Resistance: a short story
by Barendina Smedley
“At this time the king began to be haunted with sprites by the magic and curious arts of Lady Margaret, who raised up the ghost of Richard Duke of York (second son to King Edward the fourth) to walk and vex the king” – Francis Bacon, The History of the Reign of Henry VII
Robert Poxwell turned in his bed. Or at least we may imagine him turning in his imagined bed, unwilling to rise but unable to sleep.
That surname, Poxwell, tells us that his people came from the West Country. On this particular night, however, he was not in the West Country. He was on the north coast of Norfolk. Under the sea to the north of him — or in front of him, rather, when he turned onto his left side, hoping to find rest there that he could not find on the right — lay that hard long spine of submerged land, still larded in its watery exile with the remnants of human business, that used to connect East Anglia with Denmark. And above that vanished causeway sailed the king’s ships, similarly sleepless, keeping watch against an invasion fleet.
Or at any rate, Parson Poxwell believed that the king’s ships were keeping watch against an invasion fleet. That, after all, was what James Hubbard had told him, or at least implied. And it wouldn’t be like Mr Hubbard to be ill-informed, would it?
Poxwell thought of the fleet: not just sturdy hulks of the sort one might see every day in the curve of Blakeney haven, stinking of cod, crewed by local lads, their skin like leather after too many long watches under the German sea sun, but also the odd purpose-built carrack, riding high in the water, bobbing proudly, guns shining from the ports. Poxwell knew about these carracks. The king had ordered them to be built. The king was careful with his money, so the carracks were a rare luxury he allowed himself. Or perhaps they were essential, somehow? Well, the king would find the funds for them somewhere, the ready money. Mr Hubbard would make sure of that.
The wind was out of the south that night, but here on the hill below the church the southerlies always arrived as if out of the west, shoved sideways by the river basin half a mile away. The window shutter rattled and moaned on its latch.
Poxwell rose — or at least we may imagine him rising — unhooked the latch, and looked out. Down to the south stretched the fields, unfamiliar to Poxwell because he rarely bothered to visit his rectory at Snitterley. Although he was a priest in holy orders, in truth his real line of work lay in the law, the execution of wills and the progress of intricate and intellectually challenging suits through the various courts. The only reason he was parson of Snitterley was because Mr Hubbard, these days the king’s attorney general and Poxwell’s great patron, had offered him the living. It was worth something like £24 per year, or £22 once the curate had been given his wages. Like the devil, Mr Hubbard looked after his own.
Out of sight, now, to the south, was the river that curved round just beyond the place where the fields dropped away. A deep old lane snaked between the fields, followed the dip in the ground, and came at due course to an old stone bridge. If one crossed the bridge, then the local market town was perhaps only half an hour’s ride away. And from there, one could ride on to Norwich, or Bury St Edmunds, or London.
When the invading army landed, was that the route they would take? Would they pass along the lane, running just in front of the parsonage, beyond its outer court, down to the bridge?
Or maybe they would land at Weyborne Hoop instead, in which case the way down to Holt, and thence down to London, was slightly different.
Poxwell imagined the lighters scraping up onto the shingle, the local men suddenly emerging from the stately whispering reeds to help draw them in, the messengers sent rushing in the opposite direction to warn the neighbouring Yorkist gentry that the time for the muster had come. He imagined the muffled sounds of arms being made ready, stable doors creaking open and the warm sweet haze of horses’ breath. He considered the prospect of old banners, hidden these ten long years at the back of oak hutches, now extracted and unrolled, none the worse for their dark dormition.
But most of all Poxwell imagined the new king, the rightful king, stepping out onto the shingle in the silvery weak light of the winter morning, supported on each side as he did so by a duke or a faithful earl. And despite his fears for the future, which were very real, Poxwell found himself smiling when he thought of this.
Everyone knew the fleet was coming, although few dared speak of it. Everyone knew that, even if it did not come this week, or next week, or even by the end of the winter, someday it would come. Would God suffer a usurper to remain on the throne forever?
Bosworth had been a fluke, a sport, some sort of feverish delusion to be shaken away when the fever passed — or maybe it was God’s warning to a people who had, some of them anyway, failed to acknowledge their anointed sovereign? Well, now they had been given a decade of that usurper, that money-grubbing, conniving, mean-featured bastard, whose boast was that he would keep all men obedient through fear, to remind them what bad governance was really like!
