Benedict Astley meandered through the historic lanes of Norwich city centre, passing numerous independent retailers, eateries and pubs crammed into the narrow, cobblestoned pathways. Christmas shoppers hurried about, their bags rustling and banging into him as children moaned about the cold weather with little pink noses sniffling under bobbly hats.
He wasn’t shopping and he wasn’t hungry. The image of Jessica’s beautiful face screwed up in vicious contempt dogged his steps. His attempt to surround himself with people and noise wasn’t working. Her cutting remarks would not be submerged below his consciousness.
His feet brought him to the 900-year-old marketplace with its jaunty, brightly coloured pointed roofs and extensive Christmas lighting. Blue, red and green twinkling lights adorned trees and buildings galore, chasing away the gloom of morning drizzle.
To his left, the soaring spire of Norwich Cathedral pierced the low, slate-grey clouds. In front of him, surveying the city from atop the motte behind the marketplace, lay the medieval stone keep of Norwich Castle. Oh, how he loved castles; they transported him to another world, their walls whispering secrets long ago forgotten, the very air tumescent with history and unrivalled intrigue.
Benedict strode up the wide, curving pathway to the grand stone arch and iron bars of the castle's entrance. The keep towered above him, elaborate stone arches and columns decorated its exterior, beckoning him with the promise of escape.
Selfish, spineless spoilt brat… He thrust aside Jessica’s harsh words, the memory churning his indignation and almost walked into the outstretched arm of a young man. He was of a similar age with black hair poking out from under a red woolly hat. He smiled disarmingly; his gloved hand held a leaflet.
“Oh, no. Sorry.” I’m not a charity.
“I’m not asking for money.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“Look,” he flapped the leaflet at Benedict, still smiling, “We campaign to reduce socio-economic inequality. 79% of adults agree that there is a large gap between the social classes. Does that seem fair to you?”
“Umm, no,” Not my problem though. He kept walking, letting the young campaigner’s leaflet hang awkwardly in mid-air, “I’m sorry,” he said over his shoulder, “I just want to visit the castle.”
The campaigner looked like he might say something else but then shrugged, apparently marking Benedict down as a lost cause, “Enjoy your visit.”
MONDAY 5th DECEMBER, 1549
John Morecott, Chief Gaoler of Norwich Castle, knew in his heart that this was wrong.
He led the new arrival down the grimy stone steps to the dungeon, his coarse woollen tunic and breeches itched in the oppressive air of the lower levels. Never before had he heard such a ruckus in his gaol. The felons hooted and hollered, clanging their shackles against the iron bars of their cells in admiration of their hero. His younger brother, Richard, stood in attendance, ready to intervene should there be any trouble. He looked on the verge of joining in with the prisoners’ shouts but a stern look from John made him clamp his mouth shut.
Their leather boots and the prisoner’s bare feet slapped in the inch or so of stagnant water underfoot, the acrid smell of unwashed bodies and sickness stung their nostrils. The condemned man, Robert Kett, stepped inside the indicated cell with as much grace as one could muster in such circumstances and fixed John with an unsettlingly steady gaze as the bars swung shut with a rancid squeal of finality.
John, with his broad shoulders and muscular physique, was easily twice the size of Kett and half the age but he felt diminished in his presence, even without the roar of the gaol to remind him. But Kett's neck would greet a traitor’s fate the same as any other.
“You shall have no trouble from me, gaoler,” Kett said, he stood motionless, his face devoid of expression but the eyes… those shone with a righteousness to rival the Archbishop of Canterbury.
John moved closer, matching the older man's impassive stare, “Two days hence, you are to be hung in chains from the walls of the castle,” John said, he could not keep the regret from his voice. Such a fate for such a man.
Kett seemed not to hear, he sighed, his gaze flickering downwards, “How long shall we suffer so great oppression?” he asked quietly.
Two days, John thought, Could I help him escape? Aye, and seal your fate to his, abandoning your wife, son and brother. And to what end? He shook his head. His father, taken by the sweating sickness which had ravaged the prison not two winter’s ago, would have known what to say to this man, or would he? Perchance, he would not have supported the rebellion. The end had seen rebels’ bodies humming under the summer sun, some swinging from the hangman’s noose whilst others simply laid where they fell. The air thick and humid with death.
