Tuesday, October 29, 2013

London Treasure Hunt

By Jeri Westerson

I’ve titled this post as I did because my newest medieval mystery, SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST, is not only a murder mystery involving a venerated object, but in the course of that mystery is a massive treasure hunt all over London.

Readers have been asking for a map of fourteenth century London, and as promised, there is one in this edition. Since all of the action of five of the so-far six books in the series takes place in London, I naturally needed to acquaint myself with its period streets. Unfortunately, the London I would love to see doesn’t exist anymore. A couple of fires took care of that, along with some re-planning and reconstruction throughout the ages and into the present.

Maps serve to give me the claustrophobic feel of constricted alleys and a puzzle of lanes. In fact, one can lay these maps on the Google Earth version of the present day London and match quite a bit of it. Even some of the names remain the same. My fictional detective, Crispin Guest, a disgraced knight turned detective and down on his luck, frequents a tavern to forget his troubles, which is located on Gutter Lane…a street that still exists by that name. I love that symmetry!

But there are still a few locations that can be found in present day London that can renew one’s sense of time and place. One obvious structure is the Tower of London. The outer walls and the White Tower within are relatively the same, sans the murky moat that used to surround it. And walking under the arches and sharp teeth of the portcullises one can get a true sense of its medieval origins, if you can ignore the gift shop signs and colorfully-dressed tourists. It began life as the castle of William the Conqueror and as a residence of each monarch after him until digs in Westminster were built. Only later, well after Crispin’s time, did it become the dreaded place of imprisonment for London’s elite.

I could name so many places that no longer exist or have been changed so radically to its Victorian counterpart that it is almost not worth the mention. London’s city walls, for instance—the square mile that delineated ancient London—have been obliterated by “new” buildings from the Georgian and Victorian periods and our modern time, and it is only with a helpful handheld guide that you can find its remnants. But a walk into a few structures might bring the medieval back to mind. The 12th century Temple Church of the Knights Templar on Fleet Street; the 12th century Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield; the Guildhall, built between 1411 and 1440, which stands off Gresham and Basinghall streets, served as the city hall for hundreds of years.

Then there is the wonderfully intact Westminster Hall, the great hall that was part of the medieval Westminster Palace, whose footprint is now covered by the Parliament buildings. But the hall is as Crispin would have remembered it, even with its current hammerbeam ceiling, that his king, Richard II, put in place to replace the columns that used to support it. It is the largest medieval timber roof in Northern Europe, measuring 68 by 240 feet. It was used for feasts, great occasions, law courts, religious ceremonies, and entertainments.

And, of course, Westminster Abbey itself got a brush up of remodeling in Crispin's day, and looks a bit different than it did. But remember, the Abbey and the Hall are in what was the City of Westminster, not the City of London.


Los Angeles native and award-winning author Jeri Westerson writes the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir mysteries. Her brooding protagonist is Crispin Guest, a disgraced knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London, encountering thieves, kings, poets, and religious relics. Her books have garnered nominations for the Shamus, the Macavity, the Agatha, Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice, and the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. Jeri is president of the southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and is vice president of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime. When not writing, Jeri dabbles in gourmet cooking, drinks fine wines, eats cheap chocolate, and swoons over anything British.  www.JeriWesterson.com

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"In Lone Magnificence, a Ruin Stands": Tintern Abbey

By Nancy Bilyeau

This post is the next in a series on the monastic ruins of England. In the first installment I wrote about Furness Abbey in Cumbria; in the second I wrote about Thetford Priory in Norfolk. I launched this project with my post on English Historical Fiction Authors: "Listening to Blackfriars." And now I move the series to a treasure of Wales...

Tintern Abbey

On the Welsh bank of the River Wye, Tintern Abbey, founded in 1131, soars to the sky nearly six hundreds years after the last monks departed. It survived the Edwardian Wars, the Bubonic plague, even the destruction of the monasteries--roofless, yes, and crumbling in many places, but far more intact than most other medieval abbeys. Tintern has proved a potent force of inspiration for writers, painters, and musicians, ranging from poet William Wordsworth to metal band Iron Maiden--not to mention Alan Ginsberg!

Tintern Abbey

THE FOUNDING: Walter de Clare, lord of Chepstow and a relation of the Bishop of Winchester, founded Tintern Abbey. The De Clares were a vigorous, often violent Norman family that jostled for power from the time of William the Conqueror up to the early 14th century. When Walter, abbey founder, died childless, his nephew Gilbert De Clare assumed control of his lands, becoming the first Earl of Pembroke while earning the nickname Strongbow for his soldiering, mostly on behalf of King Stephen during the war over succession with his cousin, Queen Mathilda.

