A Border Christmas, 1547 – An Excerpt from A Marcher Lord

A Marcher Lord - a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders
A Marcher Lord – a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders

This excerpt from A Marcher Lord is set at Christmas in 1547.  It is the time of the Border Reivers and the wars between England and Scotland, and the Scots are still recovering from the slaughter at Pinkie Cleugh a few months earlier.  William Scott, Lord Crawleigh, a Scottish baron loyal to the crown has returned to his border stronghold to hold for the Queen, and is acting as gaoler to a young Englishwoman he found riding over the border in suspicious circumstances, and who has refused to tell him her full name or where she came from…

Christmas came in a flurry of excitement and a steady fall of snow which began two days before the festivities began and by Christmas morning lay in a thick, heavy blanket of white across the hills and moors around Crawleigh, enchanting Jane with it’s sparkling beauty. The children were set to clear pathways and courtyard so that those neighbours brave enough to fight their way through the snow might at least find a clear path for their mount on Crawleigh ground.
They came, to Jane’s surprise, a succession of local lairds and landowners, from the surrounding country, to bring greetings to Crawleigh and to join in the feasting and merrymaking of the ‘daft days’ as her host scathingly called the twelve days of the Christmas season. None brought wives or daughters with them this year, although Kat informed Jane that in years gone by whole families would travel to visit their neighbours at this time. The weather and the war led men to leave their women safe in tower and keep. Jane was relieved at this. Women were curious, and she dreaded the wearisome task of fending off their questions.
The men did not question, although it became clear to Jane, long accustomed to read men’s faces, that all were speculating. She imagined that their conclusions would reflect poorly on her reputation. Her relationship with her captor was too easy and informal and she realised that they assumed that she was his mistress. Jane did not care. A lifetime in the army’s tail had prevented any possibility of her being easily offended. Her parents had never seen the need to formally wed, although she had never told her uncle that, and their relationship had always seemed good to her – better than many whose union was sanctioned by the church.
There was little religion at Crawleigh, as Jane had long discovered, but a priest had been invited and mass was said, although on the whole the people of Crawleigh seemed more enthused by their chosen ‘Abbot of Unreason” which was the local term for the Lord of Misrule. Adam Johnstone had been elected for this role, capering through the season like some manic demon conjuring up wilder and wilder dances and pranks for his delighted minions.
The full celebration of Christmas was new to Jane, who had, in her time, spent Christmases in many different places. Last Christmas had been her first at Etterdale, and she had still been deep in her grief for her father, still shocked by the violent temper of her uncle and the sad condition of her aunt and cousin. How would Christmas be this year, she wondered? Was Sir Thomas even home from the wars? And if he was, would he spend the twelve days, as he had last year, dangerously drunk so that his family and servants tiptoed around him.
At Crawleigh Castle, Christmas was a shared pleasure. Preparations had been going on for weeks, and on Christmas Eve every child in castle and village was set to cutting boughs and branches to decorate the hall. Jane enjoyed the greenery draped around the hall, the air of holiday, which even in the midst of wartime pervaded the castle. For the twelve days none was turned away from the gates, and there was a steady stream of desperate villagers from the surrounding countryside to whom food and drink were given, and when possible, shelter. Jane remained on hand with her supply of herbal preparations, ready to dose a cough or bind a wound. They asked no questions, these people. Shocked, often near starvation with frostbitten hands and wasted faces, they camped outside the gates, sheltered from the worst of the weather by the crag itself, and Crawleigh ordered firewood to be given to them so that they could be warm at night.
“What will happen to them?” Jane asked.
