By JACK CHAUCER
Next year will mark the 500th anniversary of Flodden — the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought between the kingdoms of England and Scotland — and author Harry Nicholson’s masterpiece novel “Tom Fleck” takes the reader back to Sept. 9, 1513, as if it were yesterday.
Farmer Fleck, just 18 at the time, could’ve still been safe and sound tending his master’s cattle, but his honest nature and talent for archery had conspired to steer him wrong. Now he is part of a herd of some 20,000 English soldiers thrust into a borderland conflict between the Earl of Surrey, representing King Henry VIII, and King James IV of Scotland. Injured from a pike blow to the chest and playing dead as the carnage rages nearby, Fleck comes to the realization that the world in which he lives is not a good match for his pure, penniless and hardworking soul.
“(Tom) groaned and thought: harvest time; we should be at home, beating sheaves on the threshing floor. Here we are, poor bloody labourers, herded together, mangling one another for the sake of a few soft-handed lords,” Nicholson writes.
Yes, war is hell — but it was far more brutal 500 years ago among the “flowers of the forest” on Flodden Field in Northumberland, England. Back then, there were no “smart bombs” — men had to look their enemies in the eye and beat them to death with a stick or a sword if they wanted to survive the day.
Nicholson brings history to life with poetic detail, authentic dialogue of the period and a protagonist you can’t help but root for in his cleverly crafted, perfectly paced novel. The research and storytelling is so well done that it certainly doesn’t feel like fiction when you read it. But as Nicholson points out in his introduction, Fleck “is fictional only because he leaves no record — his people live before the keeping of parish registers, so they make no marks on parchment and are lost to history.”
Nicholson did discover a record of the baptism of Christofer Fleck, son of William, on Sept. 19, 1596, in Hartlepool, England.
“Perhaps William heard tales of how his great grandfather, Thomas, loved a strange woman and stood with the army on the terrible battlefield of Flodden,” Nicholson adds in his introduction.
The strange woman is Rachel Coronel, the exotic Portuguese daughter of a Jewish trader and money lender. When Tom fishes a gold ring out of the muck on his master’s farm and it bears the Tudor noble seal, he seeks Isaac Coronel’s advice while struggling to keep his eyes off the beautiful Rachel. Isaac is not comfortable buying the ring from Tom and encourages him to find the owner with the hope of getting a reward.
Accompanied throughout his journey by his little collie Meg, Tom wins over noble heralds, grizzled war veterans, potential enemies and young ladies alike with his simple acts of kindness, generosity and compassion.
The only man he can’t stand is Mark Warren and with good reason. Warren, the privileged and womanizing son of the man who owns Tom’s cattle farm, raped Tom’s 20-year-old sister, Hilda. When the Warrens expect all the men of the manor to muster for the upcoming battle with Scotland, Tom decides to flee. He wants no part of fighting.
But when Mark catches him trying to cross a river and escape, Tom is ready for that battle. He not only declares his freedom, but he also breaks Warren’s arm with a quarterstaff and sends him whimpering away.
Tom eventually completes his mission and returns the ring to the noble herald who lost it. His reward is a job caring for and guiding pack horses for the English soldiers. Unfortunately for Tom, his impressive skill with a bow and arrow — taught to him by his late father — draws the attention of his sergeant and even saves his captain’s life in a relatively minor skirmish with the Scots at Milfield. After that, there’s no turning back for Tom from his date with Flodden.
Fleck’s budding love affair with Rachel — he wins her over with his pure heart and thoughtful gifts even though she originally would’ve preferred to settle down with a Jewish man — only raises the stakes during Nicholson’s harrowing account of the every man’s inexorable march toward war. The mucky ground and primitive mode of transportation — a long line of lumbering horses, oxen and soldiers — make the slow, gut-wrenching journey that much more torturous for Tom and captivating for the reader. You absolutely feel like you’re one of the herd, being led to the slaughter.
“Fifty yards in front, two bulky men carried poles that held aloft an old red banner. Embroidered flowers garlanded its sides, framing its centre a faded red cross on a white square. Tom tried to concentrate on it. The way the wind played with the banner took his mind off his queasy stomach and helped to hold back the bile that threatened to flood his mouth,” Nicholson writes.
Though Tom and poor little Meg both get bloodied in the gripping battle scene, Tom makes good on his promise to return safely to Rachel because the Scot holding the axe above his wounded body recognizes him. Tom had helped the man and his brothers escape detection by British soldiers weeks earlier, when Tom wasn’t holding a quiver of arrows and fighting for the Earl of Surrey.
“I know ye and I know this wee dog,” the red-bearded Scot said.
“Aye, we’ve met before. I’m Tom Fleck and you’re John Elliot.”
“That’s right, laddie. You were good to me and ma brothers at Coxhoe a bit since.”
Elliot amazingly drapes another soldier’s limp body over Tom as cover and hands him some bog moss to stop his bleeding.
“Stay still and pretend you’re dead as him,” the big Scot advises him before continuing on in the fight.
Tom may have been stuck in the wrong herd at the wrong time, but his good karma saves his life, and Nicholson finds a way to bring out the humanity between two supposedly enemy combatants in the midst of a gruesome bloodbath 500 years ago. For that moment in time at least, the bond between poor laborers transcends the ambitions of royal blood.
Unlike King Henry VIII, King James IV was willing to sacrifice his own blood on Flodden Field. James led his invading army into battle and was killed that day, becoming the last monarch from the British Isles to suffer such a death to date.
Yes, England won the Battle of Flodden and, thanks to this wonderful novel by Harry Nicholson, our common hero of noble heart, Tom Fleck, lives on — even as the calendar marches toward 2013.
Below is the link to Harry’s website. The e-book is just $2.99 — well worth it!