Nick Burton, a member of the volunteer research team, tells us about a Radical experience for the volunteers in Heptonstall…
On Saturday 2nd March, a group of Pendle Radicals volunteers ventured out on a stormy night over the border to Pennine Yorkshire. It was as if the weather was stage managed, since the evening was to be spent watching a play where there was an actual storm brewing. This was a political and human storm in the shape of the English Civil War. Huddled in an atmospherically lit, draughty hilltop church we were treated to a dramatic retelling of The Battle of Heptonstall, an event that tore the West Riding village asunder in the autumn of 1643.
The Battle of Heptonstall is a community play written by Michael Crowley. It took six months to produce and involved local people at every stage and in every way, even forming their own theatre company with the name ‘The Brutish Multitude’. This name was apt, not just for the turbulent age of the 17th century but for the uncertain political times we are experiencing today. How very intriguing that the funding for the production came from Art50, a Sky Arts project that, in the wake of Article 50 being invoked, asked 50 artists to respond to the question of ‘who we British are as a people and a nation’.
The story unfolded over two acts and showed how a Civil War skirmish between Royalist forces from Halifax and Roundhead forces from Rochdale played out on a hillside above the small isolated weaving and farming community of Heptonstall. The story was based on real accounts, with the battle and the events leading up to it placed in the domestic situation facing the fictional Cockcroft family. John Cockcroft is a struggling weaver forced to billet a parliamentary sergeant in his own house and struggling to stop his own teenage son joining the fight. The son is largely doing this to impress his young sweetheart, herself caught up in the machinations of a Royalist spy.
The play worked as a domestic drama set against the backdrop of war. As much as John Cockcroft wanted to ignore the pending battle he could not. Here was a hardworking honest man whose chief loyalty was to his family rather than King or Parliament. There is an obvious connection with Pendle Radicals here. Many of our heroes faced the day to day struggle of working class existence but were caught up in causes linked to greater national and international struggles.
As well as being well acted and researched, it was both the music and the setting that were the key to evoking the atmosphere of the mid-17th century period in this Pennine community. A rich seam of traditional folk and pastoral tunes ran throughout the play including music by Thomas Tallis and a Christopher Marlowe poem. Songs were sung by the cast, who presumably were not professional singers, which gave an authentic feel as the same ballads would have been sung by the weavers, farmhands, soldiers and common folk of the 1640’s.
The venue for the play was St. Thomas the Apostle Church, the parish church which for centuries in its old and new forms, has been at the heart of the village community. The audience sat in the pews with the play being performed in front of the altar. Dimly lit and with a high vaulted roof, the church echoed to the beat of the war drums and spies and generals emerged from the dark shadows of stone columns.
Intriguingly the scattered graves spread wide around the church include the American poet, Sylvia Plath, and Heptonstall’s very own Pennine Radical, ‘King’ David Hartley. He was the ringleader of the ‘Cragg Vale Coiners’, who in the 18th century ran a counterfeit coin racket in the valley around Hebden Bridge to supplement meagre weaving and farming incomes. Hartley was arrested and hung at York, his grave now to be found in the old graveyard of Heptonstall parish church.
The production of The Battle of Heptonstall was also an effective piece of community theatre due to its modern-day relevance. As part of the Art50 Brexit related initiative, it held up a mirror and reflected our own divided society. Villagers like John Cockcroft were reluctantly forced to choose a side – King or Parliament. The rhetoric and battle cries of both opposing sides were cleverly voiced in the play from the side-lines. The characters of Sir Francis Mackworth and Colonel Bradshaw were both represented in the play highlighting the opposing ideologies of Cavalier and Roundhead. In a nice twist, both the military commanders were played by women.
The production certainly set the bar high. Pendle Radicals volunteers can be enthused and spurred on by this. Like the Yorkshire side of the Pennines, we also have the true stories, the historical accounts, the ballads and songs, as well as the evocative and atmospheric settings that can be used to bring our radicals to dramatic life. It shows also that in any drama production the music and location can play a major role. Perhaps the village hall or community centre is not always the most effective place to tell a story.
Read more about the project on the Art50 website.