Lost worlds, changed lives: life beyond the Black Death

I first posted this piece in June on The History Girls blogspot, but you know how much I love talking about the Black Death, so I thought I should share it again here.


I have always thought, perhaps along with many people, that, after the devastation caused by what we call The Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, huge numbers of communities, villages and hamlets, must have become deserted. But historians and geographers have known for quite a while now that this was not in fact the case, but rather, where medieval villages were “lost”, and they obviously were, it happened over a matter of centuries, not as a direct result of that terrible plague.

Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut, 1493

But perhaps what happened in the longer term did have its genesis in the events of the fourteenth century, and I thought it might be interesting to examine how the change in the structure of the English countryside unfolded.

It is hard to imagine what it must have been like – indeed, felt like – to see a third to a half of all your family, friends and neighbours killed within the space of a couple of months, or maybe even only a few weeks.

In the fourteenth century, death was everyday – illnesses were mostly incurable, accidents commonplace, life subject to all manner of risk. Medieval people were “fatalists”, or rather they ascribed every disaster, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, either to God’s will or the Devil’s work. People did not believe they were in control, so they might as well accept whatever occurred and get on with their lives. However, I am not suggesting that this means people were intellectually feeble, but rather that they remained resilient in the face of tragedy.

Nonetheless, how truly devastating it must have been to witness death on such a scale! You can imagine that survivors might have found it too grim a prospect to try and carry on in a place where the memories – ghosts? – of so many dead friends and family still lingered. Despite the fact that their families had lived there for generations, they might well have preferred to abandon their community for somewhere new, where they could start again.

Some chroniclers of the fourteenth century, such as Henry Knighton, a canon in Leicester, have suggested that many settlements were abandoned, as a direct result of the plague:

“After the pestilence, many buildings, great and small, fell into ruins…many villages and hamlets became desolated…probable that many such villages would never be inhabited.”

But, while you can easily envisage that whole communities would have been wiped out, especially small hamlets, where every member of the few families who lived there succumbed to the disease, in fact, according to what records show us, it seems that this happened only rarely.

Chalk downland, Hampshire cc-by-sa/2.0© Oswald Bertram geograph.org.uk/p/4425731

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period of relative growth and prosperity. Fair weather and successful harvests produced surpluses that financed the building and rebuilding of castles, cathedrals, monasteries and churches, and encouraged and created flourishing towns and expanding villages. Expansion and wealth meant a growth in population, which in turn meant a demand for more land to sustain it. As a consequence, some new settlements were created on more marginal land, including heathland and woodland areas, and, for example, on the higher downland of Hampshire. Assarting, the clearing of land to make new settlements, took place on the edges of the Forest of Bere, in the Soberton area, close to my fictional “Meonbridge”.

Winchester castle
The Great Hall, added to Winchester Castle by Henry III 1222-1235

The countryside around “Meonbridge”, the valley of the River Meon, being relatively close to Winchester, was probably quite prosperous. The area between Havant and Fareham, a bit further to the south, was highly productive in cereal growing. But prosperity was also growing on the back of an expansion in the farming of sheep, including in the areas around Winchester, to support that city’s thriving wool and cloth industry.

However, while England was a reasonably prosperous place by the end of the thirteenth century, the growth in population and the resulting pressure on land was already bringing inevitable poverty and, with it, unrest, particularly among the poor and landless. Then, by the second decade of the fourteenth century, increasingly poor weather brought a series of bad harvests, and with too many mouths to feed and too few resources, people began to show their vulnerability. Famine took hold and continued for several years. Cynically, one might say that it began to ease the strain of overpopulation, but it must have been seriously debilitating to soul as well as body, even to those resilient medieval fatalists.

Then, in 1348-50, came the worst plague in history, taking a much more dramatic toll on the population. Further outbreaks of plague occurred throughout the century (and indeed beyond, up until the 1800s), and it took a very long time for the population to even approach again that of the thirteenth century.

But, for those mid-fourteenth century English men and women, the Black Death meant that, with far, far fewer of them, working people – the farming and labouring majority – were suddenly much more valuable, while land was no longer at a premium. The world had turned upside down, and things were going to – had to – change.

The shape of the countryside and its communities were perhaps most affected by two principal factors: the breakdown of the feudal system and a gradual change in farming practices.

Peasants harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks.
Queen Mary’s Psalter (Ms. Royal 2. B. VII), fol. 78v (Public domain)

The old order, the system of lords and bonded tenants, had already begun to change. But when a third to a half of the tenants in a manor died in the space of a few months, it soon dawned on the tenants how valuable they had suddenly become, and also that the emptier world offered them considerable opportunities. Tenants became increasingly less prepared to submit to their lords’ wishes, such as forcing them to provide “boonworks” (unpaid work provided as partial “rent” for their tenancies) on their demesnes, or imposing constraints on their freedom of movement, and labourers were no longer willing to work for low wages, if they could get more elsewhere. The lords, if at first they resisted change, pleading with the government to help maintain the status quo, at length had to accept that change was happening and they could not stop it. Despite the government’s labour legislation, the 1351 Statute of Labourers, working people did not submit.

Some undoubtedly did leave the manors their families had lived in for generations, sometimes to receive better wages elsewhere, either on other manors or in the towns, sometimes to take up valuable land holdings on other manors, sometimes, perhaps, to occupy “abandoned” hamlets or villages. Despite the memories and ghosts, the draw of land was probably very strong and, like pioneers and settlers everywhere, they repopulated many initially deserted locations surprisingly quickly. The evidence from records does seem to suggest that, if hamlets or villages were abandoned, mostly it was only for weeks, months, or perhaps a few years. Some communities were invigorated by “fresh blood” and a determination among the incomers to succeed in the new window of opportunity. It is said that Winchester city could not in fact attract sufficient workers from the countryside to replace those it had lost because the opportunities of taking up abandoned land holdings were simply too attractive to pass up.

Even in the most tragic of times, some people – lord, freeman or bondsman – might respond in opportunistic vein. For every one who died in the plague, there was perhaps someone else who simply saw the availability of more resources. They were probably not actually grateful that the plague had given them these opportunities (to do so might invite some sort of divine retribution!), but the entrepreneurial spirit in those who would go on to make England prosperous again was perhaps released. In some cases, freemen or even wealthier tenants grew rich on the acquisition of land, eventually building holdings that would become the grand estates of later centuries. In contrast to the generally rather gloomy picture one has of the fourteenth century, in fact, in Hampshire at any rate, for some, there was a considerable expansion of fortune in the latter part of the century and beyond.

So, change in the structure of society was one concomitant outcome of the Black Death. Another was the change in farming practices.

Again, farming practices had already begun to alter, but the change accelerated in the century following the Black Death. The farming of arable land further declined. It must, after all, have been difficult to sustain such a labour-intensive form of agriculture with the availability of far fewer workers, both skilled and unskilled. Equally, with fewer mouths to feed, it was perhaps neither necessary nor worth the effort to maintain it on the previous scale. The growth of sheep farming was already happening, and the wool trade was thriving. With fewer working people available, farming sheep was undoubtedly easier to manage than arable. Evidence from the Winchester bishops’ estates shows that, by the mid-fourteenth century, a third of the arable land had ceased cultivation by comparison with a hundred years earlier. Presumably, the bad weather and poor harvests, and also a possible decline in soil fertility caused by poor husbandry, meant a move from arable to sheep was likely to prove more profitable, especially perhaps in Hampshire, where the downland was perfect for rearing sheep.

