A period piece from the reign of King Charles
By Jane Fairweather
The Lady Petronella Simon was in an odd state of agitation. She ought to have been chiefly concerned because she had a most unpleasant interview coming with her Lady Mother, which was likely to end with an extremely sore backside, quite apart from which she had been without food, or drink for nearly twenty four hours and was feeling decidedly faint because of it. However she was much more conscious that, for the first time she could remember in her eighteen years she was without her brother Stephen, who had departed the previous day with his tutor on the long and arduous ride from Yorkshire to the University of Oxford to take up his place at some college or other.
It was the sort of thing that happened only to boys of course and Petronella could not be bothered to remember the names of these ridiculous places of male education. She was, she supposed, lucky to have been allowed to share her brother’s lessons at such times as her Lady Mother did not want her for instruction in sewing or in the kitchen or the garden. Most girls, she was well aware, would have preferred that to wrestling with the severities of Latin authors like Seneca and Livy and Virgil and Horace, but she rather enjoyed them.
“Exegi monumentum aere perennius, I have erected a monument to myself more lasting than bronze.” She found herself constantly repeating from her reading of Horace.
But what woman, she thought to herself bitterly, got a chance to do anything worth erecting a monument to, unless of course you were Queen Elizabeth of glorious memory, who her elders were always going on about and how the present reign of King Charles was not a patch on it. Personally, she found her elders rather tame and suspected that they would not enjoy the whiff of gunpowder in some desperate adventure against the Spaniards as much as they claimed they would.
Still any whiff of gunpowder was most unlikely. It was 1637, more or less fifty years since the Armada had put paid to King Phillip of Spain and his Papist galleons and there had not been a decent war for years; and her Father had told her on his last visit from far away London, where he spent most of his time working for one of the royal ministers, that King Charles had proclaimed that he was “The Happiest Monarch in Christendom.” This, her Father had gone on to say, was very true considering that the long and savage war between the Papists and Protestants was still raging in Germany and had dragged in almost every realm except Britain.
And yet, she reflected, the war between her Father and Mother raged very fiercely whenever they were together. Everyone knew about the terrible screaming rows that occurred whenever Sir Michael Simon came home to his own house; and everyone pretended they did not occur, which always seemed deeply dishonest to Petronella and she wished her Father and Mother did not have to be married.
And yet despite Father’s belief that war would never return to England, he had never quite summoned up the courage to close up their small castle at the top of the hill and let it fall into disrepair. Stephen had told her, with boyish all knowingness, that if there ever was a war their finely built modern house down by the church would be indefensible and they would have to move up to the castle.
Not that the castle would be a lot of use, according to Stephen. The little fortress’s position away from obvious places to mount batteries against it and the thick stone walls and the secure supply of water would help, but apparently modern guns made stone walls vulnerable and you had to build thick earthworks to keep the cannon balls out And it was an annual ritual that their supply of muskets, pikes and armour was carefully brought out and cleaned of rust and cobwebs, before being greased and put back. But this was all men’s stuff, Petronella thought to herself, and probably these relics of former wars would never be used.
She wondered if the tensions that caused wars were anything like those between herself and her Lady Mother. It was not that she and her Mother were particularly vicious to one another; it was just that they did not share the same point of view. Her Mother quite genuinely could not understand why Petronella preferred learning Latin to sewing, cooking and husbandry and it had blown up into a ferocious row the day before.
Just after Stephen had left for a new life at Oxford, Petronella had been in tears at losing her brother and companion. Her Mother had taken her to her chamber; and for a brief while they had comforted one another over Stephen’s passing out of their lives and mother and daughter had been as close as they had ever been in their lives. But then Mother started on at her. It was time for Petronella to put by books and turn her attention to serious matters, so she would be ready for a marriage contract when it came.
“What husband would wish to have dry Latin quoted to him? He will be after some mistress of the common sort before you know where you are and your life will be a misery. No don’t look at me like that! The Latin books go away now that Stephen no longer needs a companion to spur him on in his studies. We will teach you to please a husband’s palate and run his household well. I cannot teach you to please him in his bed, though I wish I could, for that is very much part of being a wife. You are of a marriageable age and I expect you to be ready for it. You have a good dowry and will make a fine match if you are sensible.”
Petronella found these words still echoing through her head. At least if they were papists she could have chosen to be a nun, she supposed, and perhaps do the sort of things that she liked. Anyway, she had run out of the room screaming incoherently and out of the house and formal garden into the wood and down to the large hollow oak by the stream where she and Stephen had often played when they were smaller. Here, after she calmed down, she rebelliously quoted Horace Odes to herself till well into the evening when Amelia her old nurse who knew her ways came and found her.
