CHAPTER 1 The Dearth
Tommy walked through the common pasture dragging his hands along the green kernels and beards of corn. Prices in York and London had risen due to demand, and life was good! He stopped for a minute and looked up at the blue sky allowing the sun to warm his face. It was a bumper crop, but still green and not quite ready for harvest. A good crop would see them through the winter and bring in coin to purchase the tobacco and vegetables they couldn’t grow. Now a yeoman, Tommy owned his own land and didn’t have to pay rent to the lord.
His white Vandyke collar glistened in the sun and his tall, felt capotain hat gave him that staunch proud look. He wore a new black buttoned tunic and breeches and his woollen stockings were tight and tied below the knee with a brand-new navy-blue garter. His clean, black, shiny boots were cut several inches above the ankle.
The cruck house that he grew up in, had been rebuilt into a cottage, with a stair that led up into the bedrooms. The animals had been moved to a newly constructed barn outside.
The moors of Yorkshire, a beautifully, rugged land, no boundaries but the horizon which in some places went on and on and on. Green pastures and wayward hills, the colours of ochre, brown and pink coloured by a distant painter. Vivid green squares divided the land with brilliant white sheep with thick wool and dark snout dotting the hills and dales their bleating echoed through the valley. Long shoots of heather whispered their ancient secrets while swaying in the warm wind. Yes, life was good!
As the sun reached its highest point, the silvery beck glistened among the trees which lined the bank. The moors sang its songs, a chorus of chirping from the wrens and warblers trying to attract a mate.
Tommy stopped again. He raised his nose to smell the light, musky aroma of the heather that drifted off the moors. He stood for a moment and listened to call of the Curlew announcing the start of Summer. He smiled that white bright beaming smile that the women in the village fancied so much. He was then disturbed by Isabel calling in the distance.
“Tommy, Tommy, wake up ‘tis late and I ‘ave ta start me day or else the kersey won’t be finished in time fer William’s return.”
Tommy tried to open his eyes then closed them again in the light of the candle that Isabel had just lit.
“I was ‘avin a dream, a nice dream, the corn…the sun…erggh”
“No corn around ‘ere luv… come on now… up ya’ get, I’ll wake up Will and get him off to the beck fer water.”
The civil war had played havoc on the lives of the people of Haworth Halifax and Keighley and Tommy, his son Will and his wife Isabel were no exception. With the ensuing increase in taxes brought on by the new government to pay for Cromwell’s standing army, and the debt they had accumulated, life for the family was worse now than before the war. Disruption of the wool trade and continued bad harvests had made life intolerable. They etched out a meagre living on the enclosed plot of land that Tommy had inherited from his father, albeit at a higher rent.
The land was harsh and rocky and could not grow much except feed for the sheep; however, the small square vegetable garden allowed them fresh potatoes and onions in Spring and Summer if they didn’t rot from the damp.
The cottage had been enlarged to allow space for the loom and a small mullioned window had been fashioned to replace four stones in the wall. This is where Isabel, Tommy and Will spent their sixteen-hour days. Tommy and Will spent the days carding and combing wool with metal tines. It was hard work teasing, untangling, and lengthening the fibres. The quality of the wool was not what it once was, as the broggers, kept the best for the clothiers who bought in bulk from the local farmers, for their put outs. Nevertheless, they did their best to provide a good broad cloth for sale with what wool they could afford.
Broggers brought all the best wool from the local farmers in bulk, hid it away and raised the prices. Lack of wool for the household weaver forced Tommy to buy from the brogger who could ask his own price. Consequently, the difference between what they paid for the wool and the coin they could get for broad cloth at market was less!
Groggily, Tommy dressed and walked backwards down the old rickety ladder which led to the loft. He could hear Isabel trying to raise Will as the rooster welcomed the start of a new day.
Tommy’s uncle William was away selling cloth at the Halifax markets and his sons, Will’s cousins Robert and John, had since moved to the city in search of work, so the cottage was empty and quiet. The village was empty and quiet.
Isabel climbed down the ladder slowly and gingerly, trying not to step on her kirtle, still half asleep. Will followed, when he got to the bottom he turned and stood trying to get his bearings in the low light of the fire that his father teased back into a flame.
Tommy added pieces of dried peat from the stack that was neatly piled in the side of the hearth and quietly blew on the embers until the peat caught light.
