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)

How the Great Plague might change your writing

For a writer, no experience is worthless, however bad. No more immune from tragedy than the rest of us, writers can at least share that experience with readers, hoping that by doing so they may dull their pain, or that of others. Shakespeare lost his only son and in her enthralling novel Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell suggests it inspired him to write his greatest play, Hamlet.

Not long before Covid hit, I was reading another historical novel set during London’s Great Plague outbreak in 1665. Growing up in the UK I had learnt in primary school of the bare facts, the date, the Great Fire which followed in 1666, but it had no particular emotional significance for me. And reading that novel in the heady days of 2019, the worst outbreak of bubonic plague since 1348 was no more than an interesting backdrop to a murder mystery. I shuddered at gruesome and heart rending facts, thrown in as historical colour- the mass burials, the nailing up of doors of infected houses, condemning the healthy to die with the sick. But it had happened so long ago in another world. Nothing lingers in British folk lore other than (perhaps) a grim glimmer of memory filtering down the centuries through the prism of the nursery rhyme “Ring a ring of roses”.

And now, in the stark light of this 2021 day? I picked up my first novel The Welsh Linnet recently and reread the sections on “camp fever” (probably typhus) in 1643 Oxford.

“Stanley’s small and gloomy room stank of sickness… I would not have recognised Matthew … His eyes were immense in his face with the fever. There were tell- tale purple spots on his chest and arms. He felt very hot to the touch... As it began to grow dark, … the sick man spoke his first coherent words. “Nicholas, don’t die. Hold on, I’m here.” 

The Welsh Linnet by AJ Lyndon

The deadly sickness brought by armies to Oxford during the civil war was a convenient tool I used for development of the characters’ personal relationships, but if I were writing the book now, I believe those nursing the sick would be more fearful; and would spend time brooding on the random nature of the pestilence and praying for its end.

Perhaps it is natural that the reality of outbreaks of dangerous contagion, common throughout the world until discovery of vaccines, should have been forgotten by most people, even those born before the last polio epidemic in the 1950s.

Somehow I doubt that when this war against the 21st century plague is over, those of us who lived through it and survived will spend time reminiscing about the “good old days” of Covid. But for those of us who write fiction, whether we choose to omit any reference to these events from our fictional worlds or include them as a backdrop to thriller or romance, I do not think our stories will mirror those we might have penned in that parallel universe where Covid-19 did not exist.

It’s not only memories of diseases which disappear from collective memory. I have often wondered why the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, the usual subject of this blog, have been forgotten more completely than Plague or Fire, almost as if airbrushed from history. They killed a greater percentage of the British population than the First World War.

Was it fear that dredging up any talk of the recent conflict might reignite the smouldering embers of discontent and revolution? Might bring back the days of daily fears – that today would be the day that brought death or starvation to their town or village in the shape of marching troops from either side. Or was it relief that with the Restoration of Charles II it was all over and best forgotten? An “enemy” had been defeated, but it was an enemy within and a brief flirtation with republicanism – the short-lived English Revolution which preceded those in America and France by a hundred years, had failed.

A literary critic, writing during the Franco era, dismissed George Orwell’s passionate account of the Spanish Civil War Homage to Catalonia with the comment that “the Spanish are a fine people” and it did not do to dwell on the past. That patronising comment made me cringe. Yet I think I am a little more able to understand than I was 18 months ago, why those in England, Wales and Scotland who lived through the horrors of brother killing brother and friend friend, wanted only to resume whatever remained for them of “normal” life. Why they kept their memories to themselves and did not pass them down the generations.

Interview with historical novelist Penny Ingham

If I had made it to the UK in 2020 as planned, I might have been able to sit in the same room with Penny as we chatted. But this year it was of course done remotely.

Penny has written three historical novels, all set in the early medieval period: The Saxon Wolves, The Saxon Plague, and The King’s Daughter (a story of Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians).She is a keen amateur archaeologist and has dug at many different sites including Silchester Roman town, Fishbourne Roman Palace and Basing House in Hampshire (which endured an English Civil War siege, as featured in The Welsh Linnet). She has two grown up children and lives with her husband in rural Hampshire.

When and why did you start writing? How did your family feel about it?
My father was a journalist and novelist, and even from a young age I knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps. My first ‘novel’ (written when I was about 8 years old) was just five pages long and featured a wizard named Ambrosius. My husband and children have always been very supportive of my writing. I worked on my first novel in a small walk-in wardrobe. It was the only spare space in the house! My kids would say, ‘mum’s in the cupboard again.’

