Saturday, October 13, 2012

'Perfection fæminine' at Shorwell Church (or maybe not).






Life’s a bit too busy to trawl up oddities from the depths of EEBO, so another post about a Jacobean monument, one that I found remarkable. It’s a brass plaque in Shorwell church, on the Isle of Wight. It (just maybe) conveys a double message – alongside the quite sincere tribute-in-general, may be some hints of a more complicated story.

Top and bottom of the plaque are these two texts, which tell the facts:

“To the remembrance of the two most worthie and religious gentleweomen his late deare & loyall wives Mrs Elizabeth Bampfield who died the VIIth of March 1615 having bin ye mother of 15 hopefull children and Mrs Gartrude Percevall who died childless the XXII of December 1619 was this monument consecrated by their loving & sorrowfull Husband Barnabas Leigh Esq.”

I have re-lineated the lines at the bottom:

Since neither penne, nor pencill can set forth
Of these two matchles wives the matchles worth
W’are forc’t to cover in this silent tombe
The Praises of a chast and fruitfull wombe:
And with death’s sable vaile in darknes hide,
The ritch rare virtues of a barren bride.
Sweet saintlight paire of Soules, in whome did shine
Such models of perfection fæminine,
Such Pietie, love, zeale: That though we sinners
Their lives have lost, yet still [them]selves are winners
For they secure, heavens happiness inherit,
Whilst we lament their losse, admire their merit.



In between the two main texts, the pictorial part of the plaque shows the two women, Elizabeth with her shoal of fifteen behind her, kneeling in primary and secondary ranks by gender, the ten boys first, the girls behind. Her hand touches the bared head of the eldest son. From the normal post-Reformation ‘depiction’ of God, ‘Jehovah’ in Hebrew letters, the divine command ‘Crescite’(‘Increase’) shines down on the male children. Gartrude is of course on her own, but the 'Chi Rho' symbol for Christ shines down on her. 




Between the two women, a male gloved hand breaks the word ‘Sorrow=full’ in the memorial inscription, and is itself inscribed ‘vae soli’ – ‘woe alone’. The hand supports, with the left hand of Elizabeth and Gartrude’s right hand, a ring, with the motto ‘tres conjunxit’ (‘three joined, coupled’) around a heart, the heart with the motto ‘Unum’ – ‘one’. A chain descends from the ring to a death’s death (‘divisit’ – ‘it divided’), but, in a nice detail, both women have a foot, rather jauntily, on the death’s head, as a modest expression of their triumphant ascent to eternal life.


As is quite normal in portraits of the time, text is just about as important as depiction, and we have plenty more to read. Barnabas Leigh had searched his Bible for texts suitable to honour both his wives. Divine light shines on Elizabeth, and she gets “Sicut Plantulae Olivarum ps128” as one of her mottoes (on the scroll to her left), and above her head, “sicut vitis frugifera”. Both are from Psalm 128, verse 3: “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table.

Gartrude was more challenging, perhaps, but an ideal text was located: “Canta Sterilis PS 54 1” – Psalm 54:

1 Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord.
2 Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes;
3 For thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left; and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited.
4 Fear not; for thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou confounded; for thou shalt not be put to shame: for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more.
5 For thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall he be called.
6 For the Lord hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused, saith thy God.
7 For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.

The other text for Gartrude is more interesting – but really sets a challenge about where to stop an interpretation. One notices that she is depicted pointing to the text with her free hand, in a balancing gesture to Elizabeth’s hand blessing her eldest son. Gartrude’s text is “An non ego melior tibi quam decem filii 1 Sam 18”.



This takes us to the start of the First Book of Samuel – the text is the last part of this extract:
1 [Elkanah] had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah: and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children …
… 4 And when the time was that Elkanah offered, he gave to Peninnah his wife, and to all her sons and her daughters, portions:
5 But unto Hannah he gave a worthy portion; for he loved Hannah: but the Lord had shut up her womb.
6 And her adversary also provoked her sore, for to make her fret, because the Lord had shut up her womb.
7 And as he did so year by year, when she went up to the house of the Lord, so she provoked her; therefore she wept, and did not eat.
8 Then said Elkanah her husband to her, Hannah, why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten sons?”
The Bible story is one of an awful rivalry over fertility between two wives: Peninnah/Elizabeth producing children, Hannah/Gartrude weeping, and not eating, always under the lash of her rival’s provoking tongue.
Obviously, Barnabas Leigh did not, like Elkanah, have two wives at once. He had found the perfect text for Gartrude in the splendid promises made by the Lord himself in Psalm 54. A further text was gratuitous: he could have quoted twice from the one Psalm, as was done with Elizabeth. Was it the intention to indicate that Elizabeth’s success in multiple births (and how eloquent of the uncertainties of child survival at the time is that regular locution about “hopefull children”) oppressed Gartrude as second wife? Out of a Bible context rich in implications (if implications were meant), chosen for the plaque was that strong affirmation of a husband’s love “An non ego melior tibi quam decem filii” – ‘am not I better to thee than ten sons?’


Look at how the artist depicted the ‘fruitful vine’ to the left of Elizabeth’s head: it’s actually a sprig of holly. I know holly has Christian meanings, but I do wonder at the substitution of spiky holly leaves for vine leaves.
In the Book of Samuel, poor oppressed Hannah prays in the Temple – Eli the priest thinks she is drunk, for her prayers are spoken in her heart – her mouth moves, but she makes no sound. Her silence in prayer contrasts her to the sharp-tongued Peninnah. The reward for her faith is the longed-for pregnancy – she will be the mother of Samuel, whom she dedicates to the Lord who lent him.

Of course, any woman who has endured fifteen (and possibly more) pregnancies is entitled to have a sharp tongue and (within the general parameters of an undeniable success at “perfection fæeminine” in regards to that divine command “crescite”) be rather a challenge to her husband.

I have most likely over-read this monument – but it went out of its way to invite reading, didn’t it?









Wednesday, October 03, 2012

At Boxgrove Priory: the de la Warr chantry






I managed to get along to Boxgrove Priory on Sunday, where the chantry chapel set up by Thomas West, “eighth Baron West and ninth Baron de la Warr” (1472–1554) is the big feature. It’s dated to 1532, and de la Warr intended it as a final resting place for himself and his wife, with a chantry priest to say masses for their souls in purgatory.

So far, so perfectly late-Medieval Catholic. History and Henry VIII overtook this project: Boxgrove was abruptly dissolved as a priory. Thomas West tried in vain to get it exempted, then settled pragmatically for retaining the main priory building as a parish church. But even then, the long-lived de la Warr was never to be buried in the beautiful personal shrine he'd had erected. Accused of playing a part in a conspiracy, he had to swap his local manor house, to which the king had taken a fancy, for a former nunnery at Whewell in Hampshire. That was the price of his pardon for an invented crime. Leaving Sussex, he left this chapel behind him, though I imagine he wondered about having it taken apart and transported.

It had been a daring piece of work just getting the chantry in the church and close to the altar: a whole pier was removed, with the double size arch above it strengthened – even so, load bearing vaults no longer sweep down to approach the absent column, but splay across almost horizontally. Everything hovers above this miracle of faith, and has done so without trouble for nearly 500 years.

