The demise of Brierley – Burnley 1637

Part 1

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Janet did her best to comfort him with ground camomile and vervain – a concoction that she had learned to put together from a servant woman in her father’s household as a child[1]. She had known that his health had been suffering more than perhaps he cared to admit. It must have been doing otherwise he would not have stopped writing the registers in the summer of the previous year. She informed me that Old Welsh’s son had been brought in to replace Clerk Bruer anyway and he would have been more than capable, if rather ‘over the top’ and somewhat prone to showing off with it too. But then Brierley had had to stop preaching sermons again as well[2]. For a time he had at least seemed stable and devoted his time to the composition of letters. He would have known that those letters would only ever be read after his death but he told those around him that he wished to write to friends back in Rochdale. He drafted these to folk he considered to be worthwhile. He had treated this endeavour with an assiduity rarely seen in younger men for, in spite of everything, the folk he considered worthwhile writing to were actually rather numerous. But ceasing to preach always left Brierley slightly without a purpose in life (even if only for a couple of Sabbaths in a row) and the fevers became ever worse. The letter composition hardly compensated.


It was Janet who had stayed closest to him. By then she was around him more than Anne was, actually. Perhaps the latter considered that she had done enough in Grindleton and throughout the Kildwick years. No… in truth, it was more likely that she could simply not bear too much of what was beginning to happen to him: that physical unravelling which can be so distressing to witness. It was a heavy load for someone so young as Janet to bear as well. There is no doubt that she struggled with it continuously, holding back the welling tears behind her tiring eye sockets, like sacks to keep out deluges. He would honestly not have appreciated the lacrimae mulieri[3]. They would all have smacked too greatly of ‘doting’. It was all just ‘doting’! When she departed the chamber and went through to Anne, often the tears would flood out from Janet and be met by almost equal quantities from the latter, as water formerly held back at sluices breaking forward. They would sob on each other’s shoulders, any gap between their ages disintegrating in the flow, but still careful not to create too great a din lest the minister might overhear them. So they remained still in their respective dull apparels pressed close to one another, damp light from the multiple casements falling dimly upon them but never venturing beyond the door which isolated him from the two of them.


In some respects he was now at the mercy of those with whom he had made a compact. I do not mean to imply Janet but rather the likes of Shuttleworth and Towneley. (To be fair to him, he still had some of those who had been faithful to him around – the likes of Ambrose Walton but some of them who remained faithful, such as Collyer, were by then elsewhere[4].) Grateful as ever for the best seats in St Peter’s (the rest; I do not mean Ambrose!), they brought in a doctor; I suppose the finest that could be found in Burnley in those days[5] or, who knows, perhaps even from Lancaster or Blackburn? John Jackson would not have been good enough in the minds of that lot[6]! They examined him, poured his urine into variously-shaped alembics and took their turns in smelling it[7], eventually decided against bloodletting and, in its place, prescribed him a course of herbal emetics and laxatives[8]. But when he had taken those, it had been quite apparent that they only took further toll on the minister.


Theoretically, Janet should have been the one to administer that course. She had a conferred responsibility; she was supposed to push on with it regardless. It was not what he wanted though. In no way did he berate her for her role and he even kept his frustration with the medic to himself as well. But, if he was going to be treated, then it was at least going to be by someone he trusted. And there were no such folk in brutal honesty that side of the Greet[9].


Open the doors! [He told her. Anyone who did not know his ways as well as she did might well have taken him for being somewhat sharp with her!] … All of them! I want to smell the freshness of the air. My own stench does nothing bar sicken me these days!


Janet set out to do exactly as she was told, the opening of the most immediate door attracting the concerned attentions of Anne. Almost nothing more than her worry-laden face was lit as it groaned its way open, the rest of her body and garments merging with the surrounding interior, the light from the casements already partially obscured deliberately at the request of the medic – even though Brierley rarely set foot in the room by then. Janet instinctively felt a requirement to offer some sort of explanation to her. For the time being she got no further than that first door although Brierley did not even register though for he had allowed his eyes to close, if only little more than momentarily.


He says he could benefit from such fresher air. [Then, with the intention of offering some support to the minister’s request…]… It is stifling in there.


