Babbitt,, romance, Russell

Saturday Scenes – The Battle of Cheriton, 1665

#saturdayscenes, in which we realise that all is not well in the romantic camp of one Thankful Russell and his somewhat clumsy courtship.
And the real Battle of Cheriton did not take place in 1665. Hollie Babbitt, after the Restoration, breeds horses on his farm in Essex. It is a standing joke that all his horses are named after Parliamentarian battles of the Civil War… hence Cheriton is the name of the nervous colt.

My first foray into romantic fiction!

The bay colt stopped ten yards away with his sea-horse head flung up, white-eyed and trembling. Thomazine gave a deep sigh. “He won’t, will he?”
Hollie Babbitt put the hand holding the halter behind his back. “That lad’s not daft, Zee. He knows you’ve got something he wants -” and she smiled wryly, and set the pan holding the last of the oats on top of the gatepost, “- but he’s scared stiff of putting his head in a halter.”
She clasped her hands around the oat-pan. “He’s not going to come to me this time, though, is he?”
It wasn’t a question, and Hollie wasn’t supposed to answer it, but he did anyway, carefully. “If he thinks you’re going to hurt him – no. No, he won’t. He was half way to trusting us, and we scared him off. He’s nervous. He’s unused to being around people, that one.” Wilfully misunderstanding the pronoun, because his daughter wasn’t talking about handling the bay colt, any more than Hollie had been strictly referring to halter-breaking the wary yearling.
Thomazine gave another deep sigh, and the wind lifted her modest plain linen collar, flicking it into the air. The colt jerked back onto his quarters, stiff with panic at the sight of that innocent fluttering corner of white fabric. “I begin to think he is unmanageable,” she said, and she still wasn’t talking about the yearling.
Hollie shrugged, watching the colt’s flickering ears. Anxious, and afraid, and wanting to know what the hell was going on here, and what he was missing out on, and what all the fuss was about, and yet too shy to take those three strides across the spring mud and stick his quivering velvet muzzle in Thomazine’s oat-pan.
Actually, that was not a metaphor he chose to dwell on, given the tenuous nature of the relationship between his innocent young daughter and his former lieutenant of his younger days in the New Model Army.
And actually, she was twenty, and more than of marriageable age should she choose to be, and his erstwhile lieutenant had been a Major under General Monck these ten years and more.
Even so. If Hapless bloody Russell had had his marred nose in Thomazine’s oat-pan, he was going to get taken round the back of the barn and given the hiding of his life –
They’re betrothed, Hollie. Russell might be forty-two, forty-three now, almost. She might be twenty and about as interested in lads as that colt is in learning to dance. She’s only ever been interested in onelad, and well you know it, since she was toddling. And she’s promised to him. What if they have – anticipated matters? You did. Twice, you degenerate ruffian. And you lived in sin with your first wife for many a month, before she finally consented to make it lawful.
The colt was still watching them, wide-eyed. Braced ready to bolt, but screwing his courage to the sticking-post. “Daddy,” Thomazine said, in a small voice, and turned to him.
He had half-expected that she would be crying, and tears had never made Thomazine lovely. Her sister, yes. Joyeux had the knack of dropping her lashes so that tears sparkled on them like dew on long grass, and letting her voice break prettily. Thomazine’s nose turned pink – Thomazine’s nose was pure Babbitt, like her father’s, long and straight and undeniably prominent. It was a very much beloved nose, and if that bloody Russell had done something more than usually stupid to have it turning pink, then the lad was going to unleash the wrath of God on his sorry carcass –
She wasn’t crying. She looked very white and very woeful, and she looked as if she had been crying, not so long ago, but her eyes were quite dry. “Daddy,” she said again, and reached into her bodice and took something out.
It was rolled, and somewhat worn looking, as if someone had been deeply attached to whatever it was, and had unrolled it as often as possible. It wasn’t especially pristine, but that might have been because it had been stuffed untimely down the front of Thomazine’s workaday gown.
She held it out to Hollie.
She held it out very carefully, because it was torn down the middle. Quite neatly, and quite precisely, but torn. He recognised his own handwriting, or part of it at least.
“A bargaine of hand
Russell, and Thomassyn
and as may apeare
howse at Fowre Ashes in -“
“Zee,” he said, carefully. “Zee, lass, that’s your – that’s your betrothal lines. What’s – how come you’ve got them?”
“I told Thankful we should not suit,” she said in a small voice.
“And he tore it up? The -“
“No, daddy.” The corner of her mouth turned up. “I did.”
“Oh dear,” Hollie said feebly. He could think of little else to say. The colt swung his head and looked from one to the other of them.
“I wish I hadn’t.”
“Oh dear,” he said again. She took a step closer to him, and he sighed. He’d have made it better, if he could. He’d always wanted to make it better for his girls. He’d never managed it, for any but this one. Too big, and too clumsy, and he wasn’t deft with making or mending: the least he had been able to manage for his children was bedtime stories of the glory days of the Army, and spit-on handkerchiefs for bloody knees and scraped palms. Thomazine was his firstborn and he’d loved her, with an absolute, astonishing, unconditional wonder, from the first moment he’d set eyes on her comically-cross little face. He’d always been able to make it better for Zee.
And now he couldn’t, because she had chosen her own path, and he might not like it, but it was hers, and he couldn’t walk it for her, any more than he could have guided her first fumbling footsteps across the parlour.
The which he hadn’t done anyway, because she had learned to walk proper holding Thankful Russell’s hands. Russell had been there, and Hollie had not.
He puffed his cheeks out, and the bay colt tossed his head nervously again. He could not put things right between his daughter and Russell. That was hers to mend. Between Zee’s red-haired temper and Russell’s tendency to brood on imagined slights, it would want a deal of mending, if they were to deal together as happily as Hollie had dealt with his Het these last twenty years.

