Monday 12 December 2011

Books for Four Seasons

 I am an obsessive reader. Here I choose four of the many historical novels I have enjoyed in each season of 2011. It was hard to select but these are particularly good historical fictions.


Last winter I particularly liked This January Tale written in 1966  by Bryher, an unusual writer who is often forgotten.  It tells of how the people of England endured the aftermath of the Conquest in 1066. At its centre is the city of Exeter. For months the people of Exeter watched the progress of the Normans from a distance, hoping that they would not try to push so far west. This proved futile. The Conqueror came and besieged their city for three freezing, terrifying weeks. The magic of this novel is its re-creation of the England of 1066. Towns, fields, the primitive remote hamlets and great forests dominated the land, and Bryher's bleak book is beautifully written from the point of view of those who inhabited them. It is a novel which has had a particular influence on my current WIP, The Handfasted Wife.



Last Spring I read The Queen of Silks by Vanora Bennett. The Queen of Silks tells the story of a fictional relationship between Richard 111 and a silk merchant's daughter. It is notable for the careful way in which Bennett interweaves real historical characters and fictional ones. The characterisation is excellent and she brilliantly re-creates the final years of the English Wars of the Roses, those years leading up to 1484 and the Tudor take-over. Importantly, she faithfully describes London during this period- particularly from the perspective of the silk merchants, some of whom were women.

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For summer my suggestion is Outlaw by Angus Donald. This is a story of Robin Hood from  Alan Dale's point of view. It is really Alan's story and an absolute page turner. Where else to be in summer but the medieval English green-wood with its caves, isolated manors and huge spreading oaks. I am impressed by Donald's plotting and also by the way in which he takes a legendary English hero ( made  famous during the Victorian era after his appearance in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe) and reinvents him as a ruthless but likeable war lord. Donald also faithfully recreates the atmosphere of the twelfth century. It was a period when many believed in the fantastic, dog men and mermaids and monopods, as well as being devout Christians.

Outlaw, by Angus Donald, UK paperback


Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick is an exceptional historical fiction. I read it in October and loved it. It tells the story of England's terrible twelfth century civil war emerging out of the power struggle between Matilda and her cousin Stephen. Can a woman be Queen in her own right in this period and remain unchallenged? Matilda's attempts to be Queen of England involve pursuit, escape, battles and high politics and perhaps a hint of romance along the way. Henry 1's second wife, (and Matilda's stepmother) Adeliza's story, parellels and intersects with that of Matilda.  Both stories are rivetting and the contrasting personalities are  engaging. I loved the way in which Chadwick's meticulous research is seemlessly integated into the novel's narrative and descriptions.

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Happy Christmas and Happy Reading and, of course, there are many more superb historical fictions not mentioned here for us to read over the holiday period.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Mistletoe, Mont St Michel and a Norman Castle

It is the edge of Winter, a liminal time and the trees in Normandy have great balls of mistletoe growing amongst bared branches. In Norman towns people are preparing for Advent, hanging municiple decorations and holding Christmas craft markets. So, last week, we set out from our borrowed farmhouse in the Norman Bocage to visit places we had not seen in four years. It was bitterly cold but the skies were blue and because the tourist season is past, we had Bayeux, Mont Saint Michelle and Falaise almost to ourselves.

I have been reading a novel about Eleanor of Acquitaine so in Rouen Cathedral it was moving to see the tomb to her favourite son, Richard Coeur de Lion. It contains his heart. His body is entombed elsewhere. The Cathedral is magnificent, possessing an austere beauty and atmosphere, its Romanesque skeleton and pillars the colour of bleached bones. As for the colourful old city with its plethora of half timbered houses-I could imagine the ghost of Emma Bovary flitting about Rouen's medieval streets and courtyards.

Richard the Lionheart

Richard's preserved heart is one of Rouen's treasures.
In the confined space of a Medieval fortified city buildings had to be
tall and narrow to maximise living space.

Everytime I visit Bayeux I try to focus on something different in the Tapestry and each time I find myself being distracted by some new and hitherto un-noticed detail. This time it was the small things that caught my eye, notably the blazing comet that to the medieval mind signified a dramatic change in a kingdom's rule; the hand of God so elegant and significant reaching in blessing from the border; tiny figures ploughing, who, in the face of great events, represent life circling through the agricultural year, the figures and animals both filled with energy.

The Viking inspired longboat outside Bayeux's Tapestry Museum
is a reminder that the Normans antecedents were Viking.

