The Pleasures and Problems of Writing Historical Fiction

   Posted by: Felicity Pulman   in Medieval Miscellany

Historical novelist Felicity Pulman gave this delightful talk at the one day convention of the NSW Branch of the Richard III Society in Sydney on 15 May 2010.  You can find out more about Felicity here.

Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet line, whereas my sphere of interest and expertise lies with the progenitors of the line: the Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I, and her second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, he who wore the planta genet, the sprig of broom in his hat that served to name a dynasty.

Let me start with a brief history.   Matilda was born in 1102. Henry’s son, William, heir to the throne of England, was born in 1103.  But he drowned in the White Ship disaster in 1120, leaving Matilda as Henry’s only legitimate heir.

Matilda had been betrothed by her father to Henry V, Emperor of Germany.  She was sent to Germany in 1110, aged 8, and was married shortly before her 12th birthday.   There are some doubts as to whether or not she bore a child, but she was certainly childless when, after the Emperor’s death, she returned to Normandy in 1125.  Incidentally, she brought back with her a precious relic, the hand of St James.   I’ll explain later how much fun I had with this while writing Willows for Weeping, Book 4 of The Janna Mysteries.

Matilda went to England with her father in 1126 and in 1127, the first oath was sworn ‘from all bishops and magnates present at Henry’s Christmas court’ that they would recognise Matilda as their lady if Henry should die without fathering a male heir.  (NB  Henry had at least 20 illegitimate children, of whom Robert of Gloucester, Matilda’s staunchest ally, was one.)  A second oath was sworn in April 1128 by which time negotiations had begun for a match between Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou.  Matilda was not happy with the match, Geoffrey being 10 years younger than her, a womaniser, and – what’s worse – only a Count.  But Henry wanted Anjou on side so that was the end of it.

Henry died on December lst 1135.  Matilda went from Anjou to Normandy for her father’s burial.  Stephen hot-footed it to London.  There he was recognised by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury and William Pont de l’Arche (the keeper of royal treasury) and was anointed as king by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He claimed that the oath he’d sworn to King Henry to recognise the empress as the new queen was ‘null and void’ because it was ‘extracted by force’.   A so-called witness, Hugh Bigod, said that Henry had changed his mind on his deathbed.   One can only imagine Matilda’s feelings when she heard the news.   William of Malmesbury described her as ‘that woman of masculine spirit’.   She certainly had plenty of spirit:  she decided to fight for the crown.  She landed at Arundel in September 1139, with Robert of Gloucester and a force of 140 knights.   The earl went on to Wallingford but Stephen rushed down to blockade Arundel and then, in a foolish but chivalrous move, granted safe passage for Matilda to join Robert at his stronghold in Bristol.

Stephen was the beloved nephew of Henry I, showered with riches and land.  Apparently he was well loved by everyone, at least at the start.  No-one really wanted a woman to rule them, and they certainly didn’t want Geoffrey of Anjou, a hated Angevin.

The civil war between Matilda and her cousin King Stephen in the 1140s forms the background to my medieval crime series for teenagers, The Janna Mysteries.  It was a time of great treachery and bastardry as the fortunes between the two protagonists for the throne of England kept changing, along with the loyalty of the barons who always wanted to be on the winning side.

I did a great deal of reading before writing The Janna Mysteries, beginning with Sharon Kay Penman’s delightful When Christ and His Saints Slept before moving on to various biographies of Stephen and Matilda and chronicles of the time, including the Gesta Stephani (practically a hagiography of Stephen) and William of Malmesbury’s Historia Novella, that favours the Empress.   It’s certainly interesting to read these last two somewhat biased accounts of the same events, which serve to highlight the fact that there’s nothing new about the ‘history wars’!

I Googled extensively, and acquired a well-stocked library comprising medieval histories, historic costumes, documents and letters.  I have books on herbs and healing (Janna having learned such things from her mother) including Culpeper, Gerard, Abbess Hildegard von Bingen, an Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft and the Trotula (medieval gynaecology and obstetrics).  What helped me to locate the series in the first place was a beautiful edition of The Domesday Book in which I was able to pinpoint what I needed in terms of plot and setting:  an ancient forest (Forest of Gravelinges), two abbeys (Wilton and Amesbury) in reasonably close proximity to the two main theatres of the civil war:  Winchester and Oxford.

But I very quickly found out how impossible it was for me to describe scenes with any sort of accuracy unless I could actually witness them for myself.  I made two research trips to England, which were a wonderful opportunity for me to visit historic sites and museums, and to talk to a variety of people – like the owner of a still-functioning water mill, and the caretaker of Aethelgifu’s Anglo-Saxon herb garden situated within the ruins of Shaftesbury Abbey.  The best part of my visits was that I was able to dream myself back into that time and become a young woman whose mother dies in mysterious circumstances and who thereafter flees in search of her father in the hope that with his help, she might avenge her mother’s death.

