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collection.
Postgate™s apprehension was the result of a betrayal by local people, and
inevitably, his fate and its effect on the neighbourhood invited providential-
ist interpretation at a local level and beyond. John Danby, corresponding
with John Knaresborough nearly three decades after Postgate™s death, sup-
plies an account of it and the subsequent history of three witnesses against
him, Elizabeth Wood, Elizabeth Baxter and Richard Morrice. Morrice ˜is
dead some time since, while he lived very poor abused by every one with
ye odious name of Hang-Priest™; Wood™s husband, Ralph, was paralysed for
several years, though is now better; Baxter is still living, ˜of whom I hear of
noe misfortune excepting poverty, & yt which is common to them all, & ye
greatest of misfortunes, obduracy and impenitence™. Reeves, the exciseman
who apprehended Postgate, was found drowned in a small brook, ˜where I
can not learn, my neighbours differing in ye particular place but all agreeing
yt soe he dyed™. Before his death he suffered from terrible pain in all his
joints, ˜as he himself complained in ye hearing of a sensible, credible old
man now living™.106 This attentiveness to oral testimony as revealing God™s
judgment on the betrayers of martyrs proved remarkably resilient in the
locality, in a way that was surely helped by the nineteenth-century revival
of the cult. Bede Camm, writing in the early twentieth century, relates the
traditional belief that Reeves had drowned himself, and been found in a
pool called The Devil™s Hole, where no ¬sh had ever again been caught.
Showing that a pious providentialist interpretation of local landmarks was
by no means dead in his own time, Camm writes: ˜The good old priest at
Egton Bridge told the present writer that a colleague of his had desired to
test the truth of the tradition, and had ¬shed at Devil™s Hole for a whole
day, but without seeing a single ¬sh rise.™107
Providential legends were not the only trace which “ at the turn of the
twentieth century, and over two hundred years after Postgate™s martyrdom “
Camm found of the martyr™s continued remembrance and veneration in
the district. A local Catholic church, St Hedda™s, had acquired some archi-
tectural and other relics, including a pyx-bag that had been preserved by
descendants of Postgate™s housekeeper, showing how relics could be pre-
served in humble families just as effectively as in aristocratic ones.108 When
Postgate™s cottage was pulled down, a beam was made into small wooden
crosses, preserved by Catholics in the district. Still later than Camm,
Elizabeth Hamilton recorded an oral reminiscence about these crosses in
her biography of Postgate, published in 1980, with the same informant
remarking how ˜Father Postgate . . . was still spoken of by the ordinary
Martyrs and confessors 143
folk all over the area™. The Postgate cult extended to a variety of objects
which had been preserved as relics. ˜When [the church at Sleights] was ¬rst
opened . . . people from the moors, mostly non-Catholics, came to the
priest, Fr Gannon, bringing all sorts of things, candle-sticks, cloths, and
so on. “These,” they would say, “belonged to Father Postgate.”™109 A legend
that Postgate had been the ¬rst to bring the daffodil to the area may have
had its basis in the daffodils which grew for many years on the site of the
martyr™s garden110 “ though in the earliest years of the Catholic Revival, a
contributor to the Catholic Magazine visited the garden at Ugthorpe, and
reported: ˜A few daffodils had long survived the rest, but the mistaken rev-
erence of some visitors had led them to transplant those perennial relics
into their own gardens.™111
Oral and material culture cannot be considered in isolation from each
other. As this chapter has argued, hymnody and anecdote are both means
of preserving a martyr™s memory within oral discourse, while the high
incidence of Postgate relics preserved locally points to an especially strong
association of the martyr with the traditions of the district. All suggest a
genuinely popular, locally based hagiographical tradition, enhanced and
rendered self-aware by the Catholic Revival, which Camm “ the Cecil
Sharp of recusant history “ recorded at a period when antiquarians from all
subject areas had become very conscious of the urgent need to preserve oral
tradition.112 In the 1950s the Postgate cult was still active, and one Laurence
Canter described how the martyr was still being invoked by local petitioners,
who wrote petitions to Postgate to put on the altar of the English Martyrs
church in Sleights, North Yorkshire; when the altar was being repaired in
1959, quantities of these petitions were found inside it.113 In more recent
years, the Postgate cult has metamorphosed into the Postgate Society, which
still ¬‚ourishes at the start of the twenty-¬rst century.
