The Reeve and the Normans

1092 AD Ledes

 

He rarely dreamed now. In the beginning the night mare had ridden every time he closed his eyes, slipping through the blackness like a cutthroat and gripping him so close he could smell its graveyard stench. Then, slowly, almost without him knowing, it had faded to become no more than a memory.

But last night it had returned, more powerful for having been away so long. Screaming, growing louder and louder until it filled his head then stopped suddenly, dropping into dead, empty silence.

A welter of noise filled the space. Sounds he hadn’t noticed before. Shouting, hooves. The metal rasp of weapons drawn. The crackle as a roof caught fire and the night flamed.

He was hobbling through the darkness, moving quietly and trying to keep himself out of sight. But even when he was a mile away and more, he could still hear the soldiers shouting in their foreign tongue; no doubting the meaning and the hatred. Killing, rape, the devils in hell let loose to roam, all the order and the law gone from the earth. Blades hacking at flesh and tearing at souls.

Somewhere, someone must be alive. Or the world would all be blood.

When he woke, he was breathing so hard that his chest hurt, hands clenched tight into fists, tears tumbling down his cheeks.

Trembling, he’d had to ease himself out of the bed, careful not to wake Inga, then paced up and down on the packed earth floor, feeling its cold hardness, it realness, until the demons danced away. Even now, in the daylight, he could taste the smoke and death on his tongue, a poison no ale could take away.

For the dream to come back…it had to mean something.

norman soldiers

The villagers always closed their doors as the soldiers passed. It was safer, like a cantrip made to keep evil at bay. There were ten men this time, churning up the mud as they marched rapidly along the road. Beyond the houses and the church, their feet clattered as they crossed the bridge over the beck until the hard beat of marching softened into the distance.

Every week it was the same, a patrol sent out, as if the Normans were fearful that people might flare up and oppose them again. But who was left to raise an army, to forge the weapons? Who had the will? The army had conquered, it had destroyed the land far and wide. The soldiers had used their iron and steel to choke away any hope.

The Harrying, that was what they called it.

But Death was the word. That was the truth of it.

All around, the manors had burned. Animals butchered in the fields and left to rot on the ground. Not only the stock: people were killed, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, dying unshriven and unburied. Those still alive fled, praying for safety, begging for deliverance. But God had turned His face away, unhearing, unforgiving. No food, no shelter. No hope. No life. They died beyond counting during the winter, children and parents withered to sacks of bone and heart and flesh until they barely made a meal for the wolves.

But Ledes…Ledes remained as it was, spared. A miracle, that was what the people here believed. God’s blessing had saved them. But he knew that the reality spoke far less of heaven and much more of might. It was a military decision, nothing more than that. A finger stabbed down on a rough-drawn map. Keep this place with the ford. We can have our men there.

Erik brushed the wood shavings from his lap and put the knife back in his belt. He’d whittled the end of the post to a sharp point that would go easily into the ground. Since Sunday, his wife had been reminding him that the gate between their toft and the pasture needed repair; the post had rotted.

It was there in his head, but every hour of daylight had been filled. He was the reeve, elected by the others when the manor became property of the monks. Each dispute about the size of a villager’s planting strips, who should do what, when they should do it, ended with him.

Anglo-Saxon_ploughmen

Erik sighed. With the start of spring ploughing and planting, it had been one task after another. Decide this, measure that, give an order, settle an argument. Finally, last night, the procession of people hammering on the door stopped.

The night mare had visited and ridden on, thank God. No one had needed him this morning. And now he had time to do something for himself. He hoisted the post on to his shoulder and limped to the end of the garden. When he was young he’d jumped from a tree and broken the bone. It was never set properly; every winter it still ached.

On the horizon, ravens swooped down on something, then scattered high into the air and a larger bird dived. Spring and the ground was beginning to soften after the long winter. Pray God for a warm summer and a good harvest.

A scent of life drifted on the air. Off in the distance he could see lambs, newborn and tentative, discovering the astonishment of movement. Every year it was the same, and every year it enchanted him and made his heart soar.

He loved this place. It was home, it was comfort. He cherished the people in Ledes, even when their voices and demand and questions wearied him. Erik had been surprised when they put him forward as reeve, grateful when they voted for him.

In return he took all his responsibilities seriously, sitting and making his judgements at the manor court, tallying harvests, making sure the priest received is tithe and the monks in York had all they were owed.

