My stop on the blog tour is a little late, I do apologize for the delay. I’m thrilled to be sharing the first two chapters with you all today. I hope you enjoy reading it! Keep your eyes peeled for my review over the next month or so
June 1, 1381
Matilda Rolfe shivered in her woollen blankets
and watched the lightning flash in the reflections
of the puddles on the mud floor of her hut. Her
straw mattress was still slightly damp from the
last time they’d had a storm, and she had moved
her bedding to the driest part of the hut, where the
thatched roof was most secure. Outside the rain
poured down in sheets and the trees behind the
house rattled and rustled in the fierce wind. The
smell of wet cob – that mixture of straw, soil and
animal droppings that made up the walls – lodged in her nostrils.
Matilda had put on all her clothes and she was
still cold. Last year they had had two old dogs and
they loved to snuggle up with her at night and keep
her warm. But Sturdy and Holdfast had both died
over the winter. When a neighbour’s dog had had a
litter in the spring Matilda had asked if they could
have a couple, but her father, Thomas, had told her
sadly they could not afford to feed them. Maybe
next year they would have dogs again.
Earlier in the night, Thomas had given her his
spare blanket. She had been half awake when he
had draped it over her, whispering, ‘You keep
warm, Tilda,’ and now she could hear him snoring
away behind the wicker partition on the other side
of the hut. She felt a twinge of guilt, letting him
give her that blanket, but he was a tough old boar
and the cold and stormy night was not preventing
him from sleeping.
Lightning flashed again, illuminating the outlines
of the glassless windows and their wooden baffles,
and lighting up those puddles. The water on the
floor was not creeping any closer. Reassured that
she was not in danger of waking under a stream of
rainwater, Tilda began to drift off to sleep. Another great gust of wind shook the hut and she started
awake again, wondering why God was so angry
to visit them with a storm like this. Was it their
sinful ways? She and Thomas lived a blameless
life, working for the lord of the manor in his fields,
and tending to their own needs on the little strip of
land he let them farm.
People called them serfs, or villeins, and they
were tied to their lord and their village. Everyone
else around them was the same. Everyone went to
church and there was no whiff of witchcraft among
the humble folk of Aylesford village. So maybe it
was their betters who had aroused the wrath of God?
Three months ago an extraordinary man of God
had visited the village and preached to them all on
the green. John Ball had said something she had
not been able to forget:
When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?
She loved that – she and her father delved the
land – turning and tending to the soil in the fields.
And Tilda’s mother, Mary, had been a spinner of flax before she died giving birth to a stillborn little
sister. Tilda could picture her mother now, sitting by
the fire with her wheel and spindle. And what Ball
said was true. The world God created in the Garden
of Eden wasn’t the world they lived in. They were
slaves to the lords and ladies who treated common
people like them with contempt. Their local lord,
William Laybourne, was hated by most of the
villagers she knew – apart from her neighbours,
Walter and Elspeth Cooper, who no one trusted.
A few days after he had visited the village, John
Ball had been arrested. They heard he was held in
Maidstone Gaol. Tilda felt indignant about that.
She was convinced that what he’d said was plainly
true. Not that her father agreed with her. He thought
they ought to keep their heads down and tug their
forelocks to the lord of the manor, and anyone else
who served the king. Tilda held her tongue. She
loved her father and did not want to make him angry.
He said talk like that was rebellious, traitorous even.
And besides, there were terrible punishments for
those who spoke against the rulers of the land.
Tilda had seen what happened to traitors when
she was barely ten years old. Four years earlier, two men from Aylesford were said to have been
spying for the French. And the way they were dealt
with had made Tilda’s stomach churn in leaden
fear. The wretches were dragged through the
main street by a horse, then taken to the scaffold
and hanged until near death. Then their breeches
were pulled down and they were castrated. That
was barely the start of it. The hangman had
bought some hideous spooling device and cut
the men in the innards, pulling out their guts
from their insides. They both died sometime
during that hideous ordeal and even in death their
indignity was not yet over. Their lifeless bodies
were beheaded, and then cut into four pieces.
