Martin Reed’s Tale
Few born serfs, like me, could tell you their birth date but I was born in that memorable year of 1381 when the peasants, armed only with the tools of their trade, supported by a few soldiers, back from the wars, and a few priests with hearts of compassion, rose up against their masters, against the laws and the customs that made a serf the property of his lord. They gave—according to the stories—a good account of themselves: the men of Kent reached London and forced the King himself to lend ear to their grievances. In the end, though, they were disbanded by trickery, sent away soothed by false promises and the freedom they dreamed of did not come in their generation nor the next. So, when I was born in the autumn of that year, 1381, I was born a serf, as much the property of my Lord Bowdegrave as the horse he rode and—at least until I reached working age—of less value; for his horse had an Arab strain, far more rare and precious than my Saxon peasant blood.
My mother died at, or soon after, my birth and although some woman must have suckled me or fed me with pap, I have no memory of it. For me life began in the forge where my father worked and where I learned not to touch hot things because they burned, not to get in his way because his hand was heavy and not to go too near the horses’ heels. I was working the bellows—and doing it properly—when I was still so small that I had to stand on a great stone in order to hold them level with the fire.
For his work on my lord’s horses and harness and field tools and armour, on occasion, my father, being a villein, received no wage. He had his hut, a strip of land in each of the three open fields and the right to eat his dinner at the lowest table in the hall. When he worked for other people he could make his charge in coin or in kind and he was not unprosperous. Some years before the rising of 1381 there had been a great sickness in which many people had died; skilled smiths were not as common as they had been. On some manors my father could have hoped and tried, by industry and thrift, to have saved enough money to buy his freedom but my Lord Bowdegrave was a lord after the ancient fashion and boasted that never, on any of his three manors, had he manumitted a serf for money. My father knew this and therefore, given the choice of a coin or payment in meat or drink, he would choose the latter, so in our hut we ate well and I grew taller and stronger than most of my kind.
Maybe my wits profited from the good food, too, for when the time came for me to learn the Catechism and Responses our parish priest praised me often and in the end was taken with the notion of making a clerk of me. He was himself the son of a serf, base-born like me and set free by Holy Church, and he hoped to push me through the same door. To my surprise my father was in favour of the plan. He was already showing signs of the dreaded smiths’ palsy, that ungovernable shaking of the hands which results from the strain of lifting the heavy hammer and from the jar and thud of its fall. It was, as yet, slight, just a tremor which increased towards the end of the day so that sometimes in the evening he would slop a little ale from his mug, but he knew what it heralded. He knew, too, that on the manor of Rede, the old and the infirm had little to hope for. He would, of course, be entitled to a place by my fire, a share of the food of my table but it would be a place and a share measured by the size of my family and the generosity or otherwise of the woman I married. He rightly reckoned that as the father of a celibate parish priest he would fare better so, looking ahead, he allowed me time to take my lessons.
Learning came easy to me. I was, naturally, idle as all boys are, and earned myself many a buffet, but the priest said I had the makings of a scholar and would do him great credit in later years. As time went on I would relieve the tedium of the lessons by concocting questions which I hoped he would not be able to answer; the hope was justified more and more frequently. He had forgotten much of what he had learned. At last, in the summer before I was ten years old he went to Norwich and bespoke for me a place in the monks’ school there where he had got his own learning. After that there was only one thing needed to set me on my way to clerkdom and that was the permission of my Lord Bowdegrave to leave the manor and his service. The priest never doubted that permission would be given.
‘My lord boasts that he has never sold a serf his freedom but he will not hesitate to make a gift of you to Holy Church,’ he said.
My Lord Bowdegrave was seldom at his manor of Rede; he had two others, one in Lincoln, one in Kent. This last was his favourite, being within easier reach of London, but the others were visited each year immediately after harvest at which time even the most trusty steward might go a little awry in his reckonings. Also, after harvest, when the great field was all a-stubble, was the best time of the year for hawking.
It was in the first week of October in the year 1391 that I first came face to face with the man who owned me. My face and hands had been scoured, my hair was newly shorn and I was wearing a clean smock. I was very much frightened. The priest, who must have been—I now realise—a very simple and unworldly man, had warned me that my lord would surely wish to test my abilities. I must be prepared for questions; I must not answer hastily and without thought, nor must I answer slowly and thus appear stupid. Above all I must speak up so that I could be heard and with the very greatest respect.
The steward had plainly prepared my lord for our appearance, for as we entered the great hall, he said, ‘Ah! The smith’s son. I remember.’
Fright boiled in my throat. I knew I could never answer a question no matter how simple. Fright laid a heavy hand on my neck, so that my head was bowed, my eyes fixed on the rushes, fresh spread for my lord’s visit.
Above me the voice asked one question.
‘How many sons has the man?’ The steward said,
‘This one, my lord.’
‘Then he cannot be spared. Bad clerks are plentiful; good smiths are few.’ Thus briefly was my future, the priest’s hopes, my father’s old age comfort disposed of. From my lord’s verdict there was no appeal.
I was able then, for some reason, to raise my eyes and look into the face of the man whose lightest word was to us, his villeins, weightier than the King’s law or the edicts of our Holy Father, the Pope in Rome. It was a handsome, well-fleshed face, highly coloured; stern, too, as befitted a man of consequence, but not ill-natured. From the height of his chair on the dais he looked down at me and his light hazel eyes took my measure.
‘You’re a stout, likely-looking lad,’ he said, ‘far more fitted to handle a hammer than a quill.’ Having thus dismissed me he lifted and crooked a finger and said,’A word in your ear, Sir Priest.’
What the word was was not for me to know but I noticed that from that day onward the priest favoured me no more but seemed rather to avoid me.
The priest may have suffered some disappointment. Now that I am older and know more, I can see that having made the one great stride from serfdom to clerkdom he had shot his bolt; he had ended as a priest in a small, poor parish. Had I become the scholar that he thought I had it in me to be then he would have been more, for great scholars remember their teachers and many a man of small learning is immortal because he taught the rudiments to one who has become famous. But this, of course, I only guess at.
My father and I, on the other hand, suffered nothing so positive as disappointment. I had been dreading the discipline of the convent school and the break with everything I knew, the harder lessons, the competition with boys born free. And my father was consoled for the loss of a more secure old age by the thought that in the immediate future he would have my assistance at the forge. Also—and this I have seen proved many times in later years—it is seldom those who are oppressed who resent their oppression; they wear it as they wear their clothes. Serfs, when they rise against their serfdom, are always led by free-born men. There was nothing of resentment in us. My lord had spoken and as he said, so it would be. I went back to the forge and the anvil; I began to take great pride in my strength and, later, in my skill. Smith’s work is a man’s work and it was quite as much to my taste as the question-and-answer work with the priest who would drub my head if I erred.
So, year followed year; life went on in the old pattern. I grew and I learned, toiling on the working days and making merry on Holy days. I might well have lived and died at Rede, one of my Lord Bowdegrave’s possessions, had I not fallen in love.
Published by arrangement with the author’s Estate. Copyright © Clive Lofts 2013.
Cover illustration © 2013 Maggy Whitehouse/Tree of Life Publishing