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Shining Light On Our Ladies: A Tale of Two Queens

Light1Welcome to a weekly, October-long celebration of heroines in historical fiction. This month I am joining nine other historical novelists to highlight the women who are the central figures in our books, and I’m eager to begin!


HarperCollins edition, available in the UK & Australia

I would hazard that the pivotal moment in my writing career came on the day that I met Emma of Normandy. Not the actual Emma, of course. She faded from this middle earth nearly a thousand years ago. No, this was the day when I learned that she had existed at all, the day when I first read that name, Emma of Normandy. And what did I discover about this remarkable woman on that first day? That she had been married to two kings of England, that she was the mother of two English kings, and that she was the daughter of a Norman duke. It struck me that as a writer looking for good heroine material, I had just discovered a gold hoard.

Because historical novels by definition are set in a time period prior to the birth of the author, no historical novelist can possibly know or even truly understand the characters who people a given story. They must be fictional, and at the same time they must be as true as we can make them to the historical figures they represent. So how does an author accomplish this?


Penguin Random House edition. US & Canada

The best way to describe my own process is to say that I do it with mirrors. I have been living with two Emmas in my head for many years now – the historical Emma and the Emma that I’ve imagined. They are both real to me, one standing behind the other, and I can’t see one without the other gazing at me through time and space like an image reflected into infinity or, at least, into the 11th century!

And who is this heroine who lives in my head and in the pages of my books? She is Queen Emma – a woman made of pretty stern stuff because she has to be – and must have been. She lives in a violent England at a time when it is ravaged by war. The men in her world survive because they are ruthless, and Emma must find a way to survive among them. It is no easy feat, for she is wed first to a king with blood on his hands and then to a Viking war lord. She has to be a little ruthless herself, and she must learn very quickly to run with the wolves.

Emma in a 12th c ms. Note the turmoil going on behind her.

Emma in a 12th c ms. Note the turmoil going on behind her.

Emma is born of Norman stock so she is a skilled horsewoman. She has Viking blood in her veins so she is at ease on the deck of a ship. Does any of this make her a warrior? Not in the physical sense, although she witnesses battle. She does not carry an axe or a sword, but wields instead the power of a medieval queen – a power that hinges on alliances with powerful men. As a result she must tackle the same resentment and fear that women who aspire to power have faced through the ages, and she must find a way to succeed against overwhelming odds.

I’ve made her sound a bit like Wonder Woman, but she is not. She does not have the physical strength to resist brute male force and she is not always able to outwit her enemies. She makes bad decisions that she will come to regret. She is vulnerable, she succumbs to grief, and she falls hopelessly in love with a man that she cannot have. The life of a queen – or a heroine – has never been easy.


The first book in the Emma of Normandy Trilogy. Available in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Russia

Like the Norman conquerors who will follow her, Emma has a keen sense of destiny – not so much for herself but for her children. She is a mother with children to protect, in a royal family with a nasty history of fratricide. She will sacrifice a great deal for her young because her strongest motivations are the love she bears for them and the duty she owes to England as its queen and queen mother.

How do I picture her? I see her on the street sometimes, and if you look at my pages on Pinterest you’ll find her lurking there. On the covers of my books she is almost always turned away, but if she were to turn around and face you, she might look like this:

My friend Arianwen, member of SCA & Emma inspiration

My friend Arianwen, member of SCA & Emma inspiration

The Emma in my novels is not yet the powerful queen that the historical Emma would one day become. A difficult road lies before her, but I have given her the strength, courage and intelligence that I believe the real Emma must have had – gifts that she would use to play a significant role in the formation of England.

And having shared my Emma with you, let me introduce you to two other writers on this tour. As part of the Shining Light on Our Ladies Blog Tour please meet authors Helen Hollick and Inge H. Borg.

Light3Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, Helen wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era, she became a ‘USA Today’ bestseller with Forever Queen. She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based fantasy adventures.

Light6As a supporter of Indie Authors she is Managing Editor for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews, and inaugurated the HNS Indie Award.

And Helen’s view of Emma… A woman married at the age of thirteen to a man she despised; when he died the only way to survive and retain her status was to marry the man who had been her enemy.

Read more about Helen’s Emma at

In contrast to Saxon England…Fancy a trip to Ancient Egypt? Let’s go there with author Inge H Borg.

Light5Inge H. Borg was born and raised in Austria. Spending many years all over the US, she now lives at a lake in Arkansas, devoting most of her time to writing.
Her “Legends of the Winged Scarab” series has grown to four volumes, with a fifth soon to be published. In this series, she combines the myths of Ancient Egypt with present-day adventure, even adding a bit of dystopian suspense following a (luckily fictional) eruption of Yellowstone Supervolcano.

A staunch supporter of her Indie-writer colleagues, Borg frequently highlights their books on and, those with pets and other animals, on Light4
And Inge’s Shining Lady?

Nefret, Royal Daughter of the Horus-King Aha, Fighting Falcon of the First Dynasty of Egypt (3080 BC) Nefret, King Aha’s Royal Heiress, was still so young, but her eternal soul was already old for it was a reawakened Ba. This essence, having lived through paradise and cataclysms, was destined to live through many other storms for it was a sinner’s soul which had not yet found atonement on this earth. Got your passport to the past?

Let’s go with Inge…

Next Tuesday some more Shining Ladies! For one, the man she most despises is the man who owns her heart. For another, a district nurse must cope with the tragedies of World War II, and another faces the horrors and tragedies of the American Civil War

Come back and join us! There will be new posts every Tuesday in October.
The Shining Light On Our Ladies Schedule and Links:
Light96th October

Hellen Hollick
Patricia Bracewell
Inge H. Borg



Light813th October
Helen Hollick
Regina Jeffers
Elizabeth Revill
Diana Wilder



20th October

Helen Hollick
Alison Morton
Sophie Perinot






27th October
Helen Hollick
Anna Belfrage
Linda Collison


U.S.  Amazon   IndieBound   B&N   iBooks   Audible

U.S.   Amazon   IndieBound   B&N   iBooks   Audible

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Those Brutal Middle Ages

Bayeux Tapestry, image Myrabella, Wikimedia Commons

Bayeux Tapestry, image Myrabella, Wikimedia Commons

I read a scholarly article recently which suggested that medieval warriors suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome, just as modern soldiers do. It also proposed that the fighting men of the middle ages were not the brutal savages that we imagine them to have been. They were just doing their job, and they did not do it without some psychological trauma.

Well, hmmm. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that.

My medieval knowledge, such as it is, is confined to England at the dawn of the 11th century, when the kingdom was under almost constant bombardment from viking raiders. As a result, the culture of late Anglo-Saxon England was steeped in violence (rape, murder, pillage – often coming at night with no warning) and in the suffering that resulted from it. At the same time, I do not doubt that the men who had to fight at the command of the king would indeed have suffered from post traumatic stress. Read any of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Series if you want to get an idea of what it would have felt like to stand in a shield wall. (Or watch it on Oct. 10: BBC-Amercia’s The Last Kingdom!)

