Friday 5 October 2012

Leeds - An Occupied City

In the Civil War, Leeds was an occupied city. It changed hands several times in the fighting, finally being taken by Parliament forces in 1644 and a garrison station there under the leadership of Major (or Major-General) Carter.

The Scots troops who’d helped finally take the city did cause some destruction, with houses burnt, and in the wake Leeds was a depressed place, the wool trade that was its lifeblood in tatters for a few years. It would come back, of course, but not all would thrive. Several wealthy merchants who’d aided the Royalist cause received heavy fines, including John Harrison, one of the city’s great benefactors who gave Leeds St. John’s Church, the original grammar school (located more or less where the Grand Theatre stands today) and the Market Cross (which was at the top of Briggate by the Headrow).

To top it all off, early in 1645 there was an outbreak of plague that lasted most of the year, with the poor areas of Vicar Lane and the Calls the worst hit. The first victim was a little girl named Alice Musgrave.

As a novelist, not a historian, I’m not going to go into all the facts. Instead I offer an excerpt from a work-in-progress set in Leeds at the time that – I hope – sets the scene of despair and desperation.

He rode across the bridge and into Leeds, his uniform covered in dust and mud, the shine worn off his long boots. The sword at his waist tapped gently against the horse’s flanks as the animal moved.

He looked around at the place as the animal trotted. Several houses had been burned, with only a few, fragile blackened timbers remaining, lakes of dark water and slush where floors had once been. One of them must have been a fine place once, a rich man’s mansion, proud and bold. Now it would give shelter to no one.

The troopers on the street saluted him, but he only spotted a few local folk, scuttling quickly and quietly about their business, trying to remain unnoticed. The town seemed hushed, dead, as if a pall had descended and wouldn’t lift. It was hard to believe this had once been a bustling place, starting to grow fat on the wool trade. Since then it had been fought over, taken, lost, recaptured, and each time its fortunes had fallen a little further. Now it looked as though they’d reached their lowest ebb.

The biggest building stood right the middle of the street, cart tracks in the muddy road on either side. He dismounted, gave the reins to a soldier and entered. A clerk looked at him, then snapped upright in his chair.

“I’m Captain Eyre,” he said. “Here to report to Major Carter.”

That had been a week before, at the end of February 1645. He’d been seconded from Hull to serve as adjutant with the garrison of Parliament troops here. They’d stormed Leeds for the final time the year before, led by the Scotsmen who’d had their vengeance for the resistance in the burning and hangings, the looting and rape.

At least they were long since gone, praise God, sent back north of the border in disgrace. The commandant was trying to bring order here, to return Leeds to what it had once been.

The captain looked out of the mullioned windows and along Briggate. It was Tuesday morning, so the twice-weekly cloth market would be held on the bridge. The weavers would display their cloth on the parapets and the merchants would go around, deciding what to buy.

He’d been there on Saturday, dismayed by the poor turnout. No more than ten clothiers and just a handful of merchants, the deals that conducted in whispers. Orders were low, he’d been told, with men preferring to take their trade to Bradford and Wakefield, anywhere that hadn’t been torn apart by battle.

He’d walked the streets and seen the looks on the faces. Whether rich or poor, they all carried fear in their eyes. The world they understood had vanished. Instead of the Corporation there was martial law, the commandant issuing edicts and enforcing them with troops who patrolled or stood guard on the corners, the dull light glinting off their pikes. Men had to be off the street by nine, women had to dress with due modesty. Sunday worship could only be at St. John’s, and there could be no trade on the Sabbath. Whether it wanted to be or not, Leeds was becoming a city of God.

All the merchants and aldermen who’d supported the king were being assessed. They’d have their day in court, make their cases and receive fines. A few had already left, like lawyer Benson, with nothing left to his name after his house was torched to its bones.

Officially the Captain was adjutant to the garrison, but his true job was gathering intelligence, to learn of any Royalist plots and stop them. By itself that would be difficult enough in a place where he knew no one and all the citizens distrusted the soldiers, but he also had to uphold the laws. Already he’d ordered a whore whipped through the streets for plying her trade and a baker in the stocks after he sold adulterated bread.

This could be a good place, he decided. Trade could be rebuilt, normality return, the sound of laughter heard in the air again. With time and God’s good grace.

He turned at the knock on the door.

“Come in,” he said, hearing the familiar limp of Wilson, the pikeman who was his clerk. The soldier had been injured at York, a musket ball breaking the bone in his thigh, but he could write and do his sums, more valuable at a desk than on any battlefield. He was better doing this than begging on a corner somewhere.

The man had his hands pushed together in front of him, his face full of terror.

“What is it?” Eyre asked.

“There’s plague, sir, down on Vicar Lane. A little girl.”

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