The Seer Sung Husband

1536. England appears to be on the edge of civil war. On one side are Henry VIII and the modern, centralising Tudor state. On the other are a thousand years of tradition, custom and belief. In the North a rebel army seizes York, demanding an end to the dissolution of the monasteries and the erosion of religious freedoms. Within a few weeks the government is forced to negotiate with an insurgent army forty thousand strong. But when the rebels are persuaded to disperse, the leaders are arrested and executed. Northern England is placed under martial law.

The Seer Sung Husband tells the story of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the Northern rebellion that briefly defied the authority of Church and State. Tobias Shipton, carpenter and husband of the Yorkshire witch and soothsayer Old Mother Shipton, weaves a wyrd tale of love and loyalty, rebellion and royal retribution. The Seer Sung Husband is a book about folklore and myth, imagination and belief. It's a portrait of England at a time of radical social, religious and political crisis. It's a magical realist verse-epic set against the violent upheavals of 16th Century England. It's a book about witchcraft and statecraft, religious faith and political betrayal.

Extract

Extract

York dungeon is such an infernal hole
of finely calculated cruelty, that upon our first
entering I knew my hellish vision had come
to pass and found a perfect home from home
in this pit of footsteps, drips and shrieks,
clanging doors and rattling keys, where
the darkest wanderings of enquiring minds
become manifest, and the human body
and eternal spirit are put to inhuman tests,
against devices spawned from fevered incubus;
What makes up a renaissance man?
What will break him swiftly or slowly?
What will turn him into an animal, vegetable
Or a quivering river of pouring liquid?

Time itself has the sharpest barb, it hooks
and twists and hoist you up on high, dangling
the stretched frame on a weighted strappado
in preparation for its public display, once
the spark of life has fled the broken husk.
I have learned to close my ears to all but echoes
of my pulse, stopped my mind from registering
what my eyes settle upon and give myself
over to a nothingness carried on the breath.
But these meditations cannot last all day
or night and rumours pass on soft bat wings.
The King's Examiner has arrived in the city,
it is said he has a keen taste for blood.
His name a mere whisper, John ap Rice.

Some say he is a demon loosed from hell
dressed in a coat of human skin, one
who needs never shout but whose speech
is a soft caress that leaves a nasty sting,
a patient man, list maker, wheedler, lie detector
adept at extracting the desired answer, a man
with Baphomet reclining in each pupil,
who will sup on shrieks and chew the groans
of each anointment in the rites of torment.
A man with royal licence to use all the means
he can devise by all kinds of tortures and
otherwise to enforce the suspect to declare
the whole and plain truth of all things.
Steeling myself I await his summons.

Three times did I meet John ap Rice;
a short, thick badger of a man with darksome,
underground eyes, broad hands, stubby digits
with finely manicured nails, a well trimmed
russet beard, which, as he spoke, he would gently
stroke like a familiar with his index finger
from his nose downward, across his lips
to trace the coarse shape of his cleft chin.
I saw no wild demon dancing in his gaze;
this man was all formality, calculated yet
courteous, with a clearly set duty to perform.
I feared John ap Rice was all too human.
At either side sat Mr Tregonwell and Mr Legh,
bound to assist him in the King's enquiries.

For the first examination they sit at a table,
each with papers arranged, quills and ink pots.
I am strapped into the stretching chair
by the hands of another, who I do not see
but under John's direction feel his work acutely.
Click
Rice confirms my name, age and place of birth,
then enquires, 'Had I wed one Ursula Sontheil
now known as a witch and as a prophetess?'
I answer, 'Yes, I am Ursula's husband', and Legh
and Tregonwell scribble notes on parchment.
Click
John ap Rice asks, 'Where has your wife fled?
Do you admit to committing treason in word or deed?
What do you knew of Peacock, Merryweather,
Tymewell, Staverley and Edmund Kitchyn?
Can you confirm the Cistercian is Roger Hartlepool?
Are you acquainted with a Friar called Robert Esch?'
Click
'Who devised the letters sent to stir the country
and those pinned up on the parish church doors?
Who was responsible for distributing copies
of the outlawed Mouldwarp Prophesy?
What have you heard of the new teaching and the old
and what complaints and from whom they did they come?'
Click
'Who were the ringleaders of the Richmond Commotions,
the Barnard Castle Riots, and in the treasonous
insurrections against their most loyal Sovereign?'
Click
'What are your opinions on the matter of Supremacy?
What is your belief concerning Purgatory?
What names do you know of the women
who sallied forth at night to cut down
their husband's bodies from the Crown's gibbets
to bury them unlawfully in consecrated ground?'
Click
'Are you guilty of the crime of carving sacred images
for the purposes of idolatry? How deep
is your involvement in attempting to establish
an heretical cult around the worship of such an icon?
When was the last time you crept up to the Cross?'

