• Broken Promises

    It’s Easter Sunday when King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia would have commanded some sport.  As sixteen year olds in 1382 what do you  think they would choose?

    The broken promise is that I’ve told everyone I’m really going to start writing my blog again but the  time I’d ear-marked is now – and I’m just off out to lunch in the New Forest.

    That’s the royal hunting ground where King William II, next king after William the Bastard, was shot by a ‘stray’ arrow allegedly aimed by  Sir Walter Tyrrell who, not waiting to explain himself, rode off into the woods and escaped with his life.  Another broken promise – this time of fealty?  Or was it really an accident? Or a plot by his brother Henry?

    All this is a long way now from my question about what Richard and Anne were getting up to on Easter Day  in 1382.  Long hours in Westminster Abbey?  A game of Hangman Blind? A lot of feasting and drinking after the 40 day fast?

    I’ll make another promise and keep it this tme:  I will do some research and find out if  I can what they were up to.  Compare and contrast. I hope your Easter Sunday is everything you’d wish.


  • LIterary Festival

    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?

  • Georgette Heyer

    Somehow I missed out on Georgette Heyer as a teenager, mainly because I thought she only wrote about the Regency period which I saw as a silly, hypocritical era when to be a successful woman meant you had to be a tart.  This went against my feminist ideas of being a woman and still does. Now, of course, I know a bit more about the era but it hasn’t made me want to read novels about it.  The other day, however, I found an old battered copy of a Georgette Heyer on a second hand bookstall.  It was called My Lord John and if I had read the title first instead of being drawn to the picturesque 50’s style medieval cavalcade on the cover my hand would probably not have strayed to pick it up.  A quick look inside showed that it dealt with the period of English history shortly after the one in which Hildegard of Meaux existed.  At £1 it seemed worth taking home.

    The prologue was a proud paean from GH’s husband written after she died where he described her meticulous research methods – a card index for every day of the forty years she was writing about, a pacing out of over seventy-five castles and twenty-three abbeys relevant to the story.  It was about one of the sons of regicide Henry IV. No fantasy history, this.  It’s a gripping factual story based on sound documentary evidence concerning Henry IV, or Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, who turned out to be a rather useless king and army commander despite all his braggadoccio jousting when he set himself up as a rival to his cousin, King Richard.  Henry did less well for the people of England than the cousin he displaced but because of the effective nobbling of the chroniclers who owed their livings to Lancastrian patronage he has not received the opprobrium he deserves.

    He was the first English monarch to introduce public burnings for heresy and GH effectively shows how his son, later Henry V, felt about that. To his great good fortune, Henry’s sons were as able, energetic and astute as any father could wish. Most people know something about his eldest, Henry V, from Shakespeare’s play but without his younger son John, later Duke of Bedford and Regent in France when England’s control of their French territory was at its zenith, the English victory at Agincourt would have been just one more battle to be remembered by the boys and not the beginning of the sense of national identity it became.

    I won’t say this is an easy read. GH uses a language which is now considered archaic.  I imagine she would have rewritteen and expanded it but for the misfortune of her death before the book was finished, but it is an exhilarating read and an exhaustive account of the events during the reign of the usurper.  GH seems to have been in a hurry to get everything down and includes material from almost all the available sources.  A four page glossary is included but many unfamiliar words are not in it and some dialogue is quite obscure.  I’m often chided for using words appropriate to the period, kirtle someone found difficult, which surprised me, although destrier can be forgiven for those for whom the genre is a new departure, but what they would make of GH’s use of the mot juste would be interesting to hear – what about fliting, gigelot, glosery? Lovely, lost words it would be interesting to bring back into use. (Contending, adulterer and flattery, if you don’t know, as I didn’t.)

    I love and applaud her use of this special vocabulary.  It leads me to  wonder whether readers then were better educated than now or at least, more willing to make an effort and open a dictionary?  Is everything becoming too bland, too easy, too milk and water, produced to the same robotic pattern?   Altogether I’m glad I was attracted by the cover and picked it out of the pile of books on the trestle that morning.  It’s an excellent account of Lord John’s life and the times he lived in.  It is definitely not fantasy fiction.  GH works hard to tell it as it really was or, at least, as we think it might have been, given the factual evidence to hand.

  • Handale

    I lived around the Handale area for ages but never came across any mention of the priory nor of the nearby Kilton Castle which was strange as they are both real places and important in their way in the middle ages.  It was only when I started to read around in the archives that I found any reference to Handale Priory.  Here is what I found.

