We are known for troublemakers in my family. Some fifteen years ago my grandfather led two hundred commoners in an attack on Lord Bedford’s drainage works in the Great Level. They made songs about him – sung to this day around the fenlands – and his very name is still famous hereabouts. In my earliest memory I was taken, with my brother Tom, to see him where he was kept in a filthy pit in Cambridge Castle. I know that I screamed, sure that the monstrous shape crouched in a corner was not my grandfather, but one of those fearful boggarts who haunt the Fens in darkness and in fog. I was three years old and impressionable.
My mother carried me outside and I remember the smooth lawns and the students in their gowns, all of which was as baffling to me as the prison. My brother Tom, nine years old and stout of heart, stayed behind with my father and the basket of food we had brought for my grandfather. He told me years later that he’d also been afraid of the gaunt figure with its wild hair and unkempt beard.
‘I wanted to run,’ he said, ‘but I wouldn’t shame myself before Father.’
I never saw my grandfather again, for he died soon afterwards, still waiting for his chance to appear before a court and demand justice, yet his fame in the eyes of fenlanders has never diminished and washes over us still. A chancy legacy.
Not that you would think it now. Here sat my father, who made one of those two hundred rioters all those years ago. He was a young man then and filled with outrage at the theft of our lands by the projectors and drainers – King and courtiers among them. Our own lands were not threatened then, it was away to the south, but we people of the Fens have strong loyalties and never much loved the King.
Yet here my father now sat with his cronies beside the fire, in our farm at Turbary Holm, like any contented old man wreathed in the tar scent of the peat, and I had just gone round again with a jug of my mother’s best ale. That would be the third time and they had hardly started yet. They would pause in their drinking to eat, then carry on well into the night, for there is nothing like a belly full of food to make a man savour his drink.
‘Here’s thanks to you, Nehemiah,’ said my father, raising his cup, ‘for the gift of those eels. Mercy, our neighbour needs more ale.’
I obliged, though the stink on my hands from skinning the eels must have wafted a distinct flavour over the drink. Probably Nehemiah Socket wasn’t aware of yet another layer of eel added on top of his permanent cloak of the smell. He was the most successful eeler in the village and spent more time weaving his traps and harvesting his catch than he devoted to all his crops and beasts together. Still, when he had more than enough sticks of eels to sell in Lincoln market, he was generous to us and in return my father and Tom kept an eye on his cattle and sheep out on the commons.
‘Over here, Mercy.’ Joseph Waters waved his cup at me. An old man whose watery eyes were still sharp enough to detect when there was a free meal to be enjoyed, he was one of the poorest of our neighbours, living by day labour on the farms. When he followed Nehemiah and his eels through the door, my parents had not the heart to turn him away. In any case, he was like to turn up here at least once in every week, eels or no, bringing with him the earth and sweat of his clothes which I swear had never been washed since his wife died. Yes, they were an odoriferous company.
‘Test those eels, to see if they’re cooked,’ my mother called across from the table where she was sawing great hunks of bread off a loaf I had baked that morning. We would soak up the juice with it, chasing every last drop around our bowls.
‘Done,’ I said, when I had prodded them with the tip of my knife. Cut into short lengths, the eels were no longer swimming in the pure waters of Baker’s Lode but in a rich brew of onions, carrots, parsley and ale. The meat was falling into soft flakes and the rising steam filled my nose with anticipation. My stomach groaned so loudly I was afraid the others would hear it, so I made a great clatter as I lifted the stewpot off its hook over the fire and carried it to the table, where I stirred in a jugful of rich cream.
‘I’ll fetch Tom.’
My mouth was watering as I crossed the yard to the cowbarn. Times had been somewhat lean for the last two years, with cold winters, late springs and sodden summers. My family was comfortable enough, but several poor harvests had meant starvation for some and we had gone short ourselves to help our neighbours. Nehemiah’s eels were a welcome addition in these hungry months of spring, when the winter stores were nearly exhausted.
I leaned through the cowbarn door, drawing in the sweet meadow scent of the cows’ breath.
‘Coming.’ He hung the milking stool on a peg and patted the rump of Blackthorn, our favourite cow ever since the two of us had raised her by hand after her mother died.
‘I can smell the eels.’ He grinned as he wiped his hands on the seat of his breeches. ‘Did I see Joseph Waters sidling in?’
‘You did. That man will never miss a free meal.’
I turned as my eye was caught by a figure briefly silhouetted again the setting sun in the lane.
