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.