 Norman warrior on horseback in the Museum

Gothic Mont St Michel is perched high on a rocky island surrounded by sands. When the tide comes in and the sun begins to set the Abbey is at its most atmospheric. I discovered my favourite views just by walking around the outside of the small town. On this route the jewel in the rock reveals itself to be a tiny garden with a statue of St Christopher, secret and tucked away beneath the looming abbey church. Below me miniscule figures walk the damp tidelines.

                                                                      Mont St Michel conveys both a sense of martial security and mystical power.

Another day we visited Falaise. There, we learned that William the Conqueror's castle was indeed built of stone. I checked because I had wondered if the original had been a wooden construction. Falaise emanates a sense of how a Norman medieval castle was, not primitive but sophisticated and probably comfortable. Falaise was a very pleasant seat by twelfth century standards with the latest in mod coms: spacious loos, deep windows, graceful stairways, light corridors and fireplaces set into pale walls. 

                                                                                                            William's Castle at Dusk

                                                                                                            A corridor in the Castle

The predominant theme for the self guided tour is chess because as a game it embodies the ultimate principle of power politics and control - "Protect the King!". Here it represents the power games that involved all the Dukes of medieval Normandy and the Kings of France from William the Conqueror who struggled with his son, Duke Robert to King John, his great, great grandson who finally lost Falaise to Philippe Augustus, the then French King.  

                                                                              In one of the Royal chambers there are life size chess pieces
                                                                                                  representing King, Queen and Knight.

The Tower
Philippe Augustus proceeded to celebrate his take-over by building his own tower to link the old part of the castle to his new build. Finally, we descended to the lowest rooms and there we found, at last, the sense of the Conqueror's castle, a much, much gloomier place.

  Descending to the lower depths

                                                                              The statue of Guillaume le Conquerant in Falaise near his castle
Leaving Normandy on a quiet November Sunday, laden with Christmas gifts from a tiny specialist shop in a back street of Villedieu les Poeles, I was tempted to pull down one of the balls of mistletoe that was roosting in the tree behind our house. Yet, I restrained my impulse. Mistletoe is better there growing into a memory, along with the dark birds that perch in the tree's highest branches. So, I left the mistletoe in its tree behind a small farmhouse down a country lane, in the depths of the Bocage, off the beaten track, in a territory that is permeated with echoes of its medieval past.



Friday 11 November 2011

Boots, a pilgrim staff and Santiago de Compostella

On a chilly November day last year I purchased a pair of Ecco walking boots and thick socks.  Walking from Ferrol to Santiago de Compostella would be demanding so I prepared. Each weekend I broke in those boots, walking locally.

 At the end of May five of us flew from Heathrow by Vueling Airlines to A Coruna in Gallicia where we picked up my Italian friend, Anna.  My cousin, Anne, joined us from Northern Ireland and two friends came from Greece. At A Coruna airport we hired two small cars and drove to Ferrol where we had booked a hotel. Our plan was to move the cars along the English pilgrim route each morning, placing one at each end of the day's set walk. We had divided the walk into recommended sections. Although we had planned to stay in pilgrim hostels, which are not possible to book ahead, two of the hostels were closed. Undeterred, we stayed in hotels popular with pilgrims. Appropriate information about hotels, hostels and route maps can be collected in Ferrol at the Pilgrim office along with a pilgrim passport which can be stamped at each overnight stop. 

The English Way from the coast is the perfect route for a novice pilgrim. We walked it without difficulty and only relied on the cars in the evenings. These 'donkeys' held our larger packs. We found parking them securely was surprisingly easy. One parking spot was in a farmer's yard!  

Walking capes are an investment and wearing double socks essential. Only one change of outer clothing is advisable and something nicer to wear in Compostella. I admit it, I did purchase a pilgrim stick on the second day, great for the hills. It is my favourite 'souvenir' and has pride of place by my hallway door. We brought a first aid kit, suncream and mosquito repellent. Thankfully, we encountered no mini vampires at all.

              For the first three days the weather was fine but on the fourth a storm blew in.  

We were alone on the route that week apart from a group of Italians, famous in my memory for their ability to find amazing siesta and picnic spots. We, too, took our time. It was not a race. A midday siesta or coffee and baguette in a small town were welcome punctuations along our route.

Day 1 We walked to  Pontedeume. 18km.  This section skirted an inlet. One of us, carried her binoculars as she is a bird watcher and pointed out Gallicia's feathered life to us when asked. This section is pleasant though urban. In Pontedeume we discovered an interesting eleventh century chapel overlooking the sea and in Pontedeume we ate delicious  tapas. The tapas bar features below.