A view of the abbey church
Tintern was the second Cistercian abbey to be established in England; its monks arrived from Blois in France. Over the next century, the high point in England's history of monasticism, Tintern's land holdings grew rapidly. Thanks to the patronage of Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, the monastery was blessed with a large, ornate church, following a cruciform plan. More than 200 feet long, it was built in red sandstone in the Gothic style.

THE ORDER: The Cistercians, also known as the White Monks, were formed with the goal of reform. They were very popular--by the year 1200 there were more than 500 Cistercian abbeys in Europe.

THE GLORY: The beauty of Tintern was a source of great pride to the surrounding countryside. Because its location was somewhat isolated, the abbey did not suffer any attacks during King Edward I's brutal conquest of Wales in 1282. Other monasteries thought to be sheltering Welsh leaders were damaged.

Gilbert De Clare
Tintern might have come under the protection of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Hertford and Gloucester and commander of the king's forces for a time. Because of the family's connection to Tintern, it is possible the "Red Earl"--so named for his red hair and dangerous temper-- ordered the abbey left  alone. The Red Earl was a noble perpetually scheming and fighting and changing sides. He supported Simon de Montfort instead of Henry III, but betrayed him and later became young King Edward I's greatest champion, eventually marrying one of his daughters. Undoubtedly guilty of horrific murders, he often spoke of a desire to go on Crusade to the Holy Lands. In his 50s, he fought so bitterly with another nobleman over a land dispute, he was briefly imprisoned. De Clare was most definitely a creature of the medieval age.

After the battles in Wales were over, Tintern's renown grew. In 1326 Edward II, the son of the Red Earl's patron-turned-punisher, spent two nights there.

It was not a king or a nobleman but a disease that dealt Tintern its most serious blow. In 1348 or 1349 the Bubonic Plague reached Wales, killing one-third of the population. Wrote Welsh poet Jean Geuthin:
A plague doctor
 "We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob, a white lump. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no-one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of an ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. The early ornaments of black death.’
Monasteries were hit the hardest of all, with their enclosed populations. Once the disease entered, it was likely to annihilate one and all. Tintern needed a great many monks to maintain it because of its size, and between the plague and a gradual decline in vocations, it was never the same thriving abbey after the year 1400.

THE DISSOLUTION: When Henry VIII broke with Rome and set loose the laws that dissolved the monasteries, some of the abbots and priors, monks and friars, resisted and incurred the wrath of the king. Tintern was not one of them. On Sept. 3, 1536, Abbot Wyche surrendered the abbey and all of its lands. If a monastery was in or near London, it was likely to be transformed into a home for a nobleman close to the king. But no one took Tintern as a home. All valuables were taken and the roofs were stripped for their lead.

THE LEGACY: Few visited Tintern and no one much cared about its history until the Romantic movement, keen for picturesque ruins, discovered the abbey. Just about the time Turner painted the monastery, William Wordsworth in 1798 wrote the much-admired  "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey":

William Wordsworth
"...These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: -- feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life..."

Tintern Abbey became a popular destination, inspiring other poets, novelists, painters, and scholars. Parties especially liked to go at night to see the torchlight dance off the soaring walls.

Painting by J.M.W. Turner
The crown purchased the land from its owner, the duke of Somerset, in 1901 and the buildings were better maintained.

In 1967 Allen Ginsburg took an acid trip at Tintern and wrote a poem dedicated to "clouds passing through skeleton arches."

But of all the dedications to Tintern, perhaps the one least predictable by its medieval monks and lords was the band Iron Maiden, in its video for the song "Can I Play with Madness." It makes excellent use of the ruins site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocFxQjPeyiY

To learn more about visiting Tintern Abbey, now owned by Cadw, go here.


"In lone magnificence a ruin stands" is contained in The Ruins of Netley Abbey, by 18th century poet George Keate.


Nancy Bilyeau is writing a thriller trilogy set in 16th century England during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The first novel, The Crown, published by Simon&Schuster in North America and Orion in the United Kingdom, was on the short list of the Crime Writers' Association's Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award in 2012. The second novel, The Covenant, was published earlier this year. The next book in the series: The Covenant. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com

Monday, June 17, 2013

Interview with Sophie Perinot, author of "The Sister Queens"

By Nancy Bilyeau

This Friday I will be in Florida, attending my first-ever Historical Novel Society conference. I've heard so much about the star-power lunches and dinners (this year the guests of honor will be C.W. Gortner, Steve Berry and Anne Perry!), the costume pageant, and the juicy author panels. 

