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Walking the few miles to the southwest into Burnley, I had half expected to find Brierley’s body outside in the churchyard. I had heard that he would often complain about the unevenness of the nave floor because the flags were so frequently up for new burials, so cheap it had been to bury inside[1]. Indeed, he had even alluded to it in conversation with me that day in that churchyard. Apparently, he had written to Bridgeman, hardly known for being a great friend to the godly but they had an ‘understanding’ between them – to have that changed and it was. I found a monument to a Brierley in the yard outside …but it was to his brother, Abel[2]. That in itself could have been nothing but a shock to me and I recalled Brierley’s words in that very churchyard some four years earlier as we had stood over little Mary’s grave. Gone in a matter of hours! Perhaps he and his brother had deceased from the same sickness for he had died in the spring of the same year[3]. It wasn’t clear to me at that stage whether Brierley would actually have buried his brother or whether he would already have been too sick himself by that time. I paused briefly. Firstly, in order to reflect upon the empty vanities of the possession of carpets and then in order to recall the man who had been as a brother to me over the course of those couple of years at Marland. He had led his mother to laugh at my abstinence from the flesh of swine and laughed with me about it afterwards like a misbehaving child. His honesty had always been that little bit greater than that of anyone else at Marland and had, ultimately, been the cause of my departure from that place. But, in spite of that confused rush of diverse thoughts, it was still only the briefest of breaks in my search. After all, it was never Abel who had drawn me back.

And the churchyard being devoid of the minister’s own lyke, I moved on, entering the church itself. Strange that when I had been with him at Grindleton, they had called him their ‘Angel’ and many had actually believed him to be so. Now the Archbishop[4] had declared that only angels were to be buried in the chancel – and that was precisely where I was to find him. In spite of all the repairs inside since my last visit there, it still seemed a gloomy dwelling for the Lord. Even our stinking hearts could not be so inappropriate a space for the Spirit’s presence. It was obvious where the flags had been recently disturbed. Brierley had been right – they didn’t go back down the same way as they came up! The remnants of those below did not allow them to do so.

I took a candle – there only for the purpose of a bearable physical light, I assumed – lit it and walked towards the area where the most recent burials had obviously taken place.  The church must have been so familiar to him, every face as recognised and understood as that of Colthurst’s widow. Yet to me, this period of his life, this surrounding, was almost total darkness other than my brief visit which I had commenced by sleeping in that doorway. There were no other memories there of him in Burnley for me. (I had enough other memories of that place from earlier years!) Yet there would be those who would have known him though and perhaps they had recorded his latter-day sermons, the most loyal of them all, Collyer, amongst them from everything I heard, at least over some period prior to my actual visit. He had even moved there so that he might follow Brierley’s every word more closely before returning to Guiseley parish some years later[5]. There would have to be some care expended in how those ministries were written-up[6]. I, for my part, could never mention, could never even refer to, the things he had once said whilst at Grindleton. They had become even more contentious by the late 1630s, part thanks – I have to say – to the activities of the likes of Everard in London and the ongoing fury of mainstream Puritans with the sermons of Towne across the North for he made not the slightest concession to them from his new bases in Lancashire[7].

There he was! The light from the candle exaggerated the incisions of the craftsman’s chisel, like great chasms in the stone slab, an interior landscape reminiscent of clints and grykes. I knelt down beside his simple grave slab and read the dull, uninspiring and perfunctory inscription – he would have wished for nothing more elaborate, mind! ‘Here lies the body of Roger Brierley, minister of God’s Word at this chapelry who died the eleventh day of June [8] in the year of our Saviour, 1637’[9]. Simple as that; no more. No mention, for example, of those sermons which might from time to time have surpassed the four hour mark; no word on all the minds he had opened once; no time now for his disputes with York, his argumentative and wily disputation with Crashawe, the return to the living world of the Egyptian boy. All those things had been shut beneath the seal of a slab. The tallow behind the condenser in Chapel Garth’s flicker had finally failed and fallen into the enveloping night. I blew out the candle. It seemed beyond the necessary and subsequently a sin simply in that: a thing devoid of function.

Candles were for working late in the darkest hours, labouring over some obscure text! Did other folk not know that? Obviously I still had little idea about the events that would convulse this country in the following years and how such thoughts might drive them. The church interior returning to its twilight blue, the smoke from the moment of extinction seemed to linger stationary before beginning to drift. Then, oddly, it seemed not to drift away from the draught of the door but towards it. My eyes tracked it and, as they did so, I suddenly became aware of the fact that I was not alone as I had naturally previously supposed. I did start but only lightly. There was no requirement for any greater degree of shock for there seemed to be no great threat posed.

