A good death?
On 14 July 1637 the people of Northampton were confronted with an extraordinary sight. A man and two women were about to be executed. Perched atop the scaffold, the man cried out to the crowd that ‘you know (I think there is none ignorant) that two things hath brought me here: adultery and murder. And for the first of the two I confess myself exceedingly faulty.’ The murder involved was an infanticide, but what made the situation remarkable was not merely that a man was being executed for that, but that the man involved was a puritan minister, John Barker, vicar of Pytchley, and the two women were his maidservant, Ursula and his kinswoman, his wife's niece, Beatrice. Barker was accused of having fathered the child with Beatrice and all three of having made away with it. Barker pled guilty to the first crime but not to the second.
Executions, of course, attracted crowds and provided ministers, many of them puritan, with opportunities to display their evangelical skills in converting the felons involved to a true repentance and perhaps even to a saving faith. Here, however, the tables were turned. Since the felon himself was a puritan minister, the obvious take-home message was anything but the normal, even anodyne, one about the evangelical power and the saving efficacy of a certain style of puritan religion. On the contrary, here was proof positive of the, by now extremely common, anti-puritan stereotype of the godly minister as pharisaical hypocrite.
As we might expect, both the trial and the execution attracted large crowds. According to one observer, with an experience of such occasions that stretched back over some twenty-seven years, he had never seen ‘the town so full before. They came from all quarters almost and which made me wonder most was the abundance of the clergy that were there.’ But if the trial day drew a crowd, the execution drew even more people. ‘The leading through the east gate and Abington Heath’ was described as being ‘filled with people’. Later in the same account Beatrice's speech from the scaffold was described as falling upon a crowd whose ‘three or four thousand ears stood ready to catch it up ere it fell to the ground’ which, allotting two ears to each hearer, gives us a crowd of between 1,500 and 2,000.