Once a true Yorkist prince was on the throne again, obviously, all would be well. Here in the dark of the night, where Mr Hubbard could not see him — or perhaps where he could not see Mr Hubbard, and the faintly cynical curling of those handsome lips — Poxwell was very sure of this.
But then Poxwell thought of Mr Hubbard. He was probably back at Loddon by now, with his wife Mrs Hubbard. Work on the new house was going well. So was the work on the church, almost entirely rebuilt. And the new bridge. And the new road leading to the new bridge. And the grand tomb in an aisle of Norwich cathedral. All Mr Hubbard’s works of mercy were going well, just as all Mr Hubbard’s schemes always prospered.
Poxwell loved Mr Hubbard. But then it was so very hard not to love Mr Hubbard. Folk-tales used to circulate in legal circles and beyond about the love harboured for Mr Hubbard even by those who also had watertight reasons for hating him, those whose lives he had casually destroyed. Mr Hubbard, by way of example, spent years launching increasingly showy legal actions on behalf of the Crown asserting a right of praemunire against a particular bishop; who, in the end, did the bishop choose to execute his will, if not Mr Hubbard? Poxwell helped Mr Hubbard with the execution, too, just as he had done with the praemunire cases. For years now he had travelled along in Mr Hubbard’ slipstream, and come a fair distance, too.
Of course like so many in East Anglia, Mr Hubbard had been a great supporter of the house of York. In his early days, he had laboured hard on behalf of the Mowbray family, and even now was careful to pay great court to their ancient dowager duchess, bringing her geese, gossip and good cheer at Christmas. And at the same time, he had made himself invaluable to Sir John Howard, now my lord the Duke of Norfolk once the Mowbrays had failed and fallen. And were there to be a new Duke of Norfolk, doubtless Mr Hubbard would have been a stalwart support to him as well.
Through all this, Mr Hubbard had come to know the late king Richard, and taken a fee of him, for his admirable loyalty. Indeed Mr Hubbard had, with his own hard-earned money, raised a small body of men to fight for that same late king at Bosworth Field, where my lord the Duke of Norfolk fell also. Those were strange days.
In time, some of the men found their way home, a few of them the worse for a missing arm or hand, a gouged eye, strange and violent apprehensions — the usual soldiers’ complaints. And Mr Hubbard was careful to give them a dole betimes. For he was nothing if not an honest and Christian man, Mr Hubbard, and no more likely to forget the pleasing of God than he would be to forget his due to any of his various other patrons.
And yet everyone loved Mr Hubbard, even those who had little reason to love him, and so it was that less than six months after a king died on Bosworth Field, another king — or rather a false usurper, as it seemed to Parson Poxwell, not that he would frame it to Mr Hubbard in that manner — had asked Mr Hubbard to serve as his attorney general, which is to say, the officer of law the closest to the king’s own will and person, his man and no other.
So it was that Mr Hubbard had risen to become a great and substantial person in his own right. Mr Hubbard, who had not yet as much as a knighthood, might bow to gentlemen who were Lovells or Wyndhams, and before greater folk still who were de Veres or Mowbrays, he might bow very low indeed. Yet Parson Poxwell saw every day how these same gentlemen and lords would find a seat for Mr Hubbard next to their own, how they would listen to his jests and take great pleasure in them, how pretty trifles of all sorts now found their way daily to Loddon, or Mr Hubbard’s house in Norwich, or wherever else Mr Hubbard chanced to halt as he went about his new master’s business.
And what a business! For it was well known that the new pretended king, having gained the crown not by right of birth but by force and that alone, hated the great men of the kingdom, most of whom had a better claim to the throne than he himself did, and so surrounded himself with base men who owed their elevation solely to his changeable whim.
As for the great men, the new pretended king soon learned that he could bait them at law and ensure that they were found guilty of high crimes, the charge of which would ever after hang over them, enriching the Exchequer and sending many of them into exile or worse. And this, at the last, was the pretty trifle that Mr Hubbard could offer up to the new pretended king, for this scheme was entirely of his own devising and execution. And as the new pretended king grew rich off the fat of it, so did Mr Hubbard prosper.
