The good death of Lawrence Britcliffe, part four: dark nights of the soul

Lancaster Castle gatehouse (Adventure Monkey)

This is the fourth part in a series about one of my long-distant ancestors. There’s also been an introduction, a post on Lawrence Britcliffe’s family and youth, and on the murder he committed in 1739. Much of the story in this post is found in the sermon preached at his funeral service at Bacup in 1743 by Rev David Crosley (available here).

One of my big limitations living in the Black Country is that I can’t just hop to Kew to visit the National Archives (this is probably something of a wider access issue to be discussed elsewhere). If this were possible I’d be there looking at plea rolls, crown minute books, writs of certiorari, and briefs and opinions from the assize courts of the Palatinate of Lancaster. Lawrence was tried during the Lent Assizes in 1742 at Lancaster Castle, and that’s roughly all I know about it.

The trial

In giving himself up, Lawrence effectively sealed his own fate. He didn’t seem to know it at the time however: he was advised that this process would enable the whole thing to blow over, and that he’d be able to return his estate into the rightful hands of his family, rather than having “outlawry” hanging over him. That status meant that his lands would have been seized until he presented himself at court – the fact that when he did, he lost his appeal, probably contributed in no uncertain way to the decline in social status of this branch of the Briercliffe family tree, from yeoman landholders to manual tradesmen within a few generations. As Crosley says: “learn hence the danger of an ill-grounded confidence, which has occasioned multitudes to split upon the rock of vain presumption.”

Lancaster Castle in 1778, by Thomas Hearne. The round tower here was demolished in 1796. (Wikimedia Commons, from the collections of Lancashire Museums)

In fact, Lawrence languished in gaol for an indefinite amount of time before his trial even began, arriving sometime between the end of the summer assizes 1741 and the Lent assizes in 1742 when he was tried. Easter was early that year and the trial took place around 29th March. The circuit judge rode into Lancaster from one of his previous assignations, perhaps York or Appleby, and made his way up the hill to the castle.

The castle had been the county gaol for many years, housing infamous prisoners like protestant martyr George Marsh, Catholic martyr Edmund Arrowsmith, Quaker non-martyr George Fox and the Pendle Witches. It was also home in 1741 to a certain Robert Brearcliffe, indebted heir of the Briercliffes who had remained at the ancestral home of Burwains, to the NE of Burnley (see last post). A prisoner in debtors’ gaol would undoubtedly have had more freedom and better treatment than one awaiting a trial for murder, but I wonder if the cousins ever met, if their stays overlapped? A little awkward, probably.

Lancaster later found fame as the execution capital of the country, once Liverpool and Manchester swelled into huge cities. In 1742 it was just county town of a large county, and most assizes saw just one or two hangings, if any. The ridiculously-comprehensive Capital Punishment UK database lists 297 death penalties leading to 78 hangings in the period 1735-1799, including for counterfeiting, horse theft, rape and murder. I have few details to hand of Lawrence’s trial: according to Crosley he “looked for nothing but a general concurrence of all things in order to his acquitment; instead thereof he found everything go against him.” Testimonies of friends stumbled and were picked apart, contradicting one another. The prosecutors’ attack was organised and effective, and other murders and indiscretions were more than hinted at – including keeping an “ill woman” in the cell with him. Lawrence denied these further offences to his very end, but on that March day the judge pronounced the sentence of death by hanging, for the murder of John Hindle in the parish of Cliviger, three years before.

