Today in London religious history, 1971: protests against the reactionary christian Festival of Light continue

Just over two weeks after the Gay Liberation Front, women’s liberationists and other activist from London’s underground had made a laughing stock of the reactionary Christian Festival of Light at Westminster Central Hall, the climactic event of the Festival was to take place on September 25th, with a rally in Trafalgar Square followed by a march to Hyde Park.

The opposition got into gear again… An alternative ‘Festival of Life’ was called for Hyde Park.

Thanks to the continued presence of the GLFs infiltrator in the Festival office, maximum confusion was wreaked on the organisation in the run-up to the 25th. Fake parking plans were mailed out, sending delegations form other town and cities to park miles away; letters were sent out a couple of days before announcing false time changes, and claiming the Trafalgar Square event had been cancelled.

In the Square, ‘old men in dark suits who carried signs that said, “Fear God” and “The Wicked Shall Be Turned Into Hell,” and young people, many more young ones than old, holding up the regulation Festival of Light poster, a map of the British Isles blazing brightly against a blue background. Young girls walked with rings of Jesus buttons pasted on their foreheads and in a circle on their hair. They wore T-shirts embroidered with buttons in the shape of a J that ran between their breasts, and the slogan “Smile, Jesus loves you” scrawled on the back. Even the Blackstone lions that guarded Nelson’s column had orange Jesus buttons glued into their eye holes.’

A number of GLF and feminist activists tried to disrupt the event in Trafalgar Square:

‘Michael [James] was a lady schoolteacher with a cane; Nicholas Bramble was the Spirit of Porn, Paul Theobald and Carla and others were dressed as riot police carrying the coffin of freedom, Mary McIntosh and others as choirboys, Michael Redding, Chris Blaby and Douglas MacDougall as nuns, me as Mary Whtehouse. We all met in Covent Garden, in Henrietta Street because we knew there would be heavy security hearer the Square, and we changed into our costumes in shop doorways. We got as far as the steps of St Martins, where I conducted the choir in ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’. We had planned to join the crowd and process to the rally in Hyde Park but we got as far as the south of the Square and we were blocked by the police.’ (Stuart Feather)

‘I was in the choir singing at Trafalgar Square. We knew the bit about the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate… that may have been the only verse we sung. We had to repeat it over and over.’ (Mary McIntosh)

‘I was part of a little Street theatre and we all organised ourselves into heterosexual couples and were chained together as heterosexual couples. There was a sort of sex symbol and a business man and I think I was a downtrodden housewife, and we had discussion with the people around us. So we formed this straggling little procession and we did manage to get to the base of the column… it was a pretty effective protest because people couldn’t quite suss whether we were hostile or not. We came up the back of the plinth and generally infiltrated into the crowd and the mass of Christians were basically confused as to whether this was just some odd it of the entertainment or not.’ (Sarah Grimes)

‘Richard Dipple was carrying a cross and there were thousands in Trafalgar Square, it was jammed to the gills. There was another group singing hymns and carols, I never knew who they were. Stuart stopped to conduct them. Then there were Womens Lib, they had a demo with prams and dolls and things. They were going across the top of the Square in front of the National Gallery. We slipped down by South Africa House and sidled up to the back of the column, no problem. I was a schoolteacher and I had all my kids in school costume, roped together and I was the oppressive schoolmarm with the cane and an earphone type wig. We had no intention of disturbing the rally itself at all. We were grossly outnumbered. What we were going to do was march with them or beside them. Mary Whitehouse and people were at the front. The police got freaked out – we were outside the railings on the pavement away from the Square itself, looking down towards Whitehall and they told us to stand there and we said, ‘We want to stand here, we’re not going anywhere else’, and this police inspector or sergeant or something freaked out and they started pushing us and pushing us until they hemmed us in to that little space between two of the lions. Well we had nowhere to go but up, because they were getting heavy, so up we went and we were quite happy there…’ (Michael James)

Mary Whitehouse took the podium. A former schoolteacher, her name was synonymous in Britain for opposition to publications like Oz, sex on the telly and dirty words on the wireless. She’d appeared on a panel show with Mick Jagger once and attacked him for “living in sin” with a woman. She is 61. “The eyes of the world are on what’s happening in Britain at this time,” she said, as a women’s lib banner began circling the crowd. It read “All God’s Children Got Nipples.”

‘They invaded the rostrum and the fake Mary Whitehouse, Stuart, was up there with the proper one. There were several Mary Whitehouses and very funny they looked.’ (John Chesterman)

‘We were gathering a crowd at the back, we had no microphones, so we were quite happy to have our little discourse. But then of course the police got up and of course we could only go higher and they got very rough and grabbed hold of me by the arms and legs and I was hauled down to the ground. I was terrified I was going to be thrown down another six feet from the plinth.’ (Michael James)

There were police chasing transvestites in all directions, smoke bombs going off… it looked like a revolution.’ (John Chesterman)

‘I saw this police inspector who’d started it all coming towards me. I was laying down with one leg free and I just gathered that leg up and shot for his balls. And I hit him, right in the balls. But he never knew it was me, because there were so many people there, all around us. But I got him. Then the next thing I knew, I was being see-sawed off the edge of the plinth. Then they dropped to the ground and I was being carried by the arms and legs, looking up through all these Christians who’d started marching off. They were screaming ‘Hang him! Birch him!’ I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly where you’re at now, isn’t that exactly it.’ I felt quite good about that, ‘I’ve dug you out, you’ve said what you really believe. We’ve got the truth.’ Once you get that, you know what you’re dealing with.’ (Michael James)

‘They accused us of being the Angry Brigade, that was what some Assistant Chief Constable said to us. As were pushed back against Nelson’s Column and our only way of escape was to get up on it, so we did. The ‘choirboys’ were at the bottom of the plinth, so we all started singing ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’ again. The police were chasing us all over the plinth and they arrested some people And on the north side of the plinth were Mary Whitehouse, Lord Longford, Cliff Richard and Malcolm Muggeridge and so on. Michael Redding was accused of waving a cucumber obscenely while dressed as a nun. Some people escaped and made it to Hyde Park, but the police swooped on them and arrested them there.’ (Stuart Feather)

‘I was the only GLF woman arrested in the Square. Mary O’Shea heard a senior officer point at me and say ‘Get that one.’ Richard (Dipple), who was Jesus, took off his robe and crown and disappeared into the crowd. I was taken to Bow Street and put into a cell with the women from Women’s Street theatre who’d come as the nuclear family. Michele Roberts was dressed as the vicar’s wife, Alison Fell was the vicar’s son. They had come as a family and chained themselves together, so when the police picked up one of them they got the lot.’ (Carla Toney)

‘A few of us decided to use the occasion to try to expose the perverse morality of the Festival organisers. On the one hand they condemned lesbian and gay people for victimless consenting relationships, yet on the other hand they were totally silent about the war in Bangladesh which was resulting in the death and displacement of millions of people. We got some collecting tins from the organisation that was fundraising to help refugees in Bangladesh and went amongst the crowd in Trafalgar Square, soliciting donations. We challenged them over their apparent disinterest in the starvation and murder of people in Bangladesh. It very successfully put them on the spot over their distorted sense of moral priorities. They found it very embarrassing.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘I was slung into the van. They’d got Michael Redding previously because he was a nun. I don’t know how they’d managed to get him. Douglas MacDougall was also a nun. I think there were three nuns. And I think one of them escaped. Whoever got into the green van – the women were already there, they’d already picked the women up from the top and they’d done nothing. So it was clear that we were not going to be allowed to express our opinions at all. We were taken down to Cannon Row police station, just by Old Scotland Yard and there were more women there when we arrived, they’d got the singers and the dykes, they’d picked them off first. They knew what to look for, they knew who to look for. We were eventually bailed about nine or ten o’clock that night.’ (Michael James)

The Festival continued on its way to Hyde Park, harassed by activists, among them the GLF Youth Group. Several hundred demonstrators (mainly straight hippies, apparently), gathered at Marble Arch, pelted the marchers with stink bombs and jeered…

‘In detachments a block long, the marchers streamed out of the square to Hyde Park. They marched behind a wooden cross with the band booming… At Hyde Park, the sound of the band brought freaks running from all over the park across open green fields, swirling through fallen leaves and vaulting over a high spiked fence to join others already wheeling up Park Lane. Surrounding the band on all sides, a raggle-taggle army with right hands outstretched in a Hitler salute, chanting “Sieg Heil.” Freaks reading madly from the Bible with no one listening as they marched, freaks carrying little children in their arms, freaks carrying signs that read “Go To Hell — It’s More Fun” and wearing jackets that said “God Speeds.” ‘

In the park, huge numbers of police were arresting any protestors on any pretext. ‘The most beautiful of the GLF banners, with three interlocking circles, in red, purple and white, was confiscated by police as an offensive weapon and never returned, it is thought to have been destroyed at a later date.’

‘Sweeping into the park like a conquering army with the band playing for them, laughing people with long hair and open faces, goose-stepping along on the green grass singing “Lloyd George knew my father … father knew Lloyd George” in perfect time to “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

“Oh, do be quiet,” folksinger Judy Mc Kenzie scolded from the stage. “Praise God. Now I’m going to sing, ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.’ He’s got the whole world …” she began.

“Between his legs,” the crowd screamed.

“He’s got the whole world …” she repeated.

“In his pants,” the crowd howled.’

As at Central Hall, Tony Salvis was dressed a vicar again, lecturing to a large crowd… So, this time around was ‘Father Fuck of Tooting’:

‘We always have younger cannabis in the Church of Aphrodite at Elmbourne Road in Tooting… we keep it in the Chalice on the altar. We… said that our church’s contribution in the Festival of Light will be a sacrificial cake baked in the shape of a phallus with half an ounce of cannabis as one of the ingredients, that we’ll take it to Hyde Park and share it with the people as the sacraments of the church… three of us took it to Hyde Park… I got up on our sacrificial altar and a crowd of about 100 heads gathered round me.

I told my listeners that the prick is the symbol of our Church because the prick with a lovely pair of ball is the symbol of life and the cross is the symbol of death. The heads were saying ‘Lets have the sacrament now’… I performed the religious ceremony: I broke off the knob of the prick, crushed it in my fingers and as the crumbs were falling to the ground I was praying aloud For Peace, For Love, For Freedom. Having thus prayed I broke off another piece of it for myself and handed the rest to the people to be shared as the sacrament of our Church.

Man, you’ve never seen a faster castration of the prick. It just disappeared in ten seconds… great happiness all round!… Later I got a bit closer to the Jesus people, put up our altar, got on it and started to indoctrinate my listeners… about 100 people were listening to me, some Jesus people, some heads… I was grabbed by a bobby and about six of them started to drag me to the waiting police van… A girl, a psychologist, walks beside us and keeps asking the policeman ‘Why are you arresting this man?’… she too is pulled into the van. Then they drive us to Hyde Park police station. A bobby says to me ‘What’s your occupation?’ ‘Reverend Father Fuck’ says I. ‘Occupation?’ ‘Minister of religion’ says I. ‘Will you sign for bail?’ ‘Yes’ says I. ‘In what name?’ ‘Reverend Father Fuck’ says I. ‘I can’t accept that name’ says he and they lock me up in the cell till Monday.’ (Father Fuck)

[NB: Father Fuck, aka Paul Pawlowski, was later one of the organisers of the somewhat abortive Windsor Free Festival in 1972. The Church of Aphrodite was apparently dedicated to ‘psychedelia and shagging’.]

‘Cliff Richard, once Britain’s Elvis and now a convert to Christ, came out and plugged in.

“Ooooh, it’s Cliff,” a GLFer moaned, swooning, “Oh, Cliff.”

“If we get honest with ourselves …” Cliff is saying on stage.

“Be honest, Cliff,” someone shouted. “Admit you’re a homosexual. … Come out, Cliff.” ‘

[2018 Note: he never has yet!]

‘Everyone was charged with breach of the peace and put in the cells, but Nicholas Bramble got charged with assault, which was much more serious. I was opposite him in the line when they charged him and all it was, was that a policeman had cut his little finger on Nicholas Bramble’s diamante bracelet while arresting him. Nicholas was a trained dancer and when the policeman had grabbed him, he’d locked his arms and the policeman’s hand had slipped. He ended up having a separate trial from the rest of us, but he was found not guilty. We went to court in the drag we were arrested in. I was Mary Whitehouse, in the dock with Paul Theobald and Chris Blaby. We used friends as Mackenzie lawyers and a Catholic Worker priest gave evidence to say that he hadn’t been offended, but wherever nuns appeared they were found guilty even though the rest of us weren’t. Nicholas Bramble felt that there was very little support within GLF for the people who’d been arrested and he said so at a meeting…’ (Stuart Feather)

‘We came up at Bow Street and we all had Mackenzie lawyers, defending ourselves. Michael Redding appeared first, in a frock I think, he was done for being a nun, they accused him of masturbating with a cucumber. I had big floppy trousers, a wrapover dress and a long maxi-coat and an Indian headscarf wound round. I don’t think I was wearing make-up. My nails were painted though. Michael was found guilty. I went in and the magistrate screamed at me straight away, ‘Take that hat off!’ I thought, what on earth’s he talking about? He said ‘You take that hat off’ and I said ‘but I’m not wearing a hat.’ I wasn’t, I was wearing a scarf, not a hat. He said ‘Take that thing off your head’ and I said ‘Excuse me, I’m coming here to be tried on a charge, what I wear is entirely up to me, it’s not up to you, you don’t buy my clothes, you’ve got no say over what I wear.’ ‘I’ll also charge you with contempt of court.’ I said ‘I’m not in contempt of court, I’m in contempt of you.’ ‘Get out of here and don’t come back while you’ve got the hat on!’ So I’m led from the well of the court by two detectives, but just as I’m leaving Douglas (MacDougall) is coming in with a full circle skirt and a broderie anglaise blouse. And I thought, go on girl, you deal with that now.

Douglas came out and I was called back into court and the magistrate said to me ‘I see you still intend to remain contemptuous of this court’ and I said ‘I’m not contemptuous, but as I pointed out to you, you do not buy my clothes and you’ve got o right to tell me what to wear. This is a free country.’ He went ‘Hmph! Let’s get on with it then.’ So we got on with the case and the policeman who arrested me was lying his head off and I cross-examined him. He accused me of shouting this obscene rhyme, it was very bad and I thought ‘what!’ and said something very dismissive like ‘If I’m going to make up rhymes I’m sure I can do better than that.’ I said ‘That was made up in a police canteen and it sounds like it.’ We hadn’t been shouting anything obscene at all, not as far as I was aware.

The dock was actually about a foot away from the magistrate, I could reach over and touch him. He said ‘Tell me what happened’ and I said ‘Can I start from the beginning?’ I went into the background of the demonstration and my part in it. He said ‘What were you?’ and I explained I was meant to represent a repressive schoolmarm. He said ‘Did you have button boots?’ and I said ‘Oh yes, I did.’ And he said ‘I think I’ll dismiss this case’ and he did. Obviously a shoe fetishist.’ (Michael James)

‘The elements of camp and theatricality gave a lot of the actions a strong humorous edge which police officers often found hard to deal with. They were used to responding to belligerent macho left-wing demonstrations, but because GLF didn’t fit that traditional pattern they found it a bit unnerving. If we had followed the orthodox leftist way of doing things with the clenched fist, all very serious and quite threatening, the police would have come down on us heavier and quicker. Because some officers could see the amusing side to what we were doing it was psychologically disarming for them… The GLF style of protest was political jujitsu – we threw the police off balance by not conforming to their expectations.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘…we were being festive. We had a lot of debate about the Festival, how it was moral rearmament and fundamentalist. We did see it as very dangerous. It might have developed as something rather unpleasant and I think it was one of those rare events that [the opposition] succeeded in tis objectives. Everyone loved putting energy into doing it, it was a target made for us.’ (Sarah Grimes)

The Festival organisers’ predictions for the mass turnouts expected at the final rallies turned out to be grossly exaggerated – about 35,000 turned up, rather than the forecasted 100,000. The protests helped to deflect the plans the Christians had to step up their movement, which never won the mass public support they had aimed for.

Sarah Grimes’ conclusion, that the GLF-inspired disruptions had effectively crippled the Festival of Light’s grandiose plans, seems to be borne out by some of the organisers’ own hindsight. John Capon, the official historian of the Festival, concluded that the press coverage of the main events and the opposition had reduced the whole movement to ridicule. This was summed up by the response of a man in the street to an interviewer asking what they knew about the Festival: ‘Isn’t it something about mice and nuns?’

This post was nicked from Lisa Power’s excellent ‘No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: An Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front’.

and some came from here

Today in London religious history, 1971: the Gay Liberation Front mash up reactionary christian Festival of Light

“Excuse me, Sister, we’ve heard some homosexuals and radicals are going to try and disrupt our meeting here tonight. Will you pray for them?”

The National Festival of Light was founded in 1971. The original founding impulse had come from two christian missionaries, Peter and Janet Hill, on their return to England after spreading the word of god to the benighted – whether the benighted wanted it or not.

After four years as evangelical Baptist missionaries in India, the Hills experienced a sense of culture shock when they discovered that sexually explicit content was more prevalent in the mass media than when they had left. Getting in touch with vocal figures in the media, the couple helped launch the National Festival of Light in May 1971, to oppose “pornography and moral pollution”.

Journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge, “clean-up TV” campaigner Mary Whitehouse, Labour cabinet member Lord Longford, and Bishop Trevor Huddleston soon became the faces of the Festival, which vowed to campaign against what they saw as the growing trends in the mass media for the explicit depiction of sexual and violent themes and for the restoration of conservative Christian morality in the UK. Pop star Cliff Richard and actress Dora Bryan were key supporters of the NFOL; many evangelical churches supported the movement, including the repulsive Salvation Army. The Festival quickly gained support among rightwingers, reactionaries and neo-fascist throwbacks of various stripes…  Signs of impending apocalypse many of the Festival supporters included the growth of sex outside marriage, the proliferation of sex in films, homosexuality, the Oz trial

The movement had two expressed aims: to protest against “sexploitation” in the media and the arts, and to offer the teaching of Christ as the key to ‘recovering moral stability in the nation’. Some supporters naturally emphasised the first, and others the second. Plans were made for major public events, including the lighting of beacons on hilltops throughout the United Kingdom, and culminating in a massed march to a public rally in Trafalgar Square and an open-air concert of Christian music in Hyde Park.

The administrative task of enlisting the support of Christian churches and denominations throughout the UK was a colossal one, as indeed was the necessity for public relations with the press and the general public. The committee and many local volunteers were occupied with this throughout the first half of 1971.

From the start, its overtly Christian proselytising attracted the critical attention of the counter-culture, which saw the message of moral reform as code for sexual repression, censorship and a return to the puritanical social values of previous eras. Homosexuality and women’s liberation, the one having been decriminalised (for men over 21) only 4 years before, and the latter in its early days challenging centuries of patriarchal domination, were both viewed dimly by many of the Festival’s supporters. These movements were not slow to rise to challenge the evangelicals’ attempt to return Britain to the dark ages…

It was the Gay Liberation Front who took the initiative in opposing it. They sent an undercover volunteer to infiltrate its headquarters and report back on its plans.

The Festival was scheduled to launch officially with a huge prestigious rally on September 9th 1971 in Westminster Central Hall; the organisers saw this as their chance to get publicity for the campaign in the media. The GLF, women’s liberation movement and other underground groups set their sights on disrupting this rally and making it a disaster. As a result, the day became what the Festival themselves admitted was a total laughing stock…

‘The Festival of Light was put to us in the middle of the summer and we were told it was this group of League of Empire Loyalists and all sorts of strange people and anti-gay. All the information was got for us by people from the Monty Python team and it was funded by Graham Chapman and others via Denis Lemon. Janet went to work in the Festival office and she got tickets and things so that more could be forged.’ (Michael James)

The GLF had been founded the previous October, and was then at its most active and creative. It was holding meetings of 400-500 every week, bursting with energy and pushing at the boundaries in almost every direction it could explode.

‘We would spend whole weekends talking about ways of furthering gay liberation and countering our opponents. John Chesterman had the kind of mind that could work out plans like kidnapping a statue or subverting a book. The festival action was much more than just Street Theatre people. They were there from other hippie groups and from the underground press.’ (Stuart Feather)

‘ ‘Networking’ as a word didn’t really exist then but its what we did over the Festival of Light. We started to put word out through the underground press. I persuaded Janet to volunteer for the Festival, in their main office, so we had access to all the literature and even the mailing list. Ae sent out fake mailings on it. For the big final rally, we sent out false parking plans for the coaches, which gave people real hassle.’ (John Chesterman)

The action to disrupt the September 9th rally became known as Operation Rupert. A number of groups were organised, each acting independently, who would kick off inside the rally in turn…

‘John Chesterman… asked us in advance to think of ideas for something to do, but not to tell anyone what our idea was. We met in the office, identified who our groups were and he gave us a number each. I was number seven and I knew who number six was. He said that once number six was finished, you won’t know what they’re doing, but you then take off from there in your own time.’ (Michael James)

‘John handed round a note: Festival of Blight – opening ceremony… Enter the hall in small groups. Ones or twos. Act unobtrusively. Dress conservatively. Act cool. Make no sign of protest until it is your turn. Do not speak to each other. Sit as close to the centre of your row as possible. Let the previous demonstration finish completely before you start yours. Let everyone settle down and the speeches start again. Part of the purpose is to slow down and delay proceedings. Stick to the agreed form of protest and/or slogans and do so clearly and loudly. Offer passive resistance only. Do not fight back. A general brawl will only confuse he media image. If there is any aggression, let them look like the villains in the press reports. Do not carry anything that could be construed as an offensive weapon. Do not carry dope or anything else illegal. You may be arrested so make arrangements… beforehand. Make no statements to the police until you have legal assistance. They can not force you to do so. Do not speak to the press or TV.

The Festival of Light demonstration was the most enjoyable one because it was perfectly orchestrated. All the libertarian left groups collaborated and nobody leaked it, which was amazing…’ (Tim Clark)

As a number of GLF members discovered a prodigious talent for forgery, there were more than enough tickets to the Festival for all who wanted to get involved in the disruption…

‘We all met at Cleopatra’s Needle beforehand. Underneath a suit I had a beige lace dre4ss with pearl buttons all the way down the front, long sleeves and a full circle lace skirt. I don’t know how I’d managed to crush it all up and get it into my trousers, but they weren’t looking for things like that. Peter Flannery and I chose this space right at the back of the Central Hall… It has this incredibly steep rake, so we sat against the back wall in the middle of the row. Gradually the hall filled up and we saw various people sitting around the hall in various spots.’ (Michael James)

Many of those who had infiltrated the hall were unaware of the scope of the plans, so tight had security been kept.

‘At Central Hall, I was with a group of people from the Youth Group who were in the balcony… it was left to everybody’s common sense and judgment about when to erupt and what to do. All we did have worked out was that different people were assigned different things… the group I was with was assigned to erupt and express same-sex affection at a relevant moment.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘It had taken just over ten days to organise. Fifteen independently operating but coordinated groups. GLF, Womens Lib, IT, Oz, Frendz, and others. But mainly GLF. Phone calls; meetings; leaflets to be written, printed and distributed; costumes; banners; all the last minute panic, hustle and briefings. About 150 people from almost all the radical groups in London. That was probably the most important thing of all. NCCL came along as observers. Many individuals came on their own and stood on their own in that huge audience.’ (John Chesterman).

The Festival organisers had possibly got some wind of the likelihood that disruption could expected; but had no idea of what they would face:

‘To cope with any disruptive tactics or opposition within the hall a strong body of marshals was recruited. It could hardly have been visualised how necessary they were going to be… Stewards had noticed several members of the audience who, to say the least, looked unlikely to be supporters of the Festival. Among the characters regarded with suspicion were half a dozen young ‘nuns’. Stewards quickly spotted that some of the were young men in disguise. To minimise trouble a steward was stationed behind each ‘nun’ in the audience!’ (And Then There Was Light, John Capon – the official history of the Festival of Light)

‘Janet and I had the white mice and Mary Whitehouse recognised Janet. She said, ‘Don’t I know you?’ but she couldn’t quite make the connections, and when the disruption was at its height she turned and gave Janet a very hard look. People did see us release the mice and this woman started hitting me over the head in a frenzied manner with her handbag, yelling ‘Jesus loves you’ again and again.’ (Jane Winter)

‘I can remember a woman coming up to Tony Salvis, who was dressed as a bishop. She made some remark about how we were living in a very sinful world, none of us is without sin. Tony turned to her and said ‘Don’t worry sister, keep right on sinning.’ The woman just stood there frozen for several seconds with her mouth ajar and looked Tony up and down and just walked off in utter bewilderment.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘Where the hell were the others? Had they got past the heavies on the door? The faces more than fifteen feet away ran into a blur. Nuns. There should be nuns. One group, yes, two, three. Were they ours? They looked too genuine. Jesus, they were actually praying. Damn this sweat. The stewards at the end of the row were looking this way. The one with the glasses had been down on the Embankment when we were assembling. Cameras, microphones, choirs, people. Hundreds, thousands of them. All the galleries full and more coming in. Somewhere out there were the groups. They had to be. Waiting for the signal. Had they got the right positions? How many of the props had they got in? Stop trembling, it must be a dead giveaway. Smile. Suddenly, a couple of yards away, a small white mouse ran like slow clockwork across the aisle. They were there.’ (John Chesterman’s notes).

‘The choir was up on stage in plum velvet cloaks. The first thing that happened was the applause – we just went on applauding, loud and slow, which has a certain menace.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘Things started and there was clapping going on too long – I think that was John Chesterman – and so they asked him to leave.’ (Michael James)

‘I didn’t get slung out because I wasn’t disruptive. One of the things I thought was impressive about it was that when Trevor Huddleston spoke, nobody interrupted him because we did all respect him and we thought he’d made a mistake. Michael Brown and I wrote him a letter with our awareness group, asking him not to be part of it and he actually went and met with this group and eventually withdrew from the Festival of Light. And I think that’s partially because we didn’t just abuse him. Because we knew in a way that he was misguided. I remember various folk groups and then people coming and talking sodomy and unchristian marriage and abortion, those were the kind of people who got interrupted.’ (Nettie Pollard)

‘We got everyone spaced around the hall and then I noticed that opposite the front row where I was sitting there was a row of plugs. I managed to pull out two but it wasn’t enough. I kept going back in after being thrown out. The trouble was pacing people; everybody wanted to do their bit straight away.’ (John Chesterman)

‘I remember all the mice being released. Two elderly women holding on to each other suddenly unfurled a banner from the balcony saying ‘Cliff for Queen’. It became total mayhem as he incidents started to pile up into each other. We deposited fake religious literature around which had religious covers, so they would be picked up and taken away to be read – only inside it was porn.’ (Tim Clark)

Danish evangelist Johannus Facius lectured the audience of the terrible fate of his home country after it had liberalised censorship laws – only to be nearly drowned out by the saboteurs in the crowd. The organisers tried to out-noise the protest with loud hymns…

‘What was most bewildering to the Festival goers was the range of tactics used and the layers of reality abused. People were blowing bubbles peacefully alongside displays of same-sex affection, suddenly disrupted by respectable-looking people erupting into obscenity or arguing with the speakers while mice scuttled around the hall. Talcum powder and pornography inside christian texts showered down from the balcony. Worst of all, you couldn’t even trust the church.

‘Tony Salvis was going round (as a vicar) going ‘Bless you, my son.’ He did look absolutely right for the part. All these Christians were coming up very worried about these dreadful homosexuals and then eventually he revealed himself in some way and it was ‘Oh no, not another one!’ Because he looked so respectable.’ (Nettie Pollard).

‘And then Malcolm Muggeridge came forward to speak. Because of his thorough recantation of his earlier liberal views he, like Cliff Richard, was a particular target for the demonstrators and he compounded their feelings almost immediately. ‘Malcolm Muggeridge was vile. He was the one who said he disliked homosexuals or something like that.’ (Nettie Pollard)

When Muggeridge made a statement about hating gays, that was when our youth group got up and started kissing. Lesbian couples and gay couples started kissing. We got jeered and abused by the Festival of Light people in the seats around us. Some of them tried to push and shove us out of the way but we just carried on kissing for about ten minutes.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘When Malcom Muggeridge started to attack homosexuals, Simon (Benson) stood p a few rows in front of him and said, ‘If hat is so, you must really dislike someone who is both homosexual AND Jewish.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

Malcolm Muggeridge was so badly heckled that the choir was brought back on to sing ‘How Sweet the name of Jesus Sounds’  – wheeling the choir on seems to have been the standard response to disruption – while attempts were made to restore order by the stewards.

‘Plainclothes men were practically carrying me down the corridor. ‘Think yourself bloody lucky. We want a word with you outside.’ Suddenly the corridor was blocked by a large bald-headed man wearing a bible. ‘You homosexuals are SCUM. You are nothing but BESTIAL FILTH’ He was breathing into my face, shaking with rage and hysteria. ‘Read this and find out what subversive MUCK you are.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

‘It was round this time that the nuns acted. I was just by them and I remember someone saying to them, ‘Pray for us, sisters’, and I couldn’t believe they honestly thought they were nuns. They were a mixture of men and women including Sue Gimore. As far as I remember, they started walking towards the front and then started running and whooping and about then the mice were released, I don’t know who did that. But they got right up the front and people were absolutely staggered, they couldn’t believe it. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to them that people would dress as nuns. They thought they were real nuns and they couldn’t cope – it was incomprehensible, these people had gone mad suddenly. It was the first time we had used nuns on a gay demonstration in Britain.’ (Nettie Pollard)

[Dressing as nuns however had been used previously by womens liberation groups to confuse the police on their demos…]

The GLF nuns had been part of a grander plan which had not come to fruition. According to John Chesterman, they were sitting around in the GLF office one day planning the action when Graham Chapman of Monty Python’s Flying Circus stuck his head round the door.

‘He was always the sort of person who wouldn’t come right into the room, he just hovered in and out. He said ‘D’you want any camels?’ and there was a sort of stunned silence and someone said ‘yes’. The after a few seconds pause, someone else said, probably joking, ‘And nuns.’ Camels and nuns’ he said, ‘Okay’. But there were all sort of regulations and licences, we were supposed to find camel handlers, for God’s sake. So in the end we just had the nuns.

I was dressed up as an American evangelist’s wife with some bloke from round here, it drew in all sorts of people. We had football rattles and we were supposed to run up and down the aisle shouting. It was co-ordinated really well and so it was triggered. You could have mice and then stink bombs and snow and the football rattles. Anyway, we got thrown out and I went ‘Oh my God this is terrible. They’ve just thrown me out and I’m an innocent woman going to the toilet!’ Then this husband and I ran down the middle shouting ‘Fuck for Jesus’ in front of Cliff Richard. Anyhow we got thrown out again. Meanwhile the nuns came out, and all the audience was going ‘yes sisters!’ and then they turned round and started doing the cancan and people realised they were men.’ (Julia L)

‘The nuns took off in a flying phalanx, down the aisles towards the platform. A banner unravelled with a personal invitation to Cliff Richard to take over the monarchy. On the platform he had the grace to blush.’ (John Chesterman)

‘In the midst of all the confusion, the nuns get up and begin dancing in front of the stage. The security guards wrestle with them. The crowd’s shocked, one of the nun’s robes comes off … hairy legs and big ugly boots … it’s Russ, of the Pink Fairies rock & roll band. They throw him out along with the rest of the bogus nuns and bring up the choir to sing and drown out the noise.’

‘A mouse, sailing through the air, landed on a lap full of hymn sheets. A section of the audience erupted. Peter (Bette Bourne), unstoppable, was loudly complaining of the atmosphere of violence, the disturbing vibrations and how could he concentrate on God? A woman turned around in front of him. ‘There you are’ he said, ‘I can see the violence in your eyes.’ ‘No, no, it’s the light of Jesus.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

‘I was eventually thrown out, I was shouting out ‘There is violence in this room, there is violence’ and me and John Church, who were two trained actors, gave it lots of voce.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘My cue was Bette Bourne because I knew Bette. Bette was sat across the other side of the hall in the front row dressed as Colonel Blimp, tweeds and things. The demo previous had been a ‘Cliff for Queen’ banner which had suddenly been unfolded over the front of the balustrade. They had been hustled out with a great noise and pushing and shoving and ranting and raving. Bette started in this wonderful county voice, going ‘There is violence going on here, these men are being beaten up, there’s no reason for physical violence.’ He shocked everyone because it was quite true and it freaked the stewards, who were kicking people, to have it brought to everyone’s attention.

They sussed that Bette was part and parcel o the demo and he was asked to leave, but during this time I’d transformed myself from the three-piece suit, slipped out of that, given it to Peter next to me, who’d put it into a carrier bag, plumped out this lovely coffee lace dress, put the shoes and a little bit of eye shadow and lipstick on and a wig. Nobody noticed – we were at the very back of the hall and people were standing up to sing every time there was a demonstration and I was sat down getting ready behind them. The people next to me didn’t notice, they were too busy looking to see what was happening around the rest of the room.

It was in the middle of Malcolm Muggeridge’s speech. He must have paused and I shot up in the back of this row and screamed out ‘I’ve been saved! I believe! I see the Lord!’ just doing this terrible cod impression of a Southern belle who’s suddenly seen the light. Being where we were, in the middle of a row with that steep rake, they had to be very gentle getting us out. We didn’t fight, Peter and I came quietly but we made sure they came to us first. So they had to get everybody out the first half of the row and shuffle in disruption and I had this wonderful huge steep staircase to the exit in full view of everybody in the hall. I came down very slowly with this beautiful dress wafting the lace all over people’s heads and continuing on in the same vein ‘I believe! I’ve seen the Lord! I’ve been saved! Glory hallelujah!’ all the way down these stairs.’ (Michael James)

‘I remember when Michael [James] said ‘I’ve been saved!’ people went ‘Hallelujah!’ thinking that somebody really had found Christ. I think these Christians were extremely naïve, because I don’t think any of us looked right. I mean, this extra-ordinary over made-up man dressed as a woman… and he was right at the back, up against the wall and stood on his seat or something. I didn’t actually know who it was at the time, then gradually he was revealed as a man.’ (Nettie Pollard)

‘He came down the steps in full drag with all these people cheering, they didn’t know whether to take it seriously. The meeting was totally disrupted, people were taking out the nuns and the elderly because they thought it was going to get violent, but it wasn’t violent at all, it was harmless apart from the stewards, but it was extremely powerful in term of disruption.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘As if all that was happening within the hall wasn’t enough, a small squad from the office collective, led by Martin Corbett, had managed to get into the basement below and interrupted part of the electricity, causing problems for people trying to film and adding to the air of general anarchy. ‘Mine was one of the last actions of the day. We just put on Ku Klux Klan drag and stood there demanding that perverts be burnt at the stake… we all got thrown out by stewards wearing crosses, who got quite a few thumps in to prove to us that they were the church militant, I suppose.’ (Stuart Feather)

John Capon, in his official history of the Festival of Light, claimed that after this the protest largely ended and the speakers were able to speak unhindered – however, most GLF memories suggest otherwise, and that small-scale protests and heckling continued.

‘Outside, a nearby pub was crowded with post-mortems and high spirits. Check leaflets for distribution. ‘Is someone outside to direct he groups in here? When does the audience come out? Hey, the BBC TV news cameras are out there.’ Tony being interviewed ‘Are you a Roman Catholic or Protestant?’ ‘I’m a priest of the liberation.’ Crowds sweeping out. Leaflets. ‘Read our side of the story.’ The leaflet with crosses on it is easiest to give away. They take them as a reflex action.

The bald-headed steward is there again. ‘Get out of here. You are ANIMALS. You are intruding on our privacy.’ ‘It’s a public meeting.’ ‘Only if you have tickets.’ I give him a handful. Eleven or twelve. He tears them in two and throws them on the floor.

‘Litter’ I remind him gently, and dodge.

(John Chesterman’s notes)

‘I don’t think anyone got arrested, which is fairly amazing. There was an attempt to arrest somebody outside for kissing a policeman, but it didn’t work. There was this enormous sea of lesbians and gay men suddenly around the policeman and I remember him looking around and thinking, I don’t think this is worth it, and he shuffled off. It was very, very funny indeed. You often saw police at a disadvantage because they didn’t know how to handle us. I remember there was a stall with Christian books and people from GLF started stealing them. I got one of Trevor Huddleston’s books that someone gave me and I said to Paul Theobald, ‘I don’t think we should be stealing these books’ and he said, ‘Of course we should.’ He believed it was tight but I’m not sure.

There was a definite decision to try and talk to people as they came out. It was a really nice atmosphere and I genuinely think that talking to some of those people did have an effect and they did think twice about whether or not they should be involved. Because they weren’t just being shouted at. Although we did such outrageous things we were real people prepared to talk with them. I went to the thing OutRage! disrupted in Brighton. The Christian Family thing about three years ago, and what happened there was that they rushed the stage and got thrown out and then as everybody was leaving they went through a cordon of angry lesbians and gay men shouting abuse at them. I just thought, what is the point of this? Because we’re neither preventing them from doing this nor are we making them think. All we’re doing is making them think we’re rabble.’ (Nettie Pollard)

The whole area of pavement outside the entrance is covered with arguing groups as a public discussion gets under way with the Children of God. Inside there is a confrontation with those of the organisers and speakers who are prepared to talk. The Jesus-freak, the beautiful one with the long blond hair and flowing beard, the one with the pale blue eyes, screams, ‘You people are an abomination!’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

Press coverage of the Festival launch dwelt heavily upon the disruption, and some papers took the mick out of the christians. The Daily Mirror reported ‘five bogus nuns… fending off hefty stewards’. The Guardian reported about 150 protestors, making special mention of the nuns, the Southern belle and Bette Bourne’s Colonel Blimp. The publicity was a serious blow to the Festival; it fatally undermined their attempt to be taken seriously, and opened the gates for other protestors to take a potshot at them elsewhere. As local Festival rallies took place around the country, opposition began to mount up. At Rochdale, a Festival rally was disrupted by the White Panthers. The central plank of the Festival was the lighting of a series of beacons across the UK to symbolise the urgent warning against sin and the cleansing moral fire. One of the beacons was mysteriously burnt down the night before its scheduled date… Others were prevented by objections to local authorities…

Just over two weeks later, the climactic event of the Festival was to take place on September 25th, with a rally in Trafalgar Square followed by a march to Hyde Park…

To be continued…

This was nicked from Lisa Power’s excellent ‘No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: AN Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front’. A very fine book…

There’s a short video here of some of the ex-GLF disruptors talking about their part in the protest.

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Today in London religious history, 1742: Methodist John Wesley stoned by unbelievers, Whitechapel.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist branch of the Christian mystery, was a great one for preaching to large crowds in the open air. Throughout much of the 18th century, Wesley could be found bothering people with his brand of religion, in fields, squares, commons… whether people wanted to be bothered or not.

