(Talk given to Lichfield Rotary Club, 19 Oct 2010, from Civic Society 22 October 1996)
“So the sense of this blood was upon me”
There are five plaques on the north wall of St Mary’s church, facing our Lichfield market place. The first records King Stephen authorising the market in 1155; three of the others record five martyrdoms of local people, in the reigns of Mary, Elizabeth and James I. The fifth records the visit of George Fox to the City, 38 years after the last burning at the stake in England. The plaque relating to Fox reads
George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends or Quakers,
shortly after his release from prison in Derby, at the beginning
of the winter of 1651, stood without shoes on a market day
in the Market Place and denounced the City of Lichfield.
Expanding the single sentence on the George Fox plaque to give an account of his time in Lichfield (less than one day), will call for space to be given to what happened in Derby over the preceding year. He had gone there as a young man of 26 from his home in Fenny Drayton, near Nuneaton, where he had been in dispute with the local clergy, and found
” there was a great lecture that day, and abundance of officers of the army [Charles I had been executed a year earlier, after the Parliamentary forces had won the Civil War], and priests and preachers were to be there”.
Fox’s own account continues:
“When they [the preachers] had done, I spake to them of what the Lord commanded me… and they were pretty quiet. There came an officer and said I must go before the magistrates who asked me why we came hither. I said God moved us to do so, [and their] preaching, baptism and sacrifices would never sanctify them.”
There followed an argument between Fox and the magistrates on theological interpretation which lasted the rest of the day. While it is hard for us, 360 years later, to grasp the points in dispute, these were issues for which people were prepared to burn and be burnt, as the plaques remind us. Fox’s fate was to be confined in the Derby House of Correction.
This account, and what follows, is taken from Fox’s published Journal; it is not a consistent diary of events recorded at the time, but a compendium of Fox’s dictation years later supplemented with contemporary letters and notes, carefully edited as the record of a spiritual journey. So incidental details like where he was going at the time are not always consistent – or relevant – and should not obstruct the larger story.
Fox continued his arguments with his gaolers, local priests, and the magistrates, especially Justice Bennet of Snelston
“who first called us Quakers because we bid them tremble at the word of God”.
Even the Derby bellringers were warned of the judgement to come. Before long
“The justices gave leave that I should have liberty to go a mile [from the House]. I told the gaoler that if they would set me how far a mile was, I might walk in it sometimes, but it’s like they thought I would go away. I told them I was not of that spirit…”
Next, his family tried to get him out by raising £100 for him to be bound over –
“but I would not have them to be bound, for I was innocent of any ill behaviour and had spoken the word of life to them”.
With his six month sentence nearly completed, we get the impression that the authorities were looking forward to Fox’s discharge as much as he was. But this was not to be:
“My time being nearly out, they filled the House of Correction with persons that they had taken up to be soldiers: and they would have had me to be captain of them to go forth to Worcester fight [hindsight] and the soldiers cried they would have none but me. So the keeper brought me up before the Commissioners in the market place and proffered me that preferment, and asked me if I would not take up arms for the Commonwealth against the King. But I told them I lived in the virtue of that life and power which took away the occasion of all wars, and I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strifes were. And they said they offered it in love and kindness, and I told them if that were their love and kindness I trampled it under my feet. So they put me in a dungeon amongst thirty felons in a lousy, stinking low place in the ground without any bed for almost half a year.”
Even from this pit, Fox continued his protests; this time, on behalf of prisoners who were facing the death penalty
“for cattle and money and small things, how contrary to the law of God it was”,
as well as the conditions under which they were all confined together. And he did seem to lose hope for the city where he was held:
“Oh Derby! as the waters run away when the floodgates are up, so doth the visitation of God’s love pass from thee, oh Derby!… it doth break my heart to see how God is dishonoured in thee, O Derby!”
And still the authorities could not decide what to do:
“sometime they would have me up before Parliament, and another time they would have me banished to Ireland… At length they made to turn me out of gaol about the beginning of the winter in the year 1651”
– and he headed first for Burton on Trent and then along what is now the A38.
“As I was one time walking, I lifted my head and I espied three steeplehouse spires. They struck at my life, and I asked what they were, and they said, Lichfield. The word of the Lord came to me thither I might go, and I went over hedge and ditch till I came within a mile of Lichfield. When I came into a great field where there were shepherds keeping their sheep, I was commanded of the Lord to put off my shoes of a sudden; and I stood still, and the word of the Lord was like fire in me; and being winter, I untied my shoes and put them off; and I was commanded to give them to the shepherds. And the poor shepherds trembled and were astonished.