From The Luttrell Psalter, British Library. 
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Lords, freemen and tenants, any of them might make the change to farming sheep, anyone indeed who wanted to jump on the bandwagon of the burgeoning wool economy. In some cases, sheep presumably simply became a more important aspect of farming life in a mixed agricultural economy. But, in the worst cases, the change had a profound effect on the community, where a particularly acquisitive lord might turn his tenants out of their homes to make room for more pasture. Some “generous” lords might build cottages for the displaced tenants elsewhere, but others just pushed them out – they were simply not needed any more. So, in some cases, communities were indeed deserted through these actions, although in practice it did not happen all at once. For example, Lomer, a small community just above the villages of the Meon valley, did eventually die out through such a gradual change of land use, but not until the seventeenth century.

Certainly sheep farming did change the shape of the countryside. But other structural changes also had an impact, the creation of parks – “emparking” – being one of them. In the fourteenth century itself, these often took the form of hunting parks. However, in the next couple of centuries, one of the eventual results of some wealthy people acquiring more (and more) land was that their expanded holdings would one day develop into great estates. And owners of such estates wanted the trappings of their wealth, a great country house and a fashionable park to set it in, and they were again more than willing to evict their tenants to realise their ambitions. Again they might build them a new village outside the estate, but equally they might not. In the Meon Valley, the village of Warnford is an example of a village where the medieval settlement was moved to a new site, to be replaced by a landscaped park. The still standing church and the ruins of the manor house are evidence of the location of the original village. At Idsworth, a few miles to the south-east, a church stands in the middle of ploughed fields, showing where a community was once removed entirely in favour of a park for the owners of Idsworth House.

Idsworth Church cc-by-sa/2.0 © Roger Pagram geograph.org.uk/p/2046565

But much of this emparking and widespread eviction of tenants from communities came in later centuries. Famously, the poet Oliver Goldsmith wrote of it in his 1770 poem, The Deserted Village, where he bemoans the fate of a settlement destroyed by the ambitions of the landowner:

“The man of wealth and pride, Takes up a space that many poor supplied; Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds, Space for his horses, equipage and hounds”

Although it seems clear that the Black Death did not directly lead to the long term desertion of villages, maybe what happened in the middle of the fourteenth century – the huge loss of population, the breakdown of the old way of life and the large scale move towards sheep farming – did at the very least accelerate changes that had already begun, changes that would, eventually, have significant effects on the shape of the English countryside.

Why does it all take so long!

It’s been a while since my blog was actually about writing, and I thought it was time to put that right. As it happens, this week, when I am coming to the end of the writing and editing process of the second of my “Meonbridge Chronicles”, seems a suitable moment for me to tell you a little about this new book, and to attempt to justify, or at least comment on, why it is taking me so long to get it to publication!

The current title of book 2 of “The Meonbridge Chronicles” is A Woman’s Lot. That title might change, but I’m pretty happy with it, because the story is indeed about the diverse fates – happy or otherwise – of women. It is set two years after the end of Fortune’s Wheel, picking up the lives of four Meonbridge women, all of whom – if you have read it – you will have met before in Fortune’s Wheel.

Fortune's Wheel and Meon Valley

I showed in Fortune’s Wheel, and have discussed in one or two of my blogs that, after what we call the Black Death, the huge loss of population countrywide meant greater opportunities for those who had survived, for them to earn more money, take on land they couldn’t have had before, enter new occupations. The rigid feudal structure of society was already breaking down and the devastation caused by the plague accelerated it. Working people were no longer willing to accept the constraints imposed by their feudal lords, of giving unpaid service, having no control on wages and not being permitted to leave their manor.

All this did change. People began to move about in a way they’d not really done before, seeking higher pay, better work, greater opportunities. And this applied to women too.

medwomenatwork3But I mustn’t overstate the case. Some historians have said that the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were some sort of “golden age” for women, in terms of their opportunities, although others dispute this. Perhaps the opportunities for women were greater in the towns, and especially in London. Maybe, if there was a golden age, it did apply mostly to those living in the city. In the countryside, change probably took longer, and, anyway, opportunities for women to become, say, artisans or businesswomen would not have been so commonplace in rural communities.

However, I have combined what I have read about the lives of medieval working women, with what I imagine might have been their situation. With half the population dead from the plague, it seems almost inevitable that everyone – men and women alike – would, initially at any rate, have had to step into the “manpower breach” and work at whatever was needed to return the life of the community to some sort of normality. Which is why, in my novels, and particularly in A Woman’s Lot, I have women trying to – or at least wanting to – contribute in ways in which they might not have done before.

However, once the immediate crisis was over, even if the feudal system had fallen away, society was still society, and that meant men in charge, men with all the rights and privileges, and women still essentially subject to their rule, and to the rule of their husbands. And that too is reflected in A Woman’s Lot.

But this is a novel and not social history, so my female characters do of course struggle with themselves and with the constraints that others – men! – impose upon them. They remain – I hope – essentially mediaeval women in the reality of the lives I give them, but I see no reason why they should not also have desires and ambitions, which may or may not be fulfilled. It is the lot of all fictional protagonists, to want something and to struggle to achieve it. Whether or not they do so is what gives a story its tension and motivation…

I won’t say any more, but I do hope that sounds potentially intriguing. And makes you eager to  know when you will be able to get your hands on it…

But I’m sorry to have to say ‘not yet’.

I had hoped to be publishing it this summer – round about now, I suppose. And when those lovely readers of Fortune’s Wheel told me how much they were looking forward to my next book, I probably said, ‘Oh, definitely, 2017!’

But in fact I’m not sure now that it will be available even this side of Christmas. The editing phase is by no means finished. I’m close to the end of my own editing, but I’m then sending it out to a couple of beta readers and a critique partner for what I hope will be some critical feedback (in the sense, I hope, of “involving or requiring skilful judgement as to truth, merit, etc.”, rather than “inclined to find fault or judge severely”), and my editing process will then continue. After that, it will go to a professional editor, followed of course by yet more editing…

Then, because I’m not directly self-publishing but will, as with Fortune’s Wheel, use a professional publisher to produce my book, the publication process will take another three months or so. So you can see that time will pass, and it may well be 2018 before I hold my new book in my hands…

Which is disappointing, of course, but – as other writers tell me endlessly – it cannot, must not, be rushed. I have to ensure that the book is as good as I can make it.

But why does it take so long?

