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Fox’s arrival into Sedbergh

Interview with Angus Winchester at Brigflatts
In this film we’ve come to Brigflatts near Sedbergh to talk about George Fox’s arrival in the town and this hamlet. And with me is Angus Winchester, Professor of History at Lancaster University and one of the people who’s really studied Quakerism in this area. Angus, thanks very much for joining me here. We’ve heard about George Fox climbing Pendle Hill, and then, according to his journal, he comes through the Dales in to Dent and then to Brigflatts. How long do you think that journey might have taken? We don’t really know because he doesn’t give a date for going up Pendle Hill, but I think we can assume that that’s going to be in late spring, presumably, possibly May.
We do know from other sources that 1652 was a very, very hot, dry spring, so it would be good walking weather, if you like. But if he’s there let’s say in May, we know that he’s up in the Sedbergh area by the 6th of June. Now that’s the first clear event we have, clear date we have. So we’re talking three or four weeks. So he mentions staying at the houses of someone called Tennant and Major Bousfield and the house of Richard Robinson. And I wondered if we knew where those houses were and how exactly we can plot his route from Pendle Hill to Sedbergh. Well there’s two parts to that question.
Number one is do we know where the houses are? And the answer is yes, so therefore we could plot parts of the route. But actually when you’re trying to reconstruct the route, it’s very difficult because really we’re relying on his evidence. We’re relying on his journal, the first journal, the short journal, which was written over a decade after the events. And when you actually plot the places and try to reconstruct his journey, it doesn’t actually make sense. He starts off– after Pendle Hill there’s a sort of gap, really. We don’t know quite where he goes. But he’s in Wensleydale and he said he’s in a market town in Wensleydale, which is probably Askrigg.
And from there he goes, well to– there’s an episode with the schoolmaster’s house. There’s an episode in an ale house. They’re presumably in Wensleydale, though not said. From there he goes to the house of James Tennant, which we do know where that is. That’s at a place called Scar House in the upper end of Langstrothdale, not very far from the old church at Hubberholme. So he’s gone south. He’s gone south over the watershed into basically Upper Wharfedale. He then heads back west because up from James Tennant’s the next place, as you say, is Bousfield’s house, which we know is in Garsdale.
He actually says it’s in Garsdale, which is to the east of Sedbergh, but north of here, and he goes there via Dent. He then comes down here. So it’s a sort of zigzag route, but heading westwards, northwestwards. One of the interesting things about the route to me at least is that when you look at the short journal, on a couple of occasions, he says, I was directed to professing people. By professing people, he means people who were like him, of Christian, Puritan outlook. And so the implication is that he’s actually going from one known house to another. There’s a network there in the Dales and he’s being passed from one serious-minded Puritan to the next.
So obviously he’s looking for places where he’ll find people who are supporting his religious ideas, agreeing with him, but presumably also he’s looking for food and lodging. Yes, in terms of lodging, it’s quite interesting because there are a couple of occasions where he appears to slept out in the open air. Certainly, that’s the case between Pendle Hill and Wensleydale, when he and Richard Farnsworth, he says they spent a night on the common, you know, covered themselves with bracken. And later on when he’s in Wensleydale, he says that he’s going to go out and spend the night outdoors. So to a certain extent, that will reduce his need for accommodation, as it were.
But reading between the lines, he’s clearly going from one sympathetic house to another, I think. And his reception, as you’d expect, is mixed. Again, putting together the snippets from the journal, it’s clear that some people accept his message. He says, several were convinced, a lot were convinced, a few were convinced. It’s also clear that he meets with some hostility, not perhaps as much as in some of his later journeys. There’s an episode in an ale house in Wensleydale where he goes out to leave and is followed by a man with a club, with a sheath of knives and he thinks he’s going to be attacked.
But the other thing that comes through very strongly from the account is that basically they think he’s mad. They report that they think he’s a madman who’s got away from his family. And in a schoolmaster’s house, again, probably in Wensleydale, the story goes that he is basically locked into the house until he can convince them that actually he’s not mad and that he is somebody with strong religious convictions and with a message to preach. But clearly he’s thought to be mad. And when he actually comes here, to Brigflatts, Richard Robinson, who– of course the meetinghouse isn’t here in 1652, but Richard Robinson’s house just across the yard is.
And Richard Robinson, very interested in his message, but then he suddenly worries at night, has he come to rob me? And he locks him into his bedroom. So there’s a sort of ambivalence. There’s both this feeling that he’s bonkers, but also the feeling that his message is important and that he is actually meeting a receptive audience. And what happened at the house of Justice Benson? Well this is probably the first– this is where the big convincements start, if you like. Justice Benson, just along the road from Brigflatts here at Borrett, he was a leading light, a really leading Puritan in the area. And Fox is clearly directed to him.
