Bess, her story

England 1588

20 July

They fired the beacon today. Margery come running in, crying, Mistress, Mistress, the Spanish are coming, and I say to her, get to your work, you foolish girl. But then I think I be as foolish as her, for if it be God’s will that the Spanish come, closing my ears to the news will not make it different. But the men will want their supper even if the Spanish come today, so I tell Cis to set out the plates and send Margery to fetch the beer from the beer-buttery.

Ned sleeps in his cradle. Now one year old, and as plump and rosy a boy as you could wish for, God be thanked for it. He crawls so fast I must run to keep up with him, then laughing and pulling at my cap when I pick him up. I think John would wish the years to hurry on so Ned is old enough to go with him in the fields, but I would keep him a child in my arms.

Oh, God, my baby! What will become of him if the Spanish come? Margery tell me her sister in Sandwich did hear from a Dutchwoman there how the Spanish were in the Low Countries, tossing babies like hay on pitchforks, and the river in one place choked up with bodies, men, women, children and all. Margery did say the Spanish killed thirty thousand in one town, but that cannot be, for how can there be that many people in one place? Though to be sure, John says there are near a hundred thousand in London.

John, he came into his supper all in a stir because the beacon was lit. I say to him, what shall we do if the Spanish land at Dover, and us so near? He say, they will not land. Drake will do God’s work and see the Spaniards off. He say to me, Drake may be a Devon man, but he learn his seafaring here in our Kent waters, which everyone knows makes the best seafaring men. He say it to ease me, so I smile, to please him, but I see how his eyes take fire when he say Drake’s name, and I think he worship Drake as much as any man may worship another, if it be not blasphemy to say so.

21 July

To church today, and much talk of the Spaniards. John tell everyone, Drake is God’s instrument by which the Papists will be driven from the seas. John is so strong against Papacy, he even cry out upon our vicar for burning tapers and wearing a surplice, saying it is but next to Papacy, though I do not know but that our vicar be a good and holy man. I do honour my husband as I should, but it do trouble me to see the fiery look in his eye when he do talk of how God’s wrath will be visited on the Ungodly. John was born in the year King Henry died, and he tell me of Queen Mary’s time and a Spanish king and burnings in Canterbury and Maidstone of good folk who would not forswear the true church. I thank God that I was born in the time of our good Queen whose name I have, and have known only the true religion.

I did go across from the house to the beer-buttery before supper to fill the pitcher for the men. The coolness out of doors was a blessing after the heat of the kitchen, but I could smell the smoke from the beacon on the air, and it seemed to me I could see the Spanish coming up the lane to our gate, with their dark cruel faces and their pikes and muskets. Oh the thought that such men with their foreign way of speech and their torturing and burning might ever walk on our Kentish fields! I know that John would stand at the gate with his fowling piece to bar their way and I vow I would take the carving knife from the kitchen and stand at the door myself if it would keep them from my baby and my house.

23 July

John goes to Dover today. He ask me what is needful for the house and I tell him, thinking how strange to talk of candles and soap and sugar as though there was nothing more important in the world. I think to say I will go with him, but then I think, I cannot leave Ned, and will not take him to Dover, for though there has been no talk of plague yet this year, this is the month for it.

I find Margery in the orchard making eyes at one of the harvest men, the silly wench. Harvest time often enough be seedtime as well, with a fine new crop of babes in the spring. And she could not even say that this fellow made her promises, for he be Welsh, and not a word of English, nor any of them, save the one that made agreement with John.

When John come home from market, he say the town is full of soldiers and rumour. John had thought to make agreement to sell the fruit in the orchard when it come ripe, but no-one would buy, saying, who knows where we will be come September? But if John had horses to sell today, he might have sold them at three times their worth. And he cry out against some who did that, he say, making profit out of other men’s need and misery.

And he forget to bring the wool I asked for, to knit him stockings.

