Skerry the mason was balancing high on the roof of West Bilney Hall, replacing tiles, slowly making the house weathertight after the winter storm that had shattered windows, lifted roofs and flattened barns across England. The great wind of November last, 1703, had been the worst Elizabeth Freke could recall since Oliver Cromwell died, the worst for generations people said. A hurricane blast, that smashed ships to splinters, drowned thirty sailors in the harbour at Kings Lynn, and unthatched all the cottages on the Bilney estate. One of her farmhouses was quite blown down. The tenants had stopped the gaps and made good with odds and ends of timber and thatch straight after the storm: that had cost her five hundred pounds and now it was spring and there were more repairs to pay for.
Mistress of West Bilney Hall, Elizabeth managed the tenants and tradesmen and trusted none of them. When she went in to fetch the money from her closet to pay the mason, she knew her price. Six pounds and no more. She would not be cheated, she was a match for them all.
Upstairs in the long, flint-faced house lay her husband Percy, checkmated by gout and a rasping cough, in a high bed hung around with green damask. Light was spinning across the room, dancing rainbows over the gilt looking glass and catching the dark gleam of the tortoiseshell cabinet opposite the bed. Percy Freke was propped on his wife’s best feather pillows, under the fine holland sheets she had reluctantly unpacked from the locked chest in her closet, with a plaid quilt folded at his feet. He had arrived to claim more money from her for his Irish enterprises, but was now too ill to travel back to Cork.
Her husband was a rare presence at West Bilney. He had no time for the estate, or its meagre income from poor tenants.
‘I’ll sell it, I’ll take the money to Ireland. This place won’t keep me in bread and cheese,’ he had shouted. That time, she saw and heard nothing more of him for two years. Seven times he had left her in empty houses with bare walls, her beds, sheets and money all taken. Now he could not walk a step, still less ride to Bristol and jump on a ship. Her unkind husband, who never in his life took any care for her or what she did.
She kept a journal, the account of her years of abandonment. On the first page she had written its title: ‘The misfortunes that have attended me in my unhappy life since I were married’. Elizabeth found no consolation in piety, and she never resigned herself to suffering. Indeed she re-examined her grievances, and retold her story with the addition of hindsight in a second version of the journal. Her November wedding day, the ‘most grievous rainy, wet day’ of the first telling, became in the later one ‘a most dreadful rainy day (a presager of all my sorrows and misfortunes to me).’
Her son had not asked her consent or her blessing to his own marriage. She had never met her daughter-in-law Eliza, the woman who shared her name, or seen the two small grandsons in Ireland. ‘For which I have and do forgive him, and wish him better fortune than I’, she wrote, remembering how she too had married without her father’s consent. She had run away with Percy Freke all those years ago to marry for love, but he was not a loving man. She had soon learned that. Her orderly and thrifty father had been right, but it was too late.
It was March when the letter arrived from Eliza. She may have read it in the parlour, sitting by the polished oval table under the window. Along the wall was a fine cane settle. It had been a necessity when her sister gave it to her, the only piece of furniture she had after Percy disappeared with their money and possessions. The panelled room was comfortable now, hung round with four lengths of tapestry woven with green forest scenes. She had other tapestries folded away in chests, fine hangings, counterpanes and linens, and on the settle were silk embroidered cushions she had worked herself. Every closet, box and shelf in the house held its proper stock of the things she had slowly gathered together. A long portrait of her father hung above the fireplace, a flattened, varnished likeness of the man who had loved and protected her, given her the land at Bilney, and money that Percy had used up as soon as they were married.
Her daughter-in-law’s brief letter told her that Ralph was suffering from dropsy. As no physician in Ireland could help him they were going to Bath for a cure, then would bring their children to visit Elizabeth and Percy. Although she knew it was not affection but illness that had woken them to think of visiting her, her hopes rose: would returning to his native country restore Ralph to her?
Ralph. His terrible birth, the child dismissed as dead, but saved by a midwife who caught a flicker of life in his face. She’d come out from Swaffham, and was kind and gentle, not like the man-midwife with his hard instruments and impatient ways who had wanted to drag out the baby. The baby’s broken hip, the sickly childhood, the focus of all her care and anxiety, her only living child. The year in Ireland at Rathbarry when he was an infant, the house bare and cold, her husband forever away, her mother-in-law cruel when she miscarried, no dear father or sisters to comfort her. She returned to England to bring Ralph up. But he left her to join his father in Ireland as soon as he was old enough to travel alone. Elizabeth was bereft.
