This is the fifth post in a short series about Lawrence Britcliffe, a distant ancestor of mine and a murderer. You might want to read the introduction then the posts about Lawrence’s youth, crime and incarceration first, for a bit of context; or you might not.
The last morning
The Sheriff called at Lawrence Britcliffe’s cell at 11am on the morning he was condemned to be hanged. Compared to some years (for example, 1787 when 6 prisoners were hanged) there were few condemned men at Lancaster’s Lent Assizes. In April 1742, just Lawrence and one John Croskell, condemned for horse stealing, sat on the cart staring at their own coffins, rumbling through the streets of Lancaster. The Lent assizes were over, and executions happened swiftly in the eighteenth century.
Lancaster in the time of George II was, like most provincial towns, essentially medieval in layout and construction. The solid stone houses seen above are old, but not that old. The Sheriff’s cart trundled down the steep, cobbled Castle Hill then probably along Market Street (past the town hall and the market place for maximum shame and exposure); up the narrow St Nicholas Street to Friarage; past St Anne’s Church to Moor Lane, stopping at the Golden Lion at the town boundary, for the last drink of the condemned. I wonder if Lawrence laughed a hollow laugh at the irony that his last stop-off would be an alehouse, one of the causes of so many of his problems. His friends and relatives may have joined him there: his wife? his children? his parents? his siblings (I know that at least William (1710-1778) and Susanna (1715-1748) were still alive). I hope they did, but I find it sadly unlikely.
We trundle on down Moor Lane until it runs into Moor Gate (there was no Lancaster Canal to mark the dividing point then) then up onto Lancaster Moor to a bleak spot right on the former parliamentary boundary. Today, it’s the University of Cumbria’s Moorside Hall; then, it was Gallows Hill. On the 1849 Ordnance Survey map we find the even more dramatically-named Golgotha next to the Moorside Burial Ground. The burial ground, later occupied by the Quakers, was disused by the end of the century but the names persist to this day in Moorside Hall and Golgotha Village, originally a terrace of small cottages. I had presumed they were for workers in the Corporation quarries on the moor, but Andrew Gough notes that of the 22 houses there in 1881, 20 were occupied by women giving laundress as their occupation. Perhaps these were “fallen women” of the sort provided for by several highbrow figures in London (or convents elsewhere). The quarry site by 1893 was completely turned over to Williamson Park and in 1909 was topped off by the ostentatious Ashton Memorial, a folly which dominates the skyline (it’s what you see of Lancaster from the M6). It’s believed that somewhere close to this folly is Gallows Hill.
The record of the day mostly comes from a post-script to David Crosley’s published funeral sermon, written by three friends I’ve mentioned before. Given his previous agitation, Lawrence was calm and unconcerned, “with an uncommon alacrity and presence of mind” given the day. A huge crowd waited yet further up the hill from Golgotha, at Gallows Hill. As he alighted the cart, he was moved to speak to them:
I am come hither to die a painful and ignominious death; and I would have you all that hear or look upon me this day to take warning by me. The first step I took towards that evil course of life which has brought me to this shameful end, was profaning the Sabbath day. That led me into bad company, which quickly brought me to haunt alehouses. This presently drew me on to loose and wanton dalliances, which quickly corrupted my inclinations, ruined my morals, and broke down all the fences my education had fortified me with; and then followed (to make me like other gallants, or rather extravagants of the time) swearing, damning, quarrelling even to a degree many times of outrageousness.
And I may speak it with shame, most of my extravagant actions, even that heinous crime for which I am now to suffer, was committed on the Sabbath day; And doubtless Sabbath day sins are great sins, and great sins bring great punishments. God grant mine may only be in this life; therefore I beg of you all, not to neglect or any ways profane the Sabbath day, but conscientiously observe it, as also all the rest of your precious time, which I have so wretchedly thrown away, and which I now see the value and lament the abuse and loss of, when I can no longer enjoy it.
Gone are the resentments and accusations of his early incarceration. Gone is the cold and dark cloud, the doubts and outcries. Gone is the fear of the beyond, I think. Instead, he can implore the spectators to learn from him and mend their ways. He beseeches them further at the top of the ladder, “with more ardency and a greater flow of words than before” so that “we think we never saw more wet cheeks nor melting hearts.” As he stood on the gallows he prayed and more tears flowed. Lawrence here is presented very much in the mould of the classical martyr. John Foxes’ book of martyrs was published nearly two centuries before, but had a tremendous influence over the popular and literary perception of the martyr. In particular, it framed the Protestant reformers of its own day in the light of the classical martyrs so that their struggles and deaths could be interpreted as heroic and formative. I wonder if something similar was in the mind of the authors of this tract (maybe subconsciously) when they presented Lawrence in this light. I think all parties would agree that Lawrence was no saint, and his death was not a religious martyrdom. Yet the calmness and composure portrayed here, “even to the pulling of the cap down over his eyes, which was attended with such ardent looks up to heaven, and such a devout surrender of his precious soul into the hands of Jesus Christ, and to the heavenly Father through him” certainly paints a picture. The days of official persecution of dissenters were mostly past in 1743; but the violent reception met in these same years by the likes of John Wesley must have stimulated our authors somewhat.