What a piece of work it is, eloquent of so much. The decoration mixes the heraldry of the de la Warre family, Tudor roses, and faith. It its original state, viewers must have seen a structure that ascended up from a joyous motifs of the fleshly world – fat cherubs play lutes, two young men swarm up one column, throwing down fruit to a girl who holds out her apron. Hercules fights the Nemean lion, a King and Death stand either side of a tree, dragons writhe.



Then above this, the divine realm: the riotously decorated columns, turn into their structural negatives, niches for with saints topped with intricate Gothic canopies. Heaven is held up by faith, not stone. Sinuous movement turns to fixity, the contemplation of God - music might come from heaven without visible performers, certainly not from fat-legged cherubs. All the saints disappeared, of course: the empty niches conjure them up, spectacular victims of all that jostling life down below them, martyred again in effigy. I imagine their battered torsos will be in a pit somewhere close at hand, maybe dug down to the paleo-surface where Boxgrove man and his fellows slaughtered extinct animals half a million years before.



Decorative motifs for the carvings were apparently taken from a French Book of Hours. The lively realm of classical motifs, images from fabliau and moral tale, and stiff Tudor roses seem to be pushing the Gothic world higher towards heaven. Though to an extent, the  elaborate coats of arms and Orders of the Garter aspire towards joining the building’s divine realm: angels obligingly display dynastic honours.

The intricate vaulting within makes it seem as if the masons could extrude stone through an icing nozzle or fresh pasta maker. As decorative as a gypsy caravan, the chantry stayed where it was and journeyed forwards through time.



Sir Thomas Wyatt could have gone down to Chichester and seen this structure when it was new. Anne Boleyn was about to become queen. Of its time in its jollity, its Tudor patriotism, all of the certainties of its theology were about to be stripped away. The double sized arch held up: the metaphorical roof fell in.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

A work of magenta-coloured imagination: Jeanette Winterson's 'The Daylight Gate'



I’ve been reading Jeanette Winterson’s just-published pot-boiler, The daylight gate, her take on the Pendle witches. In the first place, it interests me just how commercially vibrant 17th century witchcraft can be. That Pendle Forest area of Lancashire seems to have mobilised itself to promote tourism by playing up on those associations, and if the local tourist chiefs can keep a few tame archaeologists on their payroll, any word on the search for Malkin Tower can always be guaranteed to make the national news.

Heavens, I almost was tempted to put in a bid on a portion of Roughlee Old Hall myself, when it came on the market recently. (But think of the people with hair in green-dyed straggles you’d get banging on your door, demanding access to the place the latest and more debunking local historian says was not Alice Nutter’s house at all.)

The devil Ms Winterson has struck her commercial pact with is Hammer Films, a subsidiary these days to ‘Exclusive media’, and ‘Exclusive media “is a vertically integrated global filmed entertainment company”, or so their website is proud to boast.

So, someone at ‘Exclusive Media’ has noted the success of ‘The Woman in Black’, and had the idea to commission classy new tales of horror and the supernatural, and their publication can make money, and create a buzz by way of advance publicity for a film version, which makes even more money. (This is not bad thinking, is it?) Helen Dunmore has delivered a story about a haunted RAF greatcoat, and the author of Oranges are not the only fruit has gripped her own nose tightly with one hand, taken the money in the other, and delivered her version of Harrison Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches (1848/1849 - which is great fun in its prolix way) or Robert Neill’s Mist over Pendle (1951 - I haven’t read it).

I imagine Ms Winterson has some feel for the setting, as Lancashire born. I liked the scene-setting sketch of Pendle Hill, where “hares stand like question marks” (later the heroine sees a hare whose face seems oddly familiar to her – this hare being James Device in transformed shape). She certainly has fun dredging up from her memory of late Friday night horror films on TV the kind of tatty Gothic décor Hammer Horror’s set-dressers delighted to create: “(Elizabeth Device) was tending a cauldron coming to the boil over a dirty fire. A rough altar, a pair of sulphurous candles and a skeleton still chained to where its owner’s body had left it completed the furnishings of the cellar”. It must be fun for a literary author to let rip with some oozing fibreglass prose like that. You can almost hear the self-disbelieving giggle.

Authors who embark on the Pendle witches seem drawn to Alice Nutter, who was central in Ainsworth’s novel. Thomas Potts makes her participation in witchcraft (in the 1612 case) a matter of astonishment, something inexplicable:

“to attempt this woman in that sort, the Divel had small means: For it is certain she was a rich woman; had a great estate, and children of good hope: in the common opinion of the world, of good temper, free from envy or malice; yet whether by the means of the rest of the Witches, or some unfortunate occasion, she was drawn to fall to this wicked course of life, I know not …”

The inexplicable always draws lots of attempts to explain: a lot of surmise has clustered about Alice. Some allege that she was the victim of a property dispute with the magistrate Roger Nowell, or that her own family members were so avid to inherit her estates that they did nothing to testify for her, or otherwise sway the case in her favour in the way their status and wealth would have made easy. Others say that she could not produce an alibi for her purported attendance at the diabolical Good Friday feast of mutton, because she was Catholic, and had been at a Catholic mass: she died silent to save the priest and the congregation. My favourite local historian thinks that the historical Alice Nutter was an elderly woman, aged 70 or more), and perhaps senile, someone unable to plead properly.

Harrison Ainsworth’s novel shows a tender class-based concern that the soul of the gentlewoman witch be saved, as indeed it is, through the saintly behaviour of her daughter. As in Ainsworth, Winterson’s Alice Nutter escapes the devil and cheats the executioner.

But Winterson’s Alice, unlike Ainsworth’s, is not a witch. She is, rather, someone who possesses an “instinctive chemistry”, if you please, a literal understanding of matter and substances which recommends her to Dr John Dee. Alice diverts from assisting him in his ‘Great Work’ because she happens on a discovery that leads to great commercial success: she invents magenta dye. (To object that this takes place 250 years before its historical invention is just pedantry.) Alice just happens to be wearing her new colour in the audience at the Curtain theatre when Queen Elizabeth, slumming it on a day free of Armadas and traitors pops in to enjoy a show. Her Majesty sees Alice in magenta, and it’s all success from there onwards. Alice cushions her income from chemicals with judicious property portfolio, including lucrative ownership of a high-class brothel.

Throughout the greater part of the book Alice, an expert materialist, is characterised by a scepticism about witchcraft, the devil, God, and the soul. Her sustained disbelief seems unlikely, considering she is usually at the focus of a paranormal maelstrom. John Dee has set her up with an effective elixir of youth, and she herself has created a magical mirror. But we are to credit her with stubborn and rationalistic incredulity.

Alice, as chief character, also just has to be a lesbian. Winterson compromises a little, and makes her attractive to both sexes. Our author must have had to reflect a little about this, for one of the ways Hammer Horror films paid their way was by a liberal admixture of girl/girl action: think of Ingrid Pitt and her various undead girlfriends. How could Winterson exploit this subject without foreseeing an exploitative film? Perhaps the cheesy sleaze of ‘The vampire lovers’ was just too strong a memory?

