Wednesday 19 June 2024

How do you recover from the havoc wrought by history's cruellest plague?

Fortune's Wheel
(The Meonbridge Chronicles, Book 1)
By Carolyn Hughes  

Audio Release Date: 22nd April 2024
NarratorAlex Lee
Listening Length: 11 hours and 54 minutes

How do you recover from the havoc wrought by history's cruellest plague?

It's June 1349. In Meonbridge, a Hampshire manor, many have lost their lives to the Black Death, among them Alice atte Wode’s beloved husband and Eleanor Titherige’s widowed father. Even the family of the manor’s lord and his wife, Margaret de Bohun, has not entirely escaped.

But, now the plague has passed, the people of Meonbridge must work together to rebuild their lives. However, tensions mount between the de Bohuns and their tenants, as the workers realise their new scarceness means they can demand higher wages and dictate their own lives.

When the tensions deepen into violence and disorder, and the men – lord and villagers alike – seem unable to find any resolution, the women – Alice, Eleanor and Margaret – must step forward to find a way out of the conflict that is tearing Meonbridge apart.

If you enjoy well-researched, immersive historical fiction, set in a turbulent and challenging time, with strong but credible female characters, you’ll love Fortune’s Wheel, the first of the MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLES.


Chapter 1

June 1349

Alice atte Wode gazed around the vast high space of the manor’s great hall. It was only six months ago that Meonbridge had come together here for the Christmas celebration. Then, everyone was full of dread; fearful of the news they’d heard about a terrible sickness sweeping across the world and already at England’s shores. But at least they were then still all together. 

Alice’s beloved Stephen had still been alive, and their sweet boy Geoffrey, both now lying cold in the common grave that Stephen himself had ordered to be dug, as more and more folk died and the churchyard no longer had space for them all.

And it was Agnes’s last evening before she disappeared, only the Good Lord Himself knew where. The girl had seemed uninterested in the celebrations, sitting silent and distracted, with none of her usual vivacity. She hadn’t even bothered with her appearance, neither begging her father for a new kirtle, as she often did for Christmas, nor even taking any trouble to decorate her hair, but letting her yellow curls hang plain and loose. 

Tonight was Midsummer’s Eve, usually a time of revelry and merrymaking, with games and mummers, and a great feast held on the village green. But this year, the new priest, Master Hugo Garret, decreed the festival would be one of thanksgiving, not merriment. At church the other Sunday, he mounted his platform on the chancel steps and glared at his flock standing together in the nave.

‘This Midsummer Eve,’ he said, ‘all must come here to church, to pray and thank God and Our Lady for delivering Meonbridge from the evil that has stalked our lanes and byways since last Christmastide.’ A few among the congregation murmured discontent, but Master Hugo glared again and coughed. ‘Only then will it be fitting for the village to come together for a communal dinner.’

But, after months of constant rain, the green was too muddy for the dinner to be held in the usual place just beyond the church door, so, after prayers, everyone trooped up to the manor house.

The hall was festooned with the Midsummer decorations of birch boughs, fennel and orpine, and garlands of flowers, and a hundred candles lit up the shadows. Despite the priest’s avowal that this should not be a merry feast, it seemed that Lady Margaret had worked hard to bring some cheer to the occasion: a cheer most guests scarcely felt, despite doing their best to smile and wish each other good fortune.

But it was hard for them all; Alice wasn’t alone in her grieving.

Her sons, John and little Matthew, were sitting on her right, and on her other side sat Simon Hogge, the butcher, and his wife Ann, still mourning the loss of their only child. They were young enough to have more children, but knowing this didn’t make up for the ghastly death of their darling Elizabeth, a child of three with a mop of fair curls, a sunny smile and a perpetually dirty face. She was naughty but sweet-natured, the apple of her parents’ eye. Yet no more so than the three small children of Agnes and Alexander Baker, or the grown-up daughters of Margery Watson, or the two young sons of Robert Tyler, the bailiff, who had also lost his wife. Or, of course, Peter, the last surviving son of Joan and Thomas Miller. The Millers hadn’t come this evening: Thomas was still in shock, and Joan had taken to her bed and wouldn’t be coaxed out of it. And who could blame her? No one here.

The parish clerk had drawn up a list of the dead, and Alice went to see it. Although she couldn’t read the names, she could see the list was very long. Alice knew everyone who had died. She knew all their stories. It had become her business to know, not because she was a gossip but because all the village families were her friends and neighbours, and she made a point of visiting them all and they were only too happy to pour out their hearts to her.

This was of course the job of the parish priest, but Master Hugo had come only recently to Meonbridge, given the post just a month ago, eight long, worrying weeks after dear Master Aelwyn finally gave up his soul to God. Hugo knew no one in the village and was finding it hard to become accepted. Many folk no longer trusted the Church: angry that Meonbridge was left without a priest for two whole months, they didn’t understand why God’s ministers on earth couldn’t prevent the plague’s horrific spread. They were aghast when God’s wrath struck down two of His own, Aelwyn himself, and Alice’s own son Geoffrey, apprenticed to Aelwyn and taking his first steps in training to be a priest.

The Church was no longer the rock of safety they had imagined it to be.

Sir Richard de Bohun banged on the table and rose to his feet. He looked thin and haggard, the neat rufous beard of his youth now grey and shaggy. The lord of Meonbridge was a man of action, not fashionable but careful with his dress and appearance. But, despite seeming to work hard at his smile, it was clear he too had been shaken by the horrors of the past six months.

