Such momentous mortality naturally had the potential to create confusion and disorder, but equally striking is the speed and power with which forces within society and economy moved to restore stability. The compilation of commendably accurate and complete records within days or weeks of the ending of an epidemic of phenomenal ferocity is a testimony to the efficiency and durability of the procedures that were entrenched in many administrative structures, from humble manors up to the extensive bureaucracies of the Crown. One such record is the roll of the proceedings of the session of the manor court of Walsham held on June 15, 1349, when the pestilence had barely ended. In this roll the deaths of 103 tenants are recorded in entries that, with few exceptions, provide the name of the deceased, details of the tenancy, whether a death duty (called a heriot) had been paid, and if so what it was, who was the heir and whether they had taken up possession, and if so what fine they had paid for entry. Walsham was a sizable manor, but neighboring Redgrave was even larger, and the roll of the court held there in July 1349 recorded the deaths of 169 tenants in similar fashion. We know little for certain about how all this information was collected and presented with such commendable speed and accuracy in such difficult circumstances, but the identification of heirs must have proved an especially formidable undertaking when so many lines of succession were repeatedly broken by sudden deaths, and so many heirs were distant kin who did not reside on the manor.
In the weeks and months after the departure of the pestilence there was considerable potential for severe disruption or even chaos, but, against all expectations, the great majority of the landholdings made vacant by the deaths of probably around half of all English tenants were speedily filled. Detailed study of manor court rolls, including those of Walsham and High Hall, reveals that although the huge mortality caused the proportions of holdings that passed to sons and widows to fall substantially, since close kin were also frequently killed in the plague, a plentiful supply of new tenants was usually to be found among more distant kin, as well as from unrelated people seeking to acquire land for the first time or add to their existing holdings. Also, of course, a substantially increased number of daughters were able to inherit because they had no surviving brothers.
The speed and completeness of recovery on each manor depended to a considerable extent on the quality of the responses of landlords and their officers, as well as the attractiveness of the lands on offer. In general, lords responded with commendable flexibility, quickly realizing that it was often in their interest to make concessions in rents, fines, and other conditions of tenure, rather than risk existing and potential tenants leaving to seek land elsewhere on more favorable terms. The shift back toward normality was also assisted by the culture of peasant communities, in which the landless were rooted at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and wealth and status were measured in terms of the amounts of land that were held.
But whereas the historian is struck by the continuities, contemporaries would have been overwhelmed by the scale of the changes. In the days, weeks, and months after the Black Death there was understandably much confusion as both lords and peasants struggled to comprehend what had happened and determine how to react. The sheer scale of deaths had resulted in a massive shift in the relative scarcity of land and labor, and set in train powerful forces that threatened to alter permanently the balance of political and economic power between lords and peasants. But in the short term, in the village of Walsham, ordinary people were more interested in enjoying their new freedom to make choices about whether to take possession of a relatively unattractive piece of land or when and for what wages they would agree to work.
The tenants of Walsham drifted hesitantly into Lady Rose’s large barn not long after first light on Monday, June 15, glancing anxiously around to see who of their friends and acquaintances had survived and who of their enemies had perished. Though many, for fear of infection, had withdrawn from community life while the pestilence raged, news had still managed to spread quite effectively, and even the most reclusive could not have failed to be aware of the scale of the changes which had taken place in the village. Nonetheless, it was still deeply traumatic to witness the absence of so many who had been present at the court held a little more than three months before, and bewildering to see the abundance of the young and often unfamiliar faces of those who had come to take up the lands of the departed and assume their place in the community. At first sight it seemed that most of the prudent and wise old figures who had always guided the court and the community through the multitude of decisions it had to take each year were no longer there. Who would now determine farming routines on the common fields, adjudicate on customary practices, enforce law and order on the manor, conduct dealings with the lady and her officials, and regulate relations between villagers when the need arose? The ranks of the men of substance and experience who filled the manorial offices, acted as pledges on contracts, guarantors on the ability of lesser people to meet their obligations, mediators in disputes, and who could be relied on to interpret what was right and proper from long memory, old customs, and repeated practice, had been mercilessly thinned. Moreover, many, perhaps most, of the richest residents had perished, and their fine houses, ample acres, and plentiful livestock were now in the hands of young sons, daughters, grandsons, or even total strangers who eagerly awaited to be confirmed as the legitimate possessors of these enviable assets.
