Tuesday 21 May 2013

Reredfelle, an Eleventh Century Estate

Psalters, early medieval calendars, and The Domesday Book yield fascinating information about life on a medieval estate. For instance, a scene from Saint Mary's Psalter depicts the lord's reeve overseeing the harvest. The reeve is behind the cart which is drawn by three horses and is packed full of grain. The illustration climbs the margins of the Psalter page to meet a decoration of oak leaves on one side and acorns on the other. This represents the importance for the medieval villagers of the changing seasons.

The Lutrell Psalter also shows medieval agricultural scenes

The estate Reredfelle described in The Handfasted Wife can be found in The Domesday Book. Here it is written:

King William holds in demesne Reredfelle of the fee of the Bishop of Bayeux. Earl Godwin held it and then as now it was assessed for 3 hides. There is land for 26 ploughs. On the demesne there are 4 ploughs and 14 villeins. 6 borders have 14 ploughs. There are 4 serfs and a woodland yielding 80 swine for pannage. There is a park...

Outside the palisade, photograph by Paula Lofting, author of Sons of the Wolf

This was a perfect location for Earl Godwin's hunting estate with its park (deer park), woodland and agricultural activity. Reredfelle therefore became fictionalised as follows:

'Reredfelle was a sprawling territory of ash, beech and oak only a day's ride from Canterbury. On its southernmost edge, where the forest opened up into parkland fields and hamlets, Earl Godwin of Wessex built his new two-storey hall, a magnificent thatched building. The long side walls were painted with great hunting birds and in the centre of the front short wall an oak door led into an aisled room with a raised central hearth. Upstairs, Earl Godwin had his private rooms, an antechamber and through a doorway hung with a curtain of crimson and blue tapestry, his own bedchamber. Here he had two windows of glass, like those in the old minsters, set into deep oak frames; so you see, his wealth was great and he was not shy of showing it.'
The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath, published by Accent Press.

woman weaving outside the hall, photograph by Rich Price.

In  The Handfasted Wife, Edith Swan-Neck (Elditha), King Harold's wife, takes control of this decaying estate and restores it to its earlier glory. It would not be right here to give the spoiler, what happened to Reredfelle in 1066. I like to think of it as a successful and busy place, just as I have imagined it early in the story:

A wide track meandered past the woman's bower, a kitchen, stores and barns to a three-barred gate set into a palisade which protected the hall, its outer buildings, herb gardens, dovecote and a Chapel to our Lady. The same track curved from the gate, through parkland loved by huntsmen, and disappeared into the encroaching forest beyond. There was however a secret way in and out of Reredfelle. A small latched door was set into the orchard wall, concealed by fruit trees, which were shaped to arch over and conceal it...

The hall approach, photograph thanks to Regia Anglorum, An Anglo-Saxon hall reconstruction in Kent, near Canterbury

You can actually read a little more by opening up the book on Amazon where a sample is available. As a writer, I considered it important to set up this estate in a lyrical way so that the reader could visualise the exciting and horrific events that occur at Reredfelle later in the novel, and care about its survival, and about Edith Swan-Neck's fate as described in the novel.

Lower Brockhampton, Herefordshire
The decoration could be ornate

Anglo-Saxon Building

Wood was the predominant building material for domestic and secular buildings. High status late Anglo-Saxon buildings may have been very ornate as can be seen on The Bayeux Tapestry.  I wanted Reredfelle to feel both authentic and romantic.

A few facts:
  • A builder was timbriend and a tile maker was a tigelwyrthta.
  • Walls were of timber planking. Many estate buildings had turf or thatched roofs.
  • Sadly, traces of these 11th century buildings are ephermeral  consisting of post holes and pits that mark out their locations and size but little else. Many modern villages and towns have their origins in earlier settlement now lost to modern developments.
  • Life was governed by the seasons- Autumn, the harvesting of grain, slaughtering animals, salting meat, the preservation of fruit. Winter- repairing fences, killing the odd wild pig for the Easter feast, weaving, spinning, working with wood. Spring-ploughing, sowing, planting the gardens and fields, birthing lambs. Summer-hunting, tending the fields and orchards.