Shield walls meeting…Battle of Hastings re-enactment

But there is another violent element to consider here, as well. And that is, the belief that physical suffering led to purification. A sinner (and everybody was a sinner) who endured physical suffering as penance, would be cleansed of his sins. In later centuries this would be used by the Church to fill the ranks of Crusaders: fight to free Jerusalem and go straight to heaven if you die. In earlier, Anglo-Saxon England, it meant that mutilation – the loss of a nose, a hand, an ear, an eye – as a punishment for misdeeds would do the miscreant far more good than a fine or even execution because penance, through suffering, would cleanse the soul. This was reflected in the laws of the time which specified what body part would be taken for what crime. (We saw this illustrated in a Vikings episode, Born Again, in Season 3. It was horrible.)

The murder of King Edward, age 16, A.D. 978

One has to draw the conclusion that life in early medieval England was, as the saying goes, nasty, brutish and short, particularly for the common folk but also for kings, almost all of whom were warriors as well. Of the 10 kings who ruled a united England from 959 to 1066, 4 were murdered or died under mysterious circumstances or of battle wounds; 3 died before they reached the age of 35; and 2 died before the age of 50. Only one, Edward the Confessor, made it to the advanced age of 60.

So I would agree that, yes, warriors probably suffered from traumatic stress, but I believe, too, that they would have accepted brutality as a fact of life.

Posted in Anglo-Saxons, Art, Bayeux Tapestry, History, Research | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Falling Stars, Bloody Moons and Dragons

Tonight we will be able to witness a total lunar eclipse – the last in this year’s rare series of four such eclipses, which astronomers call a tetrad. This time round we have a harvest moon and a supermoon in the mix as well. It seems appropriate, therefore, to revisit one of my posts from a few years ago regarding similar celestial phenomena as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle between the years 734 and 1140.

To begin with, stars blaze across the pages of the Chronicle seven times during those 400 years. In April of 1095 the chronicler reports that “on the night of the feast of St. Ambrose nearly all over this land, and almost all the night, numerous and manifold stars were seen to fall from heaven; not by one or two, but so thick in succession, that no man could tell it.” Perhaps it looked something like the etching below, made in the 19th century of an event in 1833. There were shooting stars recorded in 744 as well, and there are 5 mentions of comets in the one hundred and fifteen years between 995 and 1110.

Drawing of Solar Eclipse, 1888

Other dramatic celestial activity included two solar eclipses, both recorded in the first half of the twelfth century.

More numerous are reports of lunar eclipses, nine of them reported, usually described as a darkened moon. But the chroniclers waxed a bit more poetic in 734 and 1117, declaring that the moon looked as if it was covered with blood. My newspaper – appropriately, The San Francisco Chronicle – tells me that “the color of tonight’s moon will depend on the gases in the earthly atmosphere, influenced by pollution levels or high clouds or volcanic dust from eruptions anywhere in the world. The color shining on the face of the eclipsed moon tonight could range from yellow to orange to red or copper to black.” The Anglo-Saxons would have known nothing about pollution or distant volcanoes. They would merely have seen blood creeping across the face of the moon.

In 1106 there is a very puzzling comment about the moon: “On the night preceding the Thursday before Easter, were seen two moons in the heavens before day, the one in the east and the other in the west, both full.”  Frankly, I’m having a difficult time figuring out a rational, scientific explanation for that one. Maybe someone out there has an answer.

The most intriguing entries to me, though, are stories of skies that burn. In 793 we read of “immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament.”

Yes, this looks like a dragon to me!

In 1098, “the heaven was of such a hue, as if it were burning, nearly all the night.” And again in 1131, “after Christmas was the heaven on the northern hemisphere all as if it were burning fire; so that all who saw it were so dismayed as they never were before.”

Aurora Australis

This must have been the aurora borealis. Although it would have been an unusual sight that far south, it is not unknown in England even today. Certainly it would have been a frightening sight for the early English!

The chroniclers usually equated such terrifying celestial events with dire earthly ones, like the comet in 1066 that presaged the Norman invasion at Hastings. We know it as Halley’s Comet.

Halley's Comet makes its appearance on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Halley’s Comet makes its appearance on the Bayeux Tapestry.

My very favorite chronicle entry that equated bloody earthly events with terrifying sights in the sky is the one that opens my novel, Shadow on the Crown.

A.D. 979   In this year was King Edward slain at even-tide, at Corfe-gate, on the fifteenth before the calends of April, and he was buried at Werham without any royal honors. Nor was a worse deed than this done since men came to Britain….Aethelred was consecrated king. In this same year a bloody sky was often seen, most clearly at midnight, like fire in the form of misty beams. As dawn approached, it glided away.

The eclipse begins tonight on the West Coast of the U.S. at 7:11 p.m., low in the eastern horizon, and totality will last until 8:23 p.m.

In the U.K. the red moon will be visible from 1:10 BST the morning of Sept. 28.

Read an earlier post about the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Posted in Anglo-Saxons, History, UK | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

What Happened at Corfe in 978?

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle ruins

Today, the chalk hill of Corfe on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset is crowned by the ruins of, for the most part, a 12th century Norman castle. But in Anglo-Saxon times a hunting lodge stood on the hill, and the story of what happened there on 18 March, 978, has been elaborately embroidered over the centuries.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Peterborough) Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Initial page of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Peterborough) Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The first account appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
“This year was King Edward slain, at eventide, at Corfe-gate, on the fifteenth day before the calends of April. And he was buried at Wareham without any royal honour. No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain.” (1)

After Edward’s death, his 10-year-old half-brother, Æthelred II, took the throne, and the Chronicle account quoted above may have been written during Æthelred’s lifetime. Note that there is no mention of how Edward was slain, or of who did it, specifically, although the murder appears to be laid at the feet of the entire English nation, which I find pretty interesting. Remember, the Viking raids began soon after this, and they were thought to be punishment for the sins of the people of England. Did that include the murder of a king?