The clerk of the court sat at his table against the east wall of the barn and ceremoniously unfurled the longest parchment roll that had ever been seen at the court, fully four feet in length, that he had specially extended in anticipation of the unprecedented amount of business to be written down. Then John Blakey, the steward, entered with a considerable flourish, carrying a large bundle of rolls and scraps of parchment, and sat down in a high oak chair next to the clerk’s table. He immediately called the gathering to order and announced that Sir Hugh de Saxham, the husband of Lady Rose, had died, and that Lady Rose was now the sole holder of the manor. He asked them to pray for Sir Hugh’s soul and then moved swiftly on. He stressed to the gathering, most of whom were there for the first time, that a huge amount of business had to be conducted in order to deal with consequences that flowed from the multitude of tenants who had perished in the pestilence.
As those present began to murmur among themselves about who had perished and who survived, Blakey sharply silenced them: “The number of deaths that we have to deal with today is probably more than a hundred. For each one, it will be necessary to identify the rightful heir, and for me and my clerk to account for the payment of death duty and entry fine. Note will also be taken of whether the heirs have already acceded to their holdings, and if they have not, arrangements will be made for the custody of the land.” Then, with great solemnity, the steward pronounced, “Henceforth the great roll made in this court will serve as a perpetual record of landholding on this manor, so the information it contains has to be accurate, and I require all of you to ensure that it is.”
Blakey had decided in advance that the best way to proceed was to read out the name of each tenant who had died, the tenement he had held, and the animal or sum of money due or already taken as a heriot for the lady. This having been settled, he would invite the jurors to move on to deal with the more difficult issues of who was next in the line of succession to take over the farm, and whether or not he was in court to be confirmed as the legitimate heir. If he was, he would be required to swear fealty, and if not the jurors would be ordered to make further inquiries to find the person obliged to take the holding, backed up with the threat of force and the distrainment of property if necessary. Usually the steward was strict in keeping people from chattering during the session or from interrupting while court business was being conducted, and he had been known to fine them heavily for doing so. This time, however, he urged those attending not only to listen very carefully to each announcement but to have no hesitation in letting him know if they believed any part of any statement they heard was not correct. He also encouraged those who were knowledgeable to respond without fear when asked a question. But, he warned, they should offer information only if they knew it to be correct, as he would punish ignorant or mischievous people who interrupted with a large fine for wasting the court’s time.
The momentous proceedings then began with the jurors formally opening their presentments through their foreman, Geoffrey Rath: “John Syre held from the lord on the day he died a messuage and twelve acres of land by services and works, and after his death the lord took a cow in calf as a heriot.” When the steward asked what the cow was worth, the hayward replied that it was impossible to say because there were so many animals for sale, and he did not know whether he would be able to sell it at all. This statement met with nods of approval, and Geoffrey went on to report that John’s son, Adam, was the nearest heir, and that Adam was of sufficient age and entitled to have entry to his father’s land by the payment of that heriot, following the custom of the manor. Blakey then beckoned Adam Syre forward. Kneeling before the steward with his hands clasped together, Adam swore an oath of fealty to Lady Rose, commending himself to her as her loyal and obedient bondsman.
“Success!” thought Blakey. “If only all the business could progress as smoothly as this.” But he knew it would not. The next presentment of the jurors related to the death of Adam Hardonn, who had held a cottage and a garden. A mare had already been taken from the premises as a death duty, but the heir, Adam’s brother William, had not entered into possession of the holding and was not in court. In response to the steward’s questions about William’s whereabouts, claims were made that he was living only a few miles away and knew about his brother’s death, but would not come.
“This cannot be tolerated,” the steward pronounced. “Let it be ordered that William Hardonn be found and distrained to come to Walsham to take possession of his brother’s holding, and pay all the required fines to do so.”
The next succession went smoothly, commendably so since the jurors had been especially conscientious in not only identifying Alice Fraunceys of Bury St. Edmunds as the heir to Nicholas Fraunceys’s landholding but getting her to take it up. Alice was the daughter of Margaret Fraunceys, who many years before had done well for herself by marrying John Hammond, a freeman of the borough of Bury. Now, through an attorney, the young woman formally accepted possession of Nicholas’s messuage and a little over three acres, and agreed to pay a cow as death duty, but only after it had calved.
