Last autumn Female First gave me the interesting task of reflecting on seven ways my day job had influenced the writing of my debut historical fiction novel. It resulted in this article:
One of the most obvious ways in which my day job impacted the writing of ‘Three’ was the inclusion of religion. My day job is actually two roles that do very similar things: RE & Spirituality Officer and RE Facilitator. Basically, anything to do with Religious Education in this area comes to me. It is a role that requires lots of reading about beliefs and practice and interacting with people inhabiting diverse worldviews. I did a Joint Honours degree in English Literature and Theology and spent 15 years leading RE in the school I worked at, so religion is pretty much the warp and weft of my life. So, when it came to writing my novel, I did not shy away from religion and the novel does much to explore the central characters’ relationships with belief, the concept of God and the expectations of religious practice during the Restoration Era in England.
*Does contain some spoilers, so read on at your peril if you are yet to read the novel*
The story opens with a prologue that ushers us into the village at the time of The wakes festival in 1665. The Wakes were originally a religious festival but were accompanied by cultural celebrations such as dancing, singing and the drinking of ale. The Wakes in Eyam were dedicated to St Helen and fell towards the end of August. They are still celebrated in the village today and include the annual Plague Sunday, falling on the last Sunday in August when those who lost their lives during the Eyam plague of 1665-1666 are remembered .
Within the church of St Lawrence in the village of Eyam, the remnants of an ornate 13th-century coffin slab, known as St Helen’s Cross, is preserved in the wall of the aisle. Up until 1603, the Stafford family maintained the lamp of St Helen in the church, a tradition they had continued throughout much of their 350-year association with Eyam. By the time the plague arrived, it is impossible to know if anyone was paying careful homage to St Helen in this way but in the novel I have Catherine’s clearing out of the mess left by the heifer released into the church framed as a sort of service towards the saint the annual Wakes were held in tribute to.
The Churchyard and the Saxon Cross
Within the churchyard of the village church there stands an eight foot 8th-century Saxon, or Celtic, cross. The whole thing is covered in symbolic carvings, still clearly visible and of both pagan and Christian origins, including foliage, the Virgin and Child and angels. The Saxon cross is at least 1,000 years old and predates the church itself. Originally a wayside preachers’ cross, where missionaries visiting the Mercian area would stand to preach the message of Christianity, the cross stands resolute in the churchyard as a reminder of the Christian heritage in this country. There is also a Saxon baptismal font inside the church itself.
Her gaze was fixed upon the old Saxon cross, a beautiful reminder of Christianity having spread out roots here long before a church was built on this land.Catherine, Chapter 2
Emmott wished still that it was the hallowed ground of the churchyard, protected by the overseeing of Saint Helen herself and in the shadow of the Saxon cross that had been such comfort and direction for devout Christians centuries before the church was built. She wondered about the people who had stood before that cross, of prayers they had uttered there; some desperate, some full of gratitude, some whispered in tentative hope. Would anyone ever pause to ponder the prayers said here, in this house, by those desperate to know there was someone in control and that their fates did not rest solely on spells written on parchment and posies hung in windows?Emmott, Chapter 9
The Village Rectors and the Act of Conformity
At the time of the Eyam plague visitation, it was customary for the first son of wealthy families to inherit the estate, the second son to enter the military and the third son to take religious orders. This meant that being a rector was not always a vocation, merely a means to an income and a place to call home for some who entered the priesthood. This seems to have been the case for Shoreland Adams, the rector preceding Reverend William Mompesson at Eyam. My research seemed to indicate the Reverend Adams was less than satisfactory in his stewarding of the Eyam flock and the subsequent arrival of the Mompessons was likewise met with suspicion.
Most of them were sceptical and suspicious, seemingly holding Catherine and William Mompesson to account for the misdemeanours and abuses of the previous incumbent; a Reverend Shoreland Adams, a man by all intents and purposes a rector for gain and ease of lifestyle, and not for any sense of sense of spiritual direction or duty to shepherd a flock.Catherine, Chapter 2
Thankfully, it did not take the Mompessons long to prove themselves to be somewhat different, a fact ultimately proven by their utter dedication to the village in its time of greatest need.