Some writers, after all, put out two or three books a year of similar length to mine. So am I just a slow writer? Yet some others take much longer. Famously, Donna Tartt has published just three novels in twenty years: The Secret History in 1992, The Little Friend in 2002, and The Goldfinch in 2013. She certainly didn’t rush! Not that I am comparing myself with Donna Tartt. But I suppose a novel simply takes as long as it needs to take…

Having said that, I am pretty keen to get this one out, and then the next one. So what is holding me back? A few thoughts…

A particular writer I know writes very fast. She is currently writing books in series, which of course I’m doing too. She has also many published books – she’s a very experienced writer.

law courtAn advantage of writing a series is one’s growing familiarity with the world in which the novels are set and at least some of the characters, so you do not have to create those aspects of the novel from scratch each time. Although there are still likely to be some aspects that are new – in my own case, for example, for A Woman’s Lot, I had to learn about coroners and courts, and the work of carpenters.

An advantage of being an experienced writer is that the techniques of writing – while never, ever, easy – undoubtedly do become a little easier. If you’ve successfully published a dozen books, then you probably have a fair idea of how to structure a book, how to plan and pace, how to write coherent, flowing sentences and choose the “right” words, how to make your characters come alive on the page. As with any skill, the more you practise writing, the more proficient you become. Whereas, with just one published novel (although I have completed, or half written, four others) I am simply much less practised at my craft. But I am learning, and hopefully improving all the time, so the “nuts and bolts” of writing will eventually become almost second nature.

So, that is one reason for me taking so long to write my novel. I am still practising my craft and it simply does take time.

But it is not the only reason. For I am also quite pernickety.

I read a fair number of books, many of which I enjoy simply because of their wonderful story. Sometimes the writing itself is wonderful too, and I notice how very good it is. But more often, and I think this is important, the writing is so good – well-structured, well-paced, good characterisation, proficient grammar, mellifluous, or at least coherent, easily-read sentences, good word choice – that the reading experience is such an easy pleasure that I can simply let myself be drawn into the story. And I think that this is what you want and expect from a good novel, whether it’s historical fiction, a romance, a thriller or whatever: to get entirely lost in the world that the author has created.

Conversely, what you don’t want as a reader is to be constantly thrown out of the illusion of the story, to have your pleasure interrupted, by being pulled up short by, for example, hard-to-fathom sentences, poor or plain wrong choice of words, what Jane Austen called “infelicities and repetitions”, sloppy grammar or punctuation, or frequent typos. Yet this pulling up short happens to me really quite often and, I have to say with much regret, more so with self-published novels than with those traditionally published. The latter are not immune from errors, but they do seem much less frequent.

I find this very disappointing. Yet, sometimes, if I go to Amazon to see if other readers have had the same unhappy experience of a particular book, I find that the answer quite often is, they haven’t! Or, if they have, they haven’t mentioned it in their review. So did they not notice? Or didn’t they care? How I would love to know the answer…

We new indie writers are urged often to ensure our work is properly edited – professionally edited, if possible. But surely those books with so many “infelicities” cannot have been? Yet, if the readers of those books don’t seem to mind, the obvious question is, how much does it really matter?

silverwoodWell, I think it matters to agents and publishers. They definitely notice. It matters also to professional, if non-traditional, publishers like SilverWood, who won’t take on a book that has clearly not been very carefully edited.

And, anyway, it matters to me! Partly, perhaps, because I spent more than thirty years in a career – technical writing – where good, clear, grammatical, well-spelled writing was expected, both of me and by me. After all, good writing aids reading and understanding and, in the context of a novel in particular, enjoyment. Bad writing can make a book difficult to read, possibly confusing, and may result in it being thrown across the room!

I don’t think it’s necessary to get too heavy about all this. I’d be mortified if anyone thought I was setting myself up as the “grammar police”. This is not about being critical of others for the sake of it, it’s about writers producing the very best books for their readers to enjoy.

So, I am – yes – quite pernickety. That is not to claim that I achieve perfection – but I do aim for it. What I do is read and reread my work, many times, stripping out or rewriting “infelicities” of every kind. As part of my editing process, I work my way through one or more of the writing advice guides that I have. Two, very different, but useful, books spring to mind. First is Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. The chapters include basic advice on show and tell, dialogue, interior monologue, point of view, each with a checklist to help you in your editing. The Word-Loss Diet, by Rayne Hall, is quite a small book and formulaic in style, but its simple premise is to help you cut unnecessary words from your draft and, my goodness, it works. Even if you think your book is well-written, you may still find that it’s full of words you really can do without. The result of the ”diet” is simply a more tightly-written book. That’s all it does. But I do recommend it.

self editing book         word loss diet

All this reading and rereading does of course take time. A lot of it. But, for me, it’s most definitely worth it. It has always been important to me that, when I publish, my books would be the best that I could make them. That’s all.

So I’ll keep at it and hope that A Woman’s Lot will be up on Amazon’s virtual shelves before too long.

The “industrious” Meon Valley

This is a piece that I first posted in May on The History Girls blogspot but which I thought I would like to share again here.


At this time of year, my daily walk takes in three of the “industrial” features of this lovely part of Hampshire, the Meon Valley: the River Meon itself, the long defunct Meon Valley Railway and the remnants of a royal hunting ground, the Forest of Bere.

The River Meon at St Clair’s, Soberton
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The peace and beauty of the Meon’s landscape – with its gently flowing stream, the occasional heron or egret fishing for trout at the river’s edge; the lush water meadows, sometimes occupied by grazing cattle; the odd rushing weir; and the few surviving stone and brick arch bridges that span it at various points along its length – somewhat belie its powerful past. The railway once played its part in bearing passengers and goods from leafy Hampshire to noisy London (and had an important role in World War Two). And the forest – particularly lovely at this time of year, when the bright green foliage is just beginning to clothe the branches of the beech trees, yet is still sparse enough to allow the sun to light up the glades of bluebells – is but a small part of a much greater forest that has a long and important history.

blaeu1 cropped
Map by William J Blaeu,
Amsterdam, 1645

The River Meon is not a grand river, only twenty-one miles in length, and, for much of that length, a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.

The early form of the name, Mēon, is Celtic or pre-Celtic. The meaning and etymology seem unclear, but it may be associated with a word that means ‘damp’ or ‘to wash’.1 Yet that seems unromantically mundane, and I prefer to think of the lovely Meon simply as the river that meanders…

But despite the apparently gentle, meandering nature of the Meon, it nonetheless has power.

The River Meon in flood in the 1950s


Within the past few years, villages at either end of the Meon’s length – East Meon and Titchfield – have experienced severe flooding when the river burst its banks and overwhelmed their roads and houses. In 1953, the flooding in East Meon was the worst seen for forty years.

More helpfully, for centuries, the steep gradient of the terrain over which the upper reaches of the river flow has enabled the water to be exploited for a surprising variety of manufacturing processes – iron working, cloth processing, paper making, tanning, and flour milling.2

Until the seventeenth century, the Meon was navigable as far as Titchfield, which at that time was a significant port, and the area was heavily involved in the woollen industry and also produced iron, tanned goods and cloth. Eventually, silting restricted the passage of ships and, in 1611, to ensure that Titchfield could remain a port, the Earl of Southampton, Thomas Wriothesley, had a canal built directly from the sea to the town, and the Meon estuary was blocked off. Some say that, at one time, boats could come up the river as far as Soberton, where smuggled goods were unladen and hidden in the church vault, though one does wonder at the veracity of this romantic tale.3

Soberton Mill 
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

There were mills all along the River Meon, from one end to the other, including ones at Titchfield, Funtley, Wickham, Soberton, Droxford, Meonstoke, and East Meon. Many buildings survive, although they are not necessarily original. The mills were mainly used for grinding grain, although at Warnford was one of the very earliest paper mills in Hampshire, and at Funtley there was an iron mill in the 17th century. The water mill below Bere Farm in Soberton Heath – Soberton Mill – was probably, in the 16th century, a fulling mill, where cloth was scoured (cleaned and whitened) and milled (felted and then rinsed), before being stretched. Later, into the 20th century, Soberton was used as a flour mill.