This success, however, was swiftly reversed, for neither of the next two heirs identified by the jurors had so far taken up the landholdings they were obliged to occupy. The first, John Robbes, had simply failed to appear in Walsham to take possession of his sister Matilda’s bake house and half acre. Robbes’s absence was troublesome to the steward but not altogether unexpected, for he did not live in the village and few of the people present had ever met him. It was possible that he had not heard of his sister’s death or that he was not alive. However, John Fraunceys’s point-blank refusal to take possession of his dead sister’s cottage and garden posed a different problem. Fraunceys resided in Walsham and was sitting right in front of Blakey at the court as a member of the jury that he had appointed to assist in finding heirs to holdings. His behavior was a direct challenge to Lady Rose’s authority and flew in the face of all custom and practice. Blakey was beside himself with anger and decided to challenge Fraunceys directly in open court, hoping to assert his authority by cowing him into compliance. So he asked the rest of the jurors to swear that John Fraunceys was indeed the legitimate heir to his sister Emma’s tenancy. This they did, and Blakey then ordered him to occupy it immediately and render all the appropriate rents and dues. But Fraunceys repeated his refusal to accept the holding, although now in an evasive rather than an openly defiant manner. Fearing a public defeat, the steward decided to move on, but only after threatening Fraunceys that he would regret having gone against his lady in this matter (see figure 33).
Blakey was relieved that in the next item of business, John Deeth’s little cotland, passed to his daughter Catherine without delay, though because her father had no animals she was required to pay only a token fine of 3d to have possession. The court then turned its attention to the shocking series of deaths that had struck down several branches of the Deneys family. Walter Deneys had died in the early days of the plague, and the jurors reported that his five acres of land had passed immediately to his son, Robert. However, shortly after inheriting Robert had also died. Robert’s son John was the next in the bloodline, and as he was present in court, he was formally acknowledged as the legitimate tenant of this land and also of an additional cottage and garden.
The villagers had been gossiping for some time about the good fortune of Nicholas Deneys, a moderately wealthy landholder who stood to gain handsomely from multiple deaths among his close relatives. The jurors first reported that Nicholas was the heir to the estate of his brother, William Deneys, and he gratefully accepted possession of the eight and a half acres that William had held in Walsham, and added them to the acre in High Hall he had already inherited when his brother’s death had been noted in that manor’s court in late May. Then the jurors moved on to formally identify Nicholas as the sole heir of his recently deceased mother, Avice Deneys, and he was duly admitted to the five acres of land she had held. The next death to be reported was that of Juliana Deneys, a distant relative of Nicholas. But such was the mortality suffered by this unblessed family, Nicholas was again identified as the next in line to inherit, in this case a cottage with just over an acre attached to it. To the consternation of the steward, however, Nicholas stood up in court and declined to take over the rundown cottage and garden. When asked to explain himself, Nicholas said that he already had enough land to be going on with and had no need of a derelict hovel and weedy garden, especially since his wife had died and he had to manage everything on his own. It was not only Nicholas’s effrontery to go against custom and refuse a kinswoman’s land that set the tongues wagging, for it was widely known in the village that Nicholas had already found himself another partner, Agnes Fraunceys, to share his bed.
The steward immediately stood up to quell the chatter and bully Nicholas into accepting responsibility for the cottage and garden. “Do you not know that from time out of mind it has always been the lady’s right to compel her unfree tenants to accept holdings which descend to them through the bloodlines of their kinsfolk?” he asked sarcastically. “Do you not know that you are obliged to take this property, keep it in good order, farm it competently, and render all that is due by custom for it?” Nicholas, however, refused to be cowed and replied excitedly, “There must be other heirs more directly in line than me. I hardly knew the woman. I simply cannot manage anymore land. If I am compelled to take up this rundown cottage and weedy plot, I may be forced into poverty and driven to abandon the holdings I have already agreed to accept.”
The steward glowered at Geoffrey Rath for not solving this problem earlier, but once again he reluctantly decided not to prolong a confrontation in front of the full and unruly court. He passed on, saying, “This matter is not settled. It will only be settled according to my lady’s will, after further inquiries have been made.”
Irritated by these setbacks, Blakey called a short break, during which he made a pretense of checking up on Nicholas Deneys. But his mind soon began to reflect on the enormity of the task that faced him, and how the world of Walsham had been utterly transformed. For as long as anyone present at the court could remember, custom and precedent had invariably guided the land market. But the pestilence had thrown this orderly world into turmoil, and now villagers were struggling to make sense of the new situation by choosing the course of action that suited them best. Blakey recognized that what suited the interests of the tenants often did not suit those of Lady Rose.
For time out of memory, the swift and smooth succession to a tenancy on the death of its holder had never proved a problem. Land had always been eagerly sought by rich and poor alike. There had never been enough land in Walsham to meet the needs of its resident population. Land provided essential food, employment, and income, and there had always been a press of people seeking the social and economic benefits it bestowed. Vacant holdings and cottages coming before the court had always passed swiftly into eager hands, which almost invariably belonged to the close family of the deceased—usually their wives, husbands, and adult sons, sometimes their daughters or, very rarely, their grandchildren. Until the pestilence had struck, that is. Just a few weeks ago no heir in Walsham would have been unwilling to assume his inheritance. On the contrary, so strong was the tie to family holdings that those who left the manor to settle elsewhere invariably kept in touch, so that they could be readily found if a close relative died. And those who did not wish to live in the cottages or farm the acres themselves could draw a generous income by subleasing them either to substantial folk seeking to supply the market with yet more quarters of grain and heads of sheep or cattle, or to landless persons and cottagers. Yet now there was an abundance of acres and cottages left vacant because those who had been in line to inherit them had died too, because distant kin could not be traced or had not turned up to claim them, and, most remarkable of all, because those to whom they were offered had refused to accept.
Calling the court to order after a few minutes, Blakey pressed officials to hurry on. But however hard they tried, dealing in an orderly and appropriate fashion with the multitude of deaths and the almost interminable list of landholdings in need of tenants was an impossible task. The successor to Walter Norys was the next item to be decided. It was deemed to be his son, Walter, who had died just a few days ago, and no other heir had turned up to claim the holding. Then John de Broke’s desirable freehold farm of seven acres should have passed to a cousin with the same name, but he did not come to claim it. However, Adam Pidelak gratefully accepted the lands of his uncle, Jericho Bartholomew.
As the holdings continued to be processed, the steward noted gloomily that in many instances, even when the rightful heirs were found and were willing to take up their inheritance, they were ill equipped to farm efficiently on their own account, being short of experience, equipment, or capital, or simply too young. In the coming months and years this would continue to create problems for the community, and almost certainly for him as well. Another burden was created by the untimely deaths of both parents, which frequently left young children and heirs as orphans. As the court learned, John Gooch was just four years of age when his father and mother died in the plague; the death of both Cecilia and John Typetot left their nine-year-old son, John, orphaned; and when John Pynfoul died, his five-year-old daughter Hilary was named in court as the sole heir to her father’s fifteen acres. The heirs of Robert Springald, whose brother Walter also died in the plague, were found to be his young nieces, Isabel and Hilary Stonham, and Agnes, the three-year-old daughter of his sister Mabel. Suitable guardians had to be found by the court for all these orphans, who would look after them and their inheritances until they were considered to be of a sufficient age to manage for themselves, which in Walsham and High Hall was usually when they reached their midteens.
Within the past two months Walsham had witnessed the extinction of many households, and some wealthy families that had lived for generations in the parish had entirely disappeared. The evidence presented by the jurors on the succession to old William Cranmer’s holding revealed that this ancient family had suffered particularly grievously. In the early days of the pestilence soon after Easter, Agnes Chapman had seen the funeral procession of old William Cranmer while her husband was dying, and shortly afterward his only son, also called William, had followed him to the grave. William Cranmer the younger had two sons, Robert and William, and two daughters, Olivia and Hilary, and in accordance with the custom of the manor the two sons had inherited their father’s lands in equal shares. But, the jurors went on to report, Robert, who had recently married Alice Terwald, was now also dead, leaving young William as the only surviving male member of the Cranmer family and so the sole heir. However, when Blakey called for William to come forward to swear fealty, a number of his neighbors said that he had been taken sick with the pestilence a few days before, and a voice from the back called out that the court might as well save itself the trouble and admit Hilary and Olivia to the estate now, as young William was so sick he was certain to die.
