It is past midnight and the songbirds retired to their treetop roosts long before I set about seeking comfort and solace in this quiet, grief-stricken place.
I am sitting in a large, sterile room. My thoughts are my own, as I have little to occupy my mind other than study lines of terracotta, web-encrusted bricks that make up the interior wall of a building hastily commandeered to house Parliament’s most senior officers, the men who masterminded the full-scale destruction of the King’s army some two days since.
From where I am sitting, I have spent a couple of hours scrutinising the crumbling, blistered masonry, measuring every line of mortar, and identifying line after line of imperfection and weakness. While doing so, I have wished and prayed for the torment that afflicts my companion to cease, so he and I can celebrate the magnificent victory he led us to, one that may have swung the tide of this brutal war firmly in our favour.
Alas, it will not be so. Merriment and revelry are the last things my friend has on his mind.
Hundreds of rotting, naked Royalist corpses, stripped bare of anything valuable and with their dignity on show for all to see, still litter the bloody killing fields less than three miles away, on the grasslands of Marston. They are waiting to join the thousands who have already been buried in mass pits, with no marker or recognition offered for their courage and sacrifice. In these cruel times, a final resting place, hidden amongst the bracken and many miles from their loved ones, is all that is afforded the vanquished.
The moorland, a nondescript place just south of York, is the site of the first significant victory for those opposing the King's autocratic regime. And, at a time when we should be toasting the heroism and courage of our troops, ordinary men who have bested their social superiors, I find I have little choice but to surrender as the chill of the summer’s morn starts to torment my aching bones.
I am impotent, unable to play the part of the comforter. And I feel wretched.
My gaze falls on the man I respect more than any other in this violent and turbulent world.
Oliver Cromwell is Lieutenant-General of the Eastern Association army. He is also my friend.
Magnificent on the field of battle, Oliver now sits before me a broken man, no longer the powerful, all-conquering soldier who has just blooded a Sovereign's nose. Tonight he is closer to resigning his commission than ever before. He has been tested many times already in the turbulent months since Charles raised his standard at Nottingham. Tearful and angry, he is no longer the warrior hero his devoted men perceive him to be.
The source of his distress is the double dose of tragedy that has befallen him and his family.
In the battle that saw Prince Rupert’s finest men routed as a direct result of Cromwell’s strategic brilliance and bravery, Oliver’s nephew, Valentine Walton, was killed.
A cannonball sliced through the young man’s leg while he was leading a charge against the enemy. Despite his best efforts, the field surgeon could do nought for him, so the limb was lost, as was much of the young man’s precious blood, which bathed the fields of Yorkshire in garnet gemstone red.
After the hacksaw that sliced through Valentine's bone had been wiped clean, the young man's life force quickly ebbed away, condemning him to the same fate that awaited many comrades that day – men like Major Charles Fairfax and Captains Micklethwaite and Pugh. All fought and died so bravely for the cause we all serve.
Cromwell has spent the last few hours writing a letter conveying the terrible news to his brother-in-law, the dead officer’s father, a man who also carries the name of Valentine Walton.
"What say you, Francis? How does this read, is it any better than my previous inadequate attempts?" whispers Oliver, his voice barely audible as he holds the manuscript with a shaking hand. He moves a flickering candle closer, allowing its dancing flames to offer an illuminating shroud of light.
“Tell me, truthfully, friend, do my words offer the comfort and love that is intended and needed at this most terrible of times?”
Brushing aside several sheets of paper, Cromwell rises from the table and steadies himself. He turns to face me. His eyes are swollen. Deep folds of skin hang like sacks underneath his sockets. Grief has taken its toll. He pauses for a moment and then slowly starts to recount the few short sentences that will surely bring further miseries to another unsuspecting family.
“It is our duty to sympathise in all mercies, that we may praise the Lord together, in chastisements or trials, so we may sorrow together.
“Truly England and the church of God hath had a great favour from the Lord in this great victory, given unto us such as the like never was since this war began. It had all the evidences of an absolute victory obtained by the Lord’s blessing upon the godly. We never charged, but we routed the enemy. The left-wing, which I commanded, being our own horse, saving a few Scots in our rear, beat all the Prince's horse. God made them as stubble to our swords; we charged their Regiments of foot with our horse, routed all we charged. The particulars I cannot relate now, but I believe of twenty thousand, the Prince hath not four thousand left. Give glory, all the glory to God.
“Sir, God hath taken away your eldest son by a cannon shot. It broke his leg. We were necessitated to have it cut off, whereof he died.
“Sir, you know my trials this way, but the Lord supported me with this, and the Lord took him into the happiness we all pant after and live for.
“There is your precious child, full of glory, to know sin nor sorrow any more.
“He was a gallant young man, exceedingly gracious. God give you his comfort. Before his death, he was so full of comfort; it was so great above his pain. This he said to us. Indeed it was admirable. A little after, he said one thing lay upon his spirit. I asked him what that was. He told me that it was that God had not suffered him to be no more the executioner of his enemies.
"At his fall, his horse being killed with the bullet and, as I am informed, three horses more, I am told, he bid them open to the right and left, that he might see the rogues run. Truly he was exceedingly beloved in the Army of all that knew him, but few knew him, for he was a precious young man, fit for God.
“You have cause to bless the Lord. He is a glorious saint in heaven, wherein you ought exceedingly to rejoice. Let this drink up your sorrow, seeing these are not feigned words to comfort you, but the thing is so real and undoubted a truth. You may do all things by the strength of Christ. Seek that, and you shall easily bear your trial.
“Let this public mercy to the church of God make you forget your private sorrow. The Lord be your strength, so prays your truly faithful and loving brother…”
As he reaches out and puts the letter on the desk, I can clearly see the tears flowing steadily down Oliver’s reddened face, staining his doublet and the shirt beneath. His acute distress is plain to see.
“Is it suffice, dear friend?” he enquires of me. “Is it the epitaph and encourager I hope it to be?”
I nod my head in approval, saying: “Words are inadequate at moments like these, Oliver. You know that as well as I. Yet what you have written will be a true source of comfort. They will know their son died bravely, like the martyr he is.”
For the briefest of moments, a flicker of contentment flashes in Oliver’s eyes. Then it is gone.
“Thank you for your forbearance, Francis,” he adds. “I may make some further, minor amendments, but I think it will do. It will have to. I must write to more unfortunate people who have suffered the loss of loved ones, and there are also campaigning matters to consider.”
I have never met Valentine’s mother, but I am told her son was the embodiment of her. All members of the Cromwell family have the same distinctive physical features: a prominent nose and a full, strong forehead. They are also the bravest of people. Margaret, Valentine’s mother, is cut from this rock. So, too, is her brother, Oliver, the rising star of the Parliamentary army.
Philip Yorke is an award-winning former Fleet Street journalist who has a special interest in history. His Hacker Chronicles series, to be told in five fast-paced historical fiction novels, tells the story of Parliamentarian soldier, Francis Hacker.
Redemption, the second book in the series, is set during the period 1644-46 (during the first English Civil War), when events take a significant turn in favour of Parliament.
Philip is married, and he and his wife have five children. He enjoys relaxing to classical music, reading the works of Nigel Tranter, Bernard Cornwell, Robyn Young and CJ Sansom, and supporting Hull City FC and Leicester Tigers RFC.
He lives in Leicestershire, England.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx