A Year in Derby Prison 1650-1651
As I travelled through markets, fairs, and diverse places, I saw death and darkness in all people where the power of the Lord God had not shaken them. As I was passing on in Leicestershire I came to Twy-Cross, where there were excise-men. I was moved of the Lord to go to them, and warn them to take heed of oppressing the poor; and people were much affected with it.
There was in that town a great man that had long lain sick, and was given up by the physicians; and some Friends in the town desired me to go to see him. I went up to him in his chamber, and spoke the Word of life to him, and was moved to pray by him; and the Lord was entreated, and restored him to health. But when I was come down stairs, into a lower room, and was speaking to the servants, and to some people that were there, a serving-man of his came raving out of another room, with a naked rapier in his hand, and set it just to my side. I looked steadfastly on him, and said, “Alack for thee, poor creature! what wilt thou do with thy carnal weapon? It is no more to me than a straw.” The bystanders were much troubled, and he went away in a rage and full of wrath. But when the news of it came to his master, he turned him out of his service.
Thus the Lord’s power preserved me and raised up the weak man, who afterwards was very loving to Friends; and when I came to that town again both he and his wife came to see me.
After this I was moved to go into Derbyshire, where the mighty power of God was among Friends. And I went to Chesterfield, where one Britland was priest. He saw beyond the common sort of priests, for he had been partly convinced, and had spoken much on behalf of Truth before he was priest there; but when the priest of that town died, he got the parsonage, and choked himself with it. I was moved to speak to him and the people in the great love of God, that they might come off from all men’s teaching unto God’s teaching; and he was not able to gainsay.
But they had me before the mayor, and threatened to send me, with some others, to the house of correction, and kept us in custody till it was late in the night. Then the officers, with the watchmen, put us out of the town, leaving us to shift as we could. So I bent my course towards Derby, having a friend or two with me. In our way we met with many professors; and at Kidsey Park many were convinced.
Then, coming to Derby, I lay at the house of a doctor, whose wife was convinced; and so were several more in the town. As I was walking in my chamber, the [steeple-house] bell rang, and it struck at my life at the very hearing of it; so I asked the woman of the house what the bell rang for. She said there was to be a great lecture there that day, and many of the officers of the army, and priests, and preachers were to be there, and a colonel, that was a preacher.
Then was I moved of the Lord to go up to them; and when they had done I spoke to them what the Lord commanded me, and they were pretty quiet. But there came an officer and took me by the hand, and said that I and the other two that were with me must go before the magistrates. It was about the first hour after noon that we came before them.
They asked me why we came thither. I said God moved us so to do; and I told them, “God dwells not in temples made with hands.” I told them also that all their preaching, baptism and sacrifices would never sanctify them, and bade them look unto Christ within them, and not unto men; for it is Christ that sanctifies. Then they ran into many words; but I told them they were not to dispute of God and Christ, but to obey Him.
The power of God thundered among them, and they did fly like chaff before it. They put me in and out of the room often, hurrying me backward and forward, for they were from the first hour till the ninth at night in examining me. Sometimes they would tell me in a deriding manner that I was taken up in raptures.
At last they asked me whether I was sanctified. I answered, “Yes; for I am in the paradise of God.” Then they asked me if I had no sin. I answered, “Christ my Saviour has taken away my sin; and in Him there is no sin.” They asked how we knew that Christ did abide in us. I said, “By His Spirit, that He hath given us.” They temptingly asked if any of us were Christ. I answered, “Nay; we are nothing; Christ is all.” They said, “If a man steal, is it no sin?” I answered, “All unrighteousness is sin.”
When they had wearied themselves in examining me, they committed me and one other man to the house of correction in Derby for six months, as blasphemers, as may appear by the mittimus, a copy whereof here followeth:
“To the master of the house of correction in Derby, greeting:
“We have sent you herewithal the bodies George Fox, late of Mansfield, in the county of Nottingham, and John Fretwell, late of Staniesby, in the county of Derby, husbandman, brought before us this present day, and charged with the avowed uttering and broaching of diverse blasphemous opinions, contrary to the late Act of Parliament; which, upon their examination before us, they have confessed. These are therefore to require you forthwith, upon sight hereof, to receive them, the said George Fox and John Fretwell, into your custody, and them therein safely to keep during the space of six months, without bail or mainprize, or until they shall find sufficient security to be of good behaviour, or be thence delivered by order from ourselves. Hereof you are not to fail. Given under our hands and seals this 30th day of October, 1650.