‘My friends,’ he said, raising his voice and holding his goblet in the air. ‘Let us raise our cups and give good cheer to one another. And let us give thanks to God that He has delivered us from the great mortality that has laid waste to Meonbridge, and taken so many of our loved ones from us.’

A small commotion rippled around the hall as everyone lifted high their cups, brimming with Sir Richard’s good ale, and calls of ‘Thanks be to God!’ rose up into the rafters.

Alice lifted her best pewter goblet and, turning to her sons, bade them knock their wooden cups together. ‘May we have good fortune.’

‘Good fortune, Ma,’ said John, forcing a smile, then wrapped a great arm around her shoulder and crushed her to his chest. A tear escaped from his eye, and he wiped it roughly away on the sleeve of his best tunic. ‘God knows, we need it. Yet no more so than our friends and neighbours.’

She eased herself up from the bench and gave him a brief hug, then reached for Matthew and, grasping him to her, kissed him on the forehead. He quickly pulled away, his cheeks aflame.

‘God bless, Mam,’ he mumbled and retreated to his seat the other side of his brother.

Sir Richard banged the table again and rose once more to speak. He held up his hand for quiet. ‘My friends, it is time for us all to take our fill. Neighbours, it has been a difficult time for us all. Our fields and crofts have had short shrift, our animals given less care than we are accustomed to give. Our stocks are low and our harvest may be small, but what we share with you this Midsummer’s Eve, Margaret and I give with our heartiest blessings. Eat, friends, eat your fill.’

Alice leaned towards John, and whispered in his ear. ‘Sir Richard’s very good at acting the generous host, don’t you think?’

John grinned.

‘At manor feasts,’ she continued, ‘he always seems the very model of the kindly benefactor, graciously sharing his bounty with his servants.’

John nodded and leaned close to her ear. ‘But, though we’re willing enough to take advantage of his hospitality, we’re not fooled. It’s we who bring in the harvests.’

She pursed her lips. She was not alone in thinking Sir Richard a hard master, who extracted every ounce of work from his tenants and insisted on the payment of every fee and fine. Yet she knew well enough that Margaret didn’t share her husband’s views on the treatment of his tenants, though she presumed the lady still kept her counsel, for Richard had never been a man to argue with.

As Sir Richard sat down again, Margaret gave a signal and the manor servants entered in a small procession bearing aloft the dishes for the feast. It was a welcome sight. Alice’s family didn’t go hungry, even in these difficult times. But many of her neighbours had struggled more than usual these past few months, with their fields, crofts and livestock so neglected. This banquet, meagre perhaps compared with those of the past, was nonetheless a grand affair.

As the recent widow of the reeve, Alice was seated with her sons close to the high table, so she had a good view of the procession of dishes, which came first to the de Bohuns and their most important guests, and then to her table. Roasted meats glistened on their trenchers, together with dozens of small birds – woodcock perhaps, trapped in the local forest. There were pigeon pies and a rich venison brewet served with a creamy wheat and almond milk frumenty, pease pudding and a thin spicy mortrews. As well as the usual dark rye and barley bread, they all shared a few small maslin loaves that contained a little wheat flour – Sir Richard was probably the only one in Meonbridge who still had wheat from last year’s harvest, but at least he was sharing it with his tenants.

Excitement buzzed around the company as the dishes were presented, then near-silence descended as everyone fell upon the food and devoured what was, for many, the only substantial meal they’d had for several months. It wasn’t long before the meat and bread and all the accompaniments had been consumed, and Margaret called for the tables to be cleared and restocked with a variety of sweet and spicy confections. The wine and ale continued to flow, and the silence was swallowed up again into a noisy babble, as low spirits were raised and, if only for a short time, losses and worries set aside, and a little laughter returned to Meonbridge.

Alice and her sons were amongst the last to leave the celebration. She lingered, hoping somehow to have the opportunity to make her peace with Margaret, but she managed to do little more than take the lady’s hand and wish her good fortune. But Margaret did clasp her hand firmly in return and smiled warmly, so Alice hoped it might yet be possible to mend the rift between them. Despite everything, she wanted to. John thought she should still keep her distance, after what had happened, but that was really not her way.

Taking his arm as they emerged from the manor gate, she stepped cautiously onto the broad wooden bridge that crossed the river just beyond, for it was slippery from the rain. It was a bright, cool evening. The rain had stopped, the moon broken through the clouds, but, even though it was June, she was shivering and wrapped Stephen’s best woollen cloak tightly around herself. They stopped for a moment on the bridge to look down into the river, shimmering in the moonlight, and rushing noisily downstream towards the mill, full from the torrents of rain that had fallen for so many weeks. Then she took Matthew’s hand in her free one and the three of them marched briskly the short distance to their cottage.

Download your copy of
Fortune's Wheel

Carolyn Hughes

Carolyn Hughes was born in London, but has lived most of her life in Hampshire. After a first degree in Classics and English, she started her working life as a computer programmer, in those days a very new profession. It was fun for a few years, but she left to become a school careers officer in Dorset.

But it was when she discovered technical authoring that she knew she had found her vocation. She spent the next few decades writing and editing all sorts of material, some fascinating, some dull, for a wide variety of clients, including an international hotel group, medical instrument manufacturers and the Government.

She has written creatively for most of her adult life, but it was not until her children grew up and flew the nest, several years ago, that creative writing and, especially, writing historical fiction, took centre stage in her life.

She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University, and a PhD from the University of Southampton.

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  1. I have had my eye on this series for a while. I really must get around to reading it.

    1. The Meonbridge Chronicles is an amazing series. I highly recommend it.


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