Witness (for Imogen)

 

 

I, Mary Gadbury, being of unsound mind and broken body, declare, on this day, the year of Our Lord, sixteen hundred and fifty, my absolute guilt. I confess to having a credulous nature, which is the natural consequence of being born a daughter of Eve: for thus it is written: “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”. An unforgivable offence, and a mighty sin – or so it seems.

It was hardly my fault I came out this way, since I had no voice in the matter. Mam and dad played at couch quail, and nine months later out I popped, despite the buckets of herbals and bay leaves and ground pine that mam tried to sluice me out with before I was due. A girl, and tough as boots.

I learnt early the ways of this world. I learnt hard. No spoiling, no praise, just a bloody nuisance, always in the way. Until I started to grow, that is, and became useful. And then it was skivvying from before dawn to after dusk, day in, day out. Washing, cooking, cleaning, sewing, fetching. And when I wasn’t working, I was at church, on my knees, praying. A servant of the Lord, as well as an unpaid servant at home, beaten raw when it suited, just so I knew my place. But I didn’t need the beatings. I knew my place well enough. At the bottom of the pile, quiet and submissive. Not that dad used his fists just on me, mind. Mam was clattered on and off, too, which only made it worse, since I got double-clattered when she belted me ‘cause she was too afraid to belt him. After all, he was the next thing to God in our house. “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church.” A vindictive, petty, drunken God. A beast, who hid his true face from the world, and played the good Christian, like an actor in a play. I watched him sometimes, as he made his way up the street, with me peeking by the door. How he’d take his hat off, and bow to the ladies. “Good day to you, sweet mistress.” It made me feel sick to the pit of my guts. A toadying hypocrite, who loved only himself – and God, obviously. Everybody loved God. They had to; it was the law. If you didn’t love God, it was because you loved the Devil instead, and that was a sin. More than that, it was a sin that could get you dead – quick. So I learnt to love God too, though God-knows I didn’t know what it meant.

Around the time of my twelfth baptism day, I realised things were changing in me. My boobies began to swell, and then the monthly blooding started. Another natural consequence of being Eve’s daughter, along with the feeling I was somehow unclean, not fit to be seen for as long as I bled. “Menstrual impurity”, the Good Book calls it. Menstrual mess, more like – certainly at first, until mam showed me how to use a wad of shorn wool, infused with herbs, and fitted with a string. That helped, though it felt strange. When I went to market, to buy and fetch provisions, as I’d always done, the men looked at me in a new way, a curious way. Perhaps it was my sprouting bossoms, or maybe it was because I smelled different. Whatever it was, they began to smirk at me, to wink, to make lewd remarks, as if I was some kind of brothel wagtail, rather than an innocent young woman. Sad men, with their minds fixed on fadoodling. I took to carrying a small knife, just in case. 

When I was sixteen, I met a barrow boy, two years older than me. Tousle-haired, with shiny blue eyes, and strong arms and hands. Quite angelic he looked, and behaved, which was a surprise, given his market background and the odd friend he loitered with. I liked him at once, and I told him so, which shook him a bit, since it wasn’t deemed a woman’s place to be so forward. But I didn’t care about that. For too long I’d held my tongue, and watched, as mam and dad squeezed the life out of each other. I was damned if I wasn’t going to speak up any more. They must have loved each other once, mam and dad, but they’d stopped living for the joy of living years before. Life was hard – I knew that as much as anyone, but that didn’t mean it had to be loveless and empty. The fact is, I couldn’t see the point in not saying what was in my head. Dead time, it seemed to me. And there was time enough for dead time when you were actually dead. And so, I told this barrow boy I liked him, and he told me he liked me, too. So that was that. We liked one another. 

His name was Jamie, and it wasn’t long before he asked me to walk with him from time to time. I considered his proposal, and agreed I would. I also decided I wasn’t going to tell anyone, specially not my parents. I wanted neither fuss nor fury.