Many of the crowds that gathered when he preached didn’t come to listen or be converted. Many came to mock, catcall, and take the piss. And often they went further…

On September 12th 1742, Wesley’s attempt to preach in Great Gardens, an open space between Whitechapel and nearby Coverlet Fields, ended with him being stoned by non-believers:

“Many of the beasts of the people laboured much to disturb those who were of a better mind. They endeavoured to drive in a herd of cows among them: but the brutes were wiser than their masters.” Not totally disheartened by the failure of their unpredictable and obviously unmotivated cattle, the demonstrators rely on a more manageable weapon, the traditional stone: “One . . . struck me just between the eyes: but I felt no pain at all; and when I had wiped away the blood, went on testifying with a loud voice that God hath given to them that believe “not the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind”  {Wesley, Journal. Ill, 45).

Wesley had been attacked already that year: in January he had been pelted with stones while preaching in his Long Lane chapel. In St Ives in 1743, Wesley was beaten up by a crowd; there were riots at Falmouth and Wednesbury against him.

Some of these events were were just plain old dislike of godbotherers telling people how to live and get saved. However, some of the violence targeted at Wesley and other Methodists was somewhat more complex…

inspired by more orthodox Anglican clergy, trying to cut out the competition. Wesley and his fellow Methodists were seen as dangerous, possibly Catholic in sympathy, and suspicious. The Anglican establishment and elements of the existing social hierarchy that backed Anglicanism as a vital part of the status quo, combined to prevent Wesley from preaching, and encouraging violence against him. In some cases people were paid, or even forced, by their employers to join crowds attacking Wesley and other Methodists. Magistrates sometimes declined to prosecute rioters who attacked Wesley and his congregations, which of course gave a green light to further attacks…

The Whitechapel mini-riot against Wesley seems to have been pure joyous spite against holy rollers, however… Nothing wrong with that. An old East End tradition, that the Skeleton Army would later revive a century and a half later.

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Today in London’s religious history, 1553: a riot at St Paul’s

The religious divisions of mid-16th century England may not have given birth to outright civil war, as happened in France, though there were a number of abortive rebellions pertly stimulated by religious aims. London was a centre of religious debate and dissent – always a hotchpotch and melting pot of religious ideas, simply because of its size and the different communities attracted here, and the opportunity to meet people, discuss ideas, evolve new theologies…

The rapid turnover of regimes and official religions under the Tudors – from Catholic orthodoxy, through the dissolution of the monasteries and mild reform, radical Protestantism, catholicism, to a milder Anglicanism – saw dissenters of various stripes burnt, imprisoned, or driven into exile.

Mid-16th century London had evolved many dissenting protestant congregations, nominally part off the one established church, which were variously tolerated, persecuted, encouraged, then repressed again… While many people held strong beliefs one way or the other, most were very likely content to adhere to whatever wouldn’t get them into trouble with the authorities. Though the bewildering theological roller-coaster caught out many who just couldn’t keep up with what was orthodoxy and what was heresy this month…

Opposing views sometimes led to violent clashes.

On August 13th 1553, a riot broke out outside St Pauls Cathedral, at ‘Pauls Cross,’ when worshippers objected to a preacher praying for the souls of the departed and defended the widely hated Bishop Bonner.

Catholic Queen Mary had recently succeeded to the throne and was in the first stages of rolling back the strict protestant regime of her predecessor Edward VI. The reformers who had dominated Edward’s reign were in a desperate rearguard action against reversal of their changes.

This incident is noticed in the public chronicles. Gilbert Bourne, the preacher, Queen Mary’s chaplain, offended the audience by speaking vehemently in the defence of Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, who was already known as a prosecutor of protestants and other ‘heretics’ and would garner an odious reputation over the next five years for burning numerous dissenters under Queen Mary’s catholic regime. Bourne also spoke out against against the protestant reformer bishop Ridley. A great crowd booed and abused Bourne, with cries of “Papist, Papist! Tear him down!” One of the crowd threw a dagger at Bourne, which struck one of the sideposts of the pulpit. “Maister Bradford, the celebrated Reformer, came forward to persuade the people to quietness, and by the help of that worthy man and of maister Rogers, (both of whom were afterwards sacrificed in cold blood by their religious adversaries,) Bourne was conveyed safely away into Paul’s School. Grafton’s Abridgement, 1566, and Stowe’s Summarie of the same date.”

The privy council, which was sitting at the Tower of London, took immediate alarm at this disturbance. On the 16th of August, Homfrey Palden was “committed to the counter for seditious wordes uttered by him againste the preacher Mr. Burne for his sermon at Paule’s crosse on Sunday last;” and the same day the celebrated Bradford and Veron, “two seditious preachers,” were committed to the Tower, as was “Theodore Basill, alias Thomas Beacon, another seditious preacher.”

Subsequent sermons in the following weeks saw preachers thought to be speaking on matters that would inflame their hearers protected by up to 200 armed guards. The next sermon was specifically on the subject of loyalty to the monarch’s religious decrees and to ‘the old faith’.

What is not clear is the composition of the crowd that kicked off against Bourne’s sermon. Were they radical protestants? Regular churchgoers to whom Bonner’s name in particular meant fear and loathing? John Rogers, and John Bradford, both leading radical protestants, had been a notable presence in the crowd – in fact he had intervened to try to calm the congregation down, enabling Bourne to escape unharmed. But the Queen and church conservatives interpreted this as them having a great deal of influence with the riotous crowd, whether or not they had stirred them up or not. Both were to be imprisoned and executed for heresy in 1555.

It’s not clear if the St Paul’s riot is the same incident described in a letter from the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor from August 1553, where he mentions that

“great scandal occurred, and outrages against religion were committed lately on the person of a priest who dared to say mass in a chapel here m London; some took the chalice, others the vestments; the ornaments on the altar were broken in pieces, and two or three hundred people assembled and made such riot that the mayor had been obliged to go in person to quell the tumult. He succeeded, and saved the person of the priest by taking him into custody. “

It is possible that the St Paul’s uproar was part of a series of disturbances…

Paul’s Cross, outside St Paul’s, was used for the dissemination of ideas by preachers backed by the authorities from the fourteenth century; but the spot was also known as a kind of speakers corner through medieval and early modern times. This had evolved partly from the ‘folkmoots’ – assemblies of citizens that had at one time represented a form of community self-government, but also had a history of use for agitation and articulating anger or discontent. Crowds were not only used to hearing ideas – religious, political, social – set out by speakers here, but also to reacting to them and taking part in the proceedings.

The uproar against Bourne was only part of series of sermons at Paul’s Cross, showing it was a venue for a debate in the to and fro of theology. (Some of which can be read here)

While repression of Protestantism was well underway, resistance continued, if clandestine… a dead cat which had been made to look like a priest saying mass was found on a cross in Cheapside, and at a sermon in April 1554, Bonner’s chaplain gave a sermon displaying the cat and ordering the culprit to come forward. In June, when the chaplain spoke again, he was shot at and a search was made of every house in the precinct of St Paul’s to find the culprit, but to no avail.

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Today in London freethought history: the first stone of South Place Chapel laid, 1822

If you’ve ever been to a meeting, conference, concert, lecture, bookfair or debate, (or any one of a myriad of other events) at London’s Conway Hall… You might be interested in the history of the organisation that gave birth to it. Although Conway Hall as an institution itself dates back to the 1920s, the tangled skein of the South Place Ethical Society goes back nearly a century and a half before that…

The South Place Ethical Society evolved from its beginnings as a dissident Unitarian church congregation in 1787, known then as a non-conforming sect of the Philadelphians or Universalists. They had distinguished themselves by a refusal to accept the doctrine of sinners suffering punishment in an eternal hell. This marked the beginning of a long and winding development from universalism and unitarianism to humanism, the position which the Society had reached by the end of the nineteenth century.

By 1793 the society had its first premises in Bishopsgate. Their next doctrinal step was to reject the idea of the Trinity – this led to many of its members departing, in the first of several raucous schisms that was to hone its ideas…

In 1817 William Johnson Fox became minister of the congregation.

Fox was a sometimes challenging minister, pushing the congregation and provoking them. After Richard Carlile was prosecuted and jailed for blasphemy for selling Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason in 1819, Fox suggested that the chapel should have stood up to defend him.

Plans were put in motion for them to build their own premises, and a site was chosen at South Place, in Finsbury Square.

Having already raised over £600 towards the cost of the building, the Committee for Erecting a New Chapel looked to raise additional funds by asking for subscriptions from the congregation. Some gave relatively small amounts, such as John Mardon who contributed £1. Whereas others, such as E. Bricknell, who pledged £100, promised more significant contributions. In total £2117.2d.4s was raised through subscriptions.

In May 1822 the first stone was laid. Their Unitarian Chapel took two years to complete, and was opened in 1824. By a deed dated February 1, 1825, its chapel was to be held by trustees on trust to permit it to be used “for the public worship of one God even the Father and for instruction in the Christian religion,” as professed by the society.

Through the early decades of the nineteenth century, the chapel became known as “a radical gathering-place”. The Unitarian congregations, like the Quakers, supported female equality – under the leadership of Fox, the South Place chapel went further, opening its pulpit to activists such as Anna Wheeler, one of the first women to campaign for feminism at public meetings in England, who spoke there in 1829 on “Rights of Women.”

In 1831, Fox bought the journal of the Unitarian Association, the Monthly Repository, of which he was already editor; he helped to transform it from a religious into a general radical journal. Under Fox’s editorship it published articles that gradually alienated the Unitarians, such as one advocating divorce (on the grounds of women’s rights) in 1833. Literary figures as luminary as Tennyson and Browning  contributed verse in the Repository, and regular authors included John Stuart Mill, Leigh Hunt, Harriet Martineau, Henry Crabb Robinson and a fearless iconoclast, William Bridges Adams, whose outspoken series of articles on marriage, divorce, and other social questions (along with those of Fox) split the South Place congregation again.

Among the causes with which Fox identified himself and the Society were the spread of popular education and the repeal of the Corn Laws. In 1847 he entered Parliament whilst remaining minister at South Place for several more years.

In later decades, the chapel moved away from Unitarianism, changing its name first to the South Place Religious Society, and after abandoning prayer in 1869, changed its name to the South Place Ethical Society.

The most famous of Fox’s successors running the chapel was an American, Moncure Conway, after whom the Society‘s present home is named. Conway, raised in Virginia in the US, had been an active anti-slavery activist, although he had two brothers serving in the Confederate army during the civil war, and came to England in 1863 on a speaking tour to raised support for the Union side.

Conway took over a minister at the South Place Chapel from 1864 until 1897, except for a break of seven years (from 1885 to 1892) during which he returned to America and wrote a famous biography of Thomas Paine. Conway abandoned theism after his son Emerson died in 1864. Under his leadership, the South Place Society continued to move toward a more humanistic Freethought. Moreover, women were allowed to preach at South Place Chapel, among them Annie Besant, secularist and socialist, who was a friend of Conway’s wife.

Conway and the South Place congregation continued to evolve further from the beliefs of the Unitarian Church. Conway remained the leader of South Place until 1886, when Stanton Coit took his place. Under Coit’s leadership South Place was renamed to the South Place Ethical Society. However Coit’s tenure ended in 1892 after a power struggle, and Conway resumed leadership until his death.

In 1868 Conway was one of four speakers at the first open public meeting in support of women’s suffrage in Great Britain.

The Society occupied the Finsbury site for 102 years, until 1926, after which it moved to Conway Hall, in Red Lion Square, a building which was opened in 1929. Today, a plaque commemorating the South Place chapel can be seen on the building at River Plate House (nos. 12–13) which stands on the original site.

Conway Hall has hosted more radical events than can possibly be ever counted…Campaigners exposing undercover police officers infiltrating campaigns for social change in the last fifty years generally reckon Conway Hall to be the most spied-on building in the UK – certainly a fair whack of the Special Demonstration Squad and other secret police units have passed though its doors. Nor to mention some of MI5 by all accounts… Hence an event at Conway Hall coming up in July: 50 Years of Resistance: Despite Police Surveillance

Conway Hall remains a venue for radical meetings and events…

More information about the building of Conway Hall 

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Today in London secular history: GW Foote, WJ Ramsay and Henry Kempe tried for blasphemy, 1883.

George William Foote was born in Plymouth, England on 11 January 1850. In his youth he became a freethinker through reading and independent thought. When he came to London in 1868 he joined the freethought organisations that were flourishing at the time.

In his Reminiscences of Charles Bradlaugh he recalls coming to London in January 1868 with “plenty of health and very little religion”. He was taken to Cleveland Hall by a friend, and “heard Mrs. [Harriet] Law knock the Bible about delightfully. She was not what would be called a woman of culture, but she had what some devotees of ‘culchaw’ do not posses—a great deal of natural ability…” A few weeks later Foote heard Charles Bradlaugh speaking at the hall, and joined the secularist movement.

Foote was soon lecturing at freethought meetings. Charles Bradlaugh, then the leader of the secularist movement, soon recognised Foote’s abilities and allowed him to play an increasingly important role in the British freeethought movement. Foote contributed many articles to Bradlaugh’s National Reformer and in 1876 founded his own magazine, The Secularist.

In 1877 Foote joined the anti-Bradlaughites in the breakaway British Secular Union. The split was caused by several factors: Bradlaugh’s alleged autocratic style; Bradlaugh’s association with Annie Besant; and Bradlaugh and Besant’s involvement in promoting birth control and Neo-Malthusianism. The BSU was however relatively short-lived, and Foote himself was reconciled to Bradlaugh within a few years, becoming an NSS vice-president from 1882.