The steward was alarmed to hear further evidence that the pestilence remained far more active in Walsham than Lady Rose had told him, and he began to wish he had delayed his visit for a few weeks. But for the time being, he stifled his fears and pressed on with the registration of young William Cranmer as the lawful tenant, and made a point of confirming with Geoffrey Rath that the three heriots due on the death of his grandfather, father, and brother had all been duly rendered. Rath proudly confirmed that he had indeed collected two stotts and a cow, only to be told sharply by Blakey that he should be ready to take yet another fine animal from the farm if William did not survive.
At this point Blakey decided to adjourn the proceedings for dinner, although it was not quite midday. He needed to compose himself and ponder further how to deal with the problem of large numbers of legal heirs dwelling in Walsham refusing to take on the landholdings and cottages that were offered to them, which had astounded not only him but all who gathered in Lady Rose’s barn on this tumultuous day. As the seriousness of this situation had unfolded during the morning, Blakey had switched tactics, albeit reluctantly, from uttering threats to offering concessions. But, despite saying on many occasions that Lady Rose had empowered him to allow reluctant heirs to take possession without paying the customary fines in full, refusals continued to mount. Moreover, the open defiance shown by the recalcitrant soon began to infect the behavior of others at the court. Even those who were pleased to inherit repeatedly expressed discontent with their conditions of tenure, complaining that the rent was too high, the entry fine too large, or the amount of labor that the lady required them to perform on her demesne farm was too heavy. Almost all those present murmured in assent when complaints were made of poverty, the poor state of the buildings, the weediness of the land, the sad, neglected livestock, the lack of decent farm equipment, or the money to buy it. And they made much of the difficulties caused when the best animals on the farm were taken by the lady as heriot and by the Church as mortuary.
During the course of the morning John Blakey had become increasingly uncomfortable with having to negotiate with these lowly and ungrateful people, and he bitterly observed to his clerk, in between slices of pork and drafts of ale, “These lowly rustics who just a few weeks ago were condemned to a miserable life of hardship and toil for others, have now suddenly become rich in land and prospects. But instead of thanking God for their good fortune, they do nothing but complain to their betters and demand conditions even more favorable than those they have so undeservedly and unexpectedly come to enjoy. God will not forgive them, and nor will I. Make a special note of all those who defy and displease me. I will make amends when the world returns to rights.”
In the afternoon session, which soon became the longest-sitting Walsham court in memory, or in the huge collection of court rolls held by Lady Rose, the steward, his clerk, Geoffrey Rath, and the panel of jurors continued to process death after death, case after case, as methodically as they could. For most of the time, the tenants, new as well as old, sat listening attentively to confirmation of who had died and who was succeeding to holdings and becoming their neighbors, farming partners, and fellow members of the community. Master John was delighted to learn that John Kebbil, a favorite protégé who had been ordained a few years before, was returning to Walsham to take up his inheritance on the death of his father, Richard. Gasps periodically greeted extraordinarily rapid promotions of wealth and power, and bemusement attended the complexities that flowed from the failure to find heirs among close family. All were envious of William Alwyne, a man of little ability and no consequence who was fortunate enough to be distantly related to both Agnes and Nicholas Goche, from whom he inherited a cottage and twelve acres and a cottage and fourteen acres respectively.
Few lines of succession proved more complex for the jurors to sort out than that to Walter Rampoyle’s messuage and four acres, which he had purchased from William Taylor a short time before he died. On his death Walter had left no surviving wife or children, so the property should have been divided equally between his brothers: Robert, Simon, and William. But since Simon and William had also died of the pestilence a week or so before, their shares passed in the court to Simon’s daughter, Alice, and William’s sons, William, Robert, Walter, and John. This meant that six people had an interest in the four acre holding. But then, to Blakey’s annoyance, two of William’s sons, William and Robert, came forward to decline to hold the tenement. In frustration the steward refused to spend any more of the court’s time on this case and adjourned it until the next court.