If anything, Anne only looked relieved that there had not been some ‘news’. Everything from Janet was subtle, understated. But, if Brierley had ever had such subtleties, then he had long since lost them. He made no attempt even confine his voice to one person – not immediately, anyway. He was hardly used to doing so, was he? It did not exactly boom by then in the manner it had perhaps done some twenty years earlier but it was still far from tempered when compared with the enunciation of most others.


I want to remind myself that the Creation does not actually terminate at these four walls, that the air still moves between here and the outside. [He was almost approaching bellowing but it still sounded hoarse and enfeebled. But then his voice softened considerably.] …Janet, my dear… [It softened further still!] – come closer please…!


Anne was accustomed to that kind of behaviour by then. Another woman might easily have resented it. But she simply sighed, turned away and returned to other matters – for there were plenty of them! She was beyond earshot now. In effect he was alone with Janet.


…I need to be treated…


Janet understood that – or thought she did!


I know… Do you want those fluids the medic supplied?


Brierley’s immediate response was to grip her wrist, quite forcefully for a man who was (without any doubt) beginning to fade. In better light it would have been perfectly apparent that the pale skin of her wrist whitened yet further where it came into contact with the additional pressure of his brutish thumb, brief though the full force of that pressure might actually have been. And ‘brief’ was all he could manage by then. But there was no ‘better light’ by then, even though that is precisely what he continued to seek – now in its most literal of interpretations.


No! …No, I don’t. [He was certainly quite clear upon that.] I want us to pack a few things…




Yes, for a journey …to Halifax.


Janet was very probably truly astounded. She remained subtle, of course. That was not only her nature, it was also her duty. As little as was actually feasible would emerge upon her pallid face.


Halifax? …You are not really in a fit state to travel…


…And I am not ‘really’ in a fit state to sit about doing nothing but slowly departing my corpse here! Furthermore, I will be requiring someone to care for me on the journey. Anne will be fine here; she knows what she is doing well enough. And Welsh… Welsh is a good man, you know…? He does everything well. Excellent, indeed …yes! He can look after things far better than I can now. He knows it too! I know that! But that is just a certain vanity within youth – no need to pay it any great heed[10]! Between him and Anne everything is actually in hand in spite of all my recent failings!


That was certainly the last thing that Janet would have wished to dispute. And perhaps somehow that silenced her into acquiescence.


There are people I need to see there, my dear!


Would it not be better then for them to come to visit you here?


Brierley’s mouth fell open slightly. It was evident that that had not occurred to him as a consideration previously. He looked so exhausted; any alternative to travel would have been a sound one – even to his most determined of minds. And Janet’s advice was seldom wanting in either sense or in genuine concern for the welfare of the ‘good minister’.


Yes… yes, they will come. They will come here. …Thank you, Janet! Thank you!


Nevertheless, it was an optimistic perspective. Currer would not necessarily have been a problem but, if it was the ‘physician’ I think he had in mind, he was talking about a man older than himself and perhaps not in a much better state of health. A bit of rational thought might have convinced him of the existence of some flaw in the argument – Janet’s or not! But, increasingly frequently, there were periods in which he was unable to draw upon any vast reservoir of the rational[11]. For his mind was developing a tendency to leap from one supposed revelatory conclusion to another. Therefore the suggestion seemed to satisfy him and he ceased to go about the requirement for a journey to Halifax. One could not actually say that Janet had ‘talked sense into him’; he would hardly have stomached that! He had become far too stubborn an old man regardless of his intentions. But she had stopped his wandering mind from going any further along that route.


Shall I close the doors now?


Brierley even permitted a moment of consideration for that.


No. …Oh, no, leave them open, Janet! The air beyond smells better, I think. Better for you as well, my dear. And, anyway, we have to make a start.


Therefore, she stopped herself part way in her movement to the door, leaving it ajar to what was actually the outside world, to the breezes from across the Cronkshaw Meadow, in due course. There could be no hurry. In the meantime, she could not have been completely convinced that he had not returned to the insidious idea of the Halifax journey since there was little in the way of an obvious alternative to what he might have been implying with regard to such a commencement in his speech.