Chesapeake Mill, Wickham
Photo © Richard Thomas

Chesapeake Mill in Wickham replaced an earlier watermill on the site. The present mill was built in 1820 using timbers from HMS Chesapeake, the former United States Navy frigate USS Chesapeake, captured by the Royal Navy in 1812. The outside of the mill is of brick, but the beams, joists, and floors are built from the ship’s deck timbers, still, apparently, blood-stained from the ship’s fighting days. The mill, used for producing flour, remained in operation until 1976.4   

Both Chesapeake and Soberton mills sit not only on the river but also alongside the defunct Meon Valley railway line, now just a woodland track, on which you can walk (or trot or cycle) all the way from Wickham through Soberton to West Meon.

Bridge at Mislingford
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The Meon Valley Railway opened in 1903 and ran for 2212 miles (36.2 km) between Alton and Fareham, closely  following the course of the River Meon. It was intended to be part of a through route from London to Portsmouth, but it never fulfilled its purpose. The line passed through the Forest of Bere before heading across the water-meadows at Wickham on an embankment. The meandering course of the River Meon, the constraints of the landscape and the railway’s ruling gradient meant that the railway needed five under-bridges within half a mile (1 kilometre), three to cross the Meon and two to cross roads in Wickham.

In the early days of the railway, it was used for shipping local agricultural and horticultural produce, including watercress (from the still active watercress beds at Warnford), fruit (especially strawberries and apples), milk and cattle. Local residents and businesses apparently had high hopes for the railway, and an inn was built next to Droxford station in the hope of accommodating tourists and travellers.

The Meon Valley Railway trail
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

People were impressed by the line’s speed, the scale of its engineering works, the high quality of the stations and the beauty of the scenery it passed through. Unfortunately, the expected London through-traffic never materialised, and after only fifty years passenger traffic was cut in 1955. The line was closed altogether in 1968, and subsequently, 17.5 km (11 mi) of the route was made into the trail for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders.

However, the Meon Valley Railway did have an important role to play during World War Two. During the build-up to D-Day, men and equipment had to be moved to the south of England, and large numbers of tanks were moved by rail to Mislingford goods yard, from where they were then dispersed to local lanes and fields for temporary storage.

Old loading gauge at Mislingford

(As an aside, I’ve a small tale to tell… I’m not really a particularly mystical individual, but I’ve often sensed “something” at this spot… Ghosts perhaps of those D-Day soldiers disembarking from the trains? In fact, there’s a timber yard quite close by, so maybe it has only ever been the noises from there, the clanking of machinery, and the sound of workmen’s voices that I’ve heard…? Or maybe not…)

Droxford station in July 1975
Photo by Nick Catford

The railway’s most famous wartime role came on 2nd June 1944, when Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet met General Eisenhower, General de Gaulle and other Allied leaders in a special train parked at a heavily guarded Droxford station. Their mission was the final preparation for the D-Day landings. The station was only a short car journey from Eisenhower’s invasion headquarters at Southwick, and, being mostly hidden, was considered a safe location for the crucial meeting.

If the river and the railway run alongside each other, so the railway line also runs alongside the remains of the Forest of Bere where it lies within the parish of Soberton.

Forest of Bere, near Soberton Heath
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Bere Forest was once very extensive, stretching from Romsey, south towards Southampton, east to beyond the Sussex border, and as far north as Winchester. It is presumed that the Norman kings used Bere Forest for hunting, as well as the New Forest over in Dorset, and it is reputed that Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I also hunted here.

But the Forest of Bere was not just a royal hunting ground.

Evidence of a Roman bloomery, a type of furnace once widely used for smelting iron, was found during excavations for one of the forest’s car parks in Soberton Heath. For centuries, the oak woods provided timber for building and acorns for pigs. Villagers of the southern part of the village (Soberton Heath) had rights to turn their cattle into the forest, including horses and pigs but not sheep. The deer that roamed the forest – which we often still see these days both in the forest and on the road – were not of course for the common people (except, one supposes, illicitly).

In the 13th century oaks were cut in quantity to repair warships and build bridges, and for building work in Winchester. At the beginning of the 14th century the size of the forest began to decline, presumably because of the amount of timber being taken. In Tudor times, the timber was reputedly used extensively for Henry VIII’s shipwrights, including perhaps the building of the Mary Rose, which in 1545 would sink in the Solent at the far end of the Meon Valley, and can now be seen in all its wonderful glory at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth. In the 17th century, Cromwell, Lord Protector, reputedly used a vast quantity of Bere Forest timber to repair his ships, then, in the later 18th, there was so much work for Portsmouth dockyard associated with the Napoleonic Wars that, by 1815, there was apparently no suitable oak left!! Replanting didn’t start until 1855.

Crater pond in the Forest of Bere
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Great quantities of timber were again felled during the First World War and then again over the period of WWII, this time for the building of aircraft, using beech wood. During WWII, two land mines were dropped on the forest – the enemy was probably looking for the railway – creating two large and very deep ponds. Alongside the involvement of the railway in the war effort, our lovely forest was also used, both to hide tanks within the trees, and to shelter people who, during the worst of the bombing, came out from Portsmouth to find a degree of safety.

It’s somehow wonderful, and somehow humbling, to remember, in these places where I take my walk, and where I sometimes stop to stand and stare, how very many men and women have been here in the centuries before me.


1 From “Saxons in the Meon Valley: A Place-Name Survey” by Dr Kelly A. Kilpatrick, Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham, Sept 2014. http://www.saxonsinthemeonvalley.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/MeonValleyPlaceNameResearch_Sep2014.pdf

2 The River Meon, National Rivers Authority, Southern Region, July 1993. http://www.environmentdata.org/fedora/repository/ealit:3872/OBJ/20003280.pdf

3 Stories of the river, railway and forest can be found in The Story of Soberton and Newtown by Ann Pendred (1999).

4 From The Warship and the Watermill https://web.archive.org/web/20081030083543/http://www.chesapeakemill.co.uk/historypdf001.pdf accessed 10th May 2017.