It was autumn when Ralph and his family at last arrived at West Bilney. The man who greeted her was so big, so fat, so loaded with dropsical humour, she hardly recognised him as her son. Was Ralph as shocked when he saw his mother? She was disfigured by a recent fall from top to bottom of the stairs that had knocked out eight teeth, leaving only three in her upper jaw.
Her daughter-in-law Eliza was attended by her own servant, spent the mornings in her chamber with the door never quite shut, and was barely civil. She had never once troubled to greet her parents-in-law with a ‘good morrow’ or ‘good night’. Finding her daughter-in-law so curt and aloof, Elizabeth turned to her grandsons. Her fondness for three-year-old John grew as the weeks passed; he quickly took first place with her. He was the picture of her boy Ralph, whom she still thought the loveliest child she ever saw, and seemed more real to her than his father, the bloated man who had stepped from the carriage a month before. Her mind filled with thoughts of her grandchildren and their future. When Ralph and Eliza went to visit their London friends would they leave the boys with her? She had asked them, more than once, but Eliza said nothing. Did she not know London was a bad place for children? Elizabeth wanted to keep John at Bilney.
While the maid tidied and dusted the room one morning, Elizabeth sat with Percy in the bedchamber. She mentioned a gift of fifty pounds they were planning to give Ralph. Before any answer came from him, the door was thrown open. There stood her daughter-in-law, flaring with temper.
‘You should be ashamed to speak of such a trifling gift, and before a servant,’ she shouted at Percy, then turned to Elizabeth, ‘I’ve a good mind to kick your maid downstairs. You must turn her out of doors now, or I’ll be gone myself…’
She must have been listening at the chamber door, thought Elizabeth.
The day of the departure, Elizabeth felt desperate. She pleaded with Eliza to leave the boys in her care. The city was full of disease, the children were not safe there. They could be left in the country until their parents were ready for the return to Ireland. But Eliza was impatient to be gone, and the coach took them all away to London.
How did the news reach her? She does not say. Ralph or Eliza must have summoned the courage to write, or perhaps they sent a messenger to explain. They told her how John and his brother were playing with a small boy called Tom in the London house where the family were lodging. Ralph’s manservant was loading and priming a pair of pocket pistols. Suddenly Tom reached past him, snatching up a pistol: the gun exploded into life as he lifted it, the room filling with smoke, shouting and confusion. John had been standing near Tom, and took the full force of the explosion in his face. The bullet went through his eye, but he was still alive. His desperate parents sent for every surgeon and apothecary in London who might help, but it was no use. After three days he died, a month short of his fourth birthday.
Elizabeth collapsed when she heard of John’s death, consumed with grief and anger: the dear child would not have died if he had been left with her. Her heart was broken, she had lost any comfort in this life. When John’s body was brought to Bilney she moved without feeling through the day as she gave orders for the funeral. The church was full. The neighbours she had fought over debts and boundaries, the cheating tradesmen, all of them came. Afterwards she went into her bed, pulled the curtains round her, and lay there for many days, half sleeping, eating nothing, hearing the tolling of the passing bell which she had ordered to be rung for the dead child.
Ralph and Eliza stayed away. They took ship for Ireland without seeing Elizabeth and Percy again. Percy could not sleep, stand, or walk, and could barely breathe. Before long he too was dead, laid in the vault beside his grandson.
Dressed in a black gown and mantua, her hair under a plain cap, Elizabeth was finishing her inventory. She noted descriptions and quantities in neat columns: four pewter dishes, all good; one deep pewter dish, new; six dishes and six new trenchers; one round brass dish for a pie or pudding: recording everything in preparation for a long visit to her sister. She would take the road across the flat, empty marsh, where the summer shimmer of the reeds was over, dulled into grey by the low winter light. Her possessions were layered in chests and locked in closets: knotted turkey carpets, candlesticks, brass kettles, warming pans and chamber pots. Bottles of syrups, cordials and vinegar. Bowls and jars, bedlinen, aprons, mantuas, and waistcoats. Folded and nested, stacked and shelved, lying quiet in the dark, like memories waiting for their time to waken. Every room clean and undisturbed. In the dining room stood Elizabeth’s own coffin, lined with lead, and the key to the vault. Hers would be the final funeral.
 The source of this piece is Elizabeth Freke’s journal, including household accounts and inventories, published as The Remembrances of Elizabeth Freke 1671-1714, edited by Raymond A. Anselment. Cambridge, 2001. She lived at West Bilney, a Norfolk village about eight miles from King’s Lynn.