Sophie Perinot

I'm honored to be on a panel with my friend Sophie Perinot, author of the wonderful novel The Sister Queens. Our panel has the awesome title "The Feisty Heroine Sold Into Marriage Who Hates Bear Baiting: Cliches in Historical Fiction and How to Avoid Them." We will try to lay down the law along with Susan Higginbotham and Gillian Bagwell. :)

To generate more excitement for the conference (and let me tell you, I am already very excited), I've updated an interview I conducted with Sophie that revealed her historical knowledge, creativity and savviness about being published:

Nancy Bilyeau: Your first novel, The Sister Queens—telling the story of Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, sisters who both became medieval queens—came out in 2012, can you tell those readers who may not have read it yet a little bit about the book?
Sophie Perinot: The Sister Queens is a sister story first and foremost.  Yes, it is set in the 13th century and the atmosphere, politics and history are richly detailed and appropriate to that time but I wanted to focus my novel on that which is timeless—the way our sisters shape us whether by challenging us or by supporting us. 
I’d like to share the back-cover blurb if I may because I really think my publisher did a brilliant job of summing up the novel: 
“Raised together at the 13th Century court of their father, Raymond Berenger, Count of Provence, Marguerite and Eleanor are separated by royal marriages—but never truly parted. 
“Patient, perfect, reticent, and used to being first, Marguerite becomes Queen of France. Her husband, Louis IX, is considered the greatest monarch of his age. But he is also a religious zealot who denies himself all pleasure—including the love and companionship his wife so desperately craves. Can Marguerite find enough of her sister’s boldness to grasp her chance for happiness in the guise of forbidden love? 
“Passionate, strong-willed, and stubborn, Eleanor becomes Queen of England. Her husband, Henry III, is neither as young nor as dashing as Marguerite’s. But she quickly discovers he is a very good man…and a very bad king. His failures are bitter disappointments for Eleanor, who has worked to best her elder sister since childhood. Can Eleanor stop competing with her sister and value what she has, or will she let it slip away?” 
NB: What was the most exhilarating moment for you as a debut author? The most humbling? 
SP: The most exhilarating moment was, without doubt, my launch day.  I was able to lunch with a small group of my fellow members of the Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the Historical Novel Society including the marvelous Kate Quinn and Stephanie Dray. Afterwards we walked to the nearest Barnes & Noble.  The minute I crossed the threshold I spotted The Sister Queens on the “New Releases” table.  Pure bliss.  Needless to say, many pictures were taken. 
The most humbling moment came about a week later.  I took my youngest child to a Barnes & Noble near our home so that he could see my book on the “New Releases” table.  He took one look, shrugged (really) and said something along the lines of, “that’s nice but the hardback books at the front are displayed standing up.”  Wow.  Yeah, that pretty much deflated my ego. 
NB: We will both soon be headed to the 2013 North American Historical Novel Society Conference.  Can you tell readers a little bit about the topics of the panels you will be sitting on in Florida? 
SP: I will be sitting on two panels.  The first entitled “Location, Location, Location” will look at historical settings, their importance as the foundation of good historical novels, and tricks and tools for building them credibly.  The Second is our panel on clichés. It will examine the good, bad and ugly of common clichés in the genre. I expect both panels to be scintillating, so if any of your blog readers are coming to St Pete’s, I hope they will consider adding these panels to their list of “must see” sessions.
NB: Is the St. Peterburg HNS Conference your first? 
SP: No indeed, I am a veteran of North American conferences, having been at every once since the 2005 inaugural event in Salt Lake City.  I honestly believe my early HNS conferences—before I had a completed manuscript—were extremely important in terms of career building/shaping.  They really made me think about the business end of writing historical fiction, and gave me the information I needed to make educated decisions about what I wanted in an agent and what sort of publication I was seeking.  I think it is very easy for new writers to write in a “creative bubble” focusing solely on developing their craft, but authors are actually small business people and the earlier a novice writer realizes that the better.  I’d recommend attending an HNS Conference to anyone serious about writing in the genre and to interested readers as well.
 NB: When you get home from Florida I am sure it is back to the writerly grindstone.  Can you tell us a little bit about what you are working on right now? 
SP: With pleasure.  I’ve moved forward a little over 300 years to 16th century France where I am hard at work on a novel about Marguerite de Valois, the youngest daughter Henri II and Catherine de Medici. 
Marguerite grew up immersed in the political and dynastic struggles which consumed France during the Wars of Religion.  She was a witness to and participant in a lot of fascinating—and sometimes gruesome—history.  Yet she has seldom been explored in fiction, and when she has I am afraid portrayals of her—as a vain, corrupt wanton—reflect more of the ugly anti-Valois propaganda of her time than historical reality.  I hope to give readers a more balanced and nuanced view of Marguerite who was not only one of the most beautiful women of the French Court but also one of the most intelligent.  Readers can expect plenty of mother-daughter conflict between my heroine and her legendary mother, Catherine de Medici, as well as political and Romantic intrigue involving the likes of the Duc de Guise, Henri of Navarre, Charles IX of France and the future Henri III. 
Thanks for a wonderful interview, Sophie, and see you later this week!

