Viewed from Swindale Crag above the dales’ village of Felton, a large heavy cart was making its laborious way upwards from the nearby market town in the valley.
I had left my oatcakes to cool. My husband had gone to help a neighbour rebuild a field-wall on an outlying farm in the Upper Dales. There was a dazzling light in the sky and the heat was rising. My friend and neighbour Hannah, in her airless home, was only a few weeks from bringing her latest into the world … I begged her to come to a cool spot where there was a patch of meadowland full of flowers and a great shady tree. She could rest there and the two little ones could play quietly nearby. “I’ll bring my cloak, Alice,” she answered, “to place on the ground ‘gainst stinging plants.” Anne, nearly three and her brother Walter a year younger, romped gleefully, picking a few field flowers, but quietened when I pointed to their sleeping mother. They nestled next to me as I told them a story about a cuckoo we heard calling… I had had seven babies myself and only the twins had survived for a few years. The Lord in his wisdom had taken all of them to a better place. But there was a sore spot round my heart when I thought of their cruel fevers and sufferings. When Hannah awoke, she said she would await her husband’s return from the Upper Dales in their cottage. I said I would bring the children to her a little later.
As I approached the village, Old Jack came limping towards me. “Alice, thou hast better make haste to see thy Friend.” Scooping up the children in my arms, I heard one of the village curs barking and growling angrily at a stranger. I hastened forward to see a most sorry sight. Three of our elders in their usual sober garb with their wide brimmed hats were seated on straw in a large cart. In the corner furthest from me, I saw a huddled figure and recognised first of all her cloak and the hood which half-covered her face. My dear friend Hannah struggled to sit upright when she heard little Anne and Walter breaking into loud wails. Putting out her arms to them, she kissed their little faces, while the carter kept his face averted and a person in a new-looking set of buff coloured clothes and hat, with a pistol in his hand, looked impatiently on. To add to my horror and distress, I saw that the elders had shackled hands. The whole scene shocked me deeply. Full of for-boding I asked the buff-suited one where they were going. “York, mistress. York – two day’s travel.”
“Why?” I demanded, almost knowing the answer. “Them that hold services in their homes or take part in them are fined.” He paused for breath, “Can’t or won’t pay means goods taken or prison.“And he rocked back on his heels and looked challenging at me. I took him a little to one side. “Thou are a Christian and a good man. Pray take this coin and look to my friend. See she has some comfort in her time of need,” As I spoke, I was pointing to Hannah’s unmistakeable shape. He took the coin, but didn’t answer. We, the Friends, do not use formal titles or even bow our heads or curtsey to anyone. A good-hearted neighbour took the two children and showed them her new kitten, as with a full heart I ran after the cart for a parting look at Hannah. “Pray Alice, succour my children ‘gainst my husband ‘s return.” I could hardly speak for dread, but reassured her and smiled, though I knew only a dank prison cell in York Castle gaol awaited her. How could she endure without harm two days’ travel on a jolting cart before even reaching York? Someone had come and denounced the Friends… Though the law had changed. We were now licensed to use our Meeting House. Why had only Hannah and the three elders been taken? This was a sore puzzle to me at first.
Then I remembered an event. Once when I was due to report to the elders on some charitable matter, I was struck down by a low fever, losing much weight and sure my end had come. Hannah insisted that she would make my report for me at the home of one of our elders, while an elderly neighbour looked after her children. We are a very close community in Felton. Only a few elders were meeting in Simon Wilkinson’s house for some discussion as Hannah made her report and the group sat in silence for a while, then studied a short passage in the Scriptures. As they sat with their bibles open, there was a soft tap on the outer door. Simon called “Enter!” and they continued, finishing their readings as a man entered respectfully, with his hat well pulled down over his brows. Simon then continued, “We’ll say a short prayer for our dear Friend Alice’s recovery.” The stranger stood courteously in the shadows till they had finished, then asked his way, mentioning he was on horseback. He gave his name, though Hannah could not recollect it, but his accent was not local and nobody knew him. As the elders explained his best route, he thanked them all, said he might come again as he was interested in the Friends. “He took out his tablets and asked our names to remember us by. I was the only one,” said Hannah, “who thought that somewhat strange. He could have been an informer as they call themselves.”
I’m sure Hannah had guessed correctly. There was a fine if you were deemed to have met illegally for a religious meeting in someone’s home. I knew that the fine would be beyond the means of most people even if they wished to pay it. My husband would not have permitted payment even for Hannah. We all had little enough of any value. We were a poor Dales community of mainly small farming folk. The Friends would not even allow someone outside their faith to pay those fines… It was like looking into an abyss…
Parson Joshua Manders is my name, I reside in a comfortable living near York. Part of my occasional duties are to minister unto those of the criminal fraternity in York Castle gaol. Those prisoners who wish to make their peace with God I visit and for some I am virtually the last person they see as their heinous crimes receive the terrible judgement they have so richly merited. It is not a pleasant task to try to bring some comfort to such wretches who have often had a most miserable existence, and insist on narrating much of their history to me. Often I have had to listen to an incredible catalogue of thievery, villainy and debauchery in cells full of noxious vapours. A week ago I was asked to undertake one more visit that day to a Quaker, a dying woman. I did so with some reluctance and ever since I have suffered the most tremendous turmoil.
Here is my testimony
Those creatures who call themselves the Friends are an abomination before God. They disobey the laws of church and state, and furthermore are traitors to their King, since they refuse to swear the oath of allegiance. Indeed any oath is against their conscience, forsooth. They make their own arrangements for marriages and funerals sacrilegiously and keep their own birth, burial and marriage registers. They even use unconsecrated ground… some small field to bury their dead, but do not mark the details there in a truly Christian manner. To me they are worse than cut-purses or murderous felons since they know full well what they are doing and have some basic education. I have preached many a rousing sermon against them, as some species of devil or demon. How can they presume to study and comment on the holiest of holy, our precious Bible? I have even had my own sermons denounced by this pernicious rabble in my own church and been set upon on at least one occasion by a Quaker mob outside throwing stones.
This woman Hannah had given birth in prison and was very weak. Maybe I could show her the true path of righteousness in her final hours. I believe I have great powers of persuasion.
I found her sharing a tiny foetid dark cell with an arrow-slit of day-light, with two slatternly hard-faced females. In fact she hardly stirred at first as I approached. The turnkey said her baby had died shortly after birth and added, at least it was one less of them. Even I felt he had gone too far. I demanded roughly why I had been summoned. Her face was bathed in sweat, a white none too clean cap covered her pale hair, she shivered compulsively and each breath seemed difficult and painful. The two women came to help her sit up, though not over-tenderly. “Why have I been summoned?” I repeated. “ I, Hannah, have no one … her breath came in short gasps …my husband John Gill is away in the Upper Dales… Tell him … tell him…that … the fine is unpaid.” …She looked completely exhausted, then …”If it please thee, send to Felton village.. .I cannot… ” Then the words “Love … (she hesitated painfully)…kin… Alice,” were her last words.
One of the slatterns was already eyeing the dead woman’s cloak in a calculating way. “Did she have young children?” I asked the other one. “Two bairns,” she replied briefly, adding defiantly, “Reverend sir.” A light of understanding struck me with sudden force. The most terrible shame overcame me, the worst and sharpest I had ever felt in my whole life. That poor dying woman was convinced her two little ones would be taken away. She feared to name them with her dying breath!.. That poor gentle soul!..
I have heard of scourging by whips and scorpions, I have heard of being beset by demons and I truly believe that my own sufferings can only be described in this way.
… Her final message must be sent…
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