The Sermon of the Dead

The Sermon of the Dead

The little village of Derwent Woods, and its equally tiny church, lay nestled in a fold of the Peak District – an area of Derbyshire where the locals had clung to their ancient beliefs and customs for far longer than other parts of the country. The village no longer appears on maps as it was drowned when the Ladybower Reservoir was created in the 1940s and the early parish records were lost during the upheavals of the English Civil War and Cromwell’s protectorate. The events of this story were pieced together by a Mrs. Abercrombie, an acquaintance of my wife, a keen genealogist and a descendant from the distaff – that is the female side, of the family of the Reverend Spriggs, whom we shall meet in a moment.

Frustrated by the lack of records for this parish and the time spent by her ancestor in it, she had visited the county record office in Matlock and instigated a blanket search of all the parish records she could lay her hands on. We can imagine her great delight as she found, tucked into the parish register of All Saints, Bakewell, a number of letters written to the incumbent, the Reverend John Rowlandson Jnr, by the Reverend Spriggs along with some supplementary notes made by the recipient.

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The Reverend Daniel Spriggs became vicar of the parish of Derwent Woods in the first week of January 1658. In his youth he had been a firebrand preacher and agitator in Parliament’s New Model Army, but had become disillusioned after witnessing the way that Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton had betrayed their troops during the Putney debates of 1647 over the issue of universal male suffrage. He was one of the ringleaders of the Corkbush Hill mutiny arrested by Cromwell and sentenced to death. They had been forced to play dice on a drumhead and the loser, Private Richard Arnold, had been shot on the spot as a warning to the others. After this, he had spent some years travelling around the countryside preaching, before he decided to withdraw to a country parish, well out of the mainstream of life.

At first all went well. It is true that there was an air of self-righteousness about him, but he was diligent in his duties, on good terms with his Parish Clerk and churchwardens and, on the whole, popular with his parishioners. In time they even became used to his face – the peculiar twist to the left side of his mouth caused by the scar that ran from jaw to hairline, the legacy of a last ditch thrust of a Royalist pike at Parliament’s great victory at Naseby.

The first signs of trouble came at the vestry meeting in the middle of April. The Parish Clerk and churchwardens had been duly re-elected, a new sexton appointed, the poor rate set for the coming year and one or two small amounts of money granted to help those in particular need. Having thoroughly discussed the business of the parish the meeting had finished and Reverend Spriggs was packing away his papers, quill and inkpot when he noticed that the Parish Clerk, churchwardens and several members of the congregation had gone into a huddle from which there came much whispering and nudging. Eventually, the clerk was propelled to the front of the group where he stood nervously twisting his woollen cap in his hands.

“Yes Isaac? You have something further to say?” asked Reverend Spriggs, running a hand through his thinning hair and picking up his hat. Isaac stood for a long while, white faced with what the Reverend interpreted as fear, he shuffled his feet but made no effort to speak. “Come man,” said the Reverend a little testily, “out with it, there’s no need to be nervous.”

Isaac cleared his throat. “You’re …,” he swallowed hard, took a deep breath and started again. “Everyone is expecting you to preach the sermon of the dead, sir,” he said, gabbling his words in his haste to get them out.

“The sermon of the dead,” responded Reverend Spriggs looking puzzled. “Pray, just what is the sermon of the dead?”

Isaac was by now looking acutely embarrassed, but plunged on. “At midnight on the last Sunday in December you preach a sermon in the church … alone. During your sermon the spirits of those destined to die during the coming year will come into the church to listen.”

“But, this is akin to witchcraft!” exploded Reverend Spriggs. “And you want me to perform this piece of Papist mummery. Heavens man, you’ll be expecting me to believe in fairies, boggarts and hobthrusts!” There was a sharp intake of breath from several members of the group and Reverend Spriggs was sure that, from out of the corner of his eye, he could see someone making a sign to ward off the evil eye.

The matter of the sermon was not talked of openly again, but it became obvious that there was a growing tension between Reverend Spriggs and his parishioners as the year wore on and Christmas came and went. The last Sunday of December dawned mild, blustery and wet, Reverend Spriggs celebrated communion in the morning then attended a sick parishioner, sitting by her bedside throughout the afternoon, trying to offer her his words of solace and comfort.

This had proved to be a somewhat trying visit. The parishioner in question was a formidable old woman who, being a young girl at the time, could clearly remember the great panic caused in England by the news of the Spanish Armada. She had outlived three monarchs, buried four husbands and brought nine healthy children of her own into the world. As the village midwife and wise woman she had been responsible for attending the births of many more. And, some added with a knowing wink and a nod, thanks to her knowledge of herb lore, she had ended more than one pregnancy that would have brought shame upon a young woman. She was an old school Protestant ‘like Queen Bess’, her great heroine, and therefore she had no love for the brand of Puritanism brought in by Cromwell and his followers. She barely tolerated the Reverend Spriggs’ presence. Whenever he tried to pray for her she would flap her hands at him, as if she were trying to drive away a particularly bothersome some fly and ‘Tut!’ loudly.

She had spent nearly the whole of his visit lying, propped up, on a pile of pillows mumbling inaudibly. ‘Clearly out of her wits and rambling’ thought the Reverend Spriggs, it could not be long before her merciful release came. Just as he was preparing to leave, she suddenly sat bolt upright and, staring at the door of her chamber, said very clearly, “I’m not ready yet. And I’ll tell you something for nowt, Reverend,” she continued, turning to face him directly. “You’ll not bury me,” and she gave an unpleasant chuckle before collapsing back onto the pillows in a fit of coughing.

Reverend Spriggs was not sure what to make of these comments. Half remembered childhood stories of witches whose bodies were snatched away at the moment of death, or shortly afterwards, by their demonic master came to his mind. ‘But no,’ he thought, ‘on the balance of probability, the spiteful old drab has probably arranged for another priest to carry out her funeral.’ Giving her a blessing, despite her violent protestations, he left the cottage and turned his face towards home.

By the time he had returned to the parsonage in the gathering gloom of the late afternoon, the wind had risen to a gale and the rain was sheeting down. He ate his evening meal alone, as was his custom, and settled down in his study with half a bottle of claret to read his bible by a roaring fire, determined that he would not stir from the room until it was time for him to retire to bed. He definitely would not enter the church that night.

As the evening wore on and darkness fell, a curious feeling of restlessness started to overtake him. He tried to put it down to the weather – by now the wind was screaming around the gables like a lost soul pursued by all the fiends of hell and the fire hissed and spluttered as the rain splashed down the chimney – but there was more to it than that, he was sure. He turned the situation over and over in his mind. Was there any truth in the old belief; would the spirits of the dead to come appear in the church tonight if the sermon were given? There was only one way to find out, however, if he preached the sermon, he would be giving way to superstition, and if it got about the parish that he had, despite his firm stand against it, he would not be able to show his face beyond his door again such would be his embarrassment. But despite all of this a part of him, deep down, was curious to see what, if anything, would happen. At a quarter to midnight his curiosity won, he shut his bible with a sigh, lit a lantern, threw a cloak over his head and shoulders and, slipping out of the parsonage, began the short walk through the graveyard.

Soon the Reverend Spriggs was soaked and he shivered as he unlocked the church door and stepped into the porch. He left his wet cloak hanging on a peg; then he entered the pitch dark of the nave. An observer, looking down into the body of the church from the gallery that ran along the end wall of the nave above the door, would have seen his lantern bobbing like a glow worm as he walked down the aisle towards the altar. At the end of the aisle he sat in a pew for a few moments, opened his lantern and took a light from the candle with a taper. Shielding the flame with his left hand he lit the two great candles that stood in tall wrought iron candle sticks at either side of the altar and was immediately comforted by the familiar smell of the hot bee’s wax. Picking one up, he moved it carefully to the back of the pulpit then returned for the second. He then climbed the three steps up into the pulpit, lit two smaller candles and placed them on the ledge that ran along the front. Reverend Spriggs stood in a pool of flickering candle light staring out into the darkness and feeling rather foolish. Offering up a silent prayer, he glanced down at his notes and began to preach the sermon that he had given that morning.

 

“Dearly beloved I take as my text …,” his voice battled against the moaning of the wind and the drumming of the rain against the windows.

He had been preaching for about five minutes, when the wind dropped suddenly causing him to pause in surprise. In the moment of silence he heard the rattle of a latch and the squeal of a door opening. From the sound, he knew that it was the one at the back of the gallery – he had been meaning to ask the sexton to oil its hinges for weeks, but had kept forgetting to. A chill wind that carried the scent of dust and decay swirled through the church and the two small candles standing before him guttered and went out. Resting his hands on the edge of the pulpit, he leaned forward and stared intently into the darkness which appeared to grow thicker.

An unearthly chill filled the church and Reverend Spriggs snatched his hands away from where they rested with a gasp as frost began to form along the pulpit’s edge. He stared in fascination as the fern like pattern of ice crystals crawled across the woodwork, and then he heard, from somewhere up above him, a rustle of movement. It was much too late in the year to be a bat, and at first he thought that a rat or some other small creature was moving about, but no, what he could hear was surely the swish of a woman’s dress followed, he thought, by a faint hiccup.

“Hello,” the sound of his voice was swallowed up by the darkness, “is there anyone there?”

Silence.

He relit the candles with some difficulty, so violent was the shaking of his hands. Whether this was from the cold, or fear, he could not tell. Then, finding his place in his notes, he carried on manfully with the sermon, his mind crowded with questions. Had the wind opened the door? Was someone, possibly a drunk, playing him for a fool? Was there any truth in the old belief? This last question he thrust aside immediately.

And then the clouds broke up and the interior of the church, with its plain whitewashed walls, appeared cold and stark in the dead, white moonlight. As his eyes adjusted to the sudden increase in light, Reverend Spriggs could, soon, make out the rows of empty pews standing like an expectant crowd before him, although great shadows, like dirty grey cobwebs, gathered in corners and under the gallery, obscuring the doorway at the far end of the church. He looked up and saw, with surprise, that there were two figures sitting at the front of gallery, staring down at him. On the left sat a, skeletally thin, old lady with sunken, red rimmed eyes, clouded with the milky film of cataracts. With her great, beak like, nose she reminded him of a fierce, but blinded hawk. He recognised her immediately, the widow Nethersole, the woman at whose bedside he had sat for the whole of the afternoon listening to her laboured breathing. Seeing him looking up at her, she gave him a peculiar smile that was more like a grimace, and nodded her head in acknowledgement. As she nodded she appeared to mouth a word at him – he could not be certain but it appeared to be ‘hypocrite’.

Sitting to her left was a young woman, her face a picture of sadness and desolation. At first he could not think who she was, and then he remembered. Her name was Jennet and he had married her to a local farmer from further up the valley only a couple of months ago, after the harvest had been gathered in. But, what was the bundle that she was carrying? It stirred with a small mewling noise, and then it came to him with a sickening jolt as he recalled the look of pure joy on her husband’s face when they had met in the village last week and he had said that his wife was with child. Reverend Spriggs was appalled at this, how could he face them now? How could he smile and wish them joy after church next Sunday knowing what he now knew?

As he was coming to the end of his sermon, he happened to glance up again and noticed another figure in the gallery, sitting to one side, partially obscured by shadows. The figure looked vaguely familiar and he felt a stab of annoyance, someone, probably the Parish Clerk, was checking up on him, ensuring that he carried out his duties. Next time he saw the man, he thought, he would have words about this, he took a dim view of their lack of trust.

He finished the sermon with a blessing and the widow Nethersole and Jennet stood and moved to the back of the gallery disappearing into the shadows. Reverend Spriggs could not see their feet but had the distinct impression that they were gliding rather than walking, the third figure remained seated. Reverend Spriggs picked up his notes and started to shuffle them into order, looking up he addressed the figure directly.

“I am finished now sir, you may tell Isaac and the others that I have done my duty,” and he gave an ironic bow.

The figure placed his hands on the rail that ran across the front of the gallery and stood looking down at him. As he rose, his face moved from shadow into the light, Reverend Spriggs gave a violent start and dropped his papers which fell in a fluttering mass and lay scattered across the floor. With a low moan, he collapsed and lay in a heap at the foot of the pulpit steps. The face that stared down at him from the gallery with its livid scar and twisted lip was all too familiar to him – it was his own.

***

If you could search the graveyard at Derwent Woods, which is, of course, now impossible as it is at the bottom of a lake. And here we are, once more, indebted to the redoubtable Mrs Abercrombie, who discovered and copied a plan of the churchyard made before the valley flooded. You would quickly discover the tomb of the widow Nethersole, who defied all the expectations of her neighbours and died the following Christmas at the ripe age of 81. Nearby lies Jennet, who died tragically in childbirth, she shares her grave with her son Jacob who outlived his mother by just three days.

Close to the church porch is the grave of the Reverend Spriggs who, to quote from the notes made by the Reverend Rowlandson, ‘never recovered from the shock and dyed on ye 2nd day of January 1659. In his last letter to me, he said that he was much troubled by a rattling in his bedroom, like the noise of a dice rolling across a drumhead, but of what to make of this I am at a great loss.’