He’d been on God’s Earth for almost forty years, as close as he could guess; an old man now, with all the aches and pains and failings of age. But he tried to do his duty by everyone.

And he put them all in front of himself. That was what his wife told him. Inga was right. But what could he do? He couldn’t turn them away or make them wait. So jobs like this were tucked into odd, quiet hours when the chance came.

Erik used his knife to dig into the soil, making a hole for the tip of the wood. He’d set a rock aside, heavy enough to need two hands. Lifting it high, straining, he hammered at the post. The dull sound of stone on wood, again and again and again, until it was seated securely. Now the gate between his toft and the field would close properly; no animals would wander into the garden and eat what his wife grew. Inga would be happy.

The manor had improved since it became the property of the monks. They paid rents every quarter day now instead of giving their labour, and what man wouldn’t work harder for himself than for a lord? But the monks had also taken a tenth of the land to graze their sheep. The best pasture, of course, and the villagers had to tend them. That gave less for fallow or farming. A gain and a loss.

His eyes followed the line of low trees that grew by the stream marking the northern edge of the manor. The villagers were busy with ploughing and sowing and digging. At least if they were occupied, he’d have some time. And he still needed to get seed in his own strips.

He stretched, an ache of satisfaction in his arms, then turned towards the house. For a moment the clouds parted and the sun shone, the colour and brightness welcome against the grey. Erik smiled, then caught a glint of metal from the corner of his eye. Two of the soldiers were running back along the road to their palisade.

Suddenly every sense of pleasure vanished. He was alert, a prickle of fear running down his back.

Some of the villagers claimed that away from their fort and without their weapons, the Normans were fine. At times, they could even be good company in the alehouse as they drank and gambled. Exactly the same as they were, a few said, men with laughter and dreams and hopes. One or two had even tried to learn some English, a bridge of half-formed words and gestures that entertained some of the girls.

But Erik wasn’t convinced. He’d seen them at their worst, all those years before, and the memory stayed raw and bloody. He chose to keep a wary distance.

‘I heard them,’ Inga said as he entered the house. She looked up from the bobbin as she spun yarn, tilting her head towards the open shutters. ‘You’d have thought the devil was after them, the way they were going.’

‘People were stopping work in the fields to watch.’ The ploughmen had pulled up their oxen. Even the boy scaring the crows had halted, his mouth open wide.

‘Something bad must have happened.’

‘Yes,’ Erik agreed. Whatever it was, evil or good, as reeve he needed to know. ‘I’ll go and talk to the priest.’

She snorted. ‘He won’t know any more than you do.’

He smiled gently at her, this woman who’d borne him six children. Two had survived, a boy and a girl, both grown now, with their own lives. ‘No. But he’ll want to find out. We can walk down to the fort. You know how he is, he likes to ask questions. They’ll probably tell him.’

‘He does love his gossip,’ she sighed, and he laughed. It was true. Father Adolphe chased down every last snippet of rumour, worrying at it like a terrier. And once he’d collected it he’d pass it on as if it was a vital secret he’d uncovered. A villager’s drunkenness, some flaring argument that passed in an hour, they were all grist to his day.

‘I know one thing,’ Erik said into the silence. ‘Those soldiers weren’t carrying good news.’

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The Harrying – 1069

William the Bastard (or Conqueror) didn’t immediately rule all of England from 1066. He faced rebels in the North, men who attacked his forces but wouldn’t face him in pitched battle; guerilla forces, if you will. Finally, frustrated, he took out his anger on the ordinary people who made their lives there. In a massive act of genocide his troops destroyed villages and all who lived with them, leaving huge areas waste, often salting the earth so nothing would grow again. They came to Headingley. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 people were there again, but there was no doubt that it had suffered. I’ve borrowed some of the images from Martin Carthy’s wonderful version of the traditional ballad ‘Famous Flower Of Serving Men.’

They came in the night, the Norman bastards. The first we knew was the screams and the sound of burning. My man was up quickly, grabbing his hoe and dashing out into the dark. As he pushed the door open I could see flames lighting up the sky.

We’d heard the word from folk passing on the road. William, him as ruled us now, he said, was sick of rebellion, of the lords and them who defied him. He’d sent out men to destroy the North.