Alice has two loves in her life. The most important is Elizabeth Southern (“naked she seemed like something other than, or more than, human”). If you know Thomas Potts and the 1612 Pendle case, you know what this means: “Elizabeth Sowtherns alias Demdike” – the central character’s adored lover and the ghastly Old Demdike are one and the same person. Alice is shielded from ageing by John Dee’s elixir, while Elizabeth Southern’s beauty deteriorates because of her fateful decision to ‘take the left-hand path’.

It all hinges on an awkward passage on page 61. I single it out as it is central to our understanding of the book. First comes the betrayal, the awful consequences of which Alice must try to expiate. Queen Elizabeth has just seen Alice at the Curtain theatre in her refulgent magenta gown:
“The next day the Queen sent for me.
And that was the beginning of my fortune and the beginning of my trials.
Elizabeth was jealous. She was a jealous woman by nature, and she was jealous of my success and of my money. I was at fault because I did not share everything equally with her. As I grew wealthier I invested my money. I bought her anything she wanted but I would not make her equal.”

This is sketchy prose. The elision of Queen Elizabeth into her jealous Elizabeth may be careless, or deliberate. “I would not make her equal” is not the same as ‘I could not’, and this difference is studied, but I wonder if it isn’t a little over-brief in its handling (in a book where phrase-making and a rapidly impressionistic prose encourage the reader to hasten forwards to the next sensation). Alice has succumbed to the pleasures of early modern capitalism, is busy with her investments (her money goes into heterosexual brothels, as we later learn), she’s absorbed in turning “gold into gold”. Elizabeth in her jealousy, denied equality by her lover, sells her soul to the devil, right on the very next page. After this desperate act, Elizabeth self-distances, and goes to live in a devil-funded party mansion.

Maybe I am just being obtuse about this, but I have to be honest and say that I don’t think Winterson does enough to help our understanding. This is why Alice protects the Demdikes, and is so anxious to win Elizabeth back from the devil: she precipitated the fall. I am tempted to wonder whether Elizabeth, “an angel” in body, isn’t an ideal of Sapphic womanhood that Alice-Jeanette has betrayed in her tawdry commercial deal to write a novel for Hammer Horror films. The speed with which this crucial explanation of motives goes by prompts a suspicion that the author has seen her own allegory, and doesn’t want to spell it out.

Alice’s other lover is Christopher Southworth. This character is dreadfully difficult to read about without seeing some toothsome Hollywood beau, tricked out with a shirt with dangling ties at the neck and dashing hair. Oh, and a crucifix about his neck, for he is a seminary priest. In the original events, not far away in Salmesbury, Grace Sowerbutts accused Jane Southworth of witchcraft at the behest of a seminary priest known as “Thompson alias Southworth”, retaliating for the Southworth family embracing Protestantism. Potts is obviously proud about the exposure of this (implausible-sounding) Catholic plot and (albeit grudging) final exoneration of Jane Southworth

The other striking thing about Winterson’s Christopher Southworth is that he has previously been arrested and tortured. The torture involved his castration. When he tells Alice that “I can’t be your lover”, he doesn’t just mean because of his vows as priest. Christopher has become a highly sympathetic man, virtually female, certainly without the offensive part, but satisfactory exponent of cunnilingus. His opposite in the novel is the incestuous paedophile Tom Peeper, a character more loathsome by far than any of the witches.

Alice does once have penetrative sex with the devil: Elizabeth leads her into this aberration. The other interesting male who turns up in the action is Shakespeare. I felt that the greatest male writer and the devil himself were curiously paired in the narrative. Winterson otherwise makes Shakespeare sympathetic: wise in the ways of the world and of the spirit, a man who has made it his business to know everyone interesting, a Catholic sympathiser.

The torture scenes are like the torture scenes Louis de Bernières tends to indulge in: one becomes uneasy about what is going off in the author’s little head. I guess one could concede that they are generic to the Hammer Horror genre that impinges so much on the author’s imagination. Torture of women, minors before the law, was not allowed in 17th century England, but that’s one of those things that the magenta-coloured imagination of the author doesn’t worry let get in the way of another description of male sadistic/sexual behaviour.

It’s a brief work: I doubt there are 45,000 words here. Since J K Rowling, there hardly seems much distinction any more between ‘young adult’ and ‘adult’ fiction. Winterson hasn’t wasted words: it’s a book with a film in mind. I hear the trailer now. It will sound and look like this: cue sepulchral over-amplified voice, punctuated by thunder claps, falcon swooshes, dungeon doors crashing shut: “Every girl-child born in Pendle Forest should be twice baptised: once in church, and once in the black pool at the foot of the hill …”. Cue visuals, two young women laughing in bed (oh, Keira Knightly and Romola Garai). “With Patrick Stewart as Shakespeare” – visuals, Ms Knightly flouncing her magenta frock to senior actress as QE1 – “Alan Rickman as Dr John Dee …”, cue visuals, spikes being driven into Keira Knightly’s spine, “in Jeanette Winterson’s classic horror, brought to the big screen, The daylight gate.” Booms, crashes, screams of agony, a falcon’s beak, blood pouring down white skin, etc, etc, etc.




Sunday, August 05, 2012

“I have a light within that directs me to renounce my husband”: the unnatural practices of Elizabeth Pigeon.





Lawrence Stone territory this posting, with A brief relation of the strange and unnatural practices of Wessel Goodwin, Mehetabell Jones the wife of Edward Jones, and Elizabeth Pigeon the wife of John Pigeon (1654).

This indignant pamphlet was written by Wessel Goodwin’s son-in-law Samuel Vernon, who followed up with another account of the disaster which struck the family in the form of two sisters, Mehetabel and Elizabeth. This second account comes in The trepan being a true relation, full of stupendious variety, of the strange practices of Mehetabel, the wife of Edward Jones, and Elizabeth, wife of Lieutenant John Pigeon, sister to the said Mehetabel, being both Quakers : wherein is discovered the subtle method whereby they cheated Mr. Wessel Goodwin, a dyer in Southwark, and all his children of a fair estate: with sundry copies of letters, perfumed locks of hair, and verses they sent him, and many other notable devices belonging to the art of trepanning (1656).

It’s a salutary work to read if one is minded to deplore the subordination of women in 17th century England. Obviously, we do not get to hear what Mehetabel and Elizabeth could say for themselves, but, having read Samuel Vernon’s pamphlets about them, I am inclined to believe the one witness we have. The son-in-law looks on in horror as his wife’s father ruins the family under the manipulative influence of the two sisters. In the follow up pamphlet, he has incriminating letters by both women in his possession, and invites anyone interested to come and verify that they are as he says. Elizabeth Pigeon was appalling, a cunning and dangerous woman, of high ability, but entirely self-seeking and shameless.


The stories told, and personalities involved, are all interesting. In the end remarkable in social history terms is that both sisters managed to use the law to break off their marriages. Master Jones, a lutenist, and Mr Pigeon, were brow-beaten by factitious arrests for debt, sexual manipulation, by provocations to which their occasionally ill-considered responses are all made to play into the hands of two determined women. Both men limp wounded and penniless out of their marriages. They sign ‘divorce’ documents put to them by their wives, or associates of their wives, and leave the scene of their defeat for years.

