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   Chapter 31 NORTHERN RELIGION

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 30849

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The Northern counties were distinguished among all in England for their loyalty to the old Faith; and this was owing, no doubt, to the characters of both the country and the inhabitants;-it was difficult for the officers of justice to penetrate to the high moorland and deep ravines, and yet more difficult to prevail with the persons who lived there. Twenty-two years before the famous Lancashire League had been formed, under the encouragement of Dr. Allen, afterwards the Cardinal, whose members pledged themselves to determined recusancy; with the result that here and there church-doors were closed, and the Book of Common Prayer utterly refused. Owing partly to Bishop Downman's laxity towards the recusants, the principles of the League had retained their hold throughout the county, ever since '68, when ten obstinate Lancastrians had been haled before the Council, of whom one, the famous Sir John Southworth himself, suffered imprisonment more than once.

Anthony and Isabel then found their life in the North very different to that which they had been living at Stanfield. Near the towns, of course, precaution was as necessary as anywhere else in England, but once they had passed up on to the higher moorlands they were able to throw off all anxiety, as much as if the penal laws of England were not in force there.

It was pleasant, too, to go, as they did, from great house to great house, and find the old pre-Reformation life of England in full vigour; the whole family present at mass so often as it was said, desirous of the sacraments, and thankful for the opportunities of grace that the arrival of the priest afforded. Isabel would often stay at such houses a week or two together, while Anthony made rounds into the valleys and to the moorland villages round-about; and then the two would travel on together with their servants to the next village. Anthony's ecclesiastical outfit was very simple. Among Isabel's dresses lay a brocade vestment that might easily pass notice if the luggage was searched; and Anthony carried in his own luggage a little altar-stone, a case with the holy oils, a tiny chalice and paten, singing-cakes, and a thin vellum-bound Missal and Ritual in one volume, containing the order of mass, a few votive masses, and the usual benedictions for holy-water, rue and the like, and the occasional offices.

In this manner they first visited many of the famous old Lancashire houses, some of which still stand, Borwick Hall, Hall-i'-the-Wood, Lydiate Hall, Thurnham, Blainscow, where Campion had once been so nearly taken, and others, all of which were provided with secret hiding-places for the escape of the priest, should a sudden alarm be raised. In none of them, however, did he find the same elaboration of device as at Stanfield Place.

First, however, they went to Speke Hall, the home of Mr. Norreys, on the banks of the Mersey, a beautiful house of magpie architecture, and furnished with a remarkable underground passage to the shore of the Mersey, the scene of Richard Brittain's escape.

Here they received a very warm welcome.

"It is as I wrote to Mr. Buxton," said his host on the evening of their arrival, "in many places in this country any religion other than the Catholic is unknown. The belief of the Protestant is as strange as that of the Turk, both utterly detested. I was in Cumberland a few months back; there in more than one village the old worship goes on as it has done since Christianity first came to this island. But I hope you will go up there, now that you have come so far. You would do a great work for Christ his Church."

He told him, too, a number of stories of the zeal and constancy shown on behalf of the Religion; of small squires who were completely ruined by the fines laid upon them; of old halls that were falling to pieces through the ruin brought upon their staunch owners; and above all of the priests that Lancashire had added to the roll of the martyrs-Anderton, Marsden, and Thompson among others-and of the joy shown when the glorious news of their victory over death reached the place where they had been born or where they had ministered.

"At Preston," he said, "when the news of Mr. Greenaway's death reached them, they tolled the bells for sorrow. But his old mother ran from her house to the street when they had broken the news to her: 'Peal them, peal them!' she cried, 'for I have borne a martyr to God.'"

He talked, too, of Campion, of his sermons on "The King who went a journey," and the "Hail, Mary"; and told him of the escape at Blainscow Hall, where the servant-girl, seeing the pursuivants at hand, pushed the Jesuit, with quick wit and courage, into the duck-pond, so that he came out disguised indeed-in green mud-and was mocked at by the very officers as a clumsy suitor of maidens.

Anthony's heart warmed within him as he sat and listened to these tales of patience and gallantry.