“Bit o’ paste will set all to rights, lass,” he said comfortingly. “Your mother’s skilled with such things. Come on. The lad won’t melt, if we leave him to his own devices another night.”

Babbitt, humour, new books, present, writing

Meet Hollie Babbitt. It is all his fault….

Captain Hollie Babbitt – rising to the dizzy heights of Colonel in the Army of Parliament later in the Uncivil Wars series, although still a captain at the point when we meet him. Hollie being short for Holofernes, a fact he prefers to keep to himself, not wishing to be known as a most notorious Puritan’s whelp. He’s also the first Leveller hero in historical fiction…. but not in this book he isn’t, the Levellers not coming into recognised existence until 1645. You can, though, see him headed that way. (He’s also fictional, but he does pal around with factual people – in no order Thomas Fairfax, Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Rainsborough, and assorted other well-known historical figures of the English Civil War.)

Present story is set in late 1643-early 1644, starting in Essex, moving up to Yorkshire following Thomas Fairfax’s campaign against King Charles in the North. This is the fourth book in the series: the third was set later on in the wars, I just happen to be moving about a little bit chronologically.

What do we need to know about Hollie? The most important thing is that he likes people to think that he’s a hard nut who doesn’t care about anyone or anything. And he isn’t. And that he has a very, very strong independent streak, a tendency to speak his mind at the most unhelpful times, and a fierce sense of justice. (Oh – and that he might fight for Parliament, but that’s only because they gave him the money first.)

The main conflict – ha! Well, in this book, there’s Hollie’s always-tenuous relationship with his father: Hollie having been brought up strict, godly, and often with the buckle end of a stirrup leather.  There’s his relationship with his wife, who’s about to have their first child, and he isn’t going to be there because he’s in Yorkshire and she’s in Essex. There’s Hollie’s best mate, the posh poet Luce Pettitt, who has a habit of taking on hopeless causes and who’s landed the troop with a scarred lieutenant with an attitude problem and a bad reputation for intemperacy. (The somewhat illegal nature of Lieutenant Russell’s attachment to the troop being why they’re in Yorkshire, as far away as possible from the lawful custody he was supposed to be in!)
And technically, the main conflict of the book is the battle at Marston Moor….
What mostly messes up Hollie’s life is King Charles and the Royalist Army, who do seem to get in his way quite a lot!

