Category Archives: History

The bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil

Click to embiggenThe chances are, you’ll never have heard of it. If, though, you ever drive over to the east coast of Yorkshire from the Manchester area (or vice versa, I suppose), take a tip from me. Leave the M1 for a while onto the little-travelled B1217. It’s a pleasant relief to take country roads for a short stretch between the hellpit of the M1, and the hugely horrible A64.

The meandering B road passes an Edwardian mansion, Lotherton Hall, and bends through the village of  Saxton. Past the Crooked Billet pub, the narrow road lopes onto rising farmland. Through tall hedges you will glimpse cornfields and copses in this particularly English landscape. Shortly after the hedges give up the ghost, you’ll see something of an anomaly on your left. A big old holly bush squats by the road, dark and gloomy and alien-looking. You can park nearby.

If you then peer behind the old holly, you’ll find an ancient, weather-worn gothic cross. No one knows who first put the cross here – it lay in a ditch for centuries before being righted again. On its base, amongst flowers both dried and fresh, you’ll see a recently added date – March 28, 1461. The anonymous inscriber got the date wrong: it should be the 29th. The 29th of March in that year of turmoil during the Wars of the Roses was a Sunday – Palm Sunday, in fact.

Click to embiggenOn that snow-driven day, perhaps the most significant day of the entire struggle for the throne between Edward and Henry, 100,000 men met at this place to hack, stab, slice, suffocate, bludgeon and trample each other to death. This was by far the most murderous battle ever fought on British soil, yet most of you will never have heard of it. A hundredth of the entire British population died in the blood-stained snow between dawn and dusk that day; almost 30,000 men –  three times the number of casualties than on the first day of The Somme.

This was a horrific, bloody brawl. Imagine, if you can, the driving, stinging blizzard; the deafening racket of clashing arms and armour, the pleading of men, the screaming and howled obscenities; the stench of puke and shit and trampled entrails. If you fall, you’re dead in seconds, the life crushed out of you by the sheer weight of men jammed into this meat-mincer. If hell has ever been upon the earth, this was it. The death toll was so great, and bodies piled up so much, that occasional pauses were called in the fighting in order to drag corpses of the way.

Click to embiggenThe Lancastrians began to push the Yorkists back, and the core of the fighting drifted into a vale now called Bloody Meadow. If you walk up the lane a little from the cross, you’ll see the bowl of this small valley before you. The slaughter, unremitting, continued late into the afternoon. The Yorkists, led by Edward, the son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York , were outnumbered and outfought. They became ever more desperate as they gave way, inch by bloody inch, across the field. Then, up what is now the B1217, marched an army bearing aloft banners that displayed a white boar. These were the men of the Duke of Norfolk, whose fresh reinforcements pelted into the Lancastrians’ flank. The Lancastrians were stopped in their tracks, faltered, and began to give ground, tripping over the corpses of their own dead. The beleaguered Lancastrians bent, broke and ran like buggery. Then the rout began. If the battle was vicious, the rout added a whole new level of brutality.

Click to embiggenFar more men died in the rout than in the battle. Bridges in the path of the fleeing Lancastrians shattered under the weight of armed men, plunging many to a freezing death in the icy water. Thousands were caught and mutilated, for it had been agreed in the parley before the battle that no quarter would be given, no mercy shown. Part-hidden, in a naked stand of ash trees, was the grim Bridge of Bodies, built of Lancastrian dead to form a dam, the rushing waters streaming with crimson grume. Panicked, hysterical men scrambled across the River Cock over the carcases of the fallen. From Tadcaster to Towton, the fields were strewn with corpses and body parts. The fleeing men made easy targets for horsemen, and foot soldiers killed many who had dropped their weapons and thrown off their helmets to breathe more freely. And all the while, the blizzard raged.

In 1996 a mass grave of more than 40 bodies was discovered at Towton Hall. It delivered the bones of some of the soldiers who had fought and died at Towton. The skeletons showed evidence of terrible wounds – there were some with at least 20 head injuries. They all died horribly.

“The thing that shook us was that these people had been butchered. Perhaps the most spectacular ones are where people have had part of their head sliced off, or their head cut in half. There’s much evidence of mutilation. That noses and ears were hacked off.” – Dr Alan Ogden, a palaeo-pathologist.

Click to embiggenWhen you know the history of this place – the significant battle that took place here to decide the fate of the English throne, the awful toll it took, the hellish things that happened to thousands of men, you can’t simply stroll amongst the corn and enjoy the sun. The terrible deaths of those thousands haunt your thoughts. There are ghosts here.

