In November 1643 eight hundred Royalist cavalry and foot soldiers led by Sir Francis Mackworth attempted to seize the small West Riding town of Heptonstall from the occupying Parliamentary forces. Although they were driven back after a bloody night battle, several weeks later the Royalists returned in greater numbers, sacking the town, burning the houses and taking the livestock. The wool trade was destroyed for a generation. Plague followed.
A few years ago, Michael Crowley turned the story of this small, bloody battle in the English Civil War into a community play. The Battle of Heptonstall takes some of the characters from the play – real and imagined – and lets them tell their own version of events. It is an examination of ideology, class and Englishness, from the Putney Debates to Brexit, a book about propaganda and division, authority and dissent, reaction and resistance, then and now.
John Cockcroft All else depends on warp and weft, that the tension be right and be even, or the coat unravels from the back. I make a cloth of simple tabby weave the shafts and shuttle like it well, all day tying to the heddles until my eyes fail. Soldiers on the hills: the arc of their helmets, rumps of their horses, cloth torn by blade and shot. The summer shearing, weaving under the moon, those days passed for another year.
Alice Cockcroft Thread bleeds from my palm spindle hungry as a lamb, wheel she turns with just a stroke walking me closer to autumn. I watched mother through its spokes straw between my toes, she laid my hands upon the fleece I stand where she stood years ago. I wear her smock ripe with rosemary singing, Although I am a country lass a lusty mind I bear-a, the wheel is turning turning a lullaby back to me.
Joseph Cockcroft We are all at the wool each day. Mother walks to her wheel and then away like the hare-brained not knowing her mind. Father he is in the loft weaving thread upon thread even at candle light. Crow’s feet for fingers, crooked when he stands, his eyes weakening and I, kneeling upon the stone carding grey strands, softer than his beard when he could lift me with his hands. All the summer days are such. Other lads and lasses are about from May but not a clothier’s son, I only see wild roses on a Sunday. My brother gone to clerk in Leeds no one left but me to weave. Father curses the merchants at the cloth hall thumbing each piece, playing doubtful. When the cloth is sold, he only buys more wool.
Two wheels for the three of us is enough, we have our livestock and a kitchen garden to pluck. Hope, she shears and clod-moulds the earth, Rose, she spins and sings. They are sistren now. Alice comes to us for mutton, they have no earth of their own the clothiers. She will join our circle of prayer soon I’m certain, hiding from the Spirit for now. Today I opened the book at Matthew, did find the words I already knew. My finger leads my lips, tears bleed for the meek, I speak to the multitude from the mountain.
I hear the scratching of fleeces behind doors, the clapping of the loom from the lofts, I smell the pots stirring. They are rough about the price saying the sheep has died of sickness, believing they see the livestock with their hands. They say for themselves what the Bible does say, observe their own Saints days at the tavern, do not remove their hats in church. I walk these wet hills for them. Lambs quiver ’neath the sodden sheep, eyes half closed against the walls. Soldiers’ horses swim through the mist, the cloth hall drains – the end of a heady evening. The weavers’ shoddy patience is wearing thin.
Rose I am a girl orphaned by the plague. Too young yet to be wed I did walk down one hill up another making my way inside a storm, was found by Martha hungered, near dead. She did warm me and feed me, swathe me in a shawl, this man William called. Blessed are those that mourn he said. His words hide within these walls. Sweet lipped, so gentle tongued he, his eyes see through the years to my children, he can hear what isn’t yet spoken. We the despised are not for church, the statues and the kneeling. Princes will fall, the world shall be made anew. I card the fleece, bathe his feet, brush his pilgrim shoes.
Sergeant Richard Leach at the Battle of Adwalton Moor, June 1643 We splay out as wolves to keep the horses at bay. The first charge a taunt veering away before they reach our points. I have sawn two feet from my stave an arm beyond my arms, a quill pushed into the dough of horses and men. The riders are knee to knee, the mounts neck to neck thudding louder, mud thrown higher, swords drawn later. The beasts know it will be blood. We are bent low, a rocking head brings me its eyes like eggs. My pike trembles in its acorn breast, blood bursts back at me, soaks my head, the beast screams, falls like an oak. The gentleman rider I slay his last look bearing no blame, his last breath warming my blade. The horse gallops the air dancing a spasm, its eyes have knowledge of the end but not of the victory won. I run and lie in the womb of a clough, quiver til nightfall. They will not charge so easily up the hill to Heptonstall.
William Saltmarsh, evangelist preacher, 16 October 1643 The clergy lead the people like horses, ride them at their pleasure. They are holy imbeciles who believe imagery forces people to Christ. Spirit is all. It knows all things, was before sin’s invention, the preaching of perfection. I saw a man standing inside a tree, he clapped his hands upon his breast saying ‘heaven is within me, within me.’ We meet at the foot of the rocks under the blackthorn crest, we hold hands in the silences, the scuffle of frogs, a warning from a jackdaw. My child Evelyn scans the skyline for glove puppets of cavalry. Tongues are bored, ears sawn off in the pillory.
Colonel Robert Bradshaw, Rochdale, 18 October What does it mean to fight a king, treason? A king that hath sent his parliament away like a lord discharging his servants, believing saints will cook his supper for him. He lays with a papist plotting, with rebels turning church into a place of coloured dolls, painted walls and altar rails, where men kneeling upon their own minds recite some scroll by the Archbishop Laud. Kings are not God. We do not seek to slay him, make him a ghost behind palace walls, but we shall sit at his table beside a fire of the relics and the yoke. High birth and unearned wealth shall fall. We make our stand hereafter at Heptonstall.
‘Most poets don’t have a story to tell. But Michael Crowley does.’
The High Window
‘Crowley has the skill of a novelist, but a poet’s ability to concentrate on what matters.’
Poetry Salzburg Review