Detail of walls, Corfe CastleAn account in the Vita S. Oswaldi written about the year 1000 adds that Edward had gone to Corfe to visit his half-brother who was staying with his mother, and that certain zealous thegns of Æthelred’s killed him. (2) We’re also given a picture of the young King Edward’s personality when the writer claims that Edward inspired terror in all because he scourged them with words and even blows. (3)

Written in the late 11th century, The Passio S. Eadwardi, adds the detail that Edward’s stepmother, Queen Ælfthryth, actually plotted the killing so that her son Æthelred could be king. (2)

So, within 100 years of the incident, a picture is beginning to emerge of a disputed succession that ended in a brutal murder planned by Æthelred’s mother. In the 12th century, chronicler William of Malmesbury elaborately embroidered the tale:

Edward_the_Martyr_(W._Harvey)“The woman however, with a stepmother’s hatred and a viper’s guile, in her anxiety that her son should also enjoy the title of king, laid plots against her stepson’s life, which she carried out as follows. He was coming back tired from hunting, breathless and thirsty from his exertions; his companions were following the hounds where chance had led each one; and hearing that they were quartered in a neighbouring village, the young man spurred his horse and hastened to join them, all by himself, too innocent to have any fears and no doubt judging other people by himself. On his arrival, his stepmother, with a woman’s wiles, distracted his attention, and with a kiss of welcome offered him a drink. As he greedily drank it, she had him pierced with a dagger by one of her servants. Wounded mortally by the blow, he summoned up what breath he had left, and spurred his horse to join the rest of the party; but one foot slipped, and he was dragged through byways by the other, leaving streams of blood as a clear indication of his death to those who looked for him. At the time they ordered him to be buried without honour at Wareham, grudging him consecrated ground when he was dead, as they had grudged him the royal title while he was alive.” (3)

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle

Now we have a full-blown, bloody scenario with a tragic, innocent young king, a wicked stepmother, Biblical allusions (a viper’s guile; a kiss of betrayal), a single murderer with a knife, and a pitiful, wounded victim trying to reach help to no avail. Wow. William could be a script writer for Game of Thrones.

William claimed that his History was based on earlier sources (now lost), as well as whatever version of

Malmesbury Abbey, courtesy Andrew Dunn

Malmesbury Abbey, courtesy Andrew Dunn

the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he had there at his abbey in Malmesbury. It was a famed center of learning in the Anglo-Saxon period, so it’s possible that William had access to many resources that have since been lost. (Thank you, Henry VIII.)

Some scholars, though, believe that William’s scurrilous portrayal of Queen Æfthryth is a reflection of events happening in Britain at the time William was writing his Chronicle. Henry I was on the throne then, but his only son was dead. The men of England were faced with the possibility of a woman succeeding to the throne, and that wasn’t sitting well with a lot of them. There were grave concerns about powerful women being in charge of the kingdom. At about this same time other sources vilify Queen Ælfthryth as lustful, a witch who dabbled in poisons, and a shape shifter, as well as the original wicked stepmother.

St. Edward, Corfe Village. Wikimedia Commons

St. Edward, Corfe Village. Wikimedia Commons

So, what is the truth? What do we know for certain, and what can be conjectured from the historical documents?

1. There was a significant faction that had wanted Æthelred, not Edward, to be named king. This same group was disgruntled by Edward’s actions once he had the throne.
2. Edward was murdered, and there was probably at least one knife involved.
3. His body was thrown into a nearby well, then moved to Wareham. Finally he was reburied with great honor at Shaftesbury Abbey, but not until after Queen Ælfthryth was dead.
4. No one was ever punished for the murder of the young king.

It may be that Edward’s death was unplanned, that it was the result of an argument spinning out of control. My own thinking, though, is that the queen had some involvement in his murder. There is just too much smoke for there not to be a flame at the heart of it, and the fact that no one was punished for the crime lends credence to the theory that the queen played some role. At the very least, she was there. Even young Æthelred was there somewhere, and who can say what he saw and heard, if anything? The murder may have been unintentional, a matter of an offhand remark, like Henry II’s ‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” But if Edward was the arrogant, cruel young man described in the Vita S. Oswaldi, there may very well have been a plot to rid England of an obnoxious young punk of a ruler and replace him with someone more pliant. (Anyone who knows the history of Æthelred’s reign knows that this did not turn out well.)

In my novels Shadow on the Crown and The Price of Blood, (following the suggestion of our favorite storyteller historian William of Malmesbury who writes that Æthelred was hounded by the shade of the murdered Edward), a guilt-ridden Æthelred is haunted by his brother’s wraith. Whatever the truth of Edward’s murder – and it remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the Anglo-Saxon period – his death was a stain on Æthelred’s reign that he was never able to erase.

Corfe Commemoration. Courtesy Nicholas Mutton

Corfe Commemoration. Courtesy Nicholas Mutton


(2) The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, Ed. Michael Lapidge, Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

(3) English Historical Documents, 500-2042, ed. Dorothy Whitelock, Routledge, 1996.

(4) The History of the English Kings by William of Malmesbury, edited & translated by R.A.B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson & M. Winterbottom, Volume 1 (1998), Oxford University Press.

Posted in Anglo-Saxons, History, Research, UK | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Review: The Ceremony of Innocence, a play written in 1968 by Ronald Ribman

Ethelred in the Monastery

Ethelred in the Monastery

It is Christmas Eve in the year 1013. The king of England, Ethelred, has retired to a cell in a monastery on the Isle of Wight. He is mournful, despairing, and self-exiled from his court and kingdom due to remorse and paralyzing indecision. Two nobles arrive at the monastery to urge the king to action. They bring word that a Danish army has landed in the north of England, and if the king does not bestir himself to lead the English against them, the Danish king, Swein, will be in London by spring.

My lord of Kent

My lord of Kent

One of the nobles, Kent, is sympathetic to the king’s desire to appease the Danes rather than fight them; the other noble, Sussex, calls Ethelred a marshmallow.

In the course of the play we revisit – through flashback – the events that have led to the king’s self-imposed exile.

I first saw this play many years ago when I was in the midst of my early research into the reign of Æthelred. I responded to the performance with outrage because of the way the playwright so brutally twisted timelines, historical figures and historical events. What irritated me the most was that his King Ethelred was portrayed sympathetically as a man striving for peace in his kingdom; a man who dreamed of building ships, not for battle but for exploration; a man who insisted that civilizations found greatness only when their rulers found peace.


Queen Emma

Meantime, his harridan of a wife (Queen Emma), his murderous harpy of a mother (Ælfthryth), and his vicious son (Edmund) continually berated him for paying tribute money to the Danes, insisting that the Danes were animals, not men, that they didn’t belong in England, and that his tribute payments would make them paupers.

The aetheling Edmund

The aetheling Edmund

Anyone who has read my books knows that my interpretation of Emma is vastly different, as is my interpretation of Aethelred who I portray as ruthless, cold, cunning, and paranoid. The playwright and I do agree on one thing though: the king is guilt-ridden.

I could make a very long list of the historical infidelities of this play, but let me give just a single example: Æthelred’s mother was dead by the time he married Emma, so the two women would never have been in the same chamber together. I won’t bore you with any more, and besides, having watched the play again recently (twice), I’ve come to an appreciation of it that I didn’t have on my first viewing.