‘Master Clarke!’ I called, ‘will you come sup with us?’
‘Is there enough?’ Tom whispered.
‘Aye, plenty. I know Mother would want us to ask him. Since his housekeeper died she thinks he hardly eats.’
‘I thank you, Mercy.’ The rector opened the gate and came across the yard to us. ‘Do I smell eel pottage?’
An uncharitable thought crossed my mind that perhaps Gervase Clarke, like Joseph Waters, had seen Nehemiah arriving with his basket of eels, but I dismissed it. The rector was bound to be hungry, but he was too uncomplicated a man to be so cunning. His simple faith and unworldliness would get him into trouble one of these days. Still, I had a great affection for him. It was Gervase Clarke who had taught me to read and write, when my father sent me to be schooled by him at the age of twelve.
Around the table we were a more sober company now that Gervase had joined us and said a blessing over the meal, but we were all soon spooning up the stew eagerly and wiping out our bowls with my good bread until they gleamed in the candlelight as if fresh come from the kiln.
I glanced round at the comfortable faces, a little shiny from grease, a little flushed with drink. No, you would not have suspected that we were the kin of the local hero and troublemaker Nathaniel Bennington. During these late war years, we had kept our heads down in this corner of the Fens, though a few young men went for Parliament, and the son of the manor went for the King. It was our fellow fenlander, Cromwell, who was come to power now, and my father had left off rioting and attacks on the drainers. In any case, those fine gentlemen, courtiers and landowners, who were bent on stealing the Fens before the War, had gone into exile now, or were lying low, watching to see which way Cromwell’s wind would blow.
With a stomach warmed by eel pottage and mashed turnips, followed by a pie I had made from last year’s dried apple rings, I slumped sleepily on the bench for a few minutes before I needed to clear away the litter from the table.
‘I was in Cambridge today,’ Gervase said slowly, gazing down into the dregs of his ale as if he was reluctant to look at the other men. ‘I wanted to make sure that what I had heard about the new rules was true.’
So that was why Gervase’s clothes were dust-stained and he looked weary. It is a long ride back from Cambridge.
‘What rules?’ Tom said. He always pricked his ears at the mention of Cambridge, where he had gone to school until the War put an end to his studies.
‘We are no longer allowed to marry in church, or to baptise our infants.’ Gervase’s voice broke on the words, but looking up I noticed a flash of anger in his eye.
There was a sharp intake of breath from my mother, but it was my father who spoke.
‘What? Are our young couples to live in sin? And our children to be exiled from holy church?’
‘They have devised some ungodly rites.’ I had never heard Gervase’s voice so bitter. ‘Which they, being Saints here on earth, claim are more godly that the rites of our English church. And as well, there is to be more destruction of our churches.’
In the moment of silence I remembered what had happened in Suffolk. Beautiful windows of ancient glass smashed to powder. Statues of the Virgin and the saints – the real saints – decapitated. Altars axed to splinters. Altar rails thrown on bonfires. The man sent to direct all that destruction, one William Dowsing, had gone off, no one knew where, but there were plenty more of like mind.
I knew we were all thinking of our own church. It was a simple cross with four small side bays, a square tower and a single bell, but there was one window of singular beauty at the east end, put up three hundred years ago to the memory of his wife, who died young, by Sir Anthony Dillingworth, ancestor of our local gentry. I had known that window all my life. The Virgin, in a robe as blue as a hot summer sky, was holding out a white dove to the Christ child, who was a toddler on fat legs, clutching a handful of daisies. Just ordinary daisies. I had loved that, ever since I was small. A bunch of daisies like the ones I could pick myself from the hem of the churchyard. At morning services the window glowed like the jewels of fabled Arabia, but I liked it better at evensong when the branches of an old oak, shivering in the diffused light, made the Virgin and Child stir into life, as though they would step down from their stone frame and walk amongst us.
‘They would not dare to come here.’ Tom voiced all our thoughts. ‘Not with the Dillingworths still in the manor.’
Gervase shrugged. ‘Sir John may be for Cromwell, since he’s some sort of distant cousin, but Cromwell and his men will not forget that Edmund Dillingworth fought for the King.’
That silenced us again.
‘And I heard something else in Cambridge.’ Gervase glanced up at my father, then down again at his empty cup.
I rose to fetch the jug and fill it again. For some reason my stomach had clenched at his words.
‘Something of more concern to you, Isaac. Indeed, to all the commoners.’
‘You’re a commoner yourself, Gervase.’
He nodded, but did not allow the acknowledgement to put him off his stride.
‘I heard that there is a new projection got up, to drain and enclose our lands.’
‘Our own village commons?’ Tom shot up from his seat. ‘Here? If they enclose our commons and destroy centuries of our work with their useless drains, people will starve. Even our family is not secure. We need those lands. Without them, we’ll be brought to beggary.’
‘Furthermore,’ said Gervase, looking keenly now at my father, ‘it seems that Cromwell himself is behind the scheme.’
Then the talk exploded.
‘I do not believe it,’ my father said, thumping the table with his fist. His face was red now with more than drink. ‘Cromwell has always said he will support the fenlanders against the drainers. He would not betray us.’
‘He was not the almost-king then, Father,’ said Tom. He would have been wiser to keep his tongue behind his teeth, for Father turned on him.
‘Mind your manners, boy!’ he shouted. ‘You know nothing of such a man as Cromwell.’ He turned to Gervase. ‘Where did you hear such lies?’
Tom kept silence, but I could see him biting back his anger at being called ‘boy’. At four and twenty, he now carried most of the burden of labour on the farm as our father grew older.
Gervase shrugged again and sighed. I think he wished he too had stayed silent on the matter. He must have forgotten the strength of my father’s belief in Cromwell.
‘The news was everywhere. But I was told it as a fact by a friend of mine who is a magistrate. We were lads together at Trinity and he’s not a man to spread gossip. He has seen the plans for the projection. It takes in the whole of our commons and beyond.’
Nehemiah ran his hand through his unkempt mop of hair.
‘They will destroy us for sure, whoever is behind it. Look what has happened to those schemes from your father’s day, Isaac. The natural winter floods drained away from the croplands, so they’re not fed with the washings. The peat moors sucked dry till they cave in like an old man’s toothless cheeks. Useless now. The peat turned to dust instead of fuel.’
‘Our rushes and sedges dying away for lack of water in the Fen.’ Tom could not stay quiet. ‘Whole villages on safe ground flooded, homes destroyed. People drowned.’
Before my father could chide him, Joseph Waters joined in mournfully. ‘That will be an end to your eel fishing, Nehemiah. And we’ll lose the water fowl. And the fish. And I’ve heard they steal the commoners’ cattle if they find them straying on to the land they’ve enclosed.’
I was sitting there with my mouth agape, but now I saw my mother, her face tense with distress, signing to me to help our little maid, Kitty, clear the dishes and broken meats from the table. There was a general movement of the men back to the fire and as I was sweeping the crumbs into my apron, Tom murmured to me, ‘Come out to the yard.’
‘We’ll just shut up the stock, Father,’ he said.
Father waved a dismissive hand at him, for he was deep in argument with the others. I pouched my apron and added a few more scraps for the hens, then followed my brother outside.
After I had shaken the scraps into the hen-hus and shut the hens away, Tom beckoned me into the cowbarn. It was warm and quiet in there, out of the niggling March wind that had sprung up at dusk, plucking at my skirt and cap. The only sounds were the familiar rhythmic chewing of the cud and the rustle of straw as one of the cows shifted or else some small creature – rat or mouse – made its stealthy way through the barn in search of food.
‘What is the matter?’ I asked. ‘Secrets or mischief?’ My brother was known for both, though Cambridge had sobered his mischief somewhat. However, his six months at Grey’s Inn in London, soon after Parliament and King locked horns, had increased his appetite for secrets.
‘I believe what Gervase told us is true.’
‘About the ban on church marriages and baptism?’
‘That too. There’s no end to the tyranny of these Puritans. No, I meant Cromwell and the projectors.’
‘Father doesn’t believe it.’
‘Father is blind to what that man has become. He wooed us when he wanted a seat in Parliament. Now he has got it, and made himself king in all but name, he is greedy for our land to support him in fine state.’
I looked at him dubiously.
‘We still have a king.’
‘A king without a throne, without power, prisoner of Parliament.’
‘Oh, I’ve no love of Charles, but I’m not such a fool as to trust Cromwell either. I saw what they are like, these new men scrambling for power, during those months I was in London. They are no more friends of the common man than the King. Did you read those pamphlets of John Lilburne’s that I gave you?’
‘Aye. And what he says is a fine dream, but when will such a dream become reality in England? And besides, Father is no fool either.’
