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Monthly Vignette: Some Corner of a Foreign Field

By Peter Randall

Every month, SLP runs a vignette competition with a specific prompt. This one was part of the 62nd competition, on the theme of “Ceremonies”.

The current competition, the 71st, is on the subject of LGBT Future and can be found Here.


Some Corner of a Foreign Field

The priest surveyed again the hole that had been dug in his churchyard. When he had first seen it, it had seemed impossibly vast, Now, as shrouded body after shrouded body was deposited within, it was rapidly looking less enormous.

Within their shrouds, their bodies were entirely anonymous, like a hundred neatly wrapped parcels being stacked away. He wondered which contained the first soul he had encountered on the beach the morning after the storm.

The winds of the previous day had blown the clouds far away by morning, and as he followed Hilda down the path to the beach, he fancied that a vantage point on the cliffs would give a clear view across the Channel to France. A few paces onto the shingle, Hilda had stopped by the corpse deposited by the tide that had also left the seaweed she had come to collect, basket hung from her arm. As the priest bent down, brushed the young man’s wet hair away from his face and said some silent words of prayer, she stood there. As she stood, she wrung her hands anxiously, and shifted her weight from one foot to the other, but chewed her lip rather than interrupt.

The priest straightened up and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Thank you, Hilda. Probably best you go home. Pray for this young man.”

“Yes, Father,” she said, but didn’t move to go. “And what about the others, Father?”

“The others?” the priest asked.

She pointed along the beach. As the priest squinted into the sun, he could see that all along there were countless others like this one.

A funeral was normally simplicity itself to organise in a community such as this. Everyone pitched in to help ensure that their friends and loved ones had a proper send-off. Even when Ælfric – who always had an unkind word for anyone – when he died, the whole village had made an effort, as everyone was keen to make sure he was really dead.

But for these strangers, who had left their homes intent on taking new ones from villages such as this, for them the villagers weren’t even convinced they deserved a Christian burial. The priest had stayed firm: these had been Christian men, and somewhere they had families who would grieve their passing and had been denied a proper funeral. But he had convinced few other than himself.

From some fishermen, he had begged some sails that were beyond repairing from some fishermen. From some needleworkers, he had begged repairs to the sails sufficient to make serviceable shrouds from them. And from Dudda, he had begged the use of Dudda’s five sons to dig a pit wide and deep enough to accommodate the dead, and then relied on promising to find what he could from the collection plate as compensation.

For two days they had toiled, and as the pit grew, so did the number of dead it had to contain, as more washed up, increasingly bloated and disfigured. In the evening, Dudda had told any at the tavern who wanted to hear that: “If we dig any deeper, we’ll be able to hand them over to the Devil hisself.”

When the day came, the white shrouded bodies were piled next to the pit. Dudda had found the priest looking from pit to pile and back. “Fewer washed up yesterday than the day before. Stands to reason fewer still will be washed up tomorrow. We’ve done it deep enough that some extra can be chucked on top. We’ll come by and fill it in when we can be sure there won’t be more to come.”

Then, satisfied there was no more to add on the subject, Dudda hitched his belt up so it sat above the equator of his ample gut, and wandered off to join his sons, as they leaned idly on their shovels, already waiting for the ceremony to be over before it began.

As the priest said prayers for the unknown masses, commending their eternal souls for entry to heaven before committing their mortal bodies into the ground, from the hills above the village he could hear Old Watt calling to his dog as he limped after his sheep. For a funeral, it was a poor affair, with the dead outnumbering the living. The priest concluded the prayers, and Dudda and his sons half-heartedly grunted an amen in response, unable to decide whether they were participating or not.

The priest picked up a handful of loose earth and shook it over the grave. With the size of the pit, it seemed a pathetic gesture, like planting a single grain of wheat in an entire field. He nodded to Dudda, who signalled to his boys, who started to shovel soil –


“-soil indicated a gravesite. Not surprising, given we know this to have been a churchyard prior to the building of the ‘new’ church in the 14th Century.”

Those gathered around followed Dr Blake’s pointing finger, as it moved from indicating a patch of grass that looked much like the others around it to pointing at the steeple of the new church, visible over the roofs of the even newer houses.

“But most interestingly, this did transpire to be an 11th Century mass burial. Now, from the pelvic bones, we were able to tell that these bodies were almost exclusively male. From cross-sections of bones and study of cranial structures-” Dr Blake could tell that he was losing his lay audience with this. “-we could tell they were largely between 16 and 40 years of age. So, what does that tell us?”

Blank but eager faces stared back at him.

“It tells us that they were soldiers. So, a mass burial in the 11th Century of soldiers, but little evidence of violence. The plot thickens! These bodies did tell us one other thing though: fantastically, from their teeth, we were able to tell that most of those buried here were from northern France. Now, how did a bunch of French soldiers end up here? Luckily, we can get the answer from contemporary chronicles.”

At this point, a couple who had happened on Dr Blake’s talk and listened in for a bit decided they had somewhere else to be, and wandered off. Dr Blake pressed on.

“The year was 1066. The old king, Edward the Confessor, had died, leaving the throne to Harold Godwinson. This inheritance was contested by attempted invasions; by the king of Norway, also called Harold, and by Sweyn of Denmark. But in addition to these somewhat well-known invasions, there was to have been a third, now obscure to history. At the time, northern France was dominated by the semi-independent Duchy of Normandy. The ruler of Normandy, Earl William, built an army and sailed the short distance to England. But, with England in sight, a sudden storm dashed his ships, with bodies being washed up along the Sussex coast. Burial sites such as these have been found in a number of coastal towns such as this, but this is the largest one found so far. It may be that one of the bodies buried here is even Earl William himself!”

A couple of heavy drops of rain fell, causing a few in the party to look heavenward. A grey-haired man retrieved his glasses from where they had been hanging on a chain he wore around his neck.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I think the weather is about to conclude Dr Blake’s fascinating talk into the archaeological dig he conducted in our little town. May I suggest we retreat to the pub where we can show him our appreciation with a drink?”

Taking silence as agreement, the grey-haired man corralled the others in the direction of the pub, opening a large umbrella against a downpour that didn’t quite seem to be coming.

The graveyard lay empty, save for the dead, forgotten again.

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