Saturday, May 22, 2010


Living the History on this time's blog post is going to be a revisit of my own past as it applies to becoming a published author of historical fiction. I was reminded about this recently while packing a case with materials for a talk I was going to give and I came across my old geography exercise book from my year in class 5H when I was 15 going on 16. The first novel I ever wrote, (a historical) was started by hand in the spare pages of that exercise book in the school holidays. If you click on the picture below this article it will enlarge to give you a glimpse of my deathless teenage prose! My handwriting is a lot messier these days!
The novel was set in mid 12th Century Outremer - modern day Syria, Israel and Lebanon, and moved to Angevin Europe. My hero was a half-Byzantine, half-English knight who served in the bodyguard of King Fulke of Jerusalem until recalled to Europe by his father's family. It was freely inspired by a TV programme titled Desert Crusader. I've often talked about it and here's a full post on the matter from my archive to save me writing it all out again!
I had told myself stories verbally for as long as I can remember, but that novel, titled 'Tiger's Eye' after the stones in the hero's sword hilt, was the first time I had ever written anything down. (My father suggested I call it 'Crispin's Capers'!) I realised in the process of writing and completing it that this was what I wanted to do for a living. It was like something very obvious and natural clicking into place. It was what I'd been born to do.
Of course, have that 'ting!' moment and achieving that goal are two entirely separate things, especially in such a crowded market place. I was 15 when I had my epiphany moment, and 32 when I finally got my chance at a career with The Wild Hunt. During those years, I researched and wrote several more historical novels, all set in the Middle Ages. Some were a continuation of the family story begun in 'Tiger's Eye', others were stand alones. All were about 500 pages long and I suppose I was teaching myself how to write commercial historical fiction without actually realising it. All I was doing as far as I was concerned, was having a darned good time. And that I think, is one of the most important things to have as a writer - joy in your writing, and enthusiasm. An inbuilt crap detector is useful too. One acquires this and upgrades it by the experience of writing and also by voracious reading. A writer not only needs to find time to write, he/she needs to find time to read too - and for pleasure. You learn far more quickly when you like what you're doing.
All of those novels were rejected by agents and publishers at one time or another, but it didn't put me off. Rather the rejections spurred me on. The next one would be better, and would blow their socks off. Besides, it was what I did. Despite the main body of the novels being rejected, I was still able to sneakily utilise bits of them in future books. I particularly smile about The Champion which was shortlisted for the UK's Best Romantic Novel of the Year Award in 1998. A goodly chunk of that was an edited portion of reject novel Midsummer's Gift, about a jousting champion, the grandson of my hero from Tiger's Eye.
The novel I wrote just prior to The Wild Hunt, (which was the one that finally wedged open the door to my career) , is actually the first in a family series. The Wild Hunt is its sequel. I was told by my then publishers, when they were sent it following their acceptance of The Wild Hunt, that the prequel novel The Coming of the Wolf, was actually of publishable standard, but not as strong as The Wild Hunt, so they preferred me to go on from TWH with fresh material. So one day, time permitting (hah!) I may well get down to editing The Coming of the Wolf and make it available online.
Below are some opening pages from my rejects. Click to enlarge.


The first draft
of the first ever

TIGER'S EYE mark 2
This draft is after
I learned to type!

I called my hero Tristan
becaue I liked the name
there's no deeper

Ongoing family tale
connected to the first

A good chunk of this
has been edited into
The Champion


Monday, May 03, 2010

Empress Matilda's Bling!