"I would lay down my life to serve such folk," he said; and Isabel looked with deep-kindled eyes from the one to the other.

They did not stay more than a day or two at Speke Hall, for, as Mr. Norreys said, the necessaries of salvation were to be had there already; but they moved on almost at once northwards, always arriving at some central point for Saturdays and Sundays, so that the Catholics round could come in for shrift and housel. In this manner they passed up through Lancashire, and pushed still northwards, hearing that a priest was sorely needed, through the corner of Westmoreland, up the Lake country, through into Cumberland itself. At Kendal, where they stayed two nights, Anthony received a message that determined him, after consultation with Isabel, to push on as far as Skiddaw, and to make that the extreme limit of his journey. He sent the messenger, a wild-looking North-countryman, back with a verbal answer to that effect, and named a date when they would arrive.

It was already dark, two weeks later, when they arrived at the point where the guide was to meet them, as they had lost their way more than once already. Here were a couple of men with torches, waiting for them behind a rock, who had come down from the village, a mile farther on, to bring them up the difficult stony path that was the only means of access to it. The track went up a ravine, with a rock-wall rising on their left, on which the light of the torches shone, and tumbled ground, covered with heather, falling rapidly away on their right down to a gulf of darkness whence they could hear the sound of the torrent far below; the path was uneven, with great stones here and there, and sharp corners in it, and as they went it was all they could do to keep their tired horses from stumbling, for a slip would have been dangerous under the circumstances. The men who led them said little, as it was impossible for a horse and a man to walk abreast, but Anthony was astonished to see again and again, as they turned a corner, another man with a torch and some weapon, a pike, or a sword, start up and salute him, or sometimes a group, with barefooted boys, and then attach themselves to the procession either before or behind; until in a short while there was an escort of some thirty or forty accompanying the cavalcade. At last, as they turned a corner, the lighted windows of a belfry showed against the dark moor beyond, and in a moment more, as if there were a watcher set there to look out for the torches, a peal of five bells clashed out from the tower; then, as they rose yet higher, the path took a sudden turn and a dip between two towering rocks, and the whole village lay beneath them, with lights in every window to welcome the priest, the first that they had seen for eight months, when the old Marian rector, the elder brother of the squire, had died.

It was now late, so Anthony and Isabel were conducted immediately to the Hall, an old house immediately adjoining the churchyard; and here, too, the windows were blazing with welcome, and the tall squire, Mr. Brian, with his wife and children behind, was standing before the bright hall-door at the top of the steps. The men and boys that had brought them so far, and were standing in the little court with their torches uplifted, now threw themselves on their knees to receive the priest's blessing, before they went home; and Anthony blessed them and thanked them, and went indoors with his sister, strangely moved and uplifted.

* * *

The two following days were full of hard work and delight for Anthony. He was to say mass at half-past six next morning, and came out of the house a little after six o'clock; the sun was just rising to his right over a shoulder of Skiddaw, which dominated the eastern horizon; and all round him, stretched against the sky in all directions, were the high purple moors in the strange dawn-light. Immediately in front of him, not thirty yards away, stood the church, with its tower, two aisles, and a chapel on a little promontory of rock which jutted out over the bed of the torrent along which he had climbed the night before; and to his left lay the straggling street of the village. All was perfectly still except for the dash of the stream over the rocks; but from one or two houses a thin skein of smoke was rising straight into the air. Anthony stood rapt in delight, and drew long breaths of the cool morning air, laden with freshness and fragrant with the mellow scent of the heather and the autumnal smells.

He was completely taken by surprise when he entered the church, for, for the first time since he could remember, he saw an English church in its true glory. It had been built for a priory-church of Holm-Cultram, but for some reason had never been used as that, and had become simply the parish church of the village. Across the centre and the northern aisle ran an elaborate screen, painted in rich colours, and the southern chapel, which ran eastwards of the porch, was separated in a similar way from the rest of the church. Over the central screen was the great rood, with its attendant figures, exquisitely carved and painted; in every direction, as Anthony looked beyond the screens, gleamed rich windows, with figures and armorial bearings; here and there tattered banners hung on the walls; St. Christopher stood on the north wall opposite the door, to guard from violence all who looked upon him day by day; a little painting of the Baptist hung on a pillar over against the font, and a Vernacle by the pulpit; and all round the walls hung little pictures, that the poor and unlearned might read the story of redemption there. But the chief glory of all was the solemn high altar, with its riddells surmounted by taper-bearing gilded angels, with its brocade cloth, and its painted halpas behind; and above it, before the rich window which smouldered against the dawn, hung the awful pyx, covered by the white silk cloth, but empty; waiting for the priest to come and bid the Shechinah of the Lord to brood there again over this gorgeous throne beneath, against the brilliant halo of the painted glass behind.

