It was early autumn of the year 1138, and the Valley of Longdendale was a vast tract of desolation. True, the trees were still decked with verdure, and the mellow tint of autumn clothed nature with a lovely garb. The streams still murmured with silvery splashes as they wandered through the woodland, and the birds warbled among the branches. In all this the valley was as of old—lovely, radiant, fair. But the song of the reaper was never heard; the fields were tangled and untilled, the instruments of husbandry were destroyed or abandoned, and a grievous famine reigned. For the demon of war was abroad, and the blight of his shadow had fallen on the fair Cheshire vale.
King Stephen was seated on the throne which he had won by violence. As he had usurped the sovereign power without the pretence of a title, he was necessitated to tolerate in others, the same violence to which he himself had been beholden for his crown. Even in time of peace the nobles made sad havoc with the property of the people, but now that war was in the land, and the forces of the Lady Matilda, King Henry’s child, sought to drive the usurper from the throne,—now, indeed, the castles poured forth bands of licensed robbers, and the homesteads of Longdendale were burned, the people driven to the woods, and the flocks and herds of the yeomen were confiscated.
Had the reader been privileged to wander through the woodland glades near Mottram, he would, maybe, have seen a group of fugitives bargaining with a sturdy forester for leave to shelter themselves in the depths of the forest, without fear of molestation.
“Thou hast known me all my life,” said the leader of the party, “for a patient, God-fearing, and faithful husbandman. I have ever kept the forest laws, and seek not to work harm therein even now. But Mottram town is no place for me, for all my poor belongings have been seized by the King’s men, and my hut has been burned to the ground. And but yesterday there came a party of the other side, and their leader had me up, and soundly thrashed me, because he said I helped the King, and was disloyal to the Princess. Helped the King, forsooth, when the King helped himself to all I had, and turned me out o’ doors to shift for myself.”
“And I,” quoth another, “come from Tingetvisie (Tintwistle), and there the townsfolk are so scared they dare not seek their beds at night. Nothing have I left to call my own, not even arms with which to protect myself. Truly the forest is a heaven to all such poor people as we.”
“Well, well,” grumbled the bluff forester, “get into the woods and hide yourselves, but play not withthe deer at your peril. A pest on these troubles. I would the great folk would settle their differences themselves, and allow the poor to live in peace. Get off, I say, and hide yourselves. Steer clear of both King’s men and Queen’s men, and be damned to both sides.”
So saying he went on his way whistling, and the fugitives hastily left the path, and were soon lost from view in the undergrowth. There, like beasts of the forest, they lay by day, and emerged when the night fell, to pick up such scraps of food as were to be had by the way. Little wonder there were robbers on the roads in those times.
Days passed on, and the wanderers in the woods beheld parties of rovers, riding with lance and sword, now north, now south, as the tide of war ebbed and flowed. Rumours had reached them of an invasion of the Scots under King David, and following the rumours came bands of wild Highland men, who laid waste with fire and sword what little the robber-bands of the English knighthood had spared. The King of Scotland came south to aid his niece, the Princess Matilda, and with the appearance of his army on this side the border, the nobles who favoured the Princess arose. There was a mustering of all the able-bodied men of the Vale of Longdendale, and, glad to strike a blow to bring the state of tumult to an end, the men took sides.
“Hast thou heard the news?” asked one fugitive of another.
“To what news dost thou refer, good man?” was the reply. “Is it more of evil?”
“Nay, that is as thou listest,” was the answer. “’Tis said the King of Scots rides hither with a great following of men at arms, and that King Stephen’s forces muster for the combat. In that case there may be a great struggle toward, and now, maybe, we shall see the ending of all this strife and misery.”
“In that case, good man, methinks I will strike a blow for one side, so that the matter may indeed be ended.”
“On what side art thou?”
“I am for the Princess.”
“And I for King Stephen.”