Poxwell helped Mr Hubbard with these legal matters. Poxwell did not love the new pretended king, rather the contrary, but as a very junior canon lawyer he was a personage of such minimal importance that his loves and hatreds, which in any event he kept locked away in a secret chamber of his heart, like those standards at the back of the oak hutches, preoccupied no one.
Outside, the darkness seemed troubled, but stare as much as he might, Poxwell could find no meaning in it. There were dark conspiratorial whispers in the air, perhaps, but so low and miscellaneous that he could not understand them. So he closed the shutter again, fastened the latch more firmly against the trying wind, and returned to his bed.
Perhaps the invasion would not come tonight. Or perhaps the rightful king might land elsewhere, some way down the coast where the de Vere lands were — or perhaps in Kent or the West Country, or even Ireland?
The idea that the invasion might happen far away, where Poxwell did not need to take an immediate point of view regarding it, came as a sort of relief. He wrapped himself gratefully in it, as we might imagine him wrapping himself in the linen sheet under the thick wool coverlet.
Poxwell wanted a change in things, an overthrow, but there were moments when his hope, that untried fragile thing, began to fold under the weight of Mr Hubbard’s persuasive, unarguable, always lovable utterances.
For one of the consequences of having worked elbow-to-elbow with Mr Hubbard for all these years was that sometimes, especially in those moments where he was tired or ill, Poxwell could hear Mr Hubbard speaking, even when he was not in the room — even when he was in another place altogether. And so it was that Poxwell listened to that sweet, ironic, teasing, familiar voice.
Mr Hubbard smiled at the rumours of invasion, and like a lawyer making a case, he spoke of precedent: Jack Straw, Oldcastle, Cade. All had stirred against the crown, and what had become of them? There were some hot moments, great crowds and earnest petitions — and then the scaffold, the gibbet, ravens picking at something bloody and inchoate. And still the king sat on this throne. We must swim with the times, Parson Poxwell, else they drag us under.
In daylight, of course, when the sun was bright and he had his wits about him, Poxwell knew that Mr Hubbard was right. What rebellion had ever succeeded? That was what all the wise, successful, prosperous people counselled, the folk who had once supported York but now tacked with Tudor instead.
Also, when the old rightful king, the late king Edward, had landed at Lynn haven not thirty years before, who of his many trusty and loyal subjects came out to welcome their dread sovereign lord? Almost none, and though later the Norfolk men liked to say that there were no loyal men in the country for the reason that that treasonous stirrer Warwick had put them all to the sword or sent them into exile, Mr Hubbard had many times told Poxwell that this was not so, that the Norfolk men were rather too careful of their lives and property to risk it on the chance of some odd fellow arriving at a certain staithe under a certain sail in the dead of night. And this is why Mr Hubbard was so certain, if the new invasion fleet landed, that no one would come out to welcome it either, Norfolk men being the same now as they were when God first made them.
And yet, had Henry Tudor’s own stirring not prevailed, even in Norfolk?
In the night, with the wind from the south, all these questions went round in Poxwell’s head, and confused him.
He thought of the ships out at sea, crossing and re-crossing the hidden spine of the Dogger Bank, their crew wakeful and vigilant. He thought of a young man, dressed in cut velvet and ermine, with the salt water lashing up from the decks and into the black night air, but the man’s face was hidden in the dark, and then the face he saw was Mr Hubbard’s instead, and Mr Hubbard was laughing at him.
Was this new Yorkist prince the rightful king? There had been another Yorkist prince a couple of years before. And also some said that one of the earls, or was it a duke, now supporting the rightful king was himself rightful king instead.
For no one was entirely certain, really. Too many things had happened recently, and no one understood them all. The night was too dark and the sea too wild.
In his half-dream, Poxwell reached out and tried to cling to some of the wreckage, but again and again, it slipped from his damp grasp, as he called out for Mr Hubbard, but there was no one to answer him.
[Author’s note: as is the case with most of the fiction on these pages, the story above is, at least in the broad outlines of its narrative, ‘true’. Which is to say, for instance, that Robert Poxwell genuinely was the incumbent at Blakeney, Norfolk from c. 1492 to 1504 — the living was called ‘Snitterley’ rather than Blakeney until the late 16th century — and that Poxwell’s patron was Sir James Hobart, first a supporter of Richard III but latterly Henry VII’s attorney general. And yes, this is also a story about Brexit, Trump and the whole business of taking sides.]