Anthony knelt a moment and thanked God for bringing him here, and then passed up into the north aisle, where the image of the Mother of God presided, as she had done for three hundred years, over her little altar against the wall. Anthony said his preparation and vested at the altar; and was astonished to find at least thirty people to hear mass: none, of course, made their communion, but Anthony, when he had ended, placed the Body of the Lord once more in the hanging pyx and lit the lamp before it.

Then all day he sat in the north chapel, with the dash and loud thunder of the mountain stream entering through the opened panes of the east window, and the stained sunlight, in gorgeous colours, creeping across the red tiles at his feet, glowing and fading as the clouds moved over the sun, while the people came and were shriven; with the exception of an hour in the middle of the day and half an hour for supper in the evening, he was incessantly occupied until nine o'clock at night. From the upland dales all round they streamed in, at news of the priest, and those who had come from far and were fasting he communicated at once from the Reserved Sacrament. At last, tired out, but intensely happy, he went back to the Hall.

But the next morning was yet more startling. Mass was at eight o'clock, and by the time Anthony entered the church he found a congregation of nearly two hundred souls; the village itself did not number above seventy, but many came in from the country round, and some had stayed all night in the church-porch. Then, too, he heard the North-country singing in the old way; all the mass music was sung in three parts, except the unchanging melody of the creed, which, like the tremendous and unchanging words themselves, at one time had united the whole of England; but what stirred Anthony more than all were the ancient hymns sung here and there during the service, some in Latin, which a few picked voices rendered, and some in English, to the old lilting tunes which were as much the growth of the north-country as the heather itself. The "Ave Verum Corpus" was sung after the Elevation, and Anthony felt that his heart would break for very joy; as he bent before the Body of his Lord, and the voices behind him rose and exulted up the aisles, the women's and children's voices soaring passionately up in the melody, the mellow men's voices establishing, as it seemed, these ecstatic pinnacles of song on mighty and immovable foundations.

Vespers were said at three o'clock, after baptisms and more confessions; and Anthony was astonished at the number of folk who could answer the priest. After vespers he made a short sermon, and told the people something of what he had seen in the South, of the martyrdoms at Tyburn, and of the constancy of the confessors.

"'Be thou faithful unto death,'" he said. "So our Saviour bids us, and He gives us a promise too: 'I will give thee a crown of life.' Beloved, some day the tide of heresy will creep up these valleys too; and it will bear many things with it, the scaffold and the gallows and the knife maybe. And then our Lord will see which are His; then will be the time that grace will triumph-that those who have used the sacraments with devotion; that have been careful and penitent with their sins, that have hungered for the Bread of Life-the Lord shall stand by them and save them, as He stood by Mr. Sherwin on the rack, and Father Campion on the scaffold, and Mistress Ward and many more, of whom I have not had time to tell you. He who bids us be faithful, Himself will be faithful; and He who wore the crown of thorns will bestow upon us the crown of life."

Then they sang a hymn to our Lady:

"Hail be thou, Mary, the mother of Christ,"

and the old swaying tune rocked like a cradle, and the people looked up towards their Mother's altar as they sang-their Mother who had ruled them so sweetly and so long-and entreated her in their hearts, who stood by her Son's Cross, to stand by theirs too should God ever call them to die upon one.

The next day Mr. Brian took Anthony a long walk as soon as dinner was over, across the moors towards the north side of Skiddaw. Anthony found the old man a delightful and garrulous companion, full of tales of the countryside, historical, religious, naturalistic, and supernatural. As the

y stood on a little eminence and looked back to where the church-tower pricked out of the deep crack in the moors where it stood, he told him the tale of the coming of the pursuivants.

