by Lynda Archard
©: December 1999
The hot August sun of 1711 blazed down onto Maisie’s clammy skin. She swung the scythe once more into the crisp ripened grain and a slight cool breeze blew through her long black hair when she stopped to wipe sweat from her brow with the edge of her smock before looking up. ‘It’s late. I must hurry,’ she mumbled, noting the position of the sun. She placed the scythe down on the shorn, spiky, ground and walked briskly toward the edge of the field. She turned once to admire her work, the neat piles of grain signified the day's work as done. Her next job, tonight, promised to be more interesting.
Maisie rushed to her grandmothers, a short trek along the lane, arriving just after seven. She paused to catch her breath at the gate. Tall blue lupines stood proudly over-shadowing blooms of all colours and a butterfly brushed her hand as it fluttered by, making her smile. The oak door of the cottage creaked opened.
“Maisie, you’re late.” Abigail glanced quickly along the lane and smoothed her long white apron over her stout body with her hand.
“What are you looking for, grandma?” Maisie asked.
“Nothing in particular.” she smiled.
“Your blooms are lovely with their colours against the ivy on the wall.” Maisie pointed at the garden.
“Thank you.” Abigail smiled at the compliment to her tiny cottage.
“Father said I must finish my work before dusk. I hurried, honest.”
“Yes, yes dear. Sit down and we’ll continue your real work.” Abigail seemed agitated and pointed to a chair next to hers at the table for Maisie. She reached up, taking two large hand-written manuscripts from the shelf. She opened one across the table and handed the other to Maisie. “Let's continue.” She smiled but a serious tone tinged her usually soft voice. “You must keep your manuscript up-to-date and in your heart. If you are caught with it, you are alone in your plight, you must say ‘I know nothing’ of it. Even if tortured, don’t admit to having this knowledge. Say, ‘the devil planted it.’ Ask them what they want you to say and deny all knowledge later. If they come and the worst should happen you will find peace. I’ll help if I can. It might not come to that, not all magistrates are bad. Do you understand?”
“I do.” Maisie had heard it so many times before but this time she felt uneasy by Abigail’s words. She knew who ‘they’ were but she continued to turn each page, admiring the flow of her mother’s writing, without fully understanding the real importance of the wise words. Her eyes were fixed on the swirling letters and decorative patterns adorning each page, made of linking symbols. Every part of the book had been drawn with passion by a proud hand. These were the words of the ‘Craft.’ Crafted memories from hundreds of years, passed down from mother to daughter. Maisie took a quill from the inkwell and began to copy the text, following in tradition.
Abigail smiled, stifling her tears and lifted Maisie’s chin gently with her hand. “Your mother would be proud. She would agree its time for you to learn the craft of the old ones.”
“Who are the old ones?”
“Your mother, my mother, her mother. They lived and learned, leaving us the legacy of their wisdom. Writing is a skill that not many posses, without it we wouldn’t have this knowledge. We must tell no one.”
“Tell me about mother.” Maisie asked, changing the subject.
Abigail wiped her eyes with her apron. “We live in tough, unfair days, Maisie. Mary was a fine woman, died a peaceful death drifting away in her sleep. She was too young, only 22 years. God works in a truly mysterious way and will keep her well.”
Maisie smiled. She knew her grandmother was lying but she liked to hear this version, it was better than the truth. Children in the village had told the rumours to her. The gossip was hurtful and caused many a fight with Maisie trying to shut them up. They said the magistrate, working for the inquisition, had taken her mother and tried her on the suspicion of witchcraft. ‘They’ were the ones Abigail had referred to. No one mentioned details, but Maisie knew they were bad people, ignorant of country traditions.
Maisie wondered if this could be causing Abigail’s concern for her. “Do you worry about it?”
“With perfect love and perfect trust, anything can be achieved. It will end eventually.” she replied coldly.
Fourteen-year-old Maisie was strong, wise and intelligent. Her days were filled helping her father, working in the fields and caring for the animals. She enjoyed the ever-changing face of the land through each season and watched butterflies hover with birds. She breathed fresh clean air, unlike the people of the city who, she had heard, lived in filth and fear. Now she was about to discover the secrets of herbs as medicine from her mother's books. She was born into the ‘Craft of the Wise,’ her destiny was to understand the mysteries in order to pass the knowledge on to her daughters.
After an hour, Maisie soon became tired. Her eyes began closing and Abigail noticed her struggling to keep them open. It was now dark outside. Abigail tapped her on the shoulder, “Maisie that's enough for tonight.”
“Yes Grandma.” Maisie stood up and rubbed her eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then she set of for the short walk home while her grandmother watched until she was out of sight.
When she arrived home, she found her father asleep on the chair. “Father. Father.” called Maisie, softly. “Time to lay yourself to bed.”
William stirred, stretching his arms above his head and smiled. “That’s a good sound. I waited until you were home safe. Goodnight, Maisie.” He headed for his hard wooden bed with sack blankets.