So stands Lawrence. He is on the gallows on the bleak moorland outside Lancaster, with a cap pulled over his eyes. The hangman, standing by, was moved by the occasion to and begged Lawrence’s pardon for what he was about to do. Lawrence lifted up the cap from his eyes and forgave him and the world at large, as he hoped to be forgiven himself (although he did use the opportunity to beseech the hangman to “henceforward lead a new life, else thy wicked ways will again find thee out.”) The hangman, a little unnerved, put his cap back down and put the noose around his neck. Lawrence moved to the right side of the short ladder on which he was stood. The hangman then “turn’d him off” – he moved the ladder and Lawrence’s folded hands raised to the sky, then fell limply back down. He did not struggle. In a short while, perhaps a few minutes, he was dead.
It’s impossible to say where Lawrence’s body now lies. If we believe the friends’ postscript, they “took care of his decent interment, in the appointed place near the castle.” Dr Graham Kemp, archivist at the castle, however suggested to me that executed criminals at this time were buried in unconsecrated ground close to the site of execution. In Lawrence’s case perhaps this was the Quaker burial ground labelled Moorside. I’d err towards this option rather than a spot in town – this was the appointed place (although not near the castle) and this is where the large majority of Lancaster’s executed criminals were buried (including those Pendle witches, various Catholic priests, murderers, thieves and so on). The idea of non-consecrated ground seems to be a hangover from pre-Reformation teaching which was probably on its way out by this period.
The idea that the Church holds the keys to death and hell and therefore gets to prescribe who can be buried in consecrated ground (those deserving heaven) and unconsecrated ground (those the Church insist deserve hell) would not have held too much fear for the non-conformist Lawrence. It didn’t either for the Quakers, who purchased an existing unconsecrated burial ground without too much worry. One of the key tenets of Lawrence’s beliefs at this point would be sola fide, justification by faith alone. Protestantism in general, and proto-evangelical Christianity in particular were moving towards an idea of individual responsibility before God rather than a mediating Church which has power over your soul. Nevertheless, I’m a firm believer that paradigm shifts like this occur at different speeds for different people – it’s as true of 19th century sanitary reform as theology, that a change in mindset at the elite level cannot be assumed at the level of the ordinary man or the poor. Lawrence went to the gallows sure that he would judged by God on his actions and his repentance – not by his acceptance of Church doctrine.
The good death of Lawrence Britcliffe
Whatever happened, Lawrence lies somewhere under modern-day Lancaster and we will never know exactly where. His anonymity in death is part of the sentence handed down to him. Although he left it late he believed, I think, that he had made his peace with God; despite his sin, it’s the whole point of the religion that God forgives. In this sense, Lawrence’s was a good death. As Philip Almond notes, “the farewell speech of the convicted was intended for the admonishment and betterment of its listeners.” Given that there was reported to be no dry eye in the whole crowd, perhaps in this sense too, Lawrence’s was a good death. He forgave his hangman and did not struggle, dying with dignity – a good death.
It should still be borne in mind that the account we have is hardly newsreel footage. It’s a post-script to a published sermon and designed to complement the aims of that sermon. But if his friends wanted to portray Lawrence with dignity and bearing, they do so very well. Like any historical event, it is of course impossible to know whether this was the tone of the day or not. But in some ways, it doesn’t matter. To David Crosley and to Lawrence’s friends, here was an opportunity to turn a sad death into a good death.
The funeral sermon was preached to 4,000 people and its publication was well-received: “very few books are calculated equally to produce godly sorry for sin, and faith in the Saviour,” wrote James Hargreaves. The events impacted deeply on the lives of Crosley, Winterbottom, Heap and Butterworth. You can’t make a formal link out of this, but the latter’s children went on to be Baptist ministers at Bromsgrove, Bridgnorth, Coventry and Evesham – I wonder if Henry was stirred to pour his love and teaching onto his children and make sure they followed a better path than his friend.
We’re a little used to people exploiting sad situations for their own ends these days (and heaven knows I’ve sat through sermons that do just that). But it would be too easy to jump to the conclusion that Crosley et al were cynical in their exploitation of Lawrence’s death. I think that would be to misunderstand the nature of their friendship and religious fellowship. I prefer the explanation that Lawrence Britcliffe’s death was a sad end to a sad life, but one which gave hope to his friends, his countrymen and perhaps many others – a good death.
- James Hargreaves (1816) The Life and Memoir of … J. Hirst … Pastor of the Baptist Church, Bacup: Also an Appendix, Containing a Sketch of the Rise of that Church, Etc.
- David Crosley, 1743, The triumph of sovereign grace or a brand pluckt out of the fire : being the substance of a funeral discourse, preached at Bacop, May 23. 1742. … on occasion of the death of Lau. Britliffe, … who was executed at Lancaster, … By David Crosly, minister.
- Philip C Almond, Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England. Cambridge UP, 2009.