Emma nags Ethelred

Emma nags Ethelred

This time I set aside my outrage, and I watched it as if I didn’t know who these people were – as if it was set in a mythical kingdom. The result: although it is at times a bit heavy-handed, it is a melancholy, intense play about a ruler striving for peace when war is inevitable. Ethelred, indeed, is given some wonderful lines, and actor Richard Kiley delivers them beautifully:

“Only the shadow of Him who made me moves through this mortar – and all the faces of the living and the dead.”
“I’ve come to the end of my reason, and I see before me an abyss.”
“I sought to find a dozen men to plant an orchard while all around me nature bloomed a thousand lunatics to chop it down.” That’s my favorite line in the whole play.

A somber king and queen

A somber king and queen

There is one thing about this play that truly reflects the history of the year 1013, and that is the tone. It is somber and mournful. Kent complains that he looks at England and sees decay, despair, futility and distortion, and in this he seems to be echoing the grim attitude toward Aethelred’s reign that we find in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. It is the same sense of loss that infuses so much of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

In the final scene of the play Ethelred recognizes that although he is a king and the leader of men, he cannot prevent the war that is racing toward him like a juggernaut. His one supporter, Kent, sides at last with the warmongers and deals the final blow that leaves the king stunned and speechless. Kent tells Ethelred that although both the Danes and the English are at fault, his allegiance is to England, and so the Danes must be resisted: “We are set to our duty,” he says, “though the cause be rotten.” It is quite moving and very sad.

I confess that I puzzled over the title of the play, The Ceremony of Innocence. I had to do some research (it always comes down to research), and I discovered that it is from one of my favorite poems. How did I not recognize it immediately? It’s from “The Second Coming”, by W.B. Yeats.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In Yeats’ poem, the ceremony of innocence refers to the rituals that define civilization. These are drowned in the uncivilized, blood-dimmed tide of war, and that is what Ethelred is trying to resist in this play: the loss of peace, of scholarship and learning, of art and beauty. Did the real Æthelred concern himself with such things? I would hazard that, judging from the historical documents of the time, the king was more concerned with holding on to power and punishing his enemies than preserving scholarship and art. And as I write that I realize I’m still a little irritated at Ribman for making his Ethelred such a sympathetic figure.

“The Ceremony of Innocence” is available through Netflix. Watch it for the story and for Richard Kiley’s wonderful performance, but please don’t look to it for historical accuracy.

Posted in Anglo-Saxons, Art, History, Research, Review, Theatre, UK, Vikings | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Riddle of the Stones

They had arrived at last at a long, low ridge where the standing stone, its edges scored in primitive runes, pointed skyward. Athelstan checked his horse beside the ancient, lichen-covered stone. Gazing into the shallow vale beyond, he caught his breath at what he saw: a circle of what he guessed must be a hundred standing stones, each one the height of a man or a little more, mushroomed from the valley floor. Like monstrous, deformed fingers, black against the blanket of snow, the stones cast long shadows that speared, ominously, straight at him…He realized with a shock that what he had taken for another stone, standing in the gloom near the hut, was a living figure staring back at him.

She had been waiting for them, then.

from Shadow on the Crown

When I first began thinking about the story that would become Shadow on the Crown, I had in mind a scene in which the king’s eldest son would consult a seeress who would predict that he would never be king. Once I started gnawing on this idea, I began toying with a dramatic setting for their meeting, and that started me thinking about Britain’s stone circles.

Many years before, I had visited a stone circle, Castlerigg in the Lake District, in Keswick. My companion and I had been following a footpath, the signs leading us through a forest and then a field until the stones appeared in front of us, looking eerily out of place there – as if they’d been dropped from outer space. It’s difficult to put into words how moving and strange that experience was.

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Castlerigg Stone Circle

But I couldn’t use Castlerigg in my novel because it was too distant from Wessex where I knew that most of my story would take place. The stones had to be further south. I turned to the internet for help, and that’s when I found the Rollright Stones and the setting for what turned out to be several scenes in both Shadow on the Crown and The Price of Blood.


The King’s Men

The circle, called The King’s Men for centuries, dates back to at least 2000 B.C., and it probably looked somewhat different in the 11th century than it does today. Whether it looked the same then as when it was first erected – archaeologists speculate there were 105 stones standing shoulder to shoulder, with a narrow entrance way flanked by two stones on either side of it – well, that’s anybody’s guess.

A 17th century painting by Joan Blaeu. The artist has taken liberties with distances. (Image: Joop Rotte)

A 17th century painting by Joan Blaeu. The artist has taken liberties with distances. (Image: Joop Rotte)

A short distance from The King’s Men is a single standing stone called The King Stone, probably placed there a thousand years after the circle was erected.

The King Stone

The King Stone

Today, if you stand at The King Stone, as Athelstan does in the quote above, you cannot see the stone circle. There are trees in the way. I’ve imagined the scene without the trees. That’s poetic license, I confess, although, again, who can say what the flora was like there in the 11th century? The runes that I describe carved on the stone are poetic license as well, although because the stones are now so worn and bits of them chipped away by souvenir hunters, once again we cannot know what it looked like a thousand years ago.

There is a third megalithic monument in the immediate area and it is within sight of the stone circle, although distant enough that today it looks like a pile of boulders. When I visited the site there was a field of grain separating The Soldiers Men and this group, called The Whispering Knights. The Whispering Knights group is probably the most ancient of the monuments, dating back to perhaps 4000 B.C. It consists of five massive stones that once were part of a burial chamber, or dolmen.

The Whispering Knights

The Whispering Knights

Originally there were more stones, and it would probably have looked something like this one in Wales. (Pentre Ifan)

Pentre Ifan dolmen, Wales. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Pentre Ifan dolmen, Wales. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

No one can say when the capstone fell or when the missing stones were hauled away and put to some other use. In my story, Athelstan is too focused on the woman standing near the stone circle to even notice the dolmen, even if it was there intact.

The Whispering Knights. (Image: Dennis Turner)

The Whispering Knights. (Image: Dennis Turner)

Would there have been a seeress at the site of the Rollright Stones in the 11th century? I don’t know. The wise-woman who speaks to Athelstan in my book was my own creation, but such women did exist then. Pagan beliefs still lingered in England, although they were frowned upon by the church. In Archbishop Wulfstan’s most famous sermon he claims “here there are witches and sorceresses”, and during Æthelred’s reign at least one woman was drowned in the Thames for witchcraft.

A recent discovery, though, suggests that the stones were a sacred site well into the Anglo-Saxon period. Recently an ancient grave was discovered near the King Stone. It contained the remains of a 7th century Saxon woman. The grave goods buried with her included silver coins, a large amber bead, and a rock crystal amulet on a chain. The Anglo-Saxons believed that amber was a talisman against evil. Rock crystal, too, had special properties and was a symbol of clarity and light. It’s early days yet, but the experts studying the site believe she was someone of substance, and the position of the grave near the King Stone and the amulet-like nature of the grave goods suggest that she may have been a wise woman. So, quite possibly, there was a seeress at the stones, at least in the 7th century.

