Exposed to All Villainies

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A Cord of Three Strands (Historical Fiction, Book Award 2023)
Exposed to All Villainies (Historical Fiction, Book Award 2023)
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Logline or Premise
Three women, three lives ravaged by a civil war, one Cornish destination.
1646: One thousand die-hard Royalists suffered an ordeal five months long, besieged in a Cornish fortress . Of these two hundred were women and children. Hear their voices whisper from the walls of Pendennis Castle.

First 10 Pages

I Grace: Bristol 1640 – 1641

Fortune is like a wheel; it turns. It can thrust a girl from innocence to womanhood, from wife to mother -perhaps to harlotry. Through four of the last six years civil war has raged through this nation leaving innocents and harlots, wives and mothers exposed to all of Fortune’s villainies.

How do I know? Because this has been the path that bought me here, to this god-forsaken Cornish fortress, starved, besieged, and with no idea of what my future will hold.

My father became one of the most prosperous of Bristol merchants on Christmas morning 1640, when, as we returned from church, his ship, the Content, first berthed in her home port of Bristol. My future was vested in that ship in so many ways.

Pasco Jago was the sailing master who brought the Content on the voyage from Dartmouth, where my father had purchased her. Did he know he could prophesy when he declared,

‘There’s many who’d kill for command of the Content’.

Festive celebrations at our home in Wine Street were the most cheerful for years, with Twelfth Night the climax, though the night also marks so much that I do not care to remember. Cramped, lively, with guests universally adopting the custom of wearing disguise, much of the merriment of the evening resulted from a friendly chaos. Wine and ale flowed in civilised moderation, the talk eddying around gossip, commerce and modest ribaldry. Any debate over the discord between King and Parliament was forgotten for the evening, though all knew Henry Godwynne was not a man to take sides - until Parliament hanged my godfather.

Negotiating one crowded room, I stumbled, momentarily glancing up under the cowls of two monks. I did not recognise the faces but was startled by the eyes; one pair an icy grey and the other as blue as summer sky, a hand gripping my elbow to steady me. Then the figures moved on into the throng. Only the blue eyes looked back.

As Midnight chimed, the gathering singing to mark the passing of the season,

‘Old Christmas is past; Twelfth Tide is the last,

And we bid you adieu, great joy to the new!’

But there was no great joy for the New Year. The first dawn of 1641 had barely broken before my mother was dead along with her stillborn babe.

My father was distraught with grief but hoped to lessen the pain for if he could break the news himself, so Hal was not told why he was called home, but it was a great mistake to make.

When my brother arrived, he and father argued. You could hear it all over the house. I truly think Hal felt the man before him had caused all his sadness as well as our mother’s death. What he said to our father was as unforgivable as it was terrible to hear,

‘You just could not leave her alone, could you? You disgust me! So eminent, so prosperous but you are no better than … an old goat!’

Hal did not return to the house after the funeral. He never came to Bristol again.

Weeks went by. Neighbours told me that ‘in the fullness of time your grief will pass. Time heals all things.’ The words echoed hollowly. Nothing could ever be the same. I missed my mother’s calm, loving presence every moment of every day and my father seemed to be inside cold, invisible armour. I think he could find no solace with us, his children, for we reminded him of too much, so he avoided our company.

By default, I became the mistress of the house. Our steward, Matthew Allerway, was dependable and loyal; Jinty James, the woman who had been my mother’s maid, became my mentor.

One evening in early summer my father must have felt he could re-join us. We did not hear his footsteps. I was sewing as Ned picked up my lute and lazily plucked a version of Kemp’s Jig in a minor key. It sounded terrible, so I threw an empty bobbin at him. I missed Ned but hit the house-cat, curled up behind the hem of the parlour’s wall-hanging.

Father flung open the door with a merry ‘Huzzah!’ just as he used to do, at the second the startled puss launched itself across the room, reaching the door as it opened. The timber crashed back upon its hinges, bowling Kitty into the fireplace. I remember an instant of deathly hush after the animal stopped yowling.

Perhaps father was angered by the dumbstruck expressions of alarm on our faces or maybe his resolve was fragile, but any levity fled. As the door juddered to a stop in his grasp, his tone became icy,

‘Am I in a mad menagerie? My daughter behaves like a hoyden and as for my son’s musical talent, I find little to recommend your further studies in the gentlemanly arts, Edward. Perhaps it is time your energies were more usefully directed!’

Two weeks later, on Edward’s fifteenth birthday, he was presented by Master Richard Hill as apprentice to the worshipful Guild of Merchant Adventurers in the City of London. Ned told me that he felt as if he was being banished. My father retreated once again into his solitude, and I was left to manage alone.

