Thursday, 10 September 2015

Medieval Women and the Merchant Class

I have a new novel that has just this past month been published in paperback.  The Betrothed Sister is about the marriage between Gita, King Harold of England's daughter and a Prince of Kiev during the latter half of the eleventh century. I am writing a new book. My work in progress will be concerned with a woman from the early Tudor merchant class. The heroine is a widow. She has a wonderful story.
Gita, Daughter of King Harold

There is a question over when the medieval period ends. Some historians, myself amongst these, believe that the medieval period really ends in England with the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. I actually believe it ends even later, around the mid sixteenth century, certainly not with The Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

A story set circa 1512 is, to my mind, a late medieval story. England was still Catholic. The monasteries basked contentedly for the most part amongst England's rivers and in towns and the countryside. Cathedrals with beautiful carvings, stained glass and great spires reached heaven-wards. The landscape of London looked much as it did in the previous century with a busy River Thames, medieval buildings, wood with tiled roofs and overhangs and many monasteries and churches. It is a delightful world to set a novel in, though, of course it has its underbelly. Life could be short, life could be hard and women struggled to find a voice, never mind any degree of independence.

Image result for English medieval town landscapes free pictures
Medieval towns where the Church dominated the landscape

There were strong women in trade throughout the medieval and Tudor period. There were some women who achieved independence by amassing fortunes. These female merchants were, for the most part, widows. The Wife of Bath was one such lady.

In the late medieval era the term merchant sometimes meant a man or woman of mixed enterprise. Although he or she might have a dominant particular trade, the merchant often combined this with a number of other interests. Mercers, for example, traded in fine textiles. Grocers traded in spices. My lady trades in cloth, gorgeous cloths. Whilst a merchant might trade in wool and cloth they were often ready to deal in any other merchandise that came their way. Mercers often derived a considerable profit from a retail business in luxury fabrics. My protagonist, for example, is anxious to get her hands on a variety of what was known in 1512 as New Draperies, fabrics that consisted of long combed out woollen threads mixed with silk or linen so that they were light textured. Cyprus gold thread might be sold alongside lace from Venice even though the merchant's stock also included good English products such as Cornish blanket cloth, London silk, Bury napery, stained or painted cloths and fine linen towels.

When cloth was king

Merchant companies did have a few associated female members. They also divided their membership into those who were entitled to wear official clothing or livery in company colours and those who were not. The group excluded from livery were mixed. Some never succeeded in launching themselves into wholesale trade. This group depended on retail shopkeeping for their living. In all merchant companies there would be a group of young men, called yeomen, with capital and influence who were prepared to enter the livery. First they must serve under an older merchant to gain experience. Hopefully, later they could set up in business independently. Around the age of thirty they might be accepted into the livery.

A busy merchant's workshop

Livery men discussed company affairs in quarterly meetings. The yeomanry or rather these young trainees did not attend. Young merchants in service were similar to poorer shopkeepers. The companies were well established by 1512. By the fifteenth century they had acquired pleasant halls that served as club premises as well as administrative headquarters. Members dined apart from the yeomen at quarterly dinners. They threw lavish entertainments for friends and patrons such as lawyers and noblemen and government officials.

As well as companies there were also the fraternities. Fraternities were Parish based. They looked after the church and the poor. They collected alms to help members in trouble and elected wardens to run the show. They had annual banquets and processions. For example the skinners liverymen organised a solemn procession on the feast of Corpus Christi to which their fraternity was dedicated. The fraternities could have members from outside the company. I think they were more diverse and colourful and more inclusive. Often the trades belonged to both, their company and a fraternity. The fraternity might include shear men, pewterers, bakers and so on. To give an example, the Fraternity of St Katherine at St Mary Colechurch in Cheap was supported by ironmongers, drapers and armourers amongst others.
The busy medieval street

The Gild was a third kind of organisation. Gild regulations expressly excluded women from participation in a trade but they made exceptions for wives and daughters. Wives assisted their husbands in his trade, and, as pointed out already, a large number of widows carried on their dead husband's trade. Sometimes gild regulations allowed them to do so. There is strong evidence for this because men often stated in their will that their apprentices should serve out their term with the widow. They often left widows implements belonging to their trade. Trades carried out by women ranged from that of merchants on a large scale trafficking in ships and dealing with the crown to that of small craftsmen/women. Even as far back as The Hundred Rolls of 1274 there is mention of the great wool merchants of London widows who make a great trade in wool and other things. At least one woman is referred to in lists as a Merchant of the Staple, an exporter of wool to Calais.

