Thursday, 30 November 2017

Noises Off: Folklore & Ghostly Goings-On

What do Oliver Cromwell, Sunken Churches, Wolves, and Witches all have in common? Along with all manner of boggarts and beasties, they are all associated with folklore and ghost stories.

I recently had cause to research the tale about the supposed killing of the last wolf in England and thought that folklore, generally, would be a good topic for a blog post.

Well, yes and no. One book on my shelves is over 800 pages long, with about five or six tales or legends on each page!

I thought I'd narrow it down to my favourites, one related to each part of history, from pre-Roman times to the seventeenth century, all to do with people, rather than beasts. And all very noisy!

The Lost Warriors
Hockwold, in the East Anglian Fens, was a burial place for three separate hoards of pewter items dating from Roman times. They were crushed and dismantled, giving rise to speculation that they were deliberately buried as some kind of offering. 

They were discovered in the 1960s, but long before that time, the Hockwold Fens were said to be haunted by ancient warriors. Their battle cries could be heard, sounding loud across the fenland. Perhaps they were British warriors, Iceni maybe, fighting the Roman invaders?

Some of the Hockwold Pewter

The Shrieking Pits
Between 850 and 110o, iron workings between Aylmerton and West Runton Heath in Norfolk left depressions in the fields. Slag from the furnaces found their way into the walls of nearby Saxon Churches. Shrieks ring out in the dark night, near St John's Church, utterances of a ghostly woman who is searching among the hollows for the body of her baby.

Legend has it that her husband buried the child in one of the pits, as well as murdering his wife. She now wanders, searching, for she does not know which hollow contains her child. As she looks into each of the holes, she shrieks with despair as it reveals itself to be empty.

St John's Church, Aylmerton

Wild Edric
Sometimes it's not the spirits of dead people that inspire these tales. The Vita Haroldi, a glorified celebration of the life of Harold Godwineson, last English king of pre-Conquest England, suggests that Harold did not die at Hastings, and later sources suggest that he lived until he was over 150 years old. 

More fantastical yet, was Edric, a Shropshire man who did survive the Conquest, and fought William as a rebel. He, apparently, was still alive in the nineteenth century, living in the mines under the Shropshire hills. His noise was a knocking sound, which would tell the miners where the best lodes were. He would ride out to foretell war, and was seen riding with his wife, Lady Godda, just before the outbreak of the Crimean war.

Snailbeach, Shropshire - note the mine chimney. Photo Humphrey Bolton

Screams at Castle Rising
I've visited Castle Rising many times. I used to drive past it on my way to work. For a time, it was the 'home' of Isabella, wife of Edward II. Froissart, and fourteenth century chronicler, says that her son, Edward III, imprisoned her there, after the execution of her lover, Mortimer. 

It is said that she went mad from loneliness and that her screams could be heard as she wandered the battlements, lamenting her fate. In fact, she was not a prisoner, although she certainly lived there for periods, as it was one of her own properties, but she actually died in Hertford Castle. Her son allowed her £3,ooo, rising to £4,000 per year, so it's likely that far from wandering the Norman keep as a prisoner, she lived a comfortable life.

Castle Rising 

Footsteps at Husbands Bosworth
The ghost of a Protestant lady prowls the hall at Husbands Bosworth in Leicestershire and her footsteps can be heard loud and clear as she wanders, unable to settle. She suffers remorse for not allowing a Catholic priest to attend a dying servant. Elsewhere in the hall, a stain on the floor remains permanently damp, and it is allegedly there as a result of communion wine, or blood, being spilled when a priest escaped Cromwell's men. 

Whether this is a reference to Thomas Cromwell of the Reformation, or Oliver Cromwell who was responsible for the destruction of churches in the seventeenth century, is not clear. Our poor lady would have been more reluctant, one assumes, to summon a Catholic priest during the reign of the latter. But the former was known as Hammer of the Monks, so we cannot be sure who it was who would have taken punitive measures against her.

Bosworth Hall - photo Richard Williams

This is just a tiny sample of the tales that survive. They appeal to me because of their historical context, and because if I'm going to encounter a ghost, I'd like it to make some kind or warning sound first!