Hall Buildings

Changing Times

After the Norman Conquest of England, King William set about the task of working out what his new kingdom was worth, how much he could extract in taxes. To this end he instigated a survey of his domain. 'He sent men all over England and into every shire....what or how much everybody who was occupying land in England in land or cattle, and how much money it was worth.'
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, 1085.

The early medieval lady, photograph by Rich Price

The Domesday survey is a treasure for writers of historical fiction as it allows us to take information and reshape it into the fabric of an historical novel set during this period.

The Handfasted Wife
The novel

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath is available on all e readers and as a paperback, published by Accent Press, May 2013.


Tuesday 14 May 2013

The Handfasted Wife

The Handfasted Wife is Edith Swan-Neck, the common-law wife of Harold II who was defeated by William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings. Handfasting was a traditional marriage ceremony that was frequently favoured in early medieval England. The marriage ceremony usually took place in a hall or manor house. Before the marriage ceremony could occur contracts were exchanged between the two families involved. During the wedding ribbons were used to tie the bride and groom's hands together to represent their union. The pair may also have exchanged rings. The bride and groom traditionally made their promises by the whetstone at the entrance into the Meade-Hall. If the couple were lucky it might be a love match but more likely it was an arrangement between families. When Harold married Edith he was a second son and she was an heiress.

 Edith Swan-Neck held land in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Kent. One of the sources for this story is The Domesday Book. My references include the primary sources The Waltham Chronicle, The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, The History of William the Conqueror by William of Poitiers and many other primary and secondary sources. Most interesting though were general research topics such as Handfasting, Clothing, Food, Buildings, Medicine, Religion, will making, women and property and generally, women's day to day life in 11th century.
Handfasting at Stonehenge

Although a priest might be present at a handfasted wedding this was not a union sanctified or blessed by the Church. Handfasting was a traditional eleventh century Danish marriage form. For a king, it allowed a 'get out' later! This happened in the real historical account of the marriage between Harold II and Edith Swan-neck. She was set aside after Harold was elected king so that he could make a political alliance that would unite north and south and therefore help him to protect England from  invasion.

It was traditional to bind the hands with ribbons

 Edith Swan-neck first interested me years ago when I was viewing The Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy. The video accompanying The Tapestry, which can be viewed in Bayeux, Normandy, suggests that Edith Swan-neck identified King Harold's body parts on the battlefield at Senlac Hill after the English defeat. The image of an eleventh century woman searching for her husband's ruined body on a battlefield haunted me.

Hastings and re-enactment

 After the Battle of Hastings, Edith recognised Harold's broken body. According to The Waltham Chronicle, this was by marks only known to her. So what were these marks? My curiosity was aroused. As soon as I returned from Bayeux I visited Oxford's Bodleian library to research further Edith Swan-Neck, her Northern rival Aldgyth, the Godwin family, Edward the Confessor, his wife Edith who was also Harold's sister and Harold's mother Gytha. I then read extensively about daily life in the eleventh century- particularly women's lives. Embroidery during this period is fascinating and very skilled, and so I have incorporated tapestry and embroidery into the fabric of the novel. I was also curious as to why this Norfolk heiress was called Edith Swan-Neck. It is evidently because of her long neck and white skin which was fashionable and a sign of beauty in the 11th century.

Carnage and embroidery

Then, I wrote The Handfasted Wife, published by Accent Press for all major e readers on 29th April 2013 and as a paperback on 9th May 2013.

The Handfasted Wife

The Handfasted Wife tells Edith Swan-Neck's story. In the novel I dramatize how Edith was set aside when Harold was crowned king and how she survived this. Harold needed to unite North and South against the threat of invasion and the handfasted marriage, not recognised by the reforming 11thC church, allowed a way out of the contract with Edith. Edith moved to a hunting estate near to the south coast.  In September 1066 many properties on the south coast were destroyed when William landed at Pevensey. The picture of the burning house on The Bayeux Tapestry with a woman and child fleeing may have been, historians, for example, Andrew Bridgeford, suggest, Edith Swanneck and Ulf, her youngest child. This novel follows Edith's story after she recognised Harold's body on the battlefield of Hastings, as her youngest son, Ulf, is taken as hostage by the enemy, possible remarriage, escape and pursuit through the war-torn south and over the sea to Dublinia where her older sons had been sent before The Battle of Hastings. Finally, she learns that her eldest daughter is in danger in Exeter and returns. When the royal women become trapped in the Siege of Exeter of 1068 the question will be: can not only they survive but how?