The Secularist: A Liberal Weekly Review (1876-1877), Foote’s first attempt to launch his own publication, in collaboration with George Jacob Holyoake, did not last long. In May, 1881, Foote started a serial publication called The Freethinker, which is still published today.

He set out his stall in the first issue: “The Freethinker is an anti-Christian organ, and must therefore be chiefly aggressive. It will wage relentless war against Superstition in general, and against Christian Superstition in particular”.

His primary weapons were parody and satire. From an early stage he introduced a weekly Bible cartoon which was particularly hard-hitting and incensed the religious. Such tactics seemed popular because although The Freethinker was launched as a monthly it was soon being printed each week.

In 1882 Foote was charged with blasphemy for having published a number of biblical cartoons in The Freethinker. These had been modelled after a series of French cartoons that had appeared earlier.

Two blasphemy prosecutions were brought, against the issues of 28 May 1882 (in which a cartoon of The Martyrdom of St. Labre and had proved particularly controversial) and the special Christmas number that year.

After a series of trials, beginning on February 26th 1883, (which continued for several hearings over a number of weeks) Foote was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment by Justice North, a Catholic judge. (“The sentence is worthy of your creed,” Foote responded.)  The Freethinker carried the banner headline “Prosecuted for Blasphemy” during this period, probably increasing its sales.

As a result of contents of this journal, Foote was charged with blasphemy, and eventually imprisoned for one year with hard labour. On receiving his sentence from Mr Justice North (a devout Catholic), Foote said “with great deliberation” to the Judge “My Lord, I thank you; it is worthy of your creed”
His description of this experience was published in 1886 as Prisoner for Blasphemy.

Here’s an account of the initial blasphemy trial on February 26th, from the Old Bailey Ordinary’s Account:

“GEORGE WILLIAM FOOTE, WILLIAM JAMES RAMSAY , and HENRY ARTHUR KEMP, Unlawfully printing and publishing certain blasphemous libels. (See page 557.)

SIR HARDINGE S. GIFFARD, Q. C., with MESSRS. POLAND and LITTLETON Prosecuted; MR. CLUER appeared for Foote and Ramsay (only to argue any legal points); MR. HORACE AVORY for Kemp.

Before the defendants were given in charge MR. CLUER applied that the indictment might be quashed, on the ground that it was bad, in charging the three defendants together with committing one offence, whereas in fact the offence alleged was distinct in each; that it was contrary to the usual course, and that it prevented each from being a witness for the others. He relied principally on the case of Reg. v. Bolton and Parke, 12 Cox, p. 87, and also on Reg. v. Tucker, 4 Burrows, 2046, reported in Archbold, p. 47.

  1. JUSTICE NORTH could not accede to the application; the present offence was one in respect of which the defendants might very properly be jointly charged, without being prejudiced by being so charged.

FREDERICK GEORGE FRAYLING . I am a clerk in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions—I produce his allowance for this prosecution, under the Statute, signed by him (read).

ROBERT SAGAR . I am an officer in the Detective Department of the City Police—on 16th December last I went to the shop, 28, Stonecutter Street, Farringdon Street, City—it is an ordinary bookseller’s shop—

“The Freethinker” was over the shop facia—I went in and purchased two copies of the Christmas number of the Freethinker—the defendant Kemp was serving—I paid him 6d. for the two numbers—these produced (marked A and B) are the numbers—I went to the shop again on 20th January and purchased two more numbers of Kemp, for which I paid him 6d.—on 31st January I went again to the shop and saw him behind the counter serving—I produce two certificates of the registration of the Freethinker. (The first was dated 2nd August, 1882, presented for registration by H.A. Kemp, 15, Harp Alley, Farringdon Street, proprietor; W. J. Ramsay, publisher, 20, Brownlow Street, Dalston; printer and publisher, H.A. Kemp. The second was dated 7th February, 1883; proprietor, G.W. Foote, 28, Stonecutter Street, journalist, residing at 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square, The Christmas number of the Freethinker (A) was put in, on the front page of which the name “G. W. Foote” appeared as editor; at the back, “Printed and published by H A. Kemp, 28, Stonecutter Street,” &c. &c. Among a list of Foote’s publications appeared “Blasphemy no Crime: the whole question fully treated, with special reference to the prosecution of the Freethinker.”

Cross-examined by MR. AVORY. 28, Stonecutter Street is an ordinary bookseller’s shop—there were many other publications of different kinds there—I did not give any idea of what purpose I wanted these things for either on the first or subsequent occasions.

Cross-examined by Foote. I had instructions from my superior, Detective Inspector McWilliam, to purchase the two numbers on the 16th December—I paid for them out of my own pocket—no one has repaid me yet; I expect to be repaid—the same gentleman sent me to make the second purchase—he did not give me the money—I had not been paid for them—I have had money for travelling expenses and serving subpoenas—I expect to be refunded for those two copies—I suppose the money will come from the City Solicitor, Sir Thomas Nelson, who is now in Court—I did not see you in the shop when I purchased the first two copies; I saw you in the shop after I purchased the second two copies, but not when I purchased them.

Cross-examined by Ramsay. You spoke to me about this case once or twice when I have seen you—I remember your remarking that the City were expending plenty of money in engaging Sir Hardinge Giffard, who would not come without a heavy fee—I don’t remember saying that the City had plenty of money and would not spare it; I don’t recollect it, I might have said so.

Re-examined. I was acting in this matter under Mr. McWilliam’s instructions—I saw a pile of these things in the shop—it was on 20th January, after I had purchased the second copies, that I saw Mr. Foote in the shop.

JOHN LOWE . I am collector of rates for the parish of St. Bride—28, Stonecutter Street is in that parish—I produce my rate-book, showing a rate dated 5th October last year—on 7th November last year I received this cheque for 2l. 1s. 3d. in respect of that rated house; it purports to be signed W.J. Ramsay—I paid it into my bankers and it has been credited to my account.

Cross-examined by MR. AVORY. The names on the rate-book were Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant—the same names are still there.

Re-examined. The persons rated are the occupiers—I received this cheque for that particular October rate; it was made for six months—the usual demand note was sent in—the 2l. 1s. 3d. was for the rate up to the end of March—when I get notice of a change of occupation I alter the rate-book.

WILLIAM JOHN NORRISH . I live at 20, Fowler Street, Camberwell Grove—I formerly lived at 28, Stonecutter Street, Farringdon Street, for about five years; it was the shop of the Freethought Publishing Company—at the commencement of October last that company was removed to Fleet Street—they vacated at the Michaelmas quarter—I was in the service of Mr. Bradlaugh and Mrs. Annie Besant; they represented the Freethought Publishing Company—up to that time Mr. Ramsay had been the manager of that company, and he was from day to day at the shop 28, Stonecutter Street—the Freethinker was sold there, but not by the Freethought Publishing Company—I decline to answer whether I used to sell it, or whether I have seen it sold in the shop, in case it might lead to a criminal information against me—I was not employed at all by Mr. Ramsay—I ceased to live at 28, Stonecutter Street when the Freethought Publishing Company removed to Fleet Street—I know Mr. Foote, he called in occasionally at Stonecutter Street when I was living there—if Mr. Ramsay and I were there he has seen us—Mr. Ramsay would be there at times attending to the business—I did not know where Mr. Foote lived—I know Mr. Kemp slightly—I don’t know what he is by trade—I believe this cheque to be in the handwriting of Mr. Ramsay; I have no doubt of it—I should say this was his writing. (The name and address in the bank-book.) I should say the filling up of these registration forms are his writing—I am not sufficiently acquainted with Mr. Kemp’s handwriting to speak to it—I have known him eighteen months or two years—I meet him occasionally—this “H. A. Kemp, 15, Harp Alley, Farringdon Street,” on this second registration form may be his, I can’t say for certain, to the best of my belief it is.

Cross-examined by MR. AVORY. I was at Stonecutter Street as a weekly servant to the Freethought Publishing Company at a weekly salary—I simply acted as shopman, under orders in everything I did—there was no facility there for printing—no printing was done there.

Cross-examined by Foote. I have seen you at Stonecutter Street only occasionally—the Freethinker had been sold there for some considerable time before I shifted into the employment of the Freethought Publishing Company—I did not see you often there during the period it was so sold—I never saw you transact any business there; I had no reason whatever to suppose that you transacted business there.

Cross-examined by Ramsay. You were manager of the Freethought Publishing Company up to the time they left Stonecutter Street, and when they shifted to Fleet Street—you are manager there still—you removed to Fleet Street in consequence of requiring larger premises—you were not entirely employed at Fleet Street in managing the business of the company.

Re-examined. When Mr. Foote came to Stonecutter Street I fancy he would sometimes visit my own apartments—Mr. Ramsay would sometimes be in the shop, and sometimes in the other parts of the house.

JAMES BARBER . I am Assistant-Registrar in the Newspaper Registration Office, Somerset House—I produce the original registers of the proprietors of the Freethinker under the statute—this one of 7th February, 1883, was made in my presence by Mr. Foote and Mr. Ramsay together; they were both present—Mr. Foote wrote it; it is all the same writing; I saw him write it.

WILLIAM OLDHAMPSTEAD (City Detective). I know the shop 28, Stonecutter Street, and I know the present office of the Freethought Publishing Company in Fleet Street; they are not more than five minutes’ walk apart—on 16th February I purchased this weekly number of the Free-thinker, dated 18th February, at 28, Stonecutter Street, of defendant Kemp—I made a note of the date at the time I bought it—it is a Sunday newspaper; you can get them on the Thursday, dated up to the Sunday following. (This stated that the Christmas number of the Freethinker had had an unprecedented sale, that they had spent lavishly on the Christmas number in order to carry their views far and wide, and were out of pocket by it.) I served a notice to produce, of which this is a copy, on the defendant Foote, by leaving it at No. 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square, on 27th February—at that time he had been admitted to bail by the Lord Mayor.

Cross-examined by Foote. I left the notice with the servant, Mary Finter, I did not see you at the time—I have been buying some numbers of the papers; I was told to do so by my inspector, Mr. McWilliam—he did not give me the money to purchase them, I don’t expect that he will; I expect to be repaid by the City Solicitor.

Cross-examined by Ramsay. I have no idea where the funds for this prosecution are coming from, no further than from the City Solicitor—I cannot say whether he is finding it out of his own pocket, I have no idea.

SARAH CURLE . I am the wife of Alfred Curle, and live at 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square—Mr. Foote has lodged with me about three years—my servant, Mary Finter, waits on him—I occasionally go into his room, very seldom—he has lived there down to the present time, and does so still—I could not swear that I have seen the Christmas number of the Freethinker in his room, I do not notice any particular book in his room—I may have seen it—I could not swear if I have seen a number of the Freethinker without the yellow cover; I have seen divers coloured books there; I could not swear to one book in particular—I have seen this cover, or the colour of it, not containing a number of the Freethinker to my knowlenge—I may have seen copies of the Freethinker in his room, I have no doubt that I have—I could not swear to one in particular; I never examined any books in his room.

MARY FINTER . I am in the service of Mrs. Curle at 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square, and have been for fifteen months; during that time Mr. Foote has lodged there—I used to wait upon him and do his rooms—I have not seen the Christmas number of the Freethinker in his room. (MR. POLAND, in accordance with the notice to produce, called for the production of all letters and papers addressed to Foote relating to the Freethinker, and all letters and envelopes describing him as the editor of the Freethinker.

  1. CLUER objected that the notice was not sufficient in itself and that the service of it was too late, and was not proved to have reached the defendant. MR. JUSTICE NORTH did not think the service proved was sufficient.) The defendant was living at this address last week—I can’t say that he slept there every night—he was there every day—when papers are left for him I take them up and put them in his room—I remember Oldhampstead giving me a paper last week—I took it up into Mr. Foote’s room—he slept at the house on the Wednesday night before the trial last week—I put the paper in his room directly it was given to me about half-past 5 in the afternoon—I don’t think he slept in the house on the Tuesday night. (MR. CLUER still objected to the evidence, butMR. JUSTICE NORTH considered it was now admissible, the witness being the person who waited upon him, and it not appearing that he had a Separate servant of his own.) There is a letter-box to the house—I generally take out the letters in the morning—letters addressed to Mr. Foote I put on the hall table—his rooms are at the top of the house, the third floor—some of the letters were addressed to Mr. G.W. Foote, 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square, very seldom as editor of the Freethinker; some were, but very seldom; I have only seen letters addressed to him in that way since the first trial.

Cross-examined by Foote. I cannot say that I have seen more than one copy of the Christmas number of the Freethinker in your room, I don’t believe I have—I see papers of all shapes and all colours in your room—I never saw an envelope with the words “Editor of the Christmas number of the Freethinker” on it—I could not say that I saw any envelope or letter addressed as editor of the Freethinker between 16th November and 16th December—I have seen an envelope addressed “G. W. Foote, editor of the Freethinker,” but very seldom—I can’t say if I saw you between the time I received the notice paper and the following morning—you might have been there but I did not see you—I answer the door.

Re-examined. The lodgers have keys to let themselves in—Mr. Foote had a latch-key.

