With Christmas almost upon us, local historian Barry McCann revisits a spooky story from the rich history of one of Lancashire’s oldest buildings
Standing on the A59 between Preston and Blackburn, Samlesbury Hall was built in 1325 by Gilbert de Southworth and remained home of the Southworth family until the early 17th century.
For the generations who lived there during the Reformation, theirs was an existence rife with intrigue and risk, as the family remained defiantly Catholic.
Not surprisingly, tragedies did unfold.
Sir John Southworth, MP of Samlesbury and head of the family, was open about his religious allegiance and supported the cause of Mary Queen of Scots.
Consequently, he was often arrested for refusing to renounce his faith and heavily fined. Eventually, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and languished there until death in 1595.
His eldest son did convert to the Church of England and was disinherited for it. However, his other son, Saint John Southworth, joined the priesthood for which he was later arrested and hung, drawn and quartered. Though his body parts were sent to the furthest four parts of the country, his followers brought them back and sewed them together,
after which his body was kept in France.
It now rests in Westminster Cathedral and he was canonised in 1970 as one of the 40 martyrs of England and Wales.
Sir John had another son, Christopher, also a defender of the Catholic faith, a devotion which turned against two of his own family members, Jane Southworth and one said to be his own sister, Dorothy.
Jane had begun attending the Protestant church and was showing signs of converting to the faith. Christopher, by then on the run and in hiding, persuaded 14-year-old Grace Sowerbutts to accuse Jane and eight other local Protestants of being witches. Jane Southworth and two of the other accused, Janet and Ellen Bierley, were tried at the same Lancaster assizes as the Pendle Witches but acquitted when Grace broke down under cross examination and admitted the deceit.
The story of Lady Dorothy (Dorothea) Southworth did not resolve so happily. She fell in love with a young man from the de Hoghton family, who were strongly Protestant, and neither house approved of the union with the other. With permission to marry refused, the pair continued to meet in secret along the Ribble’s banks or in the nearby woods, and conceived a plan to elope and marry.
Unfortunately, intelligence of their intention was relayed to Samlesbury Hall.
On the night of elopement, Christopher and other conspirators waited in ambush at the planned rendezvous. When de Hoghton arrived, they killed him, along with his two accompanying retainers. The bodies were buried under the cover of darkness within the grounds of the Hall’s chapel.
Dorothy was said to have witnessed her lover’s violent death and remained inconsolable. She was sent to a convent abroad and remained there for the rest of her life, descending into grief-fuelled madness.
It is said her dying words were a whisper of her murdered lover’s name.
Later in 1826, the remains of de Houghton and his two companions were unearthed during the digging of a road near the hall, which at least verified their fate and brought credence to their story. But while closure may have been brought to their story, there is a question mark still hanging over Dorothy.
Contrary to the story, historic records show Sir John had no daughter called Dorothea or Dorothy.
But his father Sir Thomas Southworth did, so she is more likely to have been Sir John’s sister and therefore Christopher’s aunt. So was de Houghton a younger lover?
If reports over recent years are true it seems the troubled soul of Dorothy Southworth has never got over being cruelly deprived of her lover, and still searches the area where he was buried.
Visitors have reported sightings of a woman in white seemingly floating in the hall’s corridors and grounds, softly moaning in lament of her lost love.
More bizarrely, bus drivers have reported pulling up to the stop outside the hall to pick up a waiting passenger they assume to be a member of staff in period costume. But when the doors are opened there is nobody there.
Whoever Lady Dorothy actually was, it seems she still remains part of the Samlesbury landscape.