Thursday, 21 July 2011

Opening to 1066: Rebellion!

It had been a busy and mentally exhausting evening for Brother Ulric. In his humble parish church laid the dead and dying soldiers from the Battle of Hastings. The significance of the Battle had not been discussed with his fellow Monks, as they were tending to the spiritual and physical needs of their compatriots. The consequences of the Saxon defeat would come later. Now he had to tend to the dying and administer their last rites before they passed from this earth.
More than fifty bodies had been transferred from Senlac Ridge by cart or horse. There were a few walking wounded, but most of the casualties lay on the cold stone floor hours if not minutes from their appointment with St Peter. The church was constructed from the local oak and ash trees and was situated five miles from Caldbec in a village called Oakfield. Local villagers were helping with nursing duties, but the monks directed the activity.
As the Infirmarer, Ulric was directing operations with a cool and calm efficiency. At thirty years old, he had seen the injuries from sword fights and knew how to treat them and also knew how to comfort those past healing. His elder brother, Magnus had often got into drunken brawls and had received many a cut from a knife or a dagger. As the eldest son, Magnus had been destined to serve their Earl as a Housecarl, and Ulric the priesthood as the younger brother. That was the card life had dealt him and he had made good use of this opportunity. The Abbot had quickly seen Ulric’s eye for organisation and had made him the Infirmarer a mere five years after joining the Abbey. His knowledge of herbs, a soothing voice and calmness under pressure was in dire need this evening.
Ulric held the hand of a dying farmer firmly and yet gently to let the dying man know he was not alone. As one of the fyrd, the farmer was not a trained soldier, but had been called up to help his Earl fight the Norman invasion. The farmer’s voice was but a whisper, so Ulric knelt closer to hear his last confession. Ulric caught a few words about being sorry for being a bad husband and then the farmer convulsed for the last time showering Ulric’s face with spittle, blood and bile. Then he was still. The pained expression that had been etched on his face since the Norman sword had slit across his stomach was now replaced with a placid calm that removed ten years from his age. Ulric gently closed the farmer’s eyelids, muttered a prayer, rose and moved to seek out his next patient.
In the darkest corner of the church behind the altar lay an injured Housecarl. He was lying on his back with his head resting on a rolled up woollen cassock. His hands were clutched across his stomach as if he held back his entrails. His right eye was bruised and swollen covering most of his vision and a roughly cut cloth tourniquet had been applied to his right leg just above his knee. A candle flickered his shadow onto the wooden church wall and it was the movement of this shadow that had caught Ulric’s eye. The Housecarl had raised his arm to gain attention and by sheer luck or fate, Ulric had seen it through the corner of his eye. Ulric knelt down by his patient and mopped his brow with the cloth that had been placed by a freshly drawn bowl of water.
The Housecarl began to speak in a controlled but stuttering fashion. Each word painfully transmitted through clenched teeth, “The King… dead!” he began.
“I know my child. May God have mercy on his soul,” Ulric responded making the sign of the cross with his thumb on his forehead.
“No,” the Housecarl rasped in reply, “I saw.. him”
“Saw him when?” Ulric whispered.
“Changed armour….not dead!”
“Changed with whom? During the battle?”
“Near the end… escaped”
“Rest my child. Do not exert yourself.”
The Housecarl lurched forward and roughly grabbed Ulric’s collar. In severe pain and in his final moments he whispered in Ulric’s ear, “Harold….lives” and slumped back to his resting place.
“Who are you my child?” Ulric enquired.
The Housecarl never responded to Ulric’s question. Ulric’s heart was now beating fast. His mind swam with the information he had just been told.
As Ulric closed the warrior’s eyes for the last time a Brother had seen the last few minutes of Ulric’s conversation and had approached his colleague.
“An interesting confession Brother Ulric?” Brother Raymond enquired.
Ulric jumped at this sudden interrogation, as he had not heard Raymond approach. Ulric rose slowly and turned to face his Brother. His mind now fully engaged in the present, “Who was he Brother?” Ulric responded ignoring the question.
“Godfrey of Waltham. A Housecarl that had served with King Harold for many a year,” Raymond replied confidently, “He was one of the last to see the King before he fell.”
“I’m not so sure,” Ulric replied walking past his colleague, “I’m not so sure”.
Ulric headed straight for the church door and out into the night. It was raining lightly and the slight drizzle ran down his face and refreshed his furrowed brow. The last five minutes had turned a night of sorrow into one of hope and encouragement. What if Godfrey was right and Harold had managed to switch clothing? The Saxon King could fight another day. All was not lost!
Ulric stood yards from the church door looking to the heavens; his arms outstretched welcoming the pouring rain, as it now cascaded in a heavier descent. A smile etched right across his face. Brother Raymond watched Ulric from the church door and shook his head in bewilderment. Raymond had known of the Housecarl, Godfrey for a number of years. How could Ulric question his identification? With the dying Saxon soldiers still in need of his attention, Raymond turned about and walked back into the dryness of the church leaving Ulric in the rain.
Ulric was now on his knees in a puddle that had formed in the sodden earth where he knelt. This did not seem to bother the monk. He again looked up into the night sky, outstretched his arms and began to laugh uncontrollably. The soldiers from the Saxon army lay in his church, the battle was lost, but yet he laughed. Tears of joy mixed with the autumn rain ran down his face.
“He lives,” cried Ulric into the night sky, “he lives!!”

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