Can an unlikely alliance between a maidservant and a powerful lord save a city from destruction?
Extract 1 Kate Neville
Kate, the young sister of the Earl of Warwick, is married to twenty-year-old Will Bonville, Lord Harrington, and they have a six-month-old daughter, Cecily. In this excerpt from the opening section, it is January 1461 and Will is away fighting in the rebel army of the Duke of York. Kate is at home in Devon, sitting in the winter sunshine and gazing up at the wooded hillside that overlooks the manor of Shute.
… Stockton Wood made her afraid of the deep recesses of her soul, afraid that there was a reckoning to be paid.
That first leaf fall after their wedding, Will had spurred his horse through the great rutted puddles left by the woodsmen’s carts. She had been riding close behind, but the laughter had left her when he led her on foot deeper into the ancient grove of oaks that tonsured the hill. Everywhere, ivy snaked forth across the fallen logs, clawing upwards, tormenting the barks of the wizened trees. Less obvious, a few venomous greenish-white toadstools – death-caps – pierced through the rotting leaves, and the phallus of a single stinkhorn breathed its corrupt miasma out into the shadowy air.
‘This oak grove is haunted by the wraiths of pagan victims,’ Will had whispered. ‘Young virgins sacrificed on a stone altar to the sun god.’
‘Then we are trespassing,’ she had whispered, pulling free. Their presence seemed a sacrilege. ‘Let’s go back to the horses.’
He laughed, seeing he had upset her. ‘Pah, you are such an innocent, Kate Neville.’ His hands reached out to tether her but she guessed his intent and fled.
Whooping, he chased her around the oaks and then he deftly hooked his foot around her ankle, tripping her. She remembered screaming as she fell face down into the mess of ivy. Then he had turned her over, the merriment slipping from his face and she had recognised the silent intensity that always heralded his ardour.
‘I don’t want to,’ she said. ‘Not here.’
‘Hush, it’s your duty to obey me.’
Stifling her protests with kisses, he had fumbled beneath her petticotes, tossed her kirtle back and tumbled her as though she were some common shepherdess. Useless to be angry. Will was quite capable of sulking whenever she said no. Being ‘bloggy’, his father called it.
‘The Druids made love to the virgins before they sacrificed them,’ he lied with male authority afterwards, as he stood above her retying the points to his gypon. ‘It would have been a waste otherwise.’
‘But then they would not have been pure to sacrifice,’ she argued, hiding her resentment and tugging her skirts back over her garters and stockings. She pitied the pagan maidens; their ravishment an extra cruelty before slaughter.
He straightened the flap of his hose. ‘You are too clever, you Nevilles,’ he muttered. ‘Anyway, say your prayers, madame wife, that we have made a boy of this moment’s work.’ But there had been an uneasiness in his eyes, perhaps a fear that he could have provoked the primeval spirits of the grove – a desecration that might require punishment. But then his mood lifted, like a tossed caravel, swinging round to confidence again.
‘It looks to rain. I’d better get you home.’ He helped her scramble to her feet and then as he plucked away the leaves snared in her boisterous hair, the shadows about them seemed to shrink back, the gnarled trees became less ominous. With his arm about her waist, he had hastened her back to where the horses were contentedly cropping the moss. Maybe it was his new doublet that concerned him, whether the dye of the lining could run and ruin his shirt, or else he was afeared and too much the swaggerer to admit it. Yet they quit the wood with a new spirit planted inside her. It had been there that Cecily had been conceived and although the baby had been born free of any deformities, still Kate feared there was some curse attached to that coupling and that the skein of destiny for Will was tampered with that day. That fear still lay heavy behind her heart although it was fifteen months since the begetting.
Extract 2 Elysabeth Woodville, Lady Grey
It is Februay 1461 and Elysabeth’s twenty-nine year-old husband, John Grey, Lord Ferrers, is away fighting for the House of Lancaster. They have two sons, Thomas and Dickon. In this extract, the Ferrers household at Groby [pronounced Grooby] in Leicestershire is celebrating the news of Lancaster’s battle victory at St Albans. However, a messenger arrives desiring to have urgent speech with Elysabeth. Her mother-in-law, Lady Ferrers, joins her outside.
Two men were waiting in the courtyard, facing the steps of the hall. Right behind them, still held by its leading rein, was a laden ass.
The grey-haired man – this must be Bart – bobbed in respect and stepped aside. Elysabeth recognised the youth who was with him – one of the stable lads who had left Groby last week as an excited horseboy and returned as … ?