” ‘He commands respect, that new rector,’ John told `Elizabeth later.
‘Not like that Shoreland Adams was, always making you feel like an inconvenience. He has an impressive air about him, though it seemed that there was some sort of dissension down there. The Reverend Stanley? Some been asking him to help sort their wills it seems. Mompesson seemed not too bothered about that mind. I think it is more his wife who has some concerns.’
‘Rector’s wives are always having concerns,’ Elizabeth said in reply.”John and Elizabeth, Chapter 11
William Mompesson had just one year in post before he had to lead the village of Eyam though what would become the most significant, and harrowing, period of its history. He and his wife, Catherine (one of the three female protagonists in the novel), spent much of that year with the sick and dying and comforting the bereaved, leading to her untimely death towards the end of the epidemic.
Shoreland Adams was not the only previous minister William Mompesson was arriving after. Reverend Stanley, a Puritan minister, ousted from his position on St Bartholomew’s Day 1662 as a result of the Act of Conformity passed by parliament, had taken the unusual step of remaining in the village within which he had previously served. The Act of Uniformity ushered in an era of liturgical uniformity, achieved through the establishing of the Book of Common Prayer, drafted by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and protestant reformer, executed by Mary I. The original was replaced by a second and more radical version in 1552. You can read all about the Act of Conformity here:
“On arrival in April 1664, they had also discovered that in addition to carrying the cross for Reverend Adams they must also live in the shadow of the retired Puritan minister, Reverend Thomas Stanley. Despite losing the parish on St Bartholomew’s Day 1662, following the passing of the Act of Conformity, Reverend Stanley- most unusually for a disposed minister- remained an inhabitant of the village and still preached in private homes. He retained a sizeable following and this, coupled with the hangover of displeasure created by Adams, meant that they spent their first year trying to make themselves acceptable to the villagers.”Catherine, Chapter 2
Despite the obvious challenges of having a previous rector, with a differing view of Christianity, still within the village, the two men put differences aside when the village’s well-to-do families fled and they were left in the position of community leader during a most perilous time.
“They continued their conversation, turning to the discussions of the village elders, particularly the two rectors, who had miraculously begun working together despite being on either side of the religious divide decided by the Non-Conformist Act of 1662.”Emmott, Chapter 15
The Book of Common Prayer
The Book of Common Prayer, compiled by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, was first authorised for use in the Church of England in 1549. A radical revision was undertaken in 1552 and some further, yet minor, revisions also took place in 1559, 1604 and 1662. It was this final version that remained and is still used in the church today.
You can read more about the Book of Common Prayer here:
In the novel, the Book of Common Prayer is mentioned several times in Catherine’s story, as she searches for an antidote to the village’s suffering, as she seeks comfort for her children during a time of great fear, and finally for a source of personal solace as she realises her life will be tragically cut short by infection with the plague.
“She had searched both the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer in her pursuit of a soothing balm but had found that nothing seemed quite right for the magnitude of their suffering. When it comes to times of trial and sorrow, some convey too much that was unintended by saying nothing at all, and others drown the already flailing victims with careless and empty words. Catherine was caught between the twin fears of doing either and it made her restless while she puzzled out what her response should be.”Catherine, Chapter 10
“She squeezed the hands of her children, causing them to look up at her. Smiling down into their trusting faces, she felt afresh the great responsibility of bringing children into the world and leading them body and soul through times you never once expected to live through. Looking at the church, looming ahead of them, she was glad to have the guidance of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer to help her in guiding their course.”Catherine, Chapter 33
“To begin with, the scripture had helped her to summon her bodily strength. William read her favourite psalms and she lifted her arm enough to cross herself, her voice feeble but sure in its Amen. Then he had opened the Book of Common Prayer, deliberately reading every prayer for the sick to be found therein, but avoiding those said over the souls so evidently set to leave this earthly life and taste eternity within the hour.”Catherine, Chapter 48
Catherine’s death towards the end of the novel is one very much infused with the religion she embraced as the rector’s wife. The oral tradition of the story of the plague visitation has her final words as being ‘One drop of my saviour’s blood’ as William attempted to administer Communion. I was mindful of the importance of rites and sacraments as Catherine faded and wrote this into her final moments:
“She let herself be released into the light. Her husband’s voice found her on the edge of her journey. His fingers flicked through the pages of a book. She heard the utterances in Latin echoing as if he had called them down into a well. They drifted up to her as if she was above them and could catch them with her hands as they passed by.
