A sketch about the early Quakers
THERE ARE NO RULES
A tale of non-conformist folk
by Keith Beasley
The village of Nether Heyford (Northamptonshire) in around 1660.
The Rev- the local Protestant priest
The Captain - of the local Militia, a supporter of General Monck
Thomas Arnold - a well known local non-conformist
Emily Arnold - Thomas's wife
. . and other villagers
A cottage in Lower Heyforde - represented by a few chairs on which the Arnolds, Farmer Adams and villagers are sat. This is their regular prayer meeting.
Musicians are set to one side - or within the above group. The Narrator sits or stands at a focal point. The action takes places ‘in the round’ - i.e. so that the audience becomes part of this meeting - so minimal set.
[Musicians play Monck’s March]
[Lights focus on Narrator]
Nar This 'ere River Nene certainly brings out a special something in people. The Spirit of the Valley, it seems, encourages the free-thinkers of the area to fight for their beliefs! Our story tonight begins in or around 1663 when George Fox, then unknown, first visited the county. A few years later his ideas are spreading, particularly amongst those villagers who feel oppressed by the church and its demands for tithes. They also like to celebrate their faith in their own way:
[Focus on main set]
[SING ‘He who would valiant be’ or similar hymn/song]
Thomas Thank thee, friends. There is naught like the power of song to feel our faith within us. But there is another way [Reaction from the rest]. Silence!
Farmer Adams I suppose that'd be better than some of the dirges we hear from the church!
Thomas Ah yes indeed! But it's more than that! Thou knowest that we've been hearing about this fellow from up Leicester way
Emily Oh, him in the leather breeches!? [All but Thomas laugh]
Thomas Yes, George Fox. What an inspiration! I joined with brother Edmund from Flore and friend Arthur from Bugbrooke the day before yester to hear him speak . . . in Northampton town. He'd quite a crowd gathered around him in the square. And I can see why!
Emily Come on Tom, tell us all about him. We certainly don't get much support from the preacher here [general mumbles] . . . and as for that Captain [louder grumbles]
Thomas We'll need to watch him - he reports to that General Monck
Adams Nasty Piece of work - both of 'em. I 'erd over at Dodford that old Hem had been put in Gaol 'cos he wouldn't pay is tithe.
Emily But he hasn't enough land to feed all his nippers, let alone give some away.
Thomas George Fox says we should stand up to them, that the Lord is on our side. He will support is, is in us. Some of these priests have got it all wrong.
[General hub-hub, noisy discussion and grumbling amongst group. Thomas gives a loud Shush, then when that doesn't have any effect, a louder on . . the other stop and look at him]
Thomas The other thing George Fox says is to stop arguing amongst ourselves . . . it's no good moaning and groaning. If we want to change things we've got to fight for what's right. WE know what we ask for is fair . . that's enough! Just say so, then be quiet!
Adams Silence!? There's some folks I wish would shut up, always telling us what to do and what not to do. We live by the seasons not by some big book! Through the rats and crows, we give our fair share back to Mother Earth. Why shouldst we have to give one tenth to the old vicar? [General agreement]
[Focus shifts to outside where Rev is talking to Captain - they’ve just walked in]
Rev I can't understand it. They say this George Fox always carries a bible with him, knows it word for word . . . yet is quite prepared to burn it!
Capt You can't trust these dissenters. My General Monck has given strict instructions to round them up and throw them in jail.
Rev Then I can tell you who to start with!
Capt [taking out his cuffs and jangling them gleefully] Who's that? Let's go get 'im!
Rev Thomas Arnold . . [They walk a bit] . . just here. It's months since he paid his tithe and he mutters all sorts of strange things when we pass in the street.
[They reach the ‘cottage’ and knock on the ‘door’. Emily answers it and beckons them in]
Capt Which one of you is Thomas Arnold [he stands to identify himself]. Pay what you owe to the priest here or you're coming with me. Now.
[Thomas calmly, but with authority, shrugs him off]
Rev [sneering] So you've got nothing you want to say to your cohorts before we take you away then?