The young man bowed and as he raised his head, sorrowful eyes, gritted with weariness and suffering, pierced hers. Elysabeth, confused, skewed her gaze behind him to the pack ass – not one of theirs but a poor bony creature. Its load … was a body.
The corpse was slung across the horse’s back. It hung face down, wrists bound to bare ankles to prevent falling. A quilted brigadine, heavily and red-stained, had slid downwards to collar the man’s head.
Staring at Elysabeth, the lad reached out wordlessly and tugged the garment up so she was able to recognise the tousled, bloodied hair and the hands, ringless and tethered palm to palm.
'John!' she screamed and rushed forwards, falling on her knees. The ass was startled. The boy swiftly grabbed the reins.
‘How can this be?’ Elysabeth shrieked, twisting in anger to face the people behind her.
John’s mother’s face was as grey as ashes. ‘O Jesu,’ she whispered crossing herself in horror. ‘O Jesu, Jesu, Jesu!’
‘But it was a victory,’ protested someone.
‘What of Grey, my other son?’ Lady Ferrers was asking.
‘He be recovering from wounds, my lady,’ answered the boy. ‘That be why he could not come ’imself.’
Oh, if only John’s brother had died instead! Elysabeth wanted to shriek aloud in her wretchedness. How could God be so cruel? And she and John had parted in such anger!
‘No, no!’ she protested, her hands fists against the wrath of God.
‘My lady?’ Exclaiming and muttering, their people were all about them now, the women servants sobbing and the older men blaspheming in shock. And Elysabeth was reaching out in grief and pity to John’s brow as if her fingertips needed to assert what her mind refused to believe.
And then the voices halted, as though a knife had been thrust against each throat. She twisted round, dashing her own tears aside. The throng had parted to let Tom through. The chaplain was trying to hold him back but he jerked away the cleric’s hand.
‘No, no, don’t let him see!’ exclaimed Elysabeth. ‘Take him in! For the love of God, take him in!’ She stumbled to her feet, spreading her arms.
Ignoring her, his face like hewn stone, he came past her and halted, staring wide-eyed at the purple bruises that made his father’s profile almost beyond recognition. It was as if he was counting the wounds, forcing himself to register each one. Elysabeth, shaking with shock now, looked, too. There were so many. And the gash. The line of dried blood ribboning John’s throat.
‘Tom,’ she began but her son’s face was a mask of defiance.
‘This is victory, Mother? I do not think so.’
The servants parted in silence as he walked back through their midst into the house. For a moment no one moved and then his grandmother took charge. ‘Why do you stand in such idleness?’ Lady Ferrers cried, gesturing the servants towards John’s body. ‘Carry your master to the chapel at once! And you, sirrah,’ she demanded of the youth. ‘What of Lady Grey’s kinsmen and the rest of our men?’
Elysabeth clutched her fingers to her lips with a painful, guilty gasp. In her anguish, she had forgotten that her father and eldest brother were with the army, too.
‘They stay with the queen, my lady. She intends to march on to London. Two of the men from Astley were killed with the master but they’re like to be buried at St Albans and Nicholas Anstey had an arrow in his shoulder but the chirugeon got it out and reckons it’ll heal an—’
‘They will be in our prayers,’ cut in Lady Ferrers. ‘Come, Elysabeth! Let us to the chapel!’ But then rage and sorrow broke through her mask of briskness. ‘I’ll say this, though, lad, you could have brought your lord home with greater honour, not slung like a traitor!’
‘Beggin’ your pardon, my lady. It be not my fault nor Master Edward’s. Her highness would not spare the horses.’
‘No horse?’ Elysabeth exclaimed, her voice strange and shrill. ‘My lord husband died for the queen and she could not spare a horse?’ For an instant, her entire body shook with hatred, welcomed it, but the horror was overwhelming. She was conscious of the chaplain at her side, the murmur of concerned voices.
‘Pray go in, my lady,’ he was saying. ‘Your sons will need you.’ And then Lady Ferrers, with an arm about her shoulders, was turning her towards the steps. She could feel the same righteous anger pulsing through the older woman’s fingers.
‘Ahem! Please you, Lady Grey.’ They had forgotten the messenger who had brought his master home.
Both of them looked back. Elysabeth felt the words stick in her throat, but Lady Ferrers still had a stifler on her grief and nodded. ‘We thank you, boy. You shall be rewarded.’
He sniffed dismissively, waggling his lower jaw. ‘Not that, my lady.’ It seemed he had a speech for both of them but his gaze was for Elysabeth. ‘Master’s esquire, Andrew Chilvers, wanted me to say to you that the master fought bravely. He led the charge but it was them traps what did it.’
‘Traps?’ The word tasted raw, bitter as she turned and braced herself to listen.