A ‘start’? With what?


There are a lot of things which I must get into writing. Aye me, Our Janet! So many things and my mind does not feel as ordered as it might be! …Oh, do not fret! For you take me to mean a testament? Yes…well, I will need to undertake one of those but it will need witnesses. Ambrose, for a start: nobody could possibly have been as loyal as him. Ask Anne if she can send for Gabriel[12] – do not tell her why! Not that she won’t be able to guess! But that is not so much what I intended, Janet! No, no… there are many more important things than that. You and I have further communications to write…


Few folk considered there to be anything more important at that stage of one’s life than a will and testament. And he looked aged now – for a man in his fifty first year, he looked in his seventies[13]. His long-itching eyes could no longer focus, his greyed hair had started to fall out in clumps when Janet tended to it whilst he sat up in bed[14] and his hands shook uncontrollably all the time unless he was gripping something. And even when he had his quills to hold, he struggled to write. He still liked to hold those quills, mind, as though he felt they provided him some security, something solid onto which to grasp, some last grip of fading connection with the world of the material but also the link to a world he had far more actively cultivated: the realm of the book, the kingdom of the quill.


[1] See A. Smith – ‘Myth, medicine and magic’.

[2] This is assumed from the point at which he stopped writing the registers.

[3] Lacrimae mulieri: literally, ‘women’s tears’.

[4] Were now elsewhere: As outlined in other footnotes, judging from the sudden cessation of Collyer’s recording of his sermons, the latter may well have returned to Guiseley parish for the winter of 1632 although he may well have been living in Burnley over 1631 and much of 1632 judging by the frequency of his attendance at Sabbath sermons in Burnley. There is, of course, an alternative possibility: that someone else took the notes and he was only responsible for collating the sermons. Matthew has already mentioned Collyer’s absence at some point after this period. It was certainly nothing new by this time.

[5] There were doctors in Burnley by this point of the 1600s – although there do not appear to have been there very much earlier. John Hargreaves seems to have been an educated doctor. One of the alternatives who might have been more popular amongst dissenters (because he was one himself) was one of the Whittakers of Healey Hall – although it is not clear if he had the same attitude towards the curate as some of his family appear to have done. A gentleman could expect to pay around £1 a day for medical attention. However, medics tailored their fees to their clients’ abilities to pay, so those of humbler stock might only have expected to pay a few shillings. However, the impact of organised medicine on the lower echelons of society was extremely superficial – see Keith Thomas. It is not clear how Burnley prices might have compared.

[6] John Jackson: This was a very common in Burnley at the time. However, the parish records of the period only list one ‘practitioner of Phisicke’ and that would appear to be a man called ‘Jack Jackman’ who was buried in 1641. There are no other references to him in the records, suggesting that he either died there as a journeying practitioner or, more likely, he was really one of the many John Jacksons and his name has been mistranscribed. It was generally considered to be the case that doctors from the larger centres such as Blackburn and Lancaster (and these centres in particular) had more competent and reliable doctors.

[7] A patient’s urine was generally considered to be the best gauge of health.

[8] Laxatives: a surprisingly old word, having come into use in English in the fourteenth century from the French for ‘loosen’.

[9] That side of Greet: presumably, the previously mentioned Cross of Greet is being used here as a metonym for the Lancashire / Yorkshire county boundary.

[10] Note that Benjamin Welsh would have been thirty years of age at the time – therefore, ‘youth’ is relative!

[11] Reservoir: Not actually first recorded in writing until the 1680s, its initial meaning implied simply ‘a place where something tends to collect’ from a French word meaning, ‘store house’. See the website for further details.

[12] Gabriel: Gartside, Brierley’s brother-in-law and the husband of his sister, Mary.

[13] This probably means that he looked even older than that because people tended to age at a faster rate in the seventeenth century – a result of overwork and malnourishment in the winter months.

[14] As previously stated, sitting up in bed was normal practice even during the night as phlegm was less likely to build up and coughing could be limited. Similarly, people tended to split sleep in the night so that phlegm did not build up that way. Therefore there is nothing unusual about Brierley’s posture although it might also equally imply that he was a fraction more raised than was normal.