​​​The Two Faces of ​​​Henry Ainsworth Hebrew Scholar and Biblical Commentator

This article is not a biography of Henry Ainsworth, there are many accounts of his life available on line (see bibliography). This appraisal concerns who he was and where he came from. It deals only with the early part of Henry’s life simply because there does not appear to be anything recorded about his early life in any contemporary work.

There are two schools of thought regarding Henry Ainsworth’s ancestry. One is perpetuated by historians local to Lancashire, and, the other, by the wider group of historians. As to what Henry did after leaving University and his life in Amsterdam, including the books he wrote and published, all historians are in agreement. 
Let us first look at Henry Ainsworth of Pleasington and how local historians of the distant, and, not so distant past, have associated this man with the Separatist Minister and Religious Controversialist.​

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Pedigree of The Ainsworth’s of Pleasington

The Ainsworth’s were an old and established family. Much has been written about their descent, see in particular, Abram’s “A History of Blackburn” (Abram 614-619). Their association with Pleasington goes as far back as the 12th century, but we need only concern ourselves here with Henry Ainsworth, the son of Lawrence. Henry was the second son of Lawrence Ainsworth. He was born circa 1560, attended Blackburn Grammar School, and, it is said, he attended St. John’s College Cambridge, but did not obtain a degree. At the time of writing this article I have not discovered any definite proof that he did or did not attend St. John’s College Cambridge.

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Pleasington Old Hall Drawing by Charles Haworth

​The first mention I have found of Henry Ainsworth with a Pleasington connection is from the “History of the County Palatine and Duchy of Lancaster” Vol 3, “HENRY AINSWORTH an eminent Hebrew scholar and biblical commentator of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the second son of Laurence Ainsworth of Pleasington, gentleman, by Dorothy, daughter of Thomas Grimshaw of Clayton and born about the year 1560…It is not known where he was initiated in the rudiments of learning though he afterwards completed his education in the University of Cambridge and it is much to be regretted that we are able to discover so little information respecting so celebrated a man” (Baines, pp. 356-359). 

Thereafter, apart from noting that he acquired his early education at Blackburn Grammar School, this connection with Pleasington is cited by local historians including, George Miller in the 1950’s. 
In 1967, G.F. Eastwood in his book “A History of the Grammar School in Blackburn” says;
“The election of [Laurence] Yates [Headmaster of the School 1588-1592] marked a change of fortune. He was a man of great talent and boundless energy, as well as being an excellent teacher as is testified by the European reputation achieved by three of his former pupils, Henry Ainsworth, James Anderton and Robert Bolton. Ainsworth was born about 1560, his father, who lived at Pleasington Old Hall, being one of the Original fifty Governors…He went up to Cambridge where his strong Puritan leanings led him to join the `Brownists` or independents…Having endured persecution under Elizabeth, Ainsworth fled to Amsterdam where he spent the remainder of his days, publishing many pamphlets and a Latin dictionary which took him twenty years to compile” (Eastwood, p.19).

Yes, Henry did publish a great number of pamphlets and books, for a list of his works see link at the end of this article, but he did not publish a Latin Dictionary as stated in the above excerpt. George Miller also mentions this dictionary in his book “Blackburn Worthies”. Miller’s account records;
“…Henry Ainsworth, who was best known to fame for his Latin and English Dictionary, in the composition of which he spent twenty years. My own copy is dated 1740, but the first edition appeared in 1736” (Miller, pp 7-8).

The Ainsworth who wrote the dictionary was not Henry but Robert Ainsworth. He was born at Wordsall, Manchester in 1660 and died in London,1743. He started the Dictionary about 1716 and published it in 1736.
One thing missing from all the articles on Ainsworth compiled and written by previous local historians is the lack of citations for any of the information. It is all assumption and reliance on information provided by earlier historians.

One man, however, does give a source for a quote he uses about Ainsworth. That man is Peter Whittle, who, in 1852, published his book “Blackburn As It Is”, a book consulted and quoted from even today.
He wrote a short Biography of Henry, in which he says;
" Henry Ainsworth, a very eminent biblical scholar and divine of the 17th century… This gentleman was educated at Blackburn Chanting and Grammar school for a certain period…he was sent to the University of Cambridge by the advice of Edward Walsh, then vicar of Blackburn" (Whittle, pp.172-173).
He makes no mention of which college Ainsworth attended. Whittle then gives a history of Henry’s travels to Amsterdam. 
At the end of the article Whittle writes;
"Dr. Worthington, Master of Jesus College, Cambridge stated in a letter, dated January 4th, 1660, to Adam Bolton, vicar, of the parish Church of Blackburn, that “Mr. Henry Aynesworth, a native of Lancashire (my italics) was an excellent annotator upon the Pentateuch, upon the prophet Hosea, on the Gospel of St. Matthew, and St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews" (Whittle, pp.172-173).