‘Yes, Lady Grey, Lord Warwick hid traps – nets, caltraps and that ilk to wound the horses, see. That’s what brought the master down. His horse trod upon the caltraps and he fell upon the field and our enemy’s soldiers rushed forward with their halberds.’
‘Oh dear God! You saw this?’
‘Not I, my lady, but Master Chilvers did. And he bade me give you this.’ He thrust his hand inside his jacket and tugged out a crumpled piece of silk.
The St Valentine’s gift.
The youth was a blur beyond her tears as he tumbled to his knees at her feet like a penitent waiting for absolution. ‘An’ I crave you forgivene—
He broke off. Dickon had burst out of the hall and was pulling at her skirt.
‘Mama come, come! Tom is throwing the wooden soldiers that Father made us onto the fire.’
Elysabeth, torn, her heart breaking, caught the child to her side and set a trembling hand upon the messenger’s head. ‘God’s blessing on you for bringing your master home.’
‘An’ God be wi’ you, my lady,’ he said, with pity.
Two young women on opposing sides find their lives wrecked by battle ... can they be restored by love?
As sister to Warwick the Kingmaker and cousin to the new young King Edward IV, Kate Neville finds herself on the winning side of the latest bloody battle of the Wars of the Roses — and under pressure to marry again. Kate’s family want to ensure her new husband will be someone they control, but Kate is refusing. The nobleman they have in mind for her has a reputation as a womaniser and she wants a man who won’t betray her like her first husband did. But her new suitor is determined to win her heart. Can she thwart her brother’s plans for her?
Elysabeth Woodville is a beautiful young woman, much adored by her husband, Sir John Grey. But when he is killed in battle on the losing side and named as a traitor, his estate is seized by the Yorkists and Elysabeth finds herself penniless and friendless. In her desperate struggle to restore her sons’ inheritance, she finds herself not only kneeling before her enemy but winning his heart. Is she is too proud to become his mistress? Or does the King of England love her enough to ignore his friends’ advice and make her his queen?
In the precarious peace of a bloody civil war, can love heal wounds?
I set out originally some years ago to write a novel about Margaret Beaufort but a hand kept going up: 'What about me, miss? Write a novel about me.' The voice was Harry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham's.
I hope you will enjoy his story and it has been good to write a Wars of the Roses novel from a male viewpoint for a change. When I first began this book, I set out to create an absolute anti-hero. Trouble is authors have to keep the reader's empathy for the main character so he had to have a lot of likeable qualities, too, and the more I researched him, the more I could see why he made the decisions he did. Not always the right ones, I'm afraid.
If you think about it, all great men have flaws that can bring about their downfall. Consider Shakespeare's tragedies, and we only have to look at a lot of world leaders today. So many are corrupted by power that they haven't the greatness to step aside when they start failing to fulfil their people's hopes.
So here is political intrigue in abundance and I hope this novel may lift a candle to the events of 1483 and how Richard III became king. We may only conjecture what really happened back then and the jury are still out on who were the villains. Enjoy!
Published in April 2017 by Harlequin Mira in Australia and New Zealand
ISBN 978 1 489 220 370
- Author's notes
- Read an extract
- About the book
Inspiration for this novel came from staying in Languedoc in southern France. It’s the beautiful land of the troubadours but it was also witness to some terrible injustices. In 1209 Pope Innocent III persuaded the King of France to permit an army of northern knights to join a crusade against the south. The pope was angry because there was a heretical sect called the Cathars or Albigensians who had rejected the teaching of the orthodox church, and he wanted them destroyed. The soldiers who joined the crusade, however, were more interested in looting and a land grab than in Christian principles.
Everywhere we went, we heard stories about this crusade and how it devastated the southern culture. What would it have been like to face that army? This gave me the idea of a noble lord trying to save his people. Should he be a real historical figure or a fictional character?
The weekend we visited Carcassonne, my imagination was fired by the wonderfully restored medieval citadel. Standing within the walls which are dominated by watchtowers, you can feel such a vibrant sense of the past. There’s a cathedral and C12th castle and it was easy to imagine the narrow streets crowded with citizens watching their noble lord ride in procession. The perfect setting for a hero! Should I use a real historic figure? Well, the poor Vicomte de Carcassonne lost everything and died in the castle dungeon. He actually tried to join the crusade to save his lands but they turned him down. No, I wanted a more heroic figure and so I created Richart, Vicomte de Mirascon, and the fictional city-state of Mirascon, which is loosely based on Carcassonne.