Picture captions

The River Meon at St Clair’s, Soberton Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Map of Hampshire by William J Blaeu, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1645. From: http://www.geog.port.ac.uk/webmap/hantsmap/hantsmap/blaeu1/bla1smaf.htm

The River Meon in flood in the 1950s. From East Meon History Archive: http://www.eastmeonhistory.org.uk/content/catalogue_item/east-meon-floods-1953/severe-flooding-in-east-meon-in-the-1950s-picture-gallery

Chesapeake Mill, Wickham Photo © Richard Thomas [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Soberton Mill, Soberton Heath. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The Meon Valley Railway trail. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Bridge over the Meon Valley Railway at Mislingford. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The old loading gauge at the former Mislingford goods yard. Photograph in Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Droxford station building in July 1975. Photo by Nick Catford. From: http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/d/droxford/

Forest of Bere (Upperford Copse), near Soberton Heath, Hampshire. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Crater pond in the Forest of Bere (West Walk). Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Those pesky topiary elves again…!

I first posted the basis for this blog back in November 2016. At the time, I was a bit apologetic that the piece was only marginally to do with writing historical fiction, but I now am of the view that, when I write about gardens or plants, or indeed birds and wildlife, instead of historical fiction, it simply reveals another aspect of “who I am”, and is no bad thing. Gardens and gardening do often have a place in my novels, but I have always been interested in plants and nature, and so writing about them in my blog does seem just as natural as writing about writing!

The November blog was basically about topiary. And the reason I want to talk about it again is that, here in France this summer, we have revisited the wonderful, and surprising, shrub sculptures that sparked my post last year, but that I have also a sadder tale to tell about them…

You may or may not much care for topiary – clipped box, yew and suchlike – but I really rather love it. I maintain a few little box hedges and balls in my own garden. But, in the Vercors mountains, in south eastern France, an area where we’ve been going for our summer holidays for twenty-five years, there are certain remote mountain roads where you will find hundreds of clipped box hedges, shapes and sculptures. There are hedges, with straight sides and flat tops, balls and pyramids and, most astonishing of all, funny faces, and all of them are on genuinely isolated mountain roads. I think the faces are a relatively recent addition, for I don’t remember seeing them twenty-five years ago. They seem very much in keeping with the French sense of fun in their public art – public gardens and roundabouts, for example, are often wonderfully quirky and delightful. (More of this in a moment…)

Version 2  DSCN0462

2016 photos © Author

The first time we saw them, all those years ago, we thought it hilarious that someone was apparently travelling these mountain roads with a pair of topiary shears. Because, honestly, there are miles and miles of bushes, painstakingly and (it would seem) lovingly clipped to crisp or curved perfection. Now, we still think it’s delightful that someone – who I wonder? – takes the trouble to do all this work. Is he/she alone, or is there a gang of them? And does someone pay for it to be done? And why?

To discover these clipped wonders along mountain roads for the first time was so surprising that it seemed almost magical, as if – as we used to say to the children – the elves had done it!

We have never seen the topiarist(s), even though, again this year, some of the clippings were clearly quite recent. We live in hope that, maybe, one day… Unless, of course, it is the elves. (And, actually, if anybody does know the answers to these questions, I’m not sure I really want to be enlightened! I think the idea of the topiarists being elves is just too charming…)

It was lovely this year seeing some of the same “sculptures”, and some I’d not noticed last time.

IMG_1306  IMG_1340

2017 Photos © Author And, yes, it’s the same chap! His friend from last year is still there too. I have a suspicion that one or two of the round ones are potential candidates for sculpture…)











For the blog last November, seeing the mountain sculptures again last year had set me wondering about how long topiary had been an art, and, specifically, whether they had topiary in mediaeval gardens, given my particular interest in mediaeval times. If you’d like to read that blog, it’s here… https://carolynhughesauthor.com/2016/11/23/topiary-elves-and-mediaeval-gardens/

But, this time, I want to talk about something much more contemporary, a modern invader – albeit a pretty enough little creature – that hasn’t yet attacked these wonderful mountain sculptures, but very well might…

1854 - Cydalima perspectalis - Box tree moth
Photo © David Hughes

You may have come across the Box moth, if you have box hedges and if you live in a place where they have become invasive. The RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) says that the moth is a native of East Asia and became established in Europe in 2007. The adult moth was first reported in the UK in 2008, whereas the caterpillar wasn’t found in gardens until 2011. But since then it has become widespread in London and surrounding counties.

The understory is (was) box © Author
A hedge in a country garden. The green leaves are, sadly, not box © Author

It’s clearly here in France. As we drive around we can see the devastation that it causes – box trees stripped bare of leaves. It looks horrible!

We have noticed that some trees do seem to grow new leaves, but presumably only to be eaten again…

(By the way, this is not the notorious “box blight”, which is a fungal disease that results in bare patches and die-back on a bush, and I think is pretty difficult to get rid of.) In a garden, if you are willing to do so, chemical sprays can be used – quite successfully, I understand – to control the box moth, though of course spraying does have potentially serious side effects to wildlife.

Photo © David Hughes

Our gîte owner sprays his hedges (and his topiary squirrels) and, so far, they have not been attacked. I suppose that all owners of topiary gardens, and especially perhaps those whose gardens are famous for their topiary – like the Château de Villandry, for example –must take steps to guard against the dreaded moth…

But, out in the countryside, what can possibly be done? I suppose the “elves” could take a spray with them when they go out clipping – perhaps they do – but, seriously, it’s hard to see how anything could prevent the moth attacking these lovely sculptures.


Pretty (?) box moths Photo © Author
Version 2
Beautiful lavender, rather spoiled. Photo © Author

And our fears about the potential danger were confirmed when we drove into a different mountainous area specifically to look for a particularly wonderful field of lavender that we knew would be growing along one of those windy roads. We found the lavender, growing, as it has for the past several years, in all its lovely heady glory, but it was absolutely covered in – box moths!

This field wasn’t particularly close to our mountain sculptures, but these pretty little horrors can of course fly! It would simply be so very sad if they flew that way and destroyed all that wonderful topiary work…

So, that’s a potentially worrying prospect, but let me end on a much more cheerful note.

I mentioned earlier the French sense of fun in the way they present their public art, such as in gardens and on roundabouts. And, as an example, and following the topiary theme, I give you these…an elephant and a dragon.

IMG_1823 2
Elephant and friend. Photo © Author
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Dragon and friend. Photo © Author
© Author

These two charming creatures can be found in “our” village, close to our gîte, Montelier, which is one of only eighteen four-flower villages in the Auverge-Rhône-Alps region (out of 516 villages and towns in the region with all levels of  flower label). The town gardeners go in for  particularly charming animal “sculptures”, including topiary, as part of their plant displays. (More on the Concours des villes et villages fleuris – “towns and villages in bloom competition” – in a future post, perhaps…)


You probably can’t see from my photos that each topiary animal has a “person” riding them… And who might these be, one wonders…? Here is a slightly closer, yet still rather mysterious, view of one of them…

Version 3
© Author

A topiarist elf perhaps?

Nature red in tooth and claw (part deux)

My blog today is not much – well, nothing, actually – to do with writing historical fiction, or with medieval history. Instead it is a bit of an addendum to my post last month, Nature red in tooth and claw. If you follow my posts, you have probably realised by now that, as well as writing novels set in the fourteenth century, I am also pretty keen on observing the natural world, and especially birds…

So, today, I am offering a relatively short blog, and one that is not only short but also, I’m afraid, not very “sweet”. So you might want to look away now if you’re squeamish…

Bésayes, Drôme, France. View towards the Vercors mountains. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

How very tranquil the countryside seems as we sit here on the terrace of our gîte in Drôme, south-eastern France, looking across the fields towards the Vercors mountains, watching a tractor trundle up and down the rows of corn or sunflowers in the distance, listening to the crickets chirruping, thrilling to the sight of the locally-nesting bee-eaters swooping and gliding, noticing the lengthening of the evening shadows… With a glass of rosé at one’s elbow, and the barbecue coals burning nicely in anticipation of pork and aubergines and fat red peppers, it’s all quite relaxing and delightful.