But to the main story: Wessel Goodwin was a London dyer. He had an estate of about £2,000, and his trade as dyer clears him between three and five hundred pounds a year. He had a wife, and four children.

But he had an extraordinary combination of “a weak head, yet an obstinate will” (as the 1656 pamphlet puts it). His marriage had been plagued by his bizarre extravagance – he spent insane amounts of money on music.

“He was ever strangely given to music, to which he had a ravenous appetite; five pounds for pricking out two or three lessons, which when he had, he understood like Arabic; thirty pounds for a Lute, of which he had with other sorts of fiddles, a whole room full; and which is the wonder, can ply of none, only admires them, ten pounds at a time to a music Master for a months teaching (or rather playing to him.)

Goodwin forced his children to learn music, and only if they did this (to the detriment of anything else, any other way of life) did he regard them as obedient. The biographer of his folly, his son-in-law, quarreled with him about this.

His obsession with music seems to have been genuinely unbalanced. When he was 58, his wife, who had struggled gamely with this impossible husband, asked from her deathbed that the music in the house might stop, and was refused:


“About the 58 year of his age, his virtuous wife fell sick of a painful disease contracted by melancholy, of which in a few months she died. 
When she drew near her death, some few days before her departure, overhearing the music which was daily in the next room, she desired one of her sons to call in their father, to whom with a broken sad voice she said, Husband, you well know what a burthen this Excess of music hath been to me all my life; must that which hath been so much affliction to me in my life, be brought to my death bed? may I not dye out of the noise of it? pray forbear, I have not many hours to live, and then you may have your fill of music. To which he replied not one word, but went out in discontent and so fell to his music again.”

Music was going to bring its own nemesis upon Wessel Goodwin. He was employing a lutenist called Edward Jones, and no doubt Jones’ incredulous accounts of his employer’s infatuation with music alerted Mehetabel Jones to an easy mark. She starts, acting with her sister, to secure sums of money from Goodwin, and denigrating his wife (while she lived) and his children. Her sister Elizabeth pushes the whole thing on. Samuel Vernon, fascinated and repulsed, gives this account:

“because Mrs. Pigeon is the chief agent and contriver in these sinful projects, I shall give this brief description of her: She is one that can transform her self into an Angel of light, and having her tongue tipped with Scripture, can with tears, sighs, gesture at command, set off what she would have believed, as Gospel, though very false, thereby to ensure such as hearken to her Charms; no sport to her like catching credulous persons with her faire Saint-like expressions, making sure prey of all that she can thus draw into her toils; and so implacable, that when she hath once got an advantage, nothing shall satisfy her but the utmost rigour, which she will rise at midnight to prosecute.”

Mrs Pigeon was what Roman satirists would have called a captator, a legacy-hunter. She had done well out of her first marriage, and has a second husband who is a Lieutenant of Oliver Cromwell’s regiment, one John Pigeon. You’d think an old Ironside like that might have been able to hold his own, but Pigeon has willed everything to her. In the course of procuring this, she has almost killed him (according to Vernon) with a mixture of aphrodisiac drugs and refusal to consent to sex (“if you touch me, I will cry murder”, she reportedly says to her husband – this in the 1656 pamphlet), until he left her everything. After this success, Mrs Pigeon went on to plot the judicial murder of her husband “it being immediately after the late Kings death, she makes show of much discontent against the actings of the present Governors; she projects to her husband to draw up a declaration against them, and their proceedings, which he must subscribe and avow, and then he should be her dear husband, and she vows to stand by him to the last in it. Let others think their pleasure, for my part, I believe this was a plot laid to have destroyed Mr. Pigeon; but he wisely refused to act in it.”

After being drawn into an affray, which his wife (who, according to Vernon, improved mightily on her facial injuries with make-up) exploits to get him cashiered from the army, Pigeon is brow-beaten by one of his wife’s legal agents into signing a bill of divorce, “alleging he might lawfully in the sight of God do it”. After this, the couple separate. (What sort of confusion of mind had Milton created, with those divorce pamphlets of the 1640’s?)


Sister Mehetabel that makes the running with old Goodwin, and soon has the old man infatuated: “She must be freed from her husband, that so she may be free for old Mr. Goodwin, who is now so taken with her, that he can enjoy himself no where but in her company: scarce one day in the week but he is at her house, spending his time in dalliance with her.” Vernon has had report of her demeanor to Goodwin: “And Mr. Pigeon affirms, that about the year 1646. sojourning then in the house of his Brother Jones, he set himself to observe their carriage, and at one time he saw Mistress Jones take Mr. Goodwin about the neck and kiss him: at another time, being (as they thought) in private, he saw her take Mr. Goodwin’s hand, and putting it under her apron, holding it against the bottom of her belly, with many repeated mutual kisses, she saying, oh my dear Love! At which Mr. Pigeon being much scandalized to see his Sister Jones so behave her self to Mr. Goodwin, she being a married woman, and her husband in the house, went presently and told his wife what he had seen, and that he would tarry there no longer, for that he believed the house was a Bawdy house, and that her Sister Jones was Mr. Goodwins whore.”

Vernon himself cannot resist a bawdy comment on the complete change the women effect in Goodwin’s preoccupation: “Now the Lute and the Lute Master is quite laid aside, Mr. Goodwin speaks not one word more of musick; he hath found another manner of Lute that is easier to play on, which he had been long before a tuning…” I suppose you could say that Goodwin finds himself (as he sees it) transformed from being a passive admirer, into a participant, the admirer thinks himself admired.

Outsiders try to intervene: everyone in the neighbourhood knows what is going on, even small children report details of Goodwin’s infatuation. But “he is so bewitched with her, that as it is reported of leprous persons, into whose flesh you may thrust needles to the head, and they feel nothing; so though reproof, admonitions, prayers, from children, neighbours, Justices, Ministers, assault him daily, yet he is insensible of all.” His minister uses the final deterrent, and “suspends him from the Sacrament, which he values so little, that to this day he so continues, without so much as once desiring to be restored, professing his conscience is clear, and that he values the reproofs of Ministers no more then the dirt under his feet.”


Jones, the lutenist, no longer has Goodwin under the fairly innocent spell of his art. He has his own troubles, and undergoes a series of legal assaults, provocations, and is led into further problems when he unwisely fights back. The two women offer him money to emigrate. He ends up imprisoned in ‘The Counter’, and when this has happened, his wife “flies to [Goodwin], throwing her self into his arms, saying, Mr. Goodwin, Mr. Jones and I am now parted for ever, and you must keep me. The poor deluded old man being overjoyed, takes her in his arms, tells her, it was the best news to him that ever came to town, and that he would provide for her, with more to that purpose. Mr. Pigeon stands in admiration at these doings; at the last breaks out into these words; Now quoth he, I see the cause my brother Jones was put into the Counter”.

Jones gets himself out of prison, and agrees with his wife that she will leave him, the house and the children to stay with him. This deal she instantly breaks, entering the house while he is out giving lessons, and removing everything of value. He finally leaves the city entirely, penniless, and heads off to Norwich.