Because the local veneration of Postgate was pursued on so many fronts
and is so well-documented and long-lived, it may be deceptive as a general
guide to how martyrs were remembered. But the various accounts add
up, at least, to an illuminating case study “ not least because it is rare
to have such strong evidence of lay participation. Nicholas Gilbert and
Postgate™s other priestly successors in the locality had an obvious interest in
stimulating the cult, and some might even have employed local landmarks
as a teaching aid; but the preservation of Postgate relics in humble homes,
and the high degree of quiddity in the legend, combine to suggest an active,
imaginative participation in the cult by the local Catholic population in
general. Antiquarian testimonies, on which the above account has drawn,
show the cult being periodically rediscovered; and while educated interest
144 Oral Culture and Catholicism
could only have helped its continuance at a humbler level, it is striking
how many of these antiquaries make explicit use of their contemporaries™
oral evidence, rather than copying earlier written sources. Yet at the same
time, this should not surprise one. Both Challoner™s and Camm™s historical
collections, and those of many other Catholic scholars, were motivated in
part by an attempt to gain of¬cial recognition at Rome for the English
martyrs, and for this, all evidence of a strong and continuing cult was grist
to the mill.114
The history of gaining of¬cial recognition for the English martyrs was,
one has to admit, very protracted. As early as the 1580s, Pope Gregory XIII
agreed that a Te Deum might be sung on the news of an Englishman™s
martyrdom, that relics of them could be used to consecrate altars and that
their pictures might be placed in the chapel of the English College in Rome.
Systematic enquiry into their causes was begun in 1642 under Pope Urban
VIII, and though progress was seriously hindered by the Civil Wars in
England, Richard Smith, Bishop of Chalcedon, drew up a list which was
later to form the basis of Challoner™s historical investigations. However, it
was only in the late nineteenth century that the lobbying became seriously
effective. Some groups of martyrs, including Postgate himself, were beati¬ed
then; another cohort was to follow in 1929; and ¬nally, forty English and
Welsh martyrs were canonised in 1970 under Pope Paul VI.115 But even
though the story is a long one, this testi¬es to how the individuals in
question could, ¬nally, not be ignored. Since this chapter has largely been
dedicated to chronicling how martyr-cults began, one needs to remember
that, as far as the Catholic church is concerned, many of them are now
of¬cial.

t h e sku ll of wa rdl ey h a ll : se crec y an d fi c ti on a l
m isinter pre tat i on
If the story ended there, it would be triumphant, but also misleadingly
straightforward. Given that this chapter has also dealt with the inter-
play between declaration and secrecy, it is bound to contain some mixed
messages: anonymous authors who stoutly declare their faith; pseudony-
mous individuals who conceal their real name and ¬‚aunt their Catholic
allegiance; exiles who make sacri¬ces, but escape. In this context, it is no
wonder that English Catholic priests operating during penal times should
have been such a powerful focus for imaginative attitudes towards conceal-
ment, both in their own use of aliases, as this chapter has shown, and in
the anecdotes inspired by their activity. At one level, there was no problem
Martyrs and confessors 145
about this. Even Christ had had to hide himself at times, and there was no
contradiction between a Catholic priest acting secretly or discreetly when
going about his business and performing admirably when caught.116 The
reckless courting of martyrdom was consistently frowned upon, and succes-
sive Jesuit generals of the Elizabethan era, Everard Mercurian and Claudio
Acquaviva, were nervous of English Jesuits behaving too dangerously, thus
making caution simply a matter of obedience for their underlings.117 But
to manifest confessorship through the act of hiding is at least a paradox,
and one which gives an edge to Protestant commentators™ contempt for
Catholic disguise and equivocation.118
Nevertheless, it remained part of priestly practice and Catholic self-
representation. The Jesuit John Gerard gives a well-known account of hid-
ing in a priest-hole, and a scene where a priest is discovered in hiding
was dramatised in a Catholic play surviving in the archives of the English
College, Rome.119 In one scene, a character is discovered hiding under a
bed by a group of pursuivants, one of whom comments:
For I have known some justices of the peace
Inspired with zeal; among the rest a knight
So punctual in searching of an house,
And forward to undo the Papists . . .
