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Letter From America: Fighting Fish Friars

Ronnie Bray, writing with pugnacious vigour, tells of a confrontation in 1260AD between the priora of Meaux Abbey in Holderness and St Mary’s Abbey in York over the rights to fish in Yorkshire's Hornsea Mere.

To read more of Ronnie's vigorous words please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/letter_from_america/

I was disappointed to learn that Yorkshires largest natural lake, Hornsea Mere, is a rather piddling affair being but two miles in length, a half mile across, and covering 250 acres. Although its size is not much to shout about it is nonetheless an area of special interest because of the birds that migrate to it each year and for the many resident species that abound in the area.

Whether the 1260 AD tournament took place at or near the Mere I cannot say. No one seems to know, but since the dispute was concerned with fishing rights what better place for priors to pummel, parry, and generally pugilise each other than at the scene of the prevalent public piscatorial rumpus.

Meaux Abbey in Holderness and St Mary’s Abbey in York didn’t always eat the roast beef of old England. Like most Yorkshiremen they were fond of the fish that sported, spawned, and swam in the waters of the ancient Mere. The altercation began when the fishermen started knocking their elbows into the ribs of the competition in the many petty squabbles for the choicest places to fish successfully. As a failed fisherman myself I can see how location might be important.

The case of the pugnacious priors arose because each house stubbornly held that it had historic and exclusive claim to fish the lake in which where pike, perch, roach, and trout abounded.

Meaux Abbey was Cistercian founded in 1151 by William le Gros, 1st Earl of Albemarle, Count of Aumale, and the fourth lord of Holderness, near Beverley in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

The Benedictine Abbey of St Mary was founded in 1055 and dedicated to Saint Olave. Then re-founded by King William II in 1088 who actually hefted a trowel and laid the foundation stone of its Norman church. It was then re-re-founded in 1271.

I say with absence of malice that St Mary’s had earned a reputation for worldliness, as exemplified by its Abbot frequently turning up in traditional Robin Hood narratives, in which said Abbot is distinguished as the avaricious enemy of the Man in Lincoln Green. Is it true? I don’t know. Could it be true? Of course it could.

We must also allow the possibility that the Cistercians at Meaux were no strangers to impious activities because a heated quarrel developed between the two houses as to whether of them had legal right to fish Hornsea Mere.

Fishermen are not as other men. In some circumstances, they can appear normal. However, they can become more than a little cranky if they find ‘strangers’ plying rod and net in their hallowed ‘spot.’

Details of whether the Meauxans first voiced their objection to the Marians, or whether it was vice versa, have been lost in the mists ancient and unrecorded history. Doubtless, if the chronicles of each abbey were consulted each would blame the other. Therefore, we must, perforce, regard the question of who was the primary provocateur as a tie and apportion six tenths of the blame to each of the disputing parties.

Being men of the cloth, extremely religious, and committed to the principles of the Christian religion, they decided to settle the argument according to Biblical principles. Unfortunately, the principles they chose were those employed by dangerous driver and King of Israel to be, Jehu, and pagan King Jehoram of Judah, known as Jehoram the Naughty.

These monkish were firmly and immovably stuck in Lex Hebraica, having not moved up to the less bloodthirsty virtues of the Lex Christos, and, therefore, were moved by the account of Jehu’s victory over King Jehoram, wherein ‘Jehu drew a bow with his full strength, and smote Jehoram between his shoulder blades, and the arrow went out at his heart, and he sunk down in his chariot.’ The brethren, following suit, chose the religious rite known as ‘trial by combat.’

The ‘agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art on your way to court with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison’ method of avoiding conflict by mutual consent did not appear to have appeared on their radars. Nor did it occur to them that they could fish the Mere without skirmishes if they did so on alternate days.

They ignored all that religious stuff and decided that battle must be joined. Like all landowners – and Abbots were, first and foremost – estate and land managers, they let others do the fighting for them.

Oddly enough, despite the celebrated and well publicised acts of derring-do ascribed to Robin of Locksley around this time, the yew was not engaged, nor the spear employed.

Perhaps stout quarter-staves were used, but it is most likely that champions from the fields and windmills, having good physiques from years of wresting hard livings from farming and other kinds of towing were called upon to represent one or other of the houses, and ordered on pain of excommunication to attend at the appointed time, on the appointed day, and at the set place. Fortunately for history-worms, the result of the uproarious judicial combat was recorded, so that we are certain of its outcome.