For more information on The Sister Queens, go to: http://www.sophieperinot.com/home/

Friday, June 14, 2013

"In Lone Magnificence, a Ruin Stands": Thetford Priory

By Nancy Bilyeau

This post is the next in a series on the monastic ruins of England. In the previous installment, I wrote about Furness Abbey, in Cumbria. And I launched this project with my post on English Historical Fiction Authors, "Listening to Blackfriars."

Thetford Priory

One of England's oldest ruins, Thetford's Priory of St. Mary is rich with drama. It was an East Anglian priory important to not only the Cluniac monks who lived there for 436 years but also the aristocratic family that buried their dead there. A powerful duke's struggle to protect Thetford from Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries proves just how impossible a quest that was.

The Founding: Hugh Bigod was a knight of Normandy who crossed the channel with Duke William, known to history as William the Conqueror. As one of the victors in the Battle of Hastings, Bigod reaped rewards of land and title, becoming the first Earl of Norfolk. He had at some point vowed to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In his old age, Bigod was allowed to commute his vow to the founding of a monastery. By 1103, twelve monks arrived in Thetford, and Bigod and the new prior developed an ambitious plan. The buildings were arranged around a central cloister, enclosed by covered walkways. There was a church, dormitory, chapter house, prior's lodgings and barns.

But the eighth day after the stone-laying, Bigod died. What should have been a somber entombment of a noble patron turned into an angry dispute. The monks claimed the earl's body, saying that he should be buried in the priory as was specified in their foundation charter. But the Bishop of Norwich insisted that his cathedral, founded in 1096, had jurisdiction. The monks buried Bigod in the priory anyway; the bishop retaliated by stealing the body in the middle of the night and dragging it to Norwich.

It was the first time that a corpse was forcibly removed from Thetford Priory. It would not be the last.

Cluniac habit
The Order: The Order of Cluny formed in 10th Century Burgundy as an offshoot from the Benedictines. They were determined to follow a more rigid interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict and to steer clear of political and military matters of the world. More than 30 Cluniac priories were established in England. Some became wealthy. Thetford's fortunes waxed and waned. In the early 14th century, the king had to take the priory into his protection because of its "poverty and indebtedness." Later the monks were able to run the house again with some efficiency.

The Glory: In the mid-13th century, an artisan of Thetford, suffering an illness, dreamed that the Blessed Virgian appeared and told him that he should persuade the prior to build a chapel on the north side of the church. Moved, the prior set to work on a stone Lady Chapel.

When it came time to place a statute of Mary in the chapel, the monks selected an old wooden image that had been in storage. But when they removed the statue's head to restore it, they discovered a cache of relics, including the "grave-cloths of Lazarus," along with a letter from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Thetford became a center for pilgrimages to see the statute and relics, and pilgrims claimed many cures.

The gatehouse, best-preserved structure
But the priory witnessed violence too. The second prior, Stephen, turned Thetford into "a house of debauchery" and caroused with local knights. An enraged Welsh monk stabbed the prior to death; the monk, in turn, was arrested and spent the rest of his life in the prison of Norwich Castle.

Even more disturbing, in 1313, a riot broke out in the priory. A mob forced its way in, assaulted the prior and murdered several monks at the high altar who were trying to protect their valuables from being stolen. An inquiry in town did not reveal why such a horrific attack took place, but protection was increased for the prior and surviving monks.