“Sleep well, Father.”
The following day, her father, had planned a surprise.
“We’re going to the city today," he said. The gaunt man looked much older than his years in daylight. His shoulders stooped slightly and his hands were rough like leather. His old clothes had seen better times but he kept them clean.
“Good, father!” said Maisie, without hiding her excitement.
Breakfast was a piece of dry week-old bread, with fresh home-made jam that she had made a few days before.
“I’ll wait by the wagon.” he smiled.
“No need. I’m ready now.” Maisie grabbed the bread and ate as she ran to keep up with her father’s long strides. She headed straight to the horse and patted him lovingly on the head before climbing into the wooden cart tethered behind his swishing tail. “Why are we going, father?” she asked.
“Business. Nothing to worry about.” William climbed into his seat and took the reins. “Gee up!” Dust sprung up from the parched ground, forming a cloud as the horse charged forward.
After two hours they finally arrived in the city. William told Maisie, “I shouldn’t be long. Don’t wander and mind who you talk to. Stay in the market.”
“I’ll be alright.” She walked across the road, admiring an expensive dress through the window, and William disappeared into an alleyway.
“Who are you, pretty one?” A young man stared at Maisie, making her feel uneasy. His appearance was pleasing apart from the coldness in his eyes. He wore fine breeches and a smart tunic, unlike the village boy's back home.
“Who is enquiring?” she asked.
“Answer me peasant! Do you not find me pleasing?” He smirked and grabbed her arm.
“Don’t touch me!” Maisie screamed, pulling free.
“Spirited and pretty? Nice. A challenge too. Come here.”
“My father told me not to stray and I will not anger him.” she protested.
Maisie turned to the sound of a group of men on horses turning into the market. They wore fine red tunics and carried swords that swung, glinting in the sunlight, from their thick leather belts.
The youth leaned forward to Maisie’s ear. “Do as I say or you’ll be sorry.”
“No!” she screamed.
In a flash, he grabbed an orange and held it high in the air, gripped her arm and yelled loudly. “I caught this peasant stealing! She enchanted me and stole this from my pocket. She’s a witch!”
It caught the attention of the men on horseback and they cantered toward the commotion. A tall slim man pulled the rein and halted his horse while the others stopped behind him. He frowned and dismounted his horse. “What have we here? A pretty thief.” He mocked with obvious contempt. He took a rope from his saddle and demanded, “What’s your name girl!”
The accuser grinned as Maisie screamed, “I haven’t taken anything. I must get back, my father will be worried.”
“State your name!” he ordered.
“Maisie Clegg.” She lowered her eyes at his firm order, realising the seriousness of the accusation.
“Clegg? I recall that name from somewhere.”
William came running over. Horror filled him as he recognised the man holding his daughter. “You!” his face reddened with anger. “What is the charge for holding the girl?”
Maisie struggled but his large hand gripped the top of her arm tighter causing it to bruise. “She charmed this man.” He pointed to where the grinning lad had been but the accuser was gone. “She is your daughter?”
“Interesting.” he smirked while tying Maisie’s hands behind her back.
A crowd gathered to watch but stayed silent in fear of being arrested too. William knew it was in his daughter's interests to stay calm and not argue.
Maisie cried and reached out her hand to William. “Father, what will happen to me?”
“Don’t fear, Maisie.” He looked at the arresting guard, “Where will you take her?”
“Moorland’s gaol.” He replied.
“I’ll be back soon, Maisie.” he promised and turned away to hurry back to the cart while Maisie was taken away in tears.
William arrived outside Abigail’s cottage two hours later. She was waiting. Her face still showed her concern from the night before.
“They have her don’t they? Accused of a crime she didn’t commit.” she sighed.
“How did you know? A charge has been made and we must go to her without delay.” He sobbed, broken-hearted, his face cradled in his hands.
Abigail made for the cart without answering Williams's question. “William Clegg you forget who I am. I lost Mary. I won’t lose Maisie to these ignorant people.”
“What can we do?”
“You will see. Get going.”
Without a moment hesitation the horses charged forward as if they knew it was an errand of mercy. Dust-clouds were left behind as they started back to the city. A place of hostility, frightened people, far from pleasant, who believed they had no choice but to treat the lawmen with respect. Everyday they lived in fear of their own lives. When a country dweller was charged, tortured and murdered with charges of witchcraft or conspiracy, people cheered. Relieved it was not to be them burned at the stake. William and Abigail hoped they would not be too late for Maisie.
It had been outside the gates of Moorland’s gaol, in the Market Square, that Mary had met her death. When they arrived at the gates, Abigail shivered and her daughter's screams echoed through her mind as she remembered:
Abigail first heard chanting in the distance. People shouting, something that sounded like ‘Get her!’ She couldn’t be certain of who it was happening to, or why. She opened her door and ran down the lane to her daughter's home. A stern looking man, dressed in a sober black outfit, held Mary. His hair was slicked back with an oil type substance and he appeared quite sinister.
