This article tells the story of a 17th century Catholic priest who was pursued, arrested and executed for being at odds with the official religion of his day.
The arrest of Venerable John Woodcock
Posted by Josie Bolton
John Woodcock was born in 1603 at Woodcock Hall. His father conformed to save his estate which had been in the family for 400 years but his mother (born Anderton) kept firm to the Catholic faith. John would have known the Burgess family as they leased Lower Woodend from his relative John Anderton.
John became a Catholic in his late teens, which displeased his father so much ,that he went to live with his Anderton relatives until he was sent abroad to study for the priesthood. He became a Franciscan .He served in England for a time in 1640 and then returned to France but he was very keen to return to England to serve his people. He sailed to Newcastle and making his way from one safe house to the next, he eventually arrived at his family home in August 1644. This was at the height of the Civil War, and a dangerous time especially for Catholics, who mostly supported the Royalist cause.
When he arrived , he arranged to say Mass during the night of the feast of the Assumption(August 15th) on the Missionary Altar at Woodend for his relations, the Burgess family and neighbouring Catholics. But just as he had finished hearing confessions and was standing in his vestments waiting for the clock to strike twelve when he could start to say Mass, one of the neighbours came rushing in to beg all to disperse immediately, as the pursuivants were coming! Fr Woodcock immediately took off his vestments, closed up the altar and got into the priest’s hiding -hole, before the pursuivants arrived.
When they came up to the room, Mrs Burgess, who was sitting in her rocking chair, protested against their rude intrusion into a sick woman’s room at that time of night. But they said they had come with a warrant to apprehend a popish priest. She said “You will not find a man in my room at this time of night” They asked “What are all these people assembled here for, if it be not to meet this popish priest?” She answered “ They are some neighbours who have come to sit up with me”
I had quite forgotten. There is a hiding hole in that house.
They searched the farmhouse , but happily could find no trace of the hidden priest, and left disappointed. As soon as the pursuivants had gone, Fr Woodcock came out from his place of concealment and , the few Catholics in the immediate neighbourhood returning , he said Mass, gave them Holy Communion and then hastened away before daybreak to his father’s house nearby.
A second search
Early the next morning the traitor who had summoned the pursuivants, went back to them and said “I had quite forgotten. There is a hiding hole in that house, for I once went there courting the servant maid when the mistress was absent , but when she came back earlier than was expected
I was put into the hiding place. I think I can find it again, behind a certain panel.” The pursuivants returned with the traitor to the house at Woodend, and he went immediately to the hiding place and withdrew the panel, but found the place empty.
Mr Woodcock, hearing of this, was afraid if his son the priest was caught in the mansion he would lose his estate, and therefore gave his son his breakfast and ordered him out of the house as quickly as possible. Fr John had not got a mile away from Woodcock Hall, when the traitor and the pursuivants overtook him on Bamber Bridge, arrested him, and brought him before the magistrates who ordered them to convey him to Lancaster Castle.
The pursuivants were coming!
Grisly end, glorious legacy
There he was kept in prison for two years and was finally put to the cruel death of hanging drawing and quartering with two other priests Fr Edward Bamber and Fr Thomas Whitaker on August 7th 1646. Their deaths are recorded, with other martyrs, on a plaque in St Peter’s Cathedral, East Rd, Lancaster.
The vestments, which Blessed John Woodcock wore at his last mass, are much worn with age, but are preserved with the Burgess altar at Ladyewell.
Woodcock Hall survived until fairly recent times. There is a picture dated 1940 on Lancashire Lantern, number 838. I suspect the Hall was demolished to make way for the motorway link at Bamber Bridge.
The Burgess altar is still to be seen at Ladyewell, the Lancaster Diocesan Shrine of Our Lady and the Martyrs, Fernyhalgh Lane, Fulwood, Preston PR2 5ST
REFERENCES & FURTHER READING
Spoken memories of Edward Clarkson of Bolton le Sands 1984