• What did Hildegard do first?

    I thought it might be in the spirit of Christmas to offer a free download of a prequel to Hildegard’s first appearance in Hangman Blind.  Readers often ask: why did she become a nun?  or:  what did she do before she joined the Cistercians?  Consequently I’ve spent the last week staring with ever straining eyes at my screen trying to get 14,000 words onto Kindle and offering it for nothing more than the ability to download it.  Imagine my dismay after all this to discover that it can only be offered for 5 days for free and afterwards will have to have a price.  I’m hoping this will be at the lowest  allowed on Kindle, something like 99p.  So if you want it free you can try downloading it from tomorrow, Saturday.  I hope it will fill in a few blanks in Hildegard’s story.  I should warn you it’s a bit of an experiment in style – with no publisher to please, I was able to write as I felt.  I hope you like it.

    Hildegard has  never had her back story written down although I had a vague idea of what she did when I first discovered her and it has been great to trace her origins from the time of her marriage to the big and nasty Hugh de Ravenscar to her unexpected decision to become a nun. Knowing how much she likes men I’ve always felt it was a strange decision for her to make.  But then,  being the independent woman she is, I always knew she hated the idea of being a wife without personal power.  To be a  femme sole puts her more or less on equal legal footing with men of her class.

    The prequel opens at the point where Hildegard is in London to establish her claim on her husband’s lands in the Welsh Marches.  Seven years before the series opens a vitriolic and important parliament was called by King Edward III.  The Commons decided that enough was enough.  If they were to be taxed to kingdom come they wanted a say in things.  It was really important in terms of opening up government to the people although at this time ordinary folk (like me and maybe you) still had no chance of getting a say in how we were governed.

    All topical now with the same question still being asked:  where does sovereignty reside, with the people, or with parliament?  Or, as recently and as also in Plantagenet times, with a foreign power?  In their case much power lay with the pope in Rome, in our case…?  It took someone like Henry VIII to wrest power from Rome and with it the payment of taxes and an affirmation of national sovereignty.  Let’s hope that this time around there is no unfortunate Anne Boleyn to pay the price.

    Now that Hildegard is making a showing on twitter I’m also going to put up a few factoids  @nunsleuth on some of the things that interest her.  I hope you’ll follow her and ask a few questions to keep her on her toes.

    All the best!  Keep those messages rolling in.  It’s lovely to find readers so keen on medieval matters and that Hildegard has so many friends around the world.

     

     

  • Medieval Widowhood

    medueval widow

  • Prostitutes and Goldsmiths

    Once upon a time there was a small patch of London owned by German merchants.  It was called the Steelyard and was a walled off area on the banks of the Thames near where Cannon Steet tube station is now.  The group of Germans refused to allow Englishmen to enter its gates along with prostitutes, goldsmiths and barbers.   You might think these were an odd bunch to exclude but it was not, surely, as odd as allowing a foreign power to establish ownership of this area at the heart of the City of London.

    It was in fact the headquarters of a commercial monopoly called the Hanse.  Established in 1157 the league persuaded the English king Henry II to exempt its merchants from paying tolls in London and to trade freely at the lucrative fairs then being established across England.  Did the German merchants give reciprocal privileges to English merchants wishing to trade in Germany and the Baltic?  No, they did not.  To make their monopoly even stronger they obtained a charter from King Henry III confirming their rights.

    How on earth did they do this?   What posssessed the ruler of England to hobble his traders in this way?  That’s what English merchants wanted to know but, as now, deals were done in secret and those people lower down the line only got to know about them when they were done deals and they were forced to comply.

    Naturally a power struggle began between the Hanseatic League and the English merchants with parliament refusing to accept the charter of privileges granted to the Germans without the same terms being offered to English merchants.  The Hanse merchants refused to compromise and although England was riven by its own internecine factions in the late fifteenth century war broke out and the Steelyard was attacked and destroyed by an angry mob of London traders.

    Meanwhile the Norwegian guilds attacked the Hanse merchants who were trying to close down Norwegian trade in the Baltic by blockading their ports.  Other countries also objected to this unfair monopoly and took steps to protect themselves.  In England it was not until Elizabeth I over one hundred years later thought to protect her merchants by abolishing the Hanse in London that the Steelyard was finally closed down.

    Why was Henry II so sot-witted that he did not see the sense of protecting his own people from this aggressive trading faction working within his own domain?  We might well ask similar questions now as the City is again under attack from a German Stock Exchange monopoly which will eventually lead to the demise of our own stock exchange when the Germans will then no doubt do a ‘Cadbury’ on it.

     

  • How to make a straw hat

    DSCN0859Medieval hat making

  • Book Signings

    DSCN0856Just 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.

  • Netley Abbey

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  • Ebook!

    skull_big_v1

  • The Scandal of the Skulls is real

    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.

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  • Knights in armour

    DSCN0373So 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!

  • In and Out of the Clothes Chest

    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.