Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Story of Forgotten People

by Harry Nicholson

The novel 'Tom Fleck' came, in part, as a response to what greets me when I walk into bookshops; glossy covers of historical novels that push jewelled Tudor cleavages at the reader - and within, yet more tangled intrigues of royal courts. I seldom feel an emotional connection with these great lords and their ladies. Where are the stories of the ancestors of people like me? I don’t see any. So I’ve written a story of the life and adventures of forgotten men and women, people without heraldry, people who left no record except for the blood that, at least poetically, still flows in our veins.

The landscape of the story is peopled not by Anglo-Saxons specifically, but by descendants of the Danes who overcame, settled among, and merged with the Angles of North-East England. Both peoples were invaders from Northern Europe and both would eventually be infused with the genes of the British tribes that they overwhelmed.

These verses might capture something of the region:

Beneath this black band of tarmacadam
twisting by Hard Struggle Row, hung
on the hillside, runs a lost green lane
where stained thumbs once brambled.

Where she panted as he pulled away her wimple to watch
the glinting waves of copper fall across freckles while green, virginal eyes
shone back a solitary white cloud.

Under the tar an oxcart track skirts a bog
where lies a Saxon axed down by a Dane -
he sleeps above a Celt his forebear felled,
long before William the Bastard came.

Deeper still, bones of giant elk tangle
with rhinoceros, mammoth, grey wolf
and one skin-clad man, tanned in peat,
precious knapped flint tightly clutched.

(Hard Struggle Row is a steep terrace of workers' cottages in Eskdale)

The story begins in 1513, in Cleveland, a district around the mouth of the River Tees. (Cleveland was named by the Danes: Cliff Land.) After the defeat of 1066 the Normans had dispossesed the Anglo-Danish overlords of their holdings and reduced the population to servitude. (The Norman-French family who took over Cleveland was that of de Brus. A descendant of that line became, to the chagrin of English kings, Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.)

Cleveland today

By the 16th Century the plagues had destroyed much of the brutal Norman feudal system and most of the English were free of bondage. For folk like Tom Fleck their labour was now hired by landowning farmers (yeomen) and Lords of the Manor. A Lord of the Manor had a duty to his monarch to provide militia in time of need. He must provide mounted men, archers and billmen in numbers according to the value of his estate.

The archer was the core of the English army. He was drawn from the population of yeomen farmers, men who had title to their own land and therefore an interest in its defence. Yeomen could be trusted with the great war-bow, the Middle Ages equivalent of the rifle - not so the landless peasant. The landless labourer carried a bill, effectively a hedge slashing tool on a six-foot pole; billmen had to engage at close quarters and take the brunt of any assault while the archers took shelter. Tom Fleck is a contradiction for his lord of the manor; this lowly cowherd owns a long-bow.

Tom's neighbour is an old woman, one of the wise-women of the district. Agnes Humble is a healer, a herbalist and a seer, a member of a lineage with pagan roots. (Her profession was not totally obliterated by the church, three-hundred years later North Yorkshire still had white witches who would remove evil spells for a fee.) Agnes lives in a cottage made of wattle and daub with a few old stones to buttress the entrance; it is the shape of an upturned boat - an echo of Viking days. Tom lives with the cattle in a stone barn or cow-byre. The byre has one entrance. The beasts turn to the left at the door and the people turn to the right. (There are still old farms in the dale where I live, built around that ancient design of shared quarters.)

Research has been a matter of combing the card indexes of reference libraries and of collections in local history archives. Local archives remain vital for detail, the internet is not yet the source of all knowledge (though it is wonderful for making great leaps in general research).

English parish registers, even though they are rare before 1566, are almost the sole record of common folk. (In 1538 each parish was required to keep records of all baptisms, marriages and burials within its boundaries, an order of Henry VIII’s Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell.) They are typically brief in detail, but I do find entries which hint at human drama and tragedy.

Here is one from St Hilda’s at Hartlepool: 'Burials 9 Dec. 1596: Christofer Harte, John Harte ye elder, John Harte ye younger, and Thomas Todd were all of them drowned out of one boat'. There is a tragedy here; four coble fishermen, three of one family – all lost. What will happen now the bread-winners have gone? And just three months earlier, five men were lost from another coble. My mother is descended from these same fisherfolk, so I feel a bond with these stark lines.

Then, from a 16th century Yorkshire Quarter Sessions we find Matilda Wilkinson, spinster of Thornton, found guilty of stealing a pair of stockings (threepence), a petticoat (fourpence) and a neckerchief (threepence). The poor woman was to be whipped at Malton: 'and from thence conveyed from Constable to Constable, through the parishes, to Thornton, there to be whipped upon a holyday after evening prayer time, from the church stile to the place of her late dwelling there.’

These forgotten people are our fellows; they are silent ones who might sometimes whisper from the pages of historical fiction. I felt them close at hand.

I never logged the days I spent walking the Flodden battlefield in Northumberland or studying the exhibits at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, Yorkshire, or sifting through the journals of the Surtees Society in Whitby Lit. & Phil. Soc., but it will total many hours.

Flodden today

While writing, I would sometimes break off to check something on the internet – like footwear. What might a 16th C. farm-hand have on his feet when he kicked a robber in the shins - he would wear pattens - clogs with soles of alder wood and leather uppers.

Would there have been red kites scavenging the streets of Durham City? Yes, they were the street cleaners of towns. Thanks to conservation, kites have now returned from the brink of extinction and once more wheel over the rivers Wear and Tyne.