“Walk in the margin of the corn as it is ruffled by the blustering wind. Above, the thick mauve, mordant clouds curdle and thud like bruises, bowling patches of sunlight across the rise and fall of the land. In the distance is a single stunted tree, flattened by the south wind. It marks the corner of this sombre, elegiac place.  It would be impossible to walk here and not feel the dread underfoot – the echo of desperate events vibrating just behind the hearing. This is a sad, sad, dumbly eloquent deathscape.” – A. A. Gill, 2008

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The Raven’s Wing characters, #6: Jenifry, the cunning woman

Character visualisation by Kit CooperSensual. Serious. Slow to trust. Taciturn. Brusque. When her mother was murdered for being different, 11-year-old Jenifry was taken captive, beaten, raped, and bled regularly into a silver bowl. Eight years later she has escaped, and has returned to her secluded home, a large oak tree in the middle of the forest.

Why has she lured our hero, John the Minstrel, there? What does she know of his wife’s death? What plans does she have for him? And how, since her legs are broken, is she able to move so quickly from place to place?

“Dark of hair she was, and dark of eye, her gaze the depth of a star-spattered night. She peered up at John from beneath lowered brows, and crawled up his body. Her full breasts brushed his thighs, teasing upwards as she moved her weight from arm to arm. Her gaze never left his as she slowed her advance. John was unable to move. He was held captive, shackled by her glittering eyes as a moth beguiled by the moon.”

The Raven’s Wing, a medieval adventure set in 1322, is available for Kindle and in paperback (with free postage, in the UK at least) here.

Other character posts (click to read):

John the MinstrelWynifreed, John's wifeRalf, the gongfermourAilred, the smithMoss, the fire-dancer

Medieval recipes culled from The Raven’s Wing

The Raven’s Wing features a copious notes section full of fascinating facts about the 14th century in which it is set. Here are three recipes for you to try at home. I can particularly recommend the waffres.

WaffresR Waffres

Clap Bread

R Clap-bread

Beef & Cherry PieR Beef & cherry pie

The Raven’s Wing characters, #5: Moss, the fire-dancer

Character visualisation sketch by Kit CooperSarcastic, manipulative, and with a mysterious past, Moss is a jongleuse, dancer, and mistress of fire. John first sees her performing at The Angel Inn in Northampton, little suspecting how tightly her fate will become bound to his.

John stared wide-eyed and gape-mouthed. The young woman was fiery in every sense of the word. The hair that tumbled about her bare shoulders was the colour of an autumn sunset. She danced nimbly, bare-footed, to the rhythm of the audience clapping, the nails on her toes crimson-painted.

The woman’s features were soft and attractive, yet dragged askew by a scar that tore down her cheek. But the scar was not what gave him pause. More startling was the eye beneath that scar. That it was false could not be in doubt, for a strange eye it was. It looked to be made of amber, or some other ochre-tinged material, and in the centre, where the pupil should be, sat a small black spider.

The Raven’s Wing, a medieval adventure set in 1322, is available in paperback (with free postage, in the UK at least) and Kindle here.

Other character posts (click to read):

John the MinstrelWynifreed, John's wifeRalf, the gongfermourAilred, the smith

The Raven’s Wing characters, #4: Ailred the smith

Character visualisation sketch by Kit CooperA black man of enormous beard and heart. The gruff Ditchford smith smells of hot metal and pie crust. The village gossips say that Ailred is descended from African nobility. He remains silent about such things.

“Hens!” shouted Ailred, waking suddenly. He sat up and looked around with a startled expression, resembling a bewildered owl in the orange light thrown up by the now merrily burning fire. Smoke swirled into the blackness of the roof. He scratched his black beard, dislodging a small bone, which he inspected closely. He descended into a fit of deep coughing. Eventually he achieved some sort of resolution with his lungs and spat copiously in the fire, which hissed a complaint. He threw the bone into the flames.

Ailred’s growing romance with the widow Rohesia provides a gentle backdrop to the growing turmoil of The Raven’s Wing.  One day I shall write his backstory.

“Kumis,” Aildred said. “Fermented mare’s milk with added honey.”
“I call it milk-mead,” Rohesia said. “And isn’t it just the tastiest thing? Ailred makes it.”
“Not often,” he said. “It’s not so easy to get mare’s milk. You can use goat, or cow, but the taste isn’t quite the same.”
“Apparently, it’s quite the thing back in Ailred’s homeland, and he learned to—”
“This is my homeland now,” Ailred said, squeezing Rohesia’s podgy hand.

The Raven’s Wing, a medieval adventure set in 1322, is available in paperback (with free postage, in the UK at least) and Kindle here.

Other character posts (click to read):

John the MinstrelWynifreed, John's wifeRalf, the gongfermour

The Raven’s Wing characters, #3: Ralf

Character visualisation sketch by Kit Cooper

A shock of red hair explodes from beneath a ragged wool cap, shading Ralf’s smiling eyes. John the Minstrel’s best friend is tall and clean-shaven. He is gongfermour for the village of Ditchford, which is to say he digs out and removes human excrement from privies and cesspits, disposing of it into the river below the village. He lives across the lane from Wyni and John, with whom he shares a horse, Molly.