Day 2 Pontedeume to Betanzos. 20km. We were in countryside scattered with ancient barns and many corn fields. We set off through leafy woods, along moss lanes with high banks, paused in old stone churches and passed through ancient villages. Eventually we found the pilgrim hostel (not in Betanzos but a neighbouring town) and settled in. It was spotless and well equipped.  Pilgrim passports stamped, we headed for a wide sandy beach. There, we dined on local fish and watched the sun set.

Day 3 Betanos to Bruma. 29 km. Betanos is a hill town with twisting streets, a central market and Churches that possess a solemn, onate beauty. After we had made market purchases of local cheese and bread, we followed the shell markers again and climbed two terrible and challenging hills out of the town. The sun was very hot.  Hats on and water, lots of it. There are fountains on the route and locals will kindly refill bottles. A highlight was a small  church, pictured below, which held a Sunday service in English. The other highlight was that the hostel we were heading for was closed. We were lost in the high country where no one spoke English. Undaunted, Anna used her pigeon Spanish and Italian to communicate our plight to local farmers who helped us to find a small hotel in a town some kilometres off.

Day 4 From  Bruma  to Siguero. 24 km. A storm descended suddenly and with terrifying ferocity. We struggled on to Siguero.  Now that our chalice was in sight, we were getting very excited.  A seasoned pilgrim who joined us for dinner, regaled us with pilgrim stories, thus, in true Canterbury Tales fashion, preparing us for Santiago. The next morning we set out at 7 a.m. and walked the final 16 km. to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostella. We were in time for  the 12 o'clock pilgrim mass which is incedibly moving, everyone hugging and laughing with the joy of arrival. 

Day 5 In Santiago de Compostella. At the Pilgrim office, in the shadow of the Cathedral,  penetrating questions are asked. I held my breath, but we had done it! We had accomplished 80 miles. That is enough to achieve a certificate scribed in Latin to the effect.

Day 6 The Hotel San Francisco, is an old convent with fabulous views, situated conveniently behind the Cathedral. Exploring Santiago is fascinating. I loved the Pilgrim museum and the beautiful though simple Cathedral, where it is impossible not to think of the thousands and thousands of pilgrims who have passed this way before.

They say once you have done it you want to walk Compostella again. It is true. I felt that for me, on this walk,that although there was no earth-shattering self realisation, there was a wonderful sense of past and present intertwining. We were walking to enjoy it. No rush, no gallop to get there. The Compostella walk is a celebration of life. As for my feet; they luckily survived without one blister, so purchasing the right boots on that foggy November day last year and walking them in, paid off.


Sunday 30 October 2011

Divining a Witch

It is All Hallows Eve; a time for witches, dressing up and apple bobbing.  The Historich Openlucht Museum(open air History Park) is on the outskirts of the Company town of Eindhoven, originally built to house the workers employed in the Phillips Electrical business. 

The park is a medieval time slip. As you enter you approach the Bronte Os (Multicoloured Ox) Inn and nearby a set of human sized wooden scales loom invitingly and hinder your further progress. Beside them a medievally attired matron rolls balls of clay into weights. Her scribe is poised with his quill and ink waiting to record judgement. Could you be guilty of witchcraft? The scales do not lie.

The park contains reconstructed buildings from the iron age and the medieval period.  I visited on Friday and felt as if I had been dropped into a Medieval world.
From Holland, through Europe right into the heart of Britain wichcraft was a real living force feared by some but indulged by others.

Medieval Eindhoven had its share of witches. The History Park has reconstructed buildings in archeological and architectural detail using the same building techniques as were used centuries ago. There are several iron age farms and medieval halls, a smithy, a weaving shed, shops, boats including a great Viking ship, a grave yard, chapel, a kitchen garden and a number of examples of medieval loos. See some below.

I particularly liked the sheep farm from circa 500BC, the Noble farm-house from 950 AD, the weaver's house approximately 1250 AD and the Inn from circa 1560.

In walking the wooded pathways  with their twists and turns, you stumble upon rune stones dangling on twine from the branches of overhanging trees. There is a tangible air of mystery. The spell is obviously taking. Some Dutch witcherey must be afoot.

Beyond the runes on the edge of the wood, a rude tent stitched together from recycled canvas strains to provide protection to the sacred spiral walk carved on the sward below. Friendly helpers  (one is pictured below so you'll recognise them for what they do should you ever bump into one) reassure you that the witches will eventually be hunted out and the inhabitants of Medieval Eindhoven will be safe from their spells. They offer you a soothing decoction to soothe your rising (gulp) fear.