What sort of material was Cambric (of the ballad Scarborough Fair fame) and would that Flemish cloth be for sale on a stall in Alnwick in 1513? Shipped from the town of Cambrai, it would be there for the wealthy.

At the close of some days it seemed that I’d spent as much time on research as I did in writing the story.

Writing ‘Tom Fleck’ made a rich four years; it was as though I had another world, just by my side, that I could step into wherever I was. Now the book is published I do miss those characters, they have become real and I love them all – even the bad guys.

'Tom Fleck'

Back-cover description

‘Sharp as quivering hares are the Flecks. We've eyes and ears for things other folk miss.' Much later, in the aftermath of Flodden, a young man finally understands his father’s words.

The year: 1513. The place: North-East England.

Tom Fleck, a downtrodden farm worker but gifted archer yearns to escape his masters. He unearths two objects that could be keys to freedom: a torque of ancient gold and a Tudor seal ring. He cannot know how these finds will determine his future. Rachel Coronel craves an end to her wanderings. When the torque comes to rest around the neck of this mysterious woman, an odyssey begins which draws Tom Fleck into borderlands of belief and race. The seal ring propels Tom on a journey of self-knowledge that can only climax in another borderland, among the ‘flowers of the forest’ on Flodden Field.

Inside introduction:

Here are Tudor kings and their nobles - their documented lives are rich material for writers - but now they play a minor part. This is the story of Tom Fleck, a penniless farm labourer, who shares his dwelling with cattle. He is fictional only because he leaves no record - his people live before the keeping of parish registers, so they make no marks on parchment and are lost to history. We find his rare surname in the register of St. Hilda’s church at Hartlepool: Baptisms 1596, September 19th : Christofer ye child of Willm. Fleck. Perhaps William heard tales of how his great grandfather, Thomas, loved a strange woman and stood with the army on the terrible battlefield of Flodden. This story brings him to life.

The first chapter can be read on my blog.

The paperback and Kindle version is on Amazon and other online outlets.
ISBN-13: 978-1908147769 or
There is a version on Smashwords for other platforms.

I've placed 'Green Linnet', a free Ebook, onto Smashwords HERE.

It is a collection of humorous and sober short stories interleaved with poems. The subject is the sea and history. The last item is an introductory chapter to my historical action/romance 'Tom Fleck'. The cover is derived from one of my enamels.


Surtees Society


Whitby Lit. & Phil. Soc.

Royal Armouries

Pictures from Wikimedia Commons:
Dunfermline Abbey brass is by 'Otter'
Crowning of the Bruce is by 'Kim Traynor'.


  1. And a rattling good read, which immerses the reader in a bygone age among totally believable characters. To take your eyes from the page jolts you away from a scene so vivid that it takes a while to re-enter the 21st century.

  2. It's a great read; a real page turner. Strongly recommended.

  3. So glad to find this here today. I know Cleveland well-ish, having spent a great deal of time in Guisborough, which is one of the dearest spots on earth to me...and the most beautiful. So your brief history of the place was fascinating.

    And, to be frank, from your first sentence, I knew I would enjoy this blog. But particularly, I loved the poem. Thank you for that.

  4. Thank you Harry for this outstanding article. Although my and my husband's ancestors have lived in this country for some time, I do a lot of family history research and have learned that aside from one line out of Germany, all of our ancestors came from England. I have traced all of our lines back into England for many centuries until there are no records to be found. I felt a great connection to the people of whom you write as if they were tied in some way to my own. Not only is the article interesting, but your language is beautiful.

  5. This was a very fascinating look into the history of the common man. You're right, it is uncommon for this strata of society to be written about. Your book sounds like a good read.

    Thanks for the post!

  6. Thanks for the interesting historical detail. Your book does sound wonderful!

  7. Thank you all for your responses. I've been a genealogist since the 60s. Many of my roots go back to Cleveland or the borders with Scotland, but I lose them in the haze of the 16thC. One reason I chose the period for 'Tom Fleck' was to investigate the lives of ordinary people in the days prior to records of commoners.
    Writing the piece for this page has brought even sharper focus.

  8. This is a very useful Blog giving so much information about the background to the world of the characters in 'Tom Fleck'. It makes the everyday people of that time come alive and seem more like real human beings rather than wooden inhabitants of the dusty and forgotten past.

    The battle field of Flodden looks so calm now, as do the battlefields of WWI and WWII. So eerily empty of the fighting that was crucial long ago.

  9. Wonderful post, Harry.

    I've always believed that history is about the ordinary people - not the leaders, monarchs or commanders - I'll be purchasing the book!

    I'm currently writing a story called Tin Soldiers, based on my Great Grandfather's diary from the Ypres trenches in 1917. The diary is a fascinating read which tells me more about his love for his family than the action he saw, which I think gives it more historical value. We know the history but his diary gives real insights into his emotions and perceptions of the war. He was an ordinary man living an extraordinary event and his contribution was as priceless as that of anyone else.

    The research for the book has lead to a few incredible discoveries as I have used it as an excuse to research my family. As a Davies, I expected Welsh ancestry through my other Great Grandfather, as that is what my Granddad always led us to believe...but it turns out he was a private coach driver from North London! Maybe that is where our families love of Arsenal comes from!

    I'll take inspiration from your post and your book and take greater heart in that I'm telling a real, as yet untold story!

    Many thanks,


  10. Hello, Neil; I've just seen your post - and thank you for your comment.
    I hope your Ypres diary goes well - my father was at the battle of Ypres and wounded on the Somme, but he said very little about it. When I went to sea he cautioned me with the words: 'Never volunteer'. I don't know why he said that, but it seemed deeply felt.



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