“So I went about a mile till I came to the town, and as soon as I came within the town the word of the Lord came to me again to cry ‘Woe unto the bloody city of Lichfield!’; so I went up and down the streets crying ‘Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!’. Being market day I went in to the market place and went up and down in several places of it and made stands, crying ‘Woe unto the bloody city of Lichfield!’, and no-one touched me or laid hands on me. As I went down the town there ran like a channel of blood down the streets, and the market place was like a pool of blood.
“And so at last some friends and friendly people came to me and said, ‘Alack George! where are thy shoes?’ and I told them it was no matter; so when I had declared what was upon me and cleared myself, I came out of the town in peace about a mile to the shepherds: and there I went to them and took my shoes, but the fire of the Lord was so in my feet and all over me that I did not matter to put my shoes on any more till I felt freedom from the Lord to do so.
“And so at last I came to a ditch and washed my feet and put on my shoes; and when I had done, I considered why I should go and cry against that city and call it a bloody city; for though the Parliament had the minster one while and the King another while, and much blood had been shed in the town, yet that could not be charged to the town. But as I went through the town there ran like a channel of blood through the streets and the market place was like a pool of blood; this I saw as I went through it crying, ‘Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield.’
“But after, I came to see that there were a thousand martyrs in Lichfield in the Emperor Diocletian’s time. And so I must go in my stockings through the channel of blood in their market place. So I might raise up the blood of those martyrs that lay cold in their streets, which had been shed a thousand years before. So the sense of this blood was upon me, for which I obeyed the word of the Lord.”
Here ends the narrative, and begins my speculation – and I am no expert in 17th century history or 21st century psychiatry. It is easy to imagine that he was heading in our direction, not to return to his family (whom he had rebuffed) but to familiar country and friends who would support him after his gruelling experiences in Derby. And his mental state could have been a mixture of some kind of post-traumatic stress, and euphoria at being released. How might these have come together in his Lichfield vision?
He allows himself a considerable build-up. The spires (churches were steeplehouses, uttered with disdain)
“struck at my life”,
and he felt a divine compunction to enter the town. But first we have the shepherds, in their field where they were keeping their sheep: this resonates, and Fox would have known the account of the nativity in Luke’s gospel – Fox’s shepherds were afraid as well. Removing clothing was part of the revivalist culture of the time, and Fox’s behaviour conforms to this practice. Then we have the vision, and his denunciation of the City repeated several times – followed by anti-climax:
“alack, George, where are thy shoes?”
and a calming down as he reaches the brook and cools his feet.
I am prepared to believe that all this happened, but Fox’s rationalisation of his blood-in-the-streets vision does not seem to be credible. Fox grew up not far away, proud of his mother’s martyr ancestry (Joyce Lewis of Mancetter, martyred on 18 December 1557 and recorded on St Mary’s wall, could have been known to his grandparents), and the Diocletian massacre was well known in local lore (though there is no historic evidence for it): so claiming ignorance, rather than temporary amnesia, is not a likely explanation. Nor does his claim that he did not recognise Lichfield cathedral: what else could the building have been?
Instead, I prefer to focus on the more recent martyr element with which Lichfield would have been particularly associated: and have to question whether it was happenstance which brought him here. Rather, had Fox been deliberately testing himself nearly to the point of martyrdom in Derby, refusing as he had all offers and opportunities of release from confinement? After some very dark moments, he claims to have emerged from imprisonment with an exhilarated sense of
“the sustaining power of the Lord which would uphold and preserve him”,
and his sense of inner peace comes after he has articulated his vision of martyrdom in Lichfield – of all the places he could have travelled to. And contrast his attitude to people in Lichfield, whom he exonerates from the bloodshed and with whom he has no arguments, with his feelings about Derby (and I am not aware of any plaque to him there).
Quaker history pays little attention to this Lichfield episode – I have seen no attempts to rationalise it – while Fox’s declarations in Derby anticipate many Quaker insights and testimonies, albeit in a much more confrontational context than twenty-first century Friends would recognise.
This talk has been about George Fox in Lichfield, not the growth of Quakerism, and we are left with a picture of an alpha male who half-wanted to eschew power, was coping with post-traumatic stress, and seems to been subject to a measure of manic depression – all of which came together a few hundred yards from where we are sitting. How unlike, I am tempted to say, our present Lichfield Local Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.
Lichfield, 16 Oct. 2010