• Fiction or reality?

    Readers often ask where characters come from.  For me the answer is that some arise from what I can find out from the records and others are invented.  As I’m interested in shadowing real historical events I set my fictional characters in as well-researched a context as I can.  A murder mystery is a useful genre to frame the facts.  Many writers these days see nothing wrong with changing what we know about some historical figure to fit some fancied notion about their period but for me this is a real sin.  We don’t have the right to play fast and loose with the lives of real people. To me that’s the worst kind of lying.  We know so little about the past and what we do know comes to us in fragments from documents and records of major and minor events.  The exciting thing is to discover what really happened as far as we are able.

    Do readers care one way or the other?  I like to think that the people who choose my books care about the truth.  I want them to trust me not to fob them off with a lot of nonsense.  The fictional element, Hildegard’s involvement in a series of murder mysteries, should be obvious, but it takes place against an authentic background when real events impinge on the lives of historical and fictional characters alike.

    Example:  in The Butcher of Avignon the context is the palace where th anti-pope Clement VII has his court.  His character is mentioned in many sources so we can be fairly sure about what he was like.  The cardinal, too, who plays a large part in the plot, did in fact exist.  I was about to invent someone like him when I came across a footnote about a Cardinal Grizac.  What made it such a gift is that the facts fit in so neatly with the story.  He really was a Dean at the Song School in York and died, we don’t know how, at the time the story ends.   Thomas Woodstock is real, of course, although  he will be more familiar under his later title bestowed by his nephew King Richard II.  As the Duke of Gloucester he was by no means the ‘hoary duke’ of Shakespeare’s invention.  In fact he was only forty when he died at Calais and not at all the benign elder statesman of the play but a virulent enemy of his young nephew, the king.

    This mixing of fact and fiction is what to me gives historical fiction its buzz.  But only if the facts as far as we can know them are honoured.  Hildegard and Hubert are fictional enough for me.

  • Plantagenet Fever

    What is it that makes people obsessed with certain figures from the past?  The tedious Tudors are probably reaching the end of their undeserved popularity (surely!) and now it’s the turn of King Richard III to take centre stage.

    This is nothing new.  My daughter’s drama teacher in York had a framed portrait of Richard on her studio wall and founded the Richard III Society in York against all the criticisms of the academics.

    Now she’s justified.

    I recently came across someone else who thought that Richard III had been maligned for political purposes by Henry Tudor and the rest of that egregious bunch.  This is the Canadian author Thomas B. Costain.  In his masterly and very readable account of the Plantagenet dynasty he offers the standard Tudor view that Richard was a bad lot.  But then, after examining the facts as we know them, in an author’s afterword, he adds this:

    “Is it necessary to recapitulate all the evidence in Richard’s favour in order to believe that the verdict of history should be changed…?…Should not the history taught in schools be changed to an impartial basis in accorance with what is now known?  Must schoolrooms and reference books go on indefinitely with the old version, stubbornly grinding the Tudor axe?”

    He concludes:

    “By living, he might have allowed himself a long span of years in which to employ his great administrative gifts as king and to put into the form of laws the changes he had in his mind.  This might have made possible a more satisfying end to the chronicles of a great dynasty.  It could then perhaps have been possible to present Richard, not as the last and the blackest of that fantastic family whose achievements and adventures have engaged our attention through these long volumes.  It might even have been possible to show him as one of the most constuctive, perhaps as one of the greatest, of the kingly Plantagenets.”

    Yes, that would be something, wouldn’t it?  Costain said all this in 1962 in his book The Last Plantagenets 1377-1485.  Time grinds exceedingly slow in the groves of academe.

    Perhaps one day a reassessment of Richard II might be made too.  It was his murder by his greedily ambitiious cousin Henry Bolingbroke that started more than eighty years of bloody civil war called The Wars of the Roses which only ended with Richard III’s death at Bosworth.  His kingly predecessor also received short shrift from his enemies in an effort to conceal their crime.

    I hope, in the entertainment provided by a mystery series like the six books of Hildegard of Meaux, to give readers some idea of the events that led to King Richard II’s murder.  I believe this will be as radical as the current rethinking about Richard III.

    Let’s hope it doesn’t take another fifty years to bring this Richard out of the darkness.

     

     

  • Looking good at the Castle

    There’s a myth that eveybody in the middle ages ran around looking rough, with uncombed hair, black teeth, bad complexions, and smelling rather bad.  Nothing could be further from the truth if contemporary records are anything to go by.  Beauty tips abound.

    Take hair for instance.  This applies to men and women:  mix dried rose petals, cloves, nutmeg and galangal with rose water and rinse through the hair.  Leave to dry.  Should smell re-e-a-ally good.

    For a smooth, touchable skin melt beeswax, almond oil, rose oil and frankincense in a dish over a flame.  Allow to cool.  Massage into face and body.  It also eases aches and pains after jousting.

    For bright eyes mix one part of wych hazel with four parts water.  Use as eye lotion.  Is said to improve eyesight too so you’ll see those pointed swords coming and it’ll give you an edge down at the butts.

    To lighten dark hair to look like a Florentine blonde soak hair in a bowl of fresh urine.  OK so that does sound wiffy but if you rinse the hair with the rose petal concoction afterwards you should still have plenty of allure.

    Teeth should be brushed using a hazel twig with mashed up fennel and lovage.  And, if you can get it, salt.

    For pleasant breath chew a leaf of mint or parsley.

    To make lips looks red and kissable rub them with beetroot.

