A READER has asked if I can provide information about Nicholas the Egton Bridge martyr whose rally was held on July 7 at Ugthorpe, near Whitby.

The answer was that Nicholas Postgate was a Catholic priest during the Penal Times, a period of more than 200 years when the historic Catholic faith of England was suppressed and outlawed in its own country.

To practice as a Catholic priest was classed as treason by an Elizabethan law passed in 1585 (27 Elizabeth 1.2), said to be the most harsh of the many penal laws.

The Nicholas Postgate story begins at Egton Bridge, a tiny village deep in the North York Moors beside the River Esk. Records of his young life are inconclusive, but he was born around 1599-1600 in Kirkdale House which stood close to the new bridge which spans the Esk; his father was James and his mother Margaret, nee Watson.

It seems the youthful Nicholas was a happy-go-lucky lad but, because his faith was under constant attack, he taunted the authorities by joining a group of travelling players who mocked religious suppression in verse, song and dance.

In January, 1616, a Nicholas Postgate, then described as a 13-year-old labourer from Egton, was fined ten shillings at Helmsley Quarter

Sessions for his antics, but whether this is the same Nicholas is doubtful. What is certain, however, is that on July 4, 1621, he joined the English College at Douai, France, to train as a priest, in full knowledge of the penalties he might incur.

All Douai students used aliases so that their families in England would not be penalised and Postgate used the name Whitmore (probably based on Whitemoor, the opposite of the Blackamoor above his home). He later used his mother's maiden name of Watson.

Some six years later, Nicholas passed his exams and, on March 20, 1628, he was ordained as a priest. It was almost time to return to the English Mission where priests had to work in secret because they were hunted down and condemned as traitors.

In England, there was a highly sophisticated network of supporters, including the gentry in their huge country houses. Because they were liable to have their estates confiscated and suffer huge fines for not attending Church of England services, many estate owners openly conformed to the new state religion while secretly remaining Catholics - they had hiding places called priest-holes built into their properties and made use

of secret chapels.

Many "employed" priests as gardeners, a useful disguise, and it is largely due to their actions that the faith survived in this country. Upon his return to England, Father Postgate was to benefit

from the actions of such people.

Although many homecoming priests landed on the south coast, those destined for the north were brought ashore near Whitby; on the feast of Sts

Peter and Paul, June 29, 1630, Father Postgate landed there, and a safehouse awaited.

It is not certain whether he called at Egton Bridge, but he made his way, on foot, to Saxton Hall, near Tadcaster, where he became chaplain to Lady Hungate and this was the beginning of a long ministry over a huge area of Yorkshire, from Bradford and Halifax to Hull; from Ripon to

Richmond, to York, East Yorkshire and Pickering - he was the last Catholic priest to say mass in Pickering in the penal times - and finally, during

the 1660s, he returned to his home patch in the North York Moors.

He was renowned for his humanity, his simple faith, his care of the poor and his holiness, becoming a friend of Catholic and Protestant alike,

and for the next 20 years he walked the moors and Eskdale, living in a humble home now called The Hermitage at Ugthorpe.

It is said he planted the daffodils which flourish in the Esk valley but, throughout his work, he

was at constant risk from the authorities.

Although anti-Catholic feeling had subsided a good deal, it flared up again due to the fake Popish Plot of 1678; this followed a false testimony from Titus Oates in which he claimed there was a conspiracy to instal a Catholic king, and he managed to ferment a renewed and fierce persecution of English Catholics.

It was to be the last time that Catholics were put to death in England for their faith; one of the last victims - but not the very last - was Nicholas Postgate.

During the panic engineered by Oates, a prominent Protestant magistrate in London, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, was murdered and Oates loudly blamed the Catholics; Sir Edmund's manservant, John Reeves, set out to get his revenge. For reasons which are not clear, he decided to base his actions in the Whitby area, possibly because he knew that priests arrived there from France.

He discovered that Father Postgate was to baptise the child of Matthew Lyth at Redbarns Farm, Ugglebarnby, near Whitby. Reeves, with a

colleague called William Cockerill, raided the house during the ceremony and caught the priest, then aged 82. He was taken to Brompton near

Scarborough, where the local magistrate, Sir William Cayley, heard depositions from Reeves and other witnesses, and committed Father Postgate

for trial at York.

Reeves was paid for this information - some say 30 pieces of silver - but he later committed suicide in Littlebeck, near Sleights, and Father Postgate faced trial for treason at York.

Between December 1678 and March 1679, he was locked in York Castle where he wrote a hymn, still sung at Egton Bridge and elsewhere. The trial was something of a sham in which the judge appeared to want the prisoner freed through lack of evidence, but the priest was convicted by the jury, chiefly through the evidence of one of his own converts, a woman who testified against him.

Between July and August that year, judges of assize toured the country to impose the penalty for treason upon other Catholic priests but, on August 7, 1679, Father Postgate, a priest for 51 years, was strapped to a wooden sledge and dragged through the streets of York via Micklegate Bar to the Knavesmire.

Catholics and Protestants accompanied the sledge, all mourning his fate, but in his final speech, Father Postgate said, "I die not for the plot, but for my faith", and forgave those who had wronged him. He was hanged, disembowelled and quartered, and his remains were taken away by his friends - Catholic and Protestant - for burial. His grave is unknown but the crucifix he wore at his death is now in Ampleforth Abbey.

Updated: 09:36 Wednesday, July 24, 2002