The Story So Far ...

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

A Brother Receives a Letter - and a Telling Off

I've been deep in research lately, learning all I can about a particular few years of the tenth century, in order to contribute to a forthcoming book, In Bed with the British (working title), to be published by Pen & Sword Books in June 2017.

Most of the documents I've been studying were written by clerics, and usually about 'important' people - kings, heirs to the throne, wives and women of kings. Almost all of these are mentioned as part of the stories of clergymen, those venerated as saints.


But tucked away at the end of a huge book*, my go-to source book, in fact, I rediscovered this gem, a letter written to a 'brother Edward'. It's written in the vernacular, a rarity for this period, and if one reads it as if it's addressed to a family member, it takes on a surprisingly contemporary tone, even though it addresses concerns very specific to the time of the Danish invasions:

"I tell thee also, brother Edward, now that thou hast asked me, that you do wrong in abandoning the English practices which your fathers followed, and in loving the practices of heathen men who begrudge you life, and in so doing show by such evil habits that you despise your race and your ancestors, since in insult to them you dress in Danish fashion with bared necks and blinded eyes. I will say no more about that shameful mode of dress except what books tell us, that he will be accursed who follows heathen practices in his life and in so doing dishonour his own race."
Elsewhere in the letter, the author asks Edward to try to stop 'a disgusting habit among women in rural districts, since he more often goes among these than does the writer'.

This made me smile. In fact there is so much that is wonderful about this missive, not least the opening line, "Now that thou has asked me..." 

Is there a little bit of smugness, too, that it is only Edward who goes more often among women in rural districts? I note that the writer implies that he does occasionally venture there himself, but never so frequently as the wayward brother. And what is the 'disgusting habit'? We are not told. Is this because this letter was not written for posterity, but simply to a brother gone off the rails? One can almost hear the drawing of breath, the whisper, "You know exactly what I'm talking about."


Obviously written at the time of Danish invasion, this letter is a delight, not only for its rarity but because of the wonderful image it conjures up. One can imagine that Edward is mixing with the wrong crowd, has quite had his head turned by the fancy and trendy invaders and has taken, much to the author's, maybe his family's, consternation, to following this new fashion. The 'blinded eyes' does not refer to 'cool shades', but one feels it is the middle-ages equivalent. 


Plus ca change...

*English Historical Documents Ed Dorothy Whitelock

Other related blog posts:
Anglo-Saxon Names
Wulfric Spott: A Mercian Man of Means

Monday, 10 April 2017

Writing to Music - Louise Turner

For the latest in the Writing to Music series, I am delighted to hand the blog over to author Louise Turner:~


I can’t imagine a life without music. It has been with me, quite literally, from the womb: my mother, who was a keen amateur singer, used to recall how she sang in Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass while expecting - my response was evidently very enthusiastic! Perhaps it’s this early experience which explains my love of orchestral brass and late 19th  and 20th century symphonies and tone poems...

With a background like this, it’s small wonder that music forms an important part of my writing routine.  Each of my works-in-progress has its own specific soundtrack, and while the impression I’ve given so far is of an existence dominated by western Classical music, this is certainly not the case.   I’m a child of my time: I may have a soft spot for Mahler and Prokofiev and Bruckner, but that doesn’t mean I’m not averse to a bit of Indy rock, 80s synth pop, or prog rock either….

Now the introductions are over, without further ado, I’m going to take you on a musical tour of my latest release, The Gryphon at Bay, which was published by Hadley Rille Books in late March 2017…


In musical terms, I relate to any work of historical fiction on two levels. Firstly, there’s the research and world-building aspect, and secondly, there’s the actual nuts and bolts of the writing.  With historical fiction, the former is crucial.  You have to get in the mindset of your characters, if they’re going to come across in a way that’s remotely credible. 

I firmly believe that music plays a key role in all of this, equalling literature and art in its importance. So, before we go any further, let me introduce you to the music of late 15th and early 16th century Scotland. We produced one of the world’s finest composers of early polyphony, don’t you know? And the awful thing is, hardly anyone has ever heard of him! 

