The sun was hidden by heavy dark clouds, rain started to fall onto the path in large spots as I pushed against the wind to reach shelter. Grotesque figures stared down at me from the roof, waiting to take their fill of life’s blood, when the clouds burst. I pushed against the heavy door, forcing a creak from the worn oak timbers, and entered. There was a strange stillness inside, the air damp and musty as I humbly crossed the flagged floor. Opening the vestry door, there was a lull in the roar of the wind above, which had seemed strangely distant above the lofty roof space. I had been many times before, to tidy and clean the church, but today my senses were heightened with the oncoming storm.
As the first few shafts of sun filtered through the cloudy window pane, my attention was drawn to the glint above the door handle. Pushing the door to, I revealed the relic in full, a magnificent breast plate, retrieved from the battle field and preserved for over 500 years in this quiet place. As I ran my fingers across it to reveal the marks of the hammer that had beaten it flat, my mind took me back to the day it saw conflict. Reaching for a cloth, one quick rub and the form of the plate began to show itself, dints and delves of damage, which it sustained from the heavy vollies of arrows used in battle and a sharp slash across the shoulder area. Was this caused by a sword? I thought how did the man die? Surely the breast plate would be fierce protection against most weapons, but there must be weak points, maybe he was stabbed through his armpit or an attack from high, through the neck, caused the fatal blow.
Touching the cold steel, I shut my eyes and thought back to the warm heart that once beat below my fingers, a heart that must have been fierce, determined and loyal to his cause. How would you choose which side to take when it came to such a destructive conclusion? Why would you decide to leave the simple way of life that most men must have led, farming and providing, to take up the cause? Did it really matter who sat on the throne to the humble classes or was honour involved, a man’s pride to fight for?
These thoughts ran through my head as I ran the cloth along the choir stalls, with the pride of someone getting their horse ready for its ride. The polish was the dubbing on the leather harness, the smoke from a blown out candle, the breath of the animal as it pulled its head up impatiently, the hoof scraped on the dry earth and a glint of excitement in its eye, was the shine from the candlestick as I lifted and replaced it. The keys hanging from my pocket was the bit he champed on, in his eagerness to run, anticipation of the chase. The bells rang to the sound of sword fighting, metal on metal. How terrifying but terrific it must have been to fight on the ground, in the midst of the action. There was no distance fighting then, no pressing a button or releasing a trigger into an unknown. You were face to face with your enemy and you could not only see and hear them, their strong strained breath, but you could also smell them, smell the sweat and emotion.
The storm had passed over now and sunlight streamed once more, through the stained windows, casting a blood red hue across the altar steps. It took my gaze to the red carpet, running along the front of the steps, which had been kicked slightly askew, revealing the smoothly hewn stone underneath, which had an inscription that I had never noticed before. I rolled the rug back and uncovered the complete stone which read:
Here lyeth the mortal remains of Edwin Byers
who liveth and dyeth
with a true heart and mind.
After the battle what would happen to the field? There must have been absolute carnage, with mutilated bodies everywhere, how do you deal with the disposal? Local people must have walked onto the field and picked over people, there would be very few items to identify who these gallant men were and the site must have been terrible. The breast plate would have been quite a prize to find intact. There must have been a feeling of sadness to keep it, such wasteful loss of life and such brutality. Where were most of them buried, in a ditch somewhere, away from predators?
Local knowledge told me that the church was not on the site at the time of the battle, it had been built as a commemoration by the local Lord, as a reminder of the victory so hard won and the lands he gained as a result.
The gargoyles I ventured past, were satisfied now they had drunk their fill. The birdsong revived the charged air and the place felt washed clean. A young girl rode past on a young flighty cob, rattling the new bit in its mouth as it got used to being tamed. The cob would, no doubt live a long life, the most startled it would feel in its life, would be from a pheasant starting up from the crack of a gun, but it would not see warfare and not die thrashing around in the sodden field of a battle.