What got you interested in the Anglo Saxon period? Is it a long standing interest?
I’ve been fascinated by history and archaeology since I was a child. My interest began with the Roman occupation of Britain – The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe is still a favourite novel of mine. I studied Classics at university, which in turn led to a curiosity about the post Roman period. What happened in Britain after the Empire fell? Just how ‘dark’ were these so called Dark Ages?

What research techniques do you use? Do you ever get lost down the Google rabbit hole?
Yes, I do! But initially, I buy a lot of books, and make notes – although the original source material for The Saxon Wolves and the Saxon Plague was extremely thin on the ground. Gildas, a monk writing in the sixth century AD, tells us the Anglo Saxons invaded Britain with fire and slaughter, but modern historians are divided on this. some insisting it was a relatively peaceful migration.
I was delighted to learn that recent archaeological discoveries are beginning to shed light on these so called Dark Ages. Both The Saxon Wolves and The Saxon Plague feature Tintagel in Cornwall, birth place of the legendary King Arthur. Excavations have shown there was a thriving high status settlement on the cliff top in the fifth century AD. I love that archaeology is finally proving there is a grain of truth in these ancient legends.
There was more original source material available for The King’s Daughter, which is set in the late ninth century. However, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle can’t be taken at face value either. It was compiled at King Alfred’s instigation, so it can also be seen as the PR exercise of an Anglo Saxon king determined to enhance his reputation for future generations!
And finally… volunteering at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire is one of the most enjoyable ways to immersive myself in the Anglo Saxon world. I love donning my costume and spending a day in their authentically constructed Saxon Hall. I grind wheat on the quern stones with the younger visitors, make bread cakes and bake them on the hearth. Like King Alfred, we do occasionally burn them!

I’ve been lucky enough to visit all the sites in my novels and I’ve ‘dug’ at quite a few of them. King Alfred’s capital at Winchester has largely disappeared beneath the modern city – which was a chance for me to use my imagination. But the Roman baths complex at Bath has survived largely intact. So too have the towering walls and towers of the Roman ‘Saxon Shore Fort’ at Portchester on the south coast. But my favourite site has to be Tintagel with it’s spectacular cliff top setting.

What are you working on at the moment? When will it be published and how has Covid affected your writing techniques?
My current work in progress, which will be published in late 2021, is quite a departure from my previous novels. It’s set in Elizabethan London and features William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Elizabethans endured recurring outbreaks of the plague and the theatres regularly closed whenever the death toll rose. Living through the current Covid pandemic has certainly given me an unexpected insight into their terrifying plight.

Who are your favourite authors? What 3 books would you take to a desert island with you and why?
If I had to choose three historical novelists, they would be Philippa Gregory, Bernard Cornwell and Mandy Haggith.

Three books to take to a desert island:
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, because I can get lost in it for hours and it never fails to inspire me.
The Complete Works of Shakespeare, because for me, he is the greatest wordsmith of all time. It’s all there – history, tragedy, comedy, romance!
And finally, because it makes me feel warm inside : Still Me by JoJo Moyes (the third book in her Me Before You trilogy).

Bloody Dock

(extract from short story published by Sundial historical literary journal)

Ned’s sudden, violent death had left no clues as to his wishes for the disposal of his body, nor the settling of his affairs. “Roses,” was his final word as blood gurgled from his mouth.

Robert had paid the sexton to dig a grave in a quiet corner of the Oxford churchyard, bought a shroud and wrapped its woollen folds about the bloated, lifeless flesh. The parson had read in English from the Book of Common Prayer while Robert, the only mourner, bowed his head, praying silently in other, different, words. He took note of the spot so that Ned’s family might visit the anonymous mound. It was May, and Robert heaped a cloud of bluebells from a nearby wood upon the piled earth.

The City of Oxford surrendered to Parliament’s red-coated New Model Army in June. The civil war was over, and Robert was released to resume his bleak and cheerless existence. Now he was writing a letter to Ned’s family. It was not easy informing a father of his son’s death. He stared at the blank sheet of paper as if willing the words to write themselves while the ink dried on the nib and the tallow candle smoked its way down the untrimmed wick. There was a creak from the door and his mother entered silently, her skirts brushing the worn rush matting.

“Robert, why did you not call for a fire? How many hours have you sat like this, my son, growing chilled?”

He lifted his head, the flickering flame throwing the long scar on his cheek into grotesque relief.

“A