Excerpt from Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Daughters of the Witching Hill

A Novel

by Mary Sharratt

Daughters of the Witching Hill
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2010, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2011, 352 pages

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When I was twelve, they finished building the New Church of St. Mary’s in Goldshaw to replace the old crumbling chapel of ease where I’d been christened. Bishop from Chester came to consecrate it just in time for All Souls’ when we rang the bells the whole night through to give comfort to our dead.

Back then we still had our holidays. Christmas lasted twelve days and nights with mummers and guizers in animal masks, dancing by torchlight. The Lord of Misrule, some low born man, lorded it over the gentry to make poor folk laugh. The Towneleys of Carr Hall used to invite all their neighbours, rich and poor alike, to join their festivities. Upon Palm Sunday everyone in the parish gathered for the processions round the fields to make them fertile. After dark, the young folk would go out to bless the land in their own private fashion. Everyone knew what went on, but none stood in our way. If a lass and her young man had to rush to the altar afterward, nobody thought the worse of them for it. I went along with the other girls, arm in arm with my best friend Anne Whittle, both of us wearing green garlands and singing. Cherry-lipped Anne loved to have her sport with the boys, but mindful of my own mother’s fate, I did nowt but kiss and dance and flirt in those days. Only went astray much later in life, when I was a married woman and sore unsatisfied, seeking my pleasures elsewhere.

In my youth, upon May morning, we arose before dawn to gather hawthorn and woodruff. We’d dance round the Maypole and drink elderflower wine till the very sky reeled. At Midsummer’s, upon the eve of the feast of John the Baptist, we carried birch boughs into the church till our chapel looked like a woodland grove. Bonfires blazed the whole night through. Some folk burned fires of bone, not wood, so that the stench might drive away evil wights from the growing crops. Most of us gathered round the wake fire of sweet apple wood where we danced all night, collapsing upon the grass at sunrise. At Lammas the reapers crowned the Harvest Queen and one year, by Our Lady, it was me, a lass of fifteen, crowned in roses and barley, the lads begging me for a kiss.

Old King Henry was dead by then and we lived in hope that the old ways would live again. Crowned in roses, I led the procession of maidens on the Feast of the Assumption, each of us bearing flowers and fruits to lay upon the altar of the Queen of Heaven. Only weeks later, Edward the Boy King sent his men to smash every statue in our church, even that of the Blessed Mother herself, whilst we clutched ourselves, full aghast. They tore down the crucifix over the high altar and burned it as though it was some heathen idol. They destroyed our roodscreen, outlawed our processions, and forbade us to deck the church with greenery upon Midsummer or to bring red roses and poppies to the altar on Corpus Christi. They set fire to our Maypole, forbade us to pray for the dead or celebrate the saints’ feast days.

Six years on, weakling Edward wasted away and his sister Mary Tudor promised to bring back the old religion. For the five years of her reign we had our holidays again, our processions, our mass with swirling incense and the sea of candles lit for the saints. The Towneleys, the Nutters, and the Shuttleworths paid for the new roodscreen, the new statues, altar cloths and vestments. We had our Maypole and rang the church bells for our ancestors on All Souls’ Night. But our joys soured when the news came of the heretics Mary burned alive, near three hundred of them, their only hope to end their agony being the sachets of gunpowder concealed beneath their clothes. Our Catholic queen was nowt but a tyrant. Before long Mary herself died, despised by her own husband, so the story went.

With Queen Elizabeth came the new religion once more to replace the old. The Queen’s agents stormed in to hack apart our brand new roodscreen. But they could not demolish the statues or the crucifix this time round, for the Towneleys, Shuttleworths, and Nutters had divided the holy images between them and taken them into hiding, in secret chapels inside their great houses. In those early days, some said Elizabeth’s reign couldn’t last long. Anne Boleyn’s bastard, she was, and it seemed half of England wanted her dead. On top of that, she refused to marry and produce an heir of her own religion. Yet the Queen’s religion had endured.

Excerpted from Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt. Copyright © 2010 by Mary Sharratt. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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