Had I been the Lord of the Manor I would have given all my yeomen, serfs, vassals, and others under my sway, a day free from their usual labours. Stockmen would have to attend to their duties in the morning and again in the evening, but in between, they would have been given freedom to gather at the lakeside for the battle of the Titans, and I would have been there selling meat pies and leathern jugs of stout. Life must go one, and profit must be turned!

But, imagine the scene for yourself. Parties of pious parsons in priory apparel prepping their champions preparatory to their being pummelled, to pummel, and to suffer, and all for the sake of their Friday fare of freshwater fish!

I see, as it were in vision, the champions arrayed. A higgledy-piggledy assortment of strong men, wiry men, muscular men, overgrown men, men with reputations for riotous behaviour, for wife beating, for fighting in lumps for feats of strength, for bull lifting, for cow tipping, for cart pulling, for arm wrestling, for wall pushing, and for a host of other plebeian pursuits that propel men of repute and valour from the timid ranks of the unknown, and all were gathered at the appointed place to fight for God’s favour for their too-pious-to-fight-for-themselves patrons.

It ought not to have been too difficult for these religious fellows to come up with a more pleasant way of settling disputes than to have men bruise and batter each other unmercifully to see who gets to have piscatorial privileges. But, apparently it was.

As the first of dawn’s rosy fingers crept across the North Sea and illuminated the battlefield, the first two nominated champions entered the fray. They threw punches that would have, and had, felled oxen. They delivered bruising back handers, fore handers, kicks, gouges, leg trips, throttle holds, back breaking throws, blows to the solar plexus, rabbit chops, arm twisting, foot stomping, ear crunching, nose breaking, no-holds-barred, kidney jabs, and stomach kicks, with no quarter given or asked, until one of the combatants was unable to continue either through tiredness, broken bones, blood loss, unconsciousness, or death.

However, the end of the first bout didn’t end the slaughter. Oh no! It merely opened the contest to the next lucky pair to have their pugnacious physiognomies rearranged without benefit of anæsthetic or medical advice.

Had the noble art of prognosticating character by palpating the bumps on a person’s head been in vogue, reports would have indicated that the characters involved in the bruising battles assumed unusual proportions, as unusual facial features, and peculiarities not generally seen in agrarian folk, although common among drunken wild men in the wilds of Borneo and other less civilised places, developed before the very eyes of the spectators.

The press-ganged gladiators treated each other to facial reconstruction at a rate not seen since the Picts, Scots, and Romans joined in a three-way contest at Scotch Corner, in the car park at the back of the transport café.

A mute and disinterested onlooker was Hornsea parish church, whose high broach was used as a mark by seafarers. It saw all that transpired but did not speak until 1733 when, in what some considered an act of Divine retribution, it fell, having been weakened in a terrible strong storm the year before when it lost its roof and uncovered the evil doings of the parish clerk who had stacked the crypt from floor to ceiling with smuggled goods.

This uncovering was his undoing, fearing he had come to sudden and unanticipated Divine judgement he underwent an apoplectic fit that left him paralysed, denied him speech, and in short course delivered him up to Heaven’s mercy.

I am led to borrow from greater poets than myself to describe the continuation of the battle scenes at the Mere’s edge. Tennyson offers,

"So all day long the noise of battle rolled
Among the mountains by the winter sea … "

Except there were no mountains and the sea was two miles away. Otherwise, Tennyson describes it well.

From the mind and pen of Percy French, scholar and wit, we are informed,

"They parried and thrust and they side-stepped and cussed
'Till their blood would have filled a great pot.
The philologist blokes, who seldom crack jokes,
Say that hash was first made on that spot."

Although it is unlikely that either writer was present, and they might have had other conflicts in mind when they wrote what they wrote, suffice it to say that when the sun went down the combat was ended, the damaged, the unconscious, and the departed were counted, and St Mary’s Abbey declared victorious leaving the disgruntled brethren of Meaux to mew about their losses and confine their future fishing forays to the streams that fretted through Holderness.

It is told that there are some simple souls that long for a simpler time when all Yorkshire was bathed in golden gleams from heaven’s realm. This story, and others that show the true temper of those long gone times, show that there never were such times, no such places, and no such people.

That being the plain truth, each of us is left to determine that we must strive to do our best to make the best of when, where, and among whom our destinies have planted us.

© 2010 Ronnie Bray



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