The name of this wretched maniac will long be remembered from the circumstance of the object of his offence being that of burning down that venerable monument of antiquity -- York Minster; an effort in which, happily, he only partially succeeded.
The fire was discovered in a most remarkable manner. On the evening of Sunday the 1st of February, 1829, one of the choristers, a lad named Swainbank, was passing through the Minster-yard, when, setting his foot on a piece of ice, he was thrown on his back, on the ground. Before he had time to rise, he perceived smoke proceeding from the building before him. He at once gave the alarm, and assistance was immediately procured; but it was not until the choir, with its magnificent organ and its beautiful roof, had been totally destroyed, that the flames could be conquered. At first this national catastrophe was supposed to have been the result of accident; but the discovery of one of the bell-pulls, knotted so as to form a species of ladder, suspended from one of the windows of the building, and of evidence of a light having been seen moving about in the belfry after all the officers of the Minster had retired, on the night of the fire, led to a conclusion that it was the work of an incendiary. This belief was on the following week strengthened by the apprehension of a person named Jonathan Martin, at Leeds, with some portion of the velvet from the reading-desk in his possession. He was examined before the magistrates, and at once confessed that he had set fire to the building in obedience to the will of the Lord communicated to him in two remarkable dreams. He was committed to York Castle for trial, and it turned out that he had been already twice in confinement as a madman, and that he had prophesied the destruction of the Minster.
On Monday, the 30th of March, he took his trial at the York assizes, and was found by the jury to have been of unsound mind at the time of his committing the offence charged against him.
The following extracts from his defence at once showed that he was a religious enthusiast:--
When called upon for his defence, he proceeded to say, in a Northern dialect and with great energy -- "Well, sir, the first impression that I had about it was from a dream. And after I had written five letters to these clergy, the last of which I believe was a very severe one, and all of which I dated from my lodgings at No.90, Aldwick, I was very anxious to speak to them by word of mouth; but none of them would come near me. So I prayed to the Lord, and asked him what was to be done. And I dreamed that I saw a cloud come over the cathedral -- and it tolled towards me at my lodgings; it awoke me out of my sleep, and I asked the Lord what it meant; and he told me it was to warn these clergymen of England, who were going to plays, and cards, and such like: and the Lord told me he had chosen me to warn them, and reminded me of the prophecies -- that there should in the latter days be signs in the heavens. I felt so impressed with it, that I found the Lord had destined me to show those people the way to flee from the wrath to come. Then I bethought me that I could not do that job without being out all night, and I considered whether I should let my wife know. I got everything ready, and I took the ring from my wife's finger, and talked to her about what I have mentioned -- and I told her what I meant to do: she grieved very much, and I had work to get off. I still staid a few days, but I could get no rest whatever until I had accomplished the work. It was a severe contest between flesh and blood -- and then I bethought me what would come of her and my son Richard, who I had at Lincoln, Then the Lord said unto me, 'What thou does, do with all thy might.' I tore from her and said, 'Well, well, Lord -- Not my will but Thine be done.' I then left Leeds, taking twenty of my books with me; but I had no money, and went into Tadcaster; there I got a gill of ale. [He then proceeded to state the manner in which he travelled and supported himself to York.] On Sunday (February 1st) I went to the cathedral service, and it vexed me to hear them singing their prayers and amens. I knew it did not come from the heart, it was deceiving the people. Then there was the organ, buz! huz! and said I to mysen, I'll hae thee down to-night, thou shot buz no more! well, they were all going out, and I lay me down by't side of the Bishop's round by the pillar. [The prisoner concealed himself behind a tomb, between which and the wall there was a space that more than one person might lie down in.] I thought I heard the people coming down from the bells; they all went out, and then it was so dark that I could not see my hand. Well, I left this Bishop, and came out and fell upon my knees, and asked the Lord what I was to do first; and he said. Get thy way up the bell-loft; I had never been there, and I went round and round; I had a sort of guess of the place from hearing the men as I thought come down; I then struck a light with a flint and a razor that I had got, and some tinder that I had brought from my landlord's. I saw there were plenty of ropes -- then I cut one, and then another; but I had no idea they were so long, and I kept draw, draw, and the rope came up. I dare say I had hundred feet. Well, thought I to myself, this will make a man-rope, a sort of scaling rope, and I tied knots in it. Ay, that's it, I know it well enough (pointing to the rope which lay upon the table). So I went down to the body of the cathedral, and bethought me how I should get inside. I thought if I did so, by throwing the rope over the organ, I might set it ganging, and that would spoil the job. So I made an end of the rope fast, and went hand over-hand over the gates, and got down on the other side, and fell on my knees and prayed to the Lord -- and he told me, that do what I would, they would take me. Then I asked the Lord what I was to do with velvet, and he told me, and I thought it would do for my hairy jacket, that I have at Lincoln. I have a very good seal-skin one there. I wish I had it with me, that I might show it you. Then I got all ready. Glory to God, I never felt so happy; but I had a hard night's work of it, particularly with a hungered belly. Well, I got a bit of wax-candle, and I set fire to one heap, and with the matches I set fire to the other. I then tied up the things that the Lord had given me for my hire, in this very handkerchief that I have in my hand. [The prisoner then went on to describe his escape by means of the rope, nearly in the same terms as have been stated, and of his proceeding to Hexham; that on the road the coaches passed him, but he laid himself down, and was never seen.] While I was at Hexham (I think I had been there two days) I had been to pray with a poor woman, and the Hexham man came and tipped me on the shoulder." He concluded by saying, "I's tired, or I'd tell you more."
The unfortunate man was ordered to be detained during his Majesty's pleasure, and was afterwards conveyed to a lunatic asylum.
It appeared that this maniac was the brother of the painter, who, for his magnificent productions, has attained so much celebrity. Up to the time of this transaction, he had gained a precarious livelihood by hawking books; having been, however, as we have before stated, once or twice confined in a mad-house.
It is very remarkable that York Minster has repeatedly suffered from fire. Its origin may be dated from A.D. 626. In 741 it was dreadfully damaged by fire, and remained in that state till 767, when it was taken down, rebuilt, and completed, and was consecrated in 780. Thus it stood until 1069, when the Northumbrians, aided by the Danes, having besieged the city of York, the garrison set fire to several houses in the suburbs, which fire unfortunately extended further than they intended, and, amongst other buildings, burnt the Minster to the ground. In 1137, the same fire which burnt St. Mary's Abbey, St. Leonard's Hospital, thirty-nine churches in the city, and one in the suburbs, again destroyed the Minster; since which there had not been any damage done to it by fire, excepting two trifling occurrences, which have taken place through the neglect of the workmen, within the last sixty years, up to the time of Martin's mad attempt. In the present year (1840), it has again suffered severely from an accidental conflagration, which has destroyed nearly the whole of that portion of the ancient building which the former catastrophe had left standing.