Letter from a bitch.
honourable Lady Emily Brackenden
14th day of July, 1632.
My dearest sweet little Sarah,
My love, I arrived here two days ago at 5-o'clock Tuesday evening, and at last this tour of inspection is nearly over. My poor heart is missing you dreadfully, and I do so trust you are in better health than I. Most regretfully I have a most awful head-ache this morning, and I fear that it is quite possible that I may have over indulged myself, slightly at least. The nuns here serve the most exquisite culinary delights and they make the most adorable mead, sweeter even than at Crossgrove would you believe? And, for what ever reason, this morning my head is positively throbbing. So much so that I am staying on here until tomorrow. In the mean time I'm having my carriage men clean my coach from top to bottom.
They had the audacity to bring me here with a hand print still upon the window from the day before. You could see the clear outline of my right hand. I made them stop immediately and clean the windows thoroughly inside and out. And my oaf of a driver, that old fool you liken to a toad, started to make such lame excuses the like of which you wouldn't believe. I told him a woman of my standing does not expect to be carried in a coach that is filthy. If it hadn't been for the fact that it was getting late, as one of the horses was going lame and had to be whipped practically all the way, I would have had them clean it from top to bottom there and then.
Sarah my dear, since writing those few lines the Prioress has been here to my room with another bottle of her delightful mead. “Hair of the dog that bit you,” she said, pointing to the bottle. A saying I've not heard of before, but you see the point I'm sure, and yes dear, after just two more glasses my head is feeling better already. As you will know, I very rarely suffer from a head-ache, and the Prioress, Sister Augusta, a delightful lady incidentally, wondered if I had inhaled a little smoke yesterday, but they were very good, the wood was very dry and there was very little smoke.
They are very clever here. Sister Augusta has been telling me that her nuns have started experimenting with a new way of fermenting the apples. They have an excellent orchard here, and although some of the processes they are using sound quite revolting, absolutely vile in fact, I have every confidence in their abilities. They are very efficient here. The prison block is always very clean, and apart from one or two minor details, my report will again be favourable. Although I should not concern myself with any department other than the prison of course, I believe this priory to be as efficiently run as any.
Well my dear, again I have had to put aside my letter to you because a serving girl has just brought me this delightful platter of sweet-mints. They are simply beautiful. Some are coated with a layer of sliced cherries and some have rose petals made with pink icing placed upon them. They are just gorgeous. If I spend too much time over them however this letter will miss the next coach. I'm told that it arrives in Dawnmarket at 3 this afternoon and departs as soon as they've changed the horses. And of course one has to allow time for a servant to run it to the village but it's only 4 miles.
Although I enjoy my position, as you well know, It does have one essential draw back. I caught sight of my reflected image yesterday, once again, and I think his Eminence should be told that being appointed to the Honourable Inspectorate is indeed an honour, but it is very damaging to a woman's figure. It is a mercy that my duties only cover the female establishments. Even so I sometimes think that I should ask for someone to share my region. The travelling too is getting me down. Nevertheless, I do have to admit my position does have its lighter moments.
However, I wish so much I was back at home with you right now, but these extra days I am spending away from you are, as you will know if you received my last letter, a special visit beyond my autumn schedule. As I told you, Sister Augusta wrote to me while I was at the Mossbank priory asking me to come here as she was faced with a 'dilemma' as she put it. I could tell from her letter that she needed some guidance and so I thought I had better make the journey and see what her problem was.
She's a good Sister is Sister Augusta, but the old dear is sometimes gripped by agonies of indecision. In fact I am beginning to wonder if perhaps she should start thinking of her retirement to be honest my dear.
When I arrived she explained that among the women who'd been sent here to their prison recently was a girl who had been involved with a damned apothecary. I guessed what was coming. This would be some stupid girl who'd got into bad company and had been dealing in banned substances. But actually I must admit it was a little bit more complicated. I think you might find it interesting, but to me, frankly, it was a tale of sheer incompetence by the village council.
Some weeks ago a middle aged woman who lived beyond the village was found to be dabbling with the fruits of the devil. Mark my words, the use of these accursed herbs is gaining ground again I'm absolutely certain, and she made the usual excuses when arrested about treating the sick, and yes, apparently quite brazenly admitting that in doing so she was purposely interfering with the will of God. But, although they had the legal right to end her life there and then, the stupid councillors on the bench let her off with a 20 year prison sentence. But fortunately a local peer, Lord Condile, intervened.