THOMAS WILLIAM JAMES ALFORD . I am a letter carrier—for the last eight years I have delivered letters at 9; South Crescent, Bedford Square—I have delivered letters there directed to G.W. Foote for the last year or two—some have been addressed G.W. Foote, Esq., editor of the Freethinker—I have here a memorandum which I made since Christmas—I can give no dates prior to that—I have seen letters so addressed before Christmas, I may say months before—I have also delivered newspapers so directed—I have delivered letters so addressed since Christmas, up to last Saturday week.

Cross-examined by Foote. I have no memorandum before Christmas—Oldhampstead served me with a subpoena—I had seen him before that—I had no conversation with him about this prosecution, not by himself, he called at our district post-office in Holborn, and I was called upstairs by the district postmaster, who asked me if I had had letters addressed to G.W. Foote, at 9, South Crescent—I don’t think he asked me if I had had letters addressed to the editor of the Freethinker—this interview took place about a month back—I had had no conversation with anybody about this prosecution before that—I was instructed by my superior officer to make a memorandum as to the delivery of letters about a month ago.

By the COURT. I have my memorandum book here—I made the first memorandum about 10th February.

THOMAS CAMPBELL . I am a letter-carrier, and live at 84, Gower Place, Gower Street—I have been in the habit of delivering letters at 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square—I have been on duty there for 18 years—during the last year I have noticed how some of the letters I left there were addressed—some were addressed “G. W. Foote Esq., 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square, some Mr. G.W. Foote, Editor of the Free-thinker, and some G.W. Foote Esq.—I noticed letters so addressed for several months past—I put them in the letter-box in the door—I remember on one occasion about three or four months ago, having a packet that was too big for the letter-box, and I rang the bell and gave it to the servant—that bore on it as part of the address “Editor of the Freethinker”—I don’t know whether it had Mr. Foote’s name on it or not.

Cross-examined by Foote. Since I saw the detective, Oldhampstead, I have made memorandums of the delivery of letters addressed to you—that was, I believe, on the 9th of last month; the first memorandum I took was on the 10th—I have often delivered letters addressed to the Editor of the Freethinker, but I can only recollect delivering one package, that was about three or four months ago, it might be longer—I cannot swear that I delivered any letter or package addressed to the Editor of the Freethinker between 16th November and 16th December; I should be surprised to learn I had not, because my belief is that I have delivered letters to you so addressed pretty well every week; I could not swear as to that interval—the 9th February was the first time I had any conversation on this subject—I have not been paid anything for coming here to-day—I expect to be paid my expenses, it has cost me 6s. a day to get off—I received half a crown on the night the subpoena was served, nothing else.

WILLIAM LOY (City Policeman 495). I know the three defendants—I last saw Kemp at 28, Stonecutter Street on Wednesday last, Foote on 16th February, and Ramsay on Tuesday or Wednesday last—I have seen Kemp there for some months, Foote for four or five months, and Ramsay for the last two years.

Cross-examined by MR. AVORY. I have seen Kemp behind the counter acting as shopman and serving the customers—I have been on duty at 6 a.m. and have seen the shop opened—I never saw Kemp open it—I have seen a boy close it several times—no one slept there—I have seen persons served with papers and books—it is four or five months since I first saw Kemp there.

Cross-examined by Foote. I have seen you there four or five times—the earliest day I can fix is January 21st, but I have seen you there for four or five months—I told the Magistrate four or five times; I may have said three or four—the last time was February 16th—I have not seen you transacting what looked like business, but I saw you go in and come out.

Cross-examined by Ramsey. A number of books and papers are sold there—I have seen you go in and out—Detective Sagar spoke to me three or four days before the first hearing, and said “Just take notice who you see going in and coming out of 28, Stonecutter Street”—he may have said that I was to take notice as to Ramsey going in and out, but I don’t remember, nor do I remember saying so before the Magistrate.

JOHN EDWARD KELLAND . I am a solicitor’s clerk, and live at 19, Peabody Square, Westminster—during the last year I have often been to 28, Stonecutter Street and bought the weekly numbers of the Freethinker—I have seen all three of the defendants there—I usually made the purchases of Ramsay up to July, when I gave evidence at the Mansion House against him and Foote and Charles Bradlaugh—all these numbers produced were bought of Ramsay and given in evidence, and attention was called to the fact that they are edited by G.W. Foote, and also to the fact of the heading for literary correspondence to be forward to the editor; and the statement at the end “Printed and published by W.J. Ramsay, 28, Stonecutter Street”—the first date of these is 24th March, 1882, and the last 18th June, 1882; some numbers are missing—after July I bought various other numbers there, most of them of Kemp—they run on every week, and early in December the Christmas number of the Freethinker is advertised—the earliest one is December 3rd: “Ready next week, the Christmas number of the Freethinker “—at the end of that here is “Printed and published by H. A. Kemp, 28, Stonecutter Street”—they have all Foote’s name on them as editor, 9, South Crescent, Bedford Square—the number of Dec. 30 has the advertisement of the Christmas number, “now ready”—I saw Foote at 28, Stonecutter Street, on 28th February, not before.

Cross-examined by MR. AVORY. I can’t say the earliest date I saw Foote there, but it was after the first prosecution at the Mansion House—my first purchase of Kemp was before the prosecution—I was conducting the prosecution in July and am now—I also asked Kemp for the National Reformer—I saw a number of other books and publications there.

Cross-examined by Foote. I did not buy this Christmas number in your presence—these numbers of the Freethinker have been in the custody of the solicitor for the prosecution—this is my signature on them; I put it on at the time of the purchase, not at the shop, but in the office—I am clerk to Messrs. Batten; they are solicitors to Sir Henry Tyler—the firm gave me the money to buy these numbers—I don’t know whether Sir Henry Tyler pays for them—my employers did not tender them to Mr. Poland; I was subpeonaed to produce them—Sir Thomas Nelson may have written to the firm—I don’t know whether I shall get any extra payment for this case—I expect to be treated liberally.

Cross-examined by Ramsay. I bought the copies in July, chiefly of you—you were in the habit of serving behind the counter—I don’t think I have bought any of you since July.

Re-examined. My examination in July related to some of the weekly numbers—my depositions were taken and I signed them—I was called more than once, and my depositions were taken each time—in each case I attended on subpoena, which was served in the regular way, and I was asked to produce these numbers.

  1. CLUER submitted that there was no evidence against Ramsay on any of the counts. It was not proved that he was the proprietor after7th February, 1882, so as to connect him with the Christmas number.

The COURT considered that there was ample evidence of publication.

  1. CLUER further contended that the prosecution must elect against which of the defendants they would proceed, as they ought to have been separately charged; the defendants being charged jointly, the offence must be proved jointly, and no joint offence against the three defendants had been proved.
  2. JUSTICE NORTH said that the case must go to the Jury, and declined to reserve the point.

Foote in his defence complained of the hardship of not having been admitted to bail on Thursday last, from which he had not only suffered considerably, but had been prevented from preparing his defence, which he had to do alone against three learned Counsel, backed by the wealth of the Corporation of London, who he thanked for the splendid advertisement which their prosecution of the Freethinker had given to it, and contended that there was no proof that he was the editor; and as to the publication itself no witness had been called to say that his feelings had been outraged by it; that it had not been forced on any one, and no one need have bought it who did not want it. He quoted largely from the works of Payne, Carlisle, Shelley, Byron, Professors Huxley and Tyndall, J.S. Mill, and others, whose works are still freely sold, and contended that if the Freethinker was blasphemous those works were blasphemous also, and that Christianity, like every other religion, ought to take its chance of success without having to depend, upon law and police.

Ramsey in his defence also complained of the harshness of his imprisonment, having hitherto surrendered to his bail. He begged the Jury by their verdict to render obsolete the barbarous laws of former times; he stated that the meaning of the word blasphemy had greatly changed during the last 250 years; at that time Quakers were blasphemers, and were flogged at the cart’s tail, but now one was allowed a seat in the Cabinet. He contended that the publication in question was only, as its name implied, a free expression of opinions.

GUILTY. FOOTE— Twelve Months’ Imprisonment . RAMSAY— Nine Months’ Imprisonment . KEMP— Three Months’ Imprisonment.

For case tried in New Court on Monday, see Essex Cases.

Before Mr. Justice North.”

Another blasphemy case came to trail in March 1883, against Foote, as Freethinker editor, was accompanied in the dock by William Ramsay (shop manager) and William Kemp (printer).

But despite the judge’s advice to the jury, they failed to convict and a retrial was ordered for the following week.

Foote and Ramsey were back in court for a third trial in April on the first charge relating to The Freethinker of 28 May 1882. This time the case was heard by Lord Justice Coleridge who, in contrast to North, treated the defendants with consideration and courtesy. The jury failed to reach a decision and although a retrial was expected it never occurred. The prosecution mysteriously dropped the case.

Foote conducted his own defence throughout the trials. One of his main arguments was that his crime had been to peddle blasphemy cheaply to working people while polite agnostics and sceptics (such as T.H. Huxley and Aubrey Beardsley) were left to carry on undisturbed.

Foote, Ramsey and Kemp served their sentences at Holloway under the severe regime of a Victorian gaol. Foote was now a national figure; he received a hero’s welcome on his release.

When Foote was released from prison, he was a hero in freethought circles. He continued writing, lecturing, and editing magazines until Charles Bradlaugh died in 1891. At that time Foote was elected to lead the National Secular Society, founded by Bradlaugh. Foote continued in this role until his death on 17 October 1915.

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Today in London’s religious history: Lollard William Sawtrey questioned for heresy at St Pauls, 1401

In 1399, the first time that William Sawtrey was arrested on charges of heresy, he went to prison until he broke down and gave up his beliefs. After he was freed, however, he felt as if he had betrayed Christ. The English priest from St. Margaret’s in Lynn, Norfolk, found employment in London.

William was one of many laymen and priests who accepted the teachings of John Wycliffe. These believers were known as Lollards. Wycliffe said that the church of his day had corrupted the plain teaching of the Bible. He made a translation of the Bible in English so that all the people could understand God’s word for themselves.

Alarmed by Wycliffe’s teachings, England passed a law which made burning the penalty for “heresy.” Archbishop Thomas Arundel ordered William to appear at St. Paul’s on February 12, 1401 and give an account of his teachings. Arundel questioned William closely.

This time, William Sawtrey stood firm. He had said, “Instead of adoring the cross on which Christ suffered, I adore Christ who suffered on it.” He stood behind those words now and it became one of the charges against him by persecutors who considered it proper to bow before crucifixes.

However, it was his beliefs about the mass that finally got him condemned. He agreed that the bread of the Eucharist after consecration was indeed the bread of life, but insisted it was just bread all the same. Roman teaching says it really becomes Christ’s flesh, so he was considered a heretic.

William also held that it was a better use of time to preach to the lost than to recite certain prayers. He said that money spent on pilgrimages to save one’s soul would be better spent helping the poor. The independent-thinking priest also said men were more worthy of adoration than angels.

Because of his answers, he was indicted. He answered each charge in the indictment with scriptures. Arundel questioned him for three hours on his interpretation of the mass. The archbishop tried to convince William to change his mind, or at least to accept the decision of church authorities. William refused.

On February 26, 1401, his sentence was issued. William was condemned as a relapsed heretic. Under the new law, this meant he would burn. Through seven steps called “degradation” he was removed from being a priest and handed over to the secular authorities to die.

Using the defenses at his disposal, William appealed to the king and Parliament. After his appeal was denied, he was burned to death at Smithfield in front of a crowd of spectators.

He was the first “Lollard” martyr in England.

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Today in London religious history: John Rogers burned at Smithfield for heresy, 1555.

John Rogers was accused of being a seditious preacher and the Privy Council ordered his arrest. Rogers stayed a prisoner in his house for five months. Some of his religious friends escaped to Europe but Rogers insisted on staying in London to defend his beliefs. On 27th January 1554 he was sent to Newgate Prison. His biographer, David Daniell, points out: “He (John Rogers) was not permitted to receive any stipend, though by law he was still incumbent of St Sepulchre. His wife and ten children were in desperate need. He remained in Newgate for a year, untried. In November or December 1554 he joined with his fellow prisoners in writing a letter to the queen, protesting against the illegality of their imprisonment and begging to be brought to trial.”

In December 1554 parliament re-enacted legislation permitting the execution of heretics, and on 22nd January 1555 John Rogers was put on trial before Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Rogers was accused of heresy in denying the Papal Supremacy over the Church and the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine of the Sacrament. Rogers was attacked for having a wife and eleven children. He defended his decision to marry by arguing that the Bible did not say that priests should not have a wife. Rogers was also criticised for “misusing the gifts of learning which God had given them by arguing for a wicked cause against God’s truth”.

John Rogers was found guilty of heresy. Rogers told the commissioners that he had only one request to make, and asked that before he was burned he should be permitted to receive one farewell visit from his wife. His request was denied and on 4th February 1555 he was degraded by Bishop Edmund Bonner. This process has been explained by Jasper Ridley, the author of Bloody Mary’s Martyrs (2002): “The hands were scraped with a knife to remove the holy oil with which they had been anointed. The scraping could be done either gently or roughly. The Protestants alleged that Bonner did it roughly whenever he took part in a degradation ceremony; but this may have been Protestant propaganda, for Bonner’s attitude varied between boisterous and aggressive gloating and a patient attempt to persuade heretics to recant so that their lives could be spared.”