Reassured for the moment that I am protected from any itinerant witches, I enter the Noble House, a tenth century Viking hall. People are gathered around the raised hearth, dipping string into a bubbling cauldron of wax, and over the course of repeated dipping they create their own rudimentary candles. The atmosphere is warm and friendly. There is a fine air of good humour about the huge hall. The woven willow shutters, the hand dyed fabrics and wooden chests would have impressed followers of the Arts and Crafts movement many centuries later. Before I could leave, my new found medieval Dutch friends insisted that I undergo trial by scales. They led me from the hall to the market place.

The Viking Hall and ship

 Enter the Viking Hall

The clothing chest

The Iron Age Farmstead House

Iron Age Grain Store

Inside the Iron Age farmstead

Thus, I sat on the dubious scales. The lady who had earlier been  fashioning weights from clay now began piling them on the opposing scale. Was there now a malicious light in her suddenly beady appearing eyes?My life was hanging in the balance. The ricktety wood frame shuddered, but dear reader the balance lifted not. Apparently my embonpoint, such as it is, was enough to ensure I lacked the necessary airiness to guarantee broomstick liftoff. I signed my certificate of innocence, with the proffered quill and walked away, reluctantly headed back to the real world.


Happy All Hallows Eve to all.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Sutton Hoo and Handfastings

On Sunday  I made the trip to Sutton Hoo for the first time. This is the site of a 7th century burial, a spectacular Saxon ship and mound graves containing grave goods which tells us much about life in East Anglia during the seventh century. The National Trust Museum on the site brings to life the treasure that was unearthed here. Sutton Hoo is of a primary importance to historians because it sheds light on a period of English history which is on the margin between myth, legend and historical documentation. Use of the site culminated at a time when the ruler of Anglia, Redwald held senior power among the English people and played a dynamic if ambiguous part in the establishment of Christian rule in England; it is generally thought most likely that he is the person buried in the ship discovered here. Importantly, the site has been vital in understanding the early Anglo-Saxon period, in particular East Anglia.
Paul Mortimer, author of Woden's Warriors models the helmet
The purpose of my visit was to attend a one-day seminar about History and Fiction in the Age of Sutton Hoo. Local authors of historical fiction and non-fiction set in Anglo-Saxon England discussed their work.These writers included writer P.M. Sabin Moore, Paul Mortimer, Steve Pollington and Carla Nayland, author of a fiction set in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria titled Paths of Exile.

The highlight was finding out what Paul Mortimer (above) and Steve Pollington thought about handfasting. Paul has written a non fiction study of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture, Steve's books  on Anglo-Saxon history and culture are highly regarded for their basis in archeological research.

The Handfasted Wife

It is probable that a whetstone was used in the handfasted ceremony. The whetstone was important in oath taking as well as its traditional use for sharpening ceremonial swords. Weighing around six kilos, it had an significant place in the culture of a Saxon mede hall. The replica I saw on Sunday was exquisitely decorated with stone carvings depicting a man and a woman, thus indicating its possible use in the handfasting ceremony. On the whetstone's top a golden deer stands proudly on a very large golden ring. In this ceremony the bride would face the groom as they made their oath to eachother, their hands clasping the ring at the top of the stone. Interestingly, the groom would give a bride price for his intended, rather than the traditional situation we know later, the provision of a bride's dowry from her family. These historians suggest that handfasting continued throughout the Anglo-Saxon period.

At the top of the Whetstone is the Ring used for oath-taking

Snippets About Anglo-Saxon Women

The Anglo-Saxons often made marriages to create new kindreds out of existing foes thus the notion of the women as peaceweavers.

High status women could hold political influence. Kings and princes might ask their advice as they did of Abbess Hilde in the 600s.

Women owned property and made wills. Places were named after them. Look at maps and you should find female names from Saxon times.

Women had distinct social roles. As early as the 670s Queens had their separate households. These included weaving, advising, managing resources and as practitioners of medicine. From this period we have the notion of the 'distaff' side. Women served the mede horn in the Hall and they traditionally made speeches when their menfolk returned from battle. 

A Special Place

The magic of Sutton Hoo lingers in that gentle Suffolk coastal territory. The wealth this society possessed is illustrated by their gorgeous jewellery, the sapphires, the rubies, rare blue glass and garnets and gold. It is possible to imagine a king wearing the magnificent engraved golden helmet, pictured at top of blog, with its garnet eagle eyes watching as we trespass on their past. And as the sun set and I headed  home, I hoped that the ghosts of Sutton Hoo had not minded too much that we, had but briefly passed through their world.