The first time we went together, it was just a stroll alongside the river. Arm in arm, right and proper, and hardly a word spoken. He was shy, and I’d never walked out with a man before, so I didn’t know what was expected. We smiled a lot, and when we’d done, he gave me a quick peck of a kiss on the forehead, like a sort of blessing. I probably blushed, since I’d not been kissed before, at least not with any kind of affection, and it made me like Jamie even more than I already did.

We carried on like this for two years or more. Always respectful, and never more than a quick kiss. Around the time of my eighteenth, dad became ill, and it wasn’t long before he slipped away, and went to meet his Maker and Judge – the Lord God Himself – who, I hoped, would reward him as he deserved. According to the croakus, it was the King’s Evil took him, but I think he died of bitterness and  melancholy. Either way, I shed few tears. After all, why should I? He was more than unkind to mam and me, and for all the blows dad gave us, I prayed they’d be multiplied in Hell. Mam cried a little, and then just got on with things. I told her about Jamie soon after, and she said she was pleased, and asked about a wedding, which took me by surprise. It hadn’t crossed my mind, but once she’d said it, I began to think and plan.

Less than six months after dad’s death, we were spliced. The priest did his best to remind me of my place in the marriage, and in the world at large, which should have made me boil, but I didn’t care. I’d heard it all before; the usual dirge. “For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man… Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, not to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” I heard, and I smiled, and I cursed in the Italian style – sotto voce.

Since we had no place to call our own, Jamie moved in with mam and me. I think she missed having a man around the place, though given dad’s streaky violence, I’ve no idea why. With hindsight, it wasn’t such a good idea, but at the time, it suited. Me and mam carried on as before, doing the household chores, while Jamie took his spot on the market every day, bar Sunday, when we all went to church together, to thank the Good Lord for His mercies. For a time, everything was chirping-merry. And then, for all sorts of reasons, the cracks began to show.

Jamie was a clumsy man, and princum-prancum was an awkward business. To be honest, it was several months before we so much as coupled, which left me wondering why we’d wed in the first place. When I tried to talk to him, I was told it was a matter of Godly duty, not pleasure, and we’d have babies soon enough. P’raps he thought conception was an immaculate business all round, though I never dared utter such blasphemy out loud. At any rate, after a couple of years, despite the fumbling and faddling, I fell with child.

It wasn’t an easy birth, and just six months after I popped, Jamie packed his bags, walked out the door, and never returned, without a word of warning or explanation. That cut me deep and hard. I was twenty-three years old, living in mam’s house, surviving on a scrimption, with a daughter to raise. Something had to change. I was used to hard work, day and night, so I took to selling laces, pins and other trifles, as well as helping round the house. It wasn’t easy, but we managed somehow.

Two years after his flight, I received word from Jamie, together with a few pieces of jewellery. He’d left England for good, he said, and was living in the Low Countries, working as a ship builder’s labourer, in Amsterdam. Perhaps, he suggested, I could sell the stones, and see myself right. In my dull, credulous way, I thought, perhaps, he still felt a small love for me, and that if I went to see him, with his daughter, he might relent. So we took sail in sixteen forty-four, even as parts of the country went up in flames, as King and Parliament fought. I tracked Jamie down, but all to no avail. The jewels were anything but tokens of affection: a mere conscience salve on his part, and nothing more. I returned to England, with my girl, and an emptied heart.

Back home, I sold the stones, packed mam off to her sister’s house at Folkestone, and then moved into Babylon itself: London, the Great City. During the next four years, I went from lodging house to lodging house, eking out a bare living, selling knick-knacks as before, with my daughter growing, and the money from the jewels fast disappearing. Since we lived alone, people looked down on us, and whispered loud enough for me to catch. I was (pst pst pst) an immoral woman, who lived (pst pst pst) without supervision – which meant without the supervision of a man. I stuffed my ears against such talk, and went my own solitary way in spite. In the year of Our Lord, sixteen hundred and forty-nine, the same year Charles lost his top-knot, I settled in with another woman like myself, alone and struggling. We slept together in the same bed, though only for the economics and comfort of it, while my daughter had a cot of her own. I began to attend the sermons of a new breed of preachers: preachers who spoke of a fresh contract between God, men, and women. An uplifting doctrine, which promised a rebirth of sorts. Best of all were the sweet words of the Independent, John Goodwin, and the Baptist, Henry Jessey. I listened, and noted, and learnt whole passages of Bible truths, passages I’d heard before, but now it seemed as if they danced in front of me, and sang, and exulted. I sensed something hot in the air, but had no idea what it was.