His name is Robert Carver, and can I just say now that if you’ve never heard any Robert Carver, then you haven’t lived. I’ve added a link to one of his finest works, his Mass for 10 voices.  Listen to it with the sound turned up, in a darkened room, and dare to tell me that the hairs on the back of your neck aren’t standing on end!
Robert Carver - Mass "Dum sacrum mysterium" a 10 (YouTube)
Not linked so closely in time and space, but equally inspiring to me when I’m trying to conjure up a sense of the medieval are the Cantigas de Santa Maria.  While this song cycle pre-dates my novels by several hundred years, it still manages to help me set the scene. There are a number of different recordings from this song book, each very different in their style and execution. The New London Consort’s interpretation of the cantigas remain my favourite version, with one of their performances available at the link below.
 Non e gran causa (YouTube)
We’ll move on now, away from world-building, and research. You’ll find a definite mood change now, a different approach. A switch from the Classical, to the thoroughly modern.

I often have a roughly chronological order to my playlist, but Gryphon has bucked the trend somewhat in that its musical inspiration is largely thematic. To start with, I’d like to establish the right atmosphere by travelling down a fairly predictable route and enjoying some tracks by that well-known Celtic folk/alternative band, Clannad, and their album Anam.  


The first of my two choices from this album, is Ri na Cruinne, a beautifully atmospheric piece which conjures up in my mind’s eye images of armoured men-at-arms riding through the summer sunshine, with the waters of the Clyde sparkling as a backdrop.  Yes, I’m being romantic and fanciful here.  Firstly, it’s very rare to have the waters of the Clyde sparkling as a backdrop in a Scottish summer.  And secondly, I’m quite sure these men-at-arms (with Hugh Montgomerie in the lead on his grey horse Zephyr...) are on their way to doing something extremely nefarious, but at this point in time, it all looks very noble and impressive: -
Clannad - RĂ­ Na Cruinne (YouTube)
But there’s a shadow lurking.  Hugh may have found success, but Fortune’s always fickle, and who’s to say that Fortune’s wheel won’t turn?  So let’s turn now to another Clannad track, In Fortune’s Hand. This has to be one of the important theme tunes of The Gryphon at Bay, which has at its heart the vagaries of Fortune, and how the Mighty can be toppled, whether by hubris, or their own poor judgement.  Apologies for the quality of the video on this one, and for the dodgy late 1980s fashions & haircuts….
Clannad - In Fortune's Hand (YouTube)
The theme of Fortune’s Wheel turning takes me neatly onwards to another of the important musical influences which helped me write this particular novel. It’s an album which is my standard accompaniment in the car when I’m heading out for a reading.  It sets me up correctly, sliding me neatly into a late medieval mindset, and it’s my favourite album by indie/Goth band Dead Can Dance: Aion.


Aion weaves an interesting path between medieval folk (tracks like Saltarello) and modern Goth rock. It includes themes which are very appropriate for the medieval period, such as the abuse of justice, and the vagaries of fortune. It inspired me when I was writing Fire & Sword, and it remains relevant for Gryphon. One track in particular stands out, Black Sun, which I see very much as Hugh Montgomerie’s theme tune.

Hugh’s definitely something of an antihero, and musically, Black Sun seems to suit his personality. It seethes.  It boils along with restless, barely contained energy, and it has a dark, cynical undertone, too.  Its opening lines, ‘Murderer/Man of Fire/Murderer/ I’ve seen the eyes of living death -’ are so very Hugh, when he’s in a Very Bad Mood Indeed…  
Dead Can Dance. Black Sun. (YouTube)
Can I add that I particularly like the way it’s been combined with imagery by Hieronymus Bosch in this video…


Continuing the aggressive, warlike theme a little longer, we’ll move onto Kasabian’s Empire. The hero of my first novel Fire & Sword was John Sempill of Ellestoun. John still plays an important role in The Gryphon at Bay, where he often finds himself struggling to remain level-headed and calm when the world around him is collapsing into chaos.  This track – as well as having one of the most wonderfully evocative and brilliantly anachronistic historical fiction-themed videos EVER (careful with that electric guitar, boys!) – sums up John Sempill’s attitude to life, the universe and pretty much everything throughout this particular book ( being called to war, AGAIN, when he just wants to sit at home with his feet up…).  It’s also a very appropriate soundtrack for the scene in the book (when Hugh does a very Bad Thing indeed) which forms both the turning point of the book and his own fortunes….
Kasabian - Empire (YouTube)
With war and unrest comes death, of course, and with death comes grieving, and ultimately, in some circumstances, revenge. For my musical accompaniment in this respect, may I present to you Mcgreggor by Elbow.  The imagery is striking (it always is, with Elbow) and it’s perhaps not surprising that I adopted it as the musical backdrop for a funeral scene. In particular, the image of the woman, standing like ‘the prow of a ship,’ reminds me of the Dowager, widow of Alexander, Earl of Glencairn...
Elbow - McGreggor (YouTube)
So far, so grim….  Let’s lighten the mood now, shall we? 

