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Remembering the Captive Past

"...he has also, by his everlasting power, delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time even down to the present day; and I have always retained in remembrance their captivity; yea, and ye also ought to retain in remembrance, as I have done, their captivity" (Alma 36:29).

I had a painful brush with historic captivity yesterday.

I was looking for the context of 16th Century jurist/politician Edward Coke's inspiring quote, "You would be insuperable if you were inseparable." I thought I could get a better picture of the conflicts against which he was counselling unity by perusing his biography on Wikipedia. I read about "the greatest jurist of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras," who championed the common law against decrees by the king. And then I read about his family life, his supportive first wife and his beautiful but fiery second wife, Elizabeth, who wound up leaving him and saying, at his funeral, "We shall never see his like again, thanks be to God". I also read that his daughter, Frances, went on to scandalize the Court by leaving her husband and living with a lover.

I wondered about Frances. The Wikipedia article kind of sounded like his daughter might have been a disappointment to him, but I wondered if she might have been a woman who's father's teachings had imbued her with sufficient strength to leave an abusive marriage at a time when women had very few options. So, I looked her up... and grieved.

She was just 15 when her father arranged for her betrothal to the 1st Viscount Purbeck, a man she disliked. The Viscount was close to King James I, so the marriage would be politically advantageous to her father. But Frances and her mother wanted nothing to do with it. Elizabeth sent the girl into hiding and tried to arrange an alternate betrothal for her. However, Edward discovered her whereabouts, carried her away by force, and used the law to hold her captive. Eventually, she submitted to her father's will (though it was rumoured that was by means of her father having her tied to a bedpost and whipped). Guests at Frances' wedding to the Viscount reported that the bride was crying.

Yet, all her anguish failed to help her father politically. The King wanted Coke to settle a more generous amount on the groom than the 10,000 pounds he had promised. But Coke said he would not buy the King's good favour at so dear a price. Apparently, his fortune mattered much more to him than his daughter did.

Four years later, Frances was cast out of her home and separated from her husband by her powerful brother-in-law, the Duke of Buckingham who was best friend to the king. She wound up under the protection of Robert Howard, fifth son of the Earl of Suffolk, who appears to have genuinely loved her. When she bore a son three years after leaving her husband, Frances and Robert were tried for adultery. He went to Fleet prison and was excommunicated for refusing to answer the charges against him. She was fined and sentenced to imprisonment but fled to France, where she converted to Catholicism. Eventually, she returned to England and to Robert. He then served another three months incommunicado at Fleet for refusing to disclose her whereabouts. He never married until after Frances' death in 1645.

My emotional reaction to this story is both a broken heart and boiling blood. How dare the jurist who whittled away at the tyranny of kings, how dare he prove such a tyrant to his own daughter! How dare society treat her as a scandal when she was a victim! How dare the writer of Coke's Wikipedia page mention the scandal and not the cause of it; leaving the impression that she was a disappointment to her father, when it was he who failed her?

I am stunned, I think because I was expecting something so different. And I wonder how many other such stories lie hidden beneath admiring accounts written about "great" men. I've known about depredations by Columbus. I've grieved over the abuse practiced by Gandhi. But this time, I'm not just sad. I'm ANGRY. I'm angry that it happened, angry that it's been white-washed, and angry that I feel like my fury is indecorous and that there's this voice in my head that says we should leave historic injustice in the past, don't acknowledge it, just work for a better tomorrow. And I'm a little bit scared because I don't want to become an angry person, but the victimization of Frances then and the maligning of Frances now are wrong, and I'm not okay with it.

Then I pray and ask for direction about what to write my blogpost about. And I open the scriptures to Alma 36:29.

Here is what I understand:

We need to see and acknowledge the captivity of our ancestors, the injustices of our past. And more than that. We need to remember them. Remember the captive Indigenous children who were forced, sometimes at gunpoint, from the arms of their parents and held captive in schools where they were malnourished, shamed for their culture, beaten when they spoke their native tongue, and otherwise abused, spiritually, physically and sexually. Remember the captives from Africa, who were considered subhuman, enslaved and abused in every imaginable way, and their descendants of yesteryear who faced lynchings for getting "above themselves" and so forth. Remember the women and children of all races throughout centuries who were treated as if they were chattel. Remember the developmentally disabled who were institutionalized and treated like animals (and who continue to be literally tortured under the legal mandate given to the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts).

We are supposed to remember. But not to be consumed with anger. The point of remembering is to also remember that Jesus Christ "has... by his everlasting power, delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time even down to the present day." We need to remember that as we face our current bondage, because He is the breaker of every chain and He will deliver us today.

I am well aware that a vast mountain of exploitive evil has been done in His name. And often by people who thought they were doing His bidding. I imagine that Edward Coke flattered himself while having his daughter whipped that he was following Biblical counsel not to spare the rod, and that he reminded Frances with words as well as lashes that it was her Christian duty to obey her father. I imagine that those who sat in judgment on her for adultery told themselves they were upholding Christian morality.

This doesn't signify, because whatever they told themselves, they were wrong. And because Jesus Christ is there to console the oppressed, even when they are oppressed in His name.

I have comparatively minimal, but painful-to-me experience with this. I have listened as good people I respected represented to me that my refusal to return to an abusive marriage was a violation of my covenants. (Not in those words, precisely. But that was the substance of what I heard). This after enduring abuse for over a decade because I had believed that was what my covenants required. But Jesus Christ had been my constant refuge throughout the decade of abuse; my refuge, my strength, and my goal. Then, He taught me a new understanding of my covenants. He had led me out of bondage and He gave me comfort and courage when people who didn't understand tried to send me back.

I believe Frances Coke had experience with it too. English courtier and diplomat Kenelm Digby wrote of her, "I have not seen more prudence, sweetnesse, goodnesse, honor and bravery shewed by any woman that I know, than this unfortunate lady sheweth she hath a rich stock of. Besides her natural endowments, doubtless her afflictions add much; or rather have polished, refined and heightened what nature gave her" (The Curious Case of Lady Purbeck, p. 141).

Now, I'm not saying Frances' adultery wasn't a sin, just that we all sin and that I think she was very likely doing the best she could figure out to do in her circumstances. And I am saying that Jesus, who knew her heart and all her reasons, and on whom she seems to have relied, helped her break the bands of her internal captivity, even while the world looked down on her in scorn.

I believe that His love and grace are the cause of all the social progress we've made to this point. And that He isn't done with us yet. Nor will He be until the lion lies down with the lamb, until all enmity has been done away and all the oppressed go free.

With that in mind, I can remember the captivity of the past without becoming bitter. The captivity of the past, by being past, bears witness of His power to deliver us to that glorious day.

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Aug 02, 2021

You have remarkable ability to recall historical quotes


Aug 02, 2021

Your account of Coke’s fallibility reminds me of that of Sir Thomas Moore.

Anne Kassel
Anne Kassel
Aug 02, 2021
Replying to

It's funny how much easier it was for me to forgive More for his persecution of Protestants in general and Tyndale in particular, than it is for me to forgive Coke his tyranny toward his daughter. I think there are two things that affect that.

First is the evidence of More's repentance. When he was condemned to death, he told his condemners, "like as the blessed apostle Saint Paul... was present and consented to the death of Saint Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now both twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends together forever, so I verily trust, and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships…

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