Do you remember, we met him at Lady
Edwina's ball when we were in
He said he had reason to believe she was also using these accursed herbs to worship the devil, and sure enough the constable went to the house and reported that he'd found a book of spells in her cottage. This persuaded the idiots to re-sentence her and condemn her for devil worship, and she was burnt in the marked place next day.
Incidentally, there was some opposition to the burning apparently, and when the fire was going nicely some-one leapt onto the pyre crying out that he wanted to burn with her. The idiot attempted to chain himself to her, but he couldn't secure it and they dragged him down of course, and he had to watch then didn't he. The fool. As I said though, the case actually turned out to be a little complicated. The day after the woman was burnt the constable was told by someone that the woman had employed an assistant, a young girl who lived with her. The house, just a hovel by all accounts, was a couple of miles out of town and not everyone knew of this girl. So the constable went back and found her. She was hiding in a barn and he arrested her as an accomplice, but to those idiot yokels, that apparently presented a problem. Can you believe it?
They had to reconvene, but they said they weren't sure if they had a case against the girl. They claimed it was debatable because no-one had come to the court and accused her. Also she looked very young and no-one could be sure if she was yet an adult answerable to adult law. The girl herself had said she was in her teens but later said she didn't know how old she was, and no-one knew where she had come from.
When she was strapped to a chair in the town hall and shown a branding iron she said she'd lived with gypsies but had run away from them, and then she'd walked a long way from another place where she'd been beaten, but she didn't know where it was. And do you know what? Without even putting the iron in the fire they decided to believe her, and all she said was that the woman had found her in the woods and had taken her home and had cared for her like a mother.
Then, at long last, they put up a reward for information and witnesses started to come forward to say that they'd seen the girl in the woods gathering the fruits of the devil for her new mother. Then some woman said she'd been told the girl was out of childhood, but even then there was a bit of unrest in the town, and the lilly livered councillors on the bench decided to hand her over to the priory to be tried by the nuns instead.
Why councillors have to interfere I really don't know. Thank the Lord they don't usually, but anyway the girl was brought here to be tried by the sisters. As the woman should have been.
As soon as I arrived here Sister Augusta told me all this, but I couldn't see what the fuss was about. It was obvious the girl had been helping the woman. She was obviously grateful for being looked after, but even then there was more to it. Sister Augusta had the girl bathed and by the look of her she thought she was old enough to stand trail, but she wanted to be sure.
She's getting so particular. I'll say it again dear, I really think it's time for her to consider her retirement. You won't believe this but, to be sure, she wanted to have notices put up around the county with a description asking if anyone knew the girl, but it didn't get that far. A problem arose. A problem in the shape of that pumpkin head Sir Leonard Short.
Remember him? That idiot who got that woman off when I was in Greenwell? Well, it seems that Shortarse has made a name for himself by doing it for a couple of other woman since, and apparently, according to Lord Condile, Shortarse Shortprick has been told about the woman's trial in Dawnmarket and he's had the cheek to write to the Lord Chief Justice asking him to set up a Legal Review. Lord Condile was told this by one of his cronies, Lord Batterfield I think, that this Shortcake idiot was claiming the trial was irregular because the constable didn't show the book of spells to the bench.
The fool certainly seems to have found out a good deal about the Dawnmarket trial, but whether he knows anything about a girl being involved is not clear. It's all been very upsetting for Lord Condile though. He has admitted to Sister Augusta that in order to get the woman safely condemned he got the constable to 'pretend' that he found that book of spells in the woman's house, and to excuse himself from presenting it to the bench he was instructed to say that he burnt it right there at the house because he didn't think it was safe to handle. Not exactly 'best practice' in legal terms but it got the woman done away with, when it looked as if those idiot councillors were going to let her go and spread her heresy around a prison.
The Lord Chief justice isn't really likely to respond, but he certainly could if he chose, and naturally Lord Condile didn't want the case reopened like a can of worms. If it was found that a girl lived with the woman and she swore there was no book of spells there, the constable might be questioned, and if he confessed Lord Condile would be in trouble. You know what the Lord Chief Justice is capable of when he gets riled. He could fine Lord Condile quite heavily. So his Lordship was worried and naturally wanted the nuns to try the girl quickly and hopefully do away with her before The Lord Chief Justice had time to even consider the case. And who could blame him?