Resentful and skeptical muttering, fueled by the strong ale that many villagers enjoyed during the noontime break, greeted the occasional announcement that yet another nobody, who for years had been scraping a bare living from laboring and begging, had fortuitously come to inherit a prized piece of land, thanks to the death of five or even ten distant kins-men and women. Many of the older male villagers became alarmed at the unprecedented surge in the numbers of daughters and nieces who became landholders because of the death of their brothers, nephews, and cousins, fearing change and speculating that they would struggle to look after their farmland adequately and play a full role in community affairs. When William, John, and Roger Rampoyle died in swift succession, their sister Alice inherited the entire holding they had farmed together while Alice Patyl first inherited her father’s cottage and landholding, and then acquired a further half a messuage and its land from Edmund and Walter Patyl when they died shortly afterward.
When the clerk finished recording the entry that John Hereward had succeeded to a tiny parcel of land held by his dead father and should pay a heriot of a cow after calving, he laid down his goose-feather quill. He had almost filled both sides of the four-foot parchment roll with records of every death and every changed tenancy that had occurred in Walsham since the last court, held three months before. The villagers took this as a sign to rise to their feet to leave, but the steward called them to order: “Stay where you are for a little longer. There is still some important business to be conducted on behalf of Lady Rose. This pestilence has struck some mighty blows but it has not brought the world to an end. There are misdemeanors to be punished and customary laws to be enforced.”
During the course of the afternoon proceedings, the steward had become angry at the increasing truculence displayed by many of the tenants who appeared before him, and at the necessity of accommodating the demands of even the meek among them. Reluctantly he had accepted that for the time being it was wise to compromise on many issues, as his lady had urged him to do, but there were limits. A stand had to be made. So, with great ceremony he put on a show of enforcing the lady’s rights, just as if it were a normal court instead of the most exceptional the village had ever seen. The hayward and Master John had informed him that two women had produced bastards since the last court, and he decreed that one of them, Olivia Cook, should be fined 2s 8d for childwyte. Then, in a show of vindictiveness as well as strength, he fined Alice Patyl, who had provoked his envy by her good fortune in inheriting so much land, twice as much, for giving birth to twins out of wedlock. This unprecedented fine provoked anger and hilarity in equal measure, and in the general hubbub that followed it could scarcely be heard that John Lester was fined 2d for baking bread which did not come up to the agreed standard and 3d for brewing and selling substandard ale. A fine of 6d, imposed on Alice Pye for selling bad ale in her tavern, was greeted with a small ironic cheer by a group of her regulars. Finally, in a further attempt to assert some of the authority which had been so undermined in the course of the day, the steward issued a warning to the departing tenants that they would soon be required by the lady to come back to another session of the court, which he intended to hold in a few weeks.
As the villagers left the meeting and walked to their cottages or fields, they reflected on the empty homes and farms they passed, the torrent of deaths that had caused them, and the absence of relatives, friends, and neighbors. It seemed that the greater part of the village, rich and poor, pious and profane, had passed away and the world had been turned upside down. Similar sentiments were expressed that evening by the steward and his clerk as they set about preparing their report for Lady Rose. As they pondered over the mass of entries they had made on the great roll, they counted that just over a hundred of the lady’s tenants had died since the last court had been held before Easter, only three months before. Obviously the roll was far too messy and incomplete to be presented to Lady Rose as it stood. The sheer weight of business and difficulty of gaining enough accurate information meant that the record of the day’s proceedings was littered with gaps, messy corrections, and marginal notes. There remained such a multitude of loose ends to be sorted out, forenames corrected, heirs determined, and details filled in that the steward would have to stay for some days making inquiries and interviewing the jurors and Master John. The clerk would have to stay with him to take notes and find time to produce a fair copy of the court roll on new parchment. But, they gloomily reflected, they would be unable to complete a final record because the pestilence had still not finished its work in Walsham, and an unknown number of villagers were sick and dying.