“Oh Mistress!” Amelia said: “Everyone is looking for you and there is a terrible to do. Your Lady Mother is angry as I have never seen her. Your only chance of escaping a whipping is to go down on your bended knees and pray her forgiveness. You must do it Mistress, you must.”
Petronella remembered how even in the moonlight the anguish on her old Nurse’s much lined face had been so clear. She had felt genuine guilt at upsetting her old attendant (she could not have cared less about her Mother) and agreed reluctantly to come home. She could remember the moonlight, and the whisper of the mild breeze and the crack of dry sticks under their feet and the constant animal presences. Or were some of those presences old ghosts, or even dryads?
Amelia, having said her piece, had the wisdom to let her advice sink in and Petronella had been free, perhaps too free, to consider what her punishment was going to be like. It was some years since she had been whipped. The single birch rod (as opposed to the bunch of twigs that was used on her brother) had been a real and painful fact of her life till she was twelve, though it had never been very severe; but then it had stopped. Possibly her behaviour had got better, possibly it was felt she was too old.
Oddly, Petronella had seen Mr Jones whip Stephen on the bare breech half a dozen times for bad work or insolence. She had found the sight of the bare male flesh intriguing. It was not as white as her own but it still went very red when the birch rods started to descend and though she knew she was not supposed to look she had been intrigued by the sight of her brother’s naked genitals as he knelt on the floor to be whipped, with his hands on a chair.
In some ways she would have quite liked to be whipped by Mr Jones, but he always complimented her on her great application and attention, which she felt to be a little exaggerated. She was sure that if she had been a boy and needing to attain the standards required for one of these fearsome men’s colleges she would have been whipped. There was not that much difference in standard between her and Stephen, whatever Mr Jones said.
“Mistress, you must plead to your Lady Mother for forgiveness and mercy.”
Now they were at the edge of the wood and had not long to go to the house, Amelia was urgently repeating her advice. Petronella kept her own council. As they got nearer to the house the grounds were full of people with lanterns. Presumably they were all looking for her! She felt very self conscious.
“Your Mother called out the whole village to search for you. I hope you realize that.” Said Amelia.
One of the local farmers, John Illingworth, a very solid piece of manhood, who Petronella had always been rather attracted to (despite her occasional interest in nunneries) saw them as they entered the house grounds.
“So you’ve found the little minx!” He observed, then looked Petronella straight in the eyes and said: “If you were my daughter you’d be well whipped for all the trouble you’ve caused. Being who you are, you will probably escape, but I hope you don‘t.”
“John Illingworth, that is no way to address my lady.” Said Amelia, springing automatically to her lady’s defence.
“Oh leave it be Amelia, he is only speaking the truth. I did not mean to cause so much trouble, to the village at least. You can tell them that, John Illingworth, if you please.”
“Thank you your ladyship, I will pass it on.”
Petronella realised from the tone of the voice that in some odd way she was forgiven, at least by John.
“I doubt if forgiveness from your Lady Mother will come quite so easily!” Observed Amelia dryly. “Perhaps it is as well for you that your Father is so rarely at home these days.”
Petronella shrugged her shoulders and moved on towards the reckoning with her Mother. She and Amelia walked through the formal gardens to the door of her Father‘s great house, passing more than one person carrying lanterns. Some made very similar remarks to John Illingworth. Amelia grew irritable at the insolence to her lady, but Petronella herself found herself smiling. As her father so often said, these Yorkshiremen were very loyal tenants but they never spared you the truth as they saw it.
They entered the door of the house. Her mother was standing there in a simple black gown with her head covered in white. In the absence of her husband, the steward of the estate, Michael Mawson, stood by his mistress in rather ostentatious velvet breeches with yellow hose. There was something about his demeanour that reminded Petronella there were those who said Mr Mawson and her Mother were closer than was proper. For herself, she was not quite sure. Michael Mawson undoubtedly took on roles her Father would have undertaken if he had not so often been away, but she had seen no signs of excessive familiarity and yet looking at him now standing by Mother she could almost believe it.
Amelia glanced severely at Petronella, obviously implying she should prostrate herself before her mother and beg forgiveness. Petronella felt she could not do it; her pride would not let her. Apart from anything else she felt it meant showing respect to Mr Mawson as if he were her father and if it meant a whipping, so be it. However, she curtsied as normal to her Mother. Amelia followed suit. There was an awkward silence. Petronella realised her mother was as nervous as she was.