"They first troubled us in '72," he said; "they had not thought it worth while before to disturb themselves for one old man like my brother, who was like to die soon; but in April of that year they first sent up their men. But it was only a pair of pursuivants, for they knew nothing of the people; they came up, the poor men, to take my brother down to Cockermouth to answer on his religion to some bench of ministers that sat there. Well, they met him, in his cassock and square cap, coming out of the church, where he had just replaced the Most Holy Sacrament after giving communion to a dying body. 'Heh! are you the minister?' say they.

"'Heh! I am the priest, if that is what you mean,' he answers back. (He was a large man, like myself, was my brother.)

"'Well, come, old man,' say they, 'we must help you down to Cockermouth.'

"Well, a few words passed; and the end was that he called out to Tim, who lived just against the church; and told them what was forward.

"Well, the pursuivants got back to Cockermouth with their lives, but not much else; and reported to the magistrates that the wild Irish themselves were little piminy maids compared to the folk they had visited that day.

"So there was a great to-do, and a deal of talk; and in the next month they sent up thirty pikemen with an officer and a dozen pursuivants, and all to take one old priest and his brother. I had been in Kendal in April when they first came-but they put it all down to me.

"Well, we were ready for them this time; the bells had been ringing to call in the folk since six of the clock in the morning; and by dinner-time, when the soldiers were expected, there was a matter of two hundred men, I should say, some with scythes and sickles, and some with staves or shepherds' crooks; the children had been sent down sooner to stone the men all the way up the path; and by the time that they had reached the churchyard gate there was not a man of them but had a cut or a bruise upon him. Then, when they turned the corner, black with wrath, there were the lads gathered about the church-porch each with his weapon, and each white and silent, waiting for what should fall.

"Now you wonder where we were. We were in the church, my brother and I; for our people had put us there against our will, to keep us safe, they said. Eh! but I was wroth when Olroyd and the rest pushed me through the door. However, there we were, locked in; I was up in one window, and my brother was in the belfry as I thought, each trying to see what was forward. I saw the two crowds of them, silent and wrathful, with not twenty yards between them, and a few stones still sailing among the soldiers now and again; the pikes were being set in array, and our lads were opening out to let the scythes have free play, when on a sudden I heard the tinkle of a bell round the outside of the tower, and I climbed down from my place, and up again to one of the west windows; there was a fearsome hush outside now, and I could see some of the soldiers in front were uneasy; they had their eyes off the lads and round the side of the tower. And then I saw little Dickie Olroyd in his surplice ringing a bell and bearing a candle, and behind him came my brother, in a purple cope I had never set eyes on before, with his square cap and a great book, and his eyes shining out of his head, and his lips opening and mouthing out Latin; and then he stopped, laid the book reverently on a tombstone, lifted both hands, and brought them down with the fingers out, and his eyes larger than ever. I could see the soldiers were ready to break and scatter, for some were Catholics no doubt, and many more feared the priest; and then on a sudden my brother caught the candle out of Dickie's hand, blew it out with a great puff, while Dickie rattled upon the bell, and then he dashed the smoking candle among the soldiers. The soldiers broke and fled like hares, out of the churchyard, down the street and down the path to Cockermouth; the officer tried to stay them, but 'twas no use; the fear of the Church was upon them, and her Grace herself could not have prevailed with them. Well, when they let us out, the lads were all a-trembling too; for my brother's face, they said, was like the destroying angel; and I was somewhat queer myself, and I was astonished too; for he was kind-hearted, was my brother, and would not hurt a fly's body; much less damn his soul; and, after all, the poor soldiers were not to blame; and 'twas a queer cursing, I thought too, to be done like that; but maybe 'twas a new papal method. I went round to the north chapel, and there he was taking off his cope.

"'Well,' he said to me, 'how did I do it?'

"'Do it?' I said; 'do it? Why, you've damned those poor lads' souls eternally. The hand of the Lord was with you,' I said.

