Reprinted from Newsletter 110, dated 2004 January–February

John Cannon and the church

Adrian Pearse

A talk by Prof John Money

John Money, a professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, is working on an academic edition of the memoir of John Cannon (1684–1744), and while engaged in research in the UK was able to shed light on religious aspects of this most unusual man at his lecture in St John’s Church on October 31.

A man who is mostly bald but with wispy white hair on both sides, squints in the light and smiles at the camera. He stands in a field with his hands in his pockets, with some large trees visible behind him. He wears a brown jacket, a chequered red and white shirt, a red tie, chinos with a brown belt, and brown shoes. A pair of sunglasses hang around his neck.
In a field near Lydford, John Money is revisiting some of the places that John Cannon, “the poor man’s Pepys”, mentions in his 18th-century memoir. Photo by Adrian Pearse.

Cannon’s memoir is overwhelmingly secular in content, and perhaps of greater interest because of this, but he could not dismiss the context of his life and times: religious and political upheaval for the 200 years up to his death had touched every town, village and family in the land.

Cannon was intimately involved in the religious and political turmoil around him at its lowest and most basic level, whether at Lydford or Glastonbury, yet as a result of his thorough grounding in both historical and religious literature he was able to view events around him in a way very few of his peers could match. He could consider circumstances from his knowledge of the Reformation, yet had to make decisions affecting himself, his family and neighbours which in the religious ferment of his times could have far-reaching and unpredictable consequences.

John Cannon had mastered the Bible in both English and Latin by the age of four, and when aged five was asked by Parson Jacob, at Lydford, “Who made you?” He replied: “God did, but my mother and father found the stuff.” His reading grounded him in Tudor history and the Reformation, both in England and Europe, so that he came to regard the Anglican church as the apotheosis of Elizabethan reforms.

However, he had Quaker cousins and Papist neighbours, and must have been fully aware of the religious fanaticism displayed by zealots on both wings of the religious spectrum. He is sufficiently astute to conceal as much as he reveals about his religiosity; but there can be no doubt that his knowledge was profound, as displayed by the use of hidden religious symbolism in the layout of parts of his text. His beliefs embrace the mediaeval world of superstition and magic as seen in his acceptance of portents and his belief in the efficacy of the cure arising from the touching of his mother for the King’s Evil by Charles I when imprisoned in Carisbrook Castle in 1648.

He was an authority on the Abbey ruins at Glastonbury and deplored their destruction, and his very sense of history could justifiably lead to sympathy with the Catholic cause, and he was indeed accused of such. He was also aware of the growth of Nonconformist sects and with the recent memories of the extremes of Puritan zealotry could deplore the extremist views of either Catholics or Protestants as threats to a fragile established order. Indeed it was less than a year after his death in 1744 that the crushing of the Jacobite rebellion finally set the religious course that England was to follow.

The importance of religion to John Cannon can be illustrated by an event near the end of his life. In 1741 he and his family were impoverished and in distress. On Christmas Eve he walked from Lydford to Bristol to sell some of his precious books, and raised 7 guineas. Rather than buy needed provisions from this sum, he spent 1 guinea on a 1539 Great Bible, the first in English, and then walked home in the snow across the then unenclosed Mendips, lost his way and almost perished. He had to have the book; Tudor history was to him an obsession.

In many aspects of his memoir John Cannon is keen to present himself as a modernizing man; his treatment of his religious dimension reveals just how complex a person he was.