This has been her dilemma, and in the end it all came down to a simple case of Golden Crowns, guineas and groats. Lord Condile, or Bertie as she calls him, is apparently very good to the nuns here, and if it wasn't for his money they would have a hard job on their hands making ends meet. A common enough situation these days I'm afraid, as you know, and to put it simply the Prioress had to decide whether or not to allow enough time for a normal, carefully examined trial as usual, and by so doing lose Lord Condile's financial support,
Having the girl condemned would be no problem. Sister Augusta would only have to withdraw from her option of defending her and the nuns verdict would be almost automatic. And she could even register her as diseased to authorise a quick trial, and to my mind there was really no point in discussing it further.
It was obvious to me. The girl had to go. “You can't risk
losing a single groat,” I said. “Get her tried
without further delay, see to it that she's found guilty, as of course she is,
and take her to the stake as soon as possible.” But she looked at me with that wistful
look she has sometimes and bleated on about ethics and even postponing the
trial. “If the Lord Chief Justice sends a barrister to the village he'll be
told about the girl and he'll want to see her,” she said.
Honestly, she can be infuriating. I told her not to be so silly. “Get on with it” I said. “If it hadn't been for Lord Condile hearing about it how could you be expected to know the Chief Justice is being contacted? You're in the clear,” I said, and at last she came to her senses
The next morning they brought the girl into the great hall and, with the Prioress offering nothing in her defence, it was soon over. The stupid girl didn't stop snivelling all through it and they had to hold her up almost from the moment they brought her in. No breeding obviously, and when a senior nun announced her sentence she was crying out “Please not the fire! Please, please, not the fire! Oh God not the fire!” Stupid girl, she knew she'd be burnt. But still they risk their lives meddling with the law. It makes you wonder if some of these girls are normal.
What with all the fussing around and all the paper work Sister Augusta insists upon, it took several hours afterwards to complete and her execution was fixed for the next morning.
After breakfast I thought I would go and have a closer look at her, and while I was there carry out my inspection of the Prison block at the same time too. It's only small, they only have a dozen cells. It was alright. The straw was quite clean and there was water and generally the place was tidy. In the girl's cell I found they'd chained her up to stand over night with arms and legs apart, which I think is routine with the condemned here, and the poor girl was so distressed her legs by now had gone to jelly and she was practically hanging by her wrists.
When I came and stood close to her she tried to draw away from me like a frightened animal. I suppose she was wondering who I was. But she was lovely. She would have made you a lovely chamber maid. She was very thin though, ridiculously thin for some reason
I guessed she was naked under her slip which is all they'd left her. It was disgustingly dirty, and it was so terribly thin I could see the pink of her nipples showing through it. It was so short it barely covered her knees too, but then it was jaggedly cut all the way round and I think some of the wardresses might have cut it to make it shorter. Yes, nuns at play dear.
Surprisingly she smelt delicious. I think it was because the prioress had washed her hair. It was very thin and straggly but it was a nice dark brown and it hung a little below her shoulders. I let it run through my fingers, it was lovely. And as I did so I could just hear her mumbling something to me in the faintest of whispers and I realised she was pleading with me.” Please don't let them burn me,” she was saying. “Please don't let them burn me.”
Poor thing. It was very touching. She was so sweet. And I thought yes, all I've got to do is go to the Prioress and say I've decided you were right. Cancel her execution and write to the Lord Chief Justice and tell him you've heard about a possible enquiry and he might like to know you have a girl here who was connected with the case. It would be so simple. She might even be pardoned. But no. it was just a thought.
Instead what did I do? I smiled sweetly at her and I put my lips to her ear, and I whispered very quietly “No my poor sweet, you are going to burn.”
You should have seen the agony in those lovely brown eyes. It was divine, and very gently I put my hands to her. I haven't been alone with a prisoner for a long time. She was so helpless and pathetic. It was lovely. Very slowly I slid a hand up between her lovely smooth thighs, and yes she was completely naked, and as I made her squirm I told her how pretty she was, and how lovely she was going to look chained to the stake, wriggling so sweetly as the flames come closer and closer! Oh my dear I was being such a bitch. It was gorgeous.
The head wardress came then with the blacksmith, an old but sturdy woman, who sized her up with a practiced eye for shackles and chains, and having made her calculation she stood in front of her with hands on hips and gave her a short sharp lecture. “When I come for you I stand for no nonsense, understand?” That's all she said, but the girl was still whimpering too much to answer, and the woman went without another word, leaving the wardress and I alone with her. The wardress pulled her head up by her hair. “Pretty isn't she.” she said, and callously added “I do so hope you realise dear girl how horribly you're going to suffer,” and with that she let her head slump forward again and we left her crying still.
In the punishment yard I saw they were placing the last of the faggots of wood across the top of the pyre. It wasn't a big one for her because she was only slight in build, and if they have any remains here they go into a bird net over the river for the buzzards to pick at. That's what they do here. Sister Augusta loves birds.
