Kipling and his family moved into this big old house in Sussex, called Bateman’s, in 1902. It was only twelve miles away from Pevernsey where William the Conqueror landed in 1066, and was surrounded by evidence of the past. When they dug a well in the garden they found a 17th century tobacco pipe, a spoon from the days of Cromwell, and the bronze cheek of a Roman horse-bit. He had the idea of telling stories from English history by imagining that Puck, the magical figure from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, came out of the hill and brought characters from history, who had lived nearby, to tell their stories to his children.
The children act out part of Midsummer Night’s Dream, on Midsummer Eve, in a fairy ring, under the slopes of Pook’s Hill. They have broken a spell, and Puck steps out of the hill. He makes friends with them, gives them rights in the past of Old England, and promises ‘You shall see what you shall see, and hear what you shall hear, though it shall have happened three thousand year’.
With Puck they meet Sir Richard Dalyngridge, a Norman soldier, who had fought with William’s invading army at Hastings in 1066. Inland he is given the Manor held by his Saxon friend Hugh, if he can hold it. They make common cause against marauders to defend the manor, Norman soldiers and Saxon peasants fighting side by side. It bodes well for the future.
Richard and Hugh are now older, and their sons are growing up. They take ship on a journey, and in the mist tumble overboard into a Danish longship, sailing South in search of gold. They make friends with Witta, the Captain, and when the time comes, help him fight for the gold. They bring back a great treasure. Witta gives Hugh and Richard a good share, and sets them ashore.
Richard and Hugh are older yet. They foregather with de Aquila, their shrewd overlord, at his castle at Pevensey, which guards the shore where an army could invade. Henry has become King of England, his brother, Robert of Normandy plans to overthrow him with the help of treacherous Barons. One of them, Fulke, comes to call de Aquila away from Pevensey. They discover the plot, and foil his plans. England is safe for the time being.
Parnesius is a Roman soldier, born in England where the Romans had ruled for three hundred years. He tells how he became a Centurion, through the favour of Maximus, the great general, and his father’s friend, who hopes one day to be Emperor of Rome. His legion is stationed on the Great Wall, built by Hadrian, in the far north of England.
Parnesius marches north with his men, to the Wall. He finds a good friend, Pertinax, and they make friends with the Picts, north of the wall. They ride out hunting, and see the ships of Northmen, planning to attack. They meet Maximus, who needs to take troops from the wall for his campaign to be Emperor. They advise him to treat the Picts well, rather than conquering them. He makes them Captains of the Wall, to keep the frontier safe.
Parnesius and Pertinax, are now defending the northern border of the Empire. Maximus, whom they served, had been supplanted and executed. The Winged Hats say that Rome is falling, and invite the Romans on the Wall to ally with them. But Pernesius and Pertinax refuse. They loyally serve the Empire and fight off the Northmen until help comes.
The children meet Harry Dawe, artist, craftsman and architect, born in their village in early Tudor times. He tells how he was restoring the church, and was puzzled that the villagers were against him. He finds that the local forge masters had been using the tower as a store for guns, secretly made for a pirate.
The story is set in the strange uncanny landscape of Romney Marsh, on the borders of Kent and Sussex. Puck – in the oast house, in the guise of Tom Shoesmith, a long-dead friend of Ralph Hobden – tells how the ‘people of the hills’ flitted out of England in the 1530s, troubled by the cruelty and suffering caused by the religious conflicts of the time.
Kadmiel, one of the elders of the Jews in England at the time of King John tells how when the King was quarrelling with the Barons he discovered that Elias of Bury was planning to lend him gold, which he had found in Pevensey Castle, the very gold that Richard and Hugh had brought back from their ‘Joyous Venture’. In disguise, Kadmiel managed to get into the castle, carry out the treasure, and sink it in the sea out of reach of the King, who was forced to sign the Great Charter.
SEE you the ferny ride that steals
Into the oak-woods far?
Oh that was whence they hewed the keels
That rolled to Trafalgar.
And mark you where the ivy clings
To Bayharn’s mouldering walls?
Oh there we cast the stout railings
That stand around St. Paul’s.
See you the dimpled track that runs
All hollow through the wheat?
Oh that was where they hauled the guns
That smote King Philip’s fleet.
(Out of the Weald, the secret Weald,
Men sent in ancient years,
The horse-shoes red at Flodden Field,
The arrows at Poitiers!)
See you our little mill that clacks,
So busy by the brook?
She has ground her corn and paid her tax
Ever since Domesday Book.
See you our stilly woods of oak,
And the dread ditch beside?
Oh that was where the Saxons broke
On the day that Harold died.
See you the windy levels spread
About the gates of Rye?
Oh that was where the Northmen fled,
When Alfred’s ships came by.
See you our pastures wide and lone,
Where the red oxen browse?
Oh there was a City thronged and known,
Ere London boasted a house.
And see you, after rain, the trace
Of mound and ditch and wall?
Oh that was a Legion’s camping-place,
When Caesar sailed from Gaul.
And see you marks that show and fade,
Like shadows on the Downs?
Oh they are the lines the Flint Men made,
To guard their wondrous towns.
Trackway and Camp and City lost,
Salt Marsh where now is corn-
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
And so was England born.
She is not any common Earth,
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye,
Where you and I will fare.