And the woman in my story? I wanted a servant who gets mistaken for her mistress so Adela, my latest heroine, is resourceful, intelligent and courageous. She’s the daughter of a lady, who was rejected by her family because she fell in love and ran away with her father’s chaplain. Educated by her father, Adela has dreams of being useful and respected and she seizes the opportunity to join a bridal party heading for Mirascon. Surely in the land of the troubadours, life may be better.
In this scene, Adela, a hairbraider, is mistaken for the bride of Richart, Vicomte de Mirascon. She and the laundress, Maud, are the survivors of a brigands’ attack on the bride’s retinue.
GLISTENING in gold upon the rippling banners of blue ciclatoun was the crossed-swords insignia of Ricart, Vicomte of Mirascon. He had dispatched help but it had taken hours and there was no need for the musicians.
‘Christ save us!’ whispered Maud, falling to her knees, her lips drawn tight in awe. ‘He’s sent a blessed army.’
‘They’ve probably been in readiness. We were supposed to arrive several days ago, remember.’
The foremost riders astride fine mounts were of noble birth, judging by their golden adornments and clothes of costly scarlet. Behind them, mounted on amblers and sorels, the lesser in rank were clad in dull reds of cheaper dye, with perse blue chapes and silver badges stitched upon their tunics. In their midst Adela glimpsed the cream canopy of a women’s chariot with several other wagons in its wake. The procession slowed and the loping minstrels re-assembled and began to play once more.
Where was Ricart of Mirascon? The lord in charge was staring at her through narrowed eyes. Rebelliously, Adela stood her ground, hugging the coffer to her breast. She was no peasant to grovel before this man but it needed every drop of courageous blood to keep her shoulders straight and look him in the face.
‘What if they don’t believe us?’ wailed Maud, tugging at her skirt.
‘We had better make sure they do.’
‘Well, from now on I’m speaking naught but English, that way they can’t question me about wot happened to my poor lady.’
As the noblemen walked their horses closer, Adela’s confidence teetered. Oh, there was such hauteur in their faces. Her starved gaze beheld the glistening saddlecloths, the jewelled collars across the men’s shoulders and the expensive scabbards that gleamed upon their thighs. Their riches made her feel even more like a tightened tabor skin—primed for a beating! Would they believe her? But what if she could show her learning, pass for a companion of the dead woman? She wanted respect not further servitude.
The procession halted, close enough for her to see the arching of eyebrows. Lips, framed by clipped moustaches and neat beards, jutted warily. Irritability definitely creased the forehead of the noble who led the company. He kneed his white horse forward, clearly not prepared to dirty his boot soles unless it was worthwhile.
Adela curtsied with dignity, her curled hand at her heart, and it was the southerner broke his gaze away first. At some imperceptible command, a groom ran up to hold his master’s horse and the elegant lord dismounted and came to stand before her. He coughed a fraction disdainfully as if to show his companions that his first disgust at these strangers might be justified.
‘We seek the Lady Alys.’ A curt bow.
‘Whom am I addressing, seigneur?’ Adela replied in perfect Norman French.
The noble’s haughtiness thawed somewhat. ‘Sir Tibaut de Saint-Pons, cousin to Ricart, Lord of Mirascon.’
‘Seigneur Tibaut, I regret to tell you that we alone survived the journey.’
‘Dieu!’ He recoiled. ‘Pestilence?’ His gloved hand darted up to defend his nostrils.
‘No, seigneur, brigands. We were set upon several days ago and have been forced to make the rest of the journey on foot.’
As Sir Tibaut gravely repeated this to his companions, she almost felt sorry for them. All this splendour to no purpose. At least the cruel tidings had punctured their arrogance. Observation of the bruise on her forehead, the dust on her feet, and her far from pale complexion was now performed with sympathy.
‘My lord vicomte will be most distressed to learn of this misfortune,’ Sir Tibaut assured her. ‘Have no doubt that he will hunt these felons to the death.’ He unfastened a leather flask from his belt, removed the stopper and offered it courteously. The greatest gift she could ask for.
Adela received it solemnly, restrained herself from taking more than a few swallows and then before his haughtiness could object, she passed it to Maud.
‘Have the dowry chests arrived?’ she asked to distract him.
‘Yes, indeed, ma dompna,’ he began and then remembered to slide once more into the langue d’oeuil of northern France. ‘They arrived from Gascony two days ago.’
‘I am relieved to hear it,’ she answered.
Her innocent reply seemed to spark some decision in Sir Tibaut. He stepped towards her, and crooked a swift, imperious signal to the company behind him. With a rattle of harness and babble of astonishment, the southern lords slid from the saddles and a clutch of demoiselles hatched from the curtained chariot. Maybe they were going to turn the procession around but then she realised her error. Everyone was making obeisance to her.…
Before she could explain that she was not Lady Alys, …poles and canvas were being plucked from the wagons.