The Raven’s Wing, a medieval adventure set in 1322, is available in paperback (with free postage, in the UK at least) and Kindle here.

Other characters: No.1 Minstrel John, No. 2 Wynifreed

The Raven’s Wing characters, #2: Wyni

Character visualisation sketch by Kit CooperJohn the Minstrel’s recently-dead wife, Wynifreed. She was thin, a result of growing up through the Great Famine, with brown hair in a short bob. She had thrilled John’s heart with a lopsided smile, joyful laughter and a love of nature.  “He remembered how beautiful she had looked the day that they had wed, a circlet of daisies about her brown head, her smile dazzling in the sunshine.” Perhaps surprisingly, she still has a lot to say for herself.

The Raven’s Wing, a medieval adventure set in 1322, is available in paperback (with free postage in the UK) and Kindle here.

Other characters: No.1 Minstrel John

The Raven’s Wing characters, #1: John the minstrel

Character visualisation sketch by Kit Cooper

Our handsome hero, Minstrel John, who plays a gittern and sings at fairs and festivals around Northampton. He is cheerful and inquisitive, and enjoys riddles and puzzles. His dream is to earn the patronage of the local lord, Baron de Leycester. Currently in mourning after the recent death of his wife.

The Raven’s Wing, a medieval adventure set in 1322, is available in paperback (with free postage in the UK) and Kindle here.

Here’s me in the mid 1970s

I have no idea who the other people are, although I *think* the stripy sexpot was called Jude.

BEARD

Edward Raby – drunken artist

The current Mrs. Wombat’s Great Great Great Grandfather, Edward Raby. was born in 1810 in Staffordshire. He joined the Poultney pottery in 1845, and became celebrated for his work modelling flowers in parian on earthenware.

beesMy favourite piece of his is the small group consisting of a beehive beneath a may bush in full bloom. Bees scurry on the hive, a little flight of steps with hand rails leading towards it. On the left you can see a nest of young birds, almost on the ground, with just above the head of a snake about to devour them. The mother bird, in the foliage above the hive, ruffles her feathers in anger and despair. When you consider that each feather of this bird was made and adjusted individually; that the bodies and wings and legs of the bees were all separately made and placed together while the clay was still wet; that each little stem of may bloom was made by rolling the clay round a piece of fine cotton, the bloom then being attached to the end of the cotton leaf by leaf, and the stamens added afterwards, you will realise the immense patience and devotion to his art shown by Edward.

He was not always reliable after being paid, however. His wages were high at a pound a day, but often he went absent for a week or more on drinking binges. After one too many of these lapses in 1849 the owner, J.D. Pountney, sacked him. He was not seen for some time, until one day he appeared at Pountney’s house in Richmond Hill when the owner himself was away on business.

His wife, Charlotte, spoke to Edward, and he revealed the exquisite piece of work photographed above, telling her that he had done it during his “holiday”, and had got the men at the works to fire it for him without the master’s knowledge. He offered it to the “young missus” on condition she persuaded the “old master” to take him on again. Amused by both his impudence and his talent she soon induced the “old master” to comply.

Edward remained with Pountney’s for many years, working always to a supremely high quality. At one time Charlotte Pountney exhibited the beehive piece and was offered sixty pounds for it by William Gladstone, which she declined. She defended Edward, saying that his lapses were few and far between. In his book “Old Bristol Potteries” her son, W. J. Pountney, described Edward as “a very kindly old man, for he seemed old to me at the time, and he used to try to teach my youngest sister and me how to model those little leaves of his. The only thing that I was able to accomplish was rolling the clay round a bit of cotton, but my sister was more successful and she could manage to model small leaves”.

BCWqDXYCMAAjtQo.jpg largeSpecimens of Edward’s flower plaques were placed in recesses beneath the High Cross in College Green in 1847, and when the cross was removed over a hundred years later, one was found still intact. It came into the hands of artist Emma Clegg’s mother. Emma’s sculpture is inspired by Edward’s work, and on her website she describes the find:

“It’s a tiny wreath of peonies, which are no more than 1cm across. The accuracy and precision that he achieved in clay is just breath-taking. It was buried under a cross in Bristol for over one hundred years, and when the cross had to be removed, the piece was, miraculously, still perfectly intact. I’m in awe of the skill and patience that he must have had. Such skill…

He described himself in the 1861 census return (which is where I first met him) as a “Flower Maker”. He certainly was that, and so much more. Edward Raby left the pottery in 1864, he finally died in his home town of Hanley in 1867.

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