A couple of the nuns were now trampling on the faggots to make sure they were firm enough to stand on, and another couple were pouring some lamp oil on the furze and brushwood around the edge which I didn't think was necessary. It all looked very dry to me. But, by then, it was time for lunch.
I must remember to bring you home a bottle of their Summer Red as they call it. It's ideal served with any red meat I would imagine, but with venison I do assure you it is simply divine. It has an aroma that is hard to describe, I think it may portray a hint of elderberry, but what ever it is you will go into ecstasies I promise you. Especially after the third or fourth glass. I know what you're like don't I my darling?
It may have been the wine, but considering the trauma she has inflicted upon herself over the last few days, Sister Augusta was in a very good mood and chatted cheerfully about this and that, until her deputy came and whispered something to her and she suddenly beamed at us all. She said “Well now, we have something to see to,” and with that she finished the last dregs in her glass, and we all did the same. The glasses smacked down onto the table, empty, and we followed her out.
It always gives me a thrill to see it. A neatly made pyre made of old bare branches tightly bundled and laid with bundles of brushwood, and standing in the midst of it all a nice tall wooden post waiting for a pretty girl.
They brought her out with undue haste I thought, but the blacksmith woman was right in what she'd said, she didn't stand for any nonsense. The girl, with filthy bare feet and still in just that flimsy little slip, was brought out in terrible distress now, but she was such a lightweight she was quickly bundled past us and up onto the faggots. As one wardress stood holding the chains and shackles the other held her back against the stake, while the older woman pulled her arms right back behind the stake and shackled her wrists together.
The girl was crying pitifully now, crying up to heaven as the older woman completed the chaining, across her breasts, round her waist, over her thighs, and round her ankles. It was very efficiently done. The Prioress then did her duty very nicely, and in spite of the girl crying incessantly she read aloud a very nice extract from that lovely prayer that starts 'My life is carried upon the wings of eagles'. Do you know it? It's lovely.
It all went very nicely. Sister Augusta spoke very calmly to the girl and told her she must be brave, but of course she was never going to be brave. The poor lamb was at her wits end, and when she saw a nun hand the blacksmith the torch I think she went out of her mind. Shaking violently now she was crying out “Oh God No! No! No! No!” And when the woman stooped and started to light the furze she threw her head back against the stake and started to babble insanely.
It was lovely. She was so pretty, and then as she became shrouded in wisps of smoke she was desperately trying to say a prayer. In an absolute panic the words were tumbling out of her breathlessly as the fire was quickly starting to surge through the brushwood. You know that lovely rushing noise it makes.
As the fire gradually became a real blaze and the heat started to get worse and worse, the sweat began to trickle down her lovely face, and we watched, waiting for it to become unbearable. And then, quite suddenly, flames were coming up through the faggots, and in seconds they were at her feet. That did it. That was the end of her precious moments of piety. With a startled gasp and a jerk, the chains bit into the stake and she was on her way to hell.
In no time she was screaming her head off. The fire had found her very quickly, due I'm sure to that waste of lamp oil, and my dear, for one who looked to have been exhausted that morning, she screamed and writhed in those chains like someone possessed. Soon the whole pyre was ablaze and she really went through it dreadfully.
It was a good fire. The wood was well kept, very dry, and it made very little smoke. We stood for quite a while actually, enduring her piercing screams I might add, and watching first her feet and then her legs blister and go that lurid red and black as they always do. And then as the flames gradually grew more fierce and we had to step back a bit more, her little slip started to scorch and it quickly went brown. She was shrieking like something demented by the time it caught fire, and as usual that was the beginning of the end really. After a while, as the flames wrapped themselves around her those piercing screams at last gave way to the usual unearthly groans.
When we eventually wandered off she was still alive, but only just. You could see through the distortion of the flames that she was becoming just a raw mess now, but still twisting, slowly.
We had a dear little suckling pig for lunch afterwards. They'd roasted it with slices of apple and glazed the whole thing with syrup. It was absolutely gorgeous. I must remember to ask Sister Augusta for some of that wine I mentioned before. That I most certainly must not forget.
Time is pressing on, but I've just seen out of the window, down by the river the buzzards have found the net. I wonder if she had a name. They're ripping chunks from it now, but that's birds for you. I don't like birds I'm afraid. Nasty vicious things if you ask me.
I must finish my sweet. God bless, keep safe and let me find you in my bed when I arrive.
Your ever loving Emily.