|Mary Barton's poem about Charity|
In 1661, William Barton was a man of 28 years, a butcher by trade, married and living in Shrewsbury. Brought up in a godly household, he could as a child recite whole Bible chapters and psalms. His brother affirms that he was charitable to the poor. This brother, Thomas Barton, is patently the author of A brief relation of several passages of the life and death of William Barton of Shrewsbury, in October, 1661 (1664), though the work is down on EEBO as anonymous. Thomas, writing the account, is named and directly addressed by his brother at one point (p12).
But William was also prone to being a ‘companion of vain persons, spending time with them in the Alehouse’. Even amongst them, he would ‘speak for God and his People’. But this residual public godliness was tied up with a propensity for vainglory and lying. He would pray ‘in his family, and sometimes in secret, though, as he after complained, very seldom’. William was clearly struggling to maintain a respectable front.
William fell deeper into ‘evil courses’ – gaming and ‘company-keeping’. He kept trying to repent of his ways, but found he could never resist if a regular drinking companion asked him out. We get the intimate family details: his mother would quiz him on how much he had spent during one of these bouts – he would affirm that he had spent no more than two pence, but this was always a lie. In danger of arrest for debt, Barton held off any attempt to detain him by brandishing a knife, saying ‘Keep off me, you know not what I may do; do not come near me, lest I set you to sleep with your fathers’. Despite this, an over-keen apprentice to an officer of the town said that he would take Barton ‘dead or alive’. One evening, Barton went out of his house, despite his wife’s plea that he stay in to avoid any more trouble. As he later put it, having heard her request, ‘I having a readiness to do contrary, out I went’. He said to her in leaving, ‘Dost thou think that I will be afraid to go about my business for fear of an Apprentice boy?’But the persistent officer’s apprentice tried to tackle Barton (who was ‘full of drink’) from behind as he stood in his mother’s shop. Barton struck behind him with his knife, wildly, and killed the youth who was trying to arrest him with a single blow. He was dragged off to prison, so drunk that he was barely aware of his crime. There he fell asleep in the straw, and when he came to, thought that what they told him of the murder was invented to scare him, and frighten him into better ways. Barton came with a jolt to conviction of sin: ‘mightily awakened with the apprehension of his guilt, and of God’s severity against Sin’. His early bible learning came back to assail him: he spent his time ‘multiplying scripture against himself’.
The greater part of this narrative of Barton’s last days (both before his inevitable conviction and equally inevitable execution) deals with the murderer’s thoughts about his sin, and the state of his soul. ‘Many choice things … were spoke by him at several times, which I am not able to set down’, his brother apologises to the reader. But there’s plenty. William Barton, murderer, was on semi-public display, in leg-irons, laid in straw in the gaol. If ‘children or others stood to gaze on him’, Barton would prevent the gaol keeper from sending them away: ‘Let them look on me, and see the fruits of sin’, he would say, and show them his gyres. Barton is encouraged by the godly who come to see him to make ‘an ingenious confession’ (that will be OED sense II † 4, ‘Used by confusion for INGENUOUS or L. ingenuus … honest, candid, open, frank’) – ‘without any hiding or sparing of himself’.
Barton readily set about the task which his intellectual training had prepared him for so well. At times, he sounds like a provincial John Donne: ‘I dare not look behind me, for my works sink me into Hell, and I can see nothing before me but an angry God’. His drinking provides him with a symbol or analogy for having filled himself with sin: ‘I was as full of sin as I could hold’, or worse, ‘As full of sin as I could hold, till I was become all Sin.’ As he talks, he is unconsciously rehearsing elements of the final confessional speech he would make at the gallows: ‘I loved a little Ale better than God, and better than myself’. Bible texts inform his limitless self-reproach: ‘I have been a Son of many reproofs, but I hardened my neck And how is God’s word made good upon me in this? He that being often reproved, and hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed’. (It is Proverbs 29, 1, as given in the King James Authorized Version.) A woman who was one of his former drinking companions visits him: he earnestly tells her to ‘Spend no more time as you spent it with me’.
For some of his listeners, his ‘ingenious confession’ is all rather too much, and they try to argue him back to a sense of proportion: ‘Some of the company then by, said, ‘William, you were not so bad as you make your self now’. But William came up with a devastating reply: that the former goodness they kindly impute to him, as far as it went, only means that (in the way of goodness) ‘I did but enough to leave me inexcusable’.