Norwich was a town involved with the Staple

Here is an interesting fact to finish on before I go back to working on my new novel. Girls were often apprenticed to trades the same way as boys. A father in an urban occupation will leave a daughter money in his will to wed her or he will leave the money to put her in trade!
Women in the cloth trade

Women may have been the footnotes of history. It was often the aristocratic women who might just get a line or two. However, just like Gita from The Betrothed Sister and my merchant widow in my WIP, women had more power than we often realise back in the Medieval period. 

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The River Thames in Medieval Times

The River Thames features in The Handfasted Wife and briefly in The Swan-Daughter. What do we know about the Thames from the eleventh century? It rose then as it rises today in Trewsbury Meade beside a Roman Camp and a mound known as Trewsbury Castle. The name of the neighboring village derives from the old Anglo-Saxon word for spring or source. It is called Ewen. The path of the early river is marked by a line of straggling ancient thorns. The Lydwell along the birth course is known as Lyd Well, meaning loud spring.
At the Source or Close to it!

The river has many many tributaries. Close to where I live in Oxfordshire there are two interesting tributaries, the Cherwell and the Windrush. By the time the river reaches London there are buried tributaries such as the Fleet, a river that would have been navigable in the Anglo-Saxon era.

Abingdon , a location on the river in The Handfasted Wife
The Fleet is the greatest of all forgotten tributaries. It flows into the Thames under Blackfrairs Bridge. Its name may have derived from the Anglo-Saxon term for a tidal estuary or from the fleetness of water that gathered from it into the wells north of the city. Tributaries came together near Clerkenwell and Turnmill Street widening at Holborn where a bridge once crossed the Fleet. According to John Snow's Elizabethan survey of London the waters of The Fleet were so wide that ten ships with merchandise could use it at one time. It had also by the sixteenth century become in parts an open sewer that frequently needed cleansing.
Along the Thames in London

The river Thames acted as a boundary in Anglo-Saxon times between Wessex and Mercia. At Cookham on the border between the two kingdoms there was a monastery that kept changing hands between the two. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Wessex is written as The Kingdom South of the River, a poetic concept but one reinforcing the notion of the river as a boundary. In the seventh century London was known as Lundenwic. London quickly became an important port with trade links to continental Europe. When it was an Anglo-Saxon settlement, the early Saxons preserved commercial links with the Rhine. Imports of timber and resin came to Lundonwic by river and corn and wool were exported. Tolls were charged at Billingsgate and vessels were also charged fourpence to rest in the wharf.
Lambeth Bridge over the Thames

During the early medieval period Hiths and Quays were constructed along the riverbank within the protection of a wall built to shield London from invaders. In fact, the invasion of the Thames did happen in 893 AD. A Danish army landed in the Thames Estuary because if they had control of the river this would result in control of the country nearby and then they could attack both Mercia and Wessex from this river sanctuary. They were counter-attacked in 895. The attacks continued throughout this period until Canute gained control of the Thames and took the throne of England from 1016-1035.

The Danes are Coming

Peter Ackroyd writes that, according to the monastic chronicler Gildas, the Thames was always the river of boundaries, the guardian river. The Thames enters ancient charters from the seventh century on.  From it we discover the existence of dene holes by the river which were vast underground tunnels that were likened to vase-shaped structures with narrow necks. Ackroyd describes these as having a vertical shaft with a bell like chamber below that led to other chambers. Some historians suggest that these were grain pits or refuges from invaders. They may have been constructed by the Anglo-Saxons for chalk mining although no one knows. I wonder if there could be treasure hidden in undiscovered dene holes on the banks of the Thames. It is an interesting thought. Perhaps I  need to go looking.
Cheapside and the Fleet

You can find out more about the significance of the river in Peter Ackroyd's Thames: Sacred River. The river Thames and its tributaries features strongly in The Handfasted Wife and during a visit to London in The Swan-Daughter when a group of characters have difficulty crossing the crowded London Bridge on their way south to Canterbury.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Cathedrals and Abbeys in The Handfasted Wife and The Swan-Daughter

The ruins of Abingdon Abbey
Winchester Cathedral rebuilt between 11thC and 15thC
As well as castles, Cathedrals and Abbeys feature as locations in The Swan-Daughter, The Handfasted Wife and the shortly to be published The Betrothed Sister.
Westminster Cathedral on The Tapestry to the left. You can see a weather vane being placed on the top.

