The Devil’s Bargain, Kirklees Priory

In 1872 an poet-cum-antiquary named Stephen Fawcett published a collection of lays called “Bradford Legends”. The style is typical of provincial poesy in the Late Romantic period and rather cloying to modern tastes; however, his contemporaries were more easily impressed and one fellow antiquary refers to Fawcett as “a local poet of considerable power”. The authenticity of the stories he versifies are debatable: although the ballads are clearly his own literary creation, many purport to record genuine folk-narrative from the region. Some of these—such as the Boar of Bradford or Pity Poor Bradford—are familiar from earlier sources and thereby independently verified; many others are unique and have no analogue in surviving sources. As such, it is difficult to affirm their provenance: were they once widely-told local legends which only Fawcett ever documented; or were they entirely a poet’s antiquarian fancy?

Thus, with regard to this tradition connected to Kirklees Priory related by Mr. Fawcett, it is best to remain in that state which John Keats called “negative capability… when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. It is not clear whether the narrative had any currency outside Fawcett’s imagination, but let us tentatively accept the possibility that it was a story still told by locals about the legendary history of Kirklees Priory in the 19th Century. It certainly displays many of the hallmarks of an authentic folk-narrative and whilst there was little to be seen of the ruins at Kirkless Priory following its dissolution, its former presence loomed large in the local psyche thanks to the legend of Robin Hood’s death—not to mention the fact that the site’s ecclesiastic history was preserved in the very name “Kirklees”.

The legend starts with a man called John awaiting the witching hour in the priory-church at Kirklees, whereupon he intends to strike a wager with Old Nick himself. Curiously Fawcett refers to the protagonist as “Prior John”, which is problematic because Kirklees was a nunnery rather than a monastery—however it is possible that this detail would’ve been unfamiliar to many locals and nunneries did have their own priest to perform the sacraments from which women were debarred. Fawcett’s account is not especially clear about why Prior John wishes to bargain with the Devil: there is no suggestion that his soul is otherwise imperilled; nor is there initially anything that the priest hopes to win through the deal. Although Prior John subsequently offers his immortal soul as his stake in the tournament, no reason is given why either party should have agreed to the contest in the first place: it is portrayed merely as a testament to John’s holiness.

In typically imperious fashion, Satan himself selects the modes of the duel; and in typically unsporting fashion, he chooses three “weapons” he himself invented: “tippling”, gambling and fighting. John promises that if he loses, then his opponent may claim his soul; however, if the Devil loses, he must release fifty souls from Purgatory. Fawcett claims that during their contest, “the corpse-lights burned red, white and blue; and the abbey’s ghosts gathered, the black game to view”. But despite the fact that Beelzebub had thought to give himself an unfair advantage by insisting upon games of his own invention, Prior John bests him in every one—including the drinking contest, for which the pair booze on malt liquor for seven whole hours and the priest still manages to drink the Devil under the table. Indeed, this finishes Old Nick off and in the throes of his hangover yields the fifty souls to Prior John.

However, Prior John is not done with the fiend and extracts a further guarantee that henceforth all monks will be adept at these three varieties of the Devil’s sport. John then proceeds to explain to his bested opponent, that the only reason a priest such as himself prevailed on this occasion was because he’d surreptitiously greased his hands with holy-water before the games began. In this respect, the story of Prior John’s deal with the Devil at Kirklees is typical of that sub-genre of migratory legends in which the old adversary is outwitted by a pious human. The fact that the story conforms to a common folktale model suggests that, whilst Fawcett may have added some poetic embellishments—such as the abbey ghosts gathering to watch—it is probable that the narrative was a genuine local legend connected with Kirklees at the time. It is simply surprising that it has not been more widely reported.

Published in: on April 1, 2014 at 10:16  Leave a Comment  
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