Hollie’s personal goal is, always and ever, to GO HOME. To have a quiet life, and for the increasing number of people whose welfare he feels responsible for, to be safe and happy. As a number of these people are soldiers under his command, the two are not always compatible, and he has to sort one out before he can have the other.

The book’s called “Babylon” – it will be out early next year. Currently the only place to read more about it is on my blog…. sorry!

cheese, history,, humour, new books, ponderations, writing

Blessed Are the Cheesemakers – a guest post from D W Bradbridge

I should like to welcome my good friend D W Bradbridge, who writes the popular mysteries set in Civil War Cheshire featuring Constable Daniel Cheswis.

DW Bradbridge was born in 1960 and grew up in Bolton. He has lived in Crewe, Cheshire since 2000, where he and his wife run a small magazine publishing business for the automotive industry. 
Daniel Cheswis, on the other hand, lives in Nantwich and is a respectable cheese-merchant, as well as the local constable. Everywhere Master Cheswis goes there seem to be murders and mysteries abounding. It’s all very exciting, but I suspect Hollie is glad he doesn’t live any nearer to Cheshire. It’s a wonder there’s anyone left standing!
By the late 17th century “Cheshire Cheese” was a byword for quality. In the space of little more than twenty years it had become the main cheese eaten in London and the name had become a “brand” in the modern sense of the word.  Its growing market share was reflected in the number of eating establishments naming themselves after it. Indeed in 1678 Samuel Pepys is recorded as visiting The Cheshire Cheese, an establishment close to his home near the Tower of London. 
But why did Cheshire cheese become so successful and so quickly? After all, before 1650 there were no specialist dairy farms. Farmers produced largely for their own consumption with excess production being sold off at markets to people who did not keep their own cattle. 
However, there is plenty of evidence that Cheshire cheese was relished in London, having been brought to the capital in small quantities by the gentry and well-to-do merchants. Unfortunately, at this time it was too expensive to send it by cart in large quantities. However, during the 1640s a couple of things happened (apart from the Civil War, that is), which opened up the market. Firstly Suffolk, where most of London’s cheese came from, suffered terribly from floods and cattle disease, which made the price of Suffolk cheese double. Secondly, an increased demand for butter led Suffolk farmers to skim off the cream from the milk for butter production before make the cheese, thereby reducing the quality of Suffolk cheese. 
The result was boom time for cheese farmers in the North of England. At the time, Cheshire Cheese became a generic name for cheese from Staffordshire, Shropshire, South Lancashire and parts of Wales too, partly because of the fame Cheshire Cheese had gained for itself, but also because between 1650 and 1670 all cheese from these areas was shipped from Chester. Eventually Frodsham also became a major port for cheese ships and other shipments ended up being sent from Hull, having been transported from South Cheshire along the Trent. 
So if Cheshire Cheese was the UK’s favourite cheese at the turn of the 18th century, why did the market eventually fade? The first reason was the development of canal system, which made it easier for cheesemakers from other parts of England to service the London market. This worked the other way too, as it also opened up other regional markets for Cheshire farmers. A further reason was a reduction in sea trade after the war with the French started at the end of the 1680s. This meant that cheese began to be transported by land again, which significantly increased the cost. 
But let us go back to 1650. The first recorded shipment of Cheshire cheese took place on 21 October that year by one William Seaman, a London merchant from a Cheshire family.  
“Wait,” I hear you say, “I’ve heard that name before,” and you would be right. William Seaman makes an appearance in A Soldier of Substance as Daniel Cheswis’ cheese merchant friend from Chester. History, unfortunately, does not record Cheswis’ involvement in the first shipment! Cheswis is a fairly modest chap, so he probably wanted to keep his name out of the limelight. 
 The Cheswis books are currently available on Amazon UK:
Or of course if you happened to be passing the National Civil War Centre in Newark, they are available in the shop there!

history,, ponderations, present, women

Touching the Past

Image copyright V&A Museum

I’m a re-enactor, a writer, and a social historian.

You knew all that anyway, right? It says so in my bio, right there, along with the stuff about cats and cake and cavalry backswords (All of which is true.)