    ‘In a lovely glen with a distant view of the sea, Richard de Percy (of the earl of Norhumberland’s dynasty) founded Handale Priory in 1133 for the Benedictine nuns.’

    The writer goes on to tell us that the archbishop of York at the time,  Romanus, had written a letter to the Leper Hospital at Sherburn (a nearby village) asking them to admit Basilda, one of the nuns who had contracted the disease.   When I wrote THE DRAGON OF HANDALE the name Basilda seemed appropriate – but now maybe here’s a clue as to what happens to her after the story ends.

    The anonymous writer goes on to say that discipline was very strtict at the priory.  A nun sent from Rosedale Abbey for punishment at Handale had to do penance and fast on bread and water on six church festivals.  On four of them she had to receive discipline in other words flogging with a whip studded with lead pellets.  After that ordeal she had to eat her meals from off the ground.

    They really knew how to punish in those days.

    There’s no mention of what her crime was and maybe it was one of the usual ones, disobedience, fornication, running away.  And who now could blame any of those young women imprisoned up there, most of whom had no choice in the matter.

    Sometime in the 1400’s and because of the crippling taxes on the wool staple that kept the priory solvent, they decided to call themselves Cistercians as that Order was exempt from tax.

    Handale continued as a priory for another hundred years until the dissolution in 1532.  The local story is that the King’s Commissioners couldn’t find the buildings because they lay in such thick woodland but just as they were about to ride away they heard bells tolling through the trees for the next Office.  The sound led them back to the ultimate doom of Handale.

    When I was up there last summer I found no trace of the priory itself but the grey stones had evidently been used for the handsome farmhouse that now stands at the bottom of the dale.  Excavations were carried out around 1830 and a Mr Turton found sixteen skeletons and a stone coffin with the inscription ‘Snake Killer’ on the lid.  Inside was the skeleton of a man and a rusting sword.  These items have never been found although I was shown the coffin under some bushes with a sort of celtic design round the edge.  I wonder where the sword is now?

    It’s well worth the two mile walk from Loftus along the valley, by- passing the remains of a monks’ trod on your way.

    Peaceful and lovely in summer, in the dark days of a northern winter it is a place only for the tough and intrepid explorer.


  • Strict Rules

    I was in the New Forest archive the other day – not at all dusty as archives are said to be – when I came across a few rules for nuns that would have irked Hildegard more than somewhat.

    It was men who made these rules up, of course, so we have to bear that in mind, and their interests become clear when we see what got them really agitated.

    Clothes.  Rules for how the nuns looked seemed uppermost, so nothing has changed much there then. It was suggested that hair- cloth should be worn next to the skin.  It must have been very itchy. To be fair, St Jerome, among many other sainted men, was said to wear a hair-shirt.  And Becket too, and when he was entombed he was also found to be crawling with lice – but that’s another story.

    The nuns’ garments whether of hair or rough wool, linen of course being forbidden, had to be very well tied, with strapples to the feet, and everything had to be laced tightly. Really tightly.  Well, you can see where that’s heading and I do believe some of them wore grey too, in various shades of…

    They were also forbidden to wear silken veils in any colour but black. Purple was absolutely forbidden.  The men also fulminated against silk girdles and purses (worn, as they were, on a belt slung suggestively low round the hips).   There were also to be no pins in silver or gold whether for the hair or for holding the clothes together.  They were allowed only one ring.

    What was called a peculium was money set aside from the nunnery’s common fund specifically to provide clothes although of course many women who retired to nunneries when their husbands died took their own clothes with them (as well as pet dogs, monkeys, singing birds and so forth, as you do).

    But did the nuns obey these edicts from on high?  Not likely.  The records are full of lists of the nuns’ transgressions despite the many inspections by their male bosses, the bishops, or whoever had the upper hand.  Did these men inspect the hair cloth underwear?  Not much point in making a rule if you can’t enforce it.  Records tell us that a nun called Anneys Bonneville actually wore a fur coat. Scandal.  It was full length.  For the warmth, she said.  Oh yes?  What her punishment was we might imagine but apparently she refused to give it up.

    I found an intriguing note about a priest who bequeathed to Agnes Harvey, a nun and obviously a close friend, his red mantle – a nun in red? – and, suggestively, a tapestry bed cover.  We can maybe imagine to what use these two articles were put when he and Agnes were alive.

    It’s a pleasure to discover that these distant ancestors of ours share the same delights as we do.  Some, like Hildegard, took their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience seriously and wrestled with the morality of breaking them but most people, men and women, were as naughty as they wanted to be. Human, after all.

