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The Miraculous Rejuvenation of the Vicar of Lesbury 1657 - The Real-Life Benjamin Button
The incredible story of the rejuvenation of the Vicar of Lesbury who was parish priest to the Northumbria village from 1609 to 1663, has been long forgotten. The story of his miraculous restoration to youth in the twilight of his life, spread far and wide across the realm during the reign of Charles II.
His story has most probably been lost due to the inconsistency in the spelling of his name which is variously recorded as; Macklin, Macklain, Makel Wain, Makel Wian, Mackilwyan, Mackilwayne and Macelwain. He is sometimes referred to as Patrick and sometimes as John, but we know from a letter he wrote in 1657 that he refers to himself as Patrick Makel Wian- Vicar of Lesbury.
Little is known of his early life as his celebrity came well into old age. He was born in 1546 in on the ‘Isle’ of Whithorn in Galloway on the southernmost tip of south western Scotland, famous as one of the oldest settlements in Scotland. He studied for his Master of Arts at the University of Edinburgh, after which he travelled to England where he ‘kept school and sometimes preached’ until he was inducted into the church at Lesbury where he became the Minister in 1603 at the age of 57.
Rev. Makel Wian was a dedicated vicar who overcame the anti-Scottish prejudice then prevalent and finally ‘came to pass for an Englishman’. He was greatly revered by his flock and served the community as their parson for over 50 years. He ruffled the feathers of the Church of England but gained the support of his parishioners, by taking the village tithes in kind rather than goods.
The Black Death
When the Great Plague of 1665 came to the village and created panic, dozens infected by the disease were driven out of the village to live in makeshift tents on the bleak moorland. Rev. Makel Wian drew admiration by visiting the sick in their tents and ministering to them during their final agonising days and attempting to treat their disease with medicines. He was then over 100 years old.
However it was not for the courageous and dedicated pastoral work that he is most remembered. In 1657 reports began to emerge that the Vicar of Lesbury had defied the ageing process and was rejuvenating!
He aged normally until he was 80 years old when by which time he had become a frail old man. To have achieved such an age in the 17th century was in itself a rare achievement.
Although he was well-respected in the village, he was in failing health and his four score years were beginning to take their toll. His eyesight was seriously deteriorating and he was virtually deaf. He had lost all his teeth and his speech had almost gone. The much-loved old vicar made a sad sight as he shuffled around the village which had been his home for so long and many privately believed he was no longer capable of performing his religious duties. But the parish of Saint Mary was all that the old Vicar had known. His wife and children had pre-deceased him and his ministry was his life into which he threw his heart and soul.
Then a miraculous transformation began to take place. Rev. Mackel Wian suddenly became filled with a youthful vitality, the like of which he had not known for over half a century. Villagers were surprised when he first began to regain his speech and converse with them in a way they had not heard for a long time. His hearing returned to normal followed by his eyesight so that he ‘could read the smallest print that is, without spectacles’. Incredibly his teeth which were rotten and decayed were replaced by new growth and having lost his hair, there was new ‘fine tender young growth upon the same like the hair of a child of two years old’.
Rev. Mackel Wian lain became a walking sensation with hundreds flocking to the town to witness his incredible rejuvenation.
The miraculous transformation back to youthfulness was attributed to his faith and piety. Over 30 years later at the incredible age of 116 he was reported to still be in fine fettle and conducting two sermons every Sunday. The Rev. Mackel Wian was hailed as a miracle of his age.
The remarkable story of the Vicar of Lesbury reached London and people were anxious to find out whether the incredible stories were true. Dr. Thomas Fuller, the author of ‘Fuller’s Worthies of England’, keen to include his story in his volume of celebrated personages made it known that he required further verification.
On 28th September 1657, Alderman Thomas Atkins, the son of London’s principal magistrate wrote an extraordinary eye witness account of a recent interview he had conducted with the venerable vicar.
“ There is an acquaintance of mine, and a friend of yours, who certified me of your desire of being satisfied of the truth of that relation I made concerning the old minister in the North. It happened, in my journey to Scotland, that I lay at Alnwick, in Northumberland, one Sunday, by the way; and understanding, from the host of the house where l lodged, that this minister lived within three miles of that place, I took my horse after dinner, and rode thither to hear him preach, for my own satisfaction.
I found him in the desk, where he read some part of the Common Prayer, some of David’s Psalms, and two chapters, one out of the Old, and the other out of the New Testament, without the use of spectacles. The Bible, out of which he read the chapters, was a very small printed book. He went afterwards into the pulpit, where he prayed and preached about an hour and a half. His text was: ‘Seek ye the kingdom of God, and all things shall be added unto you.’