Finally, the sisters move into Goodwin’s house. This is accomplished by marrying off Mehetabel Jones’ daughter Lydia to one of Goodwin’s less promising sons, James, “a silly schoolboy” (says the 1656 pamphlet): “In brief, they presently clap up a Match between this boy, that a little before was intended for a prentice, and Mistress Jones her daughter, a girl 19 of about fifteen years old, but so small, that she looked more like one of eight or nine at the most. After short wooing, they are married together. This was a strong subtle device, worth Mistress Pigeons Invention. By this match Mr. Goodwin and his concubine are become brothers and sisters, and who can find fault at decent familiarity between such? By this the women have got an interest in the estate and family, that they dare own to the world, which they durst not before: This brings them boldly into the house to reside; Mrs. Jones pretending that because her daughter is such a childe, she hath the more need of a guide. In a word, this device draws a faire skin over a great many scabby places at once; and so they without any more Ceremony all enter the house, bringing all their children and retinue with them.”

Goodwin enters into “an adulterous contract of marriage with Mistress Jones”, convinced by their assurances that he can justly and religiously do so. The sisters continue spending all the money they can lay hands on. There remain two members of the original Goodwin family to be defeated. The first is a devout and moral minded senior apprentice, who is finished off when he goes down with a fever. During his illness, the sisters ply him with their own prescriptions, and he dies. Then there is the capable son Andrew, who has been acting in partnership with his father, doing his best to run the money side of the business. They unleash an able accountant on him, a Mr Lewis, whom they attempt to bribe, and though this attempt fails, Vernon does not disguise the fact that Andrew, in his anguish at his father’s behaviour, has let control of the money side escape him. They discredit him enough in his father’s eyes for the old man to allow them to break into Andrew’s room, lever open his strong boxes, and finally get him out of the house by having two sergeants and two bailiffs arrive nocturnally. Andrew barricades himself in his room, but his father consents that the bailiffs might break through the wall to arrest his son. Andrew surrenders, and is hauled away into the night.

Installed, and without any opposition left, the sisters take over the house and the business, using a male associate, a scrivener called Colborne. Old Goodwin loses control of his business, and is taken on as a journeyman “and which is to amazement, so far from being sensible of what he hath done, that he proclaims to all comers that he had rather be Mrs.  Pigeons Journeyman,  then to be Master of all without his two women.”

This was the situation that had been reached when Vernon wrote his first account of this hostile domestic and commercial takeover. His 1654 pamphlet ends with appeals to Goodwin to reflect on some pungent verses from the seventh chapter of Proverbs, with some additional commentary of his own, and calls to Mehetable Jones to repent.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The 1656 pamphlet continues the story. Mistress Pigeon settled down to making money from the business, the scrivener Colborne standing security for customers anxious about their goods.

But during 1654 and 1655 business gradually drops away – “nor could they with all their art keep on the paint which daily peeled off from their bold deluding faces”. The unity between the sisters falls away too: Mehetabel has got the old man, and most of the neighbourly reproaches; she observes that her sister has control of all the money that’s in the business. The two leave Goodwin’s house, and resume their former lodgings. When Goodwin comes to visit Mehetable: “the Fish once caught, off goes the bait. Now that all is in their hands, and now that he comes to them stripped, with his empty pockets hanging out, now nothing but quarrelling and caviling questions about the Trade.”

The sisters next get the scrivener Colborne into their power at their “rat-trap in Pauls Alley” (as Vernon calls the base from which they operate), pretending to nurse him during his last illness, in effect, keeping him hostage in hope of taking advantage.

Mistress Pigeon’s husband returns, and tries to get her to accept reconciliation. This does not work. Goodwin’s children appeal to Cromwell, who appoints a number of substantial Southwark citizens to hold a commission of inquiry into the whole affair. During this process, old Goodwin dies (in December 1655), once again he was completely in their power in his dying days. Vernon attributes the death to the sisters, that they withdrew his normal food, and made him subsist solely on their prescription of “Sage-Ale, Marmalade [and] strong extracts”. Goodwin died during a fit of retching.

There follows a horrible stand-off about who is to bury the body. Mistress Pigeon does not want an autopsy, and will not surrender the body to the dead man’s relatives. The body remains in the house for three days. Mistress Pigeon lets it be known that she will hold the funeral, and invites the chief members of the parish, letting it be known that gold rings and gloves will be given out as tokens of mourning. Only one invitee is venal enough to accept the invitation. Mistress Pigeon attends the funeral with an attorney at law, to deter angry interventions, but even with this intimidating presence at her side, she is bombarded with “kennel dirt”. Mistress Jones remains barricaded in the house. Had she gone to the funeral, the best of her bargain, Vernon concludes, would have been “to gauge the depth of mud in the mill-pond”.

The tide seems to turn against the sisters. The report of the local commissioners, p[rinted by Vernon, resoundingly endorses all that Vernon’s account alleges against them. The commission try to make a fair composition, to get Mistress Pigeon to leave with some recompense, but she refuses to budge. Cromwell himself reads the report, and is indignant, but unluckily action is passed on to his privy council, who do nothing for two months, and then recommend the children to go to law. They and their advisers reflect that there will be nothing left worth getting repossession of.

So Vernon’s second pamphlet is in a way the only retaliation left to the relatives. In his possession, he has letters written by both women (one of which does indicate that they read the first pamphlet, and regarded it as libel, so it did affect them), and letters framed by Mistress Pigeon for Goodwin to transcribe and sign as his own. Instructions for him too, in how to handle the commissioners. (He was flattered into assuming a resentful silence as the true sign of his wisdom, and Vernon testifies that he heard Goodwin refusing to answer all questions.) At its end, admitting that she has escaped justice, Vernon gives a pen-portrait of Mistress Pigeon, and compares this effort to the way that “in foreign parts when notorious malefactors have by some stratagem escaped the hand of justice, then they draw their picture as near as may be to the life, which being fixed upon public places of execution, gives notice to all men what manner of person he was, that so he may be discovered”. The chief contriver of all these ills emerges, in another of Vernon’s half-tributes to an utterly unscrupulous and artful woman, as a compound of Shakespeare’s Gertrude and Goneril: “would she win compassion from her Judge, she appears all in mourning, melting like Niobe in tears … if she be before such as she thinks another bait may take better, she will appear in gorgeous Apparel, her neck and breasts bare, her complexion beyond a natural fairness”.

Mehetabel Jones was an early modern woman poet (of sorts). Vernon has various verses in his possession. This one is a down-market ‘Relique’ or ‘Legacy’:

“beg leave for one more sample of her enchanting Madrigals; which with a parcel of her Hair richly perfumed (though all will not keep it from stinking) was found with the rest; and thus it chimes, forth:
            Accept this Bracelet from your friend,
            the owner knows it is your due,
            because she belongeth unto you.
            This paper read, let it see the flame;
            if you grant not this, you are to blame:
            For she that writ it, would for you
            burn paper, and her fingers too
            to light your snuff; which she has done,
            and burnt both fingers and her thumb.
            Burn it, then your friend will I rest;
            if not, say not you love her best:
            The hours I count, the minutes too
            make haste, farewell, adieu, adieu.