‘Well, I never did,’ Maud whispered in English, clearly feeling it was safe to rise to her feet. ‘You certainly put ’em in their place. Is that ’im?’
‘No, but I think I’ve just made a monstrous error. I believe they’ve mistaken me for Lady Alys.’
Maud shrugged. ‘I don’t care whether they think you’re the Queen of England, just ask ’em for some ruddy food.’
Adela was too concerned to answer. The demoiselles were advancing on her with battle-phalanx determination in their faces. ‘Maud, this is getting unfortunate.’
‘Aye, look at them pails being filled. I reckon you’re about to experience a proper sponging.’
‘Don’t squawk at me. Try telling ’im you’re the apprentice laundress.’
Adela tried—well, not the laundress part.
‘Later, later,’ an impatient Sir Tibaut assured her and, regaining possession of her hand, he joyfully surrendered her to the women.
The unclothing was embarrassing, not to mention the attention with the Castilian soap, but thank Heaven she knew the bathing procedure (she’d usually been the one with the jug), and if she closed her eyes as Queen Isabella usually did, it would make the these twittering maidens disappear.
Her exhausted body welcomed the lap of the perfumed water and for a few wonderful moments, she forgot her predicament and enjoyed the pleasure of being a noblewoman, of having her hair washed, scented and wrapped in soft cloths. It could be like this every day if she was a real lady—violet and rose petals bobbing round her breasts and the grimy existence of Adela de Handley washed away. With regret, she allowed their gentle hands to compel her to her feet and closed her eyes in delight at the soft towels that embraced her. Oh to be Lord Ricart’s bride!
She opened her eyes with a start as something furry touched her thighs. A demoiselle, armed with a rabbit tail of powdered myrtle proceeded upwards, whisking across Adela’s nipples and beneath her arms. Oh Heavens, despite her dilemma, the faux Lady Alys laughed. She had not known her breasts could blush. Encouraged, her ardent attendant giggled in appalling northern French. ‘Perhaps, you are thinking of your wedding night, madame?’ She repeated her jest in her own tongue and there was immense merriment.
Still giggling, they brought Adela clean underlinen, a kirtle of robin egg blue and Cordovan leather slippers stitched with tiny marguerites. This was getting out of hand.
‘I must explain … ’ Adela began again but they took her reluctance for displeasure at the garments and it was necessary to smile once more like a cheerful stone saint and be accepting.
Sir Tibaut was impatient to have her loaded into a chariot, but at least he offered her some sweet wine, figs and cakes.
Maud looked tidier and better tempered when she appeared at the back steps of the chariot ready to elbow her way on but the demoiselles made room.
‘I scrounged some of your bathwater,’ Maud muttered. ‘You haven’t told them yet, I gather?’
‘No, I keep trying.’ At least they both smelled sweeter.
‘Trouble is you plaguey well scrub up like a princess an’ they won’t like it when they found out you ain’t.’
Forced to flee the English court after the lecherous King John attacks her, Adela, the queen’s hairbraider, finds employment in the entourage of Lady Alys. Alys is on her way to marry the Lord of Mirascon, a fiefdom in southern France. However, the south is under threat from Pope Innocent III’s military crusade against the heretics.
After trying in vain to rally his fellow lords against invasion, Richart, Vicomte de Mirascon, makes an alliance with King John. A political marriage to the Lady Alys – the king’s discarded mistress – will allow Richart to safeguard his people from a merciless land grab and cruel slaughter.
When the bridal party is ambushed, Adela is mistaken for her dead mistress by the people of Mirascon. Adela knows she must tell Richart that she is not his betrothed, but as she is dragged deeper into the deception, she is also powerfully drawn to the beleaguered man trying to protect his people and his culture. Adela is recognised by the dwarf Derwent, Richart’s English jester, who seems willing to keep her secret for the time being. Yet as suspicion builds up against her, paying with her life seems inevitable.
As the pope's savage army marches south, can Richart and Adela overcome a web of deceit and treachery and evade the bonfires of the crusaders, or will their land of troubadours and tolerance be destroyed forever?
‘For herein may be seen … murder, hate, virtue, and sin.’
Was the term sentencing a man to death used in Richard III’s reign? If a fictional character said the Duke of Clarence had a brain like a pickled walnut, were walnuts around in 1470, let alone pickled? What colour was his duchess’s hair? When was velvet invented? If a knight whistles up his horse and springs from an upstairs windowsill onto the saddle, will it ruin his chance of fatherhood?