He actually says in the short journal that he’s directed to Justice Benson’s because there is going to be a meeting of the professing people, in other words, the Puritan people, who we now know, piecing everything together, are the people who we refer to as the Westmorland Seekers. So these are separatists. These are people who cut themselves off from the parish church, are meeting separately, and Benson’s house is where they’re meeting on Sunday the 6th of June, which is Whitsunday. So he’s basically told to go there and a major meeting takes place. Clearly he preaches. He doesn’t say a lot about his preaching there. And a lot of people are convinced, including quite a lot of the Seekers.
And can you tell us what happened in the Sedbergh churchyard? And it’s also the time of a great fair. What’s going on there? Yes, because this is sort of following up, following on from it. Just as an aside, it makes you wonder, when he’s here in the Sedbergh area, he’s come to the Sedbergh area at Whitsuntide. And his message of course is that we should take seriously the idea of Whitsuntide, the idea that the Holy Spirit has come to individuals, and it’s for possibly no accident that he’s in Sedbergh at Whit. First of all, it’s on Whitsunday, as I say, he’s had the meeting at Justice Benson’s house.
But then on the following Wednesday, this is the day of the great Whitsuntide fair. Now lots of market towns all across the North of England had major fairs around Whitsuntide, which were not just fairs for the trade of cattle and other goods, but in particular were places where servants and farm labourers went to be hired. And of course the majority of people who were servants and farm labourers were young people. So the town would be thronged of young people from a very wide area. And if you’re a preacher, particularly a young preacher– Fox of course himself is only about 27 at this time– you know, this is what you want, lots of young people.
So it’s an obvious place to go. And he goes to the church in Sedbergh in the centre of the town, doesn’t actually go into the church, but climbs up a tree in the churchyard and starts preaching to the people.
Clearly, a lot of people throng around him and– he makes the point– a lot of priests and professors that he calls, in other words, a lot of ministers and religious people from other denominations. And he has a clearly a sort of fairly important period of preaching. One little episode there, again, allows him to make a point that’s integral to his message, which is that somebody he describes as a captain– and again, just an aside if I may there. We’ve got a captain. We’ve got Colonel Benson. We’ve got Major Bousfield. These people with military titles are part of the New Model Army, Cromwell’s hand-chosen Puritan army. These are people with religious zeal. It’s an army of zealots, if you like.
And it’s within that, the context of the New Model Army, that a lot of the radical religious debate of the 1640s and 1650s takes place. So it’s not surprising that there is a captain in the audience in Sedbergh who quizzes Fox and says, why aren’t you going to the church? The church is a place where it’s appropriate to preach. And it allows Fox to make the point that that steeple house, as he would call it, that building is not the true church. The true church is the worshipping community. So it allows him to make another of the points that he then makes elsewhere as up on Firbank Fell.
So a few days later, he is at Firbank Fell and has this major preaching success there. Francis Howgill talks about many hundreds being drawn to land. So overall, it seems as if the week in Sedbergh’s really significant for the birth of the Quaker movement, but would that be fair? I mean, how would you characterise it? What I’d say is that it brings him into contact with this Puritan group, the Westmorland Seekers. And by doing that, he not only has a large-ish group of people with whom he can interact, but the Westmorland Seekers are an organised group of separatists with their own leaders, among whom are some really powerful preachers, like Francis Howgill and John Audland.
And so by the events in Sedbergh and up at Firbank Fell the following Sunday, it’s no longer Fox and a few other people. It’s Fox with this large body of Seekers with some very powerful preachers. So it’s a step change, if you like, in the scale of the Quaker movement, and it helps to build that critical mass of preachers. If you think about it, by the end of 1652, they’re able to plan, in effect, a national mission. And you’ve got, people referred to as The Valiant Sixty, this group of around about 60 preachers, mostly from the north of England who go out and take the Quaker message across the country.
So it’s often seen, and I think rightly, this week that he spends up here - is it blazing June? We don’t know, but some people say, it was a good summer in 1652. But that was critical in setting off the Quaker mission. Thank you very much, Angus. Thank you.

In this video, Angus Winchester tells us a little more about Fox’s arrival into Sedbergh and what his welcome would have been like.

Angus also tells us what he believes the significance of Firbank Fell was for the birth of Quakerism.

What do you think it was like for Fox to arrive in a new town hundreds of miles from home as an outsider to the region and with a radical spiritual message? Post your thoughts in the comments section.

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Radical Spirituality: the Early History of the Quakers

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