Just back from the fabulous Herstmonceux Castle medieval weekend where I was lucky enough to sign a few books and talk to old friends who have been with the series from the beginning. It gave me the opportunity to have a look at Hangman Blind, the first book about Hildegard and her gang of sleuthing friends. In the back I discovered a useful note which I’d forgotten, about how I came to write the series in the first place. It really came down to finding the chronicle from the Abbey of Meaux written in 1396, exactly the period when the series is set. It was by one of the abbots (not Hubert de Courcy, alas, only a figment of my imagination) but Abbot Thomas Burton who was abbot throughout King Richard II’s reign. I’ll say a bit more about him another time. For now I want to try to show you some of the pix from Herstmonceux of the many amazing medieval craftsfolk I met there and show you something of the wonderful work they do. Here’s the apothecary’s work bench with an alembic for distilling herbs. From book 1 Hangman Blind to the new book 8 The Alchemist at Netley Abbey – this will definitely be a feature. Alchemists, from which we get our word chemist, and apothecaries, licensed to sell cures, were the scientists of their day.
Salisbury 1388 and Hildegard arrives on the south coast of England after a daring dash back into the country, eluding Woodstock’s spies all the way from Avignon. When she left London six months previously Parliament, led by Woodstock, head of the King’s Council, had just impeached King Richard’s great ally, Michael de la Pole. But now things are worse than her worst nightmare.
Woodstock, recently made duke of Gloucester, has now turned his malice to the rest of Richard’s supporters. With no chance to speak in their own defence Parliament puts them on trial. One by one, thoughout the Lent Parliament, they are culled.
First it was Chancellor de la Pole, then the Archbishop of York, Alexander Neville, both forced to flee for their lives to refuge overseas.
Then it’s Richard’s Chief Justiciar, Tresilian, beheaded despite the magic charm he wears. Then the courageous Mayor of London, Nick Brembre. Then loyal Lord Salisbury and half a dozen chamber knights, some clerks, some servants. And so it goes. Inexorably, the chief supporters of the king are executed. Any opposition is savagely put down.
And then, ever closer to the king himself, his own tutor, Sir Simon Burley, a national war hero, the man who has been loco in parentis ever since Richard’s father, the Black Prince died, is dragged to the Tower in chains. Who next? The accusation is treason. The penalty, death.
Into this terror, Hildegard, Abbot de Courcy and his two monks militant, have to find their way. And Sir Simon must be freed.
With spies at every port they were lucky to get back into the country through the harbour at Lepe. From there, to Beaulieu Abbey, and, for Hildegard and Brother Gregory, on to Salisbury through the treacherous Royal Forest with its quagmires, outlaws and enemy militia.
Hildegard’s aim is to see her fourteen year old daughter, Ysabella, who is at nearby Clarendon Palace as damozel to a powerful countess but from day one she suspects that she has been followed. She is horrified when she hears a stranger asking around the taverns for a Mistress York. How can he know that name? Only the king’s chief spy, now reduced to low status in his flight from London to the safety of Salisbury Cathedral can know it. But surely he would not betray her to the enemy? And who is this stranger? Is he really Gloucester’s man or is he loyal to the king? Does he mean good or ill for Hildegard and, more diabolically, for her daughter, Ysabella?
Before she can discover the truth the body of an apprentice is discovered within the cathedral precinct and Hildegard is drawn into a further mystery where no-one is what they seem.
With Brother Gregory beside her, she is set on a collision course with the dark forces driving Gloucester to rule England at any price. And, just as the great windlass in the cathedral tower begins to turn like the wheel of fortune, some rise – and others fall to their doom.
So here they are again, wearing the latest gear for King Richard II’s famous joust in Cheapside in 1394 – or something close. The usefulness of this form of protection lies in its flexibility. These guys can do press-ups in their armour as well as ride war horses at full gallop.
Do you know the difference between a sallet, a barbute and a close helm?
Send me a tweet if you do!
What does the smart courtier wear in these halcyon days of 1386?
Pointed shoes, commonly known as poulaines, are still being worn – but the really cool courtier goes for latch strap shoes for casual wear. Stay light on your feet with this stylish kid leather footwear.