Enya released her album Amarantine when I’d just started out on the writing of Gryphon, and this next track – The River Sings - became synonymous with young Cuthbert Cunninghame.  Cuthbert is Hugh’s nemesis – and we meet him in Gryphon as a young lad on the cusp of manhood, whose first appearance has him practicing his skills against the quintain. The two men were often at loggerheads in reality: not only did the ‘real’ Cuthbert Cunninghame go on to enjoy a long and impressive career at the Scots court (he’s the future 2nd Earl of Glencairn); he was also appointed the King’s Champion at a joust held at Barassie in the 1490s, so I don’t think I’m far wrong in portraying him as proficient at the joust.  

Enya - (2005) Amarantine - 05 The River Sings (YouTube)

A complete change of mood now. So far, I’ve been painting a dire portrait of Hugh Montgomerie through my musical choices. But Hugh, despite his many flaws, does have his good side. In particular, he’s devoted to his wife, Helen Campbell (perhaps it might be said that this is his only saving grace…) I’ll stay with Enya now for the track which best fits the bill as ‘The Love Theme’ from The Gryphon at Bay It reminds me of a particular scene in the novel where Helen is reunited with Hugh after a particularly traumatic episode. She sings to him, in gaelic. I didn’t go into detail in the narrative, quite deliberately in fact. I certainly had a particular song in mind when I imagined the scene. It’s an Irish gaelic song, The Grief of a Young girl’s Heart (lyrics can be found here)

The reasons why I didn’t feel I could quote this poem verbatim are twofold: firstly, it’s Irish (just like Enya!), and secondly, I wasn’t convinced I could track its origins back to the late 15th century. There are, however, links between the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland and Ireland in the medieval period, and it’s possible that the roots of this poem are very early indeed. So I did feel justified in using it as inspiration. In particular, I considered the line, ‘if hard-pressed, I would strike a blow for you’ to be typical of Helen. Helen’s a Campbell, born and raised in a Highland family, so Gaelic musical traditions would have been very familiar to her. The closest I’ve come to the ‘spirit’ of how this poem might sound when set to music is this song by Enya, Water Shows the Hidden Heart, which isn’t even written in gaelic, unfortunately.

I’ll leave you now with one last track which pretty much sums up the spirit of the novel. It’s another of those all-round numbers that always put me in the right frame of mind to work on it. Yes, The Gryphon at Bay is dark, and unforgiving at times, and several of my chosen tracks reflect this. But there’s always light amongst the darkness: I don’t see any of my characters as ‘baddies,’ or ‘goodies,’ they’re just people, trying to get along as best they can. And one of the tracks I play to remind me of this fact is a rather obscure track called Cut Throat by indie band UltraVivid Scene.

I first came across this music in a workout video, of all things. It sort of lodged in my brain, and by some absurd quirk of fate (Fortune shows her hand again!) it came into my life at the same time I first discovered Hilary Mantel’s breathtaking historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety. This music is menacing, but quirky, and that’s the lasting impression that stayed with me after reading the Mantel novel. I suppose it’s fair to say that it was seeing what Mantel could achieve in a work of historical fiction that inspired me to keep writing first Fire & Sword and then The Gryphon at Bay. 

I can’t really think of a better way to finish, really! I do hope you enjoyed this musical whistlestop tour of The Gryphon at Bay, and of the musical influences which have shaped my life and my writing. And thank you, Annie Whitehead, for setting me this challenge! It’s been a lovely excuse to relive an exciting musical journey from the relative comfort of its destination…

Thank you Louise - Dead Can Dance: Aion is a favourite album of mine, too, and I own every Clannad studio album!



Buy The Gryphon at Bay

In this gripping follow-up to her debut novel Fire and Sword,
Louise Turner returns to the splendour and intrigue of Renaissance Scotland and the court of King James IV.
Summer, 1489... 

It is a year after the old king’s death, and his son now sits upon the throne. Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie has achieved great things in this short time. He’s been granted a place on the Privy Council, and given authority in the King’s name throughout Lennox and the Westland.
Success is a double-edged sword. The old king’s murder has left its scars and there’s rebellion in the Westland. Now Montgomerie must choose between his king and loyalty to his kinsmen, the Darnley Stewarts, treading a dangerous path between pragmatism and treason.  
Closer to home, he is challenged by his old rivals the Cunninghames. The feud between the two warring families intensifies, with tragic consequences.  And the time comes for three women, drawn together by their hatred of Montgomerie, to plot revenge.  
As Montgomerie sees the world turn against him, just one ally remains: John Sempill of Ellestoun.  
But Ellestoun may have his own agenda. Will he stand by his so-called friend, or seek retribution for past injustices...

