Chapter 1: September 1546 – Audlem, Cheshire
Annys was confused. Keeping her eyes on the path or the scuffed leather toes of her clogs as they peeped out from beneath the dusty hem of her best woollen skirt as she paced along, she blindly followed her mother and father past the gravestones and along the path leading from the door of the church dedicated to the holy Saint James down the slope towards the road. All the while she battled to render comprehensible the words she had just heard declaimed from the pulpit by the priest who had cure of the souls of the village and who must accordingly be a sensible, learned man. Somewhere behind her she was aware of her young brother fooling around with his playfellows as it was permitted for him to do, something she – as eleven year old daughter of the house – was not.
‘Master Aldershaw! Good morrow to thee … and to thee Mistress Aldershaw!’ A deep voice said from somewhere above her. She glanced up to see a face she recognised - Master Whitney, younger brother to Sir Robert, who held land at the manor in nearby Coole Pilate. ‘How farest thou this day?’
Standing in the shadow of her mother, Annys cast a curious glance at the man on his fine bay horse. He had been away in the south … in the great City of London visiting kin there … she had overheard the women gossiping about it and how that his wife was due to be confined any day now and how that it was hoped she would be delivered of a son … always a son.
‘We are full well, Master Whitney. God be thanked! What tidings from the city?’
The beautiful bay fidgeted as he spoke but Master Whitney had it well in hand.
‘The word on the streets is that the Protestants are plotting again … that Askew woman’s death – God have mercy on her poor heretic soul! – hasn’t deterred them one iota.’
‘What is to be done with them?’ Annys heard her father ask shaking his head but at this juncture she disengaged her mind from the conversation and heard not the reply.
This topic of conversation was to be heard in every corner of the realm it seemed … it even eclipsed the rumours prevalent in the area of the King’s dissatisfaction with his latest Queen, an older woman with Protestant leanings called Katherine … but that was a subject not deemed suitable for her young ears, as well she knew, and though feigning disinterest when the talk turned she had still succeeded in gleaning more about this fascinating subject than her mother imagined. Well behaved child that she was, Annys stood still as her parents spoke with Master Whitney, her eyes decently lowered, as her sharp wit returned to wrestle in vain with the problem presented to her during the homily, desperately trying to accommodate both what she already knew about the world and what the priest had just said that she must now plainly understand to be true. Minutes later part of her consciousness registered that her mother’s skirts were moving on again and, still busily thinking, the little maid jerked her legs into action.
As far as she could see the known world functioned on the fact that men were set in authority over all … that was obvious. God was a man … well, nay, not exactly … howsoever He was male of a certainty and He had ultimate authority over every thing and every person both in this world and the next … not forgetting the sun, the moon and the stars that she so loved to see twinkling beauteously in the night skies. On a much lesser scale, her father’s status reflected this situation, he being the ultimate authority in their home; the priest (another man, naturally) had charge of the souls of the parish and the King (yet another man though one appointed personally by God Himself) governed the country. Men were created to be in charge. It made sense.
Nonetheless … and this ‘nonetheless’ was an enormous obstacle to her mind … her father was able to be the authority in the home solely owing to the fact that her mother was skilled at the arts of not only reading and writing but also calculating the accompts for him; the priest could only perform his role because he had a housekeeper … a fine upright woman called Mistress Jonson … who ensured he was fed and his raiment and house properly maintained … and even the King … he must have women who cleaned and provisioned his palaces and his royal robes and … and … (here her imagination failed) … and such like. Her mind stalled as she considered the question of God … as the supreme creator he probably didn’t need women … yet the Virgin Mary was a woman … and even He couldn’t have made the baby Jesus without her …. Oh tis so confusing!
Her feet walked her steadily along the pitted and rutted street beside which her home was to be found, her eyes barely taking in the familiar sight of the old lime-washed cottages that crouched beside the road like dough that her father had set to rise. Dead leaves crunched underfoot, untimely killed and shed by their parent trees struggling to survive the summer drought that had starved the fields, and lending the trees a wintery aspect far earlier than they ought.
Still her mind fought with the content of the homily. Father Richard Whitall had been the priest at St James’s since Annys was an infant of three years and she was well accustomed to hearing him telling people how they should live, reminding them of what God required from them, and his position in Audlem society was assured and firmly rooted in the everyday pecking order. She had been taught to believe every word he uttered without question … nevertheless, this day his words disturbed her … again, she repeated in her head what he had said. He’d been perfectly unequivocal … women were made by God to be soft and weak and that, as a result of this softness and weakness, they were emotionally unsound and incapable of rational thought. Though it was doubtless heresy to even think it, she could not help but feel that this was a flaw in the design that surely God the Creator would have discerned and remedied, after all He had made Eve, had He not? Saint Paul himself wrote that women should not speak in church which was all meet and proper … though wherefore a woman should remain silent was not made at all clear … and after quoting the Saint, Father Whitall had gone on to say that any woman who was otherwise than meek and subservient to the man set in authority above her was an unnatural monster and cursed of God. This matter had inflamed the priest greatly; his eyes had burned as he gazed on the people gathered below him and his anger had burst out, causing him to strike with his fist on the pulpit; Annys was not the only one to flinch as each blow sounded through the ancient building.
Though then again, it was well known in the village that Mistress Jonson was a learned woman … she could even (wonder of wonders!) read and write Latin … did that not require rational thought? And mother … was she a monster because she not only wrote the letters for father (who had never mastered writing other than his name and that meanly) but likewise oversaw and controlled all the accompts at the shop where they sold the bread father baked so meetly for the people of the village?
And what had any of this to say of her?
An icy frisson of fear trickled through her … was her soul damned? She too could read and write … taught by her mother … and likewise she could reckon numbers. Jessie, the closest friend she had – daughter of the village innkeeper – she could neither read nor reckon and thought on little but her playthings and her attire. Yet she was a comely young wench with long curling hair, a slim form and fine features … Annys measured her own plain sallow features, her lumpish frame and her long, dark straight hair that would never remain tidy for longer than it took to sweep the floor against Jessie’s beauty. Is my lack of comeliness and grace a result of knowing how to read and reckon? Had her mother caused her to become a monster by teaching her these things? What would become of her if she wasn’t comely enough for a man to want her for wife?
With a screech that almost made her jump clean out of her skin, her brother swerved past her waving the switch he had torn from a defenceless bush along the way … she regarded him as he ran along the lane, kicking up dust and stones. Five years and two dead infants lay between them. Edward – the hope of the family - who, according to the homily, would control her life an her father should die … she shivered … pray God nothing happens to father afore I find me a husband.