The squire of Routh was dead and his eldest daughter’s husband was now the new squire. The squirearchy of Routh was long, a position filled for centuries by a Routh; usually father to son or at least uncle to nephew, for the Rouths tended to have many daughters in their line and thus, often had a surfeit of children before a son arrived. The Old Squire, however, had had the misfortune to have five children, all girls, for his beloved wife died giving birth to their heir, who soon succumbed as well. Thus, the eldest daughter’s husband was now the squire.
Settled centuries ago—some said during the time of Henry II, others said it was already settled before the Conquest and then destroyed by the Conqueror’s vengeance upon the native English, causing the north to starve*—Routh was a tiny hamlet of farmers, with a small stone church called All Saints. The church held plaques and tombs of long-dead squires, while the faded stones outside in the yard marked where the squire’s wives and children died. Or were buried. Unless they all died in the churchyard lol
Little Isabel Routh, youngest daughter of the now-late squire of Routh, sat on the frozen January ground in front of one such stone. Her father had been interred in the church’s crypt Tuesday last, but this was her mother’s stone and the little girl read the words slowly, for she’d not been taught to read well.
Here lieth Elizabeth, wife of the squire, Sir James Routh,
Who died in the Year of Our Lord 1503 of a Fever.
Here also lieth the remains of James Routh, 3 days old.
She patted the top of the dirty stone, well weathered, and traced the letters. Isabel sniffled and buried herself further in her cloak, a hand-me-down from one of her sisters. She had no cause to be in the graveyard, but no wish to return home, for her sister’s husband Richard now ruled the roost and Isabel found herself itchingly uncomfortable in his presence.
She pulled the hood over her head, her blond hair going wayward. But still she sat and waited.
Her mother had died when Isabel was but two, leaving her and her four older sisters to the care of their father and several nursemaids. And then, rather suddenly, Father’s Master of the Horse, a man called Richard Collins, had become her sister Eleanor’s sweetheart. Now, they were married, he was the new squire and he wanted to send the younger girls away.
Isabel, the youngest, was to leave first.
The priest said that one had to pray to saints to intercede, so Isabel had prayed. She prayed in church, she prayed at home, she prayed while walking, to several saints—St. Agnes, St. Mary, St. Joseph—and now, though her mother was certainly not a saint, Isabel prayed to her soul, too.
“Please, mother, do not let him send me too far away,” she said through numbing lips. “Eleanor says they need the house for their children and Joan says it’ll be an adventure, but I do not wish to leave home. I’ve never been more than seven miles from Routh, Mam, and I don’t want to leave. Joan and Cate are going to live with Aunt Marsh, but Eleanor says that I will not go there!”
How awful that would be! Isabel had always lived in the bosom of her family, the petted-on child, but not knowing where she would go made her liable to sit at her mother’s graveside, even in the dead of winter.
Isabel glanced up to see kindly Father John on the other side of the row of gravestones.
“What are you doing here? You’ll catch your death!”
Isabel gave him a sad little smile in reply.
“’Tis near midday, Isabel,” Father John said in his soothing voice. “Your sister will be missing you. Go home and get thee some food!”
Isabel pulled her cloak closer over her body. “I only came to pray over my mother’s grave, Father John.”
With a grunt, Father John kneeled by her. “I’ve heard that you and your sisters are to leave the village, eh? Living with your mother’s family?”
“Joan and Cate are going to live my aunt, but Eleanor says I will not,” Isabel sniffled. “Aunt Marsh hasn’t the space for me.”
“Hasn’t the space? For you, you little bit of a thing?” He eyed her closely. “Do you know where you will go?”
“Nay,” Isabel replied, shaking her head.
“Is that why you’re sitting here, child, freezing in a churchyard?”
She did not respond.
“Go home, love,” Father John said kindly. “Pray to St. Mary. You needn’t be sitting here in the cold. Go.”
Isabel nodded, rose, and walked home. The house she was born and grew up in was rather small, in reality, though it was the largest house in the village. The Squires Routh had built a square, stone home of one-story and a tower for defense, with a courtyard in the center for the household. Subsequent generations had extended and added, until there were outbuildings framing the main home, including a separate kitchen. The house had grown into a two-story building of more than one bedchamber, though the main hall still remained as the main hall.
Isabel stepped into the large wooden front doors and saw that the trestles in the main hall were set up. Father John was right; the midday meal was about to be served.
“Where have you been?” Eleanor said, swooping down the stairs from the upper floor. Eleanor was all of twenty-three, married for two years with two children to show for it. She moved quickly, but her appearance was always annoying correct. Her dress was plain and dark, as befitted a daughter officially in mourning. Eleanor’s dirty blond hair was covered by a hood, her hair plaited and snaking down her back.
“I was looking for you to look after the children for a moment,” Eleanor went on. “Aunt Marsh will arriving and staying after supper. I must make preparations.”
“I’m sorry, Eleanor,” Isabel said. “I’ll look after them now.”
“No, no. Cate’s watching over them,” Eleanor said, still crossly. “Joan and Cate will be leaving to live with Aunt Marsh in her home.”
Averting her eyes from Eleanor’s face, Isabel asked, “Where will I go, sister? With Martha?”
“No, of course not! Martha’s to start her married life. That’s mighty important.” Eleanor let out a great, exasperate sigh. “Truly. ‘Tis important to start off marriage right—responsibility for the house, to learn how to run it, how to look after one’s husband!”
Surely, Martha’s new home on the outskirts of Routh had enough room for her, Little Isabel, the girl thought.
“You’re going to get a privilege that most girls do not, so do be grateful,” Eleanor said, hands on her hips. “My husband Richard has decided to entrust you into the care of the nuns at the Priory of St. Osana in Scour. Richard’s youngest sister is a nun there, Sister Benedicta, and she helps to run to an orphanage on the grounds. ‘Tisn’t just for orphans, but also for those children whose parents or guardians wish them have an education. You will be one of those children.”
Isabel thought about this, turning the idea around in her mind. She visited the village of Scour when Eleanor married her husband Richard, who was from there, and she remembered seeing the priory, for the marriage had been ordained at the church door. It was on the east boundary of Scour, on a small hillock. She also remembered Father saying the priory owned a great deal of land and a great library.
“What will I learn there?” Isabel asked, whispering.
“Sewing, weaving, spinning, cooking, household management, animal husbandry, religion, obedience, punctuality,” Eleanor listed, voice growing increasingly more firm and loud as she went down the list. Truly, her sister’s voice could peel the color off of the tapestries with its strident tones. Or so Father had said on more than one occasion. Once again, an irreverent sentence that really pleased me.
“Do not forget,” the woman heard a male voice said. Isabel flicked her eyes up and saw Richard Collins, the new squire, Eleanor’s husband. “In addition, she’ll learn how to read and write. Perhaps she’ll pick up French. My sister speaks it tolerably well.” He stopped beside his wife. “It will refine you, Isabel.”
And that was that.
These days, during mealtimes, it was Richard and Eleanor who sat in the center of the dais table, the servants bringing out trenchers of bread and meat, with jugs of wine. Their children were too small to sit at table with adults, but Father’s dearest servant, the overseer of the land the squire owned—the hamlet of Routh—sat at Richard’s right. Martha sat on Eleanor’s left, then Joan, Cate, and finally, Isabel.
Her elevation to eating with the adults was quite recent. Isabel found herself unable to swallow very much of the heavily sauced meat. Her stomach may as well have been tied in knots.
To be sent to a priory! Did they want her to become a nun, like Richard’s sister? What sort of children were sent to live in a priory? Bad children? Had she been bad?
Isabel knew she hadn’t been bad. She was a quiet child, mostly, one who enjoyed stories and songs and admired the fine work of a beautiful tapestry. She was but nine years of age and her small nephew and baby niece were much smaller than she.
No, she was being pushed out of house and home, not for her benefit, as claimed, but because of her sister’s husband.
A husband at least twenty years Eleanor’s senior.
The priory buildings were plain, unadorned on the outside, and rather austere. Richard Collins urged Isabel forward toward a particular building and through a door. Isabel found herself in a rather plain parlor, with nothing on the walls except a dismal Jesus on the Cross, a very large crucifix.
Out of another door came a nun, her habit black. The veil was also black and her face looked very smooth and very pale. Isabel unconsciously took a step backward. But the nun did not address the little girl at first. She looked at the man accompanying Isabel and pursed her lips in what looked like disapproval.
“Richard,” the nun said.
“Sister Benedicta,” Richard inclined his head in a show of respect. Feigned, thought Isabel.
“How do you fare? Your wife?”
“My wife is well,” Richard replied. “And the children are growing, of course.” He gestured to Isabel. “This is my wife’s youngest sister, Isabel. She’s to turn nine on the day after Lady Day.”
“Hello, Isabel,” Sister Benedicta said.
“Hello,” Isabel replied.
“Thank you, Richard,” Sister Benedicta said. “I’d like to speak to Isabel on her own, if you please.”
“Of course,” Richard answered. “I’m to visit with Robert in the village.” He left with a bow.
When the door was shut, the nun focused her glance on Isabel.
“Sit, Isabel.” Isabel obeyed. “I hear that your father just died. I’m very sorry to hear that.”
“Thank you, Sister.”
“He was much respected in these parts. Your sisters are to live with your aunt?”
“Yes. Except for Martha. She’s getting married.”
“And you get ferried off to the priory,” Benedicta said in such a tone that Isabel stifled laughter. She didn’t want to seem—what was it that Eleanor called her? Impertinent—on the first day. “I’m the youngest of ten. My sisters and I were educated here, but I’m the only one who was told to stay. You needn’t worry. You will be educated, much more so than the usual Englishwoman. You will learn how to manage a household and be given the option of taking vows, if you like.”
“None of that, girl. You’ll call the nuns ‘Sister’, the monks ‘Brother’.” Benedicta rose. “Come. I’ll take you to the orphanage.”
They stepped out, walking across a small, muddy yard to another stone building, two stories tall. Sister Benedicta pushed open a door and ushered Isabel in. It was a small vestibule, with sturdy oak stairs leading to the second floor.
“We have fifteen boys and seventeen girls now,” Sister Benedicta said. Isabel warmed to her voice. It sounded lovely, rich and even. “The boys sleep in the west gallery, the girls in the east gallery. You’ll have a bed and a chest for your possessions. Studying outside of lesson times will be done in here.” The nun gestured to the right. Isabel glanced into a doorway to see a large room with wide windows and several strong tables. There was a hearth and several chairs scattered. “Across the corridor there is the children’s refectory.”
Isabel heard footsteps and loud voices. She stood unmoving in the study room’s doorway. A few moments later, two boys, one brown-haired and tall, the other with gingery-brown hair and shorter, walked in, grinning and laughing about something.
Sister Benedicta cleared her throat. The lads stopped immediately and inclined their heads in bows.
“We have a new resident,” she said. “This is Isabel Routh of Routh. This is Tom Winters. He’s eleven years of age. This is Ignatius FitzClement. The children call him Iggy and I’m sure he’ll permit you to call him that as well.”
“Hello. Pleased to meet you,” the one called Tom said. Isabel noticed that he had green eyes and they sparkled warmly. The boy called Iggy murmured a hello also. Perhaps he was nervous, for he kept darting his eyes toward the nun.
“Hello,” she said shyly.
Soon, Sister Benedicta had given Isabel a bed. It was much smaller than the trunkle bed Isabel had slept on in Joan and Cate’s room, but it was toward the door of the girls’ gallery. Her clothes and small possessions fit easily into the trunk at the foot of her bed. She met the two novices—both named Jane—and then she met, through the course of the day, other nuns. Sister Catherine was sitting with most of the girls in the study room, teaching the younger ones how to stitch while the older ones sewed shirts or repaired dresses.
*Ummm....really confusing sentence
*This is what I meant by "introducing the lead female character will take up lots of words"