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The Story of the Bottesford "Witches" - an Editorial Review of "Take Height, Rutterkin"

Author Bio:

I was born in the seaside town of Southport in 1947. At that time, Southport was still a part of Lancashire, but since the county boundary changes of 1974 it has become a part of Merseyside. I went to school in Southport and did my three year teacher training in Liverpool (1965-68). My geology degree came a little later, an extension of my love of physical geography.

My earliest memories stem from the first years of the 1950’s when we lived in a ‘prefab’ – a prefabricated house. Life was hard for everyone in those years following the war and, young as I was, I still recall my mother with her rations book . . .

My mother-in-law’s old ration bookMy parents on their wedding day. The photo is held together with sellotape

. . . and the dreadful state of badly bombed cities like Liverpool, where my mother’s family still lived. My parents were married in 1944, during one of my father’s leaves from the Royal Navy. My dad was from Southport, which escaped most of the bombing, and they lived with his parents until I was born three years later. Then they were offered the prefab. Most prefabs have long since gone, but no one can deny that such temporary housing served its purpose at the time. The population grew rapidly during the peaceful years following six long years of war – and I can claim to be part of that great ‘baby boom’. Yes, I’m definitely a ‘boomer’.

Despite the hardships, I had a really happy childhood. We left the prefab behind when I was seven, and I remember crying over it. I suppose a first home, no matter how humble it is, always stays in the mind. Well, at least, mine did . . . and it really was extremely humble.

My aunt (mum’s much younger sister), my sister Linda and me. I’m the chubby one on the left.

I owe my love of reading to my father, who could always be found with his head inside a book after a hard day’s work. And in the years following the war, the days of most ‘working-class’ men were long and hard. He never missed taking the three of us – I have a younger sister and brother – to the library every other Saturday. I seemed to spend most of my time looking forward to the next visit, especially as the three books we were allowed in those days had generally been well and truly devoured by the first Tuesday. There was something about the library that I loved. The officious librarian, who would glare at anyone who even dared to scrape back a chair on the wooden floor, and the big SILENCE sign, didn’t bother me at all. No, I liked the silence. I would sit at a table and scrutinise book after book before I finally made my choices.

I left Southport to take up my first teaching post in a small mining village near Doncaster in Yorkshire. I had moved from red rose territory to the realms of the white! But I loved my new school and the children I taught (I was a Secondary school teacher). It was in Yorkshire that I met my husband to be. He taught chemistry at a rival school (the rivalry generally referring to all things of a sporting nature). We were married in 1970, so it’s forty four years this year. In 1971 we moved down to Wantage (in Berkshire until 1974, now in Oxfordshire). Wantage is known as ‘King Alfred’s Town’, the site of his birth, and although I can’t claim to have been intending to write books about him since that time, living there did ignite the first sparks of interest in me for the Anglo Saxon /Viking period.

The following years were far too busy bringing up six children (all ‘pink’ roses!) and then eventually going back to teaching, to even contemplate the idea of writing. But the desire was always there, lying dormant just beneath the surface of my everyday life and thoughts.

Our children are all well grown up now and I retired from teaching a few years ago. We have all lived in Nottinghamshire since 1976, and my husband and I now live in a small village on the Nottinghamshire-Lincolnshire border, midway between Lincoln and Newark. Both of these places are full of lovely old buildings, including castles.

Since retiring I’ve been putting my newfound free time to good use. I’ve recently published my first book on Amazon, and the second is presently nearing completion. The novels are part of a trilogy, ‘Sons of Kings’. Book 1 is entitled, ‘Shadow of the Raven’, and Book 2 is ‘Pit of Vipers’.

My books are historical fiction (what else would they be?) set in the Anglo Saxon/Viking era. The protagonists throughout the trilogy are Alfred, son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex and Eadwulf, son of King Beorhtwulf of Mercia. It is set primarily in the Anglo Saxon and Danish lands.

Denmark is a beautiful country, its people warm and hospitable. I can honestly say that I saw no sign of the brutal, savage Viking temperament during my visit a few years ago! Not that I expected to, of course. I’ll talk about some of the excellent sites we visited in a future blog. Memories – and the help of a few notes and photos – really helped me to focus on the settings of various scenes whilst I was writing ‘Shadow of the Raven’.

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Editorial Review:

Our primary task is to ensure the witches hang... since that cannot take place until the women have confessed to giving themselves to the Devil – or witnesses can verify that they have – questioning those cunning women could prove invaluable.”

Life in 17th-century rural England was filled with hardship, especially for a widowed woman trying to make a living for herself and her daughters. When Joan Flowers finds herself on the receiving end of bullies in the village, and dismissal of her services from Countess Manners of Belvoir Castle, Joan seeks to find ways to survive and keep her girls from abject poverty. Already the women of the town spread horrible gossip about her, about her being a cunning woman (wise woman) who leans more towards being a witch, after Joan fails to hold her tongue and spouts curses right and left. The stress of her situation is unbearable, and she and her daughters are forced to turn their house into a bawdy house, which brings more rumors and more hatred from the women of the village as their husbands and sons spend more time there than at home.

All the while, her daughters, Phillipa and Margaret, are also fired from their service at the Castle and join their mother in the “nightly” work in order to put food on their table. Joan is brash and strong-willed, with a loose tongue and still serves the “old gods” instead of attending church. When the Countess dismisses her daughters, Joan decides to cast a few spells to ensure revenge upon the Manners family; all of which work as the heirs both fall sick, with one of them dying. But Joan views the curses as innocent utterings, allowing her to vent her anger while knowing that she is actually not to blame for the boy's sickness.

However, in a world ruled by King James, a friend of the Count and Countess, and frequent visitor to the castle, the fervor for removing any hint of witchcraft in England rises. As more and more accusations come against Joan and her daughters, the Countess accuses them, has them arrested, and they are removed to Lincoln to stand trial for witchcraft.

Based on the true story of the English witch trials against the Pendle witches and this story of the Flowers family, Millie Thom does a good job in presenting an intriguing tale of the realities of ignorance, abuse, and injustice rendered against the women during that time who, in reality, were no more witches than anyone. Thom's inclusion of the supposed “familiar” in the guise of Joan's small white cat, Rutterkin, adds a twist to the story, especially at the end.

For the most part, the story is well-told, with well-developed characters, and historically accurate research woven into the story line, with the speed and intrigue escalating towards the end of the book more so than the beginning... but is well worth pushing through to find out the outcome for these women facing brutal torture and hanging for witchcraft. As a reader, you want to know if they really are witches, if history proved the accusations true... and since this review reveals no spoilers, you will just have to read it yourself. You won't be disappointed... and you might even be shocked! Very often, the reader enjoys lovely atmospheric descriptive passages, such as the one below, which connect the reader to the characters and to the area which, in turn, reveal the author's own love for Bottesford in Lincolnshire.

Watery sunshine filtered through the clouds that had obscured the blue since the end of March. Joan trudged up the hill to the castle, hoping the rain would hold off until she got home. Few days had been rain-free for well over a month and spring sunshine seemed to be deliberately keeping out of sight... songs of nesting birds carried to her ear and she tried to pick out the different chirrups and trills, as she had done since she was a child. Yet, neither the beauty of the Vale nor the sweet birdsong could life Joan's spirits.”

Not only do you get a glimpse into the lives of these women, but the life of King James comes into play and his obsession with removing witchcraft from the land, while living his own life of questionable behavior during that time period.

Life can deal the harshest blows, yet those of us in positions of authority are expected to dry our tears and continue as though nothing has happened,” James declared.


Take Height, Rutterkin by Millie Thom receives four stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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