Who, in the Reign of King James I. were the first to hear the Exhortation of the Bellman of St Sepulchre's
WITHERINGTON was the son of a very worthy gentleman of Carlisle, in the county of Cumberland, who possessed a plentiful estate, and brought up his children handsomely and suitably to his condition. Thomas, of whom we are going to speak, had extraordinary education given him, and was designed for a gentleman, to live at his ease, free from the toil and hazard of business. The good old gentleman dying, Thomas came into possession of a considerable estate, which soon procured him a rich wife; but she proving loose, and violating his bed, pushed him on, in revenge, to extravagances, which otherwise he had no inclination to. Her falsehood to his bed was a mortification to his thoughts he could never reconcile to his mind, and being resolved to requite her perfidy and treachery, he abandoned himself to the company of all manner of women. These by degrees perverted all the good qualities he possessed. Nor was his estate less subject to ruin and decay; for the mortgages he made of it, in order to support his profusion and luxury, soon reduced his circumstances to a low ebb, and made him miserably poor. What should a gentleman of Mr Witherington's late affluent fortune do in this wretched case? He was above the mean submission of stooping to either relations or friends for a dependence; and to ask charity or crave the benevolence of his brother men was a circumstance his soul abhorred. One way he must do to live; to starve presented nothing but frightful and melancholy ideas to the mind. Collecting money on the road was judged the best, though not the surest, expedient of raising his fortune. And with this view he committed robberies in most parts of England for six or seven years with admirable success.
But between Acton and Uxbridge he committed a robbery on the highway for which he was sent to Newgate, where he lived a very profligate life to the very day of his execution.
At the same time flourished one Jonathan Woodward and one James Philpot, two most notorious housebreakers, who, in the cities of London and Westminster, the suburbs thereof, Southwark, and most towns and villages in the counties of Middlesex and Surrey, had committed daily robberies for some years, for which they were sent to the Marshalsea, and condemned to be hanged upon St Margaret's Hill, in the borough of Southwark; but King James I. happening that year to come to the throne of England, they were both pardoned upon an Act then put out for all criminals, excepting for high treason and wilful murder. However, these villains, not making good use of this mercy, still pursued their old wicked courses, and committed frequent burglaries and robberies, till at last, being apprehended again, and sent to Newgate, they were tried, with the above-mentioned Thomas Witherington, at the Sessions House in the old Bailey, and with eight other malefactors were condemned; but only these three, being most notorious offenders, were appointed for death. And while they continued in the condemned hold they led abominable lives, abandoning themselves to all manner of cursing and swearing, notwithstanding the extraordinary pains and cares of the ordinary to reclaim them.
At the same time there was living one Mrs Elizabeth Elliot, who having a son that about two or three years before was condemned to be hanged for the like practices, but received mercy, and became a good man, in compassion for other criminals, and in acknowledgement of the King's royal favour, on her death-bed willed two hundred and fifty pounds to the parish of St Sepulchre's in London to find a man who should for ever, betwixt the hours of eleven and twelve of the clock of the night before any prisoners were to die, go under Newgate, and giving them notice of his being come, by a solemn ringing of a hand-bell,* should then put them in mind of their approaching end, by repeating several godly expressions, tending to instruct them for a true preparation for death. After which he says to the prisoners appointed for death: "Gentlemen, are you awake?" Who from the condemned hold answering "Yes," he then proceeds thus:
"Gentlemen, I am the unwelcome messenger who brings you the fatal news that you must to-morrow die. Your time is but short, the hours slide away apace, the glass runs fast, and the last sand being upon dropping, when you must launch out into boundless eternity, give not yourselves to sleep, but watch and pray to gain eternal life. Repent sooner than St Peter, and weep before the cock crows, for now repentance is the only road to salvation; be fervent in this great duty, and without doubt to-morrow you may be with the penitent thief on the cross in Paradise. Pray without ceasing. Quench not the Spirit. Abstain from all appearance of evil. As your own wickedness has caused all this evil to fall upon you, and brought the day of tribulation near at hand, so let goodness be your sole comfort, that your souls may find perpetual rest with Your blessed Saviour, Who died for the sins of the world; He will wipe all tears from your eyes, remove your sorrows, and assuage your grief, so that your sin-sick souls shall be healed for evermore. I exhort you earnestly not to be negligent of the work of Your salvation, which depends upon your sincere devotion betwixt this and to-morrow, when the sword of justice shall send you out of the land of the living. Fight the good fight of faith, and lay hold of eternal life whilst you may, for there is no repentance in the grave. Ye have pierced yourselves through with many sorrows, but a few hours will bring you to a place where you will know nothing but joy and gladness. Love righteousness, and hate iniquity, then God, even your God, will anoint you with the oil of gladness, above your fellows. Go now boldly to the throne of grace, that ye may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. The God of peace sanctify you wholly, and I pray God your whole spirits, and souls, and bodies may be preserved blameless unto the meeting of your blessed Redeemer. The Lord have mercy upon you; Christ have mercy upon you! Sweet Jesus receive your souls; and to-morrow may you sup with Him in Paradise."
To all which the spectators cry "Amen."
Next day, on which they are to die, the bell in the steeple is to toll for them, and under St Sepulchre's churchyard wall, the cart or carts stopping, the aforesaid man, after ringing his hand-bell again from over the wall, repeats again some religious exhortations to the prisoners, which are as follows: —-
SAID BY THE BELLMAN OVER ST SEPULCHRE'S CHURCH WALL
"Gentlemen, consider now you are going out of this world into another, where you will live in happiness or woe for evermore. Make your peace with God Almighty, and let your whole thoughts be entirely bent upon your latter end. Cursed is he that hangeth on a tree; but it is hoped the fatal tie will bring your precious souls to a union with the great Creator of heaven and earth, to Whom I recommend your souls in this your final hour of distress. Lord have mercy upon you; Christ look down upon you, and comfort you. Sweet Jesus receive your souls this day into eternal life. Amen."
I thought inserting these particulars would not be unacceptable to the candid reader, since the three persons above mentioned were the first to whom these exhortations and warnings were given.
And thus ended the life of our adventurer, Thomas Witherington.
* This spell is still preserved in the church, hanging in a glass case on the north side.