Because as I’ve said before, I don’t just want my readers to read a story. And I’m thrilled to say that a lot of my reviews – oo, get me – do actually say that they feel like they know my boys, feel like they’re there with them.
Because history isn’t just about dates and battles, it’s about people, and I don’t think people have ever changed. We all want, basically, the same things, to a greater or lesser degree. We want to be warm and dry at night, we want something to eat and something to drink – and possibly, if you’re Thankful Russell circa 1644, not in that order. It’s called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It goes – once you have realised one level of need, you can move onto the next – called actualisation:

1. Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep.
2. Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.
3. Love and belongingness needs – friendship, intimacy, affection and love, – from work group, family, friends, romantic relationships.
4. Esteem needs – achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect, respect from others.
5. Self-Actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

The level one and two needs, well, they are simple needs, aren’t they? The sort of things no one should be without in a civilised world. (She says, channelling her inner Leveller.)

Level three, we’re starting to get complicated. (Aren’t we. Hollie. Russell.) But this is all by the by, it’s stuff for another post. What I’m talking about is embroidery, and re-enactment, and a bit of hands-on history.

I’m making a rather pretty polychrome embroidered coif at the moment. Just for fun, to give myself pleasure, a small, portable bit of embroidery that I can pop in a workbag and take around with me and work on when I’ve got a spare few minutes. It’s based on Margaret Laton’s early 17th century embroidered linen jacket and it’s trimmed with gold needle-lace and it’s got parrots and snails and caterpillars and all kinds of silliness on it. But, as George Wingfield Digby says in his 1963 book “Elizabethan Embroidery”, it is “….the integrated expression of a society still creative and joyful about the things it could make and use.”
So – it’s a thing that gives me pleasure, because I am a competent, creative needlewoman, and because it has some silly little figures on it like the marvellous snail and the chicken, things for the sheer joy of putting them on. And, you know, a woman sat there in 1620-ish and did likewise. She drew on silly bugs and beasties with a fine-nibbed pen and she embroidered them in not-always-realistic colours for the pleasure of owning a pretty thing, and for the joy of wearing something that had given her pleasure to create. (Some of the jackets that survive have been carefully crafted by artisans, professional needlewomen. Just as many weren’t – made at home by skilled amateurs. In the case of some of them. not even that skilled, but enthusiastic.)

And so, you know, I’ve got this little project on the go, and it’s pretty, and sparkly, but it also feels nice to the touch. The thing with the embroidery is that it’s all textured and nubbly, it’s got braid stitch and detached buttonhole stitch, and the peapods open up to reveal three-dimensional peas, and the parrot’s head is padded. And that’s what it’s for. It’s for touching, and stroking, and moving in so that the braid sparkles and the sequins shimmer. It’s a thing to be worn, not to be looked at. It’s a thing that I would expect children at a re-enactment to touch, and look for the animals on, and hold to the light.
I read an interesting article recently about how museums are increasingly becoming glorified playgrounds in an attempt to attract families and although I hate the idea that history is being mass-produced to make it palatable, I love the thought that maybe it will make the past real to more people. Believe me, my coif – 4 hours and counting and I’ve not even finished drawing up the pattern or putting on the needle-lace yet – it’s not a thing that I would treat casually. But I would happily give it to an interested little girl (or an interested little boy, or his dad, or her grandmother, for that matter) to hold and turn over and stroke, no matter how grubby hands are or how rough baby fingers might be with my embroidery. Because that’s what it’s for. You can’t touch Margaret Laton’s jacket, because it’s 400 years old and fragile, but you could play with my coif, and stroke the snail, and lift the peapods, just like I imagine that long-ago lady’s little nieces and nephews once did, laughing at the little golden peas inside as they sparkled in the sunlight.