While I was here in prison diverse professors carne to discourse with me. I had a sense, before they spoke, that they came to plead for sin and imperfection. I asked them whether they were believers and had faith. They said, “Yes.” I asked them, “In whom?” They said, “In Christ.” I replied. “If ye are true believers in Christ, you are passed from death to life; and if passed from death, then from sin that bringeth death; and if your faith be true, it will give you victory over sin and the devil, purify your hearts and consciences (for the true faith is held in a pure conscience), and bring you to please God, and give you access to Him again.”
But they could not endure to hear of purity, and of victory over sin and the devil. They said they could not believe any could be free from sin on this side of the grave. I bade them give over babbling about the Scriptures, which were holy men’s words, whilst they pleaded for unholiness.
At another time a company of professors came, who also began to plead for sin. I asked them whether they had hope. They said, “Yes: God forbid but we should have hope.” I asked them, “What hope is it that you have? Is Christ in you the hope of your glory? Doth it purify you, as He is pure?” But they could not abide to hear of being made pure here. Then I bade them forbear talking of the Scriptures, which were the holy men’s words; “for,” said I, “the holy men that wrote the Scriptures pleaded for holiness in heart, life, and conversation here; but since you plead for impurity and sin, which is of the devil, what have you to do with the holy men’s words?”
The keeper of the prison, being a high professor, was greatly enraged against me, and spoke very wickedly of me; but it pleased the Lord one day to strike him, so that he was in great trouble and under much terror of mind. And, as I was walking in my chamber I heard a doleful noise, and, standing still, I heard him say to his wife, “Wife, I have seen the day of judgment, and I saw George there; and I was afraid of him, because I had done him so much wrong, and spoken so much against him to the ministers and professors, and to the justices, and in taverns and alehouses.”
After this, towards the evening, he came into my chamber, and said to me, “I have been as a lion against you; but now I come like a lamb, and like the jailer that came to Paul and Silas trembling.” And he desired he might lodge with me. I told him I was in his power; he might do what he would; but he said, “Nay,” that he would have my leave, and that he could desire to be always with me, but not to have me as a prisoner. He said he had been plagued, and his house had been plagued, for my sake. So I suffered him to lodge with me.
Then he told me all his heart, and said that he believed what I had said of the true faith and hope to be true; and he wondered that the other man, who was put in prison with me, did not stand it; and said, “That man was not right, but you are an honest man.” He confessed also to me that at those times when I had asked him to let me go forth to speak the word of the Lord to the people, when he refused to let me go, and I laid the weight thereof upon him, he used to be under great trouble, amazed, and almost distracted for some time after, and in such a condition that he had little strength left him.
When the morning came he rose and went to the justices, and told them that he and his house had been plagued for my sake. One of the justices replied (as he reported to me) that the plagues were upon them, too, for keeping me. This was Justice Bennet, of Derby, who was the first that called us Quakers, because I bade them tremble at the word of the Lord. This was in the year 1650.
After this the justices gave leave that I should have liberty to walk a mile. I perceived their end, and told the jailer, that if they would set down to me how far a mile was, I might take the liberty of walking it sometimes. For I had a sense that they thought I would go away. And the jailer confessed afterwards they did it with that intent, to have me go away, to ease them of their plague; but I told him I was not of that spirit.
While I was in the house of correction my relations came to see me; and, being troubled for my imprisonment, they went to the justices that cast me into prison and desired to have me home with them, offering to be bound in one hundred pounds, and others of Derby in fifty pounds apiece with them, that I should come no more thither to declare against the priests.
So I was taken up before the justices; and because I would not consent that they or any should be bound for me (for I was innocent of any ill behaviour, and had spoken the Word of life and truth unto them), Justice Bennet rose up in a rage; and, as I was kneeling down to pray to the Lord to forgive him, he ran upon me, and struck me with both his hands, crying, “Away with him, jailer; take him away, jailer.” Whereupon I was taken again to prison, and there kept till the time of my commitment for six months was expired.
But I had now the liberty of walking a mile by myself, which I made use of as I felt freedom. Sometimes I went into the market and streets, and warned the people to repent of their wickedness, and returned to prison again. And there being persons of several sorts of religion in the prison, I sometimes visited them in their meetings on First-days.
While I was yet in the house of correction there came unto me a trooper, and said that as he was sitting in the steeple-house, hearing the priest, exceeding great trouble fell upon him; and the voice of the Lord came to him, saying, “Dost thou not know that my servant is in prison? Go to him for direction.” So I spake to his condition, and his understanding was opened. I told him that that which showed him his sins, and troubled him for them, would show him his salvation; for He that shows a man his sin is the same that takes it away.