"'Damned them?' said he; 'nonsense! 'Twas only your old herbal that I read at them; and the cope too, 'twas inside out.'"

* * *

Then the old man told Anthony other stories of his earlier life, how he had been educated at the university and been at Court in King Henry's reign and Queen Mary's, but that he had lost heart at Elizabeth's accession, and retired to his hills, where he could serve God according to his conscience, and study God's works too, for he was a keen naturalist. He told Anthony many stories about the deer, and the herds of wild white hornless cattle that were now practically extinct on the hills, and of a curious breed of four-horned sheep, skulls of all of which species hung in his hall, and of the odd drinking-horns that Anthony had admired the day before. There was one especially that he talked much of, a buffalo horn on three silver feet fashioned like the legs of an armed man; round the centre was a filleting inscribed, "Qui pugnat contra tres perdet duos," and there was a cross patée on the horn, and two other inscriptions, "Nolite extollere cornu in altu'" and "Qui bibat me adhuc siti'." Mr. Brian told him it had been brought from Italy by his grandfather.

They put up a quantity of grouse and several hares as they walked across the moor; one of the hares, which had a curious patch of white between his ears like a little night-cap, startled Mr. Brian so much that he exclaimed aloud, crossed himself, and stood, a little pale, watching the hare's head as it bobbed and swerved among the heather.

"I like it not," he said to Anthony, who inquired what was the matter. "Satan hath appeared under some such form to many in history. Joachimus Camerarius, who wrote de natura d?monum, tells, I think, a story of a hare followed by a fox that ran across the path of a young man who was riding on a horse, and who started in pursuit. Up and down hills and dales they went, and soon the fox was no longer there, and the hare grew larger and blacker as it went; and the young man presently saw that he was in a country that he knew not; it was all barren and desolate round him, and the sky grew dark. Then he spurred his horse more furiously, and he drew nearer and nearer to the great hare that now skipped along like a stag before him; and then, as he put out his hand to cut the hare down, the creature sprang into the air and vanished, and the horse fell dead; and the man was found in his own meadow by his friends, in a swound, with his horse dead beside him, and trampled marks round and round the field, and the pug-marks of what seemed like a great tiger beside him, where the beast had sprung into the air."

When Mr. Brian found that Anthony was interested in such stories, he told him plenty of them; especially tales that seemed to join in a strange unity of life, demons, beasts and men. It was partly, no doubt, his studies as a naturalist that led him to insist upon points that united rather than divided the orders of creation; and he told him stories first from such writers as Michael Verdunus and Petrus Burgottus, who relate among other marvels how there are ointments by the use of which shepherds have been known to change themselves into wolves and tear the sheep that they should have protected; and he quoted to him St. Augustine's own testimony, to the belief that in Italy certain women were able to change themselves into heifers through the power of witchcraft. Finally, he told him one or two tales of his own experience.

"In the year '63," he said, "before my marriage, I was living alone in the Hall; I was a young man, and did my best to fear nought but deadly sin. I was coming back late from Threlkeld, round the south of Skiddaw that you see over there; and was going with a lantern, for it would be ten o'clock at night, and the time of year was autumn. I was still a mile or two from the house, and was saying my beads as I came, for I hold that is a great protection; when I heard a strange whistling noise, with a murmur in it, high up overhead in the night. 'It is the birds going south,' I said to myself, for you know that great flocks fly by night when the cold begins to set in; but the sound grew louder and more distinct, and at last I could hear the sound as of words gabbled in a foreign tongue; and I knew they were no birds, though maybe they had wings like them. But I knew that a Christened soul in grace has nought to fear from hell; so I crossed myself and said my beads, and kept my eyes on the ground, and presently I saw my lights burning in the house, and heard the roar of the stream, and the gabbling above me ceased, as the sound of the running water began. But that night I awoke again and again; and the night seemed hot and close each time, as if a storm was near, but there was no thunder. Each time I heard the roar of the stream below the house, and no more. At last, towards the morning, I set my window wide that looks towards the stream, and leaned out; and there beneath me, crowded against the wall of the house, as I could see in the growing light, was a great flock of sheep, with all their heads together towards the house, as close as a score of dogs could pack them, and they were all still as death, and their backs were dripping wet; for they had come down the hills and swum the stream, in order to be near a Christened man and away from what was abroad that night.