“Those who can will rebuild. I’ve given them leave to build huts around the castle when the weather breaks. All will dine with us on Christmas and Hogmanay. Some will move on to family when they can. Others will make their way to Hawick and Jedburgh to try to find work. And some will take to outlawry, perhaps join one of the reiver bands – and become part of the problem. I hate the English, Jenny – with one notable exception, of course!”
“I hate what they’ve done here,” Jane said soberly. “There are children out there, my lord.”
“I know. But they’ll be fed and kept warm for the season, and it’ll make them stronger to start again. When the snow starts to thaw, which won’t be long, they’ll start to move on. Some won’t make it – but many will. We’re a strong breed in these parts.”
“I hate this part of war,” Jane said.
“I know. But you’ve done your part, Jenny. There are people out there who’ll sleep easier because of your knowledge. Take heart from that. We do what we can.”
There was another side to the celebrations too. The guests who arrived would often spend time closeted with Scott of Crawleigh, who remained determinedly sober throughout the merrymaking, and managed to ensure that at least some of his retainers remained fit to ward off the English should they make surprise attack.
“They’ve been raiding Liddesdale,” Johnnie Croser informed Crawleigh during one such meeting in his chamber. “Probably to remind the Armstrongs and Elliotts whose money they’re taking just now. But on the whole I think they’ve stayed quiet over the season. God knows what will happen in the New Year. But I think we’ll celebrate Hogmanay in peace at least.”
“Not with Johnstone in charge,” Crawleigh said with a resigned grin. “No peace here. And while Liddesdale is under attack it’ll keep the occupants from attacking us. D’you think Somerset knows that when it suits them the Liddesdale men will switch sides again? Halfway through a battle if necessary.”
“If he doesn’t know it, Wharton does. Not much that old buzzard doesn’t know about these parts. Which may explain his timely reminders.”
“The more dead and burned out Armstrongs the better, whatever his motive. What news from Maxwell?”
“None yet.” Croser cocked a bloodshot eye at his neighbour. “Talking of news, what’s this I hear of a pretty hostage gracing your festive board this year?”
Crawleigh laughed. “News travels fast, Johnnie. Alan Robson, I imagine?”
“He could hardly keep a tale like that to himself, lad,” Croser said reasonably. “D’you know who she is?”
“No, other than she’s English and new to the borders. To tell you the truth, Johnnie, I was hoping that one of my guests might recognise her and put a name to her, but none have.”
“Is she from these parts?”
“God knows. I’m guessing she’s from the borders somewhere, but I’ve no way of knowing how far she’d travelled when I picked her up. If she’d been from just across, surely we’d have heard talk by now!”
“And you suspect her of being a spy? Have ye told the Queen Dowager?”
“Aye, I’ve written to her and to Arran. But to tell you the truth I doubt there’s any harm in Jenny. What I’d dearly like to know is whom she’s protecting with her silence.”
“A father? A brother? Or a lover?”
“There’s no father, that I know. A brother? Who knows? But what brother would let his kin take that kind of risk? A lover? Perhaps. But if it was, Johnnie, then he’s left her to take the consequences alone.”
Croser eyed his neighbour thoughtfully. “I’m finding a great desire to see the lassie myself, Will. Jenny, you say?”
“It was a childhood name, apparently and the only one she’ll give me. And while this war is on there’s no hope of sending word across the border to find her kin. So she’s here with me, at least until I get word from the Queen Dowager.”
“And an honoured guest so I’m told? No dungeon cell?”
Crawleigh got up. “Come and meet her, Johnnie and then tell me if you could find it in you to lock her in a dungeon cell.”
They made their way down to the hall which was packed with Crawleigh’s people. Those who were not needed to guard the stock and to keep a lookout were all within and the dinner hour was not far off. There was laughter coming from a group before the fire, and the sound of a woman singing. Crawleigh led Croser towards the group and paused at the sight of his prisoner, standing demurely before the group, singing.
He had not heard her sing before. There were musicians for the celebrations, and there had been dancing. Laughingly she had allowed them to teach her some of the old dances. She had joined in too, with the carols, although many of them were new to her.