Ten days later, as I breakfasted, there came a thunderous banging at our door. My godfather, Robert Yeamans, swept in, cloak swirling, doublet buttons fastened lopsidedly marking his haste. He was waving two pages covered in the dear handwriting that I recognised so well. My heart thumped as he pressed them to my hand and I read,

My good friend,

These last months have been such that our deep affinity has been tested to its utmost, my regret being that the fault has been all my own. My mind is affected by the most infernal of darkness, and I believe that I must seek to shed some light upon my unhappy circumstance. This I cannot do here. Memories crowd upon me too closely.

I am to take ship with the Content on this morning’s tide as she sails and, as I have so instructed, will be at Avonmouth by the time you receive this letter. I intend to act as factor to my own ship and will execute all necessary transactions. My steward Matthew Allerway has instructions for the management of the house under the auspices of my daughter. God willing, monies will be made available on a regular basis as I intend to continue to trade, primarily through Andrew Voysey in Dartmouth, with less profits but good staple returns. I regret leaving Grace. As her godparent I would ask that you advise her as you have advised me and with the same affectionate esteem as that in which I hold you.

Henry Godwynne

Despite the crippling mal-de-mer that had always troubled him, even in a rowing boat, it seemed that my father had run away to sea.

II Hester: Bristol 1641 – 1642

I blame her father for all my troubles. If that man had done right as a master, a father and a right- minded widower, he would have married again to a respectable woman and then I would not have come to be where I am now. Who else is there to blame? Look, all a girl wants is a post in a household where servants and masters know their places and all is respect and ... oh, what’s the word? So that you know where you are with everything. But what did he do? Got all maudlin and rowed with his eldest, chucks his other son out too then takes to the seas.

Now, the eldest was already apprenticed in London when I was first employed at the Godwynne’s in Wine Street, so when was that? I’m one summer younger than my sister Sally and she was born in the year before this King came to the throne. What - ’25? Then I am … oh, I don’t know ... girls don’t get schooling. No lass in Radstock needed to know numbers, just wanted strong arms for hard work and for giving the mining lads a black eye when they took too many liberties on the way home from the tavern.

I d’know that it was some-when in the Autumn when I walked to Bristow an’ it took me three days, though I admit I did dawdle a little but ‘twas as much because my shoes weren’t the best as anything else. That was after my Pa threw me out when I wouldn’t take my mother’s place in his bed. She’d been dead years, but he had Meg then Sally till they got men of their own and a belly full of babe. Not necessarily in that order. That weren’t for me; I’m a good girl. And I wanted to see more than the doorstep of some Radstock hovel.

So anyways, I got to the city and at the hiring fair wore my clean new pinafore and brushed my hair and got myself a scullery maid’s post and cared not a ha’pence for my old days.

I still say the day Master Godwynne took himself off was the start of my troubles. A household with no master will never prosper. Any servant will tell you that. Old steward Allerway did his best, but there was bossy Jinty James who made sure the mistress needed her at every turn then when the wife died got her claws in the daughter too. I’ll give her what’s due though, the daughter learned fast and even I was wrong-footed when she called me into the parlour that day.

It would have been better for me if that laundry lad had kept his mouth shut over the counting of linen. But he went bleatin’ “it is me master’s reputation what depends on it” and so they swept their beady eye on Hester Phipps.

And how was I to know that Allerway kept account of every last splinter in that household? What was it to him that a few napkins went missing? That house had enough in the coffers that they wouldn’t miss ’em or that pair of gloves they found under my pallet.

‘It has come to my notice that there is linen missing from the press and I wish you to make a full explanation,’ says the daughter.

‘I’m sure I don’t know what’s missing nor what’s not,’ I said. She said I’d got a ‘slovenly tone’ and was ‘impudent’, which made me stand up straight a’cause she sounded like her Ma and ‘twas a bit of a shock.

‘Hester Phipps,’ she says in her Mistress-Godwynne-voice, ‘I accuse you of pilfering from the property of your employer, abusing our trust thereby, and being an impudent common thief!’

The steward called the Captain of the Watch to drag me out a-screeching along the crowded streets to Castle Hill.

So, there was I in Bristol Gaol, a place riddled with vermin with nowhere to get away from the stink and the noise and the filth. And the rats. I hate rats but I tell you, I could eat a rat now I’m so hungry.

Guilty I was found, yet I never did find out why I didn’t fall the gallows’ drop but instead I was sentenced to slavery in the plantations in the New World.

I was still in that cell when the frosts came. My ragged skirt didn’t thaw for three days in the middle of the darkest months yet still I didn’t catch my death. Radstock girls are made of stronger stuff.

Even behind the bars we heard soldiers’ talk, heard that the old fort was being fixed up, and that the King was right out of favour. Now, I b’aint a clever woman but I know when things are unnatural, and men against their King, that’s going to cause trouble. There was a storm brewing.