In writing historical fiction an author sometimes walks a very fine line between truth and fiction. Research into the period and events causes us to speculate about what might have been, and to turn possibilities into story. It seemed to me that if today we are awed by the sight of an ancient circle of stones, people who lived a thousand years ago must have experienced that same awe, probably to a far greater degree. So, settling a wise woman beside the stones in this place that we still regard with wonder, struck me as logical and perhaps even accurate. As it happens, such a woman did dwell near there, at least in the early Anglo-Saxon period. Perhaps, during a time of turmoil and trouble, a warrior sought her out, gave her silver, and bid her look into her crystal stone and speak to him of destiny.

The Rollright Stones. (Image: The Locster)

The Rollright Stones. (Image: The Locster)

Read a news item about the grave of the Saxon woman HERE.
Read an earlier post about the Rollright Stones, Standing Stones & a Witch.


Posted in Anglo-Saxons, History, Inspiration, Research, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guest Interview with Historical Mystery Novelist Candace Robb

Historical novelist and mystery writer Candace Robb is in the spotlight today as she celebrates the re-issue of her Owen Archer mysteries in brand new editions from Diversion Books, on sale today as e-books and next month as trade paperbacks. Her Margaret Kerr series will follow next month as well, and in 2016 Pegasus Books will be publishing The Service of the Dead, the first book in her new Kate Clifford series. Candace also writes as Emma Campion, author of The King’s Mistress about Alice Perrers, and A Triple Knot about Joan of Kent.  I’m delighted to welcome her here today.

The Apothecary Rose (Small)PB: For those who are as yet unfamiliar with the Owen Archer Mysteries, tell us how many years the novels cover, and give us a thumbnail picture of England at that time.

CANDACE: Book 1, The Apothecary Rose, is set in 1363; A Vigil of Spies in 1373. So I’ve made it through 10 years in 10 books. To put that in perspective with my other books, the series begins just about the time that A Triple Knot ends.

When the series opens King Edward III is on the throne, warring with France over Gascony, and has sent his son and heir, Prince Edward (now known as the Black Prince), to secure and govern the Aquitaine. The English hold Calais. John Thoresby is Archbishop of York, the second most powerful churchman in the realm (and in these novels his tenure as Lord Chancellor is extended so that he holds these titles simultaneously). England’s star export is wool, and the king is manipulating the customs taxes to pay for the war and to secure the financial and military support of the Low Countries against France. York is a center for the wool trade in the North of England, the wool brought down from the great Cistercian abbeys on the moors and shipped from York through Hull and across to the Low Countries. The Mercers Guild is strong, the merchants wealthy and powerful in York.

PB: In the Owen Archer Mysteries we are, for the most part, down and dirty in the alleyways and taverns of medieval York with characters that you’ve invented. At the same time, the story is steeped in the history of the period. Does the plot spring from history, or do you decide to kill someone, and then place the murder into historical context? The Lady Chapel, the second book in your series, is an excellent example of this blending of larger historical Nuns Tale (Small)events and story.

CANDACE: For the most part, the plots spring from actual incidents or tensions in the year of the novel—I make a game of it, pondering how an incident or ongoing quarrel might lead to a murder in York, and how one of my ensemble cast might become involved. The Nun’s Tale deviates from that in the primary mystery—I’d read about Joanna in a small history of Clementhorpe Nunnery and could not resist moving that incident in time so that she could become Archbishop Thoresby’s headache, and, so, Owen’s responsibility to solve. The same happened with The Guilt of Innocents, using the incident with the boys of St. Peter’s school and the bargemen, but placing it in the historical background of that year with Hubert’s father.

PB: Central characters in a novel change and grow as they make discoveries about themselves and the world that they inhabit. Does that character development continue over ten novels?

Kings Bishop (Small)CANDACE: Oh, yes, and for me that is the enormous appeal of writing a series, the luxury of developing characters over a long period of time. John Thoresby mellows in the decade of these books, Brother Michaelo reforms, Lucie Wilton and her father reconcile and her strong aunt, Philippa, declines. Owen grows to feel that York is his home, but not before being sorely tempted by the building rebellion is his native Wales. Lucie matures into a woman who knows her worth. The young characters Jasper and Alisoun are particularly dear to my heart as they mature.

PB: You have written straight historical fiction in addition to your historical mysteries. Is one type of book more challenging than the other? If so, in what way?

CANDACE: I found the historical novels about Alice Perrers and Joan of Kent  more difficult to write than I do the mysteries. In the mysteries I’m in control of the plot, but in the fictional biographies I wasn’t; my job was to flesh out the facts, show how they all connected, reveal motivations. I found it—perhaps not harder, but more frustrating than creating delicious characters, devising a crime, and then watching what happens—who solves it, how, who tries to prevent them from doing so. And I disliked not being able to provide Alice and Joan with the lives I came to feel they deserved.

Vigil of Spies (Small)PB: Did you anticipate, when you wrote The Apothecary Rose, that it would be just the first book in a series?

CANDACE: By the time I was reshaping Lucie’s story as a crime novel, I certainly hoped it might be the first in a series, but I was having a devil of a time figuring out who the detective would be. I wanted a character who would engage me for a long, long while. Bess Merchet was a possibility, Lucie’s good friend who runs the York Tavern, but her range would be limited. And then one day I was reading about the Welsh archers, the strength required to handle the longbows used in battle, the stance, how important the left eye would be for a right-handed archer, and Owen Archer stepped out of my daydream and onto the page. Once Bess Merchet got a look at him she gladly moved aside. And I very much hoped it was the start of a long relationship.

PB: The central character of your first series was the retired-archer-now-spy Owen. The three books that immediately followed and now your new mystery series feature women in the central role? Why the change?

CANDACE: Well, let’s face it, there can be only one Owen Archer. Hah! Well, actually, I had a practical reason for a female lead in my second series. I intended to alternate the Margaret Kerr and the Owen Archer novels, so I wanted the books to be sufficiently different that I wouldn’t become confused about which world I was in. Scotland, in the midst of war, with a female protagonist—that did the trick for me.

The genesis of the Kate Clifford series has been quite different. Kate’s kickass style and rogue attitude are a reaction to my frustration with the fates of the two remarkable women I’ve spent the past six years writing about, Alice Perrers and Joan of Kent. I loved spending the time with them, but I hated that I couldn’t change their fates. There are several intriguing men in Kate’s life, and I am half in love with two of them, but Kate’s the boss. I’m reveling in it.

PB: How does your heroine Margaret Kerr differ from your new heroine, Kate Clifford? Do they have anything in common?