‘My dear, dost thou mind?’ he asked, a quiet desperation in his voice.
‘Yes,’ she answered him, in a voice that silence would use if it could speak. ‘Yes’. He saw her chest rise and fall and not rise again.Catherine, Chapter 48
Nature and Flora
Whilst Catherine’s relationship with the religion of the time was highly in-tune with the Church, she still struggled in the novel to reconcile her new-found love of apothecary with the teachings of the church and the need to rely on faith. She takes cornflowers to the newly-bereaved Syddalls because they were considered to represent heaven and Christ’s triumph over the devil.
When she starts assisting the village apothecary, Humphrey Merrill, in creating potions and tinctures to act as herbal healers, she is accused by one of the villagers of unsettling people with her mixture of faith and flora:
“Choose one, dear, and stick to it. You will only confuse the people further in the time of steering. They will go to their deaths not knowing whether to beg God for mercy or beg Humphrey Merrill for his herbs!”Catherine, Chapter 18.
It troubled her that the two could not sit side-by-side and we get several insights into her internal monologues on this subject.
“The remedies Humphrey Merrill shared gave the victims and their families some hope, even if only for a moment. She had seen it on the faces of those she handed the bundles to. What harm was it for her to offer scripture or prayer to them also? Surely there was no hierarchy when it came to easing the pain of another? This she believed. The Lord has given many gifts, all to the benefit of his people.”Catherine, Chapter 18
Catherine herself was weak of body, suffering with consumption. She appears to accept this, knowing she is made in ‘the Lord’s image’ as part of the church’s doctrine of imago dei. She accepts her weakness (” … and as such she was thankful for her body, despite the weaknesses it presents her. But something inside her was growing with frustration.”- Chapter 20). What she increasingly struggles to accept is ‘being just the rector’s wife’. Catherine is drawn to apothecary. It gives her a sense of purpose beyond being the wife of the rector. But it becomes a point of contention with her husband William, who regards her quest for herbal cures to be a stumbling block for the parishioners who should instead be throwing themselves at God’s mercy and begins a conversation about ‘Lord have mercy’ written above the doors of the afflicted in London. Catherine finally finds her voice on the matter of her work with Humphrey Merrill on making and delivering herbal remedies to the villagers:
“Yes, but they also need something they can place their hands on, something they can draw to their breasts and fix upon with their eyes. I’m not sure a whole sea of red-daubed doors, drawing to mind the visitation of the Angel of Death on the Israelites, would have worked for us here William. The people reach out for solace, for a cure, for an end to it. We can’t always provide it, but there is something in using what nature offers, alongside our blessed scriptures, they brought hope, even if it was hope unfulfilled. It gave the gift of moments of possibility and in those moments people were momentarily themselves again, not just powerless victims.”Catherine, Chapter 23
For my other two protagonist’s, their faith is expressed more simply and with a natural affinity towards the natural world. For Elizabeth especially, who has perhaps more-consciously shunned ‘organised’ religion (if we can call it that in the Seventeenth Century when Christianity was just an accepted part of living in England), nature is where any connection she feels with a deity is played out. In chapter 11 we learned the Hancocks are ‘not raising they family to be routine little liturgists‘ but that is not to say Elizabeth has no belief, no understanding of the Christian idea of ‘God’.