The whole village had been made to watch this
disgusting spectacle. Four years on, the memory
of it, and the screams of the victims, still haunted
her. She wondered whether they would do that to
a girl like her, or whether it was just men who had
to endure such dreadful tribulations.
Sometime during the night the storm subsided and
Tilda slept. She woke to see her father standing over her.
‘It’s daybreak, my dearing,’ he said softly.
‘Here’s some porridge to start your day.’ A wooden
bowl and a small jug of milk lay by the side of her
‘What a night,’ said Tilda, gathering her curly
thatch of black hair to tie behind her head with
a leather thong. The air was chilly and she was
reluctant to stir from the meagre warmth of her bed.
‘Coopers lost half their roof,’ said Thomas,
trying to sound nonchalant about it. But Tilda
could tell he was pleased.
‘Ours just about stayed put. Only a bit of water
come through,’ said Tilda, spooning in a mouthful
of warming porridge.
Thomas shook his head. ‘This old hut’s only got
another year in it, before it rots around us. We need
to talk to Laybourne about finding somewhere
else to live.’
Tilda frowned. ‘He’ll probably just tell us we
can move in with the pigs in the sty,’ she said. Then
she smiled. ‘Actually, they live in a little stone
shelter with a nice timber roof, so they’re better
off than us!’
‘Not seen a storm like this since I was a child,’
said Thomas, anxious to change the subject. Tilda
knew he didn’t like her to be ‘disrespectful’. But
she couldn’t help herself.
‘We had one like that just before the plague
arrived in the village,’ Thomas went on. ‘God has
ways of warning his flock…’ He trailed off, a look
of bleak concern flashing across his face. Tilda felt
a bolt of fear. She had heard enough tales about the
plague to know it was the worst thing that could
happen to her world.
Thomas changed his tune. ‘Still, storm’s passed
now and the sun is shining,’ he said. ‘Look, here’s
Catherine.’ Asmall red squirrel had appeared beside
Tilda’s bed. It quickly hopped on to her shoulder
and she put down her bowl to fuss it. ‘Don’t let
your breakfast go cold,’ he said and got up to tend
to his chores. As he left the room he said, ‘We’re
harrowing the strip by Lord’s Field this morning.
Be sure to bring your sling.’
Tilda nodded. She resented having to work for
the lord of the manor, especially for the tiny wage
he paid them. There he was, swanning around in a hat beaded with pearls and a red velvet jacket, and
the rest of them in rags, having to wear everything
they owned to keep warm at night.
‘It’ll never do,’ she said softly to Catherine,
stroking the side of her head. ‘One day, we shall
leave this wretched life behind, and we’ll take you
with us, Your Highness.’
Catherine gave a long trill, the sort of noise
she made when she was happy, and Tilda reached
under her bed to give her a cob nut. She loved the
way the squirrel stood upright and clasped food in
its front paws to eat it. Tilda called her Catherine, a
royal name, because she treated her like a princess.
‘You, I don’t mind looking after, you love
me back,’ she whispered. ‘But Lord William
Laybourne, I could do without helping him at all.
And his stuck-up son…’
Breakfast done, Tilda and Thomas walked
across the common to collect their horse, Brownie,
and his harrow. The air was fresh and breezy and
all around there was evidence of the damage the
storm had wreaked, in fallen trees and fences, and
Tilda thought of her father’s warning. ‘Do you
think the plague is coming back?’ she asked.
Thomas looked uncertain. ‘It’s returned before,
but never as bad as when I was a boy. That was
horrible, Tilda. I hope you never see anything like
that. People covered in swellings as large as eggs,
oozing blood and pus. It makes me sick to think
of it. And they died in a day. We lost over half the
village in a few weeks.’