The Dissolution: The Howards assumed the titles of Norfolk in 1483, when Richard III, grateful for the family's support as he seized the throne, made John Howard the 1st duke of Norfolk, in the third creation of the dukedom since the Bigods. The first duke was the commander of Richard III's vanguard at the Battle of Bosworth, and was slain alongside his king. Howard was buried in Thetford Priory.

His grandson, Thomas Howard, third duke of Norfolk, was one of the senior peers and most important councillors of Henry VIII. He was a major landholder of East Anglia, possessor of many castles and titles, a feared military commander. His first wife was a princess of the House of York; his second was the eldest daughter of the duke of Buckingham. Norfolk is today perhaps best known for being the uncle of both Queen Anne Boleyn and Queen Catherine Howard, two alluring women whom, it was said, he helped place in the king's circle.

Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk
Norfolk held conservative religious views, but that didn't stop him from eagerly taking possession of monasteries that fell during the break from Rome and the Dissolution. The king handed out fallen abbeys and their surrounding property to courtiers to strengthen their loyalty to the crown. But as more and more priories and abbeys "surrendered," the duke began to fear for Thetford.

The priory held enormous spiritual value for the Howards. In the medieval age, a person's achievements would be honored and their soul remembered if a certain number of Masses were said. If that person were buried by his heirs with care and splendor in a place of significance, then eternal peace was ensured. The first and second Howard dukes were interred in Thetford's grand church, connecting them to the earliest holders of the Norfolk titles. In 1536, the king's illegitimate son, the duke of Richmond, was buried in the church, too, since he was also the son-in-law of the duke of Norfolk and the king had ordered Howard to take charge of the funeral.

 The duke of Norfolk knew that the king was unlikely to spare Thetford priory from destruction if he asked for such a favor, even though Howard had served his king with great fervor. It was Norfolk and his father who defeated the Scottish army in Flodden; more recently, the duke suppressed the Pilgrimage of Grace. Still, the king was treacherous. So in1539, the duke formally proposed to Henry VIII that the priory be converted into a church of secular canons. This privilege has been granted to several cathedrals. If the conversion were approved, the tombs would not be disturbed.

Framlingham tomb of Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk
The king agreed to Howard's plan. But in 1540, the same year Henry VIII made teenage Catherine Howard his fifth wife, he changed his mind about Thetford. It would have to be dissolved like dozens of other monastic houses--no exceptions. Upset, the duke of Norfolk had no choice but to remove the remains of the dead dukes and duchesses and transferred them to the Suffolk Church of St. Michael in Framlingham. When, 14 years later, Howard died, he was buried there as well.

As for the Cluniac monks of Thetford, 13 signed a deed of surrender and were ejected with pensions. The church and all other buildings of Thetford were stripped of value and began their centuries of decay.

The specters: Sightings of ghosts have been reported for years, including that of monks chanting Latin or performing acts that were somewhat more frightening. When television camera crews set up one night at the priory, though, the ghosts did not see fit to show themselves.

The preservation: Thetford is an English Heritage sight and its existing buildings--a 14th century gatehouse, many of the walls of the church and cloister, and part of the prior's lodgings--can be visited most days of the year. For more information, go to http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/thetford-priory/.


"In lone magnificence a ruin stands" is contained in The Ruins of Netley Abbey, by 18th century poet George Keate.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of The Crown and The Chalice, set in the 16th century and featuring a Catholic novice. The Chalice is now on sale in North America and the United Kingdom.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Interview with "Shadow on the Crown's" Patricia Bracewell

By Nancy Bilyeau

One of the frustrations of my new life as a novelist is not having enough time to read for pleasure. Those precious hours I've carved out for my book series must go to writing and reading for research. I used to buy novels on impulse at the bookstore, walk out of libraries with arms aching from the vertical load, and, most recently, download an intriguing title on my kindle. How I miss that kind of voracious reading.

During a break between my finishing The Chalice and starting my work on The Covenant, I vowed to return to my old life. I bought Shadow on the Crown, the debut novel of Patricia Bracewell. All I knew was that I liked the look of the cover, I'd heard some pleasant buzz about the book on Facebook, and the subject was an 11th century queen named Emma of Normandy. 

From the first page, I was hooked. Shadow on the Crown is a lovely read that kept me turning pages, eager to find out what would happen next. I learned a great deal about a period in English history I'm interested in--the early medieval age--while caring deeply about these characters. Emma, the daughter of a duke of Normandy, became the second wife of King Aethelred of England at the age of fifteen. The novel is about that turbulent marriage, which includes a brief kidnapping by Viking leaders and royal infidelities. Emma is the only queen known to have married successive--and rivalrous--kings of England. Her next marriage will be the subject of Bracewell's follow-up novel.