    To round off your beauty treatment go to one of the town baths (the stews) and have a bran soak to make your skin  feel like best Cathay silk.

    After all that, don your best poulaines and a clean houplande and go to the feast at your nearest castle where you’ll be the belle or beau of the ball.

     

     

  • St Valentine’s Day

    Another of the things we can thank Richard II for is St Valentine’s Day.  He didn’t invent it, of course, but he and his beloved Anne made it a popular celebration in medieval England.  They spent time on a pleasure island in the Thames called Little Eyot where they could dance, and sing and listen to poets like Chaucer and Gower with their friends.  On the island they were well away from Richard’s snarling uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester, and his unwashed war-lord companions.

    It must have been beautiful on the island, sweet Thames flowing by, garlands of flares along the beach, decorated boats, fireworks, the best musicians in Europe, feasting and fun and everyone wearing the most gorgeous clothes that fashion could devise.

    Brutal Woodstock hated Richard and his friends so much that in 1388 when Richard was just turned twenty-one, he had the king’s friends who didn’t escape into exile, beheaded on Tower HIll, or hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.

    His ally, Bolingbroke, Richard’s cousin, who wrested the crown from Richard years later, must have had a sick sense of humour.  He chose St Valentine ‘s Day to have Richard murdered at Pontefract Castle.  Some Valentine.

  • It’s those tedious Tudors again

    Enough of this obsession with the tedious Tudors.  Yesterday I even heard Henry VIII described as ‘a hands-on gardener.’  Please!  I can just see him kneeling in the mud doing a spot of weeding.  Why is it the Tudors make people’s brains fly out and their eyes fill with pound signs?

    If you  want family betrayals, choose the Plantagenets.  If you want unfettered ambition, choose the Plantagents.  If you want blood and beheadings, choose the Plantagents.

    Let’s put the Tudors back on the shelf.  There’s all history to explore.

  • A Lead-lined Coffin

    It was Richard II’s birthday at Epiphany but it will also be the anniversary of his murder on St Valentine’s Day.

    He is believed to have been murdered by his ambitious cousin Henry Bolingbroke, one-time Duke of Lancaster, the usurper Henry IV.  King Richard’s body was carried out of Pontefract Castle at night in a wooden coffin.  When it reached London it was displayed before 20,000 people who came to pay their respects – or to see for themselves whether it really was King Richard, ‘the golden boy.’

    For this reason, and to put an end to the hopes of anybody thinking of over-turning Henry IV’s grab for power, his face was open to the public gaze.  It was said to have been serene in death.  And yet, the rest of his body had a lead lining hammered over it.  Was this to conceal the wounds that had been inflicted?  Only by exhuming the body from its tomb in Westminster Abbey where it lies next to his beloved wife Anne of Bohemia will we ever know the truth.

    DNA might also put to rest the rumour that, in fact, it is not King Richard at all, but a look-alike priest called Maskelyne who was murdered earlier.  Richard, the story goes, escaped to Scotland where the king there gave him a small annuity until 1419 when it stopped, presumaably because Richard had then died of natural causes.

    Is this true?

    Can we ever know?

    At least we would know if his DNA matched that of the other Plantagenets.  Or would we?  Maskelyne himself was said to be an illegitimate son of the Black Prince, Richard’s father.

    Mystery on mystery.

    This is why history is so fascinating.  A few answers, though, would help me sleep better at night.

    What do you think the truth is?

  • Publishers’ Weekly Review

    Another most pleasing review for The Dragon of Handale.  This one is starred and comes from Publishers’ Weekly.

    “Outstanding…Clark pulls everything together neatly in a moody, atmospheric whodunit while sustaining a high level of tension throughout.’

     

    This makes all those long hours sitting at my desk worth every minute.  Thank you.

  • Review of the Dragon

    I’m utterly delighted to have the first review in for The Dragon of Handale.  It’s from the prestigious Kirkus Review and they say:

    “This is a dramatic mystery lavishly studded with period detail.  Clark’s best to date.”

     

     

     

     

  • Happy Birthday!

    On this day in 1367 at the Feast of Epiphany Richard of Bordeaux, the future King Richard II of England, was born.  He was the second son of the Black Prince and the Fair Maid of Kent.  When his elder brother died he became king at the age of ten and was  crowned in Westminster Abbey.

  • Publication date!

    I’m really delighted to let you know that the Dragon of Handale is to be published by St Martins Press in March 2015!  I hope you’ll preorder a copy.  If you want a hint of what Hildegard does next, read on.

    Back from pilgrimage to Compostela, she is undecided about whether to leave behind her identity as ‘Mistress York’ and return to her Order (if they’ll have her back) or remain unprotected outside the Order.  To help her make up her mind the prioress sends her into the wilds of north Yorkshire to the remote house of correction, Handale Priory, where she’ll be able to think things over and decide what to do next.  But when she arrives, of course, all is not what it seems.

    The Handale nuns are hysterical with fear because a dragon is haunting the woods despite the high walls that enclose them and, worse, a young mason has already been killed in a most savage manner…There are other things, too, that make Hildegard fear for her own life and that of the nuns…what, for instance, is in the secret tower in the woods?  Who is Master Fulke and what power does he have over the priory?  Why are all the chivalry of the north meeting at nearby Kilton Castle?  And who has sent a courier riding so desperately across the moors, what is his destination – and  who are the two men following him with such malign persistence?

    Read book five The Dragon of Handale to find out!