EDDIE BRAZIL looks at the curious case of Rev Mason and the 17th century Hippies of Water Stratford in Buckinghamshire
The phenomena of fanatical, religious cults presided over by deluded, self proclaimed new messiahs, and followed, unblinkingly by devoted
Converts seeking alternative spiritual enlightenment would seem to be a product of the 1960s counter culture. Yet such lunacy is nothing new.
The village of Water Stratford, two miles west of Buckingham, would seem to be the last place one would think of escaping to in the advent of a prophetic, fiery Armageddon.
Yet, this sleepy Bucks backwater was, in 1690, besieged by a deluge of fanatical disciples convinced that it was the only place on Earth which would be spared the ending of the world.
In 1674 John Mason became parish priest of St Giles at Water Stratford. He was a puritan and was much admired by his fellow clergy. He was a man of gentle disposition, and moderate views when he first took up his post. But he turned to Calvinism. One of its beliefs was that salvation is pre-ordained and that God has chosen from eternity those who are to be saved regardedless of how devout and spotless a life one leads on Earth.
Mason, and his wife lived happily at Water Stratford administering spiritual guidance to his flock for some sixteen years. But then one day it all began to go wrong.
In 1690 the good Priest was hit by three successive personal blows. A scripture chronology he had worked on for years was rejected by the church authorities and he grieved over his wasted time. Secondly, his closest friend died, and this blow was devastatingly followed by the death of his beloved wife. Overnight, John Mason became a changed man. He began to experience strange dreams, nightmares and delusions which haunted his waking hours. His preaching began to take on an alarming dimension.
On Sunday mornings he would thunder forth from his pulpit that he was the prophet and miracle worker, Elijah, and that he could summon up the dead and bring down fire from heaven. He had been sent to Water Stratford to proclaim that the village had been chosen as holy ground where the good and the privileged few could gather to await the day of destruction whist all others outside this sacred boundary would be cast in to the pit and destroyed by fire and sword.
Not surprisingly, Mason superiors in the church began to get a little concerned. Not so his parishioners. Hundreds of people from the surrounding area descended on the Buckinghamshire village eager to hear the word of the new messiah. So great was the impassioned multitude that there became no room in the church and the crowds packed in to the churchyard to listen to Mason as he addressed the throng from one of the church windows.
Things were about to get even more crazy. Thousands of people from miles around who believed him sold their property and moved to Water Stratford in droves. Some brought tents and pitched them on what they believed was the holy ground. They brought their livestock and mountains of food. They played musical instruments, and kept up a continual racket throughout the day and night. There was singing, dancing and the frenzied clapping of hands. It seemed as if Water Stratford had gone nuts.
Eventually the church authorities sent the Rev Maurice, Rectory of Tyringham, and a close friend of Rev Mason, to Water Stratford to report on what was happening. On his arrival, he found the village in pandemonium. He was welcomed by a mass of people chanting in loud voices. Throughout the rectory men, woman and children were running up and down the stairs bellowing, laughing and clapping as if the day of judgment was just around the corner. Some were so overwhelmed with religious fervour and elation that they collapsed from sheer exhaustion.
Whilst Masons followers danced themselves in to euphoria he lay in a garret at the top of the house dying. He died a month later prophesising that he would be resurrected in three days. It was thought that his passing would put an end to the madness. However it was not to be, as three days after the Rev had been laid to rest the multitude still remained in the village, and the din of singing and chanting continued as they waited for Mason to rise from his coffin.
In desperation Masons successor, the Rev Rushworth opened up the Rectors grave and displayed the corpse to show one and all that their leader was indeed, stone dead. Incredibly there were some who still believed that Rev Mason would put in an appearance and they hung around the churchyard for up to 16 years. Eventually they were dispersed by the army.
The church authorities put the Rectors’ weird behaviour down to smoking to much tobacco. It had obviously overheated his brain and so kindled the zeal which brought about his end.
There is a curious and uncanny coda to this strange story. Rev Mason prophesised that he would be resurrected from his grave three days after his burial. Perhaps he got the timing wrong.
In the summer of 2016 two tourists, who were returning from visiting the magnificent gardens at Stow house just three miles away, passed through Water Stratford and decided to take a look at the church. It was a beautiful summers afternoon. They knew nothing of churches history or the shenanigans of Rev Mason. They were about to enter the building when both heard shouting coming from inside.
They hesitated in opening the south door thinking that there was some kind of altercation occurring. The ranting seemed to last some 30 seconds, at times loud, and then fading to a mumble. As if a person was reading the Bible through a faulty loud hailer. Eventually it ceased and all was silence.
The two ladies decided to gingerly open the door and peep inside. The building was as quiet as could be. They made their way in to the church, but it was totally deserted. Had Rev Mason put in his prophesised appearance?
If it was not the good Reverend, then perhaps his followers still frequent the churchyard waiting for him to rise up from his grave. Some weeks after the two ladies experience a young couple were driving through Water Stratford late at night when they heard what they assumed to be rave or pop concert happening near by. Both heard the unmistakable sound of hordes of people singing and chanting. There was the banging of drums and the screams of what they thought to be appreciative fans.
Yet there were no festival lights illuminating the area or glowing in the distance. The couple thought nothing more of it and drove on. But some days later a chance remark to a villager regarding the pop concert was met with blankness. There was no event, and there never has been in Water Stratford. It would have been surely noticed.
It is unclear whether or not the four people who had heard the sounds later became aware of the history of Rev John Mason and his devout followers. If so they would have no doubt put it down to being the ghosts of the Reverend and his phantom disciples.
But from the nature of the phenomena it would seem that Mason had not risen from the dead, but rather his mad church ranting and the racket of his flock were the result of the phenomena we call the stone tape.
Playable only to those who are fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. No doubt, back in 1690, the Reverend and his followers made enough din for the sounds to heard 300 years later, and who knows, still be audible in 2390.