“There had been stars that night as many as she had ever seen, as if God himself had set some more in the sky just for them alone to enjoy. This is how she encountered God; in the sky and the earth, on the wind and in the scent of trees. This was her church; creation in all its glory.”Elizabeth, Chapter 19
My inspiration for writing her spiritual connection with nature in this way was a combination of Colossians 1: 6 (For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.) and Romans 1:20 (For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.)
Use of Scripture
When Catherine encounters Mary Cooper’s post-bereavement capacity to still love and care for her neighbours, she is shocked to find that simply following the scriptures does not necessarily make you the most wholesome member of the community.
“Catherine was a quietly pious woman and she turned to the scripture for guidance through the days and the scenarios they presented, but in this village she found herself tutored in acts of practical kindness by a woman who barely attended church services. Another rector’s wife, with more pride than Catherine, might have reacted with irritation, but Catherine’s heart was big enough to accommodate the quiet challenge she found in Mary’s simple compassion and she spent some time musing over what other kindnesses she could show to the people of the village, their parish.”Catherine, Chapter 8
This was essentially me bringing one of my bug-bears about some modern expressions of Christianity into this much earlier narrative. Mary has lost her two sons but she somehow manages to embody the teachings of Jesus better than someone who has swallowed a whole copy of the King James Bible. I gave this reflection to Catherine to allow her that little bit more letting go she needed to pursue the apothecary, find something for herself and yet still be attuned to her faith. She is increasingly able to recognise the real suffering of the village but retains her hope in salvation from their torment.
“When he quoted the Psalmists she felt a flicker of recognition with their lines of praise within the torment, of that sense of reaching and hoping.”Catherine, Chapter 25
In the end, it is not the Psalms that move the village towards the solution to their desperate predicament. Following a meeting of the two rectors, a Bible verse is chosen that will form the basis of the response they propose from the village.
” ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,’ his voice spoke, hushed, as if this verse from the Bible were a great an terrible secret. Indeed, there was power in it. With these words, barely a line, would the weight these men carried be shared amongst the villagers, laying its heavy rest on hearts and minds alike.”Catherine, Chapter 35
Mompesson had moved church services out of the confines of the church itself and the village gathered outdoors for services at the peak of the epidemic. From his rock pulpit in the natural amphitheatre at Cucklett Delph, Mompesson delivers the news of the planned cordon sanitaire which will prevent all entry and exiting from the village in an attempt to save the surrounding villages and towns from infection. The verse from John 15:13 was used to convey a Gospel imperative for their decision. It has been used since 1665 for justifying decisions of great magnitude, such as when the Uruguayan Rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes used it to justify the eating of the dead to stay alive as some form of ‘Communion’.
When the villagers express their consternation, Reverend Stanley assures them the quarantine is the act of Christians committed to saving their fellow humanity.
” ‘Yes,’ he called out to them. ‘There is a chance many more will die. We are asking a great deal of courage and commitment from you. William and I are agreed in the necessity of this or never would we impose such a thing upon you all, the very people we have committed to lead and protect. Yet the love of Christ compels us to think beyond ourselves. We have searched the scriptures on your behalf and we believe this is what we must do.’ “Catherine, Chapter 36
That last line is one of my ongoing reflections about ‘ways of knowing’ in the past where illiterate parishioners were reliant on more learned men explaining the meaning of scriptures to them, on the stories told in stained glass windows and what could be acted out in miracle and morality plays. In the case of the villagers of Eyam, the reverence given to holy men became a matter of life and death.