Happily, Patricia agreed to an interview on her fascinating novel. She grew up in California, where she taught literature and composition before embarking on her first novel. And, best of all, we will meet in person at the upcoming Historical Novel Society conference, where I will no doubt pepper her with even more questions!

Nancy Bilyeau: How did you “discover” Emma of Normandy?
Patricia Bracewell: It happened over a dozen years ago, and it was the first of a number of fortuitous events. I was noodling about on an on-line history bulletin board and I ran across Emma’s name mentioned in a series of posts. I found myself reading about a woman who had been wed to two kings of England and was the mother of two kings, and because I thought myself fairly knowledgeable about the names of English queens, I wondered why I had never heard of her. I started to dig and I grew more and more fascinated. Interestingly, I was never able to find that internet history board again. (Cue spooky music.)

NB: Although Emma of Normandy has had such an eventful life, she hasn’t been written about in historical fiction nearly as often as queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Elizabeth Woodville. Why do you think that is?
PB: I think there are two reasons. One is that Emma of Normandy is not exactly a household name. Graduate students in Anglo-Saxon or Medieval History will have run into her, but most people have never heard of her. You can’t write about someone you’ve never heard of. That’s only part of it, though. Look at Lady Macbeth – one of Emma’s contemporaries. Thanks to Shakespeare, we all know about her, yet few historical fiction writers have placed her at the center of a book. Maybe it’s because until recently, the early medieval period was considered a hard sell. Hopefully that is changing, but it does raise the question: have there been other novels written about that Scottish queen, or even about Emma, that no one was willing to publish? We’ll never know.

NB: How much contemporary documentation is there on Emma’s life? Were you able to unearth little-known facts on her and the other principals in the book?
PB: If one looks only to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is where I began my research, there are only two mentions of Emma’s name in the period covered by my book. Even the manuscript that Emma herself commissioned late in her life, called the Encomium Emmae Regina by scholars, makes no mention of any events before about A.D. 1013. It doesn’t even mention King Æthelred. Historians have had to glean information about Emma from charters, from wills, from the records of gifts made to various churches and from later historians, like 12th century William of Malmesbury who added some juicy rumors to what the Chronicle had to say. So there is very little contemporary evidence for what her life would have been like. I had to look at the general knowledge we have about that period, and apply it to an English queen.

NB: I watched the entire season of “The Vikings” on the History Channel and I’ve also seen “Thirteenth Warrior” and the 1958 Kirk Douglas/Tony Curtis film “The Vikings.” The Viking rulers in your book are not as crude and bloodthirsty as those in films and TV series. Do you think there is some stereotyping in the depiction of Vikings?
PB: Yes, and that stereotyping began very early on. What we know of the Vikings comes from what was written about them by the victims of their raids – who never had anything good to say about them – and from 13th century Icelandic sagas which are stories meant to glorify deeds of heroism and, of course, violence. (The History Channel’s “The Vikings” is based on Ragnar’s Saga.) The Scandinavians had no written history until after the 11th century, so there are no contemporary annals by the Vikings themselves to balance the perceived image. Historians of late have tried to emphasize the role of Vikings as traders and explorers, which was significant, as opposed to their reputation as bloodthirsty raiders. My own story is set toward the very end of the Viking Age, two hundred years after events depicted in any of the films you mentioned above, and a great deal happened to the Scandinavian countries in that time, including Christianization (something that did not happen overnight or all-at-once, mind you). Where is the truth? Well, not everyone born in Scandinavia between A.D. 800 and A.D.1100 boarded a ship and went out to savage his neighbors. That being said, the Viking Age was a brutal time, no matter where you lived.

NB: In your study of literature and your teaching career, did you ever imagine that a medieval queen would be the subject of your first book?
PB: I did, but the queen’s name was Guinevere. I was completely entranced by the Arthurian Legend for many years, and I always thought that I would someday write about the Matter of Britain. I’m only off by about 600 years!

NB: Did English queens ever have a harder life than during this time period? I’m thinking of not only Emma but her husband’s first queen.
PB: I suppose it depends on your definition of ‘hard life’. As a queen and peaceweaver, like so many other medieval queens, Emma was a foreigner, thrust into a court where she had no family or noble allies close at hand to support her. So yes, it would have been hard for her to make her way in that world. She would have had to forge those ties from scratch. As for what happened behind closed doors, between husband and wife when there was nothing to bind them but the demands of religion and state, historians do not say. It’s up to the historical novelist to peek behind the bed curtains. Did queens in later eras have it any better? Ask Ann Boleyn.