 If you read The Handfasted Wife, I hope you enjoy it!  Feel free ask me questions here and I shall do my best to answer them.

The Burning House

The Handfasted Wife contains themes of loss, love and reconciliation. Throughout the novel other royal women enter Edith Swan-neck's story. As in any historical fiction I embroider the facts. The knack is, I feel, to remain faithful to the mores and the atmosphere of the period in order to create a believable historical world.

A woman of 1066

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath is available as a paperback from Accent  Press: http://www.accentpress.co.uk/new-titles.html
click on the book cover.



Sunday 5 May 2013

Talking The Talk

Nowadays it is a given that Publishers expect every writer to  actively promote their own novels. Once the book is finally published the next duty that falls to the writer is to bring it to the attention of the great book-buying public in whatever creative or underhand way that they can. What would be the point of all the effort, years of it in some cases, unless the book reaches its intended audience?

One such promotional opportunity unexpectedly presented itself to me yesterday afternoon. I was at London's National Theatre and had just come out of seeing Maxim Gorky's Children of the Sun in The Lyttleton. I was slightly dazed because I had just experienced what must have been the most explosive conclusion to any theatrical production I have ever seen. Here, I shall say no more. You need to see it for yourself.


Buskers outside The National's Shed

The National Theatre has recently created additional public and performance spaces by extending outwards under the eaves of the existing building. The new performance space is a huge red wooden shed which they have imaginatively called 'The Shed'. It was in this space that I took part in what could only be described as the bastard child of Karaoke, a Talkshow for the masses, Talkaoke!  Yes, Talkaoke.


Instead of singing, participants are expected to talk. There is a custom built circular table with integrated speakers and lighting and in the centre on a swivel chair sits the miked-up master of ceremonies. He looks a bit like one of those high-tech anti-aircraft gunners but instead of swivelling around behind a Bofors Gun, ack! ack! ack!, he tracks round with his red sleeved gun mike.

The idea is that topics of discussion are audience-led. The host facilitates this conversation and encourages  any and all passers-by  over to his table. It is like a radio talk show except that it is not broadcast live. It is also democratic. The only qualification for participation is the ability to engage in intelligent conversation.I was beckoned forward and I took my place at the round table. 'What would you like to talk about?' he asked innocently. Well, what do you think I wanted to talk about?

I grasped this opportunity to start promoting (to the obviously literate crowd in the National's cafĂ©, just my "demographic") The Handfasted Wife, my new historical novel published by Accent Press. This then led into a discussion about how women in history have been marginalised in primary sources such as The Chronicles and how important and fascinating it can be to unearth their stories.

I did it my way......

The point here is that in such a crowded book market getting your book noticed by the public is not easy. All writers have to promote their novels even such well-established writers as Kate Mosse and Bernard Cornwall who have the privilege of sharing their thoughts with Libby Purvis on Radio 4's Midweek or with Tom Sutcliffe on Front Row.

Yesterday, in my own small way, I emulated them, bringing my message to a wider audience, well  there were at least thirty of them within earshot. But, every little helps! As I write this my good friend and fellow writer Liz Harris, author of The Road Back published by Choc-Lit is even now in Kansas City promoting her work. How's that for dedication and going the extra thousand miles?

Talkaoke in action - Live and Dangerous!

Competition time! Can you suggest any original or novel ideas for promoting a new book? The most original here will receive a free iTunes down-load of The Handfasted Wife. But don't forget to leave a contact detail. This amazingly generous prize is open for entry until midnight of 13th May, so hurry. (Terms and conditions apply - you may be required to appear at the 2015 Oscars ceremony in Hollywood!!)

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath can be found on Amazon and other e-readers, and is available for pre-order as a paperback from Accent  Press: http://www.accentpress.co.uk/new-titles.html
click on the book cover.

 Learn more about Talkaoke here, it's coming to a place near you very soon...