Imagine if you will that you are with child, or your sister is or even your daughter; in this day and age it is usually a time for great rejoicing whether you are married or not. Now go back some 450 years and imagine yourself living in a small closed community, I’m afraid you are not rich and you are not educated and the father of the child, well he is not available. In fact he is more than likely to be your master.
If the pregnancy goes to term there will be long lasting repercussions; ignominy for the bearer, bastardy for the child and absolute disgrace for the family not just for a few years but for generations until finally the story is forgotten – what lengths would you and/ or your family go to protect yourselves?
Such is the fashion of the day that the fact that you are pregnant can be hidden; you continue to work knowing that should you be found out all will be lost. You can tell no one. It does not matter how tired you are, or if you feel unwell everything must continue as normal. Even at night there is no solace. The future looks so bleak.
Then comes the day of reckoning: is it natural or is it forced. Have you or your family been off to see the wise woman? What potions have you drunk? Has a member of your family taken matters into their own hands and brought about the event?
Everything starts to happen and you have managed to sneak away to your room; it may be at night but whatever time it is, it is more than likely you are on your own. You must make no noise. You must not be caught. Everything depends on secrecy.
The child is born, your child. Your first born.
I pray it is born dead, I am told it was more than likely to have been born dead as forensics say it was most certainly premature. All I know is that you hid the child, your shame and for 450 years it lay undisturbed and deliberately forgotten. And then, it was found, by us.
It was the beginning of 2004 and Charlie was having a week off to help the builders as they wrecked the joint. This involved the removal of the roof on one wing from either side of the massive Tudor chimney which housed two inglenook fireplaces on the ground floor and a third equally impressive fireplace on the first floor in what was once the master’s apartments.
I went off to do something or other and as I pulled away I jokingly said to mind the mummified cats, which I said they were bound to find. Charlie did and a lot more besides.
As Charlie tried to remove some wallpaper from the first floor bedroom on the opposite side of the chimney from the master’s apartments, the plaster came away and within minutes the whole wall, which was made of wattle and daub, disintegrated revealing what is colloquially termed a “Witches’ Midden”
This comprised a mummified cat, some shoes, a witches broom, a winnowing circle and a carved wooden spoon as well as a petrified mouse, a long dead bird and a couple of thatch stakes and a bill hook.
Charlie was so excited! And to be honest so was I. What a find! It was dark on my return so I had no chance of seeing everything in situ that night but the very next morning I took a closer look. What I found literally made my blood run cold.
Charlie and the boys had moved the heaps of dirt - for that is what it all looked like - into another room and were in the process of taking it down the stairs and out onto the bonfire. Charlie mentioned that he thought there was also a mummified dog but it was only partial. I was confused – in all the writings about old houses in the region I had never heard of people using dogs in this way. A sort of dread began to creep up on me and I started to look through the mess. I came across the top of a skull just the dome of it down to the top of the eye sockets – easily mistaken for a dog by it’s size but the eyes were wrong. What I was handling was definitely human.
When this happens there is ONLY one course of action. Call the police.
Within half an hour they were here and although we and they were convinced the remains were hundreds of years old we became a crime scene and all work ceased.
It started to dawn on us what we were dealing with and as I held my own baby close all I could think on was how had this happened? When had it happened? Why had it happened? And across the years my heart went out to the mother of this child.
Forensics were brilliant and within a few days we knew that what we were dealing with was a baby. More than likely born premature because of the way the bones had disintegrated and because of it’s size. They said it would have been unlikely to be put there alive; it was probably born dead then hurriedly hidden.
I still feel uncomfortable about it but I also feel that the house wanted to give up its secrets, the burden that it had carried for so long. We buried the remains in the old Church Yard at St Mary’s with a simple service carried out by our then vicar Rev Robin Jack who had cleared the way with the Diocese. The local funereal director had donated a tiny coffin and I planted snowdrops from the farm on the grave. Perhaps the child’s mother lies in the churchyard as well. I hope she found peace.