Well, yes, I am putting a shamelessly romantic spin upon it all, but only really to point up the contrast between what we see out there with our rose-tinted eyes, and what we know is actually going on…

For, of course, at the micro level, the countryside is anything but tranquil, and you can be sure that, each day, many creatures, small and larger, meet their – often gruesome – ends, mostly in the service of another creature’s belly (or, at this time of year especially, those of their growing young).

It’s not often one has the opportunity to observe this playing out of nature – perhaps indeed you wouldn’t want to? But, yesterday evening, we did observe it, and admittedly it wasn’t pretty. However, what we saw was not just a death but, more intriguingly, a display of social interaction between different species of bird, which was grimly fascinating to watch, and yet we felt somehow privileged to be doing so.

Unfortunately (or, you might think, fortunately) I can’t show you photos of what we actually saw, for the scene was played out just a little too far away, even for a bird-watcher’s excellent long lens camera. But here are the actors in this everyday drama of French country life…

(Images courtesy of the RSPB website)


carcr_tcm9-18253      magpie_tcm9-17626

Photo © Chris Shields for RSPB

It was early evening and dinner preparation was under way – apéritif, barbecue and so on –  when we suddenly heard the raucous squawks of crows and the harsh rasp of magpies, somewhere not all that far away. Looking from the terrace across to the fields just beyond the hedge, a gaggle of birds – four magpies and six carrion crows – was flapping and hopping noisily around a buzzard, clearly safeguarding its recently captured prey. It seemed clear that the poor thing – from its size and colouring, a rabbit – had been recently captured from the continued jerking of its hind legs. This might have been its death throes, but the movements were vigorous enough to suggest an, albeit hopeless, attempt to escape its grisly fate.

Horribly voyeuristic as it might seem, I’m afraid that we set up the tripod and telescope for a better view. Because what was happening was not just “nature red…” but also a stand-off between the buzzard and the would-be purloiners of its dinner, and we were intrigued to know which of them would win the day. Ten to one seemed poor odds against the buzzard, but the other birds (and I’m going anthropomorphic here!) seemed to be all talk and no trousers, as they flapped and swooped and barked at the buzzard, but most definitely kept their distance.

© Spencer Wright, North Walsham, England (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

They were undoubtedly safe enough from the raptor’s talons, which were keeping tight hold of the hapless rabbit. But one imagines that just one peck from that vicious beak could do a huge amount of damage to a magpie, or even a crow.

Buzzards are a good deal bigger than crows and magpies. The smaller birds are similar to each other in length, approximately 45cm, although the carrion crow has a wingspan half as much again as the magpie, and is twice its weight, at about half a kilo. But the buzzard – and I think the one we had here was a fairly large example – is more than a quarter longer than the others, with an additional 20cm or so of wingspan than the crow, but it weighs twice as much as the crow and four times as much as the magpie. And it’s got that scimitar of a beak!

So it’s hardly a surprise that, despite the greater numbers of their posse, the aspiring thieves were exceedingly cautious about getting too close to their target.

Nonetheless, they didn’t stop their harassment. The buzzard might have been the big kid on the block, but perhaps the crows and magpies knew that, precious as its meal was, it wouldn’t risk a physical confrontation with them.

Buzzard and Carrion Crows, Bough Beech
Photo RSPB

You see this also in the air, where it’s very common to see crows mobbing a buzzard, presumably because the buzzard got too close to their nest or had simply invaded their territory, although I think it’s rare that physical contact is ever made, as it could be very damaging to all involved. Usually the buzzard just seems to fly off, presumably to look elsewhere for easier, less taxing, pickings.

So crows – and magpies – are brave, but presumably know from experience that, if they keep up the pressure long enough, they stand a good chance of winning.

And that is actually what happened, although not for a good fifteen or twenty minutes…

The poor rabbit struggled on a while, and the buzzard tried to eat a little something of its dinner. But, with the constant interruptions from its tormentors and its own failed attempts to see them off – we could see quite clearly that, beak open, it was shouting at them, telling them to scram – it didn’t seem to be enjoying its meal very much, and was perhaps already thinking better of bothering to defend it.

In fact, some of the crows and magpies did scram, but there remained a persistent few of both species that weren’t going to let this potential free meal go.

I thought the buzzard might try taking off with whatever was left of its dinner in its talons, but the rabbit might well have weighed as much as its captor, or even more – it did look quite big – so maybe that wasn’t a practical possibility.

And, in the end, leaving the remains behind, the buzzard did simply fly away, with a parting bark at the victorious corvids, who then pounced upon their prize and tucked in.

So, for them – the crows and magpies – there was such a thing as a free lunch (dinner). All they had to do was have a degree of courage and a fair amount of patience, and be really, really irritating for long enough to force their bigger rival to feel the effort of the fight was greater than the reward.

Thus, in this case, the underdog(bird)s won out over the top dog(bird). But I imagine it doesn’t always work out that way…

After the Black Death

I first posted this in The History Girls blog, but I thought I would like to share it again here.

“It is June 1349. In the Hampshire village of Meonbridge, the worst plague in England’s history has wiped out half its population…”

So goes the blurb for my historical novel Fortune’s Wheel.

“Meonbridge” is broadly somewhere in the upper reaches of the valley of Hampshire’s River Meon. The Meon is not a grand river, only twenty-one miles in length, and for much of that length is a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.

Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut, 1493

The plague referred to in the novel’s blurb is what we call the Black Death, the plague that struck England in 1348-50. At the time they referred to it as the Great Death, the mortality or the pestilence. Having spread across the world from Asia and throughout Europe, it arrived in England in June 1348, or thereabouts. Famously, it was once thought to have entered the country at Melcombe in Dorset, although some believe it might have come in closer to Southampton, or Bristol, but it’s also possible that it arrived in several places at about the same time. The disease lasted a matter of months in any one location, although overall, as it spread relentlessly across the country, it persisted for the best part of two years.


In Hampshire, it was in October 1348 that the effects of the plague began to be seen. We know that partly because William Edyngdon, the Bishop of Winchester, issued a letter to the clergy in his diocese…

“We report with anguish the serious news which has come to our ears: that this cruel plague has now begun a savage attack on the coastal areas of England. We are struck by terrors lest (may God avert it!) this brutal disease should rage in any part of our city of diocese.”1

Sadly, the bishop’s prayers were not answered, for the diocese of Winchester suffered gravely, with 48.8% of its clergy dying, the highest proportion for any diocese in England where figures were available.2

Meon Valley map 1695
Extract from a Map of Hampshire, by Robert Morden, published in an edition of Britannia by William Camden, 1695. Source: Portsmouth University. http://www.geog.port.ac.uk

In southern Hampshire as a whole, including the Meon Valley, roughly half of the populations of the towns and villages lost their lives.