Click
'Have you participated in a Black Fast against King Henry?
What do you know of the ritual baptism of a cockerel?
Do you keep three bees under a stone to call them forth
one by one by name and feed them with drops of blood?
What do you know of the manufacture of flying ointment
made chiefly from the fat of boiled children?'
Click
Click Click

Throughout the interrogation pain becomes a presence,
a physical being that prances around the chamber,
feeding on my grunts and groans and on the flat line
of question after question, on the sweat and the silence
of my torturer, 'til this Thing plucks Rice's voice
like a lute, and in my blistered sight wears the masks
of Mr Tregonwell and Mr Leigh, their quill hands
rising and falling on strings held between its beak,
and I feel its dark feathered wings stroke the foetid air
fanning the candle flames and the flame of my pain
rising, unfurling, petal upon petal, to engulf me
within a cloud of noble vapours, contaminating
my nostrils. This Thing begins to sing, Tabun, Soman,
Sarin, Rycin,
' til on wing beats I'm carried away.

Who can blame those who confess under pressure?
Who, amid the screams, incriminate the innocent,
just to secure a moment's respite, for you know
not what babble drools from between cracked lips
that writhe and sing of their own accord to the quiet
delight of the examiners' tide of questions,
each one a wave that leaves you drowning
amid the stutter of a murmured refrain.
Dues in adiutorium meum intende
Dues in adiutorium meum intende
Dues in adiutorium meum intende

'O God, incline unto my aid!' Knowing thyself naught
but a number and a note in a draft of a bishop's book
that travails to purge the realm by uniform discipline.

Some rumours rat–skitter through the corridors,
appear under locked doors like cockroaches;
some slide, leaving criss–crosses, swirls, spirals
of silver trails in the dark, while others weave
like a dusty ghost moth landing on the brickwork
of my scratching wall of boils and weeping sores
to preen its antennae; then off, back through gaps
between bars, past guttering torches to find a route
into the early Springtime air, leaving an inkling
of news, droppings of gossip. That's how word
gets around in prison; occurrences are known
without the memory of having been told – something
about the execution of Anthony Peacock that morning,
the real Hartlepool has crossed the border to Scotland,
a great many false icons of worship fuelled
a bonfire last night at the foot of Clifford's Tower,
the King's new Queen is expectant with child.

Prison is the vat in which to distil despair.
Mind and memory are unloosed to wander
vagrant days that pour out of blind spots:
I toss pebbles into Old Nidd from the middle
of World's End Bridge, my father guides
my saw hand through a plank of smooth oak.
I am twelve, watching Mother as she cooks
heavy and ripe with my brother or sister.
I watch her crumple in a groan to the floor,
spilt broth and blood mix together in a pool.
I am running, screaming, into the workshop.
I am watching my father roaring at the rafters.
He is holding her tight and stroking her face.
I watch October turn him, day by day, to stone.

My second summons came once I got wind
that Staverley had given up the ghost
in his cell after a stint of severe questioning.
I'd woken to guards dragging something limp
along the corridor. In the examination room
once more I am strapped to the chair facing
John ap Rice, Mr Legh and Mr Tregonwell
and brace myself for the flood of accusations.
It comes like a litany, many of the same,
though many more concerned Roger Hartlepool;
had I known him before being imprisoned?
What was his role in the October insurrection,
in the bill posting and the post–pardon riots,
which Abbots had he pressed into the rebellion?

Strange how my cell's darkest corner becomes
a haven in which to curl up my soft body
like a snail in a shell and try to smother the fire
Rice's man has kindled, using my bones as twigs
my flesh as a fan with which to tease the spark
to catch and spread through veins and ligaments.
I try to douse it in a stream of moans and shudders.
Staverley had died under such treatment and now
I begin to suspect that I will follow his lead,
be dragged limp into the light to be tossed in a pit.
Or was that just the easy option, far simpler than
facing the panel's harsh examinations again?
I call for the guard to request the materials
to make a full confession in my own hand.

