The main natural sound in the village is the “chack chack” of the jackdaws that roost and nest on the east end of the church, believing it to be a rock face, or an abandoned quarry. They are sociable and intelligent members of the crow family.
They were one of the first birds I learned to identify by sound alone, when I was a boy in Leicestershire. Their calls were the constant backing track to family visits to Bradgate Park, the country park that is the remnant of the Grey estates and where the ruins of their family home can still be seen and clambered over.
This was the country home of Henry Grey, the 1st Duke of Suffolk, in the sixteenth century. He was a big landowner in Leicestershire, and was the Lord of the Manor in the village where my distant ancestors eked out a muddy subsistence.
The house was one of the first brick-built, non-fortified country houses in England, and the bricks are still wonderfully beautiful after six hundred years of gentle weathering. The care and skill of those Plantagenet bricklayers is obvious
At the time of its building, the land around was waste forest, the royal hunting park of Charnwood Forest, thickly wooded and rocky, the haunt of stags and eagles. The deer are still there, though their numbers are carefully managed, and I remember as a child, kneeling spellbound in the bracken, watching a huge red deer stag bellow and snort in the rut, not three yards away. The steam from his breath defined that frosty morning in the oak clearing for the rest of my life. I am so grateful to him for unknowingly giving me the gift of the wilderness.
Back to Henry Grey.
His daughter was Lady Jane Grey, the nine-day queen of England. Her fate was detailed to me every time the family went to Bradgate, which was quite often.
Jane was cousin to the King, and Henry was ambitious for her, and when the opportunity arose, with the death of King Edward VI,
to manipulate his daughter into becoming Queen of England in 1553. I always imagined her to be a beautiful, but innocent, girl in simple white clothes, unaware of the cosmopolitan world of power and intrigue in London, but, in fact, she attended court and married Lord Dudley – a bad move, as he was as ruthless as her father.
Between them, Henry Grey and Robert Dudley, installed her on the throne in order to block the accession of Mary Tudor, who was a Catholic.
Having been put on the throne, she was stuck there when Mary demanded it back, as rightful heirs re prone to do. Jane, her father and Dudley were imprisoned in the Tower of London. They were tried for High Treason and executed in 1554. On the day of her execution, it’s said, she was confused and asked her executioner for his help in arranging her head on the block. If I were about to have my head cut off, I think I’d do a pretty good impression of being confused, as well!
Henry Grey’s decapitated head was mummified, and the notches on his neck show that it took several blows with the axe to despatch him.
As was usual with traitors, Grey’s lands were confiscated and redistributed. My tenuous link with this process is that a couple of acres of his land were distributed to my farmer-ancestors.
Jane has always been portrayed as the innocent victim, as in the Paul Delaroche painting. Her fate appealed to the Romantic artists, and it was clear to me as a young child that she was mightily put-upon.
The bit of the story that really got me was the story that, after Jane’s beheading, the estate gamekeepers cut the heads off all the oak trees in the park, as a sign of respect and remembrance. As a result, the oak trees in Bradgate are twisted and gnarled, six hundred years later.
That is a memorial worth having.