Category Archives: History

The Giant’s Grave, Penrith, Cumbria

I have been distracted from the 12th Century recently by a visit to a Suffolk church – or rather, by the intriguing single large stone opposite it. The stone looks for all the world like a Viking or early Christian hogsback grave marker, and has very clearly been shaped. But there are no hogsback stones in this part of the UK; they are only to be found clustered in the Northwest and Scotland. So what is it? And what’s it doing here? – the stone is not native, it’s been imported. This lovely blog post was of great help in researching that liminal phase as the Vikings became good Christians, for the short story that demanded to be written.

The Journal Of Antiquities

OS grid reference: NY 5165 3016. A short walk in an easterly direction from market Square and king street (A6) in the centre of Penrith is the ancient church of St Andrew, a Saxon foundation. At the north-side of the church stands a slight mound on top of which are two pillar-crosses and four hogback gravestones – collectively known as the Giants Grave. These stones are said to have been placed over the burial site of Owain Caesarius, legendary and heroic king of Cumbria during the early 10th century, who was said to have been a giant of a man. Also in the churchyard is the Giant’s Thumb, a damaged Anglo-Norse wheel-headed cross dating from 920 AD.

The Giant’s Grave, Penrith.

The two tall and slender pillar-crosses standing 15 feet apart are now heavily worn and it is difficult to make out the carvings on them, but they have been dated to around 1000 AD and are Anglo-Norse in…

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Living a mediaeval mindset today

One of the things I most love about Gozo – that is, apart from the unbelievable archaeology, the unspoilt scenery, and the glorious weather (well, mostly!) – is the fact that the whole island is steeped in the Roman Catholic faith.

Now I personally am not a believer, but I have a great deal of respect for those who practice their faith; and here in Gozo I can talk to people who have had an unbroken religious practice since St Paul landed on the islands in 60AD.

That kind of experience simply isn’t possible in the UK, with our turbulent Tudor history, and it’s an absolute Godsend for someone who writes mediaeval historical fiction. Xaghra our lady of sorrows procession 2016 mk 2

Let me give you an example; flights from Stansted to Luqa get in about 9:30pm. I generally get a taxi from the airport to the Gozo ferry, in the (usually vain) hope that I catch the just-after-10 sailing and don’t have to sit around at the ferry terminal for another hour. (Top tip; do NOT attempt to drink the liquid that the “coffee machine” produces. <shudders>) This is also a great opportunity to catch up on island happenings. I always ask if there’s anything going on that I should go and see; imagine my delight this time when the taxi driver casually mentioned the Our Lady of Sorrows processions on the Friday before Holy Week.

Every church in the island was suddenly crowded with beautiful – and huge – statues; Jesus on a cross, the Virgin Mary in various interpretations. This one here is Xaghra’s wonderful Our Lady of Sorrows, and this is the 2016 procession – alas, this year’s was rained off. (I sat and listened to the Mass said partially in Latin instead, which I also enjoyed!)

But the bit that sticks in my mind most was when I popped into Xaghra’s main church earlier in the week to admire the statues. One of the men fixing banners to the wall asked if I was interested in the church, and I clearly made the right noises; I was treated to its history back to its founding in the 17thC, along with the part his family had played – including hiding some of the church’s treasures from Napoleon’s invading army. It was so clearly a central part of his life. Xaghra our lady of sorrows procession 2016 mk 1Then the mindblowing bit – he started to describe the procession; 700 official participants from a village whose population is around 5,000. Every family has at least a couple of members involved. From the looks of this photo – again from the 2016 procession – it looks to me like the whole village turned out to follow the statue!

I think that’s why I find it very easy to write about my 12thC Priory in Gozo; because, just as it was to my protagonists, faith is just a given in Gozitan life. I wonder if I could persuade the tax-man that my trips are an essential business expense 🙂

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Snow cold

In case you missed it – the UK has had unusually snowy, cold weather this week.

My heating chose to show solidarity with my beloved Priory, and stop working! Brrr!

 Fire in snow
Image above by Jamesdlogan shared under creative commons license
https://www.flickr.com/photos/jdlogan/5152944175

 

Access to the Warming Room

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received is to incorporate your daily realities into your writing. The idea is, by contemplating a present object or experience, to sieze the depth of information available first-hand to put rich details into your depiction of the past. We were talking abut a Roman brooch I’d found, that ended up pinning Henry ll’s cloak together when he was knighted; this week I’ve had the opportunity to observe an entirely different issue when my gas central heating stopped working in the coldest weather the UK has had for some time. Luckily, I had backup electric radiators – until there was a power cut…
The year 1204/5 was one of those epic years when it was so cold that the Thames froze. Stored crops spoiled; fishponds were solid. To add insult to misery, King John called in all coinage in order to issue new money, so it wasn’t even possible to buy food at the market.
My monks were better off than most – but also had a burden that lay people didn’t share. The Rule of St Benedict stated that only three rooms in the Priory could have a fire; the infirmary, the kitchen, and the warming-room, and access to the last was to be as sparing as possible.
I have been writing scenes around this period with far more realism and insight than I bargained for – and am very much appreciating my visits to friends’ warm rooms, and hot suppers! I have a heating engineer booked. I can’t imagine how awful it must have been to have unrelenting bleakness!