At the end of the novel, when the outcomes of the Gospel-inspired quarantine have become tragically clear (historically there are claims that three quarters of the village perished), William makes two more Gospel allusions. He is lamenting Catherine, one of the final victims of the epidemic, and makes comparisons of them with two New Testament figures:
“Time had brought few comforts, but these past two weeks in November appeared to usher in the long-awaited moment they had both hoped for. He was reminded of Simeon and Anna at the presentation of the Lord in the temple. Yet his Anna had not seen what she had hoped for and he was not afforded the sweetness of death that was given to Simeon on having his hope realised.”William, Chapter 50
He goes on to compare the village of Eyam with Jesus’ place of death:
“Now their Golgotha was once again just a quiet village nestled in a Derbyshire hillside.”
Burials and Holy Ground
As the plague victims begin to pile up, William makes the decision to close the churchyard and asks the villagers to bury the dead themselves on their own land. It is this scenario that gives rise to the harrowing image of Elizabeth Hancock below, having lost her husband and six children to the pestilence and having to bury them herself.
Catherine understands her husband’s reasons for closing the churchyard, but she remains troubled by it. During a lull in the deaths, she considers the decision.
“There was room here for all who had perished. She wondered if she should ask William to have all those buried on non-sacred ground re-interred here. But when she mentioned it to Elizabeth [Frith], she was most upset to think about the disturbing of so many children from their eternal sleeps, having been laid down to rest already.”Catherine, Chapter 33
It is a subject of concern for Emmott and her father too as they bury her siblings.
“She had watched him work on the crosses for hours; much longer than was necessary really. They would not be forgetting what lay beneath the mounded earth and a simple, crude cross would have sufficed. Still, the lack of sanctified ground had bothered him, especially with the churchyard sitting so close across the road and yet deemed unsuitable for the burial of those with the pestilence. He had snuck out at night with a trowel and brought two small mounds of dirt back from the churchyard, instead bringing the hallowed ground to them. Now with the crosses erected, John felt as a father he had done everything in his power to bring eternal rest to his children.”Emmott, Chapter 9
As had been the case with the sending away of their children to safety, the Mompessons were afforded certain privileges the rest of the village could perhaps not access and when Catherine died, William had her interred in the churchyard with an impressive tomb erected.
Despite the level of religion in society, there was undoubtedly still a degree of superstition within English communities. Kept at bay by the Puritans, it is possible that some of this crept back into society after the Act of Conformity which sent Puritan ministers packing. In the novel, there are several references to superstitions, including desperate remedies such as the abracadabra charm hung in windows to keep the plague at bay, something Emmott discovers her mother has turned to.
The start of the book sees Catherine un-nerved by the discovery of a heifer in the church, the result of a prank played by some village boys at the Wakes festival.
“Later some boys drove a cow into the sacristy, upsetting the young rector’s wife, Catherine, who believed it to be an act of profanity, defiling the sanctity of the place and ushering in a bad omen.”Emmott, Chapter 1
The incident with the cow continues to trouble Catherine and she is fearful it will result in a bad turn of events for the village.
“For Catherine, the sight of the heifer inside the sanctuary was entirely unacceptable…Such sacrilege! She was at great pains to ensure every last trace of it was gone, and their were many traces!”Catherine, Chapter 2
Even much later in the novel, when the plague is taking hold of the village but she herself has found contentment in her work with the apothecary, Catherine’s dreams involve the heifer.
“Step found Catherine easily and she dreamed, of the heifer in the sanctuary again, lowing before the altar with a chicken beside it and an onion slung about its neck. When she awoke it was with a deep sense of foreboding, as if something unexpected, something they thought had been prevented, would suddenly catch them.”Catherine , Chapter 27
What this premonition serves to do, in literary terms at least, is offer some foreshadowing of what is still to come; Eyam’s ‘second wave’ and the ultimate demise of our beloved Emmott.
Elizabeth too seems at ease with the notion of malevolent forces as an accepted part of life and the spirit world.