His duty as Chief Gaoler carried more influence over his actions than he had ever anticipated and fatherhood still more. But what of morality? When my son is old enough to ask of such things, what shall I tell him?
“You have been found guilty of treason,” John said, cursing his own weakness, “There is naught I can do.”
“I did not ask you to do anything.”
John bit the inside of his cheek. Aye, but I should. “Be you so eager for death?”
“I am eager for justice, gaoler. Can one call himself a man if he does not fight for what he knoweth to be true?” his tone was steady but the eyes were feverish in the dank gloom.
Leaving the question unanswered, John turned and left. He had already said too much. One word was too much and he should know better. Think on your wife and son, John. Do not be a fool.
A cheery woman with dainty glasses and big blond hair handed Benedict a map of the castle and its exhibits, pointing out the fine art gallery and the dungeon with equal enthusiasm.
He stepped out into the Great Hall, an open space with stairs leading up to exhibits on higher levels. Numerous information plaques occupied him for a time before he ascended the stairs to wander through the art gallery, paying little attention to the pieces. Jessica’s words gnawed at him. He likened it to an earworm burrowing away inside his skull, relentless and sickening.
“You didn’t tell them you’re staying here?” she had asked upon overhearing him on the phone to his father, “Do they even know about me?”
His wince had answered that question effectively enough.
“If you haven’t told your parents about me after almost a year, I can only assume you’re ashamed.”
“Not rich enough to introduce to precious mummy and daddy? Jeez, I didn’t realise I needed a title to date you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! You know I don’t care about that!”
“Then why lie, hm?”
He hadn’t been lulled by her soft tone; menace flashed in her deep blue eyes like a shark circling a narrow boat. And why did I lie? Because they would insist on meeting her and I won’t inflict that on Jessica. Oh, his parents would be polite to her face, of course, but the second the rumble of tyres on gravel faded to silence, they would decimate her. He could hear their disdainful voices as sure as ocean waves dragging debris into its depths. Common as muck. She’s only with you for the money.
Benedict exited the gallery and took the staircase down to the lower level of the castle, the recently excavated dungeon. She deserves better.
TUESDAY 6th DECEMBER, 1549
John walked Kett up and down the exercise pen, grateful for the winter sun upon his face. Technically, he shouldn’t be allowing him time outside but he did it anyway. Shooting a fearsome glare every now and again at the conspiratorial looks of approval from the other inmates and his brother. Though Richard stood straight-backed in the centre of the exercise ring, overlooking the individual pens with a visible tautness. A break-out was impossible but John wouldn’t put it past the remaining rebels to try. He wasn’t entirely sure if he would stop them if they did.
“Do you think this castle will always be a gaol?” Kett asked.
“Aye,” John said, “What else could it be?”
“A palace for nobles… ‘Twas its original purpose was it not?”
John snorted, “I cannot see it. Even noblemen prisoners are not confined to these cells.”
“Where be they?”
“With me and my family,” John paused, checking that none were close enough to hear him speak what plagued his mind, you could never be too careful, especially with felons, “There be one such man right now who murdered his baby daughter in a fit of rage. I swear if he weren’t noble, I’d see to it that he found himself in the filthiest, darkest cell I could find but… he is noble so he gets a blanket, dried meat, fish, cider, perry... whatever he can buy.” Aye, and you take his blood-stained shillings and pennies so do not play too much at the blameless gaoler.
“Does that feel right to you?” No.
“Not my place to say if it be right or not.”
“Peasants still starve in the streets, crying for scraps of stale bread whilst noblemen slake their thirst and gorge their greed. Thousands upon thousands of starving men, women and children. Do you see them, gaoler?”
“Aye. I see them.”
Overhead, a murder of crows lined the keep walls, their large black beaks twitching as if contemplating their soon-to-be feast.
“Some think you foolish to refuse a pardon,” John said, turning him gently at the end of the walkway.
“I am sure they do.”