Titchfield is at the sea end of the Meon Valley. There, in the year January 1349 to January 1350, 423 tenant deaths were recorded on the manor, compared to 56 in the previous year. In all, Titchfield might have lost perhaps as much as 80% of its population. In Corhampton, closer to the part of the Meon Valley where I think that “Meonbridge” is located, 55% of people died. In Bishops Waltham, a market town some five miles south west of Corhampton, it was more like 65%. In Funtley, further down the Meon Valley towards Titchfield, the numbers were not large (21 deaths) but it represented a huge percentage of the tenant population, and in Crofton, closer still to Titchfield, there appear to have been perhaps 92.5% mortality among tenants in the 1349-50 plague year.

But losses were not evenly distributed. Although the places I have mentioned had relatively high losses, the plague apparently skirted some places altogether, while a few communities died out completely for a while. An example of the latter is Quob, a tiny hamlet near Funtley, where a manorial court statement in the plague year indicated that no-one survived in that community. However, as Tom Beaumont James says, in The Black Death in Hampshire, while there is a popular belief that many communities in England died out as a result of the Black Death, this is probably not true, but rather that the high mortality caused by the plague started a decline that was completed as much as a century or two later. Quob was tiny, perhaps just a few families, so it was undoubtedly easy enough for the plague to kill them all, but the little community did recover some years later. Whether or not a community recovered was undoubtedly affected by factors other than the Black Death, including the later outbreaks of plague, and perhaps the increasing mobility of working people, driving some away from the countryside and into towns.

It’s not unreasonable to extrapolate from what is recorded for real Hampshire to what might have happened in the fictional Meonbridge. There, I have the plague arriving in December and being more or less over in early summer, which accords reasonably well with the evidence. The high levels of mortality among clergy in the Winchester diocese show that the plague was at its worst there during the first half of 1349. Evidence of the devastation in this part of Hampshire comes also from the records of the Bishop of Winchester’s manors, where much higher than normal deaths among tenants meant that many holdings became vacant and large tracts of agricultural land were therefore uncultivated.

But, whatever the numbers, it is surely very hard to imagine how shattering the plague’s arrival must have been. The disease was of course quite terrible enough in itself, but it followed in the wake of two other appalling disasters: overpopulation and severe poverty in the first decade of the century, ruinous weather, disastrous harvests and devastating famines in the second.

Probably not as cute as he looks!

We know now that this terrifying disease was caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, carried by a flea that lives on the black rat, although exactly how it was transmitted to people remains a matter of some debate.

The particular hideousness of the disease was described by many contemporary chroniclers. One, Gabriele de’ Mussis, a lawyer from Piacenza in Italy, in his Historia de Morbo, wrote thus:

“First, out of the blue, a kind of chilly stiffness…a tingling sensation, as if they were being pricked by the points of arrows. [Then]…a fearsome attack which took the form of an extremely hard, solid boil [typically in the armpit or groin]. As it grew more solid, its burning heat caused the patients to fall into an acute and putrid fever, with severe headaches….In some cases it gave rise to an intolerable stench. In others it brought the vomiting of blood…Some died on the very day the illness took possession of them…the majority between the third and fifth day….Those who fell into a coma, or suffered a swelling or the stink of corruption, very rarely escaped.”3

It sounds decidedly grim. The “boils” of course were the black pustules that we call “buboes”, giving the term bubonic plague, though not all victims suffered from this form of the disease. Some caught the pneumonic variety, which attacked the lungs, causing pain and an inability to breathe, then coughing up of blood and sputum. Apparently this form of the disease was invariably fatal, and quickly so, whereas it wasn’t unknown for bubonic plague victims to recover.

Seems they may be fortunate enough to have a priest to shrive them… Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411)

But whichever form of the disease friends and family members suffered, it must have been almost beyond horrifying to witness. And how fearful people must have been when they saw how randomly the plague seem to find its victims – rich and poor, old and young, reprobate and innocent, any and all were taken. Moreover, the very scale of affliction in a community often meant that there was no priest available to give the last rites to a dying victim – the priest being either simply too occupied with others, already dead himself, or perhaps he’d even abandoned his flock to try and save himself – bringing the added terror that your loved one might be about to die in sin, unconfessed, unshriven.


The particular terror of the plague undoubtedly tested relationships and familial bonds to the utmost. With a lack of understanding of how the disease was spread, and the terrifying speed with which it invariably dispatched its victims, some people did abandon loved ones in an attempt to escape the same fate. Indeed, when some thought that the disease could be communicated through the gaze or breath or clothes of victims, it is perhaps unsurprising that many were left to die, not only in extreme agony and terror, but entirely alone. However, not everyone abandoned their loved ones to their fate – some stayed to care for them, and it is perhaps one of the mysteries of the disease that, given its apparent virulence, not everyone in a household was necessarily afflicted.

And how much more frightening was it to be told that this disease – like other natural (and perhaps man-made) disasters – was God’s punishment for man’s sin, for your sin? This was presumably what priests would have taught their congregations. In September 1348, at the original behest of the king, Edward III, a letter was sent from the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury to all the bishops in the southern counties, ordering them to arrange urgent prayers to be offered up against the plague. It is clear from the letter that the plague was seen as a punishment for sin.4

“Terrible is God towards the sons of men… Those whom he loves he censures and chastises;…he punishes their shameful deeds in various ways… He…allows plagues, miserable famines, conflicts, wars and other forms of suffering to arise and uses them to terrify and torment men and so drive out their sins.”

Yet people might well have wondered which of their sins could be so great that God would want to punish them so severely.

But it is what happened after the Black Death had moved on that is the underlying premise of Fortune’s Wheel. I didn’t want to write a novel about the Black Death. Rather, I was interested in what happened after it had passed on, leaving communities with fewer neighbours, empty houses, unfarmed land. How on earth did people cope with such calamity? I suppose that medieval society was more hardened to natural and human disasters than many of us are today, and it seems that people in fact rebuilt their lives quite quickly.

Social change had already begun in rural manorial communities, with the feudal system of lords and peasants starting to break down. But the huge demographic shift that resulted from the simultaneous deaths of so many people during the plague accelerated that change. It is an interesting period of social history.

For those who survived, opportunities presented themselves for demanding higher wages and taking on untenanted land, which generally brought benefits to ordinary people and caused problems for the wealthier landowners. The old rules about tenants not being allowed to leave their manor were largely swept away, giving peasants more freedom to choose where to work and for what price. Women too had improved opportunities, which lasted for perhaps the next 150 years or so. On the whole, conditions improved for many ordinary English men and women: with higher wages, and fewer mouths to feed, they ate better, and could afford better homes.

In 1351, the government, worried that the old way of life was being overturned, brought in the Statute of Labourers, which attempted to curb the demands of peasants for higher wages, attacking both the peasants themselves and those employers (manor lords) who were willing to meet their demands. But it didn’t really work. Wages did rise, and some who’d been previously landless were able to become tenant farmers but paying money rent for their land rather than giving feudal service. Indeed, the feudal system eventually broke down completely, giving peasant populations a greater degree of freedom to manage their own lives.