While I was speaking to him the Lord’s power opened his mind, so that he began to have a good understanding in the Lord’s truth, and to be sensible of God’s mercies. He spoke boldly in his quarters amongst the soldiers, and to others, concerning truth (for the Scriptures were very much opened to him), insomuch that he said that his colonel was “as blind as Nebuchadnezzar, to cast the servant of the Lord into prison.”
Upon this his colonel conceived a spite against him, and at Worcester fight, the year after, when the two armies lay near one another, and two came out from the king’s army and challenged any two of the Parliament army to fight with them, his colonel made choice of him and another to answer the challenge. When in the encounter his companion was slain, he drove both his enemies within musket-shot of the town without firing a pistol at them. This, when he returned, he told me with his own mouth. But when the fight was over he saw the deceit and hypocrisy of the officers, and, being sensible how wonderfully the Lord had preserved him, and seeing also to the end of fighting, he laid down his arms.
The time of my commitment to the house of correction being very nearly ended, and there being many new soldiers raised, the commissioners would have made me captain over them; and the soldiers cried out that they would have none but me. So the keeper of the house of correction was commanded to bring me before the commissioners and soldiers in the market-place, where they offered me that preferment, as they called it, asking me if I would not take up arms for the Commonwealth against Charles Stuart. I told them I knew whence all wars arose, even from the lusts, according to James’ doctrine; and that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.
Yet they courted me to accept of their offer, and thought I did but compliment them. But I told them I was come into the covenant of peace, which was before wars and strifes were. They said they offered it in love and kindness to me because of my virtue; and such-like flattering words they used. But I told them, if that was their love and kindness, I trampled it under my feet.
Then their rage got up, and they said, “Take him away, jailer, and put him into the prison amongst the rogues and felons.” So I was put into a lousy, stinking place, without any bed, amongst thirty felons, where I was kept almost half a year; yet at times they would let me walk to the garden, believing I would not go away.
When they had got me into Derby prison, it was the saying of people that I would never come out; but I had faith in God that I should be delivered in His time; for the Lord had given me to believe that I was not to be removed from that place yet, being set there for a service which He had for me to do.
While I was here in prison there was a young woman in the jail for robbing her master. When she was to be tried for her life I wrote to the judge and jury, showing them how contrary it was to the law of God in old time to put people to death for stealing, and moving them to show mercy. Yet she was condemned to die, and a grave was made for her, and at the time appointed she was carried forth to execution. Then I wrote a few words, warning all to beware of greediness or covetousness, for it leads from God; and that all should fear the Lord, avoid earthly lusts, and prize their time while they have it; this I gave to be read at the gallows. And, though they had her upon the ladder, with a cloth bound over her face, ready to be turned off, yet they did not put her to death, but brought her back to prison, where she afterwards came to be convinced of God’s everlasting truth.
There was also in the jail, while I was there, a wicked, ungodly man, who was reputed a conjurer. He threatened that he would talk with me, and boasted of what he would do; but he never had power to open his mouth to me. And the jailer and he falling out, he threatened to raise the devil and break his house down; so that he made the jailer afraid. I was moved of the Lord to go in His power and rebuke him, and to say to him, “Come, let us see what thou canst do; do thy worst.” I told him that the devil was raised high enough in him already; but the power of God chained him down, so he slunk away from me.
The time of Worcester fight coming on, Justice Bennet sent constables to press me for a soldier, seeing I would not voluntarily accept of a command. I told them that I was brought off from outward wars. They came again to give me press-money; but I would take none. Then I was brought up to Sergeant Holes, kept there awhile, and taken down again. Afterwards the constables brought me a second time before the commissioners, who said I should go for a soldier; but I told them I was dead to it. They said I was alive. I told them that where envy and hatred is there is confusion. They offered me money twice, but I refused it. Being disappointed, they were angry, and committed me close prisoner, without bail or mainprize.
Great was the exercise and travail in spirit that I underwent during my imprisonment here, because of the wickedness that was in this town; for though some were convinced, yet the generality were a hardened people. I saw the visitation of God’s love pass away from them. I mourned over them.
There was a great judgment upon the town, and the magistrates were uneasy about me; but they could not agree what to do with me. One while they would have sent me up to the Parliament; another while they would have banished me to Ireland. At first they called me a deceiver, a seducer and a blasphemer. Afterwards, when God had brought his plagues upon them, they styled me an honest, virtuous man. But their good report and bad report were nothing to me; for the one did not lift me up, nor the other cast me down; praised be the Lord! At length they were made to turn me out of jail, about the beginning of winter, in the year 1651, after I had been a prisoner in Derby almost a year, — six months in the house of correction, and the rest of the time in the common jail.