612 (the major affair of its kind in English history) that saw ten people from the Pendle Hill area of Lancashire hanged at Lancaster Moor. The second episode was still unresolved when the two playwrights wrote their play; the dramatists were working so close to events that they had no firm conclusion — the play's Epilogue assumes the guilt of the four women who were the prime suspects but admits that "the ripeness yet of time / Has not reveal'd" the final outcome. [Alison Findlay, "Sexual and spiritual politics in the events of 1633–34 and "The Late Lancashire Witches"," in: "The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories," edited by Robert Poole; Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002; pp. 146-65.] (In fact, Edmund Robinson, the ten-year-old boy who was the prosecutors' chief witness, later admitted subornation of perjury; King Charles I pardoned all seventeen people convicted.) The Lord Chamberlain of that time, Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, may have prompted the creation of the play for political reasons. [Andrew Gurr, "The Shakespeare Company, 1594–1642," Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004; p. 155.]


In the main plot of the Heywood/Brome play, an upright and hospitable gentleman named Generous discovers that his wife has a secret nocturnal life, as the leader of a coven of witches; he wounds her with his sword while she is in the shape of a cat. When one of her servants refuses to get her horse, Mistress Generous bridles him instead and rides him to her coven. The conventional male-dominated relationship between husband and wife is subverted as Mistress Generous seeks greater freedom — until she is arrested and brought to trial. In the Selby family depicted in the subplot, the upset of social norms is even more extreme: the father is cowed by his son, the mother by her daughter, and the children by the servants. The family's butler and maid, Lawrence and Parnell (the only characters in the play who speak in Lancashire dialect), marry, determined to lord it over their employers; but Lawrence is rendered impotent on his wedding night by a bewitched codpiece, and once again the woman inverts the usual social order. It is with the discovery and prosecution of the witches that society's norms are restored.


Thomas Shadwell later borrowed from the Heywood/Brome work for his own "The Lancashire Witches" (1681). [Albert Stephens Borgman, "Thomas Shadwell: His Life and Comedies," New York University Press, 1928; reprinted New York, Benjamin Blom, 1969; pp. 191-202.] Shadwell's play was also popular through much of the 18th century; as late as 1782, Charles Dibdin had a success with his pantomime "The Lancashire Witches, or The Distresses of Harlequin." Both the Heywood/Brome and Shadwell versions were reprinted together in a 1853 volume titled "The Poetry of Witchcraft."

Modern editions

Laird Barber produced a modern edition of the play in 1979, under its traditional title. [Richard Brome and Thomas Heywood, "The Late Lancashire Witches," ed. Laird H. Barber; New York, Garland, 1979.] When Gabriel Egan produced another modern edition in 2002, he employed the title "The Witches of Lancashire," [Richard Brome and Thomas Heywood, "The Witches of Lancashire," ed. Gabriel Egan; Globe Quartos series, London, Nick Hearn Books, 2002.] in the judgement that this reflected the play as performed in 1634. [ Matthew Steggle, "Richard Brome: Place and Politics on the Caroline Stage," Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2004; pp. 58. ] (The second title derives from an August 16, 1634 letter written by Nathaniel Tomkyns, a member of the audience. The run-on title in the 1634 quarto, positioned along the tops of the pages, is also "The Witches of Lancashire".)


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