LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head. His most recent book is A Man of Heart (Shearsman, 2023)
Normans on the great north road
somewhere in England in 1071.[i]
Hubert, lord of these grey riders,
fought at Senlac, and since then
has been useful to the King
His reward, the manor he rides towards,
larger than the home he left in Normandy.
Walter, his seneschal, riding beside him,
fought at Senlac with distinction,
rallied the savaged in the Malfosse .[ii]
Between them, non-armoured, long haired,
Aelfric, an Englishman. Their local guide.
Their translator. He makes them awkward
in ways they’d struggle to define.
If pushed, Walter might reply;
he has no scars: his hands are soft.
The manor is wooden, unfortified.
Too easy to attack and futile to defend.
All this, thinks Hubert, I will change.
After the automatic military appraisal,
the childlike revelation: this is mine.
All mine. A group waits, women, children,
men so old they can’t stand straight.
The lady of the manor steps towards him.
Hubert remembers that in the English time
she could have run this place without a husband.
Now she and it are forfeit to the crown,
the crown bestowed them both on him
and he has come to take possession.
That thought will take a long time growing old.
He examines her the way he will inspect the cattle,
fields, fish weir and the little mill.
Tall, straight, young, blonde: she will do.
‘Where are the men?’ Vague images
of those long legs, fine hips and breasts
do not make him stupid. ‘Where are the men?’
He has lost friends who were not so cautious,
in this green folded landscape, where the trees
and ditches hide those desperate for revenge.
Aelfric translates the question.
‘Where you should be.’ He ducks his head
til he remembers he rides with the victors
and she’s the one who lost and all her pride
will not avert the fate that rides towards her.
‘Her brothers, father, uncle, nephews died
at Stamford bridge and Senlac hill.
Their tenants and dependants died with them.’[iii]
The idea that Englishmen are long-haired,
beer swilling, effeminate, will creep
into the Norman mind but not in Hubert’s
even if he lived a long and idle life.
Those longhaired drunkards stood their ground,
all day. Charge after charge breaking
on that obdurate line of shields.
Anyone who’d seen a horse and rider split
by one swing of an axe would think twice
about disparaging the man who swung it.
But Aelfric swung no axe. That much is obvious.
After inspecting the boundaries,
a wary country ride with scouts,
after the inspection of the manor house,
after the welcome meal, Hubert decided
it was time to inspect his human property.
The men at arms were organised.
Guards posted, tasks allotted.
Walter thanked, allowed to leave.
Hubert talking to his Lady through Aelfric
was reminded of those shields.
When he was polite, she seemed insulted.
When he had tried to show an interest
she had seemed offended. He sensed
that what he said was not the words she heard.
She was nobility, understood the world
and what would happen next and so he doubted
his tame Englishman was being honest.
He would have to learn her language,
some words at least, while she learnt his.
Bed, he thought, could be his classroom.
He stood up, took her hand. She did not move.
‘If you don’t go with him’, said Aelfric
he’ll strip you for his men at arms.’
It was a stupid lie. This Norman was no fool
who’d break his prize possession out of spite.
Aelfric ignored the look she cut him with.
Once she’d been too proud to notice his existence
now she was this Norman’s mattress
and whatever in his character was broken,
or unfinished, rejoiced at her humiliation.
The curtains closed behind them.
Aelfric edged towards the drapery,
heard the sound of fabric falling,
imagined the pale body emerging.
He heard Hubert’s belt and sword unbuckled
then set down, heard them move together.
Imagined his hands, heard Hubert grunting,
then making garbled noises like a stricken pig.
A female hand, the curtain parted.
She was naked, radiantly naked,
white flesh tinged pink about the throat.
Aelfric moved. She was majestic,
desire erased the thought that he’d been caught
erased the room, erased his name
and everything except desire
for the body moving closer to him
small hands reaching for his belt.
Who knows a dead man’s final thoughts?
Perhaps he was thinking mine at last,
perhaps he heard her say, ‘You should have died
with all the others’, and perhaps, before the knife
sliced the artery in his throat and geysered blood,
he realised she had spoken flawless Norman-French.
She caught him as he fell, pulling him down
screaming in English, help, help, murder, help.
Walter, sword drawn, running, saw
the Englishman raping the frantic lady
thrashing on the floor, hauled him away
one quick blow striking off the head.
The woman, sobbing, pointing at the curtains.
Behind them Hubert’s naked corpse,
twisted, reaching for the knife stuck in his back.
While the bodies were removed
Walter held the shuddering woman.
The King still owed him for the Malfosse.
Perhaps this manor. He would need a wife.
Hands skilled in settling a skittish mare
gentled the shaking body
aware of its taut lines, soft curves,
its bloody promise. She would do
when he came to take possession.
[i] This date is entirely arbitrary.
[ii] When the English army finally broke and ran at the Battle of Hastings, a small group turned and savaged the pursuing Normans at a place the Normans called The Malfosse.
[iii] Fulford Gate, Stamford bridge, Senlac, the three battles fought by the English in 1066. Many of the victors at Stamford Bridge died at Senlac (Hastings).
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head