The aftermath

Let’s jump forward to Bacup in 1743 for a moment. After his introductory remarks, and brief outline of Lawrence’s sins, the Rev David Crosley gets to the meat of his sermon. The elderly man, but big and stature and now doubt in full preaching swing, brings his congregation down to the lowest of Lawrence’s lows:

And now the melancholy scene was opened. Approaching death threw off its vizard, and began to appear bare-faced; and now sin the parent of death, and spring-head of all his sorrows, began to return upon his thoughts; a concern for his soul, which before this time were transient and fluctuating, began now to fix and grow more real.
Crosley, p.67

The gravity of his situation hit Lawrence immediately. Having realised the cause of his downfall (namely alcohol) he came to the conclusion that by refusing food he could somehow atone and avoid the gallows by starving himself to death. This wasn’t a hunger strike or anything so grand – I think it was a desperate attempt to find reason in what had happened to him, and gives some more evidence that Lawrence was at best a fragile soul. He was talked out of it after three days by the prison chaplain Dr Fenton.

Life for the condemned man was physically not that uncomfortable. He had reasonable day quarters and the prison treated him much better than Crosley seems to have imagined the “low prison” to be like. But emotionally he remained in utter turmoil. In his grief he wrote to his parents, John and Mary, both of whom were still alive in Cliviger, requesting not them – but his old pastor, David Crosley. And despite his reservations, Crosley was eventually prevailed upon to make the 30 mile walk over the Forest of Bowland to Lancaster Castle.

lancaster castle map
Lancaster Castle with fantastic interior detail in the first OS map. The Shire Hall at the West of the building was a later addition, and you can see that the round tower on Hearne’s 1778 painting is gone. Lawrence would have slept in one of the Northern towers and spent his days in the adjoining rooms, perhaps looking out over the town to the hills, or over the Lune estuary to Morecambe Bay. His cousin Robert on the other hand was in the debtor’s rooms on the South side. [(c) Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Ltd 2016. All rights reserved. 1849]

The pastor

Crosley arrived so late that he was only able to leave a letter on the first evening, which he’d prepared in case of Lawrence being inaccessible in the depths of gaol. But he was easily enough able to meet and talk with him over the next few days. He initially found a man caught up in anger – at his prosecutors, at the witnesses who’d slandered him. That found short shrift in Crosley:

I told him that I was not come to recognize the matter or manner of his tryal, or re-examine the process that had been carried on against him. The issue was fixed, and sentence past; and now I could look on him no otherwise than as a dying man that had but a very few days to live.
Crosley, p.73

Lawrence calmed down immediately. The first stages of grief, denial then anger are now over. I think speaking with Crosley has taken him back to his salad days when the world was laid out before him: he had a good family and a good life, an intense and fulfilling religious community around him, and a mentor in Crosley. No wonder he bursts into tears now. Crosley has just finished explaining the importance of utter repentance of his sins, and all the study, the prayer and the sermons of Lawrence’s youth come flooding back to him. This is why Lawrence called for Crosley: because in his eyes at least, never had such a great sinner as he ever obtained mercy.

Cell at Lancaster Castle (this one is believed to be where the Pendle Witches were kept) (My Hidden Gems)

Their lengthy conversation has certainly been through the sermonising mill. In Crosley’s account both parties talk of a variety of obscure biblical characters like Manasseh, Achan and Jeshurun, all with citations, and it should remain in mind that this is still a sermon and doesn’t purport to be a verbatim account. It has a point, a moral: to convict the listeners of their own sin and the possibility of their own salvation despite that. In this context then, Lawrence’s emotions are rhetorical tools: when Crosley records that “tears flowed into his eyes… with uncommon concern,” I’m sure they did; yet Crosley is utilising this emotion to tug at the heartstrings of his congregation. I am loving the copious exclamation marks particularly. I can only imagine how Crosley’s booming East Lancashire accents dwelt on every one. Lawrence remained racked with his own guilt, and their conversation is dotted with “Lord have mercy upon my soul!” and “Oh my soul! My poor soul! At the end of the day, Crosley left him with his thoughts and went back to his lodgings to “wrestle with God that night” on Lawrence’s behalf.

