Topcliffe, his horse, and Wiseman’s holy water miracle

A story from # nuntastic archives, and a hilarious miracle

From the notice on Mother Mary Wiseman’s parentage, we learn that her mother, Jane Wiseman (née Vaughan), had been active in relieving priests, and was taken into custody by the dreaded Richard Topcliffe in 1598. Since she refused to plead and would not be tried by a jury, she was therefore sentenced to death by the peine forte et dure, or, being pressed to death. This was the same sentence that was passed upon Margaret Clitherow in York in 1586. She was to be laid down on the ground, a sharp wedge placed beneath her back, and her arms in the shape of a cross. A great door would then be placed on top of her body and great weights put upon her, one by one, breaking her ribs and crushing her to death slowly. Jane Wiseman was apparently not frightened at the prospect of such a slow and painful death, but is reported to have ‘exulted with joy’ and exclaimed: ‘Now, blessed be God, that I shall die with my arms a cross as my Lord Jesus’.

However, her son and friends did manage to obtain Elizabeth I’s grace, and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and the forfeiture of all her estates. During her long months in prison, Topcliffe repeatedly found ways to harass her. For a while, she was to share a cell with an old witch, and the chronicler notes that the necromancer never managed to practise her ‘art of magic ‘ in the presence of Jane Wiseman, but had to take herself to another place in order to perform her rituals (it appears her services were in great demand even inside the jail). But Jane Wiseman was soon to be called a witch herself, and by none other than Topcliffe.

Here is a lovely tale of ‘a miraculous thing … a wonderful thing to see’: one day, as Jane Wiseman saw the infamous torturer riding his horse just under her window on his way to the Queen, she thought ‘it would not be amiss to wash him with holy water’. She therefore grabbed her personal bottle and threw its content upon him and his horse as he passed. The next passage is delicious: ‘no sooner had the holy water touched the horse, but presently it seems he could not endure his rider’. Oddly enough, upon being drenched in water without any warning, the horse began to kick and rear until his rider was flung to the ground. Looking up, Richard Topcliffe spotted Wiseman at her window, and called her an old witch, who had charmed his horse into dismounting him. Wiseman simply laughed ‘to see that holy water had given him so fine a fall’. Miracles come in all sorts of guises.

From Hamilton, Adam (ed.), The Chronicle of the English Augustinian Canonesses Regular of the Lateran at St. Monica’s in Louvain. Now at St. Augustine’s Priory, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1548 to 1625, 2 vols., Edinburgh and London: Sands & Co., 1904. Vol. 1, pp. 82-84.