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1215 and all that – whew!

I have been peacefully plugging away at my current Work In Progress; a follow-up to my book Sheriff and Priest, working title Son of the Priest. It’s about the trials and tribulations – both literal uses of the words – that Wimer’s son Jean encounters, trying to defend Wimer’s legacy from some rapacious land-grabbers.

I’m now about 2/3rds of the way through, and have begun to be very worried indeed. You see, although I know how the book ENDS – and of course, how it begins – I have had, up until today, no clear idea of why history took the course it did, in my little corner of Suffolk. Slightly problematic, for someone who prefers to lean on the historical rather than the fictional balance of historical fiction…

Enter Monmothshire County Library, the fine building whose picture you can see. In 1969 they purchased a volume of W.A. Morris’ “The Mediaeval English Sheriff to 1300”; on 23rd May 1973 it was transferred to the Students’ Library, where students are sternly injuncted:

“If there is notifiable disease in the house, i.e. Scarlet Fever, Diptheria, Thyphoid Fever, Measles, or Chicken Pox, do not return your books to the library until the Local Health Authority has inspected the house.”

Mysteriously, despite the fact that it had been taken out on loan three times in May and June, it was taken off the shelves on the 28th June 1973. Perhaps Scarlet Fever intervened… In any case, I found it in around 2005, in the second-hand book shop in Sutton Hoo, I think. And as I had scarlet fever, measles, and chicken pox in the 1960s, I thought it was safe to buy…

Now I’d used it extensively in researching Wimer’s career for Sheriff and Priest, of course; but for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me to mine it for the solution to Jean’s woes. Well, Reader – I’m not going to give away any spoilers; but should you have a copy of the book in your posession, I am finding pages 153-161 MOST useful 🙂

Nicky.

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The Tendring Show

I love my local agricultural show! I’ve been going to it for donkeys’ years, and the only change is that I now pay a little more to belong to the farmers’ club that run it, so I get access to a nice shady (or sheltering) marquee, and some decent loos.

Here are the highlights as I saw it of this year’s show. If you click on one, you get a slide show.

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Viking eye candy!

I have been having a lovely time researching images for the next thing that Henry draws with his magic pencil – it’s going to be a scale model of a Viking ship prow, which gets him into all kinds of trouble!

I’d like to share some of the amazing things I stumbled across today, but I don’t know the copyright owners for any of them – the perils of Google Image-ing! So here are a collection of links; I hope you enjoy the images at the end of them.

A wonderfully engraved axe – I saw this at the British Museum expo, and it was outstanding. Not a prow, though!

Now THIS is a prow! How evil is this! Too creepy, though, it would give Henry nightmares.

These are cool, and so is this and this; but all a bit complicated for my lad to draw.

This is doable – but he’s trying to stay away from things that might bite 🙂

Now this beastie really, really wants to be chosen – its image kept on popping up. It’s cute, and sad – but maybe too complicated; I might go with this or this instead.

And this is the trouble that will show up 😀 His name is Snorri Snorrisen.

This is the last story to be completed of the next book, which should be ready to release just after Christmas.

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I hope you enjoy my books as much as I loved writing them! Here’s my Amazon page.

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When the lights went out…

Tonight I spent the best part of an hour in the dark, except for one lighted candle, thinking about what the First World War would have meant to my relatives alive at the time. They lived such different lives…

For my maternal great-grandfather, WW1 would have been much less important than the fires of revolution brewing in Russia. He died on 25th October 1917, defending the Winter Palace in St Petersberg in the first wave of the Russian Revolution. Ironically, his cousin the Emperor was away reviewing troops… his daughter, my Grandmother, was looking after my Grandfather, who had a heart condition, on their country estate, escaping both the war and the Revolution. It wasn’t until 1925 that the revolutionaries worked down the list of aristocrats far enough to get to my Grandmother – Grandfather had died, leaving 5 children under the age of 6 – thus shifting us all to the UK.

For my paternal Grandmother, the war brought liberation, from her small-town Irish country origins. She ended up in the major children’s hospital in London, as Matron – and then had to go back home after the war. She must have been stifled ten-fold, because my father – illegitimate – was born just a few years later; she was literally thrown out of the Catholic household into the snow, pregnant, without a coat. I am proud to wear the ring she bought herself on my wedding-ring finger; she described it as her “get lost!” ring, to scare away unwanted suitors : )

I also spent a lot of time thinking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict raging at the moment, and mourning the lives lost of the innocents involved. At least the boys and men killed in WW1 signed up for it, however futile their deaths; but the children killed as they slept in schools this week were pure collateral damage. Appalling. Perhaps we haven’t moved on very much at all.

