A ballad of Thomas and Eleanor: Part 1
A few years ago I was involved in a musical project called ‘The Green Smoke Hokem band’. It was fun, with material drawn from a rich Cheshire mythology that I had made up.
I’ve had another look at the notes, and I’ve turned them into a short story and this is part one!
Let me know if you like it, and I’ll post more.
History is often old, but can be recent. It’s sometimes true, often speculative and sometimes simply made up. History is contradictory.
This is a story about history, but also mythology. It’s set around the time of the Norman Conquest and it’s a simple love story with a supporting cast of dragons, a brewery and empty dresses. It’s the tale of undying love between Thomas of Mold and Eleanor Lupus, whose Father, Hugo, had the thankless task of overseeing the Norman take over of Chester.
In the next few episodes, we learn the truth about the Dragon on Beeston Hill. We witness an elopement, an epic battle between brewers and the Tax collector, and an amazing funeral pyre when the body burned for a month. However, first our lovers have to meet…..
Eleanor was sitting quietly in her family’s second floor lounge at the Bear and Billet. The ‘Billet had given in to the continental regime a lot slower than most of Chester, so her father, Hugo Lupus had, in the end, taken it by force and banished the old landlord from the city.
The Norman conquerors understood the need for pubs, so they tried to control them rather than manage them. The ‘Billet was on the River Gate, and had always been hard to control. Local beer had been delivered directly to the cellars by barge. Lupus had had these cellars bricked up to discourage smuggling, but somehow, the beer was still getting in. He had therefore decided to spend a lot of time at the place in an attempt to work out what was going on.
Eleanor was 21 years old, and had had about enough of her father’s habits. She had been brought up in Brittany, and somehow felt more empathy with the locals than her father’s cronies. She wanted to escape, and just walk, un-chaperoned by the river- a small act of rebellion in some ways, but nevertheless, deliberate defiance of her father.
Eleanor was no ordinary person– she had seen the Dragon. The Beast always appeared at sundown, and often when large Norman convoys were passing. She had seen the Dragon, and she had known the truth. Her Mother and her maids had been near paralyzed with fear, but the tears on Eleanors cheeks were those of laughter! This was why she wanted to go for her defiant walk. She wanted to meet her father’s mockers, and quite possibly help them in every way that she possibly could.
Technically the whole of the Wirral was in Norman hands, although the marsh was untamed and rebellious, and El had noted the boats coming up the river as well as down. After the Billet, there was the gate, then the river, then Mercia.
El pitied her father, as he couldn’t see just how much he was being played, not so much by the Mercians, but by the entire populace. The Cestrian ‘OK- sod you’ attitude had left his conquest mostly ignored! He had raised taxes, but no one paid them anyway. He’d imposed Christianity, changed the pubs and imposed a curfew. “OK” said the populous, and then carried on exactly as before.
Suddenly, over Handbridge, the Dragon was in the sky. The Carlton- the first inn in Mercia was ablaze, and the beast had swooped along the banks of the river and was now dancing wildly in the evening sky above the Earls Eye where the river made that funny little knobbly bit of land. Lupus had drawn his sword and hurtled off bellowing like you would expect a man with his sword out to bellow.
El was alone- not only was she alone, but she knew that the people she wanted to meet were out there now. She stood up, and let her dress fall to the floor revealing a very practical shirt and trousers underneath. This was always how she ran away. Hugo Lupus was a simple man, and if her dress was empty, she must have been kidnapped and, most likely, de-flowered into the bargain. El was not a simple girl, and she always blamed her disappearance on a Knight in Green Leather. Sometimes we write our own premonitions.
El slipped down the stairs and into the street. Her flowing hair now disguised in a straw hat, she looked every inch a local. She ran through the gate to the side of the river. On the opposite bank a hare watched her. She saw it, and it saw her, and as it did it gave a loud shrill squeak and vanished into the grass.
El was good with animals- it was a gift, and something about the hare had her worried. The hare had been scared of HER, and somehow that just didn’t happen. She could feel the animals fear, and it should have gone by now, yet the hare was in fear of its life and running away as fast as it could. Suddenly there was another presence in her mind. Brief and powerful, the other reassured the hare and El
“Be safe, and be welcome. I can see you for who you really are”
The strange power withdrew from El’s mind sharply. El relaxed to the point of swooning, and not to put too fine a point on it she fell from the bridge, over the weir and into the tidal lower reach of the river.
There’s an old Cheshire legend about the hills, and it’s evidently a load of old rubbish, because legends are nice, and this legend is not nice, and I suppose I ought to warn you, not totally family friendly either.
Some will tell you that legends are supposed to be heroic deeds, true love and a happy ending, but they are wrong. They’re confusing legends with stories- the thing is stories can be made up, but there is always a grain of truth in a legend. We wrap the legend up in stories, and bend it to fit what we need, whereas the legend itself was usually about something scary, or just something we didn’t understand.