That he hath brought in engineers by art,
With mathematic and instruments to sound
The depth, the breadth, and length of ev™ry room,
To see what close conveyance may be found,
Or secret place that might conceal a priest . . .
(3503“5, 3512“16)120

The paradox is visible in celebratory Catholic scholarship of all eras, and
well summed up in Bede Camm™s Forgotten Shrines. For a scholar who,
like Camm, wanted to identify a living, popular and visible tradition of
heroic recusancy, Postgate was perhaps the ideal saint to prove a case; cer-
tainly, Camm takes issue with Newman over the famous picture set out
in Newman™s sermon ˜The Second Spring™, of pre-Emancipation Catholics
barricaded within gothic houses:
An old fashioned house of gloomy appearance, closed in with high walls, with an
iron gate, and yews, and the report attaching to it that ˜Roman Catholics™ lived
there; but who they were, or what they did, or what was meant by calling them
Roman Catholics, no one could tell; “ though it had an unpleasant sound, and
told of form and superstition . . . Such was about the sort of knowledge possessed
of Christianity by the heathens of old time, who persecuted its adherents from
the face of the earth, and then called them a gens lucifuga, a people who shunned
146 Oral Culture and Catholicism
the light of day. Such were Catholics in England, found in corners, and alleys,
and cellars, and the housetops, or in the recesses of the country; cut off from the
populous world around them, and dimly seen as if through a mist or in twilight,
as ghosts ¬‚itting to and fro, by the high Protestants, the lords of the earth.121

But while Camm politely distances himself from this picture of decay in his
preface to Forgotten Shrines, the book as a whole has the effect of endorsing
Newman™s picture as well as correcting it.122 Much of his fact-gathering
focused on the great recusant houses and the oral traditions connected with
them, often suggested by characteristically Catholic architectural features
and objects, and many of these ¬t Newman™s description very well.
The English Catholic culture of secrecy had various imaginative effects,
some intended, others completely unpredictable. But much English Gothic
fantasy takes its bearings from one empirical fact: that great houses owned
by Catholics during penal times are more likely than most to have features
which exacerbate a fear of the unknown, and inspire the kind of rumour that
is a near relation to ¬ction. Priest-holes, private chapels and caches of relics
all corroborate the common equation between Catholics and secrecy, and “
by the same token “ between Catholics and narrative speculation. John
Bossy has argued that the servants in a Catholic house would have tended
to be either Catholics themselves or pro-Catholic, but in a rural community,
no great house could hope to operate independently of gossip and rumour
generated by outsiders.123 In any community where Catholicism was not
completely accepted, secret rooms, uncertain comings and goings, and
individuals who shunned visibility would have accompanied the provision
of hospitality for itinerant priests, or having one as a permanent member of
the household. A story related by Edmund Campion captures the type of
moment where the potential relationship between fact, gossip and ¬ction
becomes plain. When on the run in Ireland, he was put up at the great
house of Turvey; and while he was working in an upper room, an old
woman came in who was unaware of his presence. She took him for a
ghost: ˜The hair on her head stiffened, her colour left her, her mouth hung
open in stupefaction. She didn™t say a word, but rushed out of the room as
fast as she could to warn the mistress that a hideous thing was writing in
the upper room.™124
Even after martyrs met their end, and achieved a piecemeal afterlife in
relics, they might continue to be hidden “ like any other Catholic object.