Will walked over to the water bucket sitting on the floor in the corner and poured some into the clay bowl that sat on a small, round rickety table. He splashed some onto his face and wiped the nights gritty sleep from his eyes then pushed his dark hair back off his face. His dark brown doublet was ripped at the shoulders from his recent growth spurt and the buttons no longer closed together in front. His dark brown stockings were loose and collected at his ankles. His breeches, hand me downs from his father, were far too big and were tied loosely with a draw string.
He turned and grabbed his ochre woollen hat and cloak that hung on a nail near the door and placed them on. He picked up the other water bucket which lived beside the door and, lifting the latch, he opened the creaking door and stepped out into the morning. It was cold and crisp and the steamy breath from his mouth billowed.
Walking around the side of the cottage he let the few animals, minus the ox, which they had sold for grain, out of the enclosure. The six sheep had already been shorn and the wool already weaved and sold. The three lambs had been shorn with stud combs to leave more wool on the animal for protection from the cold summer nights. They relished the freedom from the enclosure and darted off in different directions; the lambs following in haste with a bounce and kick with their hind legs.
Will pulled his cloak around him to ward off the morning chill and continued, heading east toward the beck. It was a brisk start to the day and the first halo of sun could be seen peeking over the horizon in front of him. He listened to the dawn chorus; the blackbirds, robins and wrens making their morning song. The silhouette of the kingfisher in the sky flashed past on its way to the beck.
He jumped over the dry bap wall and crossed Sun Street which was wet and slippery underfoot. Reaching his favourite collection point he turned to see the trail of steps through the dewy grass. His thin leather open latchet shoes were soaked and cold against his feet. He looked north to see Haworth Manor lit up, the chimney chugging dark smoke from preparations of the inhabitants readying breakfast. The thought of it brought pangs of hunger to his stomach.
Isabel poured water from the jug into the cauldron and stirred the little barley and silverweed roots they had left from the previous day’s meal.
“Tommy we have little food left; I will need to go to the village and sell something to buy grain.”
“Aye, but it’s so dear since the ruined harvests! Bad weather, higher taxes, Summer rain, drought and frost. How are we to get on?” said Tommy with a disheartened tone.
“Things were better under the king,” he whispered so that only Isabel could hear.”
Worriedly, Isabel looked up from the hearth, “Careful with talk like that ‘usband, you’ll end up hanging from a branch.”
“Well, what do ya’ want me ta say, every time I walk up ta village, they’ve put their grain prices up again, seems poor folk are the only ones livin’ the dearth. Even with the little coin we ‘ave, provisions is scarce to say the least. Beggars grow in their number and those that don’t give do too.”
Isabel whispered, “Some say it’s the wrath of God and only after fasting and repentance will the famine and pestilence end.”
“This isn’t God’s work but devilry!” He exclaimed.
“ Well, some say the Devil is on earth collecting souls ready for the end of the world. Many speak of witches and their wicked ways turnin’ poor souls and leavin’ their marks on honest folk. Mrs Killsin was saying they be hangin’ ‘em down south. Witchfinders Matthew Hopkins and Stearne goes from village to village finding those that have made covenant with the Devil. Nineteen convicted of witchcraft t’ in Chelmsford hanged ‘em all!
“Oh, so that’s where ya’ been hearin’ all these fanciful stories, Mrs Killsin, I wouldn’t listen to everything you hear in church or from her luv.”
‘Hopkins, she said he looks fer the Devil’s mark and the witch pricker watches fer blood and if there isn’t any, branded a witch and dunked in the river ta see if they float. If they come up, she reckons that Gods turned his back on them, and they’re branded a witch and put to the hangin’.”
“I think there are more things in heaven and on earth that could do more harm than witches. The dearth will kill more than your so called Witchfinders you mark my words. Many thereabouts are travellin’ to Halifax for bread. Not that that’ll help if they are caught on the road by Quick Nick.”
“I ‘eard he don’t rob poor ‘n hungry, just the rich.”
“And what would a woman know of such things?”
“I hear things just as much as you ‘usband!”
Paul Rushworth-Brown is the author of two novels:
Skulduggery- An exciting, mysterious, fictional and historically accurate adventure pulls no punches about the life and hardships of peasant farmers living on the moors of Yorkshire in 1590.
Winter of Red- Come on this historic journey, which twists, turns and surprises until the very end. If you like history, adventure and intrigue with a dash of spirited love, then you will be engrossed by this tale of a peasant family unexpectedly getting caught up in the ravages of the English Civil War in 1642.
Dream of Courage- Coming soon