Soon enough, after witnessing the change in me, my woman friend talked about a man whose house she’d visited; a man who she thought embraced the Devil. Upon being persuaded otherwise, the man – William Franklin – convinced her that God had singled him out from amongst all other men. I was thrilled to the bone, and asked my friend to arrange a meeting.

When William Franklin visited me, I knew straightway he was different somehow. The way he carried himself, his questioning half smile, and, best of all, his gentle, Godly words when he spoke. I was taken, with an echo that sounded in me. How long he stayed I don’t recall, and what he uttered is a mystery, but from that moment on, his love was in me, and mine in him. When he left, he said, “My peace be with you”, which made my entire body burn. I was so filled with unspeakable joy, I began to sing, and my friend sang with me. We became so thunderous with rapture, a neighbour complained we must be bewitched. She was right, in her way. 

I began to have certain fits, whereby I saw and heard wondrous things. God spoke to me in His Own Almightiness, saying “the trees shall clap their hands for joy”, and, “Babylon is fallen… There shall be no King, but the King of Kings”. He told me that the Saints would judge the Earth, and how His Son, the new Christ, would come again in the form of a man. All the while I trembled in great distress, and cried out “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, and then a white light, half the size of the moon, pierced the sheet and blanket shielding my eyes and body. As the Last Trump sounded, I ceased my shaking and quaking. Such fits I had, with the first of them upon a Sabbath day.

William took to calling frequently. One day, he told me he was Christ. No preamble, no fuss. He just was. I laughed out loud, at first, but – with time –  came to believe. He spoke of spiritual rebirth, and how He had a new body and nature. His wife and children, He said, belonged to His former sinful self, and no longer meant anything to Him. God had commanded He leave them, and take a new wife. Me. I was the woman set apart for Him: Christ’s Spouse, the Lady Mary, the Queen, the Lamb’s Wife, His Precursor, and all manner of titles. I was so filled with urgent joy, I went to His house, and told His wife plain the news of her Husband’s rebirth. She sighed deeply, and began to weep, so I took my leave of her.

Christ-William spent one night with me at my lodgings, and we shared our visions together. I told Him I’d dreamed of a man, fleeing to Hampshire, followed by a lamb. He’d had the same dream, and we agreed it was a sign for us to do the same. I little knew that Hampshire was His birthplace, before being born again as Christ. That night, we lay in my bed, since both friend and daughter were away. Such closeness I’d never known, clipt one to another, and singing all the while. An ecstasy so intense, our spirits soared high, and gazed down on our naked forms.

We took the weekly coach to Hampshire in November, having sent my daughter to Folkestone and disposed of all our worldly goods. Finding lodgings at the Star Inn in Andover, we signed ourselves as man and wife, since that’s what we were in God’s eyes. While my Husband returned to London several times, to enlist support, I remained, and set about recruiting disciples. I was a veritable John the Baptist, spreading the good news concerning the imminent reign of free love on Earth for all men and women. At this time, I felt the most extreme of birthing pains, as if I was about to bring forth the tremendous spirit of Christ Himself, the sight of which made several converts of its own accord. One such man was William Woodward, a minister, as well as his wife, and a cloth worker named Edward Spradbury. They became the most loyal and proselytic of our followers.

On the eighth of December, Christ-William returned to the Star Inn. An inner voice had told Him that certain local people had heard we were already married to others. In their eyes, we were no better than fornicating, adulterous, deserters. Determined to straighten things, my Husband made it known that since we’d been re-born in God’s eyes, our previous marriages counted for naught. However, the Inn’s keeper, Michael Rutlie, together with his wife, told us to pack our bags and leave, so on the eleventh of the month, we moved to the Woodford’s home, in Crookes Easton. The minister and his wife accepted us for what we’d truly become.