“Then why refuse it?”
“To accept would have been to admit wrongdoing. I could not do that.”
“No one would have blamed you.”
“I would have.”
John nodded understanding, shame kneading his gut as he walked Kett back to his cell.
Benedict sidled up behind a tour group gathered in the dungeon, drawn in by their charismatic guide, a wiry man clearly enjoying his role with the flair of a drama student.
“Robert Kett would probably have been held here,” he announced, indicating a small cell with black iron bars, “He led one of the biggest rebellions this country has ever known. Landowners were increasingly fencing off land from the common people, resulting in mass starvation.”
“So, he was a peasant,” a middle-aged woman to the left of Benedict stated.
“On the contrary, he was a wealthy landowner himself! Targeted by the angry mob! But instead of resisting them, he joined the rebels and became their leader. Imagine that!”
A hush of admiration settled over the group as their guide continued, revelling in the moment, “How far would you go for justice? Hm? Equality? Robert Kett is truly an inspiration to us all.”
Benedict squirmed. Suddenly feeling that Jessica’s insults were not only justified but weak in comparison to what he deserved. Would I join a rebellion if people were starving? He almost laughed but a tide of self-loathing rose and swallowed it up, punishing him for even thinking the question. Not a chance.
Telling himself he kept Jessica a secret for her sake wasn’t the whole truth. He would dump her with little hesitation after a subtle but disparaging look from his mother. Just as aptly timed comments decided who he kept as friends and who he discarded. Hell, even his University degree course had been chosen for him but what was the alternative? Defy them and risk being cut off? I wouldn’t survive a day.
So, what kind of a man does that make me?
WEDNESDAY 7th DECEMBER, 1549
The lump in John’s throat was painful and his jaw tight as he pulled open the cell door, “Tis time, Kett.”
They walked in silence. A stark contrast to the man’s arrival a mere two days previous. Not one prisoner moved, their eyes hollow and defeated.
“If history remembers us,” Kett said as they mounted the stone steps, “It shall tell of how our rebellion was the first step towards a better world… a fairer world.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“It is what is right,” he said, “I have to believe that what is right shall prevail.”
The executioners stood to attention, their black hoods as impenetrable as the walls of the keep, their stance solid, unwavering. John paused to exchange one last look with Kett. He wanted to say something meaningful, something he could one day repeat to his son, something… honourable. But no words came. He watched ashen-faced as the executioners fastened the chains around his body, taking no more care than one might when bridling a horse. Just a job to be done.
They hoisted the condemned man over the castle walls, hanging him for all of Norwich to see, an example of the fate awaiting aspiring rebels of the state. Crowds were gathered before the castle gates, lining the roads, they filled the marketplace and further still. John heard less the familiar gasps and cheers of morbid spectators but instead, the eerie silence of a funeral.
Keeping his face impassable, he grieved his own courage and prayed for the bravery of future generations.
A nobleman wrapped in a velvet cloak, come from London to witness the proceedings, leant towards John, “Traitor,” he said with satisfaction, “He’ll burn in hell for his crimes.”
“Aye,” John mumbled.
May God have mercy on us all.
A clear sky greeted Benedict as the ornate castle door thudded shut behind him. This time, he stopped to read the plaque positioned next to the entrance:
- … this memorial was placed here by the citizens of Norwich in reparation and honour to a notable and courageous leader in the long struggle of the common people of England to escape from a servile life into the freedom of just conditions -
Benedict stood for a long moment with the frozen wind stinging his face, letting the significance of this man’s actions sink in. He was still lost in thought as he strolled back out of the stone archway and past the campaigner talking animatedly with a couple of passers-by.
His voice drew Benedict out of his reverie, something about the man tugged at his subconscious as if he had lost something important. He turned and walked back.
“Excuse me,” he said, “I think I will have one of those leaflets after all.”
The man made no attempt to hide his surprise, “Of course, uh, here you go.”
Benedict strode away, imbued with a steadiness that hadn’t been there before. It was a small thing but the leaflet tingled in his hand and a new feeling that he couldn’t quite put his finger on stirred in his heart.