During the course of my research into Empress Matilda, I found a very interesting list of some of the riches she owned in her lifetime, so I thought I'd write a shiny post today, detailing that list and illustrating it with items that are either the originals, or something very similar. (click on the images to enlarge). Matilda does seem to have liked her rich fabrics, gold and jewels, but when one examines any royal wardrobe list the same trend becomes obvious. Material wealth of the 'bling' variety in the Middle Ages wasn't just about being shiny and flashing wealth on the person to enhance status. It was about favour and patronage too. Religeous establishments benefitted from rich gifts and became the storage places for much of that wealth - sort of unofficial banks where the good could be kept safe until needed. So it was about glory to God and to keeping the church sweet. Gold and silver artefacts and rich textiles were also the rainy day funds should the monarchy fall on hard times. Mercenaries could be paid in jewels and gold cups. Loans could be secured against the wealth. In the early thirteenth century, William Marshal used just this ploy when he became regent. Whatever was left in the royal treasury at Corfe was used to pay the soldiers and keep them in the field. There was no coin to be had, but there were sapphires and emeralds and gold cups and bolts of silk.
But back to the Empress. When Matilda left Germany as a widow in 1125 or 1126, she returned to Normandy bearing a wealth of treasure acquired during her marriage - among which was at least one dubious (mis) appropriation - the Hand of Saint James, which she presented to Reading Abbey. There is a little about the hand here. The hand, however, would originally have been displayed in a ornate relic case probably looking not unlike this one.

This one is German and dates to around
1240, but earlier, similar examples are
known. The relic itself would be visible
through a see-through 'window' in
the cuff or sleeve.

Matilda also returned from Germany with at least two crowns that had been worn by her husband the Emperor. One 'of solid gold, decorated with gems' was worn by Henry II at his coronation and was so heavy that it had to be supported by two silver rods when worn. The front of the crown was adorned by a jewel of great size and value with a gold cross superimposed. The smaller of the crowns had been used by the emperor on feast days. Matilda also had a crown of her own, decorated with golden flowers.

Imperial crown of the
Holy Roman Empire.
It is made in hinged
segments, so can be packed
flat for travel!

There are two actual survivals of artefacts that we know Empress Matilda owned in her lifetime. One is a dalmatic (robe) of red-gold silk, still preserved today in the Parish church of Ambazac - below. The other is a gemstone and gold filigree reliquary cross now in the Musee Departementale at Rouen and given by her to the Cistercian monks at le Valasse.

Empress Matilda's silk dalmatic

Among the gifts Matilda gave to the Abbey at Bec0Hellouin were the above mentioned crowns and also another golden cross decorated with precious stones, two gospel books bound in gold and studded with gems, two silver-gilt censers, a silver incense box and spoon, a gold dish and a gold pyx for the Eucharist. There were three silver flasks, a ewer for holy water and a silver basin. Add to this two portable altars of marble mounted in silver and an ebony chest filled with relics. There were more textiles in the forms of holy vestments - chasubles, dalmatics, copes, and an imperial cloak belonging to herself, besprinkled with gold. All of the above list was donated in her lifetime. After she died, the abbey also received the ornaments she had used in her own private chapel. These included service books, a gold chalice and spoon, four chasubles, two tunics, two dalmatics, six copes, two of which were interwoven with silver, two silver censers and two boxes which were described as 'eggs of griffins'. The legs and claws gripping these 'eggs' were fashioned of silver. The griffin's eggs could have been many things. Ostrich eggs, which were highly prized, or egg-shaped polished agates as per the Greek legends. We don't know. There was a popular 12th century story about Alexander the Great harnessing a pair of Griffins and having them fly him to heaven to see God, only to be asked by an angel why he wanted to see God when he didn't yet understand the world he lived in. Chastened, Alexander flew back to earth. Perhaps Matilda had this pair of griffon's eggs on her altar as a reminder of this legend, who knows?
All the above was just the tip of the iceberg. Empress Matilda truly did live in a world that glittered. When she died, as well as all her treasure, she gave thirty thousand shillings to Grandmontine order. In physical terms at least, the Empress died a wealthy woman.
Below, I've added quick links to what chasubles, copes and dalmatics are, and a few photographs of more glittery bits typical of what the Empress would have seen and used in daily life.


portable altar with marble