Indeed, there was only a young woman present and she seemed to be alone although far away from me at the time. Even at that distance there was still something remarkably familiar about her – the size and the shape of her head – even though I saw her in scarcely more than silhouette for her head was humbly covered and her eyes rather lowered. Her presence alone was something of a surprise but what struck me most about her was that even though she had lowered her eyes, her gaze gave away the fact that she was quite openly watching me from beneath the shading of her headwear. I was the object of interest rather than God; she was there essentially for me. …Or perhaps I was wrong; perhaps she too was really there for Brierley. But upon catching my gaze she rose and started to move amongst the new seating that Brierley had had installed on either side on behalf of his fine friends. She passed them all, oblivious to the names of their farms and settlements, handed from one generation to another, over and over again, with all of England’s history within them: Briercliffe, Hill, Walshaw, Bridge End, Nuttshawe…[10] My eyes tracked her; in all honesty, it was all they could do.

As she approached, she seemed to stare back even harder, her gaze more fixed than ever. It was me she was watching. She was plainly and simply dressed and by that I do not mean only that she was dressed in a fashion that would be typical of the godly of those days – although certainly she must have fallen amongst that number: the number of the Elect, no doubt! (Not that I could recognise a member of the Elect, mind! They would not have me for that in the worsened ecclesiastical situation through which I was living! It was one of the means by which they crushed their enemies!) Her clothes were the unadorned apparel of a maidservant but she had a certain look of humility before the Lord. Even in that feeble light I could see that she was shorter than most women, hideously pale in complexion even when judged by the poorest of City of London standards, although it was far from aided by the azure cast in that place. Indeed, I suspected that it was hardly aided by Burnley’s climes either! She moved with careful step but still somehow rather awkwardly. For an initial period of time I could do nothing else but stare back in silence. She had given me no actual cause to speak. Why was she here? Why was she alone? Why was she staring at me so fixedly? That was the most disconcerting aspect of all.

As she arrived in my immediate proximity she looked so inquisitive and nervous that I began to think I would have to consider explaining my own presence. I thought about rising to my feet; it seemed the natural thing to do. However, to my surprise, just as I was upon the moment of doing so, she herself knelt down to be at my level. Her eyes briefly tracked across the floor of the church towards Brierley’s place of resting but then returned to me. She was now almost too close to me for nature. Her lips parted as if she were intending to speak. Then … she did not. I opened mine to broach the stifling silence but, as I did so, she herself tried once more to speak. There were none of the usual provisional formalities although, for the time being, she did maintain the superficial formality of addressing me as, ’Sir’: – as much a matter of station as anything else.

 

 

[1] This was a genuine complaint on Brierley’s part to the Bishop of Chester and is recounted in the Burnley parish records.

[2] The fact that Abel had been given a proper burial indicates that he was not considered to have been a victim of the plague which went through east Lancashire in the summer of 1637. Unlike most of the wills of the period, Abel gives no preference for his place of burial leaving this “att the appointment of my kinsfolke”. Most other wills tended to specify a churchyard but also allow for that to be changed.

[3] Buried in Burnley in April 1637.

[4] The Archbishop: Bridgeman implied again.

[5] This cannot actually be formally evidenced but seems quite possible given Collyer’s frequency of attendance at Brierley’s sermons in the very early years of the 1630s.

[6] Indeed, there would appear to be some differences between how it was actually ‘written up’ and the typed publications of the Bundle which emerged only decades later. See here to the introductory section on the dating and content of Briereley’s sermons. There was evidently some degree of self-censorship going on in the complation of the Bundle.

[7] Tracking the continual movements of Towne is not always easy. However in the autumn of 1638 he seems still to have been at Accrington. He moved to Heywood either in 1639 or 1640 and to Todmorden around 1643. In August of 1643 there was a complaint about his Antinomianism before the Assembly of Puritan Divines. In February 1647 the Bury Classis decided that he should not continue. In spite of that he managed to get himself further posts: at Elland between 1652 and 1655 and at Haworth in 1655. He seems to have died nine years later and been buried in Haworth churchyard. The minutes of the Bury Presbyterian Classis claim that Towne was of ‘Yorkshire plebeian’ origin in contrast to any theory that he might have been born in Burnley. Whether this can be relied upon wholly is another matter.

Both Robert Townes seem to have been preaching at Haworth as they later were at the Bingley Exercise, which makes them even more difficult to separate sometimes. Only once ‘old’ Robert Towne had died in June 1664 can we sometimes be sure of with whom we are dealing. Nevertheless, the older Towne was certainly ejected following the Act of Uniformity – see Raines MSS (Chetham) xxii fol. 306.

[8] Assumed to be two days before the burial on 13th June as recorded in the Burnley parish registers. Note also that ‘minister of God’s Word’ was a very typical Puritan phraseology. Brierley’s will was dated 8th June 1637.

[9] Brierley himself was responsible for pushing for changes to burial charges in the church at Burnley as the low cost of burial in the floor of the church was encouraging large numbers of burials there and constantly uneven floors – which worsened, as Brierley pointed out, when the earth shrank as the bodies decayed. In 1638 – after his death – new charges came in with a 6s 8d charge to be buried inside (and possibly higher charges for strangers). From then on only nobles would be buried in the church and ‘angels’ in the chancel – again, see W. Farrar. Note here that Matthew may well not have been in a position to know that the increased charges and arrangements were only actually implemented following Brierley’s death.

[10] From Brierley’s church seating arrangements she appears to be passing through the north alley of the church.

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