Vernon astutely observes the anxiety to have the poem burned. Poor besotted Wessel Goodwin couldn’t bring himself to do that, it seems. The two women hold out, and escape. A postscript to Vernon’s second pamphlet says that they have left Goodwin’s house, and that the building has been stripped, even the lead pipes have been dug up and sold.

Quite a pair.










Monday, July 16, 2012

The (very slow) downfall of the upstart chymist









These are the rather surprisingly good woodcuts for The devil upon Dun: or The downfall of the upstart chymist: being the second edition of a late song: to the tune of Smoak us, and choak us, a single-sheet drinking song of 1672.

On the left, the ‘chymist’ stands at his pestle and mortar, preparing his elixir by pulverizing the bones his has on the table before him, labeled ‘the matter’. “More bones”, he says.


In the middle pane, he is assisted by a devil in distilling his preparation, which he hails as “The Grand Elixir”. As the liquor flows, the devil cries that “The Spirits are mine”.



In the right-hand panel (which is really two scenes in one), we see the effect upon the patient. A man who is unwell lies in bed, and receives the preparation from the chemist, who assures him of its safety and curative power (“I warrant you”). But the effect of the touted elixir is rapid death: two mourners for the late patient react: “Sumus fumus” (‘We are but smoke’) and the wry “Thankes to the Chymist”, while a third, his elbow on the catafalque, concludes sorrowfully “Not by art but Chymicallie”.




The verses accompanying the picture are less impressive:

'Mongst all Professions in the Town,
Held most in renown,
From th’Sword to the Gown,
The upstart Chymist rules the Roast;
For He with his Pill
Does ev’n what he will,
Employing his skill,
Good Subjects to kill,
That he of his dang’rous Art may boast,
O 'tis the Chymist, that man of the fire,
Who by his Black Art
Does Soul and Body part:
He smoaks us, and choaks us,
And leaves us like Dun in the mire.

A subsequent stanza in which the chemical doctor miraculously silences two disputing parsons contains a solid OED antedating:

As for the Parsons, both Pro and Con,
Dispute, and Objection,
Can’t save them, th’Chymist anon
With th’Elixir can soon end the strife,
Straight silence them both,
Who t’agree are loth,
For th’Ginny-pigs sake, though
Their quarrels give th’Old Cause new life.

If this is a clumsy joke on that newly-named animal, the guinea pig, with “jocular or contemptuous applications with allusions to the coin”, the OED does not have this till
1821, in W. Combe’s Third Tour Dr. Syntax: ‘Oh! oh!’ cried Pat, ‘how my hand itches, Thou guinea pig, in boots and breeches, To trounce thee well.’

The verses go on in a ragged fashion: here’s a stanza about the response of the orthodox medical profession:

The College Doctors with great heat,
Do very much brow-beat
So desp’rate a cheat,
Using prov’d methods safe to cure;
Yet these Chymists cry,
Who dares it deny?
At easy rates they’ll make all sure.
O 'tis the Chymist, &c.

Here the writer declares that the elixir is in fact a good means of domestic murder:

If Wife of Husband, or Husband of Wife,
By reason of strife
Are weary, Or Fathers life
Hinders th’Heir; his Laboratory
Can perform with hast,
Without much distaste,
What Indian poison can’t supply.
O 'tis the Chymist, that man of the fire,
Who by his Black Art
Does Soul and Body part:
He smokes us, and chokes us,
And leaves us like Dun in the mire.

He wishes all the ‘chymists’ sent to Algiers, to kill the population there, leaving England’s population free to grow:

Then may New Troy with Citizens fill,
Being secur’d from ill;
Then no printed Bill,
No Almanac; no Tradesman’s Shop
Shall th’Elixir vent,
To make Experiment
On liege people, killing with one drop.
O 'tis the Chymist, &c.
No printed adverts, or adverts in almanacs will sell this deadly elixir in this future ‘New Troy’ (or London).

The famous elixir just on the market had been announced in 1670 by Anthony Daffy: Direction given by me (Anthony Daffy, student in physic) for taking my safe, innocent and successful cordial drink, elixir salutis; proper to the cure of each distemper (in the printed sheet of its virtues mentioned,) and suited unto the patients several ages, sexes and constitution.

The ‘chymist’ in the woodcut may be just a generic figure, but might well have been Anthony Daffy himself. The original mixture for the elixir was apparently formulated by his uncle. Here’s the Wikipedia entry:
This gives some idea of the ingredients. They varied over time, but certainly would have had a laxative effect. The writer of the entry has Anthony Daffy move to London from Nottingham in the 1690’s: but he can be seen calling himself ‘of London, citizen and student in physick’ in 1675.

The success of the preparation he marketed was such that rival ‘elixirs’ were quickly concocted, and promoted with materials copied from his own pamphlets (as he complains). By 1675 he was putting into print Daffy’s original elixir salutis, vindicated against all counterfeits, &c. or, An advertisement by mee, Anthony Daffy, of London, citizen and student in physick by way of vindication of my famous and generally approved cordial drink, (called elixir salutis) from the notoriously false suggestions of one Tho. Witherden of Bear-steed in the county of Kent, Gent. (as pretended), Jane White, Robert Brooke, apothecary, and Edward Willet.

 Despite the poem announcing Daffy's downfall, it was a long time coming. ‘Daffy’s Elixir’ is advertised all the way through the 18th and 19th centuries: 2,188 hits are returned by the gale 18th century newspaper database, 5,522 hits by the Gale 19th century newspapers database. In the Protestant (Domestick) Intelligence or News Both from City and Country (London, England), Tuesday, March 16, 1680, Daffy lets it be known that he is still alive (counter to the reports of those who counterfeit his preparation), that he has enjoyed the benefits of the elixir for above twenty years, and that the real things can only be got from him or from the authorized outlets he had advertised in print.



The elixir makes itself familiar in literature: Pope tells the reader of the Dunciad that ‘the Balm of Dulness’ “is a Sovereign remedy, and has its name from the Goddess herself. Its ancient Dispensators were her Poets; but it is now got into as many hands as Goddard’s Drops or Daffy’s Elixir.”

Thackeray makes the best use of it, accurately capturing that tension between the generations over infant care:
“Between Mrs. Sedley and her daughter there was a sort of coolness about this boy, and a secret jealousy---for one evening, in George’s very early days, Amelia, who had been seated at work in their little parlour scarcely remarking that the old lady had quitted the room, ran up stairs instinctively to the nursery at the cries of the child, who had been asleep until that moment---and there found Mrs. Sedley in the act of surreptitiously administering Daffy’s Elixir to the infant. Amelia, the gentlest and sweetest of every-day mortals, when she found this meddling with her maternal authority, thrilled and trembled all over with anger. Her cheeks, ordinarily pale, now flushed up, until they were as red as they used to be when she was a child of twelve years old. She seized the baby out of her mother’s arms, and then grasped at the bottle, leaving the old lady gaping at her, furious, and holding the guilty tea-spoon. Amelia flung the bottle crashing into the fire-place. “I will not have baby poisoned, Mamma,” cried Emmy, rocking the infant about violently with both her arms round him, and turning with flashing eyes at her mother. “Poisoned, Amelia!” said the old lady; “this language to me?” “He shall not have any medicine but that which Mr. Pestler sends for him. He told me that Daffy’s Elixir was poison.” “Very good: you think I’m a murderess, then,” replied Mrs. Sedley. “This is the language you use to your mother.”
The elixir – and later rivals like Holloway’s ointment – was the recourse of those obliged to try ‘self-doctoring’. Doctors would always have dismissed it as poison, but they wanted their fees.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

“After this they fell all to dancing the Hays, about three flower-pots”: welcoming the apocalypse in Berkshire, 1650.