And so I followed Janna’s footsteps as she embarked on her quest, beginning with the small villages in close proximity to Wilton Abbey (now the home of the Earl of Pembroke).   I stayed on a manor farm in Burcombe and explored the neighbouring villages of Barford St Martin (Berford), Baverstock (Babestoche) and Wilton (Wiltune).  I spent many happy hours roaming around (and getting lost in) what is now known as Grovely Wood.  I took small guides to wildflowers, trees and birds on my rambles, so that I could identify and describe what my characters might have seen.  I went to Amesbury and, by happy chance, decided to play the tourist and visited Stonehenge close by.  While there, a marvellous image came to me of a man stretched out on a monolith, bleeding to death – and this became an important part of Willows for Weeping.  I explored the ruins of Shaftesbury Abbey and listened to an account of what life might have been like for the nuns there, which helped to inform Lilies for Love (Book 3), when Janna spends time at Wilton Abbey learning how to read and write.

I moved on to Winchester, once the seat of the royal treasury as well as being home to Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, who was Stephen’s brother and (probably) the brains behind the coup that saw Stephen seize the crown.  Henry changed sides several times during the civil war (or did he?).   In 1141, Stephen was captured at the Battle of Lincoln and held prisoner for almost a year, while the empress made preparations to be crowned queen in his stead – ostensibly with the help of Bishop Henry.  Several setbacks and clever tactics on the part of Stephen’s queen (perhaps aided by the bishop) resulted in the capture of Matilda’s half-brother and leader of her army, Robert of Gloucester.  An exchange of prisoners saw Stephen back on the throne and the civil war resumed.

Inside the Great Hall, Winchester (© Felicity Pulman)

Bishop Henry’s imprint is everywhere in Winchester.  I visited the Hospital of St Cross, established by Henry to ‘house 13 men and feed another hundred’.  It is still in operation and, if you ask for the ‘dole’ when you go there, you will receive a drink of ale and a small piece of bread.  For me, it was a special moment to take part in a rite dating back almost a thousand years.  I visited the Great Hall, with its massive Round Table that supposedly belonged to King Arthur, and Queen Eleanor’s medieval garden behind – all that remains of Winchester Castle.   I also visited the ruins of Hyde Abbey and the site of St Mary’s Abbey, both of which were destroyed by the bishop’s siege engines (used against the empress’s troops) during the Battle of Winchester in 1141.  I spent quite some time wandering around the ruins of Wolvesey Palace, once the home of Bishop Henry.  Finally I walked up the hill of St Giles where the annual fair was held, and looked down on the city of Winchester much as Janna would have done when she visited the fair in 1143.

Wolvesey Place (© Felicity Pulman)

My journey also took me to Oxford and I managed to talk my way onto the building site that now surrounds the tower of Oxford, all that remains of Oxford Castle and which is about to become transformed as a shopping centre. In 1142 Stephen surrounded Oxford Castle, trapping Matilda and her entourage with the intention of starving them into submission.  In the depths of an icy winter, and wearing white cloaks as camouflage, Matilda and her small escort were lowered down from the tower by rope, and walked across the frozen river to safety.

I mentioned the hand of St James, the relic that Matilda was given on her marriage to the German emperor and which, against the wishes of the German people, she brought back with her after the emperor’s death.  The relic was given by her father, Henry I, to the monks at Reading.  For the sake of my story, and because I felt a little indignant on Matilda’s behalf, I decided the empress should bring it to Wilton Abbey for safe-keeping when she came there to receive the oath of fealty from Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury after the Battle of Lincoln – Reading being somewhat pro-Stephen at the time.  In my story I concocted a character who acted as the bishop’s spy.  I wrote that the relic went missing and, through the machinations of my spy, it eventually wound up in the hands of the bishop.  Imagine my surprise to read, subsequently, that the relic really had gone missing.  The report said that the relic came ‘unaccountably’ into the possession of the Bishop of Winchester during the course of the civil war and that it was subsequently returned by him to Reading.  It seems that I have solved a mystery!

I’ll conclude with a lamentation from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as an illustration of how ‘the anarchy’ affected those innocents who were caught up in the ambition and treachery of that time.

I neither know how nor can I tell all the horrors they did to the unhappy people in this land, that lasted nineteen years while Stephen was king; and ever it was worse and worse. They sorely burdened the unhappy people of the country with forced labour on castles; and when the castles were built they filled them with devils and wicked men.  By night and by day they seized those whom they believed to have any wealth, whether they were men or women; and in order to get their gold and silver, they put them into prison and tortured them with unspeakable tortures, for never were martyrs tortured as they were … They laid taxes on the towns all the while, and called it ‘tenserie’, protection money; when poor men had no more to give, they plundered and burnt all the towns so that you might well fare all day, never would you find a man staying in a town, nor land tilled. Then was corn dear, and meat, and cheese and butter, for there was none in the land. Poor men died of hunger, some went out for alms who were once powerful men, and some fled out of the land.  Never yet was more wretchedness in the land … wherever the land was tilled, the earth bore no corn, for the land was all ruined with such deeds, and they said openly that Christ slept, and his saints.

©   Felicity Pulman, 2010

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