Bringing the dead to life

“He deserves to lie near his home, and not among strangers.”

“Nay, Sir. Let him lie. It will not bring him back; and making a great pother in the midst of war about one young lad is foolishness, when there are thousands like him who lie in mass graves.”

Writers are often asked why we write, or why we choose a particular subject. For me, the two are inextricably intertwined. Writing about 1640s England and Wales, I long to create a modest memorial to those who fought in a largely forgotten civil war which nevertheless shaped the freedoms that today we take for granted.

Those who died in the war were lucky if their place of burial was marked, or even known. The fortunate ended up in hallowed ground, a churchyard. Churches and cathedrals are sprinkled with memorials to gentlemen who died in the conflict. Inevitably it is easier to write about them because their names and families are known. One such memorial to a civil war officer in Cornwall and his sister inspired Daphne Du Maurier to write a romance, The King’s General, about the famous Cornish general Sir Richard Grenville and this real, but unknown gentlewoman, Honor Harris.

For me, a research trip in 2016 to the Cotswolds turned into something of a pilgrimage thanks to those memorials, one in particular. He was a captain in King Charles’s forces and he died in the last battle of the civil war. His father had him buried under the floor of the nave in the church a stone’s throw from where the fighting ended. It is an unusual grave because the metal plaque covering it had a full length carving of the young man. He is dressed in his uniform. His curly hair falls to his shoulders and his face retains a boyish roundness. Beside him is a musket, indicating he was an infantry officer.

I spent a long time standing beside his grave and when I got home to Australia, I Googled him and found his will online. In the 17th century it was unusual for men to make a will until they thought they did not have long to live. Most wills were written by fairly elderly men, not by a man of 21 who was unmarried and still living in his parents’ home. And then I realised he had done so because, in joining the army he thought, correctly, he might not have long to live. The date of the will may tell us when he received his commission.

As a gentleman’s son, he had money he had inherited from his grandfather, which was “still in the hands of my father”. I already knew the name of his father. From the will I discovered the names of his mother and numerous siblings.

The young musketeer became an important character in my second novel The Tawny Sash, and I have grown very fond of him, marrying off his sister Jane to one of my major characters, Harry. Here he interrupts Jane and Harry immediately after Jane has fallen from her horse and Harry has proposed to her.

He had clearly run all the way from the stables. He wore a torn leather tunic over shirt and breeches. From the smears on them he had been helping the grooms muck out the horses.

“Jane, have you been riding Beauty without my leave? She came back trailing a broken rein. What happened? Why are you laughing, Harry? It is no jest.”

His frown of annoyance was replaced by puzzlement as Jane, between gasps of pain, joined Harry in hysterical laughter.

It is August 1644, and he is about to join the army.

The new commission nearly came to grief as it was being passed from hand to hand and hot tallow dripped onto the parchment… The festivities in the great hall only ended when Jane belatedly remembered the sleeping puppies, now removed from her father’s closet to a corner of the disused minstrels’ gallery above them. The candles, in any case, were almost burned out.

The new officer has just over 18 months to live. He will be killed in action at the age of 23.

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