“Why do you hold Mary?” Abigail asked.
“She is to be brought to trial for heresy and practising magic with herbs.”
“No!” Mary screamed. She struggled as they loaded her onto the cart. “Take good care of Maisie. See she learns well.”
The next few minutes were mayhem as people pushed passed. Abigail was pushed and jostled, shunted to and fro until she fell and passed out with fright.
It was a while before Abigail regained consciousness to raise the alarm. Abigail and William dashed to the city but her daughter had already been sentenced within hours of her arrival. Tortured into confessing the charges of enchantment and witchcraft.
The disturbing vision had haunted her ever since. For Abigail, the reality would never fade away. She was helpless and could only watch while Mary was choking on fumes of thick spiralling black smoke that caught in her throat each time she breathed in. Flaring flames engulfed her, curling around her legs, leaping higher each second. Mary tried to push her body up but her feet were pinned to the stake by a metal rod that had been tied across, preventing her from raising herself from the flames around her flame-seared bare flesh. She called out, ‘Mother, help me!’ The crowd drowned Abigail’s screams.
Some of the people in the crowd were crying, others wailed chants and passages from the bible, encouraging death by fire to cleanse the soul of the accused. Betraying laughter was tinged with hysteria. Faces of all shapes and sizes laughed at the event. Abigail turned to the crowd. “No! No! Surely you can see this is wrong?” Suddenly, the smell and taste of the fire hit her too and she was watching through warped waves of heat. Her throat was dry and she knew that Mary’s life was nearly gone. She prayed that Mary would die sooner to free her from excruciating pain. Mary was entertainment for a crowd of uneducated city peasants, hungry for the blood of an innocent victim.
William was on his knees, wiping away his tears, head clasped in his hands, pleading “What is Mary’s crime? Why is this happening to us?” No one answered. Hysteria had engulfed the crowd.
William and Abigail could only return home and protect Maisie from this madness. Abigail had vowed she would rather die herself than watch Maisie die a torturous death like her mother.
Abigail told William to head for the mansion close by Moorland’s Gaol and to halt at the Iron Gate. William did not recognise the home of the fine gentleman, known to Abigail simply as Peter. She rang the bell and after a short time, Peter appeared at the gate.
“Abigail, my dear. I am so honoured to see you. What do I owe the pleasure of your delightful company? Are you still reading tea leaves?” he smiled with a charming glint in his clear blue eyes.
“My dear Uncle.” she looked down to the ground. “I have terrible news. Maisie has been imprisoned. She is due to stand trial for a crime she did not commit. You are a magistrate and can advise us. What can we do?”
“I can see you are distraught, my dear niece. Come inside and we’ll talk.”
William looked in dismay. “Niece?”
“I can’t help it if my brother is a magistrate!” she shrugged. “All families have their secrets. We need him now.”
It was not the first time that Peter had got involved with such an injustice. Most magistrates were corrupt and he had bargained with other magistrates for the life of other friends but did not know about Mary until it was too late. The injustice of a girl so young as Maisie was just too much. He ordered a servant to have his carriage ready as soon as possible and he took Abigail and William inside the mansion. The hall was large and luxurious, paid for from bribes and bargaining. He looked after himself and his own. Peter led them into a room in which bookcases scaled the full height of the walls and ordered tea from another servant.
He thumbed through an old manuscript. “It must be here. It must!” he said.
“What are you looking for?” asked William.
Abigail replied for Peter, “Let him search. He’ll know what to do.”
Peter was angry at the imprisonment of his niece. “It must be stopped and the Lord God must have mercy and reveal all truth to the sinners of my profession. This is not God’s word." He reached into a draw and pulled out some old dusty papers, spilling some onto the floor. "Our society doesn't recognise the danger it is in. I know I have done wrong and its time the evil is stopped. They must listen before they too burn in the fires of Hell!"
The servant entered and bowed. “Your carriage awaits, sir.”
“Thank you. Ah! This is it!” He grabbed the manuscript and hurried to his waiting carriage.
William looked at Abigail, his sad eyes told her he wanted to ask his question.
“I couldn’t act fast enough for Mary. I’m so sorry William.”
William hung his head in shame for his thought. “I know.”
An eerie silence filled the room while they waited. Soon Peter returned with Maisie in tow. She ran into her father's out-stretched arms and Abigail hugged both of them. The three sobbed, out loud with no shame. Peter, smiled triumphantly, determined to stop this madness and persecution.
Peter was one of several men who would later help to outlaw the crime of burning innocent people. Only a passion for justice could end the burning times!
Unimaginable torture was used to extract false confessions. It was law in England to kill the accused, usually by strangulation, before s/he was staked. Many were left unconscious only to wake in the flames. If the accused escaped, the crowd pushed the victim back. In 1712, Jane Wenham of Walkern in Herefordshire was the last person convicted of witchcraft in England. Blessed be that in our future we have tolerance of other people’s passion and the wisdom not to accuse without understanding. So mote it be!
© Lynda Archard