Yes, you’ve entered the world of the historical novelist. Infotainment! Our task is to enthral and enlighten you, and within a few pages have you believing you are back in an earlier century with its smells and superstitions, splendour and rags. It requires effort: characters must be fleshed out, sets designed, places visited plus there’s lots of research. It’s like a one-man film studio. The novelist becomes the historical advisor, screenwriter, casting agent, costume and set designer, location finder, vocal coach, sandwich-maker and director in one package.
Establishing the facts, historical novelists browse the university shelves for primary sources, seek out biographies of the breakers and shakers (you can’t have Warwick the Kingmaker feasting at Westminster on 28 March 1461 when he is slaying his destrier at Ferrybridge) and chase up journal articles. We may email an expert, phone a university Classics Department to get a Latin quote right, beg the local heraldry wiz to dream up a surcoat device, consult a tame doctor on abscesses or the corner chemist’s book on poisons.
Illuminated manuscripts, Books of Hours and medieval artworks help with descriptions. The detail showing a well-dressed servants sleeve tippets sensibly looped up behind his back so he can easily serve his lord at the feast – perfect!
The number of areas where some research is needed can be daunting if you strive for authenticity. Take women’s clothing; knowledge of style, fabrics, dyes and accessories is needful. Do garters really keep her stockings up? How is her clothing fastened and – with sex scenes in mind – unfastened? Are her garments comfortable or restrictive? Imagine wet skirts flapping round your ankles. (Gentlemen, if you were wearing a houpelande, you’d experience this, too.) What does her clothing say about her marital status or calling? Does the weight of her headdress give her a megrim or pull her head back?
The same applies to male clothing. Think what the lads might have carried in their sleeves: frogs, prayer-books, loveletters, daggers. How did the hose attach to his gipon? Does he put on armour? If so, what style? Does he wear the Yorkist rising sunne or the Oxford sterre?
Then there are horses and their paraphernalia , a castles layout and terminology, food, necessities, furnishings – the list is endless. How far could a man travel in a day depending on his transport/footwear, health, the state of the roads and the weather, not to mention his possible ignorance of the terrain? Do the characters know whether the world is round or flat? Does the hero believe that if he gives his wife pleasure during their love-making, she is more likely to bear a worthy son, or does he worry about Hildegard of Bingen’s warning that too much unbridled lust will make him go blind? What music does he hear? What stories does he know? He would know of Bathsheba, but will young, secular readers understand the reference? Can he ‘play cards close to his chest’ at Richard III’s Westminster?
Novelists have to decide whether to make it easier for readers and opt for contractions in the dialogue or stick to ‘cannot’ and ‘shall not’? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first written mention of ‘tisn’t’ is 1803!
The use of an anachronism like ‘charade’ in a thirteenth century setting can bring the reader back to their living room with a jolt. Even authentic words can have too strong a modern meaning. Prototype (from the 1550s) sounds very recent. Some words have changed their meaning, too. If a knight puts on his bassinet and picks up a faggot, could this be misconstrued?
Sometimes today’s world provides insights. For me, hearing someone in Herefordshire complain about his sports car’s tyres being slit by yobos in Snowdonia made me think more deeply about what it might have been like to be an Englishman in Brecon in 1483. Adding the layer of Welsh resentment and the acts of vandalism gave extra realism to a novel set in the Duke of Buckingham’s household.
Experiencing actual locations, too, flows through to our writing: glimpsing the swallows’ nest beneath the parapet, the houses in the cliffs at Amboise, the view from the castle battlements at Angers or Richmond, Yorkshire.
Most of the huge amount of information that novelists collect ends up on the cutting room floor. Some of it gets sanitised. Today we might play down superstition, religious devotion, hunting and bedbugs. None of ‘You’re looking beautiful tonight, Mistress Shore, murmured King Edward, plucking a flea from one of her tresses.’
Well-researched historical novels can permit conjecture in ways denied to academic historians. For example, creating a novel allowed me to suggest that Warwick’s bastard daughter, Margaret Neville, was the anonymous lady spy of Calais. Such a hypothesis is possible for, in honesty, fifteenth century history is little more than gossip in letters and scraps of records pieced together by the professionals to form text books, and what clouds the truth even more is that contemporary histories, just like bestiaries, were designed to teach morality – and written by the winners! Virgil, Hall and Holinshed’s works were not just biased but didactic. ‘All is written for our doctrine, and for to beware that we fall not to vice,’ agreed Caxton.