Westminster Abbey features in The Handfasted Wife. King Edward the Confessor, called so because he was so pious, was responsible for the rebuilding of St Peter's Church on the site of today's Westminster Abbey. This is not the Abbey Church or Cathedral we see now because it was rebuilt again by Henry III in the thirteenth century in a Gothic style popular in the High Middle Ages. King Edward's new abbey was built in Norman Perpendicular style and was consecrated on Holy Innocents' Day, 28th December 1065. Edward was described as tall, dignified with rosy cheeks and a long white beard. He was regarded as a saint long before he was canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1161. He was no martyr but he demonstrated sanctity in the face of worldly temptations. Interestingly, he had no children with Earl Harold Godwin's sister Edith leading to speculation that he was 'pure' and monk-like. After his death miracles were attributed to him. He died a few days after the new abbey was consecrated leaving a critical succession crisis. Edward, the Abbey Church and the succession crisis that led to The Norman Invasion feature in The Handfasted Wife. King Edward's Westminster Abbey is shown on The Bayeux Tapestry. He was buried in his new Cathedral.
King Edward's Death is a central scene on The Tapestry. You can see the dying king, Queen Edith holding his feet and her brother Earl Harold in the top vignette

Winchester Cathedral has a long history stretching back to King Alfred. Even today the Cathedral contains the bones of England's early medieval kings. This Cathedral is a major location in The Handfasted Wife after the Battle of Hastings in October 1066. It was to the royal palace of Winchester that King Edward's widow Edith Godwin retreated when her husband died and her brother, Harold, was crowned king in January 1066.  She was pragmatic and handed over the keys to the city and the Royal Treasury to the Norman invaders once they arrived at Winchester, without complaint. This is recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Much of the central section of The Handfasted Wife takes place in Winchester. The building we see today, however, was founded in 1079 shortly after the Conquest. The new Cathedral was not built all at once. It demonstrates the main phases of English church architectural styles from the 11th century to the early 16th century. As a consequence, styles ranging from Anglo-Norman to late Gothic are beautifully preserved within this Cathedral. The crypt  is 11thC Romanesque with low massive pillars, heavy round arches, vaulting without ribs or bosses and narrow windows with rounded heads. The Old Anglo-Saxon Minster had stood for 450 years! Today, if you visit Winchester, you can still see the remains of its great monastery, St Swithun's Priory and the 14th C Pilgrim's Hall.

By the tenth century the Old Minster was the priory church of a community of Benedictine monks. In this century, the bones of St Swithun were dug up and housed in a new shrine inside the minster. St Swithun soon became the object of pilgrimage which continued throughout the Middle Ages. All around his tomb at the time of The Handfasted Wife, the walls were hung with the crutches of people he had healed.

The Anglo-Norman Crypt, Winchester Cathedral

Wilton Abbey features in both novels, The Handfasted Wife and The Swan-Daughter. Its first foundation was built in wood as a college for secular priests in 773. Around 802 it was changed into a convent for twelve nuns. King Alfred founded a spacious new convent on the site of the royal palace at Wilton and added it to the older foundation.  The concubine/wife of Edgar of the English, King 959-75, was abbess of Wilton in the early 960s. She brought substantial property to the abbey and used her wealth to increase Wilton's relic collection. She also brought her daughter Edith to the abbey. Edith died at the age of 23 but since miracles were attributed to her, her mother later promoted her cult as a saint. I believe she may be associated with The Bayeux Tapestry, connected to the vignette 'where a priest and Algeva...' This, however, is a story for a future post.The abbey had suffered during early 11th C Danish attacks. Queen Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor, who was educated there as a girl, rebuilt the abbey in stone. At the time of The Handfasted Wife it housed a school for aristocratic young ladies and embroidery workshops. It is likely that some panels of The Bayeux Tapestry were embroidered at Wilton. According to various primary sources Gunnhild, King Harold's younger daughter who was in Wilton Abbey in the early 1070s with her Aunt Edith, eloped with Alan of Richmond, a cousin of William the Conqueror. The story of their elopement forms the basis for my narrative in The Swan-Daughter.
Wilton Abbey, rebuilt in stone by Queen Edith in 11thC

