Sunday, 26 October 2014

Revisiting Battle Abbey 1066/ 2014

Early this month I revisited Battle Abbey for the first re enactment of the Battle of Hastings in several years. It was a superb event and it made me wonder why I am so fascinated by battles and why I am writing a trilogy about the noble women of the Norman Conquest and how they survived 1066. I studied both Medieval history and The English Civil War as a student and those eras are of particular interest to me. Another reason for my passion resides deep inside my personal past.  A direct ancestor who fought as a captain with the Scots Greys at The Battle of Blenheim was awarded a family crest by King George 1 and a parcel of land in Ireland as a reward for valour. In fact, I, absurdly used to use the family crest on notepaper when I applied for jobs (I was a student) thinking it made my applications look more impressive. I think I got the student jobs because I was suitable not because of my illustrious ancestor.

The Women of Hastings, The Saxon Camp, Re enactment 2014.

My father's family came from the Scottish Highlands. It was not until later in the eighteenth century that they took up residence in Ireland. They were military men until my great grandfather rebelled. He refused to join the army and decided to marry an unsuitable bride. William Baxter was banished from the family home. However, the land eventually came his way.  He ended up as a gentleman farmer who was also a carpenter. My mother's family were 'planted' in Ireland as a result of another war. Her ancestor fought as a mercenary in the Williamite wars of the late seventeenth century. He got his reward after the Battle of the Boyne which was the largest battle ever fought in the United Kingdom and ended up carving a successful future for himself in Northern Ireland. The shameful part of the story is that, just as after The Battle of Hastings, the victors literally seize territory from those who lived there before them. They destroy the lives of others. They bring about regime change and help to establish it. With this comes both positive and negative results but sadly human cost, the loss of life in battle and dispossessed. It is not a history to be proud of but it does explain my fascination with the past and, in particular, the effect of battles such as The Battle of Hastings on women.

Blessing the Battle

The event which took place on Senlac Hill almost a thousand years ago brought great change to England. The poor may not have noticed it greatly in that they exchanged one group of warlords for another. A feudal system was already in place in England by 1066. But for the noble wives of those who fought at Hastings the change was significant. They were survivors. Many wealthy women fled forced marriages with the enemy and took refuge in convents. Others looked after their families and estates until these were taken from them. Either they remarried or they took refuge where ever they could, and became exiles as did the heroine of the novel that I am writing currently. This is about Gytha, Harold's elder daughter who went into exile in Denmark and then married a prince of Kiev. Often the exiles lived in extreme poverty.

In the Saxon Camp

Attending a re enactment whether it is an eleventh century experience or a seventeenth century Civil War experience helps us appreciate what these battles were like, what people wore, what they ate and how people lived then. For a writer it is a perfect way to immerse oneself in the period you write about. For the reader, the student or the history lover it is a superb day out.

The Normans believed God was on their side

Norman Kite Shaped Shields

Saxon Round Shields

Musical Instruments

I wonder if anyone who reads this blog has any interesting family history. I have a signed copy of The Swan-Daughter, a novel about King Harold's younger daughter, which will be on general release on 11th December, as a prize for the most interesting comment. I would love to hear, too, if anyone is descended from Harold and Edith Swan-Neck.
The Raven

I shall choose the winner from the hat and announce the result here on this blog on 1st December ten days before the paperback release of The Swan-Daughter.

The winner can then send me his/her address for the signed book through my website email.

This competition is open internationally. I look forward to reading small snippets of your family history either via my web site email or here in the comments section.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

St Nicholas, a Greek Byzantine Church at Chora

Many of the Byzantine churches in the Greek Mani were  built during the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries. Over the past two years I have visited so many of these in villages in the Taygetos Mountains that I cannot even remember all their names. However, the icons and frescoes they contain are fascinating and tell familiar stories. It interests me to think that people who lived during these centuries gazed on these with awe and through them learned the stories of the Old and New Testaments.

Bruce Chatwin, the writer who fell in love with the Mani and also who converted to the Greek Orthodox religion before he died of aids in 1989, must have felt likewise. I write about Bruce Chatwin here

If the video does not show here is the link:

Recently, my husband made a short video about the church in the Greek Mani where Bruce Chatwin  requested his ashes to be placed after his death. The Church of St Nicholas at Chora has a special sense of place, a perfect location for a Greek Othodox Church. It was built in the tenth century. Unfortunately, as it was locked on the day we made the video, we could not see the frescoes. Yet, walking around it on a sunny evening, just before sunset, is enough to convince me that a sense of timelessness exists here amongst olive trees and above the Viros Gorge. I cannot think of a better place for one's last journey.

The photographs above were taken last week at St Nicholas at Chora. Whilst it was impossible to view frescoes inside St Nicholas, another local church which is easily found as you walk from Chora to the main road, is usually open. The frescoes in this Orthodox Church date from a later century.

The best frescoes I have seen in village chuches in the Taygetis Mountains are to be discovered in the medieval churches of the village of Kastania. This beautiful hill village can be found by carrying on past Chora around the mountain route via Sidonia.

Fresco from one of the many medieval churches in Kastania

Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife and the recently published historical novel The Swan-Daughter , published by Accent Press in July 2014, initially on amazon kindle but on general distribution on December 11th 2014. This is a novel about the aftermath of 1066 from the point of view of Gunnhild Godwinsdatter, King Harold's younger daughter. It is based on a documented historical story.