Two days of sunshine and a typical Bank Holiday deluge didn’t spoil a great weekend for all medievalists. If you missed it this year make a date in your diary to come along next August to the spectacular Herstmonceux Castle. It’s near Pevensey, Lewes, Brighton and only an hour or so from London, deep in the East Sussex countryside. Terrific location, terrific people, great atmosphere. See you there?
Just to remind anybody who doesn’t know, this weekend over the Bank Holiday Herstmonceux is hosting a fantastic, fabulous funfilled medieval festival. Jousting, falconry, archery, minstrels, armoured knights and all the glorious rabble of medieval entertainment will be here on offer. As well as that some of us will be reading from our books too so come and meet us in the big marquee. Ge be!
They say patience is a virtue but if so it’s one, among many others, I happen to lack. The last few weeks when my domain name has been bandied around in attempts to restore it have led to much exploration of the alleged language of the Anglo-Saxons.
In the meantime I went back up to have another look at Handale Priory. This time it was with the admirable charity Sustrans. We walked the 6 km from the cliff top village of Loftus, scrambling our way uphill alongside the beck that flows out of the dale. We were privileged to be guided by Marshal along the ancient monks’ trod that links one side of the North Yorkshire moors to the other. You might know similar ancient paved pathways as pannnier ways. Said to be pre-Roman they are so skilfully made that they have lasted until today and criss-cross all counties in England. Their presence brings a strong sense of the people who used them through the centuries when they would lead up to sixty or so pack horses in single file across immense distances in order to fetch provisions from one place to another. We were told that because there is only room for single file when a leader reached the top of a steep incline he’d have to give a piercing call down the path to warn anyone below that he was bringing his horses down. I imagine the route we walked on that good day was the path Hildegard would have walked in the story The Dragon of Handale when she has to smuggle the abducted girl, Alys, from the priory where she was imprisoned to a place of safety at Ulf’s Langbarugh manor on the coast road.
Again, sad to say, there was no sighting of the dragon.
If this was 1386 instead of 2014 the chances are I would not have had to spend the last hour of this fine Sunday morning staring at a screen trying to get various bits of the internet to work. The chances are I would have been out in the fresh air talking to friends and fellow villagers, the chances are we might have been singing our hearts out in some glorious gothic cathedral with the sunlight splintering through the new stained glass with the new invention, the pipe organ, thundering its notes out into the soundbox of the soaring roof. The walls of this building would have been brilliantly coloured in reds and blues and greens and gold. We women would have been wearing trailing gowns with long graceful sleeves, the men in coloured hosen, with cloaks and their swords left in a heap at the church door. Chances are we would not have wasted our eyesight, energy and attention on squiggling little shapes on a nasty mass-produced screen and getting absolutely nowhere. Chances are.
Two reasons to say ‘at last’ today and the first is that Macmillan have decided on a date for the launch of book 5 The Dragon of Handale. It’s going to be out in March 2015. Hurrah! Thank you for all those who emailed in the past few months to ask when it’s coming out as ‘a proper book’ – I’m really delighted to be able to answer at last. Ebooks are useful but there’s something special about the book in your hand.
The second ‘at last’ is that I finished book 6 The Butcher of Avignon on MaundyThursday. The last comma, full stop, paragraph reset – the lot! I was writing it through the terrible floods and storms early this year so some of that gothically dangerous weather has managed to seep (and storm) into the story.
This time, scarcely recovered from the dangers of Handale, Hildegard is sent by the prioress to Avignon. Why? The anti-pope Clement, a notorious warlord, and fiendishly rich, is in residence in the opulent palace there. He has set himself up as head of the Christian Empire in Europe while in Rome the other pope, Urban VI, thinks he is the rightful ruler. A perfect setting for conflict. What does it mean for Hildegard? It means she must find out what Clement’s intentions towards England are, given that the French are still intent on another invasion. Will he be friend or foe?
Meanwhile, the plot against King Richard back in England takes a vicious new turn. He is nineteen but all the barons and magnates who run his life through the so-called King’s Council are determined to control his money and his friends. Did they have a concept of teenager in medieval times? If so they might have cut him some slack.
He feels that at nineteen he is quite capable of ruling the country without their interference but like all oldies they beg to differ. Like the parents whose place they have taken since Richard was orphaned they know best. Maybe this makes light of the conflict between the king and his advisors but he is certainly harrassed by his uncles, especially Woodstock who is only ten years older and sees himself as top dog – if only he could get his hands on the crown. He’s certainly confident enough and, like an older brother, gives Richard no credit for anything. But Richard and his favourite chancellor, the Yorkshireman Michael de la Pole, have a really good idea on how to bring in some ready money and finance enough men-at-arms to defend the country against the French. Only the machinations of Woodstock can stop them
Escaping from this quicksand of conflicting ambitions when Hildegard reaches Avignon she finds herself in an even more dangerous and complicated situation. The anti-pope Clement is a spider at the heart of the palace complex, a self-styled renaissance prince, the wealthiest leader in Europe. His spectacular palace is awash with the ambitious, the treacherous, the salacious. How can Hildegard sort one smiling courtier from another? When the murders start to occur to whom can she turn? And what is the secret at the heart of Clement’s personal treasury?
