In this village, midway between Preston and Blackburn, stands a fine though much-restored timber-framed mansion, the High Hall, parts of which date from the fifteenth century. The ghost which is said to haunt it is one of the many British White Ladies having a historical context. In the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603), this mansion was the seat of Sir John Southworth, the sheriff of Lancashire, who died in 1591. Although a loyal servant of the Crown, he was in his personal convictions equally loyal to the Roman Catholic faith, and suffered heavy fines and even imprisonment as a recusant.
According to a tradition recorded by the folklorists John Harland and T. T. Wilkinson, one of his daughters, named Dorothy, fell in love with a knight whose parents were Protestants; when the young couple applied to Sir John for permission to marry, he declared that ‘No daughter of his should ever be united to the son of a family which had deserted its ancestral faith’, and he forbade the youth his presence for ever.
The lovers continued to meet in secret, however, on the wooded banks of the Ribble, and finally decided to elope. They fixed on a day and place to meet, but were unfortunately overheard by one of Dorothy’s brothers. On the evening that the knight came with two friends to fetch his beloved, her brother and his servants ambushed and killed the men, and dragged Dorothy back into the Hall. She was sent to a convent in France, where she went mad with grief; the three murdered men were secretly buried in the precincts of the chapel at the Hall.
Harland and Wilkinson in their Lancashire Legends (1882) say that, some years before they were gathering their material in the 1860s, three human skeletons had been found near the walls of Samlesbury Hall, which popular opinion connected with the tradition:
The legend also states that on certain clear, still evenings a lady in white can be seen passing along the gallery and the corridors, and then from the Hall into the grounds: that she there meets a handsome knight who receives her on his bended knees, and he then accompanies her along the walks. On arriving at a certain spot, most probably the lover’s grave, both the phantoms stand still, and, as they seem to utter soft wailings of despair, they embrace each other, and then their forms rise slowly from the earth and melt away into the clear blue of the surrounding sky.
If three skeletons really were discovered, it presumably explains why tradition says the young knight had two companions, who, from a narrative point of view, are superfluous to the tale.