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!

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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.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Discovering Padua, Venice and Verona in Winter

Venice on a chill January day with blue skies and sunshine is a pleasanter experience than Venice in mid-summer when it is crowded, hot and smelly. January is when Venice is reclaimed by Venetians for Venetians and a tourist presence is minimal. Yet, undeniably we were tourists, albeit returning from Christmas and New Year in Greece by driving through Europe. One of our favoured routes home is a car ferry from Patras in the Peloponnese to Venice, and after Italy, a long drive up Eastern France. Once we disembarked in Italy we paused for a week to discover and explore Venice, Padua and Verona during their quiet season.


The Golden Hour in Venice

The best way to describe our stay in Venice is to create a picture gallery. It is a city to wander around since to just look about with wonder is to experience a constant painting. Traveling up the Grand Canal by water bus is a superb daily commute for Italians who work in the city and a feast for the tourist's eye. I could spend days in Venice walking,  getting lost in narrow echoing streets, popping into Churches, eating Venetian food. Our five days passed enjoyably, meandering Venetian streets and waterways, punctuated by highlights such as an opera, music in St Mark's Cathedral, a violin and cello recital. Other things we love to do  in Venice is to drink a spritz, a mix of proseco and martini and nibble canapes at around five o'clock in the afternoon. Many Venetians enjoy this treat on their way home from work. Taking photographs on the Rialto at sunset provided us  on this visit with yet another visual experience.



The setting for La Traviata in Palazza Musico


Scene 2 La Traviata



Sunset



From Venice we drove to Padua. Padua is one of the great intellectual centres and medieval University Cities of Italy. It is a gorgeous and very friendly city. We stayed in the centre of town in a delightful hotel called Belludi 37. https://www.google.co.uk/#q=belludi+hotel+padua.

Bullet hole and explanation ( Cafe Pedrocchi)


I highly recommend visiting Padua and the hospitality in this hotel cannot be bettered. There is an emphasis on customer service and attention to detail that is impressive. Our host invited us to a reception to celebrate the launch of a magazine about Padua aimed at visitors to the city . This is packed with interesting articles and events. The magazine launch was held in Padua's famous cafe Pedrocchi. The story of the bullet hole shown below is told in the Wikipedia entry for Cafe Pedrocchi and is worth looking up. The Cafe is a place that is a great equaliser in that its clientele is middle class, ordinary citizens who read in the Green Room undisturbed and students. The launch event merged with another a wedding 'fayre' , most upmarket, that was also accompanied by music, canapes and drinks. And, dare I mention it, complimentary cigars and brandy and chocolates.
Again, pictures tell the story better than words.

The Wedding 'Fayre'
 
View of Padua from our hotel window

The next day we visited The Scrovengi Chapel to see the exquisitely preserved Giotto frescos. It is necessary to book in advance and worth while reading up about the frescos before visiting them as time to view these is limited. It is not permitted to photograph in the chapel. Giotto is very special because he developed an independent style of art that went beyond the solemn static images of Byzantine tradition. The frescos possess an expressiveness attached to their narrative suggesting realism. The Scrovegni Chapel frescos can be linked with Dante's Divine Comedy since, like this literary masterpiece, their narrative was conceived as a unified whole rather than a series of single episodes strung together. Thus, just as Dante's individual cantos and characters acquire meaning and life within the poem's structure, the fresco scenes are parts of a coherent , sequential narrative based on the late medieval theme of man's journey to salvation.The Scrovegni Palazzo also contains a superb art gallery with precious artistic treasures, many medieval but others from later centuries.
The Scrovegni Chapel

 
The next stage of our Italian journey took us to Verona where we explored the Colosseum which surpasses that in Rome, and where opera is performed throughout the summer. Verona also has many interesting medieval buildings and churches. The Capulet house possesses THE Romeo and Juliet balcony but it is also a medieval nobleman's home with a selection of late medieval interiors including the bedroom where Zeffereli's Romeo and Juliet was filmed and indeed when entered it does feel as if one has walked onto a film set. It remains as was during the filming.
The Colosseum at Night

Romantic Verona

These three Italian cities are no great distance apart and of the three, whilst Venice and Verona are undoubtedly extremely beautiful and clearly on the tourist agenda, Padua, perhaps less explored, is a treasure. Its arcades and churches gave me a strong sense of a medieval city as it was during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and, flying a flag for Padua, I suggest without doubt, that it is a fascinating city not to be missed when visiting the region.