On 4th February, 1555, John Rogers was taken to Smithfield. His wife and children met him on the way to the burning, but Rogers still refused to recant. He told Sheriff Woodroofe: “That which I have preached I will seal with my blood.” Woodroofe replied: “Then, you are a heretic. That will be known on the day of judgment.” Just before the burning began a pardon arrived. However, Rogers refused to accept it and became the first martyr to suffer death during the reign of Queen Mary.

It was claimed that when the fire took hold of his body, “he, as one feeling no smart, washed his hands in the flame, as though it had been in cold water” and “lifting up his hands to heaven he did not move them again until they were consumed in the devouring fire”. Protestants rejoiced in his faithfulness and even Catholic opponents noted his heroic fortitude in death.

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Today in London religious history: Lodovick Muggleton ordered to be pilloried, his books burnt, Old Bailey, 1677.

Lodowick Muggleton was a self-proclaimed prophet, who emerged from the swirling pool of sects, preachers and cults that characterised mid-17th century London. Muggleton could be said to have broadly been associated with individuals who were lumped together as ‘ranters’, though he moved away from this scene and sought to distance himself from its ‘excesses’. Nevertheless his views on religion and his elevating himself as a prophet got him into trouble with the authorities, and he was imprisoned twice for his beliefs. His follower, later called Muggletonians, developed an individual creed, and survived until 1979.

After claiming to have had spiritual revelations, beginning in 1651, Muggleton and his cousin John Reeve announced themselves as the two prophetic witnesses referred to in Revelations 11:3. Their book, A Transcendent Spiritual Treatise upon Several Heavenly Doctrines, was published in 1652. They further expounded their beliefs in A Divine Looking-Glass (1656), maintaining that the traditional distinction between the three Persons of the Triune God is purely nominal, that God has a real human body, and that he left the Old Testament Hebrew prophet Elijah, who had ascended to heaven, as his vice regent when he himself descended to die on the Cross.

According to Muggleton and Reeve, the unforgivable sin was not to believe in them as true prophets. Although they gained some notable men as followers, the group’s notions provoked much opposition. Muggleton was imprisoned for blasphemy in 1653, and his own followers temporarily rebelled against him in 1660 and 1670.

Muggleton also entered into a long feud with the Quakers, which led their leader, William Penn, to write The New Witnesses Proved Old Hereticks (1672) as an attack on him.

Muggleton spent his working life as a journeyman tailor in the City of London. He held opinions hostile to all forms of philosophical reason, and had received only a basic education. His discovery that he was a prophet emerged from his musings about resurrection and hellfire. Having somewhat despairingly concluded that he must leave it all to God, “even as the potter doth what he will with the dead clay”, he then began to experience revelations concerning the meaning of scripture. This was obviously influenced by other ‘prophets’ Muggleton observed speaking in London at the time.

“It came to pass in the year 1650, I heard of several prophets and prophetess that were about the streets and declared the Day of the Lord, and many other wonderful things.” Notable among these preachers mentioned by Muggleton were John Robins and Thomas Tany (Muggleton calls him John Tannye). “I have had nine or ten of them at my house at a time,” reports Muggleton. The prophets claimed power to damn any that opposed them.

Muggleton says of Robins that he regarded himself as God come to judge the quick and the dead and, as such, had resurrected and redeemed Cain and Judas Iscariot as well as resurrecting Jeremiah and many of the Old Testament prophets. Robins displayed considerable ‘magical’ talents; presenting the appearance of angels, burning shining lights, half-moons and stars in chambers, thick darkness with his head in a flame of fire and his person riding on the wings of the wind. This clearly theatrical performance left a lasting impression on Muggleton.

While Muggleton denounced Robins as a false prophet, for ‘self-deification’ and of indulging in dangerous powers many years later, he wrote appreciating Robins’ power and the belief even his enemies had in his curses.

 The Muggletonian ‘movement’ was born on 3 February 1651 (old style), the date Muggleton’s cousin, fellow London tailor, John Reeve, said he had received a commission from God “to the hearing of the ear as a man speaks to a friend.” Reeve claimed to have been told four things:

  • “I have given thee understanding of my mind in the Scriptures above all men in the world.”
  • “Look into thy own body, there thou shalt see the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Kingdom of Hell.”
  • “I have chosen thee a last messenger for a great work, unto this bloody unbelieving world. And I have given thee Lodowick Muggleton to be thy mouth.”
  • “I have put the two-edged sword of my spirit into thy mouth, that whoever I pronounce blessed, through thy mouth, is blessed to eternity; and whoever I pronounce cursed through thy mouth is cursed to eternity.”

Reeve believed that he and Muggleton were the two witnesses spoken of in the third verse of the eleventh chapter of the Book of Revelation.

Throughout the period until the death of John Reeve in 1658, Muggleton seems to have acted only as Reeve’s ever-present sidekick. There is no record of him writing any works of his own nor of him acting independently of Reeve. The pair were tried for blasphemy and jailed for six months in 1653/4.

Apparently, on the death of John Reeve, there was a power-struggle between Lodowicke Muggleton and former ranter Laurence Clarkson (or Claxton) for leadership of the sect, and subsequently there were disputes with those followers of John Reeve who did not accept Muggleton’s authority.

The Muggletonians emphasised the Millennium and the Second Coming of Christ, and believed, among other things, that the soul is mortal; that Jesus is God (and not a member of a Trinity); that when Jesus died there was no God in Heaven, and Moses and Elijah looked after Heaven until Jesus’ resurrection; that Heaven is six miles above Earth; that God is between five and six feet tall; and that any external religious ceremony is not necessary. Some scholars think that Muggletonian doctrine may have influenced the work of the artist and poet William Blake.

The six principles of Muggletonianism were perhaps best summed up thus:

  • There is no God but the glorified Man Christ Jesus.
  • There is no Devil but the unclean Reason of men.
  • Heaven is an infinite abode of light above and beyond the stars.
  • The place of Hell will be this Earth when sun, moon and stars are extinguished.
  • Angels are the only beings of Pure Reason.
  • The Soul dies with the body and will be raised with it.

These principles derive from Lodowicke Muggleton, who added one other matter as being of equal importance, namely, that God takes no immediate notice of doings in this world. If people sin, it is against their own consciences and not because God “catches them at it”.

John Reeve’s formulation also included pacifism and the doctrine of the two seeds This credo held all humans had within themselves something from Seth and something from Cain: the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The former promoted faith within us, the latter promoted reasoning and desire. This is the conflict within every person. This is a predestinarian belief but, because there are two seeds and not one, humanity is not rendered abject and the innocence of Adam and Eve still has a chance of coming to the top within modern humankind.

According to Rev Dr Alexander Gordon of Belfast, “The system of belief is a singular union of opinions which seem diametrically opposed. It is rationalistic on one side, credulous on another.”

Muggletonianism was in many ways profoundly materialist. Matter pre-existed even the creation of our universe; nothing can be created from nothing. God, identified as the Holy One of Israel, is a being with a glorified body, in appearance much like a man. There can never be a spirit without a body. A purely spiritual deity, lacking any locus, would be an absurdity incapable of action in a material world (from which doctrine came Muggleton’s particular disputes with the Quakers). The man Christ Jesus was not sent from God but was the very God appearing on this earth. Speculation about a divine nature and a human nature, or about the Trinity, is not in error so much as unnecessary. At worst, John Reeve said, it encourages people to ascribe to the deity a whole ragbag of inconsistent human attributes expressed as superlatives.

Reason stems from desire and lack. Reason is not seen as a sublime mental process but as a rather shoddy trick humans use to try to get what they misguidedly imagine they want. Angels are creatures of Pure Reason because their only desire is for God so that their lack will be totally satisfied over and over again. The reprobate angel was not at fault. God deliberately chose to deprive this angel of satisfaction so that, by his fall, the other angels would become aware that their perfection came from God and not from their own natures.

Professor Lamont sees 17th century Muggletonianism as an early form of liberation theology. Because there are no spirits without bodies, there can be no ghosts, no witches, no grounds for fear and superstition and no all-seeing eye of God. Once persons are contented in their faith, they are free to speculate as they please on all other matters. God will take no notice.

Through the 1600s and 70s Muggleton entered into hostile polemics with a number of Quakers.

In 1669, Muggleton’s An answer to Isaac Pennington, Quaker was intercepted at the printers by the Searcher of the Press, and Muggleton was tipped off that a warrant for his arrest would be issued and he was able to disappear for nine months to live in hiding amongst the watermen of Wapping.

In 1675, Muggleton, as executor of the estate of Deborah Brunt, became involved in property litigation against Alderman John James. He seems largely to have been successful until his opponent hit upon the idea of trying to get him excommunicated in the Court of Arches so that he could no longer have defence of law in civil matters. At the time, Muggleton was in hiding at the house of Ann Lowe, a believer, from an arrest warrant of the Stationers Company. Hiding was now no longer a solution as Muggleton could be excommunicated in his absence if he did not appear and plead. On doing so, Muggleton was remanded to Guildhall Court on a warrant of the Lord Chief Justice. It was Muggleton’s ill-luck that the Lord Mayor that year was a stationer. Muggleton was bailed to appear to answer charges arising from his book The Neck of the Quakers broken, specifically that he did curse Dr Edward Bourne of Worcester, therein. Muggleton remarks that it was strange that a curse against a Quaker should be considered blasphemy by the established church. Muggleton’s problem was that it was common practice for recently published dissenting books to bear false dates and places of publication to escape the law. Muggleton’s bore a false place (Amsterdam, not London) but a true date, some 13 years earlier, and he should have escaped prosecution. No evidence, other than innuendo, was offered by the prosecution.

On 17 January 1676 (1677 new style) Muggleton was tried at the Old Bailey, convicted of blasphemy, and sentenced to three days in the pillory and a fine of £500. At each of his three two-hourly appearances in the pillory (at Temple Gate, outside the Royal Exchange and at the market in West Smithfield) a selection of the books seized from Muggleton were burnt by the common hangman. Considerable public disturbance arose from fights between Muggleton’s supporters and members of the public who felt deprived of their sport. Nevertheless, Muggleton (who was no longer a young man) was badly injured. Muggleton’s attempts to get himself released from Newgate gaol were frustrated because his keepers were reluctant to let go a prisoner from whom they could derive a profit. Muggleton was advised to get Ann Lowe to sue him for debt so that a writ of habeas corpus would remove him from Newgate to the Fleet prison. Eventually, the Sheriff of London, Sir John Peak was persuaded to release Muggleton for a payment of £100 cash down.

Lodowicke Muggleton died on 14 March 1698 aged 88.

In 1832, some sixty Muggletonians asubscribed to bring out a complete edition of The Miscellaneous Works of Reeve and Muggleton in 3 vols.

Muggletonianism has been called “disorganised religion”. Believers held no annual conferences, never organised a single public meeting, seem to have escaped every official register or census of religion, never incorporated, never instituted a friendly society, never appointed a leader, spokesperson, editorial board, chairperson for meetings or a single committee. Their sole foray into bureaucracy was to appoint trustees for their investment, the income from which paid the rent on the London Reading Room between 1869 and 1918.

Muggletonian meetings were simple comings-together of individuals who appeared to feel that discussion with like-minded believers helped clarify their own thoughts. “Nothing in the Muggletonian history becomes it more than its fidelity to open debate (though sometimes rancorous).”

Records and correspondence show that meetings took place from the 1650s to 1940 in London and for almost as long in Derbyshire. Regular meetings occurred at other places at other times. Bristol, Cork, Faversham and Nottingham are among those known, and there were many others, especially in East Anglia and Kent.

In both London and Derbyshire two types of meeting were held. There were regular discussion meetings and there were holiday meetings of a more celebratory nature held in mid-February (to commemorate the start of the Third Commission) and at the end of July (to remember Muggleton’s release from imprisonment).

There remains a description of a Muggletonian holiday meeting held at the Reading Room at 7 New Street, London on February 14, 1869. There were about 40 members present, of whom slightly more than half were men. One quarter were said to have been born into the faith. Tea was served at 5 o’clock. Discussion continued until 6 when a lady sang “Arise, My Soul, Arise”, one of the Muggletonian divine songs.Then a large bowl of port negus with slices of lemon was served and a toast enjoined to absent friends. More songs were sung by each who volunteered. Beer was brought in and supper served at half past eight. “It was a plain substantial meal; consisting of a round of beef, a ham, cheese, butter, bread and beer. Throughout the evening, every one seemed heartily to enjoy himself or herself, with no lack of friendliness, but with complete decorum.” No speeches were made. “By ten o’clock all were on their way homeward.”

There is also an account for a far older holiday meeting which Lodowicke Muggleton and his daughter, Sarah, attended in July 1682 at the Green Man pub in Holloway, then a popular rural retreat to the north of London. In addition to a goodly meal with wine and beer, a quartern of tobacco, one-fifth of a pound, was gotten through and a shilling paid out to “ye man of the bowling green”.