Over the next six weeks, I suffered so many visions and visitations. A strange voice came to me, and commanded I dress all in white, the colour of innocence, so I took some of Mrs Woodward’s linen, and made myself a gown. Another time, alone in my room, I saw a white foot, and a voice ordered the foot to rest on my shoulder, and then a bright light appeared inside the bed curtains, and I heard words from deep within me, “arise all ye that sleep”. From outside my room, Mr Woodward also heard the words, and he later declared he’d witnessed a shining light at my feet, as if the whole power of heaven had gathered there at that single moment.

My Husband preached several times at the Woodward’s home, and the number of our followers was five hundred or more. He told them point blank He was Christ, slain at Jerusalem, “and had the wounds yet on his body unhealed”. Being sin-free, He forgave the sins of others, in preparation for their own eventual rebirth. A new age was dawning, He said. An age of pure libertinism; of blood-life-spirit revolution; of religious freedom for men and women: an age of love and peace, without lords and masters, howsoever high born. Together, we danced, we clapped our hands, and we cried “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, the Lord is risen in us”.

But then, the world turned upside down, and we were sent a-tumbling.

Complaints had been made against us, and Christ-William was arrested, along with Mr Woodward, Edward Spradbury and Henry Dixon, another of our most loyal followers. They were taken to Winchester, to appear before Justices Bettesworth and Cobbe. So I, and several of the women, accompanied them, and attended the examination, willing to truthfully testify on their behalf. When one foul wretch at the court told me my breath did stink, I declared it was the breath of the Lord. Another brute called my Husband “fellow”, which was a gross impudent way to address his Saviour.

There was much talk of blasphemy, adultery, bigamy, and even infanticide – though God-only-knows why. What no-one seemed to understand was that in our reborn selves, we were absolved from all such charges. Our fleshly past was as dust in the wind. When one of the Justices told my Husband that Scripture placed Christ not on Earth but in Heaven, at God’s Right Hand, He told him flat that Scripture was naught but “types and shadows”.

When my turn came, I declared forthright I no longer had a husband according to the flesh, but that my Maker was my Husband, the Lord of Hosts, who was within me. I told them that only one week before, I was in the Holy City of Jerusalem, to witness Christ-William’s crucifixion, since Jerusalem was everywhere. When asked if I’d shared my Spouse’s bed, I said I had, but without pollution or defilement, since carnal copulation was not of our nature: we transcended bodily desires, sharing in innocence, like Adam and Eve before the Fall. When certain women at the court whispered to one another I painted my face, my complexion being so fresh and beautiful, one of the Justices held a candle up, and declared I looked so fair, he too thought it unnatural. So I stept forth, boldly put my face near the candle, and declared that the Glory of the Lord did shine in my face. I was no tarted courtesan.

What happened next broke me almost entirely. The two Justices took Christ-William to one side, and told Him if he did not admit His wickedness, He’d be tried for blasphemy, which was punishable by death. I knew in my heart, my Husband would laugh in the face of such a threat, and stand firm in His True Knowledge. But, he did not. Instead, he agreed on the spot to sign any document the Justices prepared. When I was shown his recantation, I demanded of him, “Hast thou done this, is this thy hand?”, to which he replied, “You see what condition we are fallen into”. I could see clear enough. I’d been well deceived. My life I’d have given for him. I believed thoroughly in him, yet he was no more than a seducing villain.

My ex-spouse was taken to the gaol, to await his full trial, while I was despatched to the Winchester House of Correction, as “a lewd woman and rogue at law”, simply because I refused to confirm my birth name – and, perhaps, because I was a mere woman, the daughter of Eve. I was beaten and whipped for a whole week, and made to moil, before being returned to the Justices, where a voice urged me to tell them about my visits and visitations, and about my long-absent husband and my daughter. I spoke for two hours, it seems, and confessed I’d been hoodwinked by the Devil to accompany Franklin, though I remember little. Since I had not the power of scrip, I signed my recantation with a mark.