CANDACE: Hm… let’s see. They’re about the same age, married (in Kate’s case widowed), childless (well, that’s sort of true about Kate, you’ll see….). Stubborn. Determined to do things their own way. They have both discovered that their husbands were not exactly who they thought they were. And that’s about it. Margaret’s far more romantic than Kate, and far less organized about her life; but then her home has been invaded by the English, the enemy. Margaret’s skill turns out to be powerful, but quite different from Kate’s pragmatism and fearlessness.

Spy for the Redeemer (Small)PB: In your very detailed research have you discovered any misconceptions about this period of history, the fifty-year reign of Edward III, that you’ve tried to rectify?

CANDACE: I’ve grown to appreciate the rising merchant class as remarkably cosmopolitan, as well as economically and politically savvy. And with the help of scholars such as Carole Rawcliffe (esp. her book Urban Bodies), I’ve realized how inaccurate the image of the filthy middle ages, at least in cities such a York, is, how both a sense of ethics and civic pride drove the citizens to create ordinances to promote communal health. Much of the image of filthy towns is a figment of the Victorian imagination. So I quite enjoy popping that bubble.

PB: You have said “I do like to weave a little magic into my stories.” In medieval times of course, magic, religion and the physical world were inseparable. Can you give an example of how you used magic in your books?

Riddle of St (Small)CANDACE: I use the term magic quite loosely, meaning mysterious, inexplicable. Women with some unexplained powers. The midwife/healer in the Owen Archer books, Magda Digby, rejects anything having to do with spells and magic, and yet she herself is a mystery. I enjoy teasing the reader with mysteries about her. How old is she? Where did she find the Viking ship that she uses as a roof? How does her house survive on a rock in a tidal river? How prescient is she? In the Margaret Kerr mysteries, Maggie’s mother, Christiana, has the Sight, and both William Wallace and Robert Bruce are keen to use her visions to their advantage. As for the Kate Clifford series, well, I don’t want to give away Kate’s mystery, but it’s there, and quite strong.

PB: Most of your historical mysteries are set in and around York, so much so that the city itself is practically a character in the books. Your love for the city comes through loud and clear. Can you put your finger on one place in York that is a favorite spot or is particularly inspirational?

Guilt of Innocents (Small)CANDACE: York Minster is the heart of York in my mind, and I use some of my favorite aspects of it in The Service of the Dead, the first Kate Clifford. In the Owen Archer mysteries I’d say the River Ouse is a particularly strong character, the rhythms of a tidal river—the city has lost that, with dams downriver. But I have been in York during a “400-year” flood, and I can imagine very well what it was like. It’s also the setting, in the vale of York, surrounded by moors and dales. Wuthering Heights country.

PB: I understand that you worked with your editor on the covers for the new editions of your books. Can you share a little bit about that process?

Lady Chapel (Small) (2)CANDACE: They wanted a series look for the covers and had little time to read through all nine books and get a sense of them. (We signed the contract in late May!) So I suggested they use a backdrop of the main location of each novel with a symbol in the foreground that has meaning for the particular book. For the Owen Archers they did just that, as you can see—the first was obvious, a rose, for the second I loved the idea of Jasper, the boy on the run, and so on. I have yet to see the Margaret Kerr covers—I’m counting on their having done likewise, using Edinburgh, Perth, and Stirling for the backgrounds, and the symbols I suggested in the foreground. It’s been great fun to see they develop these! The team at Diversion Books is exceptional and incredibly, wonderfully responsive.

PB: I’m really going to put you on the spot now. Of the novels that are about to appear anew as trade paperbacks and e-books, can you narrow down a favorite?

Gift of Sanctuary (Small)CANDACE: Nope. I’ve just skimmed all 12 of the books being reissued, and in each one at some point I was drawn in and forgot my hurry. The wonder of it is how much I still love these books! I’ll give you this—I love the beginnings of The Lady Chapel, A Gift of Sanctuary, and A Trust Betrayed. I think they’re my most evocative openings.

Great questions! Thanks so much, Pat!


Thank you for joining me, Candace. And congratulations on the new editions and on the publication next year of your new Kate Clifford series.


Emma-Campion-204x300Candace Robb did her graduate work in medieval literature and history, and has continued to study the period while working first as an editor of scientific publications and now for some years as a freelance writer. She was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, grew up in Cincinnati, and has lived most of her adult life in Seattle, which she and her husband love for its combination of natural beauty and culture. Candace enjoys walking, hiking, and gardening, and practices yoga and vipassana meditation. She travels frequently to Great Britain.

Candace’s current passion is exploring fuller and more plausible interpretations of the lives of women in the 14th century than are generally presented.  She also writes historical fiction as Emma Campion.

Learn more about Candace and her novels at her website,, on her Facebook page, and on Twitter: @CandaceMRobb.

You’ll find all of her books available for purchase at your favorite bookstore or on-line retailer. And look for her new crime series featuring Kate Clifford of York in 2016.


Posted in Books, Guest Interview, Guest Interview, Inspiration, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

HNS Conference 2015

The 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference took place in Denver this past weekend, and I want to record a few memories before I surge back into the 11th century.

Writers’ conferences are all about connecting and engaging with other writers, about handshakes and hugs, so of course I began the conference by arming myself with a sword.


A small number of David Blixt’s arms.

Actor, author, fight choreographer David Blixt conducted 2 sword fighting workshops on Friday. I attended the broadsword session, which began with a vigorous performance of the final scene in Macbeth.


Author, actor, fight choreographer David Blixt as Macbeth.

Before my body I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damned be him that first cries “Hold, enough!”

David and his fight partner Brandon were sweating when the scene was finished, and they had their audience in the palms of their hands.

“Write a sword scene like a sex scene,” David advised, “and a sex scene like a sword scene. It’s all about desire and denial, about character and personal stakes. Make the reader gasp.” Excellent advice, eloquently expressed.

In sparring with my assigned partner, the stage-trained Gillian Bagwell, I discovered that although I had a height advantage, she was taking larger steps as she moved forward, closing the distance (rather uncomfortably) between my body and the edge of her sword. Luckily we’re good friends. I would hate to spar with someone who held a grudge against me!

Lunch with Margaret George, Lesley Carroll and Gillian Bagwell was a gab fest about shoes, gowns, and writing historical fiction, not necessarily in that order.

Guest Speaker C. C. Humphreys

Guest Speaker C. C. Humphreys

The guest speaker at the opening night dinner was C.C. Humphreys, another actor and writer, whom I’d seen last at the San Diego conference in 2011 with, ironically, a sword in his hand. He was armed this time with words alone, words that alternately amused and inspired and captivated us. He was one of many, many writers there that I wanted to stuff in my suitcase and bring home with me.

My dinner partner that night was the remarkable Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore and Poisoned Pen Press in Phoenix. What Barbara doesn’t know about publishing isn’t worth knowing. She’s read about a zillion novels (and remembers them all) and has met as many novelists. She is a marvelous raconteur. There were no table-wide conversations simply because it was absolutely impossible, in a room filled with over 400 people, to hear anyone but the person beside you. Chris Cevasco had his camera, though, and snapped away. Thank you, Chris!

With Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Bookstore & Author Robert Rath

With Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Bookstore & Author Robert Rath

The nitty gritty business took place on Saturday, with numerous panels to choose from interspersed with quiet time for chance meetings in the lobbies or bookstore: writers, bloggers, readers – all of us a bit star struck when the chance came to talk to an author we admire. (My tongue always sticks to the roof of my mouth whenever I get within 3 feet of Diana Gabaldon.)


Withe two of the most brilliant & generous women of my acquaintance – Margaret George & Diana Gabaldon.

Hopeful newby writers waited nervously for their appointments to pitch to an agent or editor (that was me back in 2009), and were often seen walking several feet off the ground afterwards.

A panel on The Gender Divide with C.W. Gortner, C.C. Humphreys, Stephanie Dray, David Blixt and Vicky Alvear Shecter had me wanting to jump up and join their conversation.

Vickey Alvear Shecter, C. W. Gortner, C. C. Humphreys, Stephanie Dray & David Blixt on The Gender Divide

Vickey Alvear Shecter, C. W. Gortner, C. C. Humphreys, Stephanie Dray & David Blixt on The Gender Divide

C.C. Humphreys’ time trip to Elizabethan London was absolutely delightful and filled with tidbits about the Tudor world that he’s discovered in his research. Next up was a session on Midwifery with Sam Thomas, Lisa Yarde, Kim Rendfeld and Judith Starkston, moderated by Diana Gabaldon (who knows a little something about this topic as well). Bottom line: be glad you didn’t give birth any time before 1950, and especially in the 13th century b.c. There was this practice, you see, that involved swinging a ewe….

Sam Thomas, Lisa Yarde, Kim Rendfeld, Judith Starkston & Diana Gabaldon: Midwifery

Sam Thomas, Lisa Yarde, Kim Rendfeld, Judith Starkston & Diana Gabaldon: Midwifery

Our lunchtime speaker was YA novelist Karen Cushman whose Newbery Award winning novel Catherine, Called Birdy I’d read and loved a decade ago. What a thrill to discover, in a brief, post-luncheon conversation, that she is one of Emma’s fans. Our heroines, I think, have many of the same qualities.

Karen Cushman. Photo Credit: C. Cevasco

Karen Cushman. Photo Credit: C. Cevasco

My own panel, Making It Relevant & Making It Real: Writing Historical Fiction That Speaks to 21st Century Readers, went smoothly. How could it not when our moderator was Gillian Bagwell and the panelists with me were best selling authors C.W. Gortner and Margaret George?

With Margaret George & C. W. Gortner. Thanks to C.W. Gortner for the photo.

With Margaret George & C. W. Gortner. Thanks to C.W. Gortner for the photo.

I hope we were informative and helpful, as well as entertaining. We had an SRO audience of attentive listeners, and I saw a great deal of nodding as the three of us spoke to the topic at hand.

The audience for Making It Relevant & Making It Real

The audience for Making It Relevant & Making It Real

If anyone is wondering, we’d been planning this panel for months, giving it a great deal of thought as we came up with questions and answers that we felt would be enlightening to our listeners.

This was followed by a 2-hour book-signing event.

You can see what a wild crush the book signing was! Photo: Mark Wiederanders

You can see what a wild crush the book signing was! Photo: Mark Wiederanders

The book signing was followed by a banquet, an awards ceremony, the costume show and the traditional Saturday Night Sex Scene Readings. The ever-charming Diana Gabaldon regaled us, too, with a brief talk about options, tv shows, the rise of histfic, and Sam Heughen. (I had to list Diana at the end there so I could include an image of Sam as Jamie Fraser, just because.)


Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser. Photo credit:

Last, but not least, the belle of the conference was my friend, critique partner and room-mate for the weekend, Gillian Bagwell. She scripted and emceed the Costume Show and, believe me, she suffered for the sake of beauty. That wig! Here she is, front and back. She rustled when she walked.


Gillian Bagwell as Joan, Lady Rivers.


Joan, Lady Rivers posterior. Lovely both front & back.

Next year’s conference will be in Oxford, UK. Start Planning Now.

The Bodleian, University of Oxford

The Bodleian, University of Oxford

Posted in Books, Events, Inspiration | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Surviving Despite the Odds: The Bayeux Tapestry

BayeuxShipThe Bayeux Tapestry, as you probably know, is not a tapestry. It’s an embroidery that tells the story of the Battle of Hastings and of the events leading up to it. The Tapestry is 224 feet long and roughly 18 inches high. It consists of 9 strips of bleached linen that are sewn together and embroidered with colored wools. It is damaged in places, and a final panel is missing, yet the fact that this textile from the late 11th century exists at all is something of a miracle.

Bishop Odo

Bishop Odo

The first 400 years of the Tapestry’s provenance are a bit of a mystery. Most scholars now believe that it was embroidered in England and that sometime before 1087 it was carried to Bayeux, Normandy among the possessions of its patron Bishop Odo (William the Conqueror’s half-brother). It’s very likely that it was hung in the Bayeux cathedral nave on special occasions, and kept in storage when not in use. If so, it survived Bayeux’s destruction when Henry I torched it in 1106, escaped a devastating cathedral fire in 1159, and survived Bayeux’s destruction by Edward III in 1335. Already it seems to have had a charmed existence, although how it lost that final panel is anybody’s guess.


Nave of Bayeux Cathedral. Photo: Dennis Jarvis

Nave of Bayeux Cathedral. Photo: Dennis Jarvis

The tapestry is mentioned for the first time in a 1476 inventory of the cathedral’s treasures which describes “a very long and very narrow strip of linen embroidered with figures and inscriptions representing the Conquest of England”. It was kept with other textiles in the cathedral vestry which, in 1562, was ransacked when French Calvinists attacked the cathedral. They murdered priests, smashed windows, and stole or destroyed centuries-old treasures including precious textiles and items of gold and silver. Somehow, they overlooked the tapestry. Was it ignored because there were no gold or silver threads in it? Or had it been moved to some safe, hidden place? Another mystery. Another close escape.

During the French Revolution, when all church property was nationalized, a Monuments Commission was formed, and ecclesiastical treasures that were not taken to national or local depots were lost or destroyed. The Tapestry once again was spared, coming under the jurisdiction of Bayeux’s Municipal Council. However, in 1792, the Council in its wisdom approved a request by a local military battalion to use the Tapestry to cover their equipment wagons as they made a 350 mile trek south to Meux. Luckily a local administrator convinced the soldiers to use sacking to protect their cargo instead of one of France’s greatest treasures, and he spirited the Tapestry to his office for safekeeping.

Two years later, when a plan in Bayeux surfaced to cut up the Tapestry and decorate a carnival float with it, the new Commission for the Arts said no.

