Thursday, March 19, 2009

His brains fell entirely whole into the next seat behind him

The schoolmaster, chronicler of Parliamentary victories, and poet-translator John Vicars was a very militant protestant, an associate of William Prynne, and a much-published writer who had great success in getting his works illustrated with woodcuts.

His Prodigies & apparitions, or, England’s warning piece being a seasonable description by lively figures & apt illustration of many remarkable & prodigious fore-runners & apparent predictions of Gods wrath against England (1643) is an unflinching celebration of the anger God justly manifested against Christians who didn’t worship in the way they should, which was exactly like John Vicars.

He especially details cases when “sumptuous and superfluously huge built Churches and Cathedral Minsters, indeed far more like Heathen Temples then Christian Churches” were hit by lightning, which, as the tallest buildings in every parish, they often were (with lightning rods still to be invented in the mid 18th century: and prayer still thought the best preventative)

On Sunday 21st October, 1638, the parish church of Withcomb in Devon (present day Widecombe-in-the-Moor - thanks to Chris Hale!) was hit by lightning during Evensong. The parishioners had brought this on themselves, as the church had just been ‘newly trimmed’.

The effects were catastrophic, as these extracts show:

“in the midst of the performance of which duties, I say, on a sudden there was heard most fearful & heart-damping claps of thunder … upon which, presently followed a most fearful Fog, and almost palpable darkness all over the Church, and a most strong and almost stifling Stygian stink and loathsome smell of brimstone, together with a most boisterous and blustering blast of wind and clap of thunder, which struck in at the North side of the steeple or tower, and tearing through a strong wall came into the Church through the highest window … passing on toward the Pulpit, and in the way took with it the lime and sand from off the wall, grating the wall much and mightily defacing it, it having been but lately new whited and trimmed, as aforesaid. It tore away also most fiercely the side Desk from the Pulpit, colouring the pulpit it self of a black hew, and leaving it as moist as if it had been newly washed over with ink.”

This ‘brimstone’ smell was of course ozone, the lightning strike puts so much power into the church wall that the stone explodes. The human casualties follow, victims of flashover fires and shrapnel:

“In which time there was also a most terrible and heart-astonishing lightning, which did both mightily affright the people, and even scald their skin with the extreme heat thereof; insomuch as the greatest part of them fell prostrate, some on their faces, and some on their knees, and some one upon another, shrieking and crying out in a most pitiful and pathetical manner.

The Ministers wife, there present, had her Ruff and Linen next her body, burnt off, and her body it self grievously scorched. One Mistress Ditford, sitting in the seat with her, had her Gown, two Waist-coats, and her linen next her body also grievously scorched. Another woman frighted with this fearful spectacle, running out of the Church, had her clothes set on fire, her body scorched, her flesh torn on her back in a most grievous manner. One Master Hill, a Gentleman had his head smitten against the wall, and died the very next day of it. Sir Richard Reynolds his Warriner had his head cloven, his skull rent in three pieces, whereof two fell in the next seat, the other fell down in the seat where he sate: his brains fell entirely whole into the next seat behind him, his blood dashed against the wall; some of the skin of his head, flesh and hair, to the quantity of an handful, was carried into the Chancel, his body left in the seat, as though he had been alive, sitting asleep, and leaning on his elbow resting on the desk of his Pew, with the fore-part of his head and face whole.

O most terrible and fearful power of the Lord! A man that sate before him, in the same seat, was scalded and burnt all over on that side next the said Warriner. In the second seat behind the Warriner, a man was in a most grievous manner burnt and scalded all over his body, so as he was all over like raw flesh, and lived in great misery about a week after, and then died.

A Dog near the Chancel door, was fiercely whirled up three times, and the last time fell down dead.

About the number of eight boys sitting about the rails of the Communion Table (here we may observe what a superstitious Church it was, like, almost all the rest of our Churches in these miserable days) were all of them taken up by the violence of this so terrible a storm, and thrown on heaps within the rails, but had no hurt at all.”

In case the presence of altar rails doesn’t prejudice you enough against this congregation, Vicars goes on to give further subversive details about this purportedly Christian building (as he sees it):

“One of the Pinnacles of the Tower was tumbled down into the Church.

A great stone was thrown about an hundred yards from the Church, and sunk into the ground so deep and so fast, that it could hardly be seen afterward. A Bowling-alley also near the Church-yard, was strangely turned into deep pits; and a Wine-Tavern near the Church, had the side thereof next the Church torn up, and the top or covering broken and carried off, and one of the rafters broken into the said house.

… And was not here a most terrible and almost an incredible print and impression of Gods threatened wrath and indignation against both the internal and external vanity and impiety of such profuse and superfluous Church-buildings…?”

I suspect that Vicars would be a little sorry that God inexplicably failed to kill the Minister and his clerk in this building full of vanity in its prophane surroundings, but they escaped with a warning: “A beam was broken in the midst, and fell down between the Minister and his Clerk, but neither of them hurt thereby…”

To say that JohnVicars does not have much time for vicars hardly does justice to his ferocity. He also gleefully compiled two pamphlets expounding the various depravities of the church ministers expelled from their parishes by the puritans for ‘malignancy’. Extracts from A just correction and inlargement of a scandalous bill of the mortality of the malignant clergie of London, and other parts of the kingdome, which have been justly sequestred from their pastorall-charges (1647) give the effect:

Mr. Wilson, of Arlington, in Sussex, sequestered for being a most odious committer of Buggery with many men, upon his own confession; yea, attempted to commit this odious sin with a Mare, blasphemously said, that Christ after the flesh, was a bastard, and for being a notorious Popish Ceremony-monger, a mighty drinker, and desperate malig.

Mr. Westrop, of Much-Totham, in Essex, sequestered for most familiar filthy and profane abusing of the holy ordinance of preaching, by most obscene meddling and dilating on the secrets of women in the Pulpit; abusively and familiarly comparing women to sows, to make the people laugh; calling such women Whores, who refused to hear him thus speak in the Pulpit, together with abundance of such-like most filthy trash, constantly thus delivered by him, and for being a desperate malignant against the Parliament.

Mr. Booth of Buttolphs Aldersgate, London, sequestered for being a most lazy Levite, a Ceremony-monger, an enemy to Gods people, and a desperate Malignant.

My thanks to Chris for this prompt: it is present day Widecombe, and look, they have a tower appeal even now. The 1638 disaster is mentioned on this web page -


Gaenor Burchett-Vass said...

Seems like church-going was a dangerous activity in those turbulent times...

Great title!

chris hale said...

Am I right in assuming that your entry refers to Widecombe-in-the-Moor? I seem to recall a plaque in the village church referring to the ferocious storm. But I'm fairly sure old Uncle Tom Cobley escaped unscathed!

DrRoy said...

Thank you, Chris. I did not think to look for Widecombe's from the source's 'Withcomb'. I was baffled to see no churches at either modern 'Withcomb'. I am pleased to have it located, and have emended my post.