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  • 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.



  • 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.



  • The Black Prince

    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.

  • Melvyn Bragg and the Gettysburg Address

    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?

  • 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.