Other religious places referred to in my first two novels in The Daughters of Hastings series include Abingdon Abbey, Bangor Abbey in Ireland, Exeter's Minster and St Benets in Suffolk.

I enjoyed visiting and researching all of the locations used in both historical novels. They are amongst my background locations. Both novels are filled with page turning historical adventure and many references to women's daily life before and after Conquest.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Castles in The Swan-Daughter

In the aftermath of 1066 King William built castles to help secure his hold on England. Initially these were Motte and Bailey castles. On his arrival in England he put up a motte and bailey wooden castle at Hastings. The motte held the keep or tower. The bailey was the yard at the bottom of the man-made hill. This early castle can be seen on The Bayeux Tapestry. The castle erected at Hastings was simply a wooden tower constructed atop a man-made hill. Built within weeks of Duke William's arrival on England's south coast, it was as if Duke William had packaged it all up and carried it over the channel with him, like a building kit. There are other early castles shown on The Bayeux Tapestry. These were also constructed from wood. I used the castle at Bayeux in the early chapters of The Swan-Daughter.

Building the Castle at Hastings

I was fascinated by its flying bridge this castle possessed, over which horsemen could gallop into the Keep, the central tower. The bailey below the keep was filled with castle buildings such as stables, a hall, kitchens and herb gardens, pens for animals and so on. I use this concept in later chapters of The Swan-Daughter for the castle I imagined in Brittany by the sea in Ponthieu. 
Horsemen mount a bridge to the castle keep from the Bailey

However there are several other real castles to be discovered in The Swan-Daughter. The first of these is Castle Dol where Count Alan, with whom Gunnhild, King Harold's daughter, elopes and where she overnights on her ride south into Brittany. Here, Alan and Gunnhild face danger from a Breton/English nobleman who challenged William of Normandy's authority and who left England for exile after his rebellion. The rebellion is known to history as The Rebellion of the Earls. It took place in 1075 and was the last real rebellion against King William's authority in England. No spoilers. You will have to read the novel so below I am placing a few free apple download codes to celebrate this book's publishing anniversary.
Castle Dol. See a flying bridge.

Castle Dol, shown above, was also a wooden castle and it, too, is shown on The Bayeux Tapestry. King Harold, then an Earl, saw it in an earlier time when he was in Normandy as William's guest and when he was involved in what was known as The Breton Campaign, illustrated on The Tapestry.

Wooden Castles were quick to build but they could burn to the ground. Already a stone keep existed in Falaise in Normandy and soon the Normans were building with stone in England also. These castles were more sophisticated. When the old Saxon palace in Exeter was pulled down, the castle erected there was known as Castle Rouge-mount. It was built with stone right against the old Roman walls.
Castle Richmond ( British Heritage)

Gunnhild and Count Alan eventually take up residence in England in Yorkshire. Much of the novel's action actually takes place in this castle. I try to imagine its keep as it might have been then. It was called Castle Richmond and if you visit NorthYorkshire it is possible to see the original keep. The castle is currently owned by British Heritage.

As centuries passed castles became much more sophisticated. The greatest era of castle-building was during the 13th century in the reign of Edward 1. Castle Richmond was improved, added onto, made stronger. It became much more fascinating and beautiful than it was in Gunnhild's time.

If you would like to read The Swan-Daughter for free on your ipad or phone here are codes. It is on a first come first served basis. The easiest way to download the book is to google ipad or apple gift downloads and follow the instructions. You will need to input your apple account number but no charge follows. the instructions are also on my face book page The Daughters of Hastings. Just 'like' the page.