“Smoke still billowed from chimney stacks and she could hear the lowing of animals being gathered in at the end of the day. There were no signs from up here that something was stalking the village below, no evil portents hung in the air and no malevolent charms were carried on the breeze. Perhaps it would go away as fast as it had arrived she thought as she closed the door onto the gathering night.”Elizabeth, Chapter 11
One of the other common superstitions of Northern England from that time included in the novel is that of Gabriel’s Hounds. A pack of spectral dogs, they are said to have the faces of humans and it was believed the sound of their howling would be heard the night before someone dies. The belief was that they were the souls of dead children who perished before baptism and must fly through the air until Judgement Day. Not a nice thought for any mother, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Catherine is so troubled by the idea when so many infants are perishing in Eyam.
“Sitting down again, the peace lulled her into a a fretless sleep, the first she had had in a long time, her night’s repose frequently interrupted by bad dreams and sudden awakenings. The heifer in the church, the souls of children crying, they moved themselves together in her dreams and sometimes on the hills she thought she could hear Gabriel’s hounds, a sinister pack of spectral dogs, the howls of which were believed to foretell death and misfortune and echoed down towards them.”Catherine, Chapter 18
The sacred and the spectral exist side by side in this Seventeenth Century village.
It is little surprise then that the villagers turn to prayer in their attempts to navigate the challenges of both the physical and spiritual worlds. Emmott, though not as well-versed in Christianity as Catherine, has some grasp of what the teachings of the church are but she uses these in her own way, often with the backdrop of nature.
“She sat down in the rock archway and uttered a few words in prayer. None of the highfalutin prayers from the church, just simple utterances that carried her hope and her fear, in equal measures, up to the God she hoped was looking down on their village right now and would spare Eyam the pain and loss that would cripple them.”Emmott, Chapter 5.
Many people in the Seventeenth Century would have equated disaster with human sin and God’s punishment. Emmott’s simple, humble prayers are her pleas to spare her family. When her family sicken, she turns to increasingly formal forms of prayer in her desperation to save them.
“Emmott crossed herself and recited the snatches of prayers she knew from hearing them read from the Book of Common Prayer by the minister when older relatives and neighbours had died. She could hardly believe she was saying them over her own sister. Death was no stranger to their life and yet even though they know this, when it came so close and so personally it was still the greatest of shocks.”Emmott, Chapter 6
Even Elizabeth’s family, relatively ‘un-churched’, resorted to prayer when plague entered Riley farmhouse.
“John prayed, made up prayers right there on the spot and she gave them the deepest amens of the four decades of her life.”Elizabeth, Chapter 41
This has been a somewhat heavy and lengthy look at religion in ‘Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague‘ so we will finish with something light and lovely. This was one of my favourite scenes to write in the novel and gave me the chance to include a little interesting fact I had learned about hymns at this time having to be based on scripture. Hence, I have the villagers sing ‘While Shepherds Watched‘- the lyrics lifted directly from the Gospel of Luke- as they sing on Christmas Eve. It was also loosely inspired by the ‘Choir of Survivors’ sculpture in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, a gift from the people of Dresden to the people of Coventry, following the mutual destruction of both cities. In this beautiful scene of singing is imbibed the concept that no matter what happens, people need to find each other and try to begin again. I shall end this blog post with Catherine’s musings.
“Then, from the cottage window she thought she heard singing. It took a concerted effort to hoist herself up out of the chair now she had finally sat down, but Catherine pushed herself up using the arm of the chair and padded over to the casement. The window had been left ajar, likely by Jane for the fresh air William insisted was so important, and through the gap drifted a melody.
She recognised snatches of a carol; the lines of Luke woven into While Shepherds Watched. There was an ensemble of voices she detected, likely made up of the courageous survivors of the cottages that were in the vicinity of the rectory. She could just about make out the sweet singing of a young voice and thought it might be Emmott Syddall, perhaps singing her young brother Jospeh to sleep. There was a man’s voice too. Not strong, but putting in some effort nonetheless. And behind that she could hear someone harmonising faintly, all the notes mingling in the air before they found their way to her straining ears. That they could form this spontaneous and beautiful choir, precious in its vulnerability, brought her genuine gratitude for being in this village at this moment, despite all that was going on here.”Catherine, Chapter 18