I don’t know yet when you’ll be able to read The Butcher of Avignon but I’ll keep you posted. Let’s hope it’s soon. I’m sorry I can’t reply to everybody individually but I hope this gives you some idea of what’s going ahead.
I’m already getting inklings about book 7 but so far no title…
And finally, did you know you can visit the palace at Avignon? It’s really worth it. Labyrinthine, massive, sinister, it’s full of secret corridors and hidden chambers and has all the brooding Gothic romance you could want – no mere figment of the imagination it’s a real place where real people lived out their destinies for good or ill.
Nothing changes. In the 1380′s, and in fact throughout the fourteenth century, floods were a continual worry in England.
In Hildegard’s stamping ground, the East Riding of Yorkshire, the River Humber burst its banks with wearying regularity. The countryside is very flat up there, as Noel Coward said about Norfolk, and when the river floods it rushes inland over many miles of flat agricultural land. The Augustinian priory at Cottingham, for instance, a good fifteen miles from the river, was regularly surrounded by water, a literal moated grange.
The Cistercians, Hildegard’s preferred monastics, spent much time, effort and money on digging dykes and rearranging the river system. This is all recorded in painstaking detail in the Chronicle of Melsa written in 1397. Meaux itself lies within an intricate network of waterways, some used to convey wool staple to the coast for shipment to the continent, some a defence against the inundations over the marshes. The abbot’s bridge is still there after all these centuries.
The once busy port of Ravenser nearby is well known by historians interested in Richard II for the fact that his usurping cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, arrived there with a small army to launch his invasion and snatch the throne from Richard and make himself Henry IV. Ravenser has long since disappeared under the waves although, they say, you can still hear the church bells ringing to warn everybody to move to higher ground. Such was its notoriety in those days that the repeated inundations which finally destroyed it were blamed on the immorality of its inhabitants for bringing down the wrath of god. As then, so now. Nothing changes.
I was just falling asleep the other night when the Book of the Week came on the radio. It was Heston Blumenthal. I nearly fell out of bed when he mentioned King Richard II.
All became clear.
It was because the heavenly Heston has written a book about cooking through the ages and is recreating some of the best recipes. It so happened that King Richard commissioned the first ever English cookery book from his master chef in the Palace of Westminster. What made it especially astonishing to me was that the previous week I’d made a few notes from that same book, The Forme of Cury.
As Heston mentioned, they used some curious ingredients, almond milk being one of the most popular. English cookery was renowned at this time. Cooks used ingredients from all over the known world. Heston chose risotto as his typical medieval dish. Rice was frequently eaten and was imported via Genoa from the middle east until Italy started to grow it commercially. Other popular dishes were sweet and sour, using far more spices and herbs than we seem to use today. There were no potatoes, of course, but soups were thickened with breadcrumbs, flour, blood and ground nuts.
There was something called blancmanger (familiar?) but this wasn’t pudding. It was made from rice and almond milk with shredded white meats and spices and there was another version called mawmenee which was the same thing but with added pomegranate seeds, spices and coloured with red wine.
Colour was important in medieval times- they ate in technicolour - and I wonder if Heston colours his dishes? I think saffron must have been cheaper in those days. As for gilding with gold leaf? Five star restaurants may do so even now but what did ordinary mortals eat? Plenty, according to the records. Brewetts for instance, a combination of boiled and fried meats, sweet fruits and spices, all simmered in a rich gravy and thickened with cheese and eggs. Sounds good to me.
I love some of the names of these dishes: gyngawdry, macrows, chysanne, chawdon for swans and many more. A keen cook will get a lot from King Richard’s unnamed master cook. I’m off to try nysebek for to make pom dorryes. Bon apetit!
Some say it was Christine de Pizan, an Italian widow living in the French court when Richard II was on the throne of England. Her most famous book, The City of Women, came out in the year Richard was murdered by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the usurper King Henry IV. Meanwhile in England it was Chaucer who was stealing all the literary honours. Were there an women writers like Christine de Pizan at the court of King Richard? We do not know. Given his pleasure in all things beautiful, in poetry, art, fashion and food, as opposed to his Lancastrian cousin’s desire for more and more wealth and power, Richard must be seen as our first ‘Renaissance prince.’ If he had lived would Christine have visited the English court? Would English women have followed her example and started to write for the public instead of only for a private readership? History is crammed with unanswered and unanswerable questions like this. I recommend her writing if you don’t already know it. It’s full of common sense and explodes a few myths about women’s lives in the fourteenth century.
It’s that time of year again when all good websites are given a make-over Watch out for the new look! It might encourage me to post more often. I still never seem to have the time and realise I’ve been saying that for a couple of years now. I will do better! Don’t forget to givbe me your feedback and I’ll reply to you as quickly as can. Thanks for all your comments and encouragement over the last year. I really appreciate it. There’s such a lot to say so watch this space!
Help! It’s out there! I mean The Dragon of Handale in its bright new ebook version. I thought I’d never do it. I love books. Why try to read them on a little gadgety toy? And, as it happens, one of my favourite websites is www.curledupwithagoodbook.com. Go and see it if you like a book in your hand. Meanwhile here also is The Velvet Turnshoe with its new cover and in its glorious ebook version. Like The Dragon of Handale it can be downloaded from Kindle and ipad and from Waterstones and Barnes & Noble as well as libraries and participating bookshops.