“Where did you find her?” Asked Mr Mawson, obviously feeling the need to break the silence between mother and daughter.
“Down by the stream hiding in the old oak, where she and her brother used to play as children.”
“Did she make a fuss about coming back home?” Her mother butted in.
“No, your ladyship, none at all.”
“Did she express contrition?” Demanded Mr Mawson.
“She said to John Illingworth that she was sorry for the trouble she had caused to the people who had to search for her.”
“If that is all the repentance she shows, she should certainly be whipped!”
Petronella thought to herself there was at least a chance, from the tone in his voice, that Mr Mawson was going to do the whipping. When she had been punished when she was younger, her Father had always done it. Her Mother had always made it clear it was not her job.
“And that was all?”
The expression on Mother’s face said very clearly this was nothing like enough. The look on Amelia’s face said that she had hoped against hope that it would be enough. Petronella realized her mother’s face was glaring at her.
“Well girl, what have you to say to me?”
“I am sorry for the trouble I have caused to all the people who had to search for me.”
“Nothing more, Madam.”
“So you are not sorry for your discourtesy to me.” Her mother half stated, half asked.
Petronella stayed mute, feeling that if she expressed the anger she felt the consequences might be really dreadful.
Her Mother seemed disconcerted by the silence and muttered “well!?” several times.
Then she seemed to accept she was not going to get an answer from her always difficult daughter and said: “Well, if you choose to be dumbly insolent that is your concern, but your backside will pay for it and Mr Mawson (since your Father never seems to be bothered to be here) can have the pleasure of dealing with it. Amelia, take her to her chamber and lock her in. Perhaps she will be more talkative and obedient in the morning after a night without food or drink. If not, then my daughter will find she is not too old for the whipping stool. I am not going to let her get away with it because her Father is not here.”
Amelia took Petronella’s arm and gently walked her away towards her room. Petronella, who was in a daze, allowed it to happen.
Just outside the door Amelia observed:” You are very lucky, my girl, she put it off to the morning. If she had interviewed you tonight you would have been well whipped. As it is, sleep on it and see if you can find it in your heart to be courteous to your Lady Mother tomorrow and you may well escape the whipping. Apart from anything else you do not want to be whipped by Mr Mawson. He is a strong man and I know he does not like you my lady.”
* * *
Anyway, thought Petronella, this long and tangled story would soon be over. She was not going to apologise; she felt her mother should apologise to her. And she would take the worst Mr Mawson could do. In an odd way it would be almost a defence of her Father, she decided.
She picked up a copy of Dr Thomas Campion’s Ayres, which had been her grandfather’s, and began to sing some of the songs. It was an old book and beginning to fall to pieces, but it had been there all her childhood and she was fond of it and often had it in her chamber. In this way she whiled away several hours trying not to worry, though occasionally bursting into tears, which she immediately repressed. She tried to ignore the fact that she felt increasingly hungry and thirsty and it was sapping away at her courage.
Then she heard the door to her room being unlocked. It was Amelia.
“Your Lady Mother requires your presence in her chamber. And, my lady, I should warn you they have brought the whipping stool out, there are rods in the bucket and Mr Mawson is there, all too eager to thrash you.”
Petronella felt her mouth go dry. The whipping stool had not been used in her lifetime that she knew of. This implied something very severe. Perhaps she ought to apologise. But then she thought she was not going to apologise with Mr Mawson there. She walked down the corridor behind Amelia in distinct agitation. She could feel the eyes of the servants on her and was sure they were all grinning.
Amelia opened the door of her mother’s chamber. This was normally full of embroidery, but that had been moved to one side. Instead, in the middle of the room stood the whipping stool. It was made of solid black oak. Though made like a stool with what looked like a seat it was the handles at each side of the seat that mattered. The victim knelt on the floor and held the handles; it was part of the mythology of her childhood. She felt her heart pound. Mr Mawson was there too, looking very severe and fatherly, which annoyed her intensely.
“Well girl, why are you stood there looking like a goose? Are you here to apologise to your Mother, or not?” He was saying.
To Petronella this seemed incredibly formal. It was as if the whole role of Motherhood had been assailed by Petronella; and Petronella felt that she should not have been treated like this by any Mother or her paramour, not that she knew if Mr Mawson was her Mother’s paramour.
“I am very happy to spare you the whipping if you will apologise.”
Mother was sounding much more reasonable than her steward, in fact she was sounding almost too reasonable.
“No!” Said Petronella, almost in a whisper, scared out of her wits, but equally determined not to give in, though she found herself glancing at the bound bunch of birch twigs that were soaking in a leather bucket by the whipping stool. She could feel the oddest things were happening in her genitals.
“Presumably that ‘no’ means you would rather be whipped, which is a great pity. Alright, I will ask you one last time, daughter. Do you wish to apologise to me, or be whipped?”
Petronella took a deep breath. Neither alternative her Mother was offering seemed very good, but at least if she was whipped she kept her dignity.
“I will take my punishment.”
“Very well,” said Mother. “In that case I will hand you over to Mr Mawson. Don’t give her any mercy, Mr Mawson; she does not deserve it.”
Mother quietly sat herself down in a large wood chair with an intricately carved back and started to watch intently. Mr Mawson removed the birch rods from the bucket. Amelia gasped. Petronella remembered the courageous execution of Sir Walter Raleigh which, according to her Father, did King James more harm than good, and decided she was going to behave with every scrap of dignity she could summon up. Her executioner was being brisk and to the point.
“You heard your Mother, Lady Petronella! Kneel and put your hands on the handles of the stool. You’d better pull your skirts up before you kneel, or they will be in the way.”
Petronella did as she was told, though she carefully did no more than stop her skirts being trapped under her knees. Like most women, she had nothing on under her skirts and she was not going to have this vile man, who was not her Father, staring at her bare behind any longer than she had to.
She found her knees hurt from kneeling on the wooden floor, and holding the handles of the whipping stool placed her at a very awkward uncomfortable angle. While she was waiting for the punishment to begin, which seemed a very long time, it suddenly struck her that the position was oddly like someone about to be beheaded at a high block. At least, she reflected, Mary Queen of Scots or the Earl of Essex or Sir Walter Raleigh would have got a cushion to kneel on and they did not have to hold these handles. She felt slightly faint and wished Mr Mawson would just get on and whip her and stop swishing the birch rods about. Apart from anything else, she felt very hungry and thirsty.
“I think we will have to do it, Mr Mawson. I was hoping we wouldn’t. Hold her skirts out of the way, if you please Amelia.” Said Mother with unwilling decisiveness.
Amelia obliged and Petronella could feel the cold air coursing round her nether regions. The birch rods descended and she felt a stinging, burning pain, which seemed to get worse with each lash. She realized her bottom was opening out and the twigs were getting unpleasantly close to the middle. Up to that point she had not even cried despite a lot of lashes, but then she found herself roaring both with pain and an odd ecstasy in her loins which she had never experienced before. But the main thing was the incredible stinging. Would it ever end!
“I think that is really enough, Mr Mawson. She is showing real signs of repentance. It is over Petronella, you can let go of the handles.”
Her mother was sounding quite solicitous, as if the whipping had taken all her anger away. Petronella did as she was told, released the handles which she was still clinging to as hard as she could and promptly found herself on her face. Mr Mawson, after a moment’s hesitation, put the birch rods back in the bucket, looking at once very over excited and a touch embarrassed. Amelia looked grimly angry and shocked.
Somewhere in the distance she heard her Mother‘s voice. “Amelia, give her a minute and then take her to her room. I suggest plenty of goose grease. And she can have a little bread and water this evening, but she is to have no proper food till tomorrow.”
“Oh dear, she was brave. I did not want to go on as long as that, but you have to get some repentance or it is a waste of effort.” Mr Mawson was saying almost apologetically somewhere in the distance as Petronella struggled down the corridor on Amelia’s arm. Petronella, through her pain, felt in some way she had got the better of Mr Mawson, though she would have been hard put to say why.
* * *
Next day Petronella, who was full of the pleasure of a large breakfast after a long fast, though she was still decidedly tender, was walking in the gardens with Amelia, when she heard two gardeners talking on the other side of the hedge.
“Did you hear? The lady Petronella got the whipping of her life from Mr Mawson for running away into the wood. But she was a brave girl, I hear, took it better than her brother ever did. I don’t think Mr Mawson and her Mama knew where to put themselves after. She shamed them with her courage. They should have waited till her Father was home. It was not quite right letting Mr Mawson whip her. He‘s not her Dad.”
“But then the poor thing would have had it hanging over her for weeks. But anyway she’d be more of a soldier than her silly brother. He’s all books. She’s brave, that girl, I will give her that.”
Amelia raised her eyebrows and nearly said something to the invisible gardeners, but the Lady Petronella Simon felt rather proud of herself.
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