In memory of an awesome – and unknown – woman

That Chinese man on a bamboo pole made the ‘Best Wins of the Month’ video I subscribe to. You know the guy I mean, right? He was all over the internet in May.

And it made me so sad. Because between 1642 and 1651 England was embroiled in a civil war, between the forces of King Charles I (the Cavaliers)  and everyone else (the Roundheads). I know, I know, this is a long way from the Chinese man on the bamboo, but stick with me here.

Charles I wanted to be a king the way kings had always been; his word was law. But since 1640 England had been using this cool thing called a Parliament, which for a shit-ton of very complicated and recondite reasons figured no one person should have that much power. Spoiler: in the end the Roundheads won and executed Charles I, declaring England a Commonwealth, without any King. They probably should have taken care of Charles’s son – also Charles – too, because in 1660 he came back, became Charles II, and executed the killers of his father (English history is so Game of Thrones, it’s awesome.) However all that’s still in the future, because today we’re visiting 1643.

In September 1643 the Cavalier army and the Roundhead army are scurrying around a place called Newbury, waiting to engage each other on the noble field of battle. Neither side are well-provisioned, and the Roundhead soldiers have been told to forage for whatever supplies they can find. So when you think of an army marching to war, don’t think of serried masses walking in step, but of a rag-tag band of vaguely similarly dressed dudes with marginal military training. Dudes much like this in fact.

civil war .jpg
Civil war re-enactors actually from Newbury! Photo by Barry Skeates, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

These guys are hungry, cold, poorly led, and no matter how well the foraging goes, they’re going to face the Royalist forces in a couple of days, during which 1,200 of their comrades will die.

They’re searching beside the river Kennett, looking for anything to fill their empty bellies , when one of them sees a woman crossing the river, balancing on a plank. Mind. Blown.

“[He] espied on the river being there adjacent, a tall, lean, slender woman, as he supposed, to his amazement, and great terreur treading of the water with her feet, with as much ease and firmnesses as if one could walk or trample on the earth, wherewith his softly calls, and beckened to his fellows to behold it, and with all possible speed that could be to obscure them from her sight, who as conveniently as they could they did observe, this could be no little amazement unto them you may think to see a woman dance upon the water, nor could all their sights be deluded, though perhaps one might but coming nearer to the shore, they could perceive there was a plank or deale overshadowed with a little shallow water that she stood upon, the which did beare her up, anon rode by some of the Commanders who were eye witnesses, as well as they, and were as much astonished as they could be, still too and fro she fleeted on the water, the boord standing firm bout upright, indeed I have both heard and read of many that in tempests and on rivers by casualty have been shipwracked, or cast over board, where catching empty barrels, rudders, boards, or planks have made good shift by the assisting providence of God to get on shore, but not in this womans kind to stand upon the board, turning and winding it which way she pleased, making it pastime to her, as little thinking who perceived her tricks, or that she did imagine that they were the last she ever should show, as we have heard the swan sing before her death, so did this divellish woman.”

The soldiers ambushed her when she landed.

“The Commanders beholding her, gave order to lay hold on her and bring her to them straight, the which some were fearfull, but some being more venturous then other some, boldly went to her and seized on her by the arme, demanding what she was? But the woman no whit replying any words unto them, they brought her unto the Commanders, to whom though mightily she was urged she did reply as little.”

God, can you imagine what was going through her head?  Maybe she couldn’t speak. Maybe she went non-verbal in times of stress. Maybe English wasn’t her first language. Maybe she was deaf. Maybe she knew it wouldn’t matter what she said, she’d be condemned either way. And what do you think “mightily urged” encompassed? Slapping her around a little? Rape?

Because she’d been balancing on a plank to cross the river, clearly she was in league with the devil. Only he could grant such power.

“So consulting with themselves what should be done with her, being it so apparently appeared she was a Witch, being loth to let her goe, and as loth to carry her with them . . . wherewith they immediately discharged a pistol underneath her eare, at which she straight sunk down and dyed, leaving her legacy of a detested carcase to the wormes, her soul were ought not to judge of, though the evils of her wicked life and death can scape no censure.”

newbury witch 2.JPG

Well, fuck me. Life is so bloody unfair sometimes. She would have had no idea when she got up that morning that balancing on a plank was going to cost her everything. Was someone waiting for her back at home? A partner? Children? Who had no inkling why their mother never came home again? Did they ever find her body, left for the “wormes,” and take her home to bury her. I hope so.

Dear woman of Newbury with exceptional balancing skills, if you’d been born 373 years later you would have become a meme, and instead your life was taken by a bunch of frightened cretins. I wish I could go back and make it not happen.You were awesome and amazing and all I can do is remember that you existed and share your story.

It’s always the innocent who get caught up in war, never the guys in elaborate uniforms standing in the rooms with the big maps. Or the guys with the money, telling them from the shadows what to do.

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