Tom picked up a hazel branch from the floor and began swishing it angrily against his leg.
‘I don’t say he is a fool, but he has put his trust in a man who shifts like fog. They say Cromwell acts always as God’s voice directs. Perhaps he even believes that. But why does the voice of God forever prompt him to work for the greater glory of Oliver Cromwell? If he has it in mind to drain our Fens and enclose our commons for his own possession, is that God’s will? It seems to me it is Cromwell’s will.’
I did not answer him at once. Because he was so much older than I, Tom had always led and I had always trotted along behind, trying to keep up. When I was small, I had believed him wise and invincible. And my father? He was a man of standing in our village, a substantial yeoman farmer, held in some awe by the poorer cottagers and labourers. Besides, he was Nathaniel Bennington’s son. Troublemaker and hero. The quarrels that had flared up recently between my brother and my father had left me floundering. They could not both be right.
Still, there was no sign yet of surveyors laying their cordon of instruments around our commons. And until there was . . .
‘You will see,’ Tom said, reading my thoughts, as so often he did. ‘Once the surveyors come, you will see the truth of it.’
‘And what shall we do then?
‘What shall we do?’ He stepped out into the yard and I followed him. ‘What do you think?’ He leaned over to close and bolt the door.
Then he turned to me and gave an odd smile, half rueful, half eager.
‘Why then we will fight!’
We had not long to wait. March blew itself out on a wet wind and, as the feeble April sun came in, the winter-flooded fields dried out. We drove the cattle and sheep and horses out on to the lay-lands delegated for pasture this year, and the pigs into the copses. As soon as the ground was fit, we ploughed the remaining fields, turning in the rich silt washed down from the inland wolds, which nourishes our land and makes it, so I’ve been told, the richest arable in England. The air was full of the scent of the tilth, heady as a Christmas plum cake. The blackbird and the mavis were building their nests in the hedgerows, while herons high-stepped along the runnels and the lace of meres that stretched across the peat moors, dignified as magistrates strolling to a Lincoln courthouse. Until an unlucky fish or frog caught their eye and they swooped, sudden as a blue hawk.
After Gervase Clarke’s announcement, the matter of Cromwell’s projection was not mentioned again in our house, as if an unspoken truce held between Tom and Father. Still, there was a kind of quivering tension in the air. As for marriages and baptisms, the rector carried on just as before. A quiet, gentle man, he could be stubborn as a pig in defence of what he believed. Unless he could perform the traditional rites of the church, he would not consider a couple married in God’s sight or a child accepted into the holy company of Christians.
The first marriage to take place in the village after the Puritan decree was to be between my friend Alice Morton and Rafe Cox. And, because Alice had whispered it to me, I knew it would not be long before there would be a baptism too. The wedding would be held after the ploughing and the planting of the spring wheat. When the common field was harrowed after sowing, to spread and bury the seed wheat, Alice and I sat side-by-side to weigh down the flint-toothed harrow as we had done since we were six years old. Jealous of our rights as the harrow girls, we had not yielded our place to the youngsters of the village, but this would be our last year, and we knew it. Two great girls sitting, knees up, our skirts gathered about us, barely finding room on the harrow unless we clutched at each other, we giggled at our own folly, but felt a touch of melancholy at the passing of our girlhood. It was as we bumped across the field, drawn by my father’s yoke of plough oxen, that Alice confided to me that she was gone with child, who would be born in the summer. Her plump form, snug and homely as a new-baked loaf, concealed any sign of the baby yet, but I could see in her eyes a faraway look, as though she was watching something I could not see. Marriage would put an end to our closest ties, warmer than sisters.
‘Will you stand for the babe, Mercy,’ she whispered, ‘when he is baptised?’
‘Of course I’ll be his gossip,’ I said, giving her arm a small squeeze. ‘So, it’s to be a boy, is it?’
She grinned. ‘That’s what Rafe hopes. His father is so bent with rheumatism that he wants to see an heir growing up for the farm. I’ll hope to satisfy him. But for myself, I’ll be as happy with a girl.’
‘We work as hard as the men,’ I said. ‘In the fields as well as at home. A girl could be as good an heir for Master Cox.’
She smiled and shook her head. She knew I read pamphlets and entertained some of the dangerous ideas brewing in the air, but she could not read, nor could she agree with me.
‘And will you attend me on my marriage day?’
‘Would you dare to ask anyone else?’