John Blakey felt utterly exhausted and bemused as he prepared for bed. Despite his best efforts he knew he had lost respect at the court. He was overwhelmed with problems that urgently needed to be solved, yet almost everything he tackled was far more difficult than it had ever been before. He found himself having to bargain with the most lowly of rustics who were not only insolent but ignorant and irrational, and would not be told what to do. The old ways were not working anymore, but the new were inconstant and unpredictable. Through no fault of his own (although Lady Rose might think otherwise), a score of empty holdings lay in his hands that nobody was willing to take up, despite urgings and threats, yet he could not hire anyone on reasonable terms to look after them or the lady’s fields and livestock. Only a couple of months ago he and his officers could take their pick of the strongest and most willing laborers, and rely on them to work well for long hours and fair wages. Blakey longed for the present turmoil to end and normality to return, when any available land would once again find a host of willing takers and the men and women seeking employment would far exceed the numbers he needed to hire. Instead, however, things were daily going from bad to worse. Substantial landholders and landless paupers alike were making unreasonable and uncustomary demands which he could not and would not meet. At least not until he had had further consultations with Lady Rose and her son, and received new orders.
The pestilence had chastised John Blakey dreadfully with terror and the loss of loved ones. It had also burdened him with guilt for his cowardice, when fear of infection had driven him to neglect his own dying children during the worst days, and he had fled his house leaving them in the care of servants. And now that the pestilence, God willing, was drawing to a close, he found that looking after his lady’s estate, which had always given him so much prestige and pleasure, as well as profit, had turned into a wretchedly uncomfortable and immensely difficult task. If he did not give in to at least some of the unreasonable demands of greedy and disobedient tenants and laborers his lady’s lands would lie empty and untilled and her estate would be wasted, and if he carried on making concessions to them they would soon get the taste of power and destroy his lady’s estate anyway.
Blakey took some comfort in the rumor that the king and his nobles were already devising a means of putting the world to rights and thrusting the rustics back into their proper place. But this would not happen for some time, and meanwhile he had to persuade the very reluctant Geoffrey Rath to serve as reeve of the manor. Despite the substantially improved offer of cash and perks he had already made, as yet Rath had not been willing to commit himself. Much as it grieved Blakey to admit, Rath was indispensable to the recovery of the manor. He knew the residents well, having served many times as hayward, and he had acquitted himself tolerably over the last few days, even if he had been far too profligate with the lady’s money. Perhaps, Blakey mused, he would be tempted with an offer of some of the vacant land that lay in the lady’s hands on a short-term basis at very low rent. Perhaps the lady could find an outfit of smart clothes to give him from among the liveries left by the deaths of so many of her household servants and retainers. Fine clothes would flatter Rath’s vanity and endow him with greater authority to deal with rebellious rustics. Of course, the steward realized with a jolt, any apparel Lady Rose gave Rath must be much inferior to the fine outfit he himself should receive as a reward for the truly exceptional service he was rendering in the most troublesome circumstances.
Then, just as Blakey was pulling back the coverlet on his bed, a servant knocked and entered his chamber bearing news from the priest that the last remaining male member of the Cranmer family, William the younger, had died. There had scarcely been a court in Walsham since Blakey had become steward when a Cranmer had not made a prominent appearance in the proceedings. The family had lived in Walsham for as long as anyone had recollection, or the ancient rolls of the manor extended. There was even a green named Cranmer Green, at the eastern end of Church Way, where they lived. Now this family had been destroyed, its male line completely wiped out—father, sons, and grandsons—and its ancient and substantial estate would pass into the hands of women.
Were the deaths never going to cease? Blakey was frightened and made up his mind to leave Walsham the next day. First thing in the morning he would give final instructions to Geoffrey Rath and stress yet again how important it was for him to keep pressing those rustics who were unwilling to take up their lands and to get the community to make more determined efforts to track down the heirs to vacant holdings. Once more, he would threaten the officers of the manor with hefty fines if they did not start enforcing the lady’s rights and the village bylaws more effectively, and all the lady’s servants with diverse punishments if they did not manage her farm more efficiently. Then, before noon, he would begin his journey back to his lady’s household that, mercifully, lay in a region which for a little time had been completely free of pestilence. Blakey knew his lady would chide him for his early departure, and he would have to come back sometime soon to tackle the mass of unfinished business. But he was determined to return only when he had definite news that the pestilence had finally departed Walsham and its hinterland.