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

No Alums, Veri Pore: The Norwich Census of 1570

Going through some old history notes recently, I came across this little gem of a document. I've no idea how I came by it, (I have a facsimile; I don't think I'm on any museum or library 'wanted' list!) but as an historian who has close ties with Norfolk, I found it of great interest. I know Norwich very well, and I also love to pick at primary source documents to see what they can tell us of the people who lived in centuries past.

It contains details of the Parishe of St. Stevenes. The chancel of St Stephen's Church dates from 1522, and the church is one of three in the 'New French Borough', an area near the castle where 98 Saxon homes were demolished to build the stone edifice which signalled that the Normans were here to stay.


St Stephen's Church, by Ian Capper via CC Licence

In the later medieval period, around a third of the population of Norwich was made up of 'Strangers', Flemish Protestant Refugees. The famous Strangers' Hall in Norwich is only a five minute walk from St Stephen, but the first census entry I looked at was of the Rowe family, who have dwelt here ever, in other words, they were 'natives'. The head of the family, Robert Rowe, was 46, a glasier, and in no worke. His wife Elisabeth that spinne white warpe had five children. They lived in Thomas Mason's house and received no alms.


Strangers' Hall  - Public Domain Image

John Hubbard, 38, was a butcher and he and his wife had also dwelt here ever, but unusually for a butcher, his status was registered as no alums but verie poore.

Thomas Pele, 50, was a cobler in worke and Margarit his wyfe of the same age that spinne white warpe had three children. The elldist of the age of 16 yeres that spinne, and the other of the age of 12 and of 6 yeres that go to scoole, and have dwelt here 9 yeres and came from Yorkshere. Thomas and Margarit both had work, and the youngest children went to school, and yet they lived in the parish house, with no allums but verie pore.

John Tastes, a cordiner (cordwainer), and his wife who sewed, had two children at school, and lived in Mrs Broune's house with no alums, indifferent.


Mousehold Heath, Norwich - John Crome, Public Domain

John Burr was a 54 year old glasier, but verie sicke and worke not and his wife Alice that spinne had 7 children. The youngest was 2 yeres that can spinne woole. They lived in John's own house and had dwelt here ever.

The eldest on this document is John Findley, who at 82 years was not registered as 'past work' as some other elderly residents of Norwich were, but simply listed as a cowper not in worke along with his wife, Jone, who was siklie and yet spinne and knitt. They also had dwelt here ever, but in the church house, with a payment of 4d, and they were verie pore.

A quick scan of the whole Norwich census reveals that very few people, if in receipt of any payment at all, had any more than 4d.

To give an idea of the amount 4d would buy,

In another part of Norwich, in the Parish of St Gregory's, a poor man died, and his property was valued in an inventory taken by William Rogers and Gregorye Wesbye on 15th October, 1599.


St Gregory's by Adrian S Pye, via CC Licence

One borded bedsted 3s. 4d
One mattress and one under cloathe 1s. 6d
One flocke bed 2s. 6d
One bolster 2s. 0d
One downe pillowe and an old cushaigne 1s. 6d
Two leather pillowes filled with feathers 3s. 4d
One payer of shetes 2s. 0d
One bed blanket 1s. 8d
One old cofer 2s. 0d
One drye barrell 3d
2 salt boxes 1s. 0d
One hake, a fyer pann, a payer of tonges and a rosting yron 1s. 6d
One litle ketle, a sawer and 3 pewter spoones 2s. 6d
3 little boles 1s. 0d
One ketle, one potspone, 28 trenyens 1s. 0d
2 woodinge platters and 5 dishes and twoo erthen potts 8d
a stone pott and 5 galley pottes 4d
a hamper and certen old washe 6d
4 frayles and 2 stooles 3s. 0d
3 chiselles, 2 hamers and a perser 3s. 0d
(suggesting he was a carpenter by trade)
3 old cushings 6d
2 payers of hand cuffes and one dozen of hand kerchers and an old pillowbere 2s. 6d
2 old shirtes 1s. 8d
One old forme and 2 old cappes 1s. 0d
Total: £1 18s. 5d


Strangers' Hall Museum - a richer setting than our census houses

Ever wished to go back in time? Much as I love Norwich, I think I'd go back as a wealthy merchant. At the very least.