Thorn Kings: Clare Mulley, Battlefields Trust

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The 16 poems in this pamphlet collection are inspired by the four major battles in English history. Clare Mulley is a young Yorkshire-born poet, journalist and teacher, and poet in residence at the Battlefields Trust, which published this booklet. She has tramped country lanes and wheat fields, hill and dale, and been present at re-enactments in order to better understand landscapes where the battles of Hastings, Towton, Bosworth, and Naseby were fought.

Her opening poems are concerned with unknown soldiers, the multitudes unnamed in history books yet “ordered to practise on a Sunday; / the Toms, Wills and Hals down by the village butts, / praying they’d never draw a bow and hear the hiss and thud / as the barb sank itself in something other than the target’s wood.” (‘The Forgotten’). These poems do not shirk the details of the aftermath of battle. ‘The Crow’ feasts on the “the hidden banquet of the field …Someone must make a living of the dead”. ‘Stubble Dreams’, a short prose-poem, gives voice to corpses as the bodies of the slain are quickly absorbed into “the shaven ground”.

‘He’ is laid out in four columns across two pages, written from the viewpoint of a Saxon soldier awaiting the coming of William of Normandy, “the bastard” …

 

                                 He’ll turn

     the other side of that long face

     and run downhill into the marsh

     then turn again when we give chase,

     thinking we’ve won.

 

The poem predicts that the conqueror “will tear apart / our words and build a tongue / which sings and cuts”, and foresees devastation: “He’s looking / to the North, already slavering / to purify her wastes”.  

The battle of Towton took place in Yorkshire in 1461 during the Wars of the Roses, in a snowstorm on Palm Sunday, and may have been the bloodiest fought on English soil. Many Lancastrians were killed while fleeing; local rivers are said to have run red with blood for several days. In ‘Palm Sunday’ Mulley takes the image of the bloody beck, and in an unsparing yet poetic chronology maps how its consistency changes during the day, from “darker tendrils” to a “pinkish foam”, before becoming the colour of garnets, and sticky.

Bosworth marked the end of the Wars of the Roses, and is almost as familiar to us as Hastings, thanks partly to Olivier’s portrayal of Richard III, and the more recent discovery of the defeated king’s remains. ‘Hymn for the Dawn’ contemplates the chilling, hushed hours before battle, when “in consciousness of flesh soon to be tested / all cares shrink to this hushed field, and to God.”  

Naseby in 1645 was decisive in the English civil war, fought in Northamptonshire between the main Royalist army and the Parliamentarian New Model Army. After the Royalist force was all but destroyed, the King's private papers, detailing attempts to draw Irish Catholics and foreign mercenaries into the war, were found in the captured baggage train. In ‘Alien’ Mulley focuses on the desperate bravery of those “who call Eire their mother” in Prince Rupert’s Bluecoats regiment, who knew they could expect to be hanged if captured: “This field before you is the last you’ll gaze upon / So drink it in, boy.”

Having tramped the extra mile, and then some, Mulley knows the topography of these sites like the back of her hand. Her notes at the back of the pamphlet point out that watersheds, such as the area in the Midlands where both Naseby and Bosworth took place, are naturally lush, and make ideal locations for combat: “It is only right that life / should both gush and sink here.” ‘At the Watershed’ makes hardly any mention of fighting, yet “velvet blades … flesh stalks … reed spears” say it all. ‘Slope’ maps the ground, hills, valleys, rivers, adding:

 

     You can trace the contours of the land tree by tree 

     but that means nothing to a body in flight 

     looking for the best way his legs can carry him.   

 

She points out in her introduction that many battlefield sites go unnoticed due to lack of funding: “Worse still, local councils who would throw a fit if anyone tried to dig up even a corner of the village graveyard, are often quite willing to build on battlefields, favouring ‘development’ over the preservation of something which should be protected by default.”

Part of her brief as poet in residence is to raise awareness of such sites, and in this Thorn Kings represents a triumph. Mulley is a teacher, and you can imagine some of her poems being employed in classrooms to colour in and flesh out the grim details listed in history books, bringing them to life – and death.

She pays compassionate recognition to victims who deserve to be remembered just as much as those who died in more recent wars. This poetic, empathetic look at battles that shaped our story may not appeal to the squeamish – but for some of us, such moments hold a grim fascination still.

Greg Freeman

 

Clare Mulley, Thorn Kings, Battlefields Trust, £4.75

 

 

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