Further reading/bibliography:~
Froissart's Chronicle
Vita Haroldi
The Old Stories - Kevin Crossley-Holland
The Lore of the Land - Westwood & Simpson
Folklore of the Welsh Border - Jaqueline Simpson
Norfolk Ghosts & Legends - Polly Howat
Tales of Old Norfolk - Polly Howat
Norfolk - A Ghosthunter's Guide - Neil Storey
Folk Stories and Heroes of Wales, Vols I&II - John Owen Huws

Monday, 20 November 2017

Historical Fantasy 24 Hours - Georgian London

I asked a group of talented writers and historians to imagine their 'Fantasy Twenty-Four Hours.' I placed no restrictions on time period, place, or format, save that they must go back in time. 

This month it's the turn of author and historian Catherine Curzon, who takes us back to eighteenth-century London...


What would be my fantasy day? 


Well, since writing became my full time job, I’m fortunate enough to say that I’ve had plenty of days like that. Whether it’s going into the National Portrait Gallery and seeing my books there on the shelf or sharing a stage with Adrian Lukis, an actor I’ve admired for decades who I can now call a friend and colleague, I get to make my dreams come true more often than I ever thought I might.

As a historian of the Georgian era with a speciality in Georgian royalty, it’s not going to be a surprise to learn that I’d life out my fantasy 24 hours in London. I'm going to be a little woolly on the exact year, but somewhere in the early 1780s would do nicely. Let’s say 1782, just to give Mrs Robinson time to get really annoyed at the Prince of Wales, and to give Mrs Siddons time to get settled back into the London theatre scene.

Mrs (Sarah) Siddons

What might surprise those who know me well, however, is that I’ve got no intention of going digging about the palaces of George III and his family. George’s court was built on strict protocol and wasn’t exactly renowned for being a rip-roaring and entertaining way to spend a day. So, since I’ve got just 24 hours to live out my fantasy, am I going on a breathtaking, whirlwind tour of the sights of Georgian London?

Not a chance of it, because I’m going to spend them sitting around and drinking tea.

The trick to sitting around and drinking tea, as anyone who does it often will tell you, is who you do it with, and I won’t be drinking tea alone.

I’d like to start the day with a stroll through the streets of London alone, soaking up the sights, sounds and of course the smells of the world into which I’ve been happily plunged. I want to walk beside the Thames and potter about Hyde Park and just watch, experiencing that lost land in which I spend so much of my creative time. I’ll gaze into print shop windows and peek into coffeehouses, hear the cries of the street traders and potter along quite happily, unremarkable in the sort of unshowy frock that lets you pass unnoticed as part of the Georgian crowd. It doesn’t do to stand out when you’re pretending to be one of the locals, after all!

A lady cannot live on sightseeing alone though, and that’s where the sitting around and drinking tea comes in.

After my morning of strolling, I’ll head up to Strawberry Hill for lunch and an afternoon in the company of that glorious Georgian, Horace Walpole. Walpole is probably my absolute favourite Georgian and a few hours in his company will be worth a year in the city, because he knew everything about everyone. An inveterate gossip, taleteller and wit, what Walpole didn’t know about 18th century movers and shakers wasn’t worth knowing and I can’t think of a better fellow to spend an afternoon with. 

Horace Walpole

After a leisurely lunch, Horace and I will be joined by Mary Darby Robinson and Richard Brinsley Sheridan and, with the tea still flowing, we’ll while away an afternoon. Happily, with three Whigs together, political arguments - always a mainstay of Georgian society - might just about be kept to a minimum!

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

There’s nothing I love more than tea, theatre and Georgians, so this would be an absolute dream come true. Between them this trio had an intimate knowledge (literally in Mary’s case) of the House of Hanover and the world of Georgian theatre and in my dream world, they’d be more than happy to share it!

Mary Robinson

We’d wander Strawberry Hill with Walpole as an enthusiastic guide, learning about this dreamy Gothic palace from the man who created it. Then, as the evening began to draw on, where better to end the day that at the theatre? A little trip to Drury Lane would be in order, I think, to fulfil the dream of everybody who loves there and the 18th century - the chance to see the legendary Sarah Siddons in action.

It was Sheridan who brought Mrs Siddons back to London after her disastrous earlier appearance alongside Garrick, and her appearance at Drury Lane in Fatal Marriage in 1782 launched her into the stratosphere, so to see her perform with Sheridan in the seat beside me in the company of Sheridan would be utterly epic!

Going round after a performance is always fun so we’d join the divine Mrs S after the show for a drink or two and that would, I think, crown the perfect day. I would come home to the 21st century feeling very happy indeed!

So, I’ve got nothing in my diary for the next couple of days and I’m raring to go - when do we leave for 1782?


Catherine Curzon is a royal historian. She is the author of Life in the Georgian Court, Kings of Georgian Britain, and Queens of Georgian Britain

Her work has been featured on, the official website of BBC History Magazine and in publications such as Explore History, All About History, History of Royals and Jane Austen’s Regency World . She has appeared with An Evening with Jane Austen at venues including Kenwood House and Godmersham Park and has spoken at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, Lichfield Guildhall, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and Dr Johnson’s House, among others.

An Evening with Jane Austen - Cast Photo

Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, writes fiction set deep in the underbelly of Georgian London. Her novels, The Crown Spire, The Star of Versailles, and The Mistress of Blackstairs, are available now.

She lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.

[All illustrations in the Public Domain. Photo supplied by the author]

Monday, 13 November 2017

Writing to Music: Guy Donovan

For the latest in the series, Writing to Music, I am delighted to welcome author Guy Donovan to the blog:

An Ex-animator’s Take on Music and Writing

Before becoming a struggling, unknown indie writer of epic historical fantasy, I was a struggling animator and designer in Los Angeles. Working on such films as “Quest for Camelot,” “Osmosis Jones,” and, my personal favorite, “The Iron Giant,” I used music to keep the outside world at bay so I could focus on churning out all the drawings required by traditional animation. While I sometimes listened to music with lyrics, I tended toward instrumentals. 

Now I rely on music even more. Rather than working on someone else’s property, with most of the real creativity already done long before my job even started, the written world I create is all on me. Even though my “Dragon’s Treasure” series of e-novels is set in the very real world of 5th century Wales and Scotland, the fact that so little is known about that time period opens up a tremendous opportunity for me to “fill in the gaps.” 

The music I listen to while doing that provides as much inspiration as it does distraction from whatever is going on right around me in the “real” world. 

Classical, especially the bombastic stuff, is a great means of transport, but I’ve been a lover of film scores since the mid ‘70s, so I most often go that route. While other kids my age were rocking out to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, et al, I was more interested in John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, etc.), and Jerry Goldsmith (Patton, The Omen, Logan’s Run, yadda yadda…), along with many, many more. It’s only natural that those composers provide the fuel for my own creation. 

So when I’m writing a thoughtful conversation between Domelch, my Pictish caregiver of eleven-year old Princess Cerys of Môna, and Owena, a lady-in-waiting to the queen, about the conflicts between Christianity and their own pagan faith, I’ll rely on a track like Randy Edelman’s “Cora,” from “The Last of the Mohicans” to help set the mood. 
'Cora' - Last of the Mohicans (Youtube)

Alternately, a hyper-energetic scene like the one in which my series’ dragon, Talorc, defends his adoptive family of Humpback whales against a pod of hungry Orcas requires a more rousing piece like Thomas Bergerson’s “Star Child” to pump me up. 
Star Child' (Youtube)
The years I’ve spent writing “The Dragon’s Treasure” has led me to patch together a “score” for the series. Like a film’s temp track (prior to the composer writing music specifically for the film), I use that collection of pre-existing music to back up the scenes I see so clearly in my head. Rather than underscore specific action beats though, as that sort of editing and direction need to come from my reader as much as from me, my “score” sets the mood, or maybe a rhythm, that reflects what’s going on in the story. In one very specific instance, however, I needed something more precise.

Throughout the series’ first novel, “The Forgotten Princess of Môna,” the titular princess, Cerys, habitually hums a tune that her father taught her. By the second instalment, “A Cold, White Home,” Cerys is pressed into coming up with lyrics for it. Now Dirty Harry taught me as a young child that “A man’s gotta know his limitations,” and one of mine is poetry. There I was though, faced with writing a poem. My wife also writes, so I asked if she would be willing to help out. When she finally stopped laughing long enough to say “No, good luck with that,” I resigned myself to the task. 

To be politely honest, my best efforts were…trash. Then my previous career came to mind. Typically, new animators start in something called “cleanup” (essentially taking someone else’s rough, off-model drawings and redrawing them to not only move right, but also look right). Armed with that thought, I looked up a piece of music that I thought sounded right, and then researched songs of the period (or at least as old as I could find), mining them for ideas. I selected Jerry Goldsmith’s title theme for the film “Rudy,” as I liked the simplistic, honest “feel” of it. Then, as a lyrical springboard, I picked an old Welsh song (possibly 17th century) called “The Ash Grove.” Between them, and a head full of my fictional character’s hopes, fears, and dreams, I formulated a song that fit her needs. 

