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Heartbeat author writes testament to the ‘Martyr of the Moors’
1:08pm Saturday 23rd June 2012 in Books
Heartbeat author Nicholas Rhea has turned historian for his latest book – a testament to the life of Father Nicholas Postgate, the ‘Martyr of the Moors’. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
AS a boy growing up 70 years ago in the village of Egton Bridge, high up on the North York Moors, Peter Walker was entranced by tales of a mysterious priest and Catholic martyr who had roamed those same moors 300 years earlier.
That man was Father Nicholas Postgate – otherwise known as the Blessed Father Nicholas, Martyr of the Moors.
Peter, a practising Catholic, felt an affinity to Father Nicholas, because the priest was reputed to have been born at Kirkdale Banks just a few hundreds yards from where Peter was born in 1936. Father Nicholas also shared Peter’s love of the moors and their people.
Years later, after a career as a policeman, Peter was to pour that love into the Constable books he wrote under the pen-name Nicholas Rhea – books which were turned into the popular Heartbeat TV series.
Father Nicholas demonstrated a similar devotion to the bleak yet beautiful landscape and its people. After travelling to Douai in the Netherlands to study for the Catholic priesthood, he returned to these shores to serve as chaplain in a series of great country houses.
Then at the age of 60, he returned to the moors of his childhood.
“I think he loved the moors, and the smell of the heather, and I rather think he came back here to retire or die,” Peter says.
Instead, Father Nicholas spent the next 17 years tramping the wilds of his remote parish of Blackamoor, celebrating mass, sharing his food and clothes, offering spiritual and practical help, and bringing the word of God to his lonely parishioners.
It was a dangerous time to be a Catholic priest, as Peter writes in his new book, Blessed Nicholas Postgate: Martyr Of The Moors.
Anti-Catholic feeling had subsided since the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. But in 1678 it flared up again as a result of the so-called ‘Popish Plot’, which claimed there was a conspiracy to install a Catholic king.
That prompted renewed persecution of Catholics. In London, a magistrate – Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey – was murdered, and his death blamed on Catholic conspirators. Sir Edmund’s manservant, John Reeves, was determined on revenge. He came north to hunt for Catholics – with, for some reason, the saintly Father Nicholas in his sights.
At school, the young Peter learned of the exploits of the ‘martyr of the moors’, and how he dodged his persecutors, holding mass in secret in farms and buildings across his parish. He was particularly upset by the injustice of Father Nicholas’ fate.
Eventually apprehended by Reeves, Father Nicholas was taken to York for trial for being a ‘popish priest’. A number of witnesses gave evidence against him, including Elizabeth Baxter, a spinster of 30 who testified she had heard him say Mass several times, and that he had given her Holy Communion.
Father Nicholas was held in York Castle until the Assizes of March, 1679. There, at York’s Guildhall, he was found guilty of treason for being a “priest of Rome trained overseas”, as Peter puts it.
Father Nicholas was hanged at Knavesmire on August 7, 1679. By the time the sledge carrying him from the castle to Knavesmnire approached its destination, it was being “followed by hundreds of people, many silent, some saying their prayers and reciting the rosary,” Peter writes.
So moved was the young Peter by the injustice done to Father Nicholas that the first book he ever wrote was a novel about the priest. That book was never published. “It was very, very bad,” Peter says.
This time, under his usual pen-name Nicholas Rhea, he has written a history of his childhood hero. Not a great deal is known about Father Nicholas’s childhood. But there are gripping accounts in Peter’s book of his life as priest on the moors; and of his arrest, trial and execution.
Above all, this book is a loving tribute to the man.
Peter puts forward a fascinating theory about the connection between his Catholic priest, and the so-called ‘witch posts’ found in old buildings on the moors, and almost nowhere else.
These posts, with their carved crosses and ‘scrolls’, were signs carved by Father Nicholas himself, he believes, to let local Catholics know which houses were safe places to hold Mass.
If true, Father Nicholas left not only a spiritual legacy. He made his mark in a very physical fashion on the moors themselves as well.
• Blessed Nicholas Postgate: Martyr Of The Moors by Nicholas Rhea is published by Gracewing, priced £12.99.