NB: For you, what is the line between fiction and fact? Are there fictional characters in Shadow on the Crown?
PB: There are fictional characters in the novel, but all of them are in supporting roles. I created them where necessary to flesh out the story. As for the line between fiction and fact, I set out to write a story, not history. Every step of the way I asked myself if what I was imagining was plausible, given the available facts. Often I had to depend upon conjecture. Historians do this, as well, but they make certain that any conjectures they make are specifically identified as such. The novelist doesn’t have that restriction. The Author’s Note, though, is the place where the writer can discuss any deviations from known facts, and I think they are almost as much fun to read – and write – as the stories themselves.

NB: Your book has a passionate romance in it but it also depicts rape within marriage. How hard was that to grapple with as an author?
PB: Any scene that is intensely emotional – whether it is passionate, violent, or sad – is difficult to write. I struggle with all of them. Technically they are difficult because you want to portray physical events that are occurring, and at the same time you want your reader to experience not just the physical but the emotional turmoil that your viewpoint character is experiencing. To do that, the writer has to place herself right there, in that moment – be that character – not just once, but as many times as it takes to get the balance between the physical and the emotional absolutely right. It is, quite simply, hard work and emotionally draining.

NB: Where do you feel historical fiction is headed as a genre?
PB: I think that depends on us, the writers. The more that we demand excellence from ourselves and from each other, the better our books will be and the more recognition we will receive from the literary community. The very fact that there is now a Walter Scott Prize honoring the best historical fiction published in the U.K. is an enormous step forward. I’d like to see a similar prize awarded in the U.S.  

NB: Did you see these books as a trilogy from the beginning? How hard was it to stop where you did?
PB: I always conceived Emma’s story as a trilogy, and I always knew where the first book would end, so stopping wasn’t difficult. I simply turned around three times and began working on the second book. Now that I’ve finished what I hope is a decent draft of that second book, I have to admit that the writing of the final scene this time around was very difficult, and the book ended at a place not originally of my choosing. I’m learning that a novel sometimes has a mind of its own. (Cue spooky music again.)

Thank you for a wonderful interview!

To learn more about Patricia and her work, go to: 

Nancy Bilyeau's historical thriller The Chalice is now on sale.
On sale $2.99, Kindle and Nook

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"In Lone Magnificence a Ruin Stands": Furness

By Nancy Bilyeau

This is the debut of a series devoted to the monastic ruins of England. My two novels, The Crown and The Chalice, are set in the 1530s; the main character is a young Dominican novice at a priory facing destruction.

The novels are thrillers, but the framework is a serious look at Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. I spent years researching the brutal ending of a way of life for 1,700 nuns, 3,200 monks and 1,800 friars, all expelled from their homes within a five-year period. The stone buildings themselves were confiscated by the king or given to his loyal courtiers. Many were stripped of value and demolished; some were left standing but crumbled over the centuries.  

"You love faded glory," said my husband, who knows me better than anyone in the world. He's right—I feel a strong pull toward grand old houses, pallid churches, neglected cemeteries, seldom-visited  landmarks. To me, few ruins are as poignant as those of an English abbey. 

I chose to launch my series with Furness Abbey, in the county of Cumbria, for several reasons. It has a long and fascinating history, its dissolution marked a pivotal moment in the king's attack on the monasteries, and it is ravishingly beautiful. Oh, and according to legend it houses several ghosts. :) 

                                Furness Abbey

King Stephen
The Founding: Stephen, grandson of William the Conqueror, count of Bologne and Mortain, and later King of England during a time of chaos, established Furness in 1127. In the founding document, Stephen wrote: "That in Furness an order of regular monks be by divine permission established; which gift and offering, I, by supreme authority, appoint to be for ever observed; and, that it may remain firm and inviolate forever, I subscribe this charter with my hand and confirm it with the sign of the holy cross."

The chosen location was a remote, narrow valley in the north of Lancashire near the coast; it was sometimes called "the vale of the deadly nightshade," because of an abundance of atropa belladonna, a beautiful plant with toxic berries. The abbey's buildings were all constructed with the vivid-colored local sandstone.
Cistercian habit

The Order: The Cistercians were founded in 1098 out of a desire to adhere more strictly to the Rules of St. Benedict. Its emphasis was on manual labor and self-sufficiency, with isolation being of great value. By 1154, there were 54 Cistercian monasteries in England, the largest were Fountains and Rievaulx abbeys in North Yorkshire ... and Furness. 