Do download asap because once they are released these codes expire quickly though, of course, you can take time to read the book. Equally, The Swan-Daughter is available on amazon and as a paperback.

Happy Reading!


Saturday, 28 March 2015

A Literary Festival on Alderney

For those who might not know, Alderney is a small island in The English Channel. Last week, I boarded a tiny plane that flew from Southampton to this outpost of The Channel Islands to participate in a unique literary festival. Getting there was an unusual experience- for me at least. I am a novice who has never been to the Channel Islands before, not even the bigger islands such as Jersey or Guernsey. Each of the ten or so passengers has a window seat. I voyaged out on a fog bound Thursday evening. None the less, despite a few shudders, shakes and rumbles this little plane nosed down smoothly into Alderney's delightfully munchkin, efficient and friendly airport without a hitch.

Moody, gorgeous, atmospheric Alderney

I was immediately greeted by Kate and Widget, two of the festival organizers, with whom I had communicated since last autumn but had never met. Kate Russell is a Bayeux Tapestry expert and the inspiration behind Alderney's fascinating millenium project which continued the Tapestry panels giving it an ending with the crowning of King William. This somehow disappeared during the mists of time from The Tapestry stitched in the decade following The Norman Conquest. More than hundred people including royals,  Camilla and Charles, have contributed beautiful stitches to its completion.

Widget Finn is a journalist of high repute who writes for amongst other papers and journals, The Times, Telegraph, and who recently placed a delightful article (mentioning Marc Morris, Kate, myself) which concerned The Alderney Tapestry in The Lady. The festival committee were warm people, formidably intelligent, organized and great fun. They collectively and individually made the experience so perfect that we authors are considering keeping The Alderney Literary Festival a very special secret! Of course we would never really do that. Thank you, festival organizers for your fabulous welcome. You all know who you are.

The Alderney Literary Festival Team

So we did not vanish into the Alderney Thursday night mist but, rather, were whisked to our destination, respectively Farm Court and The Rectory, only ten minutes from the landing stripe. Within half an hour, a further whisking and I found myself in the midst of a literary buzzing company at an evening reception with drinks and canapes- in a fortress! This was a huge kitchen/dining area in Rachel Abbott's fort apartment overlooking a beach. Our host for that evening, a writer of thrillers, Rachel Abbott, is a phenomenal success. Later I discovered that Alderney has many forts dating from The Napoleonic era and fortified buildings that were used by the German invaders during WWII.

Danuta Reah and myself at the reception on Thursday eve

Our hostess, Rachel Abbott

The next day the Festival kicked off in The Georgian House in town, a short walk from our accommodation, along small streets flanked with Victorian and Georgian houses. I was a little nervous because I was appearing on the first panel,  co-speaking with Simon Scarrow on an interesting topic for both writers and readers of Historical Fiction, 'Is Accuracy or Story more important in works of Historical Fiction'.
First Talk on Accuracy and Story Manda Scott, Carol McGrath, Simon Scarrow
Manda Scott, introducing us. Her new novel is The Girl who walked into Fire, Jeanne D'Arc.

I immediately felt at ease by merit of author Manda Scott's relaxed introduction. After a thoroughly good discussion,  I think Simon and I agreed that whilst both mattered, that as writers of historical fiction, it really was all about telling a great story with wonderful characters. I endeavor to dig up everything I can about the medieval world I depict before placing characters in it. Then they take over. For me this is crucial. The historical details scattered throughout an historical fiction matter because they allow the reader a convincing sense of a particular historical world. I held my breath for a split second thinking that Manda was going to ask me details of how medievals made soap. And, I was also asked about teeth cleaning in The Middle Ages- definitely twigs and herbal concoctions!

What WAS I saying?

Since my protagonists are real historical personalities, I absolutely do need to know what is written about them in Primary Sources. Yet it is  also worth remembering that, as Simon says rightly, even these sources carry agendas and often the sources are the 'stuff' of story. It was a topic that gave rise to a lively discussion, chaired intelligently by Manda Scott, author of The Girl who Walked into Fire, a superb, I am told by Elizabeth Chadwick, utterly wonderful novel about Jeanne d'Arc to be published in May. If you like good, quality historical fiction, buy it!

