Feisty Alice

The story below comes from Nick Corble’s book on James Brindley which I featured a couple of days ago. This story is about Alice Bowman (née Stubbs) who was James’ grandmother and my wife’s 8 greats grandmother. Alice lived from 1630 to 1690. The events below took place at the church in Leek in Staffordshire and explain why we refer to Alice as ‘Feisty Alice’. It’s a tale of religious intolerance on two sides which resulted in the death of a child.

–000–

The Reverend Rhodes turns to his flock, raises the host and makes to speak. The next voice everyone hears is not his, however, but that of a young woman, dressed all in black, who has risen from the floor in the centre of the church. A hat hides her hair and her plain long skirt scrapes the floor. The Reverend Rhodes casts his face up to the beautifully crafted ceiling of the nave in frustration. His eyes briefly take in the magnificence of its ornately carved wooden roses sitting at the intersection of solid oak beams, which in turn rest on plain white corbels.

The woman’s name is Alice Bowman and she is a known troublemaker. Some know her better as a dissenter. Before that moment few had noticed her, she rarely if ever went to church. The fact that she was there at all should have been enough to signal trouble. Sighs fill the air as she stands and points her finger round the congregation.

‘Reject these mere symbols of faith!’ she proclaims, her voice strong and absent of doubt. ‘Reveal thy inner Christ!’

A few frustrated murmurings echo around the main body of the church. The service is long enough without interruptions, there’s much to be done at home, day of rest or not. The Reverend, shaken out of his reverie, begins to recover, but not fast enough. A few of the congregation start to rise. The Reverend pauses.

‘Reject this finery and ceremony’, Alice continues, gaining yet more confidence despite the gathering menace. ‘Ye have no need of priests and robes!’

This last pronouncement is, it seems, the final straw for the party advancing towards her, although in truth Alice’s fate had probably been sealed the moment she’d stood up. A deep cry goes up, one tinged with anger and venom.

‘Grab her!’

Despite the priest’s half-hearted protestations half a dozen of the larger members of his flock descend upon Alice and lift her from the ground, two on each thrashing leg and one on each arm. A cheer goes up, destroying the atmosphere of peace and due reverence that had pervaded the church less than a minute before.

There is a loud wooden thump as the door is pulled open and crashes on its jamb. Alice continues to declaim her beliefs, but her voice has become more distant. She is pushed face downwards into the soft, drying mud outside. It is only when her infant son, left behind in the melee and stranded on a small knitted rug on the floor, starts to cry that people realise that she had not come alone.

The Bowmans were not exempt from punishment for challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. Three years before Alice’s outburst at St Edward’s her husband Henry had spent a year and seven months in jail for refusing to pay tithes. Quakers believed that no man had a prior call on another. Alice’s ejection cost her a spell in the local House of Correction and it cost her infant son Matthew, still suckling his mother, his life – prison being no place for an infant. No price, it would seem, was too high for her principles.

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