The Glory: In spite of the Cistercian emphasis on austerity and contemplation, Furness grew in wealth and local influence over the next few centuries. It controlled 55,000 acres of land; its holdings included iron mines, tanneries, fisheries and mills.  A close connection sprang up between the abbey and the Isle of Man, and more than one monk became Bishop of Man.

Robert the Bruce
Being so close to Scotland, Furness inevitably got caught up in border tensions. When Robert the Bruce invaded England in 1322, the abbot allowed the Scottish leader to stay overnight at Furness and paid him the enormous bribe of ten thousand pounds so that the abbey would not be harmed. It worked; the marauding army moved through abbey property without laying waste to it.

Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion, from a 1913 painting. Note
the prominence of monks in the fervor.
The Dissolution: Furness was one of the first of the kingdom's larger monasteries to fall. Its destruction is laced with irony. The Pilgrimage of Grace, a rebellion in the north of England, broke out because a great many people disagreed with the direction of the king's reforms. They wished, among other things, to preserve the monasteries that Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister, was busy closing down. 

Historians agree that the abbot of Furness in 1536, Roger Pyle, was a fearful, nervous man. When the rebellion boiled over, Pyle fled to the stronghold of the Earl of Derby, leaving his monks behind. In his absence, some of the monks contributed money to the rebels and pressured Furness tenants to do the same. 

Although the rebel army outnumbered the forces of Henry VIII, they were defeated. In the mop-up, Henry VIII's anger with the Northern monasteries flipped to rage. Abbots were hanged, monks rounded up. Two of the Furness monks were imprisoned and questioned. In 1537, the king's man, the Earl of Sussex, met with Abbot Roger Pyle, his mission being to find enough wrongdoing to justify closing the abbey. 

But there was a problem: Abbot Pyle had shown no disloyalty. The  Earl of Sussex came up with a solution that turned out to have profound consequences. He summoned the abbot to Wyland, a place where the severed heads of defiant abbots and monks were prominently posted, and then made a suggestion: The Furness abbot could surrender the abbey to the Crown and go willingly, along with the 28 innocent monks. That way, there would be no penalties or prosecutions. Abbot Pyle at once agreed, and he signed a document on April 9, 1537, effectively giving the abbey to Henry VIII. 

This tactic worked so well that it was to be the model of the future.  Frightened abbots were asked to surrender their homes to the king, and most of them agreed.

The Crumbling: In most cases, surrendered abbeys were demolished or converted into private homes. Perhaps because of its isolated location, this did not happen to Furness. The land reverted to the crown, and all precious objects were carted off and valuable lead stripped. But many of the original buildings stand today, although ravished, like sandstone skeletons. Visitors can enjoy the sight of the cloister court, church tower, infirmary, chapter house and other structures. 

A series of families have owned the abbey property, including the Dukes of Devonshire; it is now part of the estate of the Duke of Buccleuch, the largest private landowner in the U.K.

Since the Dissolution, many have fallen in love with Furness. The ruins fired the imagination of William Wordsworth, who wrote a poem dedicated to it in 1888: "See how her ivy clasps the sacred Ruin/Fall to prevent or beautify decay/And, on the moldered walls, how bright, how gay/The flowers in pearly dews their bloom renewing!"

The Spectres: There are stories of three ghosts haunting Furness. One is of a murdered monk climbing a staircase, almost as if he were being dragged up. The second is a White Lady, drifting around the ruins as she searches for the lover who left and never returned. The third, and eeriest, is a headless monk riding a horse under one of the grand sandstone arches--perhaps one of the monks who sided with the rebels during the Pilgrimage of Grace and was punished for it.

The Preservation: Furness is an English Heritage site, and efforts are being made to prevent further collapse. Archaeological digs last year revealed the grave of a medieval abbot who, according to a newspaper report, was "a well-fed, little exercised man in his forties who suffered from arthritis and Type 2 Diabetes."

To learn more on Furness and its history, go to http://www.furnessabbey.org.uk/  and http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/furness-abbey/.


"In Lone Magnificence a Ruin Stands" is contained in The Ruins of Netley Abbey by 18th century poet George Keate.


Now on sale, The Chalice, the second book in the Joanna Stafford thriller series.