William keenly, obsessively, analyses where his godliness failed. He recalls how he would formerly look forward to Sabbaths, and listen intently to the sermons he heard. But Mondays always saw him ‘turned into the world again’. Religion seemed to let him down. Even worse, six months before ‘this brake out’ (he means, his final spewing forth in murder of the sin with which he had been fully charged), he had turned to the Bible, and turned the pages, ‘I would turn it and turn it, and methoughts I would fain find some new thing; nothing would serve but something that was new; I could begin to read no where, but it was that which I knew before; I thought I knew it all already, and so I would lay it down and never read’. For a 17th century Englishman, this sounds a dire situation indeed: to be failed by God’s word. (One thing that is striking about this sad narrative is that Thomas does not mention any clergyman or elder coming to talk to his brother: the godly of the town seem to take on that role collectively.)
Understandably, under this intense pressure from within, and from without, Barton’s mood swings wildly. He can assert that ‘my tongue shall sing aloud of his (God’s) Righteousness, though it should be upon a gallows’. When his links are knocked off, hurting him in the process, he affirms that ‘I will bear the indignation of the Lord’. But shortly afterwards, his brother and sister find him yellow in the face, ‘his countenance as if he had not been the same man’, and he says: ‘All is gone now, I am in the dark’. But even then he soon he returns to his ‘former rapture of joy’.
As he is taken to execution, he proclaims that ‘Sin is going to be executed’. Again, we have a moment when one of the godly community stands in for a minister (though the intervention proves not to have been well judged):‘A Friend going with him, cheared him up with the words of Dr Tayler of Hadley going to his martyrdom: ‘It is but one step to my Father’s House.’ But the martyr’s confidence is too much for the fragile Barton, who collapses again into ‘Ah! But I am not such a one’. On the scaffold, Barton prays for the Holy Spirit to assist him in his final address to the onlookers (‘Now Lord help me to honour Thee’). He is represented as repeating many of his previous formulations: how he could never listen to counsel, how he hardened his neck, ‘I being often reproved hardened my neck’, and that shocking assertion about how he effectively ‘loved a little Ale better than God’. He had pleaded innocent to the charge of wilful murder, and, on the gallows, he repeated his argument that he never meant to kill the officer’s apprentice. In a rather murky passage, he says that he forgives anyone present who ‘did plot or contrive that which is now come to pass, the casting away of my life’. (Barton can still see himself as in part a victim, despite all the self-accusations.) In all this eloquence, both on the scaffold and previously in prison, with its mixture of bible locutions, there is almost a sense that Barton was reading his lines from the script his culture had ingrained in him.
Yet there is one moment that is totally unexpected in a 17th century man, as Barton in this vein of ‘ingenious confession’ suddenly voices this (p25): ‘I have been cruel to Horses, in making them do more then they were able; and cruel I have been to men’. That’s a Keith Thomas moment for you (I think of Man and the Natural World 1500-1700). It is the one mention of animals in the narrative, nothing else is said about this cruelty, but William Barton, for a moment, transcends his engrossing soul-drama, departs from talking about himself in the manner which the godly community expected of him (for in all the very penitent Barton says, there’s a faint continuity with his earlier performance of public piety). Here, he seems to purge himself of an unexpected crime, suggest a wider reflectiveness. It’s an impressive moment.
Thomas Barton, writing this account, has throughout interspersed references to their sister Mary, who had died of illness in 1658, three years before William’s final disaster. Mary had been one of those who had regularly admonished her peccant brother. He was always on her mind: ‘she carried him upon her heart’, the narrative says. Mary was godly through and through, given to visiting church yards by night ‘the better to put myself into a dying condition’. Then, as a final surprise to us, and ending the volume, ‘Here follow also some Verses, made by the same Mary Barton, in the praise of Charity’. It is a versification after 1 Corinthians 13. I have put the quatrains onto a single image, which heads this post. It does not seem to me that Thomas Barton is adding this to even up the moral balance on his family, insinuating a saint to match the sinner: for William Barton struggles though from sin to an exemplary death. He is like Frank Thorney in ""The Witch of Edmonton. On the gallows, his one demur is when the officers presiding try to chivvy away the townsfolk who are giving William one last farewell, perhaps a final embrace. As William gets to the scaffold, ‘Chearfully looking upon the multitude, he said, ""All these are to see sin shamed. When the Officers bade them stand off from him, he said, ""O do not keep God’s people from me this little moment that I am to be in the World, they are my delight, and my comfort.’
Thomas Barton’s Brief Relation is a revealing work, of great integrity. He manages to keep his own feelings out of the account; there’s a great dignity in which he swerves from any account of the hanging itself to this appended tribute to his dead sister. I do not think it’s a silent reproach: William did not lack charity in his last days, and in general accepted his punishment. The godly of Shrewsbury seem to have accommodated him as a drunk, and forgiven him as a penitent about to face God. William could not accept himself as no-good son, his faith was too ingrained. In that part of his life, faith assailed him. But, as murderer, faith came to his rescue, sustained him till his death, as he accepted himself as thoroughly penitent.