Nonetheless, imagine the heartache that people must have felt, the turmoil they must have faced, in society as a whole, and also at a personal level. Those of us who, today, live in villages or small town communities may know, or at least be acquainted with, a great many of our neighbours. But we in the twenty-first century generally live quite dispersed lives, having our homes in these communities, but probably working elsewhere. But in former centuries, when communities worked together too, the death of half of your neighbours must have been unimaginably devastating.

Death surely never looked so jolly!

Women lost husbands, men lost wives, and both lost children. Young people were orphaned and had to learn to fend for themselves. Workers realised they were now a scarce resource and had some bargaining power, and said so, while their lords and masters tried hard to cling on to the status quo and keep the workers in their place. As the peasants rebelled against the old ways, priests railed against the upsetting of God’s pre-ordained social order, and preyed upon people’s fears of further divine retribution for their sinful lives.

Yet, amidst all this turmoil and undoubted continuing fear, normal life simply had to continue: fields had to be ploughed and sown, crops harvested, meals made, animals nurtured. People would still fall in and out of love. Babies would still be born and children cherished. The wheel of fortune forever turns…


  1. Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, p.115
  2. I owe my information about the 1348-50 plague in Hampshire to the excellent pamphlet The Black Death in Hampshire by Tom Beaumont James (Hampshire Papers, No.18, Hampshire County Council, 1999).
  3. Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, pp.24-5.
  4. Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, p.113.



Nature red in tooth and claw

My blog today is a bit of a diversion from the usual topic of historical fiction, if not entirely without reference to it… But it’s mostly an excuse to share a few photographs of some of the wonderful birds of prey we’ve seen, in this country and elsewhere…

Sparrow hawk Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Can you imagine how thrilled and excited I was when this beautiful sparrow hawk (probably a juvenile male) landed on the fence literally a few feet from my office window…

What a magnificent bird it was! And I have never before been as close to one as this, apart from at those birds of prey displays they have at country houses, which somehow don’t seem quite the same. This was a truly wild bird, and it was a wonderful privilege to be able to watch him for a while at such close quarters.

Although I’m afraid it was a bit gruesome, as he was clearly digesting his lunch – an unlucky blackbird. You can just see bits of something or other in his beak! I think his excessive meal – feeling a little bloated perhaps? – was partly the reason why he just sat there and let us photograph him and then sit quietly and watch…

Sparrow hawk portrait - Longcroft
Sparrow hawk Photo © Carolyn Hughes

But seeing him up close like that put me in mind of medieval hawking. I know that people enjoy working with birds of prey today, but somehow hawking seems a very “medieval” type of pastime. Although, of course, it was enjoyed then only by the wealthy, because the cost of acquiring and training the birds was very high.

Codex Manesse, a German illuminated manuscript of poetry, c.1300-1340. Folio 69r: accompanies poetry by Wernher von Teufen (fl. 1220).

However, it seems to have been a pastime that was enjoyed by both men and women, who used a variety of trained birds of prey – falcons, peregrines, merlins – to hunt small game, rabbits and the like, and other birds, anything, in principle, that the birds might hunt naturally. Falconry was, apparently, deemed a suitable sport for ladies because it was less dangerous than, for example, hunting a deer or wild boar with excitable dogs, and was less energetic and bloody for the hunters, as I suppose the birds were doing all the work.



These wealthy folk employed professional falconers to train their birds, which was – and is – a difficult and time-consuming activity that requires great expertise. Birds had to be trained from very young, both to get used to people and to go after the prey and return with it without tearing it apart (unlike my sparrow hawk). One imagines the whole training process took a great deal of time and patience.

Falconers, from a treatise by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, De arte venandi cum avibus, (The Art of Hunting with Birds), 1240-1250

But even these wealthy people could not, apparently, just buy any bird they took a fancy to. The fifteenth century Booke of Hawkyng after Prince Edwarde Kyng of Englande (BL Harley Collection 2340) is one of a number of medieval guides on hawking and, like some others, it provides a hierarchy of birds of prey and a list of which birds could be used by which members of society.

So, for example, an emperor was allowed an eagle or a vulture, and a king, a gyrfalcon (a large falcon), whereas an earl could only use a smaller peregrine. A knight could use a saker (smaller still) and a lady might have a little merlin. Even further down the pecking order (sorry…), a priest was permitted a sparrow hawk, and a knave or servant might be allowed a kestrel, although it does seem unlikely that such lowly people would really have had the wherewithal to own any sort of bird.

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Photo of Lesser Kestrel, Tarifa, Spain
© Carolyn Hughes


Saker Falcon
Photo by Marek Szczepanek (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Peregrine falcon
Photo by Will Mayall (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Ólafur Larsen. Derivative work: Bogbumper (Falco_rusticolus_white.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But if all those fierce-looking creatures seem “small” enough to train, can you imagine attempting to bend a much larger one to your will? Best of luck with that vulture, if you’re an emperor!

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Photo of Black Kite, Bésayes, France © David Hughes
Version 2
Photo of Griffon Vulture, Tarifa, Spain © David Hughes

Anyway, given my close encounter with “my” sparrow hawk, and our frequent more distant encounters with many other types of bird of prey, I cannot imagine wanting to constrain these wonderful birds’ natural instinct to hunt by forcing them to return the prey intact. Any more than I begrudged my sparrow hawk his lunch, despite my regret that it was one of our garden’s blackbirds. All “nature red in tooth and claw”is gruesome, but it is the way of things – the nature of things.

And so it seems fitting to close with an extract from my as yet unpublished novel called, indeed, The Nature of Things. This passage illustrates the mingled excitement and regret experienced by a young woman on her first exposure to hunting with falcons.

Extract from The Nature of Things, Part 5

It was supposed to be a treat for us, all those years ago, to stay at the chateau of Monsieur de Martigny, a friend and business partner of Papa’s, for two or three months while they travelled around northern France, seeking out new suppliers. It was so romantic there, and I just loved the elegant French ladies and their fashionable clothes. I was twelve, my sisters younger, and we had such fun with the Monsieur’s daughters, Katherine and Marguerite, playing in the chateau gardens, going for picnics on the banks of the Loire, and riding in the huge forests surrounding the estate. And Katherine and I, being older than the others, were even allowed to go hunting with falcons. 

Katherine’s brother, Estienne, sometimes joined us for the picnics, and always for the hawking. He had the prettiest of falcons – her name was Ysabeau – with a blue-grey back and white speckled breast and the brightest of black eyes. He carried her so proudly on his wrist, attached by a little silver chain to his glove. 

How I loved to watch Estienne release her and cast her up into the sky, where she spread her wings, wheeled and sped off after the poor frightened ducks that the servants had beaten up from the lake. I didn’t like that part of it – when Ysabeau flew back to her master with a drooping bird clasped in her claws. But Estienne loved the hunt and I wanted to show him I loved it too, so I clapped my hands and laughed, trying not to look at the duck’s dead eyes.

1.  From “In Memoriam A.H.H.” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, completed in 1849.