Tilda had heard these stories many times. She
put an arm round him, nestling under his shoulder.
‘But not you and Mum,’ she said.
Thomas put his brave face on. ‘Might not be
plague that’s coming,’ he said. ‘Might be something
else. Who knows what God has in store for his
Brownie lived in a little wooden stable next to
Lord’s Wood and the biggest field on the estate.
The harrow he would pull had been leaning against
the stable but had fallen over in the storm. Thomas
and Tilda picked it up together. The heavy wooden
beams and great iron nails were certainly more
than Tilda could pick up on her own.
‘We shouldn’t let that get too wet,’ said Thomas.
‘Wood’ll go rotten and the nails’ll rust. We should
have put it inside yesterday afternoon.’
Lord Laybourne called from a distance. ‘You,
Rolfe. I want a word.’
‘What’s this about?’ muttered Tilda.
‘I can guess,’ said Thomas, looking at the harrow.
But before the lord could get any closer, he was
surrounded by several irate villagers. He looked
distracted and his hand went instinctively to the
hilt of his sword. Even from a distance Tilda could
sense his disdain – he had the expression and
manner of a man in the presence of a powerfully
unpleasant smell. Maybe he was, thought Tilda
with a smile. Some of the villeins still thought a
hearty smell let the world know they were bursting
with manly vigour. How such men thought this
would make them attractive to women was beyond
her understanding. She was grateful her father did
not cling to that old-fashioned idea.
They walked forward, as angry words drifted
towards them in the light wind. Laybourne was
almost a head taller than the peasants around him,
but he was a lean and wiry man, and probably no
match for a thickset peasant intent on doing him
harm. But the closer they got the more it became
clear that the men who surrounded him were angry
about something else and were expecting him to
Eustace Fogg, who lived across the village from
the Rolfes, was in a desperate state. ‘You must help,
my lord, I beg you. My brother, Peter of Larkfield,
has been arrested.’
‘I’m sure for good reason,’ said Laybourne
‘No, my lord, his daughter was assaulted by a
Laybourne’s face remained impassive. ‘The
collectors have too much work to do, surely? They
would not have time to assault the young women
of the parish.’
Fogg tried to contain his anger. ‘My lord, the
collectors demanded a whole twelve pence from
everyone in the village over the age of fifteen.’
‘I know,’ said Laybourne. He sounded weary. ‘I
was instructed by the county constable to levy such
a charge. Those men work directly for me.’
‘But my lord…’ Fogg had gone red in the face
with anger. ‘This collector, he told Peter’s daughter
she would have to pay. She’s only thirteen. The
lecherous goat said he did not believe her and
pulled up her gown to her chest. He made her naked for all the world to see…’ The others around them
stood silent in shock. Laybourne tried to arrange his
face into an expression of concern. ‘And this man
leered at her and declared to her father that he was
obviously a liar and she was obviously a fine young
woman and old enough for sure to pay the tax.’
Laybourne shook his head and spoke firmly.
Tilda thought his was a tone of voice an adult would
use to speak to a stubborn child. ‘The collectors are
charged by the king to raise revenue for the crown.
There is a war with France to be paid for. Money
does not grow on a magic money tree. How would
this man know your brother was not lying about
his daughter’s age?’
Fogg could sense he had no chance of winning
this argument. He was clearly at a loss for what to
Another man spoke for him. ‘My lord, Peter
Fogg was so enraged at the collector’s lechery, he
grabbed a shovel and split the man’s head open.’
‘And did the collector die of his wound?’ asked
Laybourne. This time, he sounded concerned.
The man nodded.
‘Then Fogg will hang within a week.’
The pronouncement put an end to the meeting.
Laybourne strode away, fixing Tilda and Thomas
with a stern eye. ‘You left the harrow out last night.
If you do it again you will be fined a week’s wages.’
Thomas lowered his eyes in shame. ‘Yes, my
lord. It was my fault.’ Tilda had forgotten to do it.
Her father was protecting her.
Laybourne’s eye alighted on Tilda. He gave her
a crooked smile. ‘And how old are you, young
woman? Is anyone going to be lifting your gown
up to check on your age?’
Thomas stood before him, his meekness gone.
‘My daughter is only fourteen, my lord,’ he said
Laybourne shrugged. ‘I won’t tell you again
about the harrow.’ Then he turned around and
sauntered back to the manor house with a slate
roof, where the Rolfes both noticed there were four
chimneys billowing smoke from fires to ward off
the late spring chill.
Eustace Fogg looked like he had seen a ghost. ‘I
would have acted the same if that man had done
that to my daughter.’
Thomas Rolfe put a hand on his shoulder.
‘Who knows what a man will do in the heat of
anger,’ he said. ‘I am sorry your brother is in such
Fogg’s voice hardened. ‘Storm like last night
always means trouble. Who knows what’s coming
Alone now, Tilda and Thomas led Brownie out
of his stable and let him graze on the thick grass.
They walked the harrow clumsily out to the side of
the field and prepared the leather harnesses. ‘This
one’s only got a few more days in it,’ said Tilda,
holding up a worn length.
Thomas called Brownie over with a carrot he
produced from his tunic. As the horse gobbled away,
Tilda quickly attached his harness to the harrow.
They were about to set off to till the field when
another distraction overtook them. Hugh Godfrey,
one of Laybourne’s men, was hailing them.
‘Rolfe, tax collectors will be here tomorrow,’
he said. ‘A shilling from everyone over fifteen.’
He turned to Tilda and smiled. ‘You should be
all right,’ he said kindly. ‘You were baptised here
weren’t you? Ask them to check the parish records if they query your age.’ Then he hared off, looking
for other farm labourers to tell.
‘We’re paying for you, Tilda. I’m not having no
grubby collector lifting up your gown.’
‘Anyone who does that to me will have his nose
broken,’ said Tilda.
‘Attacking a tax collector can have serious
consequences, my dearing. You might even be
accused of treason.’
Tilda was outraged. ‘But it’s a whole week’s
wages, Father. We have barely enough to eat. And
almost no fuel for our fire.’
‘We’ll manage,’ said Thomas. And that was the
end of that discussion.
He left Tilda to her thoughts. She shrugged.
A week’s wages for an unexpected poll tax was
something that made her angry but it wasn’t going
to kill them. If the storm was a warning, then
surely God had something far worse than that up
That night, Tilda lay in her bed and pondered
on the injustices of the world. This was their
lot. Laybourne owned them, like he owned the buildings and the land in and around the village,
and he could sell them like cattle. When she first
discovered this, when her father had told her about
it one evening, she had been outraged.
Funnily enough, Thomas didn’t seem to mind.
‘Tilda, my dearing, we get a place to live and we
get land to work on and grow our food. What else
can we do? We cannot read and write; we can only
work the land. God has given us a good life. Or at
least a life we can bear.’
‘We can run away, Father,’ she had said.
Thomas had smiled sadly. ‘We haven’t got
much in this world have we, sweet Matilda?’ he
said, sweeping his arm about the sparse interior of
their hut. ‘But if we ran away we’d have absolutely
nothing. We have friends around us, we’re born to
work the soil and we’ll live and die as villeins. It’s
God’s will. We can’t go against it.’
Even as a twelve-year-old hearing this for the
first time, Tilda felt a sense of burning injustice in
her father’s words. But she could see the sense in
them too. What else could they do?
‘But what about Uncle John?’ she had said.
Thomas had mentioned she had an uncle who lived in London. He had escaped from the village before
she was born.
‘Yes, he was lucky. He made use of his skill with
wood. He became a carpenter and house-builder,’
said Thomas. ‘And it’s true. If you can live in a city
for a year and a day then you are free of the bond
that ties you to the lord of the manor.’
‘Why can’t we do that, Father?’ said Tilda.
Thomas just shook his head. He wasn’t even
angry. ‘Because I like my village and I like my
neighbours and I like the countryside. Big towns
are places where everyone lives on top of everyone
else, and there is pestilence, and you can’t get the
smell of dung out of your nostrils. Tilda, let’s
talk no more about this. The evils of the city
are far greater than the evils of our servitude to
So Tilda never raised the subject again, but that
did not stop her thinking about it. Sometimes she
would fantasize about being a travelling performer –
a juggler or an acrobat. She wondered if she could
create an act using her skills with a slingshot – but
she quickly realised that wasn’t something that
would enthral people in a street circus and get them to part with money. She wondered too about
playing a musical instrument. From time to time,
wandering minstrels had visited Aylesford and the
sound they made always enchanted her. But she had
no idea how much a hurdy-gurdy or a crumhorn
cost and didn’t have the first idea how she would
go about learning to play such a thing. But people
told her she had a good singing voice. Maybe she
could use that?
The truth was, there was very little she could do
that offered her a better life than the one that was
mapped out before her. Even if she had been born
a boy, the choices were still very limited. One older
boy from the village, she remembered, had run away
to Rochester to work on the fishing boats. That
sounded better than what she had to look forward
to here. But no one would allow a girl to become a
fisherman – it was bad luck to have women on board
a boat, she was told. Tilda hated all that. ‘Women are
the ruin of mankind,’ she was always being told. They
couldn’t do a thing right in the eyes of some men. In
church she had to listen to the story of Genesis and
how Eve had tempted Adam with the apple.
Tilda had begun to doubt those stories and could
see how they were useful in keeping the villeins
in their place. But she dare not share her thoughts.
It was too dangerous. Heretics would be sent to
hell and Tilda did not want to burn in a lake of
fire for all eternity. She didn’t want her friends
and neighbours to shun her either, and that’s what
would happen if she started to argue with their
local priest on a Sunday morning.
Even if she did run away to Rochester, her job
would be to wait for the men to return from the sea
and then spend the day gutting fish. It was a dreary
prospect. Mind you, although plenty drowned on
fishing boats no one ever died gutting fish, unless
they got into an argument with another fish-gutter
that ended in a knife fight.
In her wilder fantasies, Tilda wished she could
read and write. If she could do that, she thought,
she would never be bored. The mother of her friend
Cecily had been able to write. She worked in nearby
Maidstone, keeping records for a local brewer who
was related to Laybourne. That seemed like a nice
life. They even had a book in their hut, a gift from the brewers to their valued employee. It was full of
stories about faraway lands.
When Cecily and Tilda were young, they would
sit as her mother read them fantastical tales of
tribes who had faces on their chests rather than
heads, and trees that produced live lambs rather
than fruits and seeds. To Tilda, that brown leatherbound book seemed like the most valuable thing in
the world, and sometimes Cecily’s mother would
let her hold it. And even though those squiggly
lines and circles and curves were puzzling now,
one day she would learn to read, she told herself.
Tilda missed Cecily. The family had moved
to Maidstone with Laybourne’s blessing. One
Sunday, when she had an afternoon off, she would
try to find her there.
Information about the Book
Title: The Great Revolt
Author: Paul Dowswell
Release Date: 6th August 2020
Genre: MG Historical
Page Count: 288
Publisher: Bloomsbury Education
Goodreads Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54363901-the-great-revolt
Amazon Link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Great-Revolt-Paul-Dowswell/dp/1472968425
Paul Dowswell is a prize-winning author of historical fiction and non-fiction. A former senior editor with Usborne Publishing, he has written over 80 books, including for Bloomsbury the acclaimed Ausländer, Eleven Eleven, and Sektion 20. Away from work he enjoys travelling with his family, and playing with his band in the clubs and pubs of the West Midlands.