In one particularly well-documented case, this had the double effect of
removing them from immediate local consciousness for generations, and
encouraging ¬ctional explanations of how their remains came to be hidden.
Martyrs and confessors 147
At Wardley Hall in Lancashire, a human skull hidden in the walls of the
Hall and rediscovered in 1745 is preserved to this day, in a glazed niche of the
staircase landing: a relic of the Benedictine monk Dom Edward Ambrose
Barlow, apprehended and executed in 1641, who was connected with
the Downes family of Wardley Hall during the period of his ministry.125
However, another identi¬cation of the skull as the remains of Roger
Downes, Earl of Wardley, was current in the nineteenth century, and may
well have earlier antecedents. The story was that Downes, as legendary a
local sinner as Barlow was a saint, was decapitated in a drunken brawl in
1676, and his head was sent back to Wardley to be buried. Nineteenth-
century antiquarian accounts of the district relate the tradition of how
Downes™s head refused to stay interred, and moved to the niche accompa-
nied by a great storm.126 In his Traditions of Lancashire, John Roby even gave
a semi-¬ctionalised account of the episode, drawing blatantly on Gothic
stereotype:

. . . invariably [the skull] returned. No human power could drive it thence. It had
been riven in pieces, burnt, and otherwise destroyed; but ever on the subsequent
day it is seen ¬lling its wonted place. Yet was it always observed that sore vengeance
lighted on its persecutors . . . Sometimes, if only displaced, a fearful storm would
arise, so loud and terrible that the very elements indeed seemed to become the
ministers of its wrath.127

However, Roby™s account and similar ones were written long after the
identi¬cation of the skull as Downes™s had been effectively disproved. The
antiquarian Thomas Barritt, writing around the 1780s, notes the story of
the moving skull in his manuscript collections, remarking that it ˜smells like
a ¬reside tale on a winter™s night™, and records that the Downes family vault
had been opened around 1779, showing Roger Downes™s head in situ.128 His
writings also set out the alternative and more accurate local tradition that
the skull belonged to a Catholic priest executed at Lancaster; but though
Barritt is invariably cited as one of the sources for Wardley Hall lore, this
story is either ignored or mentioned only in passing by those who draw
on him.129 The discontinuity must have been exacerbated by the fact that,
at the time the skull was discovered, the ownership of the Hall had passed
away from the Downes family.
As with the Roger Downes story, a storm is said to have arisen when
Barlow™s skull was moved.130 This supernatural element suits both a ghost
story and a piece of popular hagiography, and gives a clue as to how the
two tales may have come to be linked; but the two opposing identi¬ca-
tions of the Wardley Hall skull give the reader a choice of ways to interpret
148 Oral Culture and Catholicism
human remains, and two alternative reasons why they should provoke
disturbances in the natural order. The antiquarians™ identi¬cations draw
on, though inevitably tamper with, two orally conveyed anecdotal tradi-
tions inspired by opposed notions of the numinous: one at ease with the
idea of relics, the other assuming that publicly displayed human remains
must be there for a sinister reason. Out of context, bones can inspire either
hagiography or Gothic horror, and explanations arrived at retrospectively
are likely to be shaped by ¬ctional tropes. Here, the character of the skull™s
supposed original owner suggests the literary genre: as Roby™s story shows,
the ghostly peripatetic skull of the reprobate Roger Downes slips quite hap-
pily into Gothic scaremongering. Roby is anti-Catholic to an extent that
positively fends off alternative explanations of the skull involving an exem-
plary Catholic ¬gure, even while capitalising on the supernatural traditions
surrounding that ¬gure. Outside the realms of ¬ctionalisation, denomina-
tional allegiance continued to shape attitudes towards the material. The
¬rst serious piece of research into the story was written by the bibliogra-
pher of post-Reformation Catholics, Joseph Gillow “ thus proving that the
hermeneutics of suspicion, and even confessional agendas, do sometimes
elicit accurate scholarship.131
As David Hufford has commented, memory slips, fabrication and simple
misinterpretation of events have a part to play in the construction of ghost
stories.132 All these feature in the story of the Skull of Wardley Hall as
re-told above; so, too, does a recognition of how antiquarians can blur
the boundaries between fact and ¬ction as they collect and interpret oral
traditions for the reading public. All this directs one back to the readings of
Gothic romance featured in chapter 1 of this study. But in the context of the
material discussed earlier in the present chapter, the story presents the other
side of the coin to the tales of popular providentialism which surrounded
Catholic martyrs. Even though Gothic and providentialist narratives make
ample use of the supernatural, what is miraculous in one becomes sinister
in the other “ which is why reading the providentialist story of Ambrose
Barlow after the Gothic story of Roger Downes has the effect of turning
the lights up. Yet it also shows how oral tradition can get the remembrance
of martyrs almost totally wrong.
Conclusion: orality, tradition and truth




To repeat Joseph Hall™s challenge, ˜. . . as for oral Traditions, what certainty
can there be in them?™1 Whether one can prove the authenticity of oral
tradition is not a question speci¬c to religious discourse, in early modern
England or at any other time. But the questions thrown up by the Refor-
mation about its reliability show how, in the days before the academy was
secularised, it was theological debate which often set the pace on questions
of hermeneutics.2 Religious polemic is an unsurpassed means of clarifying
ideas, and these ideas, in turn, often develop well beyond their original
impetus. If the notion of oral tradition began life as a deliberately partial
de¬nition, not least because the passage ignores the importance of non-
scriptural written sources in Catholic concepts of tradition, it has become
an entirely different endeavour since Hall™s time. Hall would have been
surprised to see how his contemptuous phrase has metamorphosed, both
within common usage, and within the speech of a discipline concerned,
where possible, with recovering truth through oral means.
Even so, the title of this book is partly a tribute to Hall for recognising the
close relationship between Catholicism and ideas of oral tradition, and for
posing a challenge with which any exponent of orally transmitted material
has to engage “ whether in a direct or an oblique manner. So far, this study
has considered the many ways in which oral transmission and dissemination
had an impact on the post-Reformation English Catholic experience, and
in particular, the way it shaped so much of the literature. Oral traditions
can be seen as oral transmissions that keep going; while it is hard to judge
the impact and longevity of much of the material discussed above, one can
see in some cases not merely a transmission, but a perpetuation of Catholic
topics and Catholic ways of thinking, often in company with non-Catholic
responses. Irrespective of subject matter, oral methods of transmission also
played a crucial part in forming perceptions of Catholicism among both
Catholics and non-Catholics. While all this material is at some remove
from the main subject of Hall™s criticism, the place of tradition within the
149
150 Oral Culture and Catholicism
of¬cial doctrine and discipline of the Catholic church, it poses many of
the same methodological issues, and sometimes relates speci¬cally back to
it. Traditions relating to a local martyr, for instance, would have shored up
Catholicism™s traditional endorsement of praying to saints, which is not
explicitly enjoined in Scripture.
Yet Hall™s point, with regard to saints™ lives as to much else, would have
been that one cannot place traditions on a par with the Bible, because
the Scriptures are divinely dispensed and orality is prone to error. While
this book has certainly asked questions about authentication, accuracy and
distortion in relation to individual pieces of evidence, it has not so far
used Hall™s suspicion of orality to survey the broader picture. When one
does this, his view that oral tradition leads to distortion appears well-
founded in many cases “ notably the fragments of Catholic prayers within
spells, and the tale of the Skull of Wardley Hall told at the end of the
last chapter. But if this evidence would need to be treated with extreme
caution if one wanted to reconstruct the Sarum Missal or write up Ambrose
Barlow for the Dictionary of National Biography, it is very revealing indeed
on other counts. One scholar™s distortion is another scholar™s reception
history, and a key preoccupation of this book has been the imaginative,
often wayward operations of antiquarian and popular remembrance. Truth
is not necessarily absent from the equation either, if one broadens one™s
de¬nition of it into considerations of diversity and emotional authenticity:
an area where minority groups, Catholics and others, have special demands
on a compassionate reader™s attention, and where oral historians researching
more recent periods have often made large claims, in their attempt to recover
the voices of those whom previous generations of educated commentators
have tended to sideline or despise.3
To leave it there, though, would imply that Hall was right: that oral tra-
dition can only ever have a tenuous and unhelpful relationship to factual
certainty, whatever the ethical reasons for studying it might be. Written
evidence has certainly tended to be seen as more trustworthy than oral,
especially in subject areas where both oral and written sources are avail-
able, while Ronald Hutton, a historian whose work is deeply engaged with
oral tradition, has admitted to personal experiences of disillusion with it:
˜Against . . . droplets [of fact] must be set an ocean of misinformation.™4 But
the argument that there can be no certainty in oral tradition is answered
by every historian who identi¬es occasions when oral and non-oral sources
concur, and problematised by everyone who asks why one should regard
data probable in itself as necessarily unreliable, just because it has been
preserved by oral transmission. D. R. Woolf, one of the most illuminating
Conclusion 151
scholars to have written on the relationship between history and oral tradi-
tion in early modern England, has described the increasing preference for
written tradition over oral as the seventeenth century progressed, attribut-
ing it to the widening division between learned and popular cultures during
this period; commenting that the Tudor and early Stuart antiquaries have
often been condemned for their reliance on both written and oral sources,
he argues that they should have a better press: ˜They helped to keep open
not one road to the past, but two.™5 His comment is typical of the move
towards af¬rming oral tradition which has taken place in recent years: not,
perhaps, because the relationship between orality and fact has begun to be
seen as less problematic, but because post-structuralism has ensured that
scholars™ suspicions are now more thinly spread.6 It is no coincidence that
interest in oral tradition has burgeoned in early modern studies at a time
when attention, here and elsewhere, has increasingly focused on the insta-
bility of written and printed evidence “ as foreshadowed by many Catholic
apologists for tradition who pointed to the problems with interpreting
Scripture.7
This study has also pointed to two further issues: how both educated and
uneducated individuals could use oral transmission as a means of deliberate,
responsible factual dissemination, and how this in time created new tradi-
tions which could be seen as authoritative. We have seen missionary priests
using orally transmissible ballads to educate unlearned Catholics about
their faith, and antiquarians treating orally transmissible martyr-narratives
as good evidence: the interplay between orality, manuscript and print in
both these cases illustrates how oral traditions are not divorced from other
media, rendering it very problematic to single them out for condemnation.
The use made of orally transmissible material by educated Catholics is
not, of course, without parallel among other denominations, yet Catholics
might well have felt it rati¬ed to some degree by their church™s high doc-
trine of tradition, and its af¬rmation of non-scriptural ways to instruct
Christians.8 Even the highly local, highly speci¬c material in this book is
shaped by general notions of tradition and refers insistently back to them,
begging the question: where does church tradition stop?
What has been said so far, in both this conclusion and the book in gen-
eral, has tended to con¬rm Hall™s suspicion that oral tradition is a highly
imperfect means of transmitting factual detail. But questions of truth are
not always the same thing as questions of accuracy. Since the truth-claims
of religion are bolder than those attached to any other area of knowledge,
the claims made for church tradition can evoke, at their most far-reaching,
a lived religious authenticity guided by the Holy Spirit “ at times going
152 Oral Culture and Catholicism
well past what can be checked in Scripture, since Scripture is seen as a

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