“Then we are enemies, but I bear thee no ill-will. Mayhap we shall meet again in the battle.”
“Maybe. At least it will be better than starving in the woods. I wish thee a good-morrow.”
“And I thee. Farewell.”
Upon which the speakers went their several ways to arrange themselves beneath the banners of the cause they favoured.
Soon there was a fair mustering of each faction, and with the trains of knights, who came from north and south, the rival forces grew from companies into armies. King Stephen sent a great body of horse and foot to strengthen the array of those who fought beneath his banner, whilst stray bands of Highland men swelled the ranks of the warriors of Matilda.
Now the chief forester of Longdendale was a man with a kind heart, and to all those civil and respectable folk who took to the woods for a refuge, he showed such toleration and care as his position allowed;only upon the idle, thieves, and evildoers, was his anger bestowed. It was no new thing for him to meet with fugitives—particularly women—seeking shelter in the forest, and, accordingly, he gave little heed to a small band of riders in which were several females, who entered the forest of Longdendale upon a certain evening just before the hour of sunset.
“Another band of fugitives,” said he. “Poor souls; God have mercy on them.”
He would have passed on his way had not one of the band—a sturdy-looking young man, dressed in plain russet garb—thus accosted him:
“Ho there, fellow,” cried the youth. “Come thou hither, for I would have a word with thee.”
The tone in which the words were spoken was commanding, and to the forester it sounded insolent.
For answer he turned, and looking the horseman straight in the face said:
“Have a care, knave, what words thou usest to thy betters, or thou art likely to rue such speeches as that.”
The young man frowned, and, raising a light riding whip, made as though he would strike the forester. But the latter brought into position a stout oak staff which he carried, and, advancing boldly, said in a threatening voice:
“Take advice from an older man, and drop thy paltry weapon. Otherwise I shall be put to the necessity of cracking thy pate. One blast of this horn now dangling at my side will speedily summon some of the stoutest lads in Cheshire, and thou and thy followers will ere long be dangling from the nearest tree.”
So saying, the bold forester blew upon his horn, and scarcely had the echoes died away ere five stalwart men clad in green, each armed with yew-bow and quiver, and long knives at their girdle, burst from the thickets and ranged themselves by the forester’s side.
What the newcomers would have done with the old forester at their head, it is difficult to say; but a diversion was created by one of the female riders, chiding the horseman who had first spoken.
“Thou art over-hasty, and even rude,” said she; “where is thy discernment. Seest thou not that these men are honest, and wouldst thou set them against us?”.
Then, advancing alone, she bent in her saddle, and whispered something to the forester. The old man started, gazed at the speaker, for a moment, then doffed his cap, and bowed low. Next turning to the five who stood behind him, he cried:
“Uncover, and on your knees. It is the Queen.”
The Royal Matilda—for she it was, thus driven with her infant son, Henry, and a few faithful followers, to adopt the disguise of poor travellers, and to seek for a place of refuge until the coming battle should decide her fate—smiled graciously upon the old man and his companions.
“Methinks there is a likeness in all your faces,” said she. “Are these thy sons?”
“They are my sons,” answered the forester; “and withal thy loyal subjects, gracious lady, ready to give their lives for thee and thine.”
After a few further passages of speech, the chief forester led the way to his own dwelling—which was a strongly built and well concealed place, where, attended by his good wife, the Queen might rest secure until the battle had been fought and won.
Meanwhile the forester and his sons donned their war-gear, and when the time was ripe they took their stand with the rest of those who fought beneath the banner of the Queen.
It was in the gray dawning of an autumn day when the two armies met. The battle was fought on a hill in the Mottram township, where the ancient Church of Mottram now stands. But there was no sacred building there on that gray morning of long ago, when the clashing of arms awoke the echoes, and the air was heavy with the shrieks of dying men.
The army of Matilda was posted on the hill. Their position was strong and commanding. From it they could note the approach of the foe, and fight him with advantage. In the midst of their array rose the standard of the Princess—the royal banner of the great Henry—and by its side the bonnie flag of Scotland floated in the breeze.
As the gray light broke from the east, the watchers on the hill beheld the first line of Stephen’s forces emerge from the woods. The King’s army was a mighty host, the bright spears gleamed in the light of dawn, and the archers carried great quivers full of deadly goose-tipped shafts.
The royal force came on, and the leading ranks broke into a battle-chant as they neared the hill foot, and bent to meet the slope. The archers winged their shafts, the axes, bills, and pikes advanced; a rain of arrows beat whistling from the ranks upon the hill, and the great fight commenced.
Bit by bit the soldiers of Stephen advanced up the hill. They left many dead upon the slopes, but still the host went on. The army of Matilda hung thick and massive upon the crest, and waited with unbroken front for the closing of the foe; they rained down their flights of arrows, but kept their ranks unbroken, with bristling rows of pikes in front.
At length the advancing host drew near. The foremost men rushed bravely on, they clutched the wall of pikes with their hands, and strove to hew a way to victory. But the arrows fell among them, dealing death in full measure, and the brave men fell. Others took their places, and again the goose-shafts flew.
Now the advancing army remembered the trick of Norman William on the field of Senlac. At a given signal they turned and fled in apparent confusion. With a wild yell the unwary Highland men broke from their post upon the summit, and charged down to slay. Then, swift as lightning, the warriors of Stephen turned. Their archers met the onrush of the pursuers with a staggering volley of shafts. The pikes and bills charged up the slope. The axes hacked the brawny Scots, and the broken ranks upon the hill, opening wider yet to receive their retreating comrades, let in the charging body of the foe. After that there was a mingled mass of slaying men about the summit. The hosts of King Stephen girt the hill round, so that there was no escape for the men whostood upon it. Death was everywhere, death for the victors and the vanquished; for the soldiers of the Princess died as soldiers should, and they slew great numbers of the foe.
MOTTRAM CHURCH AND THE WAR HILL
THE SITE OF THE BATTLE MENTIONED IN THE LEGEND.
MOTTRAM CHURCH AND THE WAR HILL
THE SITE OF THE BATTLE MENTIONED IN THE LEGEND.
That was the last stand for the Princess Matilda in that part of Cheshire, and the old chronicles say that the blood shed in the battle ran in a stream down the slopes, and formed a great pool at the foot of the hill.
As the gray of the morrow’s dawn fell upon the scene of battle, the pale light fell also upon a group of living beings, who stood upon the summit of the hill among the hosts of the dead.
Matilda, the Queen, was there—beaten and dismayed, since all hope was lost. The chief forester of Longdendale stood there also, and he, too, sighed, as one whose heart is broken—he had just been groping among the corpses, and had found what he sought.
“Are thy fears well founded?” asked Matilda, anxiously.
The old man pointed to the inert forms of five dead men.
“They were all I had—and I am an old man. Now they are gone, my very name must perish.”
The royal lady looked at him for a moment, her whole being trembling with grief.
“My heart is broken,” she said. “Yet what is my loss to thine?”
The old man took her hand, and kissed it.
“I am a loyal man—and an Englishman. I gave them freely to the cause of my Queen. Who am I that I should complain?”
Royal lady and lowly-born forester gazed into each other’s eyes for a brief space—their looks conveying thoughts which were too sacred for words—and then the Queen’s train moved down the hill, and the old man was left alone—alone with his sorrow and his dead.
The world is full of changes, and ever on the heels of war comes the angel form of peace. Men called the hill whereon the battle had been fought Warhill, and in after days the builders raised the sacred pile of Mottram Church, where the soldiers of Matilda and Stephen fought and died.
According to an old Longdendale tradition, the War Hill, Mottram, is the site of a battle which was fought in the twelfth century between the forces of the Princess Matilda and King Stephen.