Bayeux Cathedral. Photo Credit: James Wooley

Bayeux Cathedral. Photo Credit: James Wooley

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 23 : Harold prête serment à Guillaume

Duke William of Normandy.

By this time the Tapestry was recognized as a valuable historical artifact, and throughout the 19th century efforts were made to study it, draw it, repair it, conserve it and properly display it. But dangerous times lay ahead. When France was invaded by German troops during the Franco-Prussian War the Tapestry was packed into a protective zinc cylinder and safely hidden away. By 1939 it had its own bomb shelter, but that did not protect it from Himmler’s Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage) team when the Germans occupied France. The Tapestry was displayed privately one evening for elite Wehrmacht and SS officers before it was turned over to a research team that spent a month examining and photographing it. Eventually it was transported 120 miles south to the basement of the Chateau de Sourches near LeMans where it remained for most of the war.

And now we enter the realm of films like Monuments Men and The Imitation Game. Really!

In the spring of 1944, with northern France under heavy Allied bombardment, Himmler began making plans to bring the Tapestry to Germany. The first step would be to move it to Paris, but even before he could order the transfer, the Allied invasion of Normandy had begun.

The Norman Fleet

The Norman Fleet

On June 8 Bayeux was liberated, and within a week Captain LaFarge of the Allies’ Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives division had set up his headquarters there. But the war wasn’t over yet. In early July, per Himmler’s orders, Gestapo officers removed the Tapestry from Sourches and escorted it to the Louvre.

Earl Harold

Earl Harold

By mid-August, 1944, the Allies were approaching Paris. On August 18 the team at Bletchley Park in England intercepted a radio message from Himmler to the head of the Gestapo in France ordering him to remove the Tapestry to ‘a place of safety’ – presumably closer to the German heartland. On August 22 a team of SS men tried to do just that, but the Louvre was already occupied by Allied troops and the SS men couldn’t get to it. On August 25, Paris was liberated.

The mayor of Bayeux immediately sent a request to Captain LaFarge asking that the Tapestry be returned to Bayeux from Sourches. He didn’t know that it had already been moved to Paris, and one has to wonder if there wasn’t a panic until Captain LaFarge learned that the Tapestry was in the Louvre. Despite the wishes of the mayor of Bayeux, it remained in the Louvre for a time, on exhibit for five weeks. The Tapestry was finally returned to Bayeux in March, 1945. It’s there now. You can see it, behind glass, in its own special gallery, safe and well protected.

Today's Tapestry Museum. Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis

Today’s Tapestry Museum. Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis

Textiles do not age well. Rarely do they withstand the ravages of time, light, air, mold, and insects. That this work of art has survived for a thousand years, giving us a glimpse into such a significant historical event as well as into the minds of those who lived through it, is nothing short of astonishing.

Source: Lewis, Michael J. The Real World of the Bayeux Tapestry. The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK, 2008.

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Bayeux Tapestry Feline

A Cat. The Bayeux Tapestry.

Posted in Anglo-Saxons, Art, Bayeux Tapestry, History, Normandy, Research | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

5 May 1010: The Battle of Ringmere

Battle Abbey, preparing for war.On 5 May in the year 1010, a great battle was fought between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes at a place in East Anglia called Ringmere. In the fall of 2012, as part of the research for my novel The Price of Blood, I went with my husband to East Anglia to see for myself where that battle took place.

DSCN1256Ringmere wasn’t easy to find. Pre-Conquest battle sites may be marked on occasion, but even the people living nearby are sometimes unaware of the events that took place there a thousand years ago. (This is understandable. They live in the present. If you were to ask me about my own neighborhood – Oakland – and what it was like even 200 years ago, I could only shrug and say, “There were probably more oaks then.”)

Making fire, West StowThe staff at the marvelous Anglo-Saxon archaeological museum at West Stow, who knew all about the rye, reeds, wheat and heather that the Anglo-Saxons used for roof thatching, and who could explain that when building their houses they pounded square pegs into round holes because they were a tighter fit, looked at me blankly when I asked about Ringmere. By that time it was late afternoon, so we gave up on finding the battlefield for that day and went in search of our hotel in Attleborough. Ringmere would have to wait until I could pinpoint it on the internet.

Overnight, a thick fog settled over East Anglia, and it was still heavy as we drove the next morning along narrow lanes toward the spot I had marked on the map as Ringmere. We parked the car on the side of the road and climbed out to have a look around.

Ringmere3In 1010 the Anglo-Saxon army led by the king’s son-in-law, Ulfkytel, was still gathering at Ringmere when the Danes launched a surprise attack. Standing in the same place a thousand years later, my vision impaired by the sullen fog, it was easy to imagine an enemy army suddenly appearing out of the mist to the horrified surprise of the defenders.

Stretching around me to north, south and east, flat wasteland was studded with rabbit warrens. A stand of trees stood on the western edge of the heath, and beyond that, out of sight, lay the circular lake that gave this place its name. There was no way of knowing if it looked exactly like this in 1010, but there must have been a space not unlike this, wide and flat enough to hold thousands of warriors.

Ringmere2As I walked the heath I wondered if somewhere beneath my feet the detritus of battle still lay undiscovered – broken weapons, the bosses from long-rotted wooden shields, the bones of the dead. It made me sad and a little awestruck to be standing in a place marked by such a violent history. For all I knew, some of my own ancestors may have fought here and had managed to escape the carnage. They may even have been on both sides of the shield wall.

In The Price of Blood I did not describe Ringmere Heath or the battle that took place there, only scenes that came before it, from the Vikings’ point of view . . .

“Ulfkytel will not have his full force until late in May,” Cnut said with a slow smile, “which means that we can strike first, and with a much larger force.”
“Ulfkytel is someone to be feared, my lord. He led his East Anglians against the Danes once before and nearly won.”
“Nearly will not be good enough,” Cnut said, “and we will have the advantage of surprise as well as numbers.”

… and scenes that came afterwards, from the Anglo-Saxon point of view . . .

“The king cursed poor Ulfkytel for losing that battle up at Ringmere. Swore that our sister was wasted on an East Anglian who didn’t have the sense to die when he lost his battle; even threatened to take Ælfa back and give her to someone else.”

When it came to the battle itself, I let the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle speak for me:

This year came the (Viking) army, after Easter, into East Anglia…where they understood Ulfkytel was with his army. The East-Angles soon fled. There was slain Oswy and his son, and Wulfric, son of Leofwin, and Edwy, brother of Efy, and many good thanes, and a multitude of people…And the Danes remained masters of the field of slaughter.

The field of slaughter. What a visceral reminder of the harsh realities of war and of the terrible events that were played out so many centuries ago on this lonely heath that the Anglo-Saxons named Ringmere.

Posted in Anglo-Saxons, History, Inspiration, Research, UK, Vikings | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments