Early Modern Charitableness – a lesson for today?

The last couple of weeks have been extremely busy – I’ve had two paid jobs to work on, one is very temporary (lasting only a week, but almost full time work during that week), and the other is also temporary but only 5 hours work per week over the course of about 5 weeks. Between the first two jobs I’ve spent almost an entire week on campus, and my studies have had to fit inbetween those jobs. And if I’m honest, they’ve fitted in quite well. The week-long job required me to do some survey work, which was around 15-20 minutes out of every hour. I managed to find a computer most days at uni which I could use, and the remaining 40-45 minutes out of every hour I succeeded at working – transcribing or making notes, the kind of thing where the constant stop-start doesn’t matter too much.

One of the documents I’ve been working on is called ‘An Alarme for Sinners‘. This was a long document written by a chap called Robert Foulkes during January 1679, and published after his execution on 31st January 1679. Foulkes had been found guilty of the ‘horrid murther’ (murder) of his just-born child on 15th January 1679(1), and had been sentenced to be hung. What was unusual about Foulkes is that he was a married vicar, and the child had been born to one of his parishioners, not his wife. Indeed, the relationship with his mistress (Ann Atkinson) had been subject to a lengthy court case in Herefordshire (the parish they lived in was subject to the Hereford Diocese), and Foulkes and Atkinson had celebrated their way when they thought the case was defeated, leading to pregnancy and, eventually, the scaffold. Atkinson pointed the finger squarely at Foulkes when they were arrested and she was found not guilty of the baby’s murder. Before his execution, Foulkes receved a number of visitors from the leading authorities in the Church of England; because the scandal had occurred during the Popish Plot/Titus Oates affair when the Church was still feeling under seige, the divines who visited had asked Foulkes to write a document extonerating the wider Church from all blame. An Alarme for Sinners is the result.

The copy I had saved onto my computer was made up of a series of PDFs; each double page spread being saved as one file. This, together with the problematic print and preponderance of fs instead of s made me decide to retype it – not difficult for me, as I learned to touch type years ago. In the event it took me slightly over a day and a half to type the entire thing, inbetween surveys. This is for my MA dissertation, and my research is focusing more on the relationship that Foulkes had with his parishioners as a whole, and what the case can reveal about clergy-lay relations rather than the scandalous behaviour of Foulkes and Atkinson. Still, having gone through the process of typing the document, a number of thoughts have come to mind. At least one of these is the difference by which we regard a document like this now, compared to 1679, and what the document reveals about general society and crimes in that period.

In An Alarme for Sinners Foulkes had – or so he said – a number of objectives. His primary objective was to ensure that the church was not blamed for his crimes. His pamphlet decried his actions and attempted to warn other people from following on his path. He gave thanks that his sins were discovered so that he had a chance to realise his errors before he died (and was inevitably sent to hell), and he addressed those people who he thought had done wrong (on a general level), to try to advise them on where to go right from that point on.

One thing that was very clear in Foulkes’s document was that sexual relations with prepubescent children was regarded as a horror; something very very wrong, especially when said child had been handed into one’s care. In his pamphlet, Foulkes went to some length to deny a group of accusations which said: that Akinson’s father had made Foulkes her guardian; that he had that he had used his position as her minister to persuade her that polygamy was lawful (a persuasion that today might be referred to as grooming); and finally, that he had ‘attempt and endeavour to vitiate’ Atkinson when she was nine. The accusations clearly upset Foulkes a great deal – it ‘imbittered my Cup both at my Trial and at my Sentence’. He also said that while he accepted that he was guilty of many other things, he took comfort in being innocent of both of these accusations, even though he had sins that had ‘exceeded’ them – i.e. the murder of his child. What is clear is that Foulkes’ horror of the charges, and his anxiousness to deny them, despite already being found guilty to hang for murder speak volumes about how those crimes were regarded by his contemporaries and society at large.

[While it is impossible to be sure at this remove, it has to be said that recent work by historians does support Foulkes’s claim of innocence of these charges. Foulkes was not made the incumbent of his parish until Atkinson was around ten years old, although Klein felt he first met her when she was around seven. He was certainly never made her guardian, (although he was, of course, her minister), and the two historians who have written about the case regard the affair has having begun around 1669 – when Atkinson was around 19 or 20.]

Interestingly, the document seemed to suggest that it was because Foulkes was placed in a position of trust, that the accusations were so serious. In other words; it would not have been deemed so serious if Foulkes had attacked a stranger. Did they regard the breach of trust as the more serious crime, or was the breach of trust deemed more as what we would now call ‘an aggravating factor’ in the sexual assault? Interesting questions. I have to admit that I have done no research into this topic at all; but it certainly shows, for those non historians that bewail a ‘plague of modern paedophilia‘, that social awareness of the crime existed at least as far back as 1679.

Moving now to the issue of charitableness, as promised in the title – when I first read the entire document, I reflected on how it would be regarded if an equivalent document was produced today by a man condemned to life imprisonment for the same crime – infantcide. Foulkes is clearly trying to restore his honour and the honour of the Church in this document and admits as much. Today, a document like this would be regarded with a great deal of cynicism. (Just imagine the tabloid newspaper headlines!) In 1679 there was some cynicism – Foulkes even anticipated this, as he preceded one section with: ‘For satisfaction to those who were at my Tryal, and may have their belief warpt to uncharitableness…’ and then addressed  various accusations (including the ones discussed above). At the same time, Foulkes clearly believed that publishing this pamphlet would let his voice be heard. He admitted to horrible crimes, crimes that he abhorred, and even a crime that he was not charged for, a crime that he said no one else considered or felt was a crime at the time. As he pointed out, he murdered his child without baptising her first. In doing so, he ‘murther its Soul’. In 1679, as it had been for centuries, it was strongly felt by many – including Foulkes – that unbaptised children could not enter heaven (which is why midwives had long been permitted to baptise children where it was clear that a child would not live long enough to permit baptism by a clergyman, although this permission was starting to disappear by the seventeenth century (2)). By murdering his child before baptism, Foulkes ensured his child could never enter heaven. He had failed the child on two levels, as both a father, and as a minister. His sheer anguish and pain at having failed his child on both levels leaps from the page; the reader almost has to accept that he felt as he did, his misery is utterly convincing.

He did not have to write this. He was originally asked to assist the wider Church by making it clear that she played no role in his crimes – no more, no less. Foulkes made the choice to try to reach out to people, to show them where he had gone wrong, to confess where he had gone wrong (and where he had not gone wrong). In this, he succeeded in his aim of restoring his honour; he was prayed for throughout the City of London on the night before his death – a day that also marked the anniversary of the death of Charles I. (3) Public pamphlets, which widely published not only the Alarme for Sinners, but details of the crime, his sentence, and pre-execution actions, also suggest that Foulkes succeeded in restoring his honour. The final line of one reads: ‘Thus ended this unfortunate Gentleman, who by the temptations of Satan was thus brought like Holy David into the horrid sin a Adultery, but as his sin resembled his, so did his Reptentence, and we hope they are now both singing Hallelujahs in the glorious Region of Eternal joy’ – i.e. we (the publishers) hope that this chap has gone to heaven. The message here is: if he, who committed such a dreadful crime, can repent and reach Salvation … maybe we, who are guilty of much lesser crimes, can too.

And therein lies the main difference between 1679 and today, I think. Today, we – as a society, I mean – regard a document like this, and cynically ask what the author got out of it, and question it no further; any thought of repentance is dismissed with ‘well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?’. In the Early Modern society, perhaps, people were more charitable, more willing to accept that there could be multiple motivations for it, but that they are not all ultimately self-seeking and self-serving, and that perhaps repentence could be real. Perhaps, in the western society that we have today, more charitableness towards people’s motivations would not be a bad thing.

(1) David Turner, ‘Foulkes, Robert, (bap 1634, d. 1679), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography  (2007).
(2) D. Cressy, Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 1999), p. 64.
(3) Old Bailey Proceedings from 31st January 1679.
The two published secondary works discussing the Foulkes/Atkinson case are: P. Klein, The Temptation and Downfall of the Vicar of Stanton Lacy (Ludlow, 2005), and D. Turner, ‘Nothing is so secret but shall be revealed: The Scandalous Life of Robert Foulkes’, in T. Hitchcock and M. Cohen (eds), English Masculinities, 1660-1800 (London, 1999), pp. 169-192.



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