Storms; maybe it’s storms that I should blame all my troubles on? Come the spring in ’42 there was I on this ship, with dozens like me, all chained like animals between the barrels and bales of cargo. Down the river Avon we went bound for … somewhere. I was so sick when we left the river waters, I had no care for where we were going, to Bridgwater Bay or Hy-Brasil. We were dragged up on deck for air once a day. I think that it had happened three times. If I could bear to look up, all I could see over my left shoulder was a dark grey line above a pale grey sea under dark grey sky. Then, in the afternoon, the storm broke.

I knew there was trouble, for the sailors began crossing themselves. Nobody whistled. The singing stopped as well. Not that you could have heard anything above the noise. I never heard nothing like it and I’d swear the cannons I’ve heard since don’t sound the way that storm did. It grew till it was a shriekin’ and a howlin’ and the hull was slamming into the waves like hitting a wall. The planks were groaning, and all of us chained were praying harder than we have ever prayed before. I hardly ever prayed before, but I started that day and have prayed every night since. I forgot being sick, I just prayed.

And my prayers were answered though I couldn’t know it when I heard the screams from the main deck above us, when there came a crashing smash and water gushed in from a hole in the side where rocks were grinding the planks into splinters. Perhaps the Bo’sun didn’t fettle the chains on my wrists, maybe my bones had shrunk so small from lack of food, or perhaps God heard me but, panicking, I twisted and pulled and the irons slipped off and I was swept with bales and bodies on the surge of water. I cannot tell how long I tossed in the waves, remembering nothing until rock cut my hand and the pain brought me to my senses.

Hands hauled at me and I glimpsed a lantern swinging in the dark. The next I knew I was on a stone hearth, wrapped in a ragged blanket with two small children, wide-eyed, watching my every move and a woman with a foreign accent speaking soothing noises as I struggled to wake.

None but me survived that storm. There was nobody to gainsay me when I, Hester Phipps, became a servant to a lady; respectable, upright, hardworking, decent Hester Phipps. Well, decent once I had some clothes on my back.

And for the first time, but not the last, here I was in Cornwall.

III Mary: Cornwall

Cornwall: western isthmus besieged by ocean with tors and moors and rugged cliffs, the legendary land of King Arthur and my home, for my father was a son of the great Carew family. Our home at Penwarne on the south coast, with its mellow stones and deep-hedged lanes, hidden from the elements and seaborne raiders, wrapped by the folded landscape. My father once bade the stable-hand build his children a swinging seat in the woods, overlooking Portmellon cove, where I would watch the azure sea and think of Tristan and Isolde. Papa always called me his ‘little dreamer’. This happy haunt of childhood, was where my brother Richard (we called him Diccon) and four sisters were indulged with ponies and pets.

I was only seven years old when mother died in ’31. He never remarried, so I had no stepmother to chide me as I grew, only lessons with a tutor. Master Cobb had little interest in us girls though. When I skipped lessons to tend the small assortment of creatures which I had rescued, nobody paid much heed. And I already knew that his lessons in Rhetoric only taught my sisters to argue with intellectual overtones to cover their spitefulness.

Great things were hoped for Diccon; to go up to Oxford then the Inns of Court, returning to a gentleman’s life at Penwarne, but it was not to be. My brother was not destined for the law. Since then Cornwall has become accustomed to losing its young men. However, that is quite enough of my childhood tittle-tattle; I meant to tell of this land.

This is a place where the gentlefolk are known to one and all and every great household is tied in kinship with their neighbour or their neighbour’s neighbour. My grandfather married an Arundel from Trerice; his father married an Edgcumbe from just round the coast. Mostly it is our marriages which are the bonds that bind the grand Cornish families together. Mostly.

Cornwall is no backwater, for all the distance from London. Our members in Parliament have grumbled with the rest at the King’s meddling with taxes, with the Church. There was a time when county squires might have spoken their mind to guests around their table at supper, in their hall or that of their ‘cousin’ and never believed that a difference of opinion could sever their kinship. Now all is not well in these British Isles where families, villages, indeed the whole country, are torn asunder. Amity and respectful debate have been replaced by the cold steel and conflict of civil war. King’s men see Parliament as rogues and Parliament sees the King as an unruly ruler. Cornishmen and women think: who will look after the Cornish, King or Parliament?

It is four years almost since this war without an enemy began. Four years since I could have been celebrating my betrothal. Instead, my marriage became a battle ground as brutal as Lansdowne, as bitter as His Majesty’s present sorrows.

Now, near starved, I am besieged in Pendennis Castle, with those who Parliament name ‘the most desperate persons, the violentest enemies’. Ask why and I will say that it is because I defied the great Carew household, and I became a war-bride.