"My shepherds told me the same that day, that everywhere the sheep had come down to the houses, as if terrified near to death; and at Keswick, whither I went the next market-day, they told me the same tale, and that two men had each found a sheep that could not travel; one had a broken leg, and the other had been cast; but neither had another mark or wound or any disease upon him, but that both were lying dead upon Skiddaw; and the look in the dead eyes, they said, was fit to make a man forget his manhood."

Anthony found the old man the most interesting companion possible, and he persuaded him to accompany him on several of the expeditions that he had to make to the hamlets and outlying cottages round, in his spiritual ministrations; and both he and Isabel were sincerely sorry when two Sundays had passed away, and they had to begin to move south again in their journeyings.

* * *

And so the autumn passed and winter began, and Anthony was slowly moving down again, supplying the place of priests who had fallen sick or had died, visiting many almost inaccessible hamlets, and everywhere encouraging the waverers and seeking the wanderers, and rejoicing over the courageous, and bringing opportunities of grace to many who longed for them. He met many other well-known priests from time to time, and took counsel with them, but did not have time to become very intimate with any of them, so great were the demands upon his services. In this manner he met John Colleton, the canonist, who had returned from his banishment in '87, but found him a little dull and melancholy, though his devotion was beyond praise. He met, too, the Jesuit Fathers Edward Oldcorne and Richard Holtby, the former of whom had lately come from Hindlip.

He spent Christmas near Cartmel-in-Furness, and after the new year had opened, crossed the Ken once more near Beetham, and began to return slowly down the coast. Everywhere he was deeply touched by the devotion of the people, who, in spite of long months without a priest, had yet clung to the observance of their religion so far as was possible, and now welcomed him like an angel of God; and he had the great happiness too of reconciling some who, yielding to loneliness and pressure, had conformed to the Establishment. In these latter cases he was almost startled by the depth of Catholic convictions that had survived.

"I never believed it, father," said a young squire to him, near Garstang. "I knew that it was but a human invention, and not the Gospel that my fathers held, and that Christ our Saviour brought on earth; but I lost heart, for that no priest came near us, and I had not had the sacraments for nearly two years; and I thought that it were better to have some religion than none at all, so at last I went to church. But there is no need to talk to me, father, now I have made my confession, for I know with my whole soul that the Catholic Religion is the true one-and I have known it all the while, and I thank God and His Blessed Mother, and you, father, too, for helping me to say so again, and to come back to grace."

At last, at the beginning of March, Anthony and Isabel found themselves back again at Speke Hall, warmly welcomed by Mr. Norreys.

"You have done a good work for the Church, Mr. Capell," said his host, "and God will reward you and thank you for it Himself, for we cannot."

"And I thank God," said Anthony, "for the encouragement to faith that the sight of the faithful North has given to me; and pray Him that I may carry something of her spirit back with me to the south."

There were letters waiting for him at Speke Hall, one from Mr. Buxton, urging them to come back, at least for the present, to Stanfield Place, so soon as the winter work in the north was over; and another from the Rector of the College at Douai to the same effect. There was also one more, written from a little parish in Kent, from a Catholic lady who was altogether a stranger to him, but who plainly knew all about him, entreating him to call at her house when he was in the south again; her husband, she said, had met him once at Stanfield and had been strongly attracted by him to the Catholic Church, and she believed that if Anthony would but pay them a visit her husband's conversion would be brought about. Anthony could not remember the man's name, but Isabel thought that she did remember some such person at a small private conference that Anthony had given in Mr. Buxton's house, for the benefit of Catholics and those who were being drawn towards the Religion.

The lady, too, gave him instructions as to how he should come from London to her house, recommending him to cross the Thames at a certain spot that she described near Greenhithe, and to come on southwards along a route that she marked for him, to the parish of Stanstead, where she lived. This, then, was soon arranged, and after letters had been sent off announcing Anthony's movements, he left Speke Hall with Isabel, about a fortnight later.

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