For weeks people had been coming through in their ragged, desperate ones and twos, a family and sometimes more, clutching what little they could carry, just seeking safety somewhere. We fed them, gave a place to sleep in a byre or a hut and saw them move on the next morning, hoping for a home to live free from sword and fear. Precious little chance of that in this land. In the church we prayed to the Holy Virgin that they’d leave us alone. But even as we mouthed the words we knew they’d arrive sooner or later.

Headingley had been famous once. I’d listened to the old men when I was a girl; I knew what all the tales said. How famous warriors, good men and great, would come from miles to gather at the Shire Oak and make their laws. I never pay mind to stories these days. They’re just words and words won’t feed my bairn. I’d lost three in blood and screams and pain before he was born and every day I beseeched God to let him grow to his manhood.

I picked my sweet William up from the scraps of cloth that swaddled him and held him close to my breast. Keep quiet, I whispered. For the love of Jesu, suckle and stay quiet. His mouth found the nipple and he closed his eyes again as I huddled in the corner, trying to keep hidden from the terror and yelling that filled the world beyond my walls.

Embers gave the only light, shadows that moved around the room. A steer lowed helplessly somewhere before its cry was cut short and a man began to laugh. I cowered, pushing myself hard against the wattle, head down, trying to soothe my William.

They’d kill who they wanted and put it all to the torch. That was what they did; we’d been told. What could we do against the power of armed men on horseback, with evil in their heart? Ten houses in the village. All we had were hoes and scythes and the hunger that clawed at bellies our bellies. What match was that?

There were screams that wouldn’t end. I put my hands over my ears but they remained. Even in her agony I knew her voice. Matilda, beautiful Matilda, and men doing what they always did in war and drink and rage.

I could smell the burning. Straw, flesh, meat. The shouting was loud, careless and urgent together. Matilda’s voice fell silent.

Someone kicked the door open and came in, holding a brand. There was nowhere to hide from the light. A tall man, with blood smeared on the leather of his jerkin, the lust of killing on his lips. He grunted and dragged me upright. I just tried to hold William close, to keep him safe as I was pulled outside.

The dead lay on the ground. Ten, fifteen, twenty and more of them. I picked out my man, eyes blankly staring up at nothing, a deep wound in his chest. Matilda, the clothes ripped all the way to her flesh. Her throat had been cut.

The soldier casually threw his torch into my house. The days had been dry and the straw caught quickly as the fire began to crackle and roar. I kept my arms tight around William. A man grabbed my hair and pulled hard. I wanted to cry, to do anything, to vanish into the darkness. To take my son and live.

Without a word he slapped me so that I staggered, and someone else tore William away from me. I reached out. I screamed. I shouted. I begged while they laughed. They held him close to taunt me. When I lunged to reach him, they drew back again.

Then one of them gave an order with his strange words I couldn’t understand. The tears ran down my cheeks. They held my head forcing me to watch as one of them lovingly drew his knife across my William’s throat. The blood bubbled on his skin as his yelling turned to nothing.

They let me go then. I fell to my knees, cradling my lovely boy. His blood was warm against my flesh.

The men turned and began to walk away, leaving me there. The only one still alive here. Their testament. Their warning. Their memory. A warrior passed me, spat, and tossed his broken sword on the ground before me. I wanted to die, more than I’d ever desired anything.

Long after they’d gone, when the sound of hooves had vanished and all that remained were the burning houses, I rocked my baby. I sang him soft lullabies and let my tears fall on his cheeks.

Through the night I whispered and cooed to him, stroked his soft hair. I spoke and I mumbled until my throat was raw. I told him every hope and dream I had stored for him, all the love I felt and the joy he’d given me.

By dawn he was cold.

Smoking from the ruins and black timbers were all that was left of Headingley. And the bodies tossed on the dirt. My man, my sister, my father, my friends. My son. The only building untouched was the church.

Finally I stood, picked up the ruined weapon and begin to hack out my William’s grave. The earth was soaked with blood, coming up in wet clods. I dug all through the morning, not stopping for water or rest.

I had blisters on my hands but I kept working until I was three feet in the ground. Too deep for the wolves ever to dig him out again. Safe for the coming of the Lord. I lowered him down, his face so beautiful even in death, and started to scoop the soil on top of him.

I said a prayer for his soul. God would listen. He’d been no more than a babe with no sin to stain him.

In the church I took hold of the rope, pulling until the bell began to toll. I let it ring for the memories of all those who were out there.

Outside, back in the light, I picked up the sword. I touched my man’s lips then held the fingers to my own. And I walked away.