Most history books seem to forget women existed. Just because the Croyland Chronicler doesn’t say so doesn’t mean the duchess and her ladies weren’t present in the great hall. Novels also permit us to put emotion back into history and explore personal interactions, such as the growing rift between Richard III and ‘him who had best cause to be true’.
At the end of all the novelist’s labour, the manuscript must be marketable, supply a setting acceptable to the publisher and a high concept that the sales reps can grasp easily so they can enthuse to the bookshops or the buyer for that Big Supermarket. The author must engage the editor/reader within the first few pages and keep her/him hooked with the pace, suspense, humour, emotional tension, sex, zesty dialogue, believable characters and lively narrative.
Now, finally tell me, is it through history textbooks or a well-researched novel that you smell the roses, the ditches and the spilt blood of the Middle Ages?
Katherine Neville, the young Yorkist widow in The Golden Widows, was originally from the Midlands, but when she joined the household of her betrothed, young William Bonville, the world of south-west England became her home. The manors of Shute in Devon and Chewton Mendip in Somerset were places she would have known well.
Chewton Mendip is an attractive village in the Mendip Hills, about four miles from the cathedral city of Wells and not far from Midsummer Murders country. Bright pink campions and white lacy cow parsley adorn the sides of the minor roads in early summer. It’s a part of Somerset that has been classified an area of outstanding beauty.
There aren’t many bed and breakfast places on on the back roads if you’re coming from the Bristol area but we found a delightful one in Chewton and a great pub as well. Authors doing research need a soft bed and good dinner and, staying locally, you get to talk to people about the history of their village. We found excellent accommodation at 'Copper Beeches', which has a lovely view of the church tower, and that evening we enjoyed a very generous meal at The Waldegrave Arms (named after the family who became the dominant local landowners in later centuries).
The castle or manor hall that Kate would have known is reckoned to have been built above the village, not far from the church, but the building is long gone. However, St Mary Magdalene’s Church, where Kate and Grandmother Bonville would have gone to mass, is in good condition. The pinky, coarse sandstone of the church was being cleaned on the morning we visited. Visitors can reach the church by taking the footpath up the hill near The Waldegrave Arms.
In the novel, St Mary Magdalene’s was where Kate took her little daughter, Cecily, to lay flowers on Lord Bonville’s tomb and it is evident that the FitzRogers’ effigies on his tomb were moved from elsewhere when the tower was being built as they certainly don’t fit their table slab.
The stone cross in the story where Kate sat on the steps and spread the Autumn leaves on her lap to amuse Cecily still stands in the churchyard. Sources vary as to whether it was the Bonvilles or the local religious house who installed the cross or added the tower to the church. Lord Bonville was very wealthy and he is reputed to have been born in Chewton so it seems likely he intended the church to be a splendid memorial. His unanticipated execution on Queen Margaret’s orders may have halted the building renovations and clearly the FitzRogers’ monuments were never moved back to their original resting place.
St Mary Magdalene’s also has a sanctuary doorknocker. Not all churches had sanctuary status. If an accused man managed to grasp the doorknocker, his pursuers could not lawfully arrest him. He would be given protection and sustenance in the church for 40 days and then he would have to decide whether to confess to the alleged crime or accept exile. If the latter, then he would be escorted to the nearest port and put on a ship.
Permission to return to England could only be given by the king. If the felon returned unlawfully, he could be arrested and also excommunicated.
When you’re an author who lives the other side of the world from where your story is set, most of the research has to be done through written sources and the internet, however, I always try to visit the locations where my books are set. Chewton Mendip was hillier than I had imagined, but on that sunny morning of our visit, there was a lovely, serene atmosphere around the church and where Kate’s home would have stood. We can never know, but I think she would have enjoyed some peaceful times there.
I can remember the mauve Michaelmas daisies in my parents’ garden every autumn in the UK and thought I was very safe in mentioning these flowers in my Wars of the Roses novels since the name originates from St Michael’s Mass. In the Middle Ages, Michaelmas was a feast day in September dedicated to the Archangel Michael and today’s Roman Catholic Church gives St Michael the honour of being the patron saint of grocers, mariners, paratroopers, police, and sickness. A rather wide portfolio!
Imagine my surprise, however, at seeing Michaelmas daisies flowering wild in Canada’s Rocky Mountains this September. Had they been taken over to Canada by early colonists or were they locals? And this made me wonder whether I was wrong about them growing in English gardens in medieval times?
According to Wikipedia, Michaelmas daisies belong to the Aster family and Aster amellus is considered ‘an Old World species’.