Best head-gear? A smart little bowler with a small brim, black for preference to off-set your gaudy parti-coloured hosen,
Capes are worn short, not an inch below the hips the better to accentuate your thighs. Tilting at the quintaine, actual jousting if you’re up to it, or at least spending an hour or so astride a mettlesome destrier once a day will keep your thighs firm and fit to be seen in the latest fine wool jeggings.
Still wearing a houpeland? However you spell it – should you be able to write of course! – if you’re still appearing in one of these shapeless old things you may as well stay in your night-shirt and have done with it. You’ll never be at the cutting edge of fashion until you throw it out and don something svelte like a hip-length tunic with or without your lord’s blazon on front or back.
Next time: the knight and what the smartest of these fellas is wearing. Watch this space.
Today, on 8th June in 1376, the great hero of the Hundred Years war and heir to the English throne, Edward of Woodstock, commonly known in later centuries as The Black Prince, went to meet his Maker.
Father of the golden boy, Richard of Bordeaux (later crowned King of England) he married Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent, gained his spurs at the age of 14 at the battle of Crecy and went on to regain much of the territory claimed by his father Edward III.
He was a founder knight of the Order of the Garter and lived when in England at either Wallingford or Berkhamstead Castles.
He represented King Edward III in Aquitaine where his son Richard was born.
His tomb with effigy may be seen in Canterbury Cathedral.
He died a year before his own father, King Edward III, thus leaving the throne to his son, the ten year old King Richard II.
As I was listening to Melvyn Bragg talking about the Gettysburg Address the other morning on R4 I was reminded of Richard II at Smithfield in 1381. What’s the connection you might ask? Well, the opposition to the freeing of slaves in the southern states of America was based essentially on the cotton producers not wanting to lose their source of free labour. Pay your workers? Lose your profit. Similarly in England six hundred years earlier the bonded labourers who surged into London on that June day during Corpus Christ week in what was later named The Peasants’ Revolt were also a valuable free labour force to the landed nobility of medieval England. Pay the serfs to till your land, loose your profit. Extraordinary, isn’t it, how greed can make people treat others as less than human, as mere commercial units with no human rights. When the monastics claimed that the love of money is the root of all evil they were right in the fourteenth century and they were right in the nineteenth. And what about today? Are things so different?
To the Isle of Wight Literary Festival last weekend with poets Robyn Bolan, Lydia Fullylove and all-round guru Brian Hilton. We were talking about the spirit of place in our work and how it enriches both character and plot.
I suppose for me place includes times past as well because North Yorkshire was a different place in the fourteenth century. With few large cities, none with more than a few thousand souls, and large tracts of woodland with wide open uplands where vast flocks of sheep roamed, the monastic houses were the only centres of learning and time determined the spirit of place as much as geography. Inevitably Hildegard is a woman of her time in her beliefs and in the way she behaves. Readers unfamiliar with the period are sometimes surprised by how much freedom women like her managed to find within the hierarchies that limited everyone. Time and place then exert an emotional hold when writing to bring the period to life.
We were at the festival at the invitation of David White of Dimbola House. This is the place on the Isle of Wight where the Victorian photographer, a pioneer of portraiture, Julia Margaret Cameron, lived for some time. She was a close friend and neighbour of Alfred lord Tennyson. I have an enduring image of Tennyson in his big black cloak striding over the Downs to visit Julia in her house above the cliffs but I struggled to see a connection between my medieval series and a Victorian photographer. Then I remembered that Cameron produced a marvellous group of photographs to illustrate the Idylls of the King, at Tennyson’s request. Medieval romanticism at its best.
Another connection is that in terms of light she is closer to the middle ages than to our electricity driven age. Her beautifully nuanced portraits are a product of the soft lighting by oil and candle that would have been familiar to Hildegard six hundred years earlier. Only now, with harsh street lights, glaring tv screens and constant illumination in our homes have the subtle effects of firelight, candle light and oil-burning cressets become a thing of the past. If time and location influence character I wonder how the nature of light has changed the way we are?