Margaret Laton’s jacket is a distinct level 5 – a lady realising her personal potential, self-fulfillment, personal growth and peak experiences. Impossible to tell if it was made by a professional embroiderer or a competent, accomplished amateur. A lady four hundred years ago, loving being herself, loving the skill of her fingers, probably loving the way it sparkled and shimmered and the way her Hugh might look at her at dinner when she was wearing it. A real person, who had a best jacket that she put on for dressy occasions. Who maybe had little sticky-fingered nieces and nephews admiring her birds and bugs. I imagine her jacket probably smelt of rose-water, or lavender water, and maybe a little bit sweaty under the arms, maybe a little bit of the ghosts of half a hundred suppers. But a woman you could probably sit down and talk to comfortably enough, a woman with whom you might have things in common – who might talk knowledgeably about gardens, and orderly households, and the cost of a loaf of bread. (Her Hugh was a merchant, you see, in the City. A wealthy lady, but one of not the nobility.)

So I’m embroidering my little coif, and embroidering what I imagine Margaret Laton was like, and hopefully, one day, at a re-enactment – this summer, next summer, some time – people will touch that embroidery and think about what sort of lady might wear it, and take pleasure in it.
A lady a bit like me and you, really. Black velvet gown, whitework apron. Looking a bit awkward to have her picture made, but a bit shy, and a bit proud, like a lot of young women on formal occasions, all done up in her finery. Creative and joyful. Not a pretend-person out of a history book, not a formal pretty jacket on a dummy inside a glass case. 

Making museums into children’s play areas is a terrible thing, in so many ways. It demeans our history, it patronises its audience. But we all have a right to play – to touch, to engage, to dream. To learn through doing, what it might be like to be someone else. 

So. If you happen to be at the Fairfax Battalia event at Wallingford in late June, come and help me find my bugs and beasties.

Levellers, new books, ponderations, present, Russell, South West campaign, writing

A Wilderness of Sin – part 3, except when it’s not: on writing series-es

A Wilderness of Sin
Late last year, I had a long conversation with a dear friend about this book – about promoting it, and what to do with it, and what was going on with the plot, and all that kind of doings. And my friend – let’s call him Sergeant Cullis, because in my head Cullis has always been very much based on that friend – he was very keen, he gave me lots of ideas at a time when I was somewhat knee-deep in plot device. 
“Wilderness” is Cullis’s book, gentle reader, and he died a month ago. He did know that at least one of the Uncivil Wars series was dedicated to him, he was very pleased because he’d never had his name on a book before. (How little it takes to make someone happy. What did that little bit of recognition cost me, and what a great deal it meant to him. There’s a lesson.)

Anyway, I wanted to have it done before he died, and I didn’t quite manage it.

Now I know in my head what was going on in those intervening years, between the end of “Command the Raven” at the end of 1643, and “Wilderness…” in June 1645. I know that there was a battle at Marston Moor in 1644, and that there had been some months previous of careering about the North of England not being very diplomatic with the lady of Lathom House, which turned into a rather horrible something at Bolton. I know that the New Model Army was formally created in 1645 and that things suddenly became very different for a somewhat rag-tag army who were suddenly ruled, regimented, and disciplined. And that there was a battle at Naseby after which everything changed, which was shocking and brutal even by the Articles of War of the time, and which even I, Fairfax-o-phile that I am, can’t get my head round. I know the new Army was already starting to get definitely hacked off with its leaders and their broken promises, and that Rosie Babbitt, who’s been on the itchy side of insurrectionist since the first, is taking his usual pragmatic stance of to hell with the politics and look after the people. None of this is in any way a spoiler…. as the fictional Cullis has said before, Rosie Babbitt could start a fight in an empty room when the mood’s on him, and the factual history is documented.

But it made me think about series-es (serii?) and what they are and how they work. My first intent was to begin at the beginning and work chronologically through the wars. Start in 1642, go on to 1643…. back to 1642 to write a novella about Edgehill…. start 1644, get sidetracked, go on to June 1645 with the intention of going right through to the Royalist surrender at Cornwall in March 1646, realise that’s just too much for the one book, stop at winter quarters 1645 and give everybody a chance for a breather…. go back to the Thirty Years’ War for a bit of light relief…

(and then start writing a biography of Thomas Rainsborough, but that’s by the by.)

