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Archive - Friday, 17 November 2000
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Past Lives: A stake and fire on the cobbles
THESE are prosaic times. We asked new friends where they lived at Richmond. "In Newbiggin ... you know, the cobbled street with the fish and chip shop."
Chip shop, be darned. Admittedly, they didn't say anything about the delicious smell of vinegared batter, but neither was there a mention of a lingering whiff of charred flesh and gunpowder.
For Newbiggin, west of the market place and one of this historic little town's most evocative streets, staged a burning during the religious turmoil of the late Middle Ages. Yet had the condemned man been allowed to moulder a few weeks longer in the town prison, an 18-month ordeal that had already caused his toes to rot away, before being dragged to a heretic's stake in September 1558, he would have been vindicated.
On November 17, exactly 442 years ago today, Bloody Mary died and with her passed the Pope's hopes of keeping England within the Holy See. Elizabeth I, her half-sister who succeeded her as queen, promptly proclaimed that the country should return to the Church of England founded by the sisters' father, Henry VIII.
Too late, though, for Protestants Richard and John Snell, believed to have been weavers from Bedale. The brothers were hard-working and peaceable, but they rejected the theology - as far as they understood it, for they were uneducated men - and rituals of Rome. Actually, John recanted at a mass held for the purpose at Richmond parish church in Frenchgate, a service punctuated by his brother's cries of "Sacrilege!" and "Blasphemy!", but this crippled and broken man could not live with himself.
Immediately after the mass, he had been taken in by one of the priests who had conducted it. John Acrigge acted on an injunction the congregation had heard minutes earlier: "But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, faith, meekness, temperance; against such there is no law." The priest cut him a walking stick from an elm tree outside the church and gave him a bed in his own rooms in a house up against Trinity tower in the market place.
Four days later, days during which he kept repeating "I'm a traitor ... to Christ, to my brother, to my own conscience," John Snell hobbled forth. His eyes, it was said, were bright and purposeful as he made his way down the steep cobbled slope of Cornforth Hill towards the fast-flowing Swale. Before the bridge he turned left along the riverside path leading to Foss Head - the waterfalls which then powered a mill.
"Christ forgive me!" he cried. "Jesus receive my soul!" And he threw himself over, on to the half-submerged rocks. His body was found four days later under Catterick Bridge, four miles away.
The harrowing account, and more that follows, comes from some nicely written but anonymous pages which accompany information given to people who took up the Landmark Trust's invitation to visit two local historic buildings among the many all over the country which it has restored and now make available as the most superior of holiday lettings.
One is Culloden Tower, Richmond; the other is "the Old Grammar School" at Kirkby Hill, a charming village a few miles west of Richmond comprising little more than a church, pub, a couple of farms and a few ancient buildings, including that school and its associated almshouses, clustered around a rudimentary green.
One John Dakyn, a priest whose name is perpetuated in a charitable trust which leases the old school to the trust and which now runs the almhouses as Dakyn House - six self-contained flats - was a key figure in the burning of John Snell.
Indeed, it was at his initiative that, after he had judged imprisonment had sufficiently broken the will of the two heretics, the recantation mass was held; and afterwards it was he who, by handing the recalcitrant brother over to the civil authority, started the process towards the North of England's first, and possibly only, burning for heresy in the last three years of Mary's short reign. South of the Trent, however, about 300 Protestant refuseniks went to the stake.
Dr Dakyn was not only rector at Kirkby but also, by virtue of service to important figures in the Church nationally, Archdeacon of the East Riding of Yorkshire. He had been ordered by the Archbishop of York to root out heresy in the diocese. He was a powerful and feared man who had previously made all heretics recant.
He felt humiliated by his failure, in front of the townspeople in St Mary's, Richmond, to break the will of Richard Snell, the most obstinate man he had ever met. Snell could scarcely stand but still he defied Dakyn when, at an excommunication hearing a week or so later, the latter challenged him to say when he had last confessed to a priest.
"I'd sooner confess to a dog than a priest," replied Snell.
A large, apprehensive crowd had gathered in Newbiggin by 10am on September 9, 1558 to watch the execution by fire; hawkers tried to sell food and drink but there were few takers. Four butchers chosen by lot from the members of their guild were in the Sheriff of Yorkshire's procession of guards, jailers, churchmen, bailiffs, town officials and 12 halberdiers which accompanied Snell from the prison.
At dawn the hired butchers had sprinkled gunpowder on top of straw and faggots around the base of a 10ft oak stake embedded deep in the cobbles and fitted with an iron collar. Tar had been spread thickly around. A wagonload of twigs and greenery was piled nearby.
Snell seems not to have resisted as he was padlocked, waist-high in kindling, to the stake. The prebendary of Wells in Somerset (of all places, but it will be seen that Dakyn had held office in the West Country) addressed the awe-stricken onlookers on the necessity of belief in the power and authority of the Church of Rome and of Queen Mary if they were to inherit eternal life.
His harangue and a listing of Snell's heresies lasted nearly an hour, interrupted only once by a defiant outburst from the condemned man. The prebendary thrust a crucifix into Snell's face and offered him a last chance to repent.
The reply included: "Do your worst, false priest!"
When one of the butchers poked a burning torch into each corner of the pyre, the reason for the greenery became apparent. When the stuff was added to the flames which leapt up around Snell amid his cries of "Christ help me!" the poor man began to suffocate in the thick smoke, his cries became incoherent and the worst of his death agony was hidden from view. He gave a piercing scream and lost consciousness.
"A low, angry moan arose from the onlookers," says the account already mentioned. "One voice, that of Richard Atkinson, a weaver, rang out loud and clear: 'Hold fast there and we will all pray for thee.' At these words many in the crowd sank to their knees."
Dr Dakyn was unwell the following day and his condition quickly grew worse. Two months to the day after the terrible martyrdom in Newbiggin, the archdeacon died. As he was convulsed by final seizures, servants heard him aver that he was being choked by smoke from Richard Snell's pyre.
A week later, Bloody Mary was also dead.
THE archdeacon had earlier been chancellor to the Bishop of Bath and Wells, William Knight, and in his will that gentleman appointed Dakyn his executor. Much of the money that established the Dakyn Charity in the parish of Kirkby Ravensworth was left by Bishop Knight.
These days, now that the charity no longer has its school to run, it makes educational grants to local young people. As explained above, the school is leased to the Landmark Trust as a holiday cottage but part of the building is retained for village use - but memories of stern Dr Dakyn are evoked by rules that include no music and no dancing.
After 400 years, the school closed in 1957. Its story is a fascinating one and I have no room to tell it this week, nor that of one of its surviving pupils ... whose wife looks after the premises for Landmark. Please watch this space.