We fell to discussing the wedding, to take place the following week, until the harrow reached the end of its last turn at the adland and we climbed off, stiff and dusty, and a little ashamed of our childish behaviour. Let the young girls take over the task in future. Our lives were changing.
I went early to Alice’s house on the marriage day and helped her into her best bodice and skirt, noticing as I laced her in that they were both tighter than they should be. We had gathered flowers the previous evening and kept them overnight in water in her mother’s stillroom. It was too early for many to be found, but I wove together forget-me-nots, and pale ladysmock, and a few hearts-at-ease to make her a crown, which I pinned in place on her piled-up hair. This one day she would let the full glory of its red-gold curls be seen. I had always envied it, a burst of dawn sunlight compared to my dun brown hair of dusk. Still, when she persuaded me that in my role as attendant maid I should uncover my hair and dress it with the leftover flowers, I felt a curiously guilty pleasure in laying aside my headcloth and cap, and feeling freedom like a soft wind on my head.
Around her shoulders I draped a silk shawl of my mother’s, which had once belonged to her grandmother, born a Dillingworth and therefore gentry. The colour feasted the eye amongst our village greys and browns; it was the very shade sported on the breasts of the peacocks which strutted on the manor lawn. I stroked it delicately with tender fingertips. Usually it was kept hidden in my mother’s coffer, layered with lavender and rosemary, whose scent filled the air around us as I tucked the points into Alice’s too-tight waistband.
‘One day you’ll wear this yourself,’ Alice said, ‘when you marry.’
‘If I marry.’
No young man of the village meant anything to me.
Alice and Rafe were married by custom at the church door, and then we all processed inside for the service of blessing. Alice was lovely as apple blossom, while Rafe looked like a smug fireside cat at having secured the prettiest girl in the village. In the usual fashion at every wedding, some of the mothers wept a little and the men shifted uncomfortably in their Sunday clothes, surreptitiously loosening their shirt strings at the neck and turning their felt hats on their knees while Gervase preached a brief sermon on the joys and responsibilities of marriage. He had not, I was sure, noticed Alice’s increased plumpness.
After the wedding, we gathered in the village tithe barn to celebrate. Empty now except for a few piles of hay and straw, and the sacks of seed beans and peas and barley we would be planting next week, it was our largest covered space, apart from the great hall of the manor house, but the Dillingworths had no part in the wedding of Alice Morton and Rafe Cox.
Every one of our neighbours had contributed what they could. The last of the dried fruits had been baked into pies, the first of the spring-rich cream had been curdled into syllabubs, and sweet frumenty had been flavoured with almonds and orange-flower water. Alice’s father had brought his final and finest ham from last autumn’s slaughtering. Even Joseph Waters had trapped a wild duck, and old Hannah Green, who lived by herself out on the edge of the Fen, had brought a pot of her precious honey.
After the bulk of the feasting, there was dancing. Alice’s brother Robin played the fiddle, while Johnny Samson was the best piper in the whole hundred round about. They struck up with Fair-Haired Maid in honour of Alice as Rafe led her into the space which had been cleared in the centre of the barn for round dances.
No doubt our country gambols would seem like the clumsy clod-hoppings of peasants, with no more grace than cattle, in the eyes of the grand folk Tom had mixed with in Cambridge and London, but I doubt whether their fine marriage feasts could have showered more love and generous hope on the bridal pair than was in the air that evening.
I joined in with the rest, dancing with Tom and some of his friends, until Gervase Clarke approached me. His clerical bands were slightly askew and in the friendly candlelight he looked younger than his near thirty years, closer to Tom and the others. He held out his hand.
‘Will you dance with me, Mercy?’
‘I will,’ I said, taking his hand. We have no mincing manners here. A grown girl may dance with whom she chooses, even the rector, let the godly Saints frown how they will. We danced to fiddle and pipe till we gasped for breath, and Gervase trod on my toes as readily as the rest.
‘Pax!’ I cried at last. ‘Give me to drink of beer before I melt like butter in the sun!’
He brought wooden cups of beer for us both – a somewhat strong brew from Mistress Cox’s still room – which we drained thankfully as the figures spun across the barn and out into the moonlit night.
Was there something frantic in our merriment? Did we sense, somehow, that this was not a beginning, but an ending? That after this night, when we had roared and teased Alice and Rafe to bed by lantern light, then blown out our frugal candles to make our way home through familiar lumps and shadows in the dark, nothing would be the same when the sun rose in the morrow on our thick heads and heavy limbs?