25 July

John to Dover again to try to hear news. Some say the Spanish try to land at Wight and some say there was a great battle and the Spanish beat and some say it was the English that were beat. But John say he will never believe that till he see the Spanish marching up our lane. And Margery say that she hear that the Duke of Parma or some such is coming out of Dunkirk with thousands of men and will land in Thanet. And John say Parma will not, because Lord Seymour’s ships are there watching like a cat at a  mouse hole, and boats going all the time from Dover with powder and shot and stores. And I tell Margery she would do better to spend more time at her work and not passing idle talk with the men.

27 July

The Spanish be at Calais. Pettit’s boy come running this morning, his father having heard it from a man up early from Dover. Pettit’s boy say he went up on the cliff and saw the ships, English and Spanish, all at anchor there, and the Spanish ships more and bigger than ours. John say Howard and Drake and our men will never let the Spanish past to land in Kent, but I fear, I fear.

John call me to go to church. We pray to God for deliverance from the Spanish and try to find the heart to sing, but every man and woman looking sideways to see how their neighbour look, and I still have a weight in my breast for all our prayers. After, John say, let us walk a while. He carry Ned and we go over the fields. The harvest be half in, the corn that is still standing heavy and golden. John say it will be a good harvest. There be poppies all bright among the corn and I wish I did not think they were red like blood. John hold Ned tight in his arms and he look so grim and grey I know he fears, too, for all his brave talk. So I put my hand on his arm and we go home to dinner.

29 July

Margery run out of the kitchen this morning, and when she come back, I ask her what her trouble is, and she say, she must have ate something bad, and I say, not in my kitchen you did not. And I think, it cannot be the Welsh fellow, he only having been here a short time. So I am trying to get sense out of the silly wench when John come in all of a ferment, saying, Bess, Bess, bring Ned and come quick, and my heart stop in my breast, for I fear it means the Spanish are come. But John say, no, there is a great battle, and the Spanish like to be driven on shore near Calais, and I must bring Ned and come up to the cliffs and see. And I say, I have the bread to bake, and the butter to churn, and Ned is too young to know or remember what he sees. And John say, we will tell Ned when he is older, and he can tell his children that he was there and saw it, for today God’s will is to be wrought on the Spanish.

So I bring Ned and we walk up to the cliffs, and many of our good neighbours have left their work, too, and are watching there. I see where the beacon was, the ground all black and the stench of burning all about it. And the wind blow off the sea and it be low and misty over to the French shore, so the ships be little more than shadows, with the white sails ghostly, but we can hear the thud-thud as the guns do their work, and a flash of fire.

Pettit’s boy is there, and he full of bragging that when he is a man grown he will go for a soldier to the Low Countries and kill all Papists and Spaniards, and I fetch him a clout round the head for his foolish talk, and he rub his ear and say to me, Mistress, why did you do that? And I say, there are babies like my Ned and your little Nan in the Low Countries, that were born Papists and no fault of theirs. Is that who you mean to kill? And he say nothing.

And our English ships are chasing the Spanish further and further and Tom Finnis that has sailed to the Low Countries say the Spanish are like to be on the sands at Dunkirk. And I do not know how long we stand there, but my legs are stiff and my face is sore from the wind and the air and Ned is crying and my arms ache from holding him after I take him from John. And at last we cannot see any more, but still the thud-thud from the guns. And then it begin to rain, so we walk home, and John and our neighbours rejoicing, but I think of all the men killed and maimed today.

1 August

John to Dover today. And Margery tell me, all a-blushing, that she and Dick Partridge are going to be wed next month when harvest be done. And I think, she might do much worse, for Dick’s father died at Easter and he is to take a farm over by Sandwich at Michaelmas. And she is not a bad worker, just silly, and now I must find a new girl.

When John come home he come into the parlour where I sit with Ned and I put Ned down on the floor and stand up to hear what news John has. And he tell me there is no more word of the Spanish, but he talk to men in Dover who tell him with the wind as it has been the Spanish cannot come back to the Channel and belike all danger is past. And I give thanks to God. And I look at Ned and he is standing on his feet, the first time ever he has done it, and holding on to the chair and laughing like he know he is the cleverest boy in the world.