The cold and dark cloud

The next morning saw Lawrence in a much better mood, and the text is much less peppered with anguish and melodrama. Lawrence has been through a dark night of the soul, and come out with questions. “If I understand my own heart,” he said, “then I am truly sorry.” He’s built his morning cheerfulness on shaky foundations though, and it’s not long before he begins to doubt more. Crosley remarks: “hereupon I perceived he began to look pale, and despondency began to prevail.” He later refers to a “cold and dark cloud” that came over him as soon as he felt he was making progress. This is a  gift to a preacher, of course – the rollercoaster ride of Lawrence’s inner thoughts made for great drama and opportunity. Lawrence was still buckling under the weight of his emotion.

Graffiti in the gatehouse wall at Lancaster Castle (BBC)

Another dark night followed for our antihero. It doesn’t take too close a reading to see the doubts, the fears, the guilt that is holding him back from Crosley’s invitation to repent, repent, repent. The pastor wouldn’t have recognised himself as an “evangelical” in the occasionally pejorative way we now think of the term. This religious movement was yet to be (in fact John Wesley, so key in its development, was just beginning to preach and set up Methodist churches in 1739, when Lawrence was otherwise engaged). So when Crosley says “repent” it’s not in the hectoring, street-preacher style or the American Southern Baptist style, he’s simply trying to persuade Lawrence to make his relationship with God right before it’s too late.

The recorded sermon uses reason, analogy, all the tricks of the trade, and finds Lawrence the next morning in much calmer frame of mind. I wonder if this was the case in reality. I wouldn’t blame Crosley for recording only the parts of the conversation he considered pertinent to the sermon and suitable for his congregation. I suspect though that Crosley’s own past came up in conversation, with the questions over his conduct and immorality in London weighing on his own mind. We don’t know what really happened to Crosley in 1705 (see my first post and Dunan-Page’s article), but my guess is that Crosley was able to draw on his own dark nights of the soul in order to guide Lawrence. He was no Augustine, and didn’t record his confessions in excruciating detail (although his own misdemeanours were not likely to be as grave as Lawrence’s). But the feeling of a fall from grace, of failure and desperation, then of finding hope must have made this a very emotional three days.

Lawrence, for his part, is humble:

“I dare not boast, I know my heart is deceitful, but so far as I know my heart, I love God entirely above all things, and nothing grieves me so much as that I have sinned against him; and that little hope I have in his mercy, on account of the forgiveness of these heinous offences, even dissolves my heart and melts it down before him; so that I could rejoice to lie as in the dust at his feet, for ever to adore and glorify him”
Crosley, p.108-9

The questions come: are you at peace with the world and those who’ve done you wrong? He is. With wife and children? He is, and would give anything to see her again and re-obtain her favour. Lawrence even requests the verse to form the basis of his funeral sermon, Psalm 99:8: “Thou answeredst them O Lord our God: Thou wast a God that forgavest them, though thou tookest vengeance of their inventions.” David Crosley leaves satisfied that Lawrence Britcliffe’s soul is at peace, that he is “a sincere penitent” as James Hargreaves puts it; his work is done.

The last morning

Although some of Lawrence’s former companions had done him real damage at the trial, some had stayed loyal. Crosley had to depart that evening, but his friends Henry Winterbottom, Henry Butterworth and Benjamin Heap record in a postscript that they were with him on his last night, in which they prayed and prayed. They too had walked to see him and I think this touched Lawrence, as it had with Crosley’s journey. They recalled their nights of “prayer together, in the lower barn” and Lawrence expressed his grief at not being able to meet his former friends for communion together before his passing. The next morning “he talked like a man for another world,” his peace made, his fate accepted. “I have now brought my time from years to weeks, from weeks to days, from days to hours,” he said, and was very aware that his last hours should be spent healthily and happily. So he sat up from 3am with his friends, peaceful and no longer angry, weeping or frightened. At 11 o’clock, there’s a knock and a key in the door – the Sheriff has arrived…


2 thoughts on “The good death of Lawrence Britcliffe, part four: dark nights of the soul

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