• 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?