You would think this was proof enough to show that Henry Ainsworth was at least a man local to Lancashire. However, Whittle is the only historian to use this information Why?  Because it is a completely fabricated story! Everything about the account is wrong. The date of the letter is January 11th 1660, not January 4th as Whittle says. The letter was addressed to Samuel Hartlib, a polymath of German origin and not Adam Bolton, Vicar of Blackburn. It should be noted that Adam Bolton was Vicar of Blackburn from 1628 to 1646, dying in that year. So, he had been dead almost twenty years by the time Dr. Worthington wrote his letter. What Dr. Worthington actually wrote was;
“There is an Author, whose remains are most worthy to be retriev’d; I mean Mr. Ainsworth, whose excellent Annotations upon the Pentateuch, &c., sufficiently discover his great learning, and his most exact observation of the proper idioms of the holy text…” (Crossley, pp. 236-269).
Abram mentions the above letter in his History of Blackburn but without the reference to Lancashire.
The Chetham Society printed the Diary and Correspondence of Dr. John Worthington, Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1847, and so, the book was available for Whittle to consult. Had this been a one off on the part of Whittle it could be forgiven as a genuine mistake. But it wasn’t! On page 217 of the same book Whittle says;
“We find from the Linesy MSS, a petition couched in the following terms; an extract is sufficient. `The state of Blackburn was such, in the year 1706, that people were seen walking their desolate streets, hanging down their heads under disappointments, wormed out of all branches of their trade, uncertain what hand to turn to. Necessitated to become apprentices to their unkind neighbour; and yet, after all, finding their old trade so fortified by companies and secured by prescriptions, that they despair of any success therin.” (Whittle, p. 217)
Whittle gives no indication has to who said this or what the petition was about. This would, indeed, have been one of the earliest descriptions Blackburn and the state of trade in the town, however, the extract was not written about Blackburn at all, in actual fact it is from a speech made by Lord Bellhaven in the Scottish Parliament on the 2nd of November 1706 on the “Subject matter of an Union betwixt the two kingdoms of Scotland and England.”
The actual piece reads:
“think I see the Royal State of Boroughs walking their desolate Streets, hanging down their Heads under Disappointment, wormed out of all the Branches of their old Trade, uncertain what Hand to turn to, necessitate to become 'Prentices to their unkind Neighbours; and yet after all, finding their Trade so fortified by Companies, and secured by Prescriptions, that they despair of any Success therein. (Web Site Crann Tara). 
There are more of these blatant errors in his book but I think these two will suffice to show that Whittle is a far from a reliable source of information, and care needs to be taken when citing his work. The question is why did he do such things? I suppose we will never know the answer to that.

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Baptism Register of Swanton Morley 1569/70
Record taken from Find My Past.

Starting in the 1880’s, views begin to change about the origins of Henry Ainsworth. Ernest Axon (the earliest reference I can find) wrote a pamphlet, “Henry Ainsworth: his birth place and his death” which was printed in the “Palatine Note-Book” (Manchester 1885). Later, the pamphlet was incorporated into an article called “Henry Ainsworth the Puritan Commentator” by William E.A and Ernest Axon. They assert that Henry Ainsworth the “Separatist Minister and Religious Controversialist” was not born in Pleasington in 1560, but rather, at Swanton Morley, Norfolk in 1570. The Axon’s state there is no record of his birth or baptism at that place. However, an article of 1987 “The Apostasy of Henry Ainsworth: A Case Study in Early Separatist Historiography”), by Michael E. Moody, says he was the;
 “Son of Thomas Ainsworth, a yeoman farmer, he was baptised on 15 January 1569/70 at Swanton Morley, Norfolk. Here for three years he attended a school run by a Mr. Clephamson.” Moody added that the vicar of the Church confirmed the information for him. The registers for All Saints Church at this time, can be found on “Find my Past,”
When I looked at these, I could not read any names because they were unclear and so I cannot confirm whether his name is on or not.

