Why churches are better than pubs

Nothing to do with praying although, back in lockdown for the sixth time in Melbourne, we could all do with a little prayer. But this is, of course, about writing. And, specifically, about recreating the past. Most churches, especially in Europe, have been there a very long time, 5,6, 7 hundred years and more. There are quite a few old pubs too but, unlike the pubs, churches usually retain their original names.

Cue repeated moans about the Globe Inn, Lostwithiel in Cornwall. Definitely old, 16th century without dispute. Was there when the roundhead army of Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, arrived in 1644 in the middle of the civil war. Next to the bridge over the Fowey. Appearing in my second book as itself. But had to be “the inn by the river”, because the owner told me it had only been The Globe for a couple of hundred years. Then there is The Reindeer in Banbury, dating from 1570. In the absence of evidence of a name change I have assumed The Reindeer is the original name. But I have my doubts, and feel a little anxious whenever I reread the scene in my first book, The Welsh Linnet.

Even churches can be problematic. I have found quite a few that were rebuilt at some point. Usually the tower which may now be square and previously had a spire, that sort of thing. Fonts and pulpits may look ancient- but are they the originals? If only all churches had been left untouched with the original bullet holes, like St Lawrence in Alton.

Civil war damage from shot St Lawrence Alton (author photo)

As for the changing shape of old houses- probably one of the most famous is Hampton Court which has a Tudor front and a William and Mary back. Two totally different styles. Many owners of stately homes decided to improve and modernise, losing all trace of the original features in the process. In the late 17th century (Charles II era) a wave of Restoration optimism (or the damage of the civil war) caused the knocking about of many gentlemen’s houses. The better off remodelled and expanded (Boconnoc House for example) while many others such as Loseley House demolished a wing, either through dilapidation or to cut costs.

Basing House, pulled down on Cromwell’s orders after its capture in 1645, was ironically, falling down at the time. Its owner the Marquess of Winchester had been living elsewhere and only moved back into the immense Basing House when the civil war made him seek a more secure and defensible residence.

Using Boconnoc House as a setting for part of the plot would have been impossible if it hadn’t been for the kindness of the present owner and a recently written book on the history of the house. Writing a novel set in 1644 entailed reconstructing a house which faced west rather than east and was s-shaped with towers instead of square with no towers. But it is still surrounded by the deer park which was clearly visible on a contemporary map.

The mass of the house, a tower at each end, loomed as a dark and silent presence in the night…Gabriel and the remaining men crept in single file up the southern slope from the deer park (The Tawny Sash)

Sometimes I strike gold. The staff at Loseley House showed me a painting of the house with the west wing intact. The details of the layout are quite clear so that I was able to write things like

First removing their shoes so they would not make a clatter on the wooden floors, the brothers crept through the door from the west wing into the stables. They were crowded with tenants’ horses and wagons. (The Tawny Sash)

At Cardiff Castle a helpful guide was a bit surprised when I showed very little interest in the beautiful rebuilding and decoration from the 19th century but insisted in climbing to the top of the spartan but intact Norman keep and taking photos of it from all directions.

Terrain can be just as frustrating. Google maps is wonderful (especially satellite view) and where possible I tramp or drive around a location. But even visiting a location doesn’t always help. Trees for example are a perennial problem. The view from Edgehill in 2016

View of battlefield from Edgehill (author photo)

Apparently in 1642 there was a good clear view from the top. Sometimes a river has silted up (Fowey in Cornwall) or a canal has been driven through an area (Basingstoke Canal at Basing House in 1794). After all the mucking around in the Basingstoke area over the last 200+ years, the River Loddon is little more than a stream. But in 1644, wider, deeper and dammed to stop the enemy crossing, it would have been different. How different? After all the research, in the end I must fall back on my imagination.

This was no great stretch of water like the Severn. In summer it ran clear, and children picked the wild watercress, but not since damming the river had muddied its crystal waters, not since the war began. (The Tawny Sash)

Book review -Essex Tudor Rebel by Tony Riches

Genre – Historical. This is the second book in Tony Riche’s Elizabethan series.

The story is set in England during the later years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1. It follows the life of Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, from his father’s death in Ireland in 1576, leaving him “the poorest earl in England” to his own death in 1601.

It is peopled with a wide range of historical characters including Robert’s cold, distant and ambitious mother, his sisters Penelope and Dorothy and his younger brother Wat. Queen Elizabeth herself, an ever-present background threat, is onstage at times, along with Drake, Raleigh and the queen’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who becomes the young Robert’s stepfather and friend.

Each chapter is from a different time period, chronicling every twist and turn of Robert’s life, year by year. It describes in great detail his childhood separation from his family, his increasingly difficult relations with the powerful Cecils, his warm relationships with his sisters and supporters such as valet Anthony Bagot and lifelong friend Gelly Meyrick.

As the growing boy becomes a young man, he transforms from impoverished ward of the Cecils to an ambitious young courtier who quickly supplants his stepfather in the dangerous position of the queen’s favourite.

From the first chapter, I was impressed by the everyday details of 16th century life from lace coifs and beeswax candles to manchet bread and the steps of the galliard.

“After three quick hops with alternate feet, on the word cadence, Robert jumped, landing with one leg ahead of the other, in a move called the posture.”

Every intrigue Robert participates in throughout his life is described, from the ongoing military campaigns and plotting by and against the Spanish, to the many court intrigues and rivalries of the Elizabethan court.  The end result is a wealth of convincing detail which left me with a much greater knowledge of this famous nobleman, courtier and military general.

Despite being surrounded for most of his life by those who seek to guide him, Robert remains prey to others who, jealous of his position at court, seek to profit from him or to oust him. Somewhat surprisingly for the modern reader, having been born the poorest earl in England leads Robert, in the author’s portrayal of him, into a lifelong and fruitless quest to restore his fortunes. He is hampered by his inherited love of gambling, by his fondness for beautiful women, and by the cynical use the queen makes of her leading courtiers. In his anxiety to please her, Robert is led further and further into debt as he repeatedly raises troops at his own expense to fight military campaigns.

I could not fault the historical detail.  The author resists the temptation of describing only the romantic side of the era. London’s Strand is already dominated by great houses, but St Paul’s cathedral has only a broken spire and the sound of bear-baiting drifts across the Thames. Yet Robert Devereux himself remained elusive. Despite the many dramatic events described, it was only in the closing scenes that I felt the emotion behind this doomed and tragic figure.

Like many established historical novelists, Tony Riches sticks closely to the facts and includes as much as possible about his subject. It might be interesting if he adopted a slightly different approach, focussing on a few of the major episodes. This would give him the opportunity of bringing each event to life, even if it means taking chances, rather than risking it being overshadowed by a swift transition to the next. This is the first novel I have read by this successful author, but it will probably not be the last.

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