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.