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All Saint's Church Swanton Morley

Local historians tell us that after leaving Blackburn Grammar School Ainsworth went to Cambridge University without actually stating which College. Both the Axons and Moody say he attended St. John’s College at the age of 17, for one year, before removing, on the 15 December 1587, to Gonville and Caius College. In his book “Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College, 1349-1897 Vol. 1. Admissions 1349-1713”, (1897) John Venn gives a list and Biographical notes of all known members of the College from the foundation to the present time. 
Ainsworth biographical sketch reads:
Aynsworth: son of Thomas Aynsworth, yeoman. Born at Swanton Morley, Norfolk. At School there under Mr. Clephamson, three years. At St. John’s College, under Mr. Furnance, one year. Age 18. Admited to the scholars’ table, Dec. 15, 1587. Surety Dr. Perse, Fellow.
Scholar, Mich[aelmas] 1587 to L[ady] Day 1591. A celebrated Nonconformist minister. After leaving Cambridge he seems to have gone first to Ireland, and, in 1597, to America; but soon returned and settled for the rest of his life in Amsterdam. A very learned man he was, and a close student, which much impaired his health. We have heard some, eminent in the knowledge of the tongues, of the University of Leyden, say that they thought he had not his better for the Hebrew tongue, in the University, nor scarce in Europe” (Young’s Chon. Plym. 448). He married, March 29, 1607, Marjorie, widow of Richard Appleby, of Ipswich. Died late in 1622 or early 1623. He was author of many religious works, of which the Annotations, on various books of the O. Test., are best known” (Venn).

This sketch mentions a marriage which took place in Amsterdam between him and a widow named Marjorie Appleby. H.M. Dexter’s Book “Congregationalism of the last Three Hundred Years”, (1880) records in a foot note; 
“I found on the Amsterdam records the record, authenticated by his autograph signature, of his intention of marriage, 29 March 1607, to Marjory Halie, from Ipswich, widow of Richard Appleby…Here Ainsworth describes himself as of Swanton, Eng., and as being 36 years of age. There are at least three Swanton’s in England, two of which are within twelve miles of Norwich” (Dexter p 270).

So Henry Ainsworth of Swanton was born in 1570-71 and Henry Ainsworth of Pleasington in 1560. 

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The Signature of Henry Ainsworth
on his intention of Marriage to Marjorie Appleby.​

Henry Ainsworth, died at Amsterdam in1622. One story of his death told by Daniel Neal in his book “History of the Puritans” 1643, Vol 2, says: 
‘His death, was sudden, and not without suspicion of violence; for it is reported that, having found a diamond of very great value in the streets of Amsterdam, he advertised it in print, and when the owner, who was a Jew, came to demand it, he offered him any acknowledgment he would desire; but Ainsworth, though poor would accept of nothing but a conference with some of his rabbi’s upon the prophecies of the Old Testament relating to the Messiah, which the other promised, but not having interest enough to obtain it, 'tis thought that he was poisoned’ Neal p 48.
another version is that the conference took place, and Ainsworth was poisoned by his defeated antagonists.

A more mundane version of his death given by Michael E. Moody in the “Oxford Dictionary of national Biography” who, quoting from “Certain Notes of M. Henry Ainsworth his Last Sermon” Staresmore, 1630 says the cause of death was “That sore perplexing and tedious disease of the stone.” 
This account of Henry’s death is also used by George Miller and G.F. Eastwood

It is known that Henry Ainsworth had a son, John, who married at Leiden on the 24 December 1636. In the Correspondence of Dr. Worthington to Samuel Hartlib Dr Worthington mentions that he is trying to locate some MSS of Ainsworth and that he might have had a kinsman or son living at Amsterdam (Crossley).

Prior to researching this article, I had an open mind regarding the ancestry of the celebrated Henry Ainsworth, but my own conclusion now is that from the evidence I have found, although it is very sparse, points to Swanton Morley as Henry’s place of birth and not Pleasington. 


Abram, W.A. "A History of Blackburn, Town and Parish." 1877. Book.

Baines, E. "History of the County Palatine and Dutchy of Lancaster." Baines, E. History of the County Palatine and Dutchy of Lancaster Volume 3. 1834.

Crann Tara. "Lord Belhaven's Speech to Paliament 1706.​"  Web. 20 June 2020.

Crossley. "Diary & Correspondence of Dr. John Worthington" Vol 1. Chetham Society, 1847. Book.

Dexter, H.M. "Congregationalism of the last Three Hundred Years." 1880. Book.

Eastwood, G.F. "A History of the Grammar School in Blackburn." 1967. Book.

Miller, George. "Blackburn Worthies of Yesterday." The Blackburn Society of Antiquaries, 1959. Book.

Neal, Daniel. "History of the Puritans." 1643. Book.

Venn, John. "Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College, 1349-1897" Vol. 1. Admissions 1349-1713”, . 1897. Book.

Whittle, P.A. "Blackburn As it Is." 1852. Book.

Article by Stephen Smith