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I hope you enjoy my books as much as I loved writing them! Here’s my Amazon page.

If you’d like to know more about my writing, you can sign up for my newsletter.

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Things I’m looking forward to over the summer!

As well as more mundane things, like the Cosmos in my garden blooming, and having the house to myself so I can cook on my braii Every Single Day if I feel like it – I’ve got some really fun things planned over the summer!

I’m starting July off gently, with a karate training session-cum-get together on the beach, plus a couple of days’ leave just to chill in. I may get organised enough to weed the garden or start a couple of the paint projects I have in mind; or the harvest may be in, giving me access to some super countryside. I have to spend a week in Milton Keynes towards the end of the month, but that’s good – I’ll accrue enough time off in lieu to take a whole week off (note comment re harvest 🙂 )

August is headlining with the World Science Fiction Convention in London over the Bank Holiday weekend – apart from all the fun of the con, I’m attending a writer’s workshop, which should be cool too! Plus my eldest and her boyfriend are going, so I may meet them in corridors or at the bar occcasionally!

September is the Historical Novel Society’s convention, again in London this year. I hope to have Wimer polished to my current level of the art by then, and to wave him at some agents there – plus just generally have a good time.

Then October is bronze casting workshop month. I am SO looking forward to this – I can claim it as writing research, making the self-indulgence acceptable to my inner critic, and I have the BEST idea for a bracelet design to make. Assuming I can become competent enough in wax carving between now and then to actually accomplish it… but my darling artist daughter has been drawing the shapes for me, simplifying them so that even Mum can make them 😀

And throughout this, of course, is weaving my newfound pleasure in the pub, and my longstanding love of the particular bit of countryside I’m studying. A lot of joy in my life!

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Bloodhounds!

I had an excellent surprise this morning – driving back from a karate lesson, there were signs out for the East Anglian Bloodhounds – http://eabh.co.uk/. I grabbed a very quick shower, packed a lunch and a book, and set off on foot to see if I could catch them. As luck would have it, I guessed right on where the first run might go, and met the quarry – the landowner’s daughter and a companion – running across the meadow, so I trotted off myself to get in a good position to catch the show.

I ended up looking at one of Imagemy favourite views in England… as the first riders came into shot. There is a jump in the center of the picture, and an open gate at the top left for those who don’t wish to jump, in very wet conditions – the Master has taken the conservative route, and has to hustle to catch up!

There was a little scrum by the jump, as people sorted themselves out – then a steady stream of people galloping by. The riders wear stocks and black jackets, and look fabulous – it really counts as historical research, rather than leaning on a fence enjoying some glorious Spring sunshine and admiring horse flesh : )

ImageJoking aside, that’s truly so – it’s not often that one can feel in one’s bones what a group of horsemen galloping past feels like, nor hear the horns or the dogs’ belling. My beloved Wimer obtained a hunting licence from the King for this very land, although I’m not sure what method he would have used. Certainly he would be expecting to kill something for the table, rather than just have a fun outing!

I was only going to stop for one hunt, but had another stroke of luck and met the next quarry; so got myself into position for the following run too. They generally do three or four runs, with breaks in between. I had time for a coffee… before the hounds went one way and the riders, the other! I got a lot of photos of rear ends…

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Everyone relaxing at the end of this pass. The man in shorts in the foreground is the quarry.

A very pleasant sight on a lovely day!

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I hope you enjoy my books as much as I loved writing them! Here’s my Amazon page.

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Churchy carvings

I have been collecting a lot of photos of carvings, grotesques, and graffiti in assorted churches recently, which I ought to share!

Firstly, a super little church; the Round Church in Little Maplestead, Essex – built for the Knights Hospitaller in the mid 14thC, and a lovely place to visit.

http://www.roundchurch.co.uk/about-us/history

First, some finely-detailed tracery over the door – with the Knights’ cross just visible, by happy accident!

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Then a pair of very pleasantly welcoming faces at the door 🙂

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Now, for something completely different – a sweet little dragon, on a font…

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In a church that seems to have a lion theme! This from round the door. It’s St Mary le Tower in Ipswich, which also has a Maryan shrine that’s worth a visit.

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Then the grafitti, as advertised; from Framlingham church. Messy lot, those mediaeval peasants!

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Finally, just because I can – my all-time favourite church, the one that Wimer built – an arch from the remains of the 12thC Orford church, still standing behind the current one.

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I hope you enjoy my books as much as I loved writing them! Here’s my Amazon page.

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