She had a clear sweet voice, not powerful but true. The ballad she was singing was an old French one, a troubadour’s lament, and she sang it well. The noisy group fell silent. Most of them would not know the language, but the sadness in the song told its own tale. Crawleigh had heard it many times at court, sung by professional musicians, but it had never held such poignancy.
Spellbound they listened to the end, and paid her the compliment of a brief silence before breaking into spontaneous applause. Jane laughed, blushing and curtseying. Beside her, seated on a low stool, Crawleigh saw Bangtail Stewart, her inevitable shadow. Jane smiled down at him, and Stewart grinned back.
“Is this a celebration or a wake, lass?” he teased, and she laughed, and shot him a glance of pure mischief, before breaking into another song.
There was a howl of glee as her audience picked up the tune – a bawdy jig which was popular at soldiers’ campfires on both sides of the border. The girl could not have learned it in a respectable hall. The fiddlers lifted their instruments and took up the tune, and Jane’s audience clapped along, and joined in with the chorus enthusiastically. As she finished the last verse they erupted into cheers, but Jane had seen Crawleigh, and she laughed and warded off their pleas for more and went forward to meet him.
“I’m sorry, my lord – that was not a proper song for a respectable hearth!”
“I’ve seldom heard it sung so sweet, mistress!” Johnnie Croser said, taking Jane’s hand and lifting it to his lips. “John Croser of Martindale at your service.”
“Ah, you’ll be Jock’s cousin?” Jane said composedly. She caught his sharp look and laughed. “I’m learning more about my Scottish neighbours from Bangtail.”
“Stewart? Och, don’t believe half of what that sumph tells you. Mistress Jenny – whoever you may be – your voice is as lovely as your face.”
Jane curtseyed slightly. “Thank you, sir.” She glanced at Crawleigh, and amused, he said:
“Master Croser will be staying to dine, Jenny, and will spend the night.”
“I’ll speak to Janet.” Jane smiled at Croser. “They’ll be setting the boards for dinner shortly, sir. Will you have some mead?”
Crawleigh watched in amusement as she led his guest closer to the fire, finding him a stool and asking him about the journey from Martindale. Beside him, Bangtail Stewart said:
“Aye, it’s a rare entertainment to see her managing your household, master. Does it like she’s born to it. But have you thought about how this will be reported back to court?”
Crawleigh glanced sharply at him. “Should I care?” he asked, shortly.
Stewart sighed. “Nay, lad – not a whit. Only it’s making my life a lot harder with two of you to worry about, and neither of you with the least grain of sense in the world!”
Crawleigh grinned. “A little extra exercise for your wits, Bangtail. Get me a drink will you – and not the mead, for God’s sake! Tonight I’m in the mood for a decent French wine!”
Bangtail brought the goblet, and handed it to him. They were both watching Jane. Suddenly Crawleigh said:
“She sang that song remarkably well, Bangtail.”
“Which one.”
“The French one.”
His childhood friend grinned and lifted his tankard of mead in a silent toast. “You noticed, eh? And the second song is something you might hear in France too – around the campfire.”
“Harry of England was campaigning in France for years before he died and went to hell. But one of his officers would not have taken a daughter with him.”
“True. But she speaks French like a native. And there are mercenary bands all over France, not necessarily with the English.”
“All over Europe. A mercenary’s daughter. It makes some sense, although she’s well bred.”
“There’s more than one runaway gentleman sold his sword, my lord. Doesn’t mean he wouldn’t want his daughter well educated.”
There was silence between them. Then Crawleigh said: “None of this helps at all. Because she didn’t come from France with that letter. She came from England.”
“Aye. So what we need to know is where she went after her parents died.”
“And who she met there,” Crawleigh said. “Christ, Bangtail, if I could get my hands on the man who let her ride out alone that day…..”
“If we’re lucky,” Bangtail said cheerfully, “we’ll run into him one day.”
Crawleigh stood drinking the wine and watching and listening to Jane talking to Croser. Wherever she had come from, she had learned the rare gift of being able to talk to anybody. Croser was charmed, telling her stories, becoming expansive under the influence of the mead. For a while he had forgotten that his pretty hostess was a hostage, a prisoner suspected of spying for England.
At times Crawleigh knew that he forgot it too.

(Excerpt from A Marcher Lord by Lynn Bryant)

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