THE CURSE OF THE CATHEDRAL

This is a story of the civil war but not the civil war you are expecting. This is the civil war that raged in this country at the beginning of the twelfth century, a time that people said Christ and his saints slept, so awful were the deeds committed.

Like all wars there were many opinions as to who was to blame. Many said it was the fault of Henry, the previous king, who had died without a legitimate male heir (he had plenty of the illegitimate kind), so was forced to pass the crown to his daughter, Matilda. But, when Henry died, Matilda had three things acting against her, she was a woman, she was pregnant and, worse, she was in France, so Henry’s nephew, Stephen, seized the treasury and said he was the proper king. Others said it was not really Henry’s fault because his rightful heir, his son, the Young Henry, had drowned in the White Ship. He could have escaped but insisted his rescue boat go back to save his sister. The boat was overloaded with desperate people, capsized and everyone drowned save the ship’s baker who got to land floating on a barrel. Others said that was still King Henry’s fault, because he was under a curse. He had murdered his older brother, William Rufus, to get to the throne and kept his other brother Robert in a dungeon until he died and was no more threat.

Whatever the truth of it, the armies of Stephen and Matilda continually clashed for nineteen terrible years. As usual it was the little people, the people you do not hear about in the chronicles, who paid the highest price.

Hereford Castle was controlled by soldiers loyal to King Stephen. I say loyal, but there was little loyalty in this war. Geoffrey Talbot was lord of Weobley. He had been Stephen’s man but saw there were richer pickings to be had by going over to Matilda’s camp. He and another lord, Milo of Gloucester, laid siege to Hereford, hoping they would increase their fortunes.

They were two very different people. Geoffrey was tall and slim, his face angular with dark eagle eyes that brooded carefully on his next move. Milo was shorter and stout and impetuous, which seemed to fit his red hair. There were too few men in the garrison to protect the whole length of the castle’s wooden walls, so they retreated to the inner bailey, while Milo and Geoffrey made their base in the cathedral. Its stone walls were a good place to keep their men and their horses dry and warm.

The Oldecristes had lived in Hereford as long as anyone could remember. Jane Oldecriste was a brewster, a brewer of ale, one of the few professions open to a woman. She had taken to the trade a few years ago when her father had died and been buried in the Cathedral graveyard. Jane was a small, determined woman and she had carefully studied the brewing art until she was very good at it. Her house was by St Owen’s Gate, where the air was fresh and good for brewing. There was a good spring just outside the gate and she could keep an eye on the carts of barley coming into the city and buy the best before it reached the market.

She liked to think that she brewed the best beer in Hereford and enough people agreed with her to allow her to prosper. Hereford, at the best of times, was a wild, west, frontier town and the news that the rebel army was coming had filled all the townspeople with dread. They knew that soldiers want paying and their lords are more often than not intending to pay their troops through pillage and murder.

But Geoffrey and Milo’s soldiers were civil enough, at least as civil as armed men need to be with the weak and defenceless.

What soldiers also want is beer and these were still prepared to pay for it, so Jane Oldecriste was one of the few people in Hereford who found herself prospering. Some nights she had enough silver coins to go out to the yard, careful that no one, not even her own servants, saw her, dig a hole and put a small sack of coins into it, for safe-keeping, or hide a small bag in the thatch of her house, against the time when she might not be so lucky.

So the siege continued. They placed a catapult or trebuchet on one of the towers above the chancel of the cathedral to rain stones on the castle, to keep the defenders’ attention, but they had no intention of making a direct assault. That would cost too many men.

Geoffrey and Milo ordered their troops to construct earthworks up to the palisade of the castle and then tunnels under it, shored up with great wood pillars under which firewood would be placed and set fire to, so bringing the tunnel and the wall above it, crashing down. Their excavations took them right through the graveyard. They were hard men who knew there was more to fear from the living than from a corpse, no matter how rotted. They were under orders and also the occasional arrow from the castle so, when they came to a body, it was thrown onto the pile of earth that was forming the rampart.

Then some keen soldier suggested that some of the fresher ones, still intact enough to make the journey, should be taken up the cathedral tower and catapulted over the castle walls, a little disease can shorten a siege considerably.

Good managers always like to encourage employee suggestions, so the man was rewarded with a few coins and the defenders found themselves being pelted with rotting corpses.

Jane Overcriste was checking a new batch of barley when she heard the cries and screams. Her stomach lurched, soldiers are unpredictable, had they started a massacre? There were running feet outside and her neighbour burst in.

“Jane, you must come.”

It only took a few minutes to run from St Owen’s Gate to the market place and then up the alleyway towards the cathedral but when Jane arrived it took her as long to register what she was seeing. Instead of a graveyard she was looking at a building site, earth thrown up and against the brown earth, white corpses in all manner of grotesque poses.

Instinctively she looked to the place where she had buried her father. No grave there now, just a hole and beside it something grey, indistinct through her tears. Like all good Christians she believed in a literal Day of Judgement, when graves would open and souls, in restored bodies, would rise to heaven or descend to eternal damnation. But what fate could bodies without a proper burial place receive?

There was a loud crack from the top of the cathedral tower and something black flew towards the castle. She heard laughter. Two men stood there, dressed in expensive mail, one tall and one stout. She took a step forward before her neighbour held her by the arm.

“I curse you.” she shouted. “I curse you. May you know the pain I am feeling. May your days on earth be few and may the fires of hell consume your filthy souls.”

Was her voice carried on the wind? Did those two important noblemen look down? Did they hear her words and, if they did, what did it matter to them? Being cursed by a peasant woman, it probably made them laugh even more.

The defenders of the castle knew that there was no hope of rescue and surrendered the castle before too many grudges had been built up by Matilda’s men. Geoffrey and Milo were richly rewarded, Milo becoming the new Earl of Hereford. They must have thought that nothing could touch them.

The war went on. Just a year later Geoffrey, a fine new coat of mail on his back, was riding with his men near Bath. They were chasing a small band of raiders sent by Stephen. It was hardly worth a great man’s bother but the thrill of the hunt was over him.

There were only six men in the raiding party, lightly armed, and he had a dozen well-armed men at arms with him. The raiders’ horses were tiring and Geoffrey drew his sword in anticipation of the slaughter to come. Then the rider to his left gave a shout and slowed his horse. Geoffrey looked past him and saw a large troop of horsemen coming out of the nearby woodland. Fear and anger clenched his stomach. He had been tricked. How had that happened?

But before he could do anything he saw the rider he had been pursuing had turned and was riding at him, his spear lowered. Geoffrey did as he had been trained, he kicked his horse forward but the man was coming at him from the right. Desperately he tried to bring his shield round to meet it but was too late. The spear penetrated the mail shirt and dug deep into his belly. Such was the pain that he barely noticed the shock of falling onto the ground.

As he lay, looking up at the darkening sky, did his mind go back to that peasant woman and her curse?

As for Milo, he was now one of the greatest lords in the land. No curse could touch him. A few years after Geoffrey’s death, he was hunting in the land he had been given by Matilda, the Forest of Dean.

But Milo was in a bad temper. Matilda was not proving the pliable woman he had expected and now the Keeper of the Chase had given him a poor vantage point, almost behind a tree, to watch for the deer. Impetuous as ever he took a few steps forward, to get a better view.

The man to his left was a loyal retainer but, that morning, a little distracted by a fine new cap that had just been made for him. Off to his right he saw something red, a squirrel. Squirrel fur would look very nice on his new hat.

He raised his bow and loosed the arrow. The terrible scream that came from behind bushes made his heart almost stop. That was no squirrel. Terrified, he ran towards the sound, to find his lord with an arrow through the neck. The last words Milo heard were, “But I thought he was a squirrel!”

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