Even by the time of our story, this legend was OLD, and it basically boils down to this. The twin hills of Peckforton and Beeston are the remains of the breasts of the goddess Tanya. Her left leg lies along the coast of Wales, and her right leg is the Wirral. From her belly, the plains of Cheshire can grow food to feed an entire country. It has to be said that the poor river Dee doesn’t come out of this geographical anthropomorphism very well at all, but it is an old legend, and it does explain a lot about Runcorn.
Tanya was supposed to have perished together with her sisters Erin and Bernia in the time when rock became rock and the age of fire began to pass, and it’s also said that the Sisters will return to fight when the need of the land is greatest, but legends always end like this after the bloody Victorians have paddled in them.
Breasts are important, as they give life, and we forget that symbolism in our culture of titillation over practicality. A good pair of tits gave your children the best possible start in life, and let’s face it, Peckforton and Beeston are one epic pair.
The Romans understood this better than we do now, and that is why they built a fort on Beeston, and a temple on Peckforton.
The Romans left, and the Celts understood even better than the Romans so the fort became a castle which then fell down. The temple, however, was pulled down, revealing the circle of stones that predated The Empire by millenia. It was then, and still is a place of fertility in exchange for commitment, a place of marriage. I do mean marriage too, a union for the rearing of a family- if you needed to spice up your sex life, you went to the equally ancient loving fields that are now the grounds of Chester Cathedral. Right in the gap between the Goddesses legs.
The Mercians held marriages throughout April, with clan ‘dignitaries’ marrying on the eve of Mayday, but for the rest of the year, the hill was allowed to grow wild to show just how fertile the ground was. It was cleared in early December by eligible singles from miles around who hoped to marry next spring. Following the clearance, there was a big bonfire and a party! Any excuse.
El opened her eyes, and slowly brought them into focus. She could see the Billet, but it was on the other side of the river. She was cold and wet, and in a man’s arms, and quite unusually she was off balance.
Swooning and being rescued was what life was supposed to be about for the typical 11th century female, but El hadn’t read the book, and she didn’t do helpless well.
Thirty seconds later her knee had connected with testicle and she was running for the bridge. As she ran towards the parapet she once again became aware of the hare. This time the beast seemed to stare into her, but showed no fear at all.
She rounded the corner onto the bridge and someone grabbed her arm and swung her round. She looked into his deep blue eyes, and knew she was safe. Her focus was returning- she was herself again.
“I’d have preferred a ‘thank you’ “ he said
He was fit, but not pretty- but he was clad head to toe in green leather armour. Not the man of her dreams- this was worse, this was the man from her imagination. She looked again and scared herself as she realised just how right she had been.
“I need to get home” she said “father will be worried silly”
“He’s chasing Will O’The Wisps up the river- and whilst he’s busy we’re giving the Cestrians the beer they want, not the stuff your Dad wants to give them”
“you know my fa…… bollocks, obviously you do! you’re a smugg…. Shit! Pull yourself together woman- this isn’t going well- who the fuck ARE you?”
“Thomas is the name for now young Eleanor. My mother has a lot to say about you- her gifts are similar to yours.”
“The hare you scared was working for her. Werberga is her name”
“Tits! That means that you’re THAT Thomas. I’m a princess, you’re a prince and you’ve just fucking pulled me out of the sodding river. NO WAY!”
“Fair enough- i tend to go for older men myself too- your Dad is FIT”
“WHAT! Stop it. I’m no victim, I will not be pulled into a story”
“I doubt you could escape if you wanted to”
“That’s what worries me. Am i free to go?”
“Yes, always. Your father has fallen in the mud, and is on his way back to the Billet in a foul mood, so best hurry”
“HOW do you know?”
“You actually know how already— you’re just not quite ready to accept it. I will see you again- and soon I think.”
“He kissed her hand and suddenly she was halfway across the bridge and on her own.”
One of the contradictions about history is that it’s made up of stories, and stories have a life and power of their own. Stories are alive, they can wriggle and twist, but history is supposed to be a factual statement. Using stories to convey history is necessary, but flawed. Stories can change in the telling, even when written down. Stories trap the characters within them. Have you ever thought to yourself “Here we go again”? You are in a story, and you know what is going to happen.
The story has started. Thomas and Eleanor are bound together by narrative certainty. They have been for hundreds of years. In most versions of their story, their love is doomed, but this time they might get away with it.
Hugo Lupos really was a Norman Lord, and Werberga was, according to some histories, a Saxon Saint who bought a dead hare back to life. There is truth in this story, but that doesn’t make it true. There is history too.
In the next episode, we meet Brynn Mulhannon, rouge and master brewer. He’s the man who slew the dragon, but I’ll let you into a secret- he cheated. After all, never slay your own dragon!