My text is a Thomason tract. Only ‘…ber’ for the month appears in his title page dating, it was perhaps September, certainly the 20th of the relevant month.

A most faithful relation of two wonderful passages which happened very lately (to wit, on the first and eighth days of this present September, being Lords days) in the parish of Bradfield in Berk-shire 1650.

The London writer has a preamble, in which the millenarian hopes entertained by Dr John Pordage and his wife are represented as (inevitably) the devil’s work prospering in Berkshire, just as they are prospering everywhere as never before:

“This is an Age of wonders: for I dare affirme, that since the deplorable Fall of our first Parents, at which time Sin was first ushered into the World, the ill spirit was never so busie, he never made such a harvest, or had such a latitude of power given him to ramble up and down in any part of the earth, as he hath had lately in this island; witness else in what various forms he hath appeared, and what sundry feats he hath played in Essex, Suffolk, Cambridge-shire, and other places, especially in Scotland, where thousands have been possest by him, and so brought to the Gallows: And now it seems he hath taken footing in Berk-shire, as appears by these two uncouth Examples following.”

The writer renders Pordage’s name as ‘Doctor Pordich’ (making me wonder how often you would give, in those spelling-permissive days, a subtly denigratory spelling to a person’s name – ‘poor ditch’). John Pordage, as his ODNB life makes clear, was only just holding on in the regular church. The ‘Commissioners for ejecting of Scandalous Ministers’ would finally oust him in 1655. Pordage seems to have been involved or interested in the Family of Love, was prone to denunciations of marriage, was accused of denying the Trinity, was a Behmenist; while the ‘Everet’ named here as the likely ‘conjurer’ who has directed the devil to make these possessions in Berkshire, was actually John Everard - Leveller, Grindletonian, alchemist, etc, etc.

So, what would be represented as diabolic intrusion into parish life in Berkshire was really product of Pordage’s earnest and ecstatic belief that the heavens were about to open. Marvellously, he was in his pulpit preaching when it became somehow apparent to him that the big moment had come, and he exited his church then and there, anxious to get back to where the real action was going to be:

“Doctor Pordich being preaching in the Parish-Church of Bradfield (on the eighth of this instant September, being Lords day) within a quarter of an hour he fell into a Trance, running out of the Church, and bellowing like a Bull, saying that he was called, and must be gone.”

In its small way, it is a moment with something of the significance of the famous time when Mohammed turned his followers round during worship, away from Jerusalem, and towards Mecca. The Vicar of Bradfield exits his church, to be translated into heaven from home, along with his true followers - his wife, and some of their female friends. In his case, it proved not to be so epochal.

Understandably, when he left his church at such a moment in such a state, Pordage was pursued and questioned, but only replied that he must be gone ‘home to his house’. Fortunately, William Foster (a local gentleman rich enough to own a coach) followed Pordage home and witnessed what happened when the vicar got home:

“Where being come, he going up the Stairs, found his Wife, (Mistress Pordich) Clothed all in White Lawne, from the crown of the head, to the sole of the foot, with a White Rod in her hand.”

What’s pleasing about all this is that the apocalypse seems to be egalitarian in regards to gender. Now Pordage had heterodox views about marriage, and ambiguous relations with a number of women. He probably regarded his women followers as being in a state higher than marriage anyway. But at this moment, his wife (in the eyes of the normal world) Mistress Pordage, is garbed as a prophetess, and will soon call for ‘Elijah’s mantle’. Female followers gather: “Mistress Chevill coming in fell on her knees, saying, That she was to meet with her Spouse, and her Prophetess. After this comes in Mistress Tracie, holding of her head, and making of strange noyses, that were heard within her, in a very hideous passion. After this they fell all to dancing the Hays, about three flower-pots…”

Mr Foster, who has followed from church, asks Pordage what is meant by the dancing, and learns that “It was a rejoicing, because they had overcome the Devil.” Of course, joy that you have vanquished Satan in Berkshire can easily be represented in London as Satan’s victory over you. Perhaps there is a Familist touch in Mistress Chevill arriving to meet ‘her Spouse’ – Christ? Pordage? Though being the man he was, Pordage was inclined to deny that there was very much significant difference.

“With that his Wife cries out for Elijah’s Mantle, and then comes up Mistress Chevill, and Mistress Pordich fell of adoring her; and then in came one Goodwife Pukerig, and bended her body, and kissed her knee; Mistress Pordich assuring her that there was a place prepared for her in heaven, to sit at the right hand of the Virgin Mary.”

‘Elijah’s mantle’ because of the second book of Kings, verse 11: “And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” Mistress Pordage is ready to ascend to heaven without death, as happened to Elijah. (“Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head to day?”)

But, as usual with these moments when the rapture is about to commence, there’s a snag – someone is missing, and it seems that this someone, who perhaps was important in making up the right numbers, was Foster’s own wife. Foster, having seen enough, leaves, but is urgently sent after and asked to return, bringing his wife with him. With her husband very much awake to strange goings-on, Foster’s wife gets cold feet, and simply refuses to go. In his 1655 publication, Innocencie appearing, through the dark mists of pretended guilt, Pordage over-confidently (and very conveniently) cites all the charges that were made against him, and in that work, it sounds as though Mistress Foster was rather frightened by the thought of seeing the heavens opened, as had been promised. As for Foster himself, he was probably involved at some lesser level himself. His wife having refused to answer the summons to be present at this Pang Valley ascension into heaven, Foster “tooke his Coach, and went alone: so coming into the Doctors house, he found the Doctor sitting in a Chaire all in black Velvet.” Costumes, as ever with early modern culture, were important for the show – as prophetess, Mistress Pordage has head to foot white linen, and her husband, black velvet (costly material and dye!). The mantle of Elijah itself was probably still in a wardrobe waiting to be deployed.

Asked where his wife is, Foster says she is not well, and therefore she cannot come: “Then said the Doctor, there is nothing can be done without her.” Crisis indeed! Mistress Pordage also asks the coachman, and hears confirmation that it is all going wrong. But they seem to have endeavoured to prolong the celestial window of opportunity, perhaps in hope that Mistress Foster would relent and show up just in time: “So there they keep dancing of the Hayes, and Trenchmore, and expecting when they shall be taken up to heaven every hour.”

The writer concludes with a dark imputation – Everard, as witch, was directing all this from far away: “By what means this Distraction came, is not as yet certainly known; but it is thought it was done by one Everet (a man suspected to be a Sorcerer or Witch) who much-frequented the Doctors house, and would often play with the children; and he was seen at London in a frantick posture, much about the time that these things happened.”