Outside of holiday times, meetings seem to have altered little with time and place. They comprised discussion, readings and songs. There was no public worship, no instruction, no prayer. There is no record of any participant being moved by the spirit. Until mid-Victorian times, London meetings were held in the back rooms of pubs. In the early days, this is said to have provided an appearance of outward conformity with the Conventicle Acts 1664 and 1667. The meeting would look and sound to outsiders like a private or family party. Nothing would advertise religious observance. By 1869, pub life had become irksome and the London congregation obtained their first Reading Room at 7 New Street, which was reckoned to be built on the former site of Lodowicke Muggleton’s birthplace, Walnut Tree Yard. This was made possible by legacies from Catherine Peers, Joseph Gandar and the Frost family; all of whom had been active in the faith. The money invested in government stock yielded sufficient income to pay the rent and the wages of a live-in caretaker who, for most of the Victorian period, was an unemployed shoe-repairer named Thomas Robinson. 7 New Street is perhaps the only site with Muggletonian connections still extant. However, it may require considerable historical imagination from the modern passer-by to gain a mental picture of what it would have been like in Victorian times. Then, the area was full of warehouses and factories, not the smart, professional consultancies of today.

By May 1918, wartime inflation seems to have undermined the Victorian financial settlement.The Muggletonians moved to cheaper rented premises not far away at 74 Worship Street, to the north of Finsbury Square.They remained there until probably the autumn of 1940 when the building was destroyed by a firebomb during the London Blitz. This was the event which led to the transfer of the Muggletonian archive to Mr Noakes’ farm in Kent. As a fruit farmer, Mr Noakes received a petrol ration to take his produce to Covent Garden market in central London. On the return journey, the archive was packed into the empty boxes and taken to safety.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London religious history: John Oldcastle convicted as heretic, 1413.

The Lollards were religious reformers, heretics against the Catholic Church of the 15th century, proto-protestants, in some ways. Lollardy derived from the teachings of John Wycliffe, a 14th-century cleric, openly critical of the worldy wealth of the church, who questioned many of the leading catholic doctrines. Other clerical students took up these ideas, calling for a simpler, more down to earthy approach to religion, based among the people, and for much of the high church theology and hierarchy to be abolished or revised.

These ideas were heavily crushed by the church authorities, backed by the state; their symapthisers were rooted out of the universities, where they were first mooted, forcing Lollard students to recant their beliefs or go underground.

But Lollard ideas spread into the wider population, often through wandering preachers, teaching secret conclaves of believers, and fleeing repression to spread the word in other areas.

Excommunication, arrest, imprisonment, and eventually executions, were used to try to extirpate Lollardy. Numbers persecuted were relatively small; how widespread these underground ideas became will always be unclear, but substantial communities did develop in various parts of England.

The church feared Lollardy could spread destabilising doctrines which could undermine its spiritual power and its material riches (at this point church institutions in one form or another owned between a third and a half of the land in the country). The secular authorities feared Lollards were also rebels, linking grassroots demands for reform of the church with social and economic dissatisfaction. In the wake of the 1381 Peasants Revolt, this was not an idle or unjustified worry. But repression of Lollards also bred anger and hatred, and played a part in an abortive Lollard rebellion on 1414.

If most Lollards were increasingly drawn from the poorer classes, there were, in its early years, a fair number of the gentry and merchant classes attracted to the creed. But Lollardy’s only prominent political leader was from even more rarified stock.

“John Oldcastle was born in 1378. His family, though of only moderate standing and wealth, had taken a worthy part in the local affairs of Herefordshire for at least two generations…

Like many other gentlemen of small fortune from Wales and its marches, Sir John, earned renown… in the wars of the Lancastrian kings. He was on Henry IV’s fruitless Scottish expedition of 1400 and saw considerable service thereafter against Owen Glyndwr and his Welsh. It was thus that he became the companion-in-arms and the personal intimate of the future Henry V, to whose household he became attached. In April 1406, the king rewarded his military exploits with an annuity for life of 100 marks. He had already found time to represent his native county n the parliament of January 1404, and in 1406-7 he served it as a sherriff. By his thirtieth year he had won a name for himself as a tough fighter who enjoyed the confidence of the heir to the throne. It was then that a second marriage raised him to baronial rank.

His wife, Joan de la Pole, had already buried three husbands when in the summer of 1408 she ventured upon a fourth. She seems to have had a weakness for soldiers of fortune and, in all, married five of them. She was herself an heiress twice over – of her father, Sir John de la Pole, who died in 1380, and of her maternal grandfather John, Lord Cobham, whose death in extreme old age occurred in January 1408. By marrying her, Oldcastle obtained the custody of a dozen scattered manors and of Cooling castle overlooking the Thames estuary. On the strength of this property and of his past services,, he was in the following year summoned to parliament as a baron. He celebrated his good fortune by taking part in an Anglo-French tournament at Lille. So far, no-one had breathed a suspicion of his orthodoxy.

But practices that received small attention in remote Herefordshire could not be safely indulged in for long under the very nose of a watchful Archbishop. [Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury]. Arundel was at Dartford in the spring of 1410 when he learnt that John, a chaplain living under Oldcastle’s roof, had been preaching heresy in the churches of Hoo, Halstow and Cooling, and particularly in the last, of which his host was patron. Too late to escape discovery, the rash offender had gone into hiding; only his baronial accomplice remained. Arundel’s reception of this news makes it reasonably clear that he at once guessed Oldcastle’s secret, but thought that it might still be possible to avert trouble. He cannot have known that he was dealing with a man who was unshakably committed to his heresies; for most men in Oldcastle’s position a clear warning would have been enough. So on April 3 the archbishop ordered the prior of Rochester to put the three parishes under an interdict and to cite John the chaplain for trial. Then two day later “out of reverence for” the lady Joan he relaxed the interdict and soon afterwards removed it altogether. But in future he had an eye on Cooling and its inhabitants.

How far Oldcastle was from heeding the primate’s warning is shown by two letters which he caused to be written not long afterwards. The first, dated from Cooling castle on 8 September 1410, was addressed to a Bohemian noble who was a prominent supporter of the Hus. [Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus, who had been influenced by Lollard guru Wyclife, and founded a similar reformist movement.] Its purpose was to congratulate the Hussites on their recent successes and to exhort them to continue the struggle against the adherents of antichrist to the death. A year later Oldcastle wrote to king Wenceslas of Bohemia himself in a similar manner, mentioning that he had also been in correspondence with Hus. The chief interest of these letters is their clear assumption that the writer was a recognised leader of the English sect; it is therefore probable that he had been an active heretic for some time. Yet, apart from the chaplain John, the only other Lollard with whom his association can be traced was a priest named Richard Wyche. From the diocese of Hereford Wyche had wandered preaching as far afield as Northumberland, where in 1400 he fell into the hands of Walter Skirlaw, Bishop of Durham. It may have been a mere coincidence that Oldcastle was in that Oldcastle was in that area at the same year. After prolonged examination and many attempts to persuade him to submit, Wyche was finally driven to recant… he is next heard of writing to Hus from London on 8 September 1410. The letter had a similar purpose to that written by Oldcastle on the same day from Cooling: the noble congratulated the noble, the priest the priest; it is fairly obvious that they were accomplices.

In the autumn of 1411 Oldcastle was one of the captains sent by the prince of Wales to help the Duke of Burgundy to recover Paris. If the prince regarded him still as a trustworthy subordinate, there cannot have been any widespread knowledge of his Lollard sympathies. Unlike some of his co-religionists, he was no pacifist. The expedition was a distinguished success. When, therefore, his friend succeeded Henry IV as king on 21 March 1413, Oldcastle could with justice look forward to high military employment in the new reign, But already in the convocation which began its debates on 6 March, damning evidence against him was being brought to light. It remained to be seen whether Henry V would allow him to be persecuted.

In St Paul’s on the first day of the convocation Arundel’s registrar had just examined the credentials of those answering the primate’s summons when he was informed that there was present in the church a chaplain who was highly suspect as a heretic, accompanied by tow other unknown men. The registrar immediately sent for the chaplain and cross-examined him. His name, the man replied, was John Lay; he was attached to St. Mary’s Church Nottingham, and came from those parts; he had arrived in London two days before and that very morning had celebrated mass in Sir John Oldcastle’s presence. But when he was asked for his credentials and his bishop’s licence, Lay answered that he had failed to bring them with him. He was given a week to produce them. The episode has many odd features and suggests that Oldcastle was being watched. Unfortunately, there is no record of any sequel. One is left to assume that Lay, like John he chaplain, who may, indeed, have been the same man, made himself scarce.

Convocation, one gathers, then turned to other questions, but it can hardly have come as a surprise to anybody when the search of an illuminator’s shop in Paternoster Row led to the discovery of a number of heretical tracts belonging to Oldcastle. This was evidence that he would find it difficult to explain away and it was decided at once to inform the king. A meeting took place in the inner chamber of the royal manor of Kennington at which both Henry V and Oldcastle were present. Some of the most heretical passages inthe confiscated literature were read aloud and greatly shocked the king; never, he said, had he heard worse matter. Turning to Oldcastle, he challenged him to disagree. Oldcastle was unruffled, answering that the doctrines recited deserved condemnation, and excused his possession of the tracts on the ground that he had only dipped into them without grasping their character. If this satisfied the king, it quite failed to impress the clergy, who withdrew to prepare a more extensive indictment of the accused.

This, at any rate in the summarized form which has come down to us, was full of generalities and devoid of any factual detail. Oldcastle was alleged to have uttered and maintained heretical doctrines in man places, to have given aid and comfort to Lollard preachers and to have terrorised those opposed to them. In short, he “was and is the principal harbourer, promoter, protector and defender” of heretics, especially in the dioceses of London, Rochester and Hereford. When the lower clergy pressed for his trial and condemnation the prelates pointed out that more circumspect treatment was desirable in the case f one who was a member of the king’s domestic circle. It was therefore agreed that Henry should once more be consulted. A second visit to Kennington found him sympathetic towards the church’s case, but anxious to do all he could to avoid the public humiliation of a trusted servant. He asked the clergy to wait while he tried the effect of a personal appeal.; should he fail to move Oldcastle, then he promised to throw the full weight of the secular arm on to the side of the church. This was reluctantly agreed to.

Henry’s hopes of an obliging submission were disappointed. Oldcastle was obdurate and in August the king wrote to tell Arundel to proceed in accordance with the law. But when the primate tried to serve the accused with a formal summons the gates of Cooling castle were shut against his officer. This defiance was as short-lived as it was foolish and by 23 September Oldcastle, who had meanwhile sought another interview with the king at Windsor and been arrested for his pains, was a prisoner in the Tower of London. On that day his trial opened before Arundel, assisted by the bishops of London and Winchester in St Paul’. He was at once promised full forgiveness in return for submission. But deprived though he was of the king’s protection, Oldcastle was unwilling to admit his guilt. Instead he treated his ecclesiastical judges to a statement of his views which lacked precision on all the material points. Arundel was not convinced; he had had to do with such documents before. He admitted that as far as it went the confession of faith was satisfactory but he would like plain answers to two plain questions: Did Sir John believe in transubstantiation and did he regard confession to a priest as necessary in the sacrament of penance? Oldcastle at first refused to say another word. Then, irritated by the steady pressure to which he was submitted, he denied the right of popes, cardinals and bishops to lay down what should be believed about such matters. Even so, Arundel’s scrupulousness was inexhaustible. He gave the prisoner a week-end to think over his plight and provided him with a statement in English of the orthodox doctrine on the disputed points. He had little hope of securing a conversion or he would not have reinforced the court so powerfully for its next session.

He again began the proceedings on Monday 25 September with a conditional offer of absolution. Oldcastle first declined to be absolved by anyone other than God. Then he went on to assert that the bread remained bread after consecration and that confession, though sometimes expedient, was never essential to salvation. `next he broke into a tirade against the hierarchy: the pope was the head of antichrist, the bishops his members and the friars his tail. And finally, raising his hands he warned the crowd of spectators that those who judged and wished to condemn him were deceivers and would lead them to hell. It is recorded that the archbishop once more implored him in tears to return to the bosom of the church. Then, seeing it was vain to wrestle with him any longer, he delivered the judgement of the court. Oldcastle was excommunicated and left to the mercy of the secular arm.

…Oldcastle had had every chance, but he was a conscientious Lollard and when offered a choice between recantation or death he was to straightforward and too brave to deny his faith…”

(KB MacFarlane, The Origins of Religious Dissent in England)

However, Oldcastle’s closeness to the king meant he continued to be given a chance. Instead of the usual immediate execution, King Henry allowed him 40 days respite to think things over, locked in the Tower of London. But less than half this time had elapsed when, on October 19th, Oldcastle was helped to escape the fortress, and went into hiding in Smithfield… Where he began to plot a Lollard uprising to overthrow both king and church.

For the tale of that uprising, see our previous post

Oldcastle would escape the defeat of the uprising, but be captured in 1417, and burned as a heretic.

To a limited extent, Oldcastle was the original model for Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays king Henry IV and V… When Shakespeare adapted that play in Henry IV, Part 1, Henry’s companion was called Oldcastle, but when the play was printed in 1598, the name was changed to Falstaff. Though the fat knight still remains “my old lad of the Castle”, the stage character has nothing to do with the Lollard leader. In Henry IV, Part 2 an epilogue emphasises that the debauched buffoonish Falstaff is not Oldcastle: “Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already a’ be killed with your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.”

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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