Thomas Since thou askst, thank thee, I wilst
[Thomas turns to his friends and sings 'Old Leather Breeches' - they join in chorus. He taunts Capt and Rev with the words, dismissively.]
[During last chorus the Captain chains Thomas’s hands together and hustles him out. Thomas remains calm and defiant. Emily goes to him in distress but is reassured by Thomas. As Thomas, Capt and Rev leave the cottage and head off stage, the dialogue continues]
Capt There you are Reverent, you won't be getting no more trouble out of them. Lock up their leaders and they're nothing.
Rev I'm afraid I can't be so sure. That's the trouble with this lot, the more you try to tie them down, the more determined they become. I dunno friend. I can't help thinking that times they are a changing.
Capt Not whilst I'm around they won't! Come on, lets go and celebrate over an ale at The Foresters [or Bricklayers or wherever!]
[They exit. Lights to Narrator]
Nar Thomas Arnold was imprisoned and died after a year and a half, on the first day of the second month, 1664. The priest, not content with his life, a few months later sent Thomas’s wife to gaol because she could not pay tithes. [Pause] But let's go back to that night . . . and the non dissenters . . . who continued their meeting in the cottage in the village:
[Focus back to the room]
Adams What was it our Thomas was a saying about the power o' silence?
Emily Truth is beyond words. Written and spoken beliefs get in the way. Let's just reflect on our Tom and on George Fox . . . on their faith, their inner strength and courage.
[Pray for a minute or two]
Adams Hey! It's a bit like this old River Nene, ain't it!? [Others look blank]. It just keeps on flowing, no matter what! [They nod and smile and enter a peaceful silence]
[Pause for reflection. Focus shifts from group to Narrator]
Nar And so the fight for freedom continued, despite many early Quakers, in the Nene Valley as elsewhere, being locked up, even dying in jail, the movement gathered strength. Quakerism is said to have started in 1652 when George Fox spoke to a 1000 people on Firbank Fell . . . in 1668 Friends Meetings were established in both Flore and Bugbrooke. As a result of such activity, in 1689 the Toleration Act was passed, allowing all denominations freedom to practice their faith in their own way. To Thyself Be True. But the times of George Fox and General Monck lives on today in many a fight for freedom . . and in song and dance. As the Morris band started this story with a tune called Monck's March, so the Heyford Morris Men conclude this tale with a dance to the same tune.
With thanks to Ruth Whitehouse and her book 'The Quaker Meeting Houses of Northamptonshire' (ISBN 0 9530713 0 8) - from which the story of Thomas Arnold was determined.
Also useful was the ‘Journal of George Fox’ available from the UK Quaker web site.
The success of the original performances is thanks largely to Richard Conlon of New Perspectives Theatre Company, Roger Sims (SoV Project Coordinator) and members of the Heyford Players and Heyford Morris.
1. This sketch was first performed by The Heyford Players on 17th and 24th Feb 2001 as part of the ‘Spirit of the Valley in South Northamptonshire’ show. The venues were village halls of the following settlements in the Upper Nene Valley: Harpole, Nether Heyford, Flore & Bugbrooke. Such small intimate settings were found ideal.
2. This script may be used by other amateur groups, but please acknowledge the author and let him know! Do attend a Friends meeting and research the Quakers before staging this sketch . . . you (and the audience) will get far more out of it!
3. If you find similar events happened in your area (which is quite likely!) feel free to change the names of the characters to those of local dissenters. Likewise the name of the River, villages and pub!
4. The song ‘Old Leather Breeches’ can be found in the Quakers song book. ‘He who would valiant be’ was chosen as an appropriate hymn with both words and tunes having links to these times.
5. ‘Monck’s March’ is the tune to ‘Old Leather Breeches’, although the song and Morris Dance versions are a little different. The Morris Dance can be omitted, but if you have a local Morris side, why not ask them to be part of the production!? If they don’t know the dance, tell them that it’s of the Sherbourne tradition and is in ‘The Black Book’!