The little tract has ‘two wonderful passages’, however. Out of a sense of social status, the London  writer has told the story of Doctor Pordage’s folly first. He then moves on to detail what had happened the week before in the very same parish church. As this had happened to a thirteen year old youth, an illiterate member of a poor man’s large family (well, illiterate for the moment, but that all would change), it became the secondary story. The writer has relegated the one of the local signs that probably triggered Pordage to announce the apocalypse from its proper chronological place. Something of this sort would happen in Pordage’s church: on Sept 1st, a youth of 13, “son to one Goodman Snelling”, “being in the Parish-Church of Bradfield, fell into a very strange Fit, foaming at the mouth for the space of two hours.”

Now to fall into a fit and foam at the mouth seems to me a very likely reaction to one of John Pordage’s sermons – he seems to have been a preacher worth hearing, wildly unpredictable, charismatic, full of novel doctrines, and easily misunderstood. The youth, whose sanity has probably been affected by listening to Pordage preach every Sunday,  finally emerges from his fit, and announces that he must go to London, taking his father with him. In London, they will find an old man there “living without Temple-bar, and said to be a Gold-smith”) who was “possest with two devils, and had the Root of Corruption in him.”

Exactly what you’d want to visit London to do – to locate the root of corruption. One can perhaps sense Pordage’s influence here, and a touching willingness on behalf of his young parishioner to come up with some marvel to interest his raving vicar. Exactly as foretold, they do indeed find the old man, who has been lying in a trance, from which he revives at the very instant that they arrive. This mysterious personage gives them yet more bewildering instructions: they are to go to Beacon Hill (it is just south of Newbury, close to Highclere house, aka Downton Abbey), “and there he should finde, at such a place, a crooked stick lying on the ground, and in it there should be an Inkhorn and a pen, and directions how to write and read, and to speak several Languages, and by the stick should be lying a lamb.”

The eagerness to attain literacy, by hook or by crook, is commendable. Off they trudge out to the west. Arrived at the hill, first of all they see the lamb, then they find the crooked stick, and “therein an Inkhorn and pen: and the boy taking up the stick, the Lamb vanished.” Then the visionary experiences start: they hear “strange voices in the air; and they saw the King with his head off, and then again they saw him with his head on, and a Crown upon it: also they saw Wallingford on fire, and the Governours head off.”

Emotional perturbation indeed, a perfect 17th century mixture of political and religious anxieties: the King, a troubling beheaded phantom, and then re-headed. Heaven’s anger striking Wallingford (which had been the last royalist stronghold to hold out in 1646, but finally failed the king’s cause) and its Parliamentarian governor (Colonel Arthur Evelyn, it would have been). The father and son take the bad news to Wallingford, and seem to have been received in a level-headed way: “Whereupon, this Goodman Snelling and his son went to the Governour of Wallingford, and told him of it; who answered, that he hoped no such thing would come to pass.”

No great outcome at Wallingford, which would not burn down till 1675, and they are left with the suddenly literate younger Snelling, who also does his best to manifest the languages he has supernaturally acquired:

“This Goodman Snelling hath a great family, and they are all in a very strange frantick condition. he is a pot-ash-maker; and when his Fit is over, he is as sensible as any one; and he hath told his neighbours that he would give all that he has in the world, so that he were free of this business. And he saith that his son did bring him to such a hill, as right as though he had been there a thousand times before. And the boy can now write very well, which before he could not. Also, there are strange confused sound of Languages heard within him, but he does not speak them distinctly.”

Our writer concludes: “These things are certainly true, and avouched by a cloud of witnesses, young and old, who are the people of the best reputation in that County. My Conclusion shall be with this short prayer, which never was more seasonable then now: God deliver us from the Devil and all his shifts.

As I said, Pordage somehow kept his job in the church until he was ejected in 1655 after hearings in1654. There’s nothing at the church in Bradfield that remains from his time: the Victorians made a thoroughgoing and very heavy-handed restoration of the building in 1848.

Pordage himself features pricelessly in A Collection of modern relations of matter of fact concerning witches & witchcraft upon the persons of people (1693), which has an account of the quite staggering manifestations taking place in the Pordage’s house in 1649. The fun here is that it starts as Pordage’s defence of himself from charges of conjuration. He too takes the line that Satan is empowered as never before:
“How then can Bradfield, or any other Place, be exempted from his Appearing when God permits? And may not all this be for the manifesting of his Glory, Goodness and Power? And who can tell whose Family may be next exposed by God’s permission, to be tryed and proved by the Representation of Satan? And I desire you seriously to consider how any such Apparitions raised by the Devil, and permitted by God for his own Glory, argue me either Ignorant, Scandalous, or Insufficient …”

But, whenever he was in a hole, which (unsurprisingly in view of his beliefs), was often, and seriously, Pordage could not resist enlarging and improving the hole to suit his own fancy. He can’t hold back from telling how, yes, the spirit of Everard appeared nocturnally in his bedchamber in August 1649, how then he saw a terrifying giant, then a dragon.

Pordage sounds off (as was his wont) largely about the different spiritual worlds, and then produces this undeniably striking witness to the activities of the evil side of the spirit world: “the Spirits made some wonderful Impressions upon visible Bodies without, as Figures of Men and Beasts upon the Glass Windows and the Ceilings of the House, some of which yet remain. But what was most remarkable was the whole visible World represented by the Spirits upon the Bricks of a Chimney, in the form of two half Globes, as in the Maps. After which, upon other Bricks of the same Chimney, was Figured a Coach and four Horses, with Persons in it, and a Footman attending, all seeming to be in Motion, with many other such Images, which were wonderful exactly done. Now, fearing lest there might be any Danger in these Images, through unknown Conjuration and false Magic, we endeavoured to wash them out with wet Cloths, but could not, finding them engraven in the substance of the Bricks, which indeed might have continued till this day, had not our fear and suspicion of Witch-craft, and some evil design of the Devil against us in it, caused us to deface and obliterate them with Hammers. Now, what the Devil’s End in the former Apparitions, and those figurative Representations was, the Lord knows: But it was certainly Evil.”

In Innocencie appearing, through the dark mists of pretended guilt, Pordage obligingly lists all the charges made against him locally, and something of the same kind of optical hallucination appears: “in Dr Pordage’s house in Bradfield, lately the new Jerusalem hath been seen to come down from heaven, all of precious stones; and in the new Jerusalem was a Globe, which Globe was eternity”.



I wonder what was going off. Were these things products of Pordage’s heated imagination? He was capable of seeing a lot, indeed, seeing infinity, in almost anything, as his wild commentary on very basic images of circles and dots in Theologia mystica shows. But his house seems to have become notorious, and to have had all kinds of people turning up there. Everard was an experimenter: could he have done devised some method of projecting or etching the pictures?


I cycled over to what had been his church earlier today. The church as an institution expelled Pordage, and the over-sized and frowsty Victorian pile, which seems in part to have been used for services attended by boys from Bradfield College, testifies to the enduring dull power of that church. Pordage is listed in a manuscript list of previous incumbents as one who ‘intruded’ on the proper pastoral succession: Elias Ashmole is down as his patron to the living. The Victorians in their re-build obliterated any chance of finding a church with a furtive alchemical emblem or Rosicrucian enigma.