Maggie Campbell-Culver, the author of The Origin of Plants (Eden Project Books) tells us Aster tradescantia was brought to the UK by John Tradescant Jnr in the 1630s but received an unenthusiastic reception so perhaps the specimens looked rather battered after the sea voyage or just did not survive long in Britain.
According to Daily Mail, the North American Aster novi-belgii was named as a species in 1687 but did not become popular for garden use until Queen Victoria’s reign. The name 'novi-belgii' is puzzling as no one knew of anywhere called ‘New Belgium’ but the name stuck. Apparently the seeds were first collected in the New York area by a German botanist from the University of Leiden in Holland, Paul Hermann. Maybe he intended to call them ‘New Holland asters’ but was rather lacking in history and Latin and got the name wrong. (Daily Mail)
Burke’s Backyard says:
A. novi-belgii was introduced from North America into Britain in 1710. In England these plants bloomed at the same time as St Michael’s Day was celebrated, and so they became associated with the festival of Michaelmas and were given its name.
The ‘New World’ aster cousins have now been reclassified as a different species.
So, phew, there were Michaelmas daisies in England in the Middle Ages but it only goes to show historical novelists should never takes things for granted just because they are familiar and common place.
The story of The Golden Widows begins in early 1461 so to help set the atmosphere, here is a news item:
The kingdom was reeling yesterday from news of a battle close by the town of Wakefield, Yorkshire.
Clifford, Commander of the Queen’s army, announced yesterday that the Duke of York had been slain, together with York’s second son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, and their cousin, Thomas Neville, but Lord Clifford refused to comment on whether they were slain on the field or beheaded after capture. Their heads are being taken to York this afternoon.
A smiling Queen Margaret, interviewed late yesterday evening, refused to comment except to say, ‘Let York look down on York.’
York’s mayor said that the citizens were none too pleased at her grace’s decision to nail the duke’s head up on Micklegate. ‘It don’t look too good if you’re a visitor coming to the city, eh?’
Religious authorities are raising questions as to the future of the Queen’s other prisoner, the Earl of Salisbury, who is being transferred to Pontefract Castle.
Meanwhile emergency organisations from local abbeys and volunteers from Wakefield are dealing with the slain and wounded. ‘It were a messy business,’ comments one of the local labourers, called in to clean up the battlefield outside York’s castle of Sandal. ‘Our town is in a state of shock.’
It is still too early to know the exact numbers of those who were slain. Most will be buried on site.
The dead include many fathers and sons, among them, Sir William Bonville and his twenty-year-old son, William, Lord Harrington, both from Devonshire.
Despite Queen Margaret’s victory in the north, London and King Henry VI remain in the hands of York’s supporters. Whether her grace will seek peace talks with the Duke of York’s successor, his eighteen-year-old son and heir, Edward, Earl of March, remains to be seen. However, sources close to the queen are hinting that recapturing London is high on her agenda and an emergency meeting of the Council of Aldermen is to meet at Guild Hall tomorrow.
Extract from The Abbey Chronicler 1 January 1461
In the winter of 1460–61, it would have been hard to predict who would triumph in the bloody encounters between the Houses of York and Lancaster. For the wives of the noble lords caught up in the struggle, wondering whether their menfolk would survive the battles, must have caused much anguish. For those women whose husbands died on the losing side, there was the likelihood of their children being disinherited.
In The Golden Widows, I wanted to explore the experiences of such women and focus on a real historical woman from either side. Young Kate Neville is the sister of Warwick the Kingmaker and her husband’s family, the Bonvilles of Devonshire, are all fighting for the Yorkists. She has a six month old daughter.
On the other side is Elysabeth Woodville, Lady Grey, who is in her early twenties with two young sons. Her husband is a supporter of the House of Lancaster. What will happen if she finds herself the widow of a traitor and her sons’ inheritance is seized by the victors?
Tucked away in the novel are several other older widows: Elysabeth’s materialistic mother-in-law, Lady Ferrers; Kate’s feisty aunt, a woman in her sixties who is looking for a fourth husband; Lady Bonville, Kate’s husband’s grandmother, who is determined to protect Kate and the baby, and Kate’s mother, who cannot overcome her grief.
For some of these women, marrying again was a solution to their predicament but that was possible if you had something to offer like important family copnnections or the guardianship of a wealthy heir. But if you did not have anything to offer, what man would want to take on the penniless wife of a traitor?
Readers may know Elysabeth already from reading other novels or watching the TV series The White Queen but The Golden Widows focuses on her years of struggle and underlies what an exceptional woman she was. What other queen in English history had such a rags to riches story?
I hope readers enjoy Kate and Elysabeth’s struggle to protect their children and find happiness during one of the most turbulent times in English history.