The Most Dangerous Place In Yorkshire

That was what they called Leeds. Not in the 21st century, not even the 20th or 19th. This was in the decades from 1660-1690. And it wasn’t due to violence or crime.

It was all because of religion and politics, which at that time were essentially the same thing.

To set the scene, England had undergone several seismic upheavals in little more than 100 years. Henry VIII had ripped away a thousand years or religion and belief in his separation from the Catholic church to his new Church of England. Not even two decades later, the pendulum had swung back the other way, with his Catholic daughter Mary on the throne, then again when Elizabeth had become queen. After that came quite a few relatively settled years, until the Puritans took power. They were, in modern terms, a kind of Christian Taliban, removing all the pleasure from life and deliberately destroying the old ways. But their leader, Oliver Cromwell, had died in 1658. After him, Charles had returned from France and been crowned Charles II in 1660; he’d enjoy a dissipated reign until 1685.

Yet religious, and so politically, the kingdom was in a state of flux, and in Leeds it showed with some very jagged edges.

Puritan rule might have officially ended, but Puritanism hadn’t died with it. A number of different sects had grown up around the North. In Leeds, the Quakers had attracted plenty of followers, and even the population that attended the Parish Church leaned towards a simpler kind of service. The first inkling of trouble came when a new Vicar of Leeds was appointed, named Dr. John Lake. He was suspected of being too High Church. When he arrived, a crowd barred his way from entering the church. It took a group of soldiers to remove the crowds.

                        Leeds Parish Church 1700s                      Interior Leeds Parish Church

Around town, Nonconformists preached, and the authorities spied whenever people gather. People were put in prison for their beliefs. Quaker meetings were broken up.

Things eased a little after 1672, when the Declaration of Indulgence was passed, legalising some forms of nonconformist worship. Immed8iately, 10 buildings in town received licenses for worship, and the first new church was built in 1674, Mill Hill Chapel (not the Gothic building on City Square we know today, but something simpler). Joseph Priestley was a preacher there from 1776-1773, and many of the powerful merchant families of Leeds attended service in the chapel.


The original Mill Hill Chapel

Yet the Church of England wasn’t about to sit and watch the fragmentation of belief. The members of the Corporation and holders of officers began persecuting those who loyalties they suspected – both religious and political. Spies informed, many Nonconformist gathers for worship were broken up. At one point the authorities confiscated the keys to Mill Hill Chapel, and those attending were arrested. Religious dissent might have been legal, at least to a point, but that didn’t mean the authorities here would let it pass. Those who failed to pay the obligatory Church Rates were prosecuted. At one point, fifty Quakers were arrested and led off to prison at York Castle.

About the only common hatred was Catholics, especially after Charles’s son, James II, came to the throne. It was widely believed he’d reintroduce the religion in England, and fear of it happening became common. Rumours flared likes fires. In 1688, word spread around Leeds that an Irish army had reached Leeds and was burning down Beeston. A group of Leeds men crossed the bridge and marched down.

It was a false alarm, of course. Fake news. But it says a great deal that the men remained, scouring Beeston for phantom Irish troops until soldiers arrived from York to take control and send them home.

Things calmed after 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, when William of Orange and his wife Mary, were invited from Holland to become the rulers of England. Religious dissent continued, and would grow until it became an accepted, even vital part of Leeds life in the 19th century.

In hindsight, viewed from the 21st century, all this might seem like an argument over trivial points. But they weren’t trivial back then; religion was still an important part of everyone’s life. Heaven and hell remained very real for most people. And if that doesn’t convince, think back to how many wars have been started – and still are – in the name of faith.