    An intriguing and beautiful line from the Ancren Riwle is as follows: “They came forth into the nymph-hay with their rocks and wheels to spin.”

    It sounds lovely and there must be a painting somewhere to match such a line.  Any suggestions?


  • Medieval marriage

    Changes in marriage laws have been in the news recently.  They led me to think about medieval marriage and in which ways it was different to how it was before the recent change.   I hear a lot of misconceptions about it, as about the middle ages altogether, so here are a few facts gleaned from my general reading around the period.

    Medieval canon law inherited the rules of Roman law which decreed that no betrothal could be undertaken below the age of 7 and that the age of consent for a girl was twelve and for a boy, fourteen.   The essence of marriage was the begetting of children.  Free consent, even between slaves, was deemed a necessity.

    Two kinds of agreement were in force.  They may seem quite lax to us, probably because all a girl or boy had to do to make a legally valid consent to marry in the future was to say I promise to take you as wife/husband some time.  This was like an engagement, per verba de futuro.  If both of them said I promise to take you here and now it was verba de praesenti and they were tied for good.  Divorce was more difficult than these days and usually only allowed for ordinary mortals if a previous marriage vow had been taken or if the intricate laws of consangunity could be shown as an issue.  Unless, of coure you were royalty.  Henry VIII showed his contempt for the law by simply having his unwanted wives executed.

    The rituals of marriage developed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with the exchange of gifts and the blessing of  a priest.  The church wanted to have some control over the event as they collected taxes from the participants and saw it as a way of controlling the sinful sexiness of ordinary people.  The church’s idea of the perfect marriage was one with celibacy at its heart – not the usual reason most people want to shack up with someone.  If you remember Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, she had five husbands ‘at church door’  and we can believe she didn’t have celibacy in mind.

    It was not until the sixteenth century that marriage in church became a legal necessity after an edict of the Council of Trent.  This was mandatory for Catholics but ignored by Protestants.  In England the old, easygoing form from the twelfth century survived until Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 that enforced marriage in church.  It was not until 1836 that civil marriage became part of English law.

    This is just a brief account of the main differences between then and now.


    If you want to findout more you could read a paper by Frederik Pedersen called ‘Romeo and Juliet of Stonegate’: a medieval marriage in crisis,’ for its clarity.  It is well worth a read and condenses over eight hundred legal documents into a few pages.  Christopher Brooke’s ‘The Medieval idea of Marriage,’ gives a fascinating overview of marriage as it existed in the rest of Europe at this time.

  • Mehala

    I’ve just finished reading the most sensational, passionate and powerful novel ever.  I really couldn’t put it down until the last word was read.  The hero out-Heathcliffes Heathcliffe.  It makes Shades of Grey look colourless.  The heroine was the source for  The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowle’s smash hit novel.  I’ll tell you more when I’ve had chance to get my thoughts in order.  Wow!  What a story!  It should never be out of print.

  • Historical fiction

    Most historical fiction is divided by publishers into ‘sword and slaughters’ with snarling, blood-stained brutes on the covers or the girlie sort, all busts and bodices.  Presumably this is for the convenience of the salesmen – like labelling cans of beans so they can offload them in bulk.  I find it limiting, unrealistic and neither type fits with what I want to write.  Of course my characters, both fictional and real, sometimes confront each other in a violent and bloody manner and they lust and love and, I hope, show more subtle feelings like characters in literary novels who express something authentic about real life.  But this rose pink or all black division bores me.  I suppose I’m out of step with current marketing patterns.  So be it.  I’m just so glad that there are readers who like what I do. As I reach the end of book 7 it’s good to know there may be one or two fans of Hildegard waiting to see what she does next.

  • Food facts

    Several things about medieval food you might not know:

    – did you know, for instance, that your medieval ancestors ate pasta? Called losyns it could be layered like lasagne or rolled out like spaghetti and cooked in a creamy broth.

    – they also ate sweet and sour dishes.  Really popular they were cooked with rabbit, venison, wild boar and other meats, the sauce consisting of red wine, currants, onions, ginger root, cinnamon and black pepper.

    – rice was eaten but perhaps not always cooked the way we do.  It was made into a pudding but was cooked with chicken, sugar and spices.  They also ate a pudding version made with almonds, honey and…primroses.

    Sounds good to me!

    Find more recipes in King Richard II’s Cook Book (the first collection of recipes in English)

    Buon apetito!

  • 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.