Danuta Reah, Finding Fiction in the Past

As an author who loves reading and finding new books, I enjoyed listening to Friday's and Saturday's speakers, in particular Danuta Reah and Clare Mulley. Danuta spoke about a thriller set in Poland, The Last Room. Her brief was 'Looking Back: Finding Fiction in the Past'. Her slides showing Poland in wartime were exceptionally moving. Later, Clare Mulley spoke about her new biography 'The Spy who Loved': The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville, Britain's first female special agent of WWII. If only she was alive now. I felt I wanted to meet her outside the pages of Clare's novel, so read Clare's book to find a unique non-fiction story. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Clare Mulley, The Spy who Loved

The Bayeux Tapestry was an important feature of the festival and I was privileged to speak with Dr Marc Morris , Dr Sue Johns and Kate Russell on a panel titled 'The Bayeux Tapestry-Embroidering the Facts of History.' I have written on several occasions about The Bayeux Tapestry on my blog and it is part of my inspiration for The Handfasted Wife. Its mysteries also enter the early pages of The Swan-Daughter.
Marc Morris, Carol McGrath, Sue Johns, Kate Russell and Widget

We still cannot say conclusively where the Tapestry was first displayed. Was it embroidered for a secular hall or was it intended from the beginning for a Cathedral? If so was it commissioned by Bishop Odo for Bayeux or was it shown in several Cathedrals such as Canterbury or Lincoln? Lincoln mirrors Bayeux and was built at the same time, in the 1070s.  Could the fables embroidered in the Tapestry's margins be read as both pro-Norman and pro-English. We know that it was hauled out of storage yearly for The Feast of Relics during the High Middle Ages to be displayed in Bayeux Cathedral. If this is still a mystery, our panel did agree that Harold's promise to recognize William as King, an oath made over caskets of relics, was central to the story the Tapestry depicts.

Fictionalizing Medieval Women, Carol McGrath introduced by Widget Finn

 On Sunday I gave a very well received talk on Medieval Women, The Handfasted Wife and The Swan-Daughter. I did need my bottle of water!

Historian, Marc Morris, presented a talk on King John. Morris's biography of King John is excellent. Tom Holland spoke in a fascinating way about Islam. Adrian Murdoch spoke about Herculaneum-lots of dead bodies and a few mysteries. 

Adrian Murdoch on Herculaneum , Umm, who is that interloper?

Dr Marc Morris and King John

Dr Irving Finkel, curator at The British Museum, told his audience, in a very dramatic presentation, all about boats built in Mesopotamia and how his experimental boat building could be similar to that of Noah's famous ark.  He had ancient tablets which he translated to suggest it. This was a riveting talk and I could listen to it all over again! If you ever have the opportunity to hear him speak, do! He is fabulous. Historian Professor Thornton told us about the History of the Channel Islands. Simon Scarrow spoke on Waterloo.

Simon Scarrow and Waterloo

There were, needless to say, many extracurricular events, good company, delicious cuisine and lashings of delicious buttercup yellow Chanel Islands' butter. We participated in a Roman themed dinner though I was generously permitted my medieval attire.

Speaker Alex Bowler from Jonathan Cape at The Roman Festival Dinner

An excuse to dress up Clare , Simon and myself

One of the really exciting events, however, was an unforgettable and spooky encounter with the ghosts of Fort Tourgis on Friday evening, a very cold evening. We shivered our way around presentations brought to us by The Alderney Theatre Group. Yes, torches and warm coats were essential for this wonderful series of vignettes. The next day I purchased a new extremely heavy sweater.

The Amazing Dr Irving Finkel. Is that Alderney and Noah's Ark?

The Erudite Tom Holland 'In the Shadow of the Sword'.

There simply is not enough room here to tell you everything about this Literary Festival. Pictures say more than a hundred words ever can. May I end this short report by saying that the hospitality, the organization, the cuisine, the talks were all marvelous and the audience the most erudite of  audiences. The questions they posed were undoubtedly an important contribution to this festival's amazing success. Thank you, unforgettable Alderney, for inviting me over. But, shush, because if the world of festivals finds out how wonderfully we impoverished writers were treated we may not get a place on a flight next year!

Poignant Goodbye.