I do not have a lateral mind. I’m writing “Babylon” – the North of England, 1644 book – at the moment and the history is lurking there in the background, like a dinosaur skeleton, while the story is bouncing about all over the place. Lucey’s got a moral dilemma which will be long resolved by “Wilderness” but which is a very real problem to him in 1644. Russell in 1643, when he first appears, is a prissy minor officer with an attitude problem. By 1644 he’s gone off the rails altogether – and, if you’re wondering, I’m sure that Russell, and to a lesser degree Babbitt, would be diagnosed with PTSD if they were around today – and by 1645 he’s back, hanging on to sanity by the skin of his teeth.  I’ve got two half-mad, damaged, shaky lapsed Puritans with mental health issues. Rosie Babbitt’s holding, but fragile. Thankful Russell hasn’t found anything to hold to yet. Rosie by 1645 is – to continue with the mending metaphor, his good lady being the mending-est lady in Essex – pieced together, but the glue’s still wet: Russell’s still in bits. To go back to an earlier time, Rosie has to be broken again, and I have to un-do all the work that went into making him as sane as he gets. And I have to remember that the Rosie Babbitt of 1645, who is quite robust, all things considered, is not the Rosie of 18 months previous: will react differently, is less inclined towards moderation, is still erratic and self-destructive and perfectly likely to go off half-cocked and take his troop with him.

Lucey took his boots off as a boy at Edgehill, and put them back on as a man. (Despite still being known as Lucey. Sorry, brat.) I’ve got to remember that the maturity he has by 1645 – the purpose, the sense of direction, the slight improvement in the poetry – he does not have by Marston Moor. He’s still going to be a muddle-headed romantic for a good couple of years yet. I don’t want Luce to be hurt, because he’s such a lollopy darling, like a labrador puppy, and yet he’s had such a charmed life, he is in so many ways such an innocent, despite knocking about with Rosie: you just know that at some point the wheels must come off and reality is going to come rushing in to Pettitt-land. And what that will make him, he has not yet become. He has not yet had to tie a knot on his vows, and make them new again.

And how many times can the Devil fart in Thankful Russell’s face? I want to make things better for Hapless…. and yet I know I can’t. It’s my book, and if I wanted to wave a magic wand and make him whole and happy of course I could, but that’s his journey, really. He has never been a happy boy and I can either just magic him inner peace, which would be satisfying and completely unbelievable, or he’s just going to have to fight for it like every other bugger does. 

I don’t want to make the series into Another Historical Fiction Series Of My Acquaintance, a series of connected standalone incidents where our hero comes through unscathed from end to end and comes out like the Perils of Pauline, smelling of roses. (I think we have established that Rosie smells of horse, sweat and black powder, so we need waste no more time on snuffing his armpits. Seriously. It makes Het very nervous.) My lads start in 1642 at a place, politically, personally, and geographically. They’re not all going to make it to 1649, and those that do, will not be the same lads as they started out. They change. (Grow? Only round the middle – Captain Venning.) I don’t want them to have any Damascene moments – they’re real lads, they might start out with good intentions, but they cock up, they forget. Change is imposed upon them and they resist.  They set their teeth and hang on, day to day – not got time, or, by 1645, the will, for any grandiose vision. And so back and forth, back and forth, like the stars’ tennis balls in Webster, struck and bandied which way please them – and they don’t know where they’re headed, although I do, but I can only steer, I can’t compel. Not with that lot. Rebels to the core. I know that – you can see in 1645 the cracks starting to appear as this lot decide to stop toeing the party line, and to start asking pointy questions. But they might have been a bit disorganised before that – but not political, and not subversive. Not then. Not till later. 

But then, as Rosie points out to Hapless Russell after the lieutenant’s first real battle, you can’t do it. Can’t go round crying for the moon. You are where you are, lad. You can’t go back. Or rather, in my case, you can go back, but you can’t un-know what you know, and you just have to hope it doesn’t show in the meantime to them as doesn’t know it yet. And that, I reckon, is the skill of it – like poker. Which is not my game. 
But. Wilderness. It’s Tiny’s book, and wherever he is, I hope he likes it. He was a cracking Redcoat – but I reckon he makes a pretty good Ironside, too.