Sutton and the Reverend Drax Free
Sutton is a beautiful little village in Bedfordshire.
Indeed, it has a population of just 299, or thereabouts. It has a medieval church, once had a castle, and has a single pub called 'The John O'Gaunt', which is known locally for its fantastic food. It pretty much straddles a single road that crosses Potton Brook through a picturesque ford. This road was allegedly a major route for the medieval wool trade as it linked the City of Bedford and the west to the rich ports of the east. This would explain the stunning medieval (13th century) packhorse bridge that crosses Potton Brook, and for which the village is now particularly famous. Picturesque and beautiful are understatements.
The village has also been home to some pretty famous residents for somewhere so small. John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster (and friend of Chaucer) held the manor in the 14th century. More recently, in 1722, it was the birthplace of General John Burgoyne - whose slow actions, and indeed surrender after two battles at Saratoga during the American War of Independence, were seen as turning points in favour of the American success. There were others too. Edward Bowles (the minister), Edward Stillingfleet (the theologian), and of course all those descended of the Burgoyne line -of which there were many. But I'm not going to talk about any of those.
I'm going to talk about the Reverend Drax Free.
You might say.
But in Sutton, he is the most important. A man as cuts a folkloric figure all of his own.
His name alone is enough to make him the character in a novel. Marvellous name, though in truth I have shortened it for effect as he was (in full) the Reverend Edward Drax Free. Still cool. And in Sutton, indeed in wider ecclesiastical circles, he is a figure of grave infamy. A terrible man. Quite awful. And Rector of the Parish of All Saints Church in Sutton for nigh on 22 years.
What did he do?
The man was debauched. Scandalous. Especially by 19th century standards!
Born in 1764 in Newington, Surrey, he went on to study at St John's College, Oxford. There he graduated in 1785, went on to complete a Masters, Bachelor of Divinity, and finally become a Doctor of Divinity in 1799. Though not saintly, he was elected to a Fellowship of the University, and appointed Vicar of St. Giles Church, Oxford. Doesn't seem a bad fellow - you might say - but already Drax Free was at odds with college authorities. As is often the way, most certainly in England, Drax Free was essentially appointed the Rector of Sutton in 1808 to get him out the way (a wealthy wee parish, that one might have thought a 44 year old would simply fade comfortably away into). Not so, Drax Free.
It seemed the Reverend saw Sutton - and indeed used Sutton - to fund his debauched and drunken lifestyle. I dread to think what this must have involved, for his need of funds seemed particularly excessive. He felled 300 local oak trees to sell, stripped all the lead off the church roof for his own funds, and grazed pigs, cows, horses, and sheep in the graveyard. Indeed, it was pigs as dug up the graves. At least he has that in his defence. He hated preaching - for that only served to detract from debauchery - though he did ironically try to fine parishioners for not attending church (another good income stream). Oftentimes he locked the church up for extended periods whilst he hid from creditors, and also charged parishioners for baptisms and burials - things they could not do without, and two more highly illegal but very good income streams.
But he was also (it seemed) a lairy individual.
Drax Free, it was said, did quarrel with everyone. Sober and drunk, he was aggressive and wanton. Though described by contemporaries as repulsive in every single way, he still managed still to sire at least five illegitimate children with different housekeepers, had at least one miscarriage with another woman, kept an extensive library of pornographic literature, and danced freely (pun intended) with prostitutes. Indeed, it was his latter links with ladies of the night as enabled parishioners to finally be free of him, and have the Archdeacon of Bedford remove him from post.
But even that wasn't easy.
Drax Free barricaded himself into the Church of All Saints with his latest mistress - having sold the entire contents of the Vicarage - and shot at any who approached as meant to remove him. What to do? As one would expect of a civilised 19th century, the Archdeacon of Bedford and parishioners of Sutton laid siege to the church. Yep. You heard right. They laid siege to the church, patrolled the graveyard, and starved the evil Reverend Drax Free and his lady mistress into submission. In 1830, after 22 years of hell on earth for Sutton, this quiet corner of England, Drax Free was removed from post. The poor Reverend, literally poor as he could get no other ecclesiastical position, died a beggar in 1843 when he was run over by a varnish-maker's cart in Bloomsbury, London.
So there you have it.
Fact is sometimes - more often that not, I have discovered - stranger than fiction.
Certainly the Reverend Drax Free is a folkloric and historic figure of Bedfordshire, especially in Sutton, where he is more often than not mentioned and spoken of long before any notice of the likes of John o' Gaunt or aristocrats of the Burgoyne family tree. A colourful nasty, deranged and debauched, he haunted this corner of England in life, and so if you do ever visit and cross the packhorse bridge, take a moment to picture him advancing in the opposite direction. Now there's a scary thought.
A Divine in his Glory (1799) - Caricature by GM Woodward
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