Quakers - the hatred and fear

The tiny hamlet of Littlebeck near Whitby where Nicholas Postgate was betrayed and arrested in 1678.
The tiny hamlet of Littlebeck near Whitby where Nicholas Postgate was betrayed and arrested in 1678.

Of all the numerous dissident religious movements born out of civil-war disruption, the Quakers were thought to be the most dangerous and threatening to the peace and stability of both state and church. As one hostile witness of the time described them: “Their apparent designe and common practise is to seduce and misleade the poore, ignorant, ungrounded and unsetled of these Northern partes, and to involve them in most detestable principles, worse than the Egiptian darknes, wherein they resemble the old serpent, who first applied his assaults against the weaker vessel.”

When young George Fox first became a wandering preacher, denouncing Anglican clergymen as godless parasites, living on the compulsory tithes of the working poor, and their churches as “steeple-houses”, he was only one of many such religious revolutionaries. However, under his inspired and courageous leadership, by 1660 the Quakers had prospered to an alarming number, especially in Yorkshire. Whereas the other “sects”, such as the Ranters, Seekers, Diggers and Levellers, had petered out or had been absorbed, there were believed to be as many as 60,000 Quakers in England alone.

Clifford's Tower, York, where four Scarborough Quakers were imprisoned after refusing to attend services at St Mary's Parish Chuch and refusing to pay tithes to it.

Clifford's Tower, York, where four Scarborough Quakers were imprisoned after refusing to attend services at St Mary's Parish Chuch and refusing to pay tithes to it.

Why were the Quakers so hated and feared? The answer seems to be because they were at that time both violent and political. It is important to emphasize here that the first declaration of absolute pacifism in all circumstances was not made by the Quakers until January 1661 after the Restoration. During the 1650s, Yorkshire court records are rich in graphic accounts of “fanatics” making slanderous verbal and violent physical assaults on clergymen, parish officials, magistrates and constables. That many of these attacks were launched by women made them all the more scandalous.

At Keighley, Agnes Wilkinson called the parish clerk “anti-Christ, preest of Balle [Baal], flasse [false] prophitt”. At Selby, Mary Fisher shouted to the minister in his pulpit, “Come downe...thou painted beast, come downe. Thou art but a hirelinge, and deludest the people with thy lyes.” At least two Anglican priests, at Skipton and Lastingham, were murdered and their corpses left out-of-doors for “vermin or fowles of the aire”.

Much more fearful for those in authority was the knowledge that many Quakers were ex-soldiers and some were still serving in the army or the navy. It is said that Major-General John Lambert’s downfall in 1660 was caused by his known toleration of Quakers.

Anglican priests were not the only victims of Quaker abuse. Fox spoke out boldly against kings and queens, peers of the realm, bishops and magistrates. He also denounced the exclusion of women from all the professions, universities, schools and governing bodies. Refusing to remove the hat in the presence of so-called social superiors or to use the familiar “thou” instead of “you” to them confirmed the suspicion that Quakers really did intend to turn “the natural order” upside down.

Even the most tolerant could not tolerate James Nayler, the Yorkshire Quaker, who in 1656, to celebrate his release from prison, entered Bristol, the second city in the land, riding on a donkey, while female disciples threw down palms before him and others walked alongside singing, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel”. This sacrilegious imitation of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem provoked six weeks of frenzied denunciation in the House of Commons. Nayler never recovered from the public whipping, the red-hot poker bored through his tongue, the branding of his forehead and the next three years in gaol. From then on there were no more concessions made to the “Friends of the Truth”. By 1660, hundreds of them were in prison, most of them for refusing to pay tithes, and many more physically attacked in public.

The restoration of the monarchy and the Church of England gave no relief to the Quakers, despite King Charles’ promises of liberty of conscience. On the contrary, the Conventicle Act of 1663 was sometimes called the anti-Quaker Act since it appeared to target their meetings. Unlike the Catholics and other Protestant Dissenters, Quakers would not gather in secret.

By then about 500 of them were locked up in York’s gaols, nine in Scarborough castle, six in Hull, and six in Ripon. Conditions at York were especially cruel underneath old Ousebridge, where there was no natural light, no ventilation, and at high tide or river flood the inmates were in danger of drowning.

The prison sentences were usually indefinite, which meant that if your money ran out and you could no longer pay for food, light or heating, you were entirely at the mercy of the keeper. Prison gaolers sold their captives individually or in batches to other gaolers or agents who sold them on to the American colonies.

Quakers were frequently pressed into Royal Navy service. At the start of the Second Dutch War in 1665, Richard Sellers, a fisherman native of Kilnsea, was taken by force out of his coble and put on board the Royal Prince. When he would not work or even eat, he was flogged by the boatswain and assaulted by the ship’s captain. Threatened with hanging, he agreed to act as the pilot’s look-out and twice saved the Royal Prince from collision. As a reward for his bravery, Admiral Spragge signed his certificate of release. Twenty years later, he and his wife were attending Quaker meetings at Scarborough.

George Fox returned to Scarborough in 1663. The town’s Friends still had no meeting house so again he stayed at the home of Peter Hodgson and preached there, despite the ban. The following year he was imprisoned in Lancaster castle and Hodgson and three other Scarborough Quakers were summoned to the bishop’s court at New Malton, on charges of not attending the parish church and refusing to pay tithes to it. All four were committed to Clifford’s tower. Hodgson was freed after five years, but the other three died there.

When Fox came back to Scarborough a third time in May 1665 it was as a prisoner on transfer from Lancaster to Scarborough castle. In his later Journal he described in detail his ill-treatment there. The Catholic governor, Sir Jordan Crosland, was not amused when Fox complained that his smoke-filled, draughty cell was no better than “purgatory”. As a result, Fox was banished to the upper floor of Cockhill or Charles’ tower, without fireplace, shutters or shelter from wind and rain. Eventually, after 16 months he was released, having won the admiration of Crosland and his visitors with his fortitude. On his final return to Scarborough in 1669, Crosland welcomed him to the castle as an honoured guest.