While the music as written doesn’t accommodate my lyrics perfectly, it’s easy enough to mentally rework it some to fit. I’ve included a link and my lyrics below for you to listen yourself and see if you agree. Even if it’s not quite perfect, my more musically inclined readers can no doubt imagine something they like better. 
'Rudy' Main Title (Youtube first track)

My Cold, White Home

“When I think of my home, I see only a place 
That is lonely and cold and white. 
And I dream of the day when I’ll finally join those 
Who have left my sight. 

“I’m alone and I’m traveling through 
Many places with nobody who 
Knows my pain. 

“Every step that I take wakes many mem’ries 
As aimlessly free I roam. 
And I know in my heart that my journey will end 
In a cold, white home. 

“Each night as I lie in my bed, 
I see faces of those who are dead 
In my mind. 

“There’s no dream of the future my spirit can cheer. 
I can only brood on my plight. 
For the dead that I mourn are all waiting for me 
In that cold and white. 

“My tears, they will no longer flow 
For I know where I’m going to go 
When I die. 

“So I lift up my eyes that are red and so dry 
As I look up to clouds like foam 
For some sign that my family is waiting for me 
In that cold, white home.” 

So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my musings on music, lyrics, and resurrecting facets of old careers to benefit the new. Please feel free to leave a comment. 


More information abut Guy Donovan's Dragon Treasure series can be found HERE

And you can find him on his Amazon Author Page HERE

Guy was also a contributor to the Horde of Dragons anthology which can be found HERE

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Sun Dancing - Skellig Michael

Sun Dancing by Geoffrey Moorhouse is a book which has been sitting on my shelves, unread, for many years. 

I bought it during those optimistic years when I was at home with three small children, thinking I'd have plenty of time for reading, and in the days when the History Book Club sent a paper magazine out every month, featuring a selected Book of the Month. 

I bought many such books, mainly because one didn't have to do much, because they were sent out automatically. Little did I know how long it would take to get to a stage when I had the time to read them all.

But now, after all these years (my kids have all left home) I am finally clearing the backlog. 

Skellig Michael - by Jerzy Strzelecki

Skellig Michael has been making itself known to me recently in a number of ways: a recent programme about the coastland of Ireland, for example, and a song by Loreena McKennitt.

Skellig - Music, Lyrics & Images: Youtube

Sun Dancing is a book of two halves. The first is an imagining, a story of the founding of the Christian Monastery told through the centuries and through the eyes of various monks, beginning with Fionán in 588, who sets out to the rocky island to found the community and ending in 1222 when the brothers decide to abandon the community.

The second half of the book explains the background to the supposed events, drawing on the primary sources and explaining how the author has come to his conclusions, beginning with an exploration of the likely identity of Fionán, and going on to explain the daily lives of the brothers, the differences between the Irish and the Roman Church, the building of the boats that took them out to the island and introductions to such characters as Brian Boru and Olaf Tryggvason and how they fit into the story.

Having read this book so many years after purchasing it, I am now reading it as an author myself. As such, I found that the fictionalised chapters are perhaps lacking a little drama, but this is not supposed to be a novel. As a device for bringing the daily existence of the monks to life, it works really well.

How often have we all read historical fiction and wondered whether or not it was 'true'? With this book half the chapters are taken up with explaining the information on which the stories are based. 

We only stay with each character for a chapter, so it is hard to get to know them, but this was not the intention of the author. Rather it was to allow us to see these people as 'real', in a way that I think only historical fiction can do. So here we have the best of both worlds, both fiction and non-fiction. I might not have needed to know the minor details about monastic life (although much of it was familiar to me anyway) but what I did come away with was a sense of who these people were. Their treacherous journeys out to the island, their daily struggles for existence. 

The graveyard and oratory - by Jibi44

Look at pictures of Skellig Michael now, perhaps listening to the McKennitt song. It is an eerie place. Visit, if you can - it is some 12 kilometres from the Kerry coast and boat trips are available. Moorhouse's book allows us to visualise the people who inhabited the place for over half a millennium. (Some might also recognise it as a location in the Star Wars films.)

George Bernard Shaw, visiting in 1910, described the "incredible, impossible, mad place" as "part of our dream world...I hardly feel real again."  

To be given names, to read about daily lives, adds substance yet leaves the mystery, the sense of other-worldliness. 

I recommend reading this book if you want to get a sense of time and place and learn more about this intriguing island.