Squatting in the shell–like dark with parchment,
ink pot, quill and my cup of drinking water,
thumb in my mouth I bite deep into the pad,
tear at the skin until I taste iron, feel its flow,
then drip a bulbous tear of ink into my cup
followed by a bright red plop, watch the colours
begin to spread and swirl and speak over the rim
the waking name, Beag, adding, come to my aid!
Within seconds comes the drone, the hollowness
growing as if my form were an egg being blown.
The marks on my scratching wall run and weave,
tunnel vision pulls like a hood about my head,
the drone becomes a roar and at the tunnel's end
the red river, the ragged banners and the mound.

I crouch on the bank beneath the flaming sky,
the black rocks of the stepping stones
disturbing the flow of the dark red current
roaring by, each one a scorched skull,
just too far apart to comfortably reach
but the song in the air tugs at my feet, so
I leap and land, not as a sack of raw bones
but with feline balance and upon all fours,
haunches coiled ready for the next launch
then out over the spitting fume and froth
that surges around each precarious rock,
until one leap takes me to the farthest bank
and I run, belly low, between the banners
darting into the waiting mouth of the barrow.

Then I am picking a path through the darkness
of an alley inside the city, ears pricked, padding
lightly, whiskers brushing the prison wall, nose
trained upon his scent leading like a winding
track to wherever he is lodged; with night
pressed close against my coat, on the balls
of my slit dilated eyes, alive in the tremors of air.
All around me come distractions: a warning
rustle, the rich smell of small prey and the sudden
savage thirst of raging instinct filling my throat;
a primordial purr threatening to drive off all other
impulses, any remnant of thought, all memory
of John ap Rice; but behind it the drone – within
it the seer song that will keep my tail in check.

Slink. Pause. Wait. Watch. Creep. Listen. Twitch.
Spring. Land. Settle. Dart. Twist. Huddle. Sniff.
Stalk. Pounce. Claw. Climb. Scrape. Trot. Sit.
Wait. Watch. Wait. Measure. Crouch. Shuffle.
Sail. Glide. Stretch. Reach. Lurch. Scramble. Skitter.
Cling. Slip. Fail. Fall. Slight. Slide. Roll. Right.
Bounce. Alight. Cower. Lurk. Loiter. Watch. Listen.
Wait. Sneak. Slither. Squeeze. Snake. Dash. Pad. Prowl.
Wriggle. Writhe. Edge. Inch. Tread. Steal. Flit. Weave.
Skirt. Cruise. Coast. Cringe. Flinch. Wait. Watch.
Wait. Stay. Strain. Shy. Shirk. Sidle. Scent. Shun.
Mark. Stain. Shake. Risk. Gain. Fence. Hedge. Feign.
Dodge. Race. Leap. Hurtle. Cross. Rise. Mount. Bound.
Approach. Wait. Squirm. Breach. Wait. Enter. Find.

His snores billow the plush bedchamber,
smells of wine, chicken, a stubbed out candle.
I cross the soft pile of the imported carpet,
spring lightly onto the feathered mattress
of the blanket–covered, four poster bed, then
step by step inch upward to sit upon his chest.
He shifts, his snores cease as my weight
affects his breathing, I lean closer, my whiskers
almost on his russet beard, his bed breath thick
upon my face, and then his eyes begin to flutter.
Half opening, glazed like a new born babe's
before the flood that comes with focus.
A long croak crawls out from between his lips
though he is unable to move his limbs or torso.

And so we watch and breathe deep of each other,
his gaze a green pool into which I lower a paw
to loosen the ties of all the ghouls he's secured
from thought in cages bound by duty and law,
disturbing the still surface of his loyal exterior.
I awaken him to himself. Sweat collects, spit drools
along his quivering cheeks to dampen his pillow,
until he sees with eyes that can no longer hide
the pleasures he draws from his work with pain.
His muscles spasm for every victim who cried,
each whimper a white hot brand searing his brain.
When I leap from his chest and flee like a shade
through the doorway, down the stairwell and out
into the night, I leave behind a very different man.

Reviews

'a magical combination of fact and fantasy, which maintains a mystery at its heart'

Other Poetry

'An antidote to the plague of anecdotes wishing they were poems.'

Sean O'Brien

'Bob Beagrie gives a convincing voice to the common man unwillingly caught up in uncommon times. Excavating the hairline divide between the everyday and the uncanny, Beagrie has produced a work of remarkable insight and invention.'

Oz Hardwick

'Tobias the carpenter crafts his story as carefully as he would a timbered structure. Bob Beagrie's lyrical poetry conveys historical events in a moving narrative that shifts easily between realities. The story is engrossing, the voice convincing and the historical period is vividly evoked.'

Kathleen Jones