Having confessed, the Justices relented, and I was moved to Winchester Gaol, alongside Franklin, the man once known to me as Christ. Conditions were tolerable, and friends and supporters visited with food and supplies. I saw my one-time Lamb from time to time, which left me exceeding confused: sometimes elated and believing, other times in deep despond at his betrayal. For two months I waited in gaol. A minister called Humphrey Ellis came to see me. He enquired of my actions and reasons. Having nothing to fear, or so I assumed, I talked freely with him, and gave him my truth as it appeared. It turned out he was a wolf in clerical garb, since he later cobbled an account of the whole enterprise, condemning me in the blackest of ways.

In March, the year of Our Lord sixteen hundred and fifty, Franklin and me appeared at Winchester Assizes, in front of Robert Nicholas and Henry Rolle, charged with bigamy. Straightway, my ex- renounced any claim to being Christ, and declared himself sorry for his errors. Reciting earlier distempers from sixteen forty-six, when he was much afflicted in mind and spirit, he said he hoped to be saved by the Justices, and by the true Christ. Before I was called, other witnesses gave their testimonies, none of which flattered. In my turn, I readily admitted I’d mistaken Franklin as my Saviour, and had willingly accompanied him as a spiritual creature. When accused of committing adultery and bigamy, I told true when I said there were no carnal relations. I lived with him as a fellow-feeler of my misery. At this, the court room errupted in laughter, amid cries of “Yea, we think you companied with him as a fellow-feeler indeed”. It wasn’t funny.

Judge Rolle was stern, when he denounced us – but the charge of bigamy was untrue, and adultery could not be proven, so our accusers were confounded. However, both Judges were of a mind to make an example of us, for being a public nuisance. Franklin was returned to Winchester gaol, until he could find bonds for good behaviour. As for me, I was dragged back to the House of Correction, as a promiscuous, lewd woman. I pleaded with the judge, wept and caterwauled, but he said gaol was too light for me, and I required the more severe punishment for being a woman. A bastard Church Christian, right down to his vindictive finger-claws.

As soon as I could, I petitioned the Assize judges to remit my sentence, blaming my ex-spouse for his vehement persuasion. Finally, on April the twenty-second, the year of Our Lord sixteen fifty, I hastily and gratefully left Winchester by the weekly coach, only six months after setting forth as the Bride of Christ – and I thanked God for my deliverance. The streets of London were crawling with ranting preachers, who’d recently sprouted, following the King’s execution. Having had my fill of New Jerusalem, I packed the few belongings left to me, and rejoined mam and my daughter in Folkestone.

When I confessed all that had happened, mam was strangely understanding. “All men think they’re God, or Christ” she told me. “Whether your dad or Franklin, and every one of them claiming divine sanction, because of some little words in a book. The late King was neither different nor better, since he justified his actions with Biblical authority. Even the good Oliver daily speaks with God, and asserts His support.” Mam was right, of course, though I’d not thought of dad and Franklin as in any way the same. However, once I’d fixed on mam’s words, and reflected within, I realised that all the men in my life had lied, manipulated, bullied and deserted me – and each with the benefit of Scripture. I’d been quite squashed, and my spirit crushed. I began to dream of a day when my kind were no longer judged for what they were as women, but given free air to be equal creatures, with full potential to become whate’er they wanted to become. I held my daughter to me so tightly, and prayed for her. Perhaps, in the fullness of time, she might know of such a day and age. Wouldn’t that be a grand thing, to live and to flourish then? And if not for my daughter, then her daughter, or her daughter’s daughter, or hers again. O, such a dream.

For now, I’m content. I still have my voices, but softly, since I desire no further fuss. Is my mind really so unsound, I wonder, or is the world just a little mad? As for the broken body – with my back in flitters, and my complexion ruined –

it will mend of its own accord.

I know this: when the last breath escapes my lips, I’ll be glad of it, for this is a sorry state of affairs.

 

Dafydd Pedr


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