In my poor judgement he made an excellent sermon, and went clearly through, without the help of any notes. After sermon I went with him to his house, where I proposed these several questions to him:
- Whether it was true, as the book reported of him, concerning the hair?
- Whether or not he had a new set of teeth?
- Whether or not his eye-sight ever failed him?
- And whether, in any measure, he found his strength renewed?
He answered me distinctly to all these, and told me he understood the news-book reported his hair to have become a dark brown again, but that is false: he took his cap off and shewed me it. It is come again like a child’s, but rather flaxen than either brown or grey.
For his teeth, he had only three come within these two years, nor yet to their perfection; while he shed them, he was very ill.
Forty years since he could not read the biggest print without spectacles, and now, he blesseth God, -there is no print so small, no written hand so small, but he can read it without them.
For his strength, he thinks himself as strong now as he hath been these twenty years. Not long since he walked to Alnwick to dinner, and back again, six North country miles. He is now one hundred and ten years of age, and ever since last May a hearty body, very cheerful, and stoops very much.
He had five children after he was eighty years of age, four of them lusty lasses, now living with him: the other died lately: his wife yet hardly fifty years of age.
He writes himself MACHEL VlVAN. He is a Scottish man, born near Aberdeen. I forget the town’s name where he is now pastor. He hath been there fifty years.
Your assured loving friend,
THOMAS ATKINS. Windsor, Sept. 28th, 1657.”
In His Own Words
The following month in another letter replying to William Liakus, a citizen of Antwerp enquiring about his much-publicised rejuvenation, the old vicar wrote:
“Whereas you desired a true and faithful messenger should be sent from Newcastle to the parish of Lesbury, to inquire concerning John Macklin; I gave you to understand that no such man was known ever to be, or hath lived there for these fifty years last past, during which time I, PATRICK MAKEL WIAN, have been minister of that parish;...
....As to what concerns the changes of my body, it is now the third year since I had two new teeth; one in my upper, and the other in my nether jaw, as is apparent to the touch.
My sight, much decayed many years ago, is now, about the hundred and tenth year of my age, become clearer:
Hair adorns my heretofore bald skull.
I was never of a fat, but a slender mean habit of body: my diet has ever been moderate; nor was I ever accustomed to feasting and tippling. Hunger is the best sauce; nor did I ever use to feed to satiety. All this is most certain and true, which I have seriously, though over hastily, confirmed to you under the hand of
Patrick Makel Wian
Minister of Lesbury
19th October 1657
The Lost Story
His story was lost in the mists of time until in the early 19th century, one of his successors the Reverend Percival Stockdale happened upon an obscure reference to him in an ancient text. Taken aback that no-one had ever mentioned his celebrated predecessor, he made enquiries of the oldest people in the village but no-one remembered the old clergyman. In an attempt to preserve his memory for posterity, Rev. Stockdale, a poet and abolitionist, included him in his memoires published in 1809, together with an account of the unsuccessful efforts he had made to locate his final resting place.
The only reference in the parish records relates to Agnis Machel Wyan buried on 17th May 1701 who is believed to have been the daughter of the old vicar.
An elderly farmer in the village believed that he had been buried in the beautiful Norman church of St Mary’s near the altar between the chancel door and the vestry. He said that around 1760, Mr. Thompson the former Curate of Lesbury, copied some inscriptions from a flat stone which he believed to mark the remains of the old clergyman. Rev. Stockdale examined the spot but could find no trace of an inscription. He did however discover the grave of his granddaughter in St. Mary’s churchyard in which he surmised her grandfather could also have been interred, although an examination of the gravestone revealed only the name of her husband William Gair who died on 27th May 1749.
Of this couple, Rev. Stockdale writes:
“This man married the granddaughter of Patrick Makel Wian; she kept a school in the house which is now the poor-house of the parish of Lesbury. The best recollected characteristic of her memory is, that she was a terror of a school mistress; a female busby, in severity; but not, I apprehend, in learning. William Gair her husband, was a carpenter; and in one instance, he exercised his profession in a very remarkable way. He made a coffin for himself and another for his wife; which were lodged in his house many years before either of them died.”
Of friends and books, good and few are best.— Patrick Makel Wian
Due to the unreliability of birth records, it is impossible to determine with any certainty, the exact age which the old clergyman reached. Stories circulating at the time of his death, believed to be in 1669, claimed he was 130 years old. Using his stated year of birth of 1546, he would have been 123 years old by his own reckoning. Nineteenth century estimates suggest he was at least 101 years old when he met his maker.
Either way he was a remarkable figure who certainly experienced a degree of extraordinary rejuvenation which revitalised his final decades and perhaps qualifies him, in part at least, to be remembered as the real-life Benjamin Button.
The final words of wisdom come from the old vicar of Lesbury himself;
"Of friends and books, good and few are best."
Patrick Makel Wian