‘The Manservant of Burton Constable Hall’, by Robert Rayner
The chiming of the bells of Holy Trinity Church signalled that it was time for me to bid my sister farewell. Before I took my leave she offered me some pottage which I declined . She had but recently been widowed; was low in spirits, and I knew she could scarce feed herself and her two small children, Robert and Catherine. I pressed two groats into Matilda’s hands as I left. My only living relative, she shook her head at the shame of charity but I saw relief in her eyes as she whispered, ‘ God bless thee George.’
There was a strangely unsettled mood abroad the city of Hull in that turbulent April of 1642 – the Puritans’ closure of the theatre had greatly angered its citizens. In the afternoon sunshine, despite the long walk back to Burton Constable I felt excited at the prospect of being the bearer of important news my master, the first Viscount of Dunbar, Sir Henry Constable, was eager to hear, for he had instructed that I use my mission of mercy as cover to ascertain what I could of the city’s intentions for the reception of His Majesty King Charles.
My master’s house was undoubtedly the finest, not just in Holderness, but in the whole of East Riding. As I drew near I saw Stephen’s Tower and felt my heart gladden. I passed the moat and walked up the long avenue by the enclosures of the deer park. Entering the turreted gatehouse and crossing the cobbled courtyard I was shocked to see the Viscount standing at the main door. I had not seen him so anxious in the quarter century of my service as his manservant.
‘George,what news of the Governor’s disposition?’ he demanded.
‘Sir, there was indeed a meeting summoned by Sir John Hotham, attended by the Aldermen and Burgesses of the city on the King’s visit to his son James, Duke of York. His Majesty also wishes to recover the arsenal left by his troops last year and which Parliament has told Hotham to retain.
According to reports, they resolved that access be denied to our sovereign.’
‘What reliance may I place upon such reports ?’ he asked.
‘ Well sir, before I left they were common currency and Beverley Gate is being fortified.’
‘ George, get some rest now. for I have a further errand for thee on the morrow.’
Early next morning I set out on another journey carrying a leather satchel which contained a letter from Sir Henry bearing his seal; a hunk of bread, and piece of cheese for sustenance. My instructions were to deliver the missive to Sir Edward Ringrose,a field commander in the King’s Lifeguard, at the garrison in Beverley. In view of the distance and the need to return with supplies from the market, I was given the horse and cart. I had slept fitfully despite assurances about my safe passage.
As the road dwindled to a rough country track I thought of all men on earth I was the least blessed. The plight of a passing beggar for whom I broke off a crust, rid me of self- pity and fortified my resolve.
Soon the towering, wondrous Minster of Beverley, was in sight.
On arrival, I was led into Sir Edward’s chambers. As I gave him the letter he greeted me,
‘Thank you fellow. The King has directed me to deal with this.’
I watched his expression harden as he read the letter. It was not the message he had expected.
‘Very well. You can tell your master that we are indebted for this intelligence and with the Earl of Newcastle we shall accept his invitation to call at the Hall two days hence.’
I nodded and he dismissed me, ‘Go safely messenger. God be with ye.’
My audience was brief, but in that moment, I knew that England was on the edge of civil war.
On return I conveyed the response to my master, who set the servants to make ready the house. When Newcastle accompanied by his guards duly arrived I felt proud, wearing the blue doublet passed down to me by my master, to lead his grey mare to the stables. Commander Ringrose arrived soon afterwards. In the dining room the polished silverware shone and reflected the dancing flames of the fire. After a sumptuous feast the scurrying maids were dismissed with a clap and Sir Henry nodded at me to withdraw and I stationed myself outside the door . Sir Henry spoke in sombre tones and the discussion was in turns calm and fractious before the tactics were at last agreed.
Within days the city was besieged. Despite all the plans and the King’s greater numbers the Royal army was driven away by Sir John Hotham riding at the head of fifteen hundred soldiers.
When Sir Henry returned to Burton Constable, I saw that his eyes were black and hollowed. The troubles had aged him. He looked but a shadow of his portrait in the hall where he stood dark, handsome and straight-backed in a fine black suit with a golden silk sash and black stockings, holding a scroll of parchment. He told me,
‘ I fear that I have shown my hand too clearly and will pay for my mistake.’
Nevertheless , Sir Henry rallied to the King’s cause again, a year later when the Earl of Newcastle in command of some 12,000 infantry and 4,000 on horseback and a siege train including the guns ‘Gog’ and ‘Magog’ began a second unsuccessful siege of the city. Soon afterwards a troop of fierce Parliamentarians with cropped hair, sporting orange scarves and armed with knives, swords and muskets marched upon the Hall. The master yielded to the seizure to spare the men of the estate.
I have never seen a man look as sorrowful as Sir Henry – it pained my heart . In the long gallery, Roundheads skulked, despoiling the panelling and the marble fireplace. Soldiers dossed in the great hall built by his grandfather, Sir John. They emptied the cellars and kitchens of food and drink. They swaggered along the corridors looting, paintings were ripped from walls and sculptures smashed.
‘ What will future heirs think of me ?’ Sir Henry mourned, ‘ All the family has built , I have allowed to be destroyed in a few days.’
He shook his head and begged me to escape while I could. Loyalty had served neither of us well.
I left the household in 1645 just before Sir Henry’s death, and sometimes wonder what will happen to the Hall in the years to come. There was no one to whom I could turn save Matilda, who has taken me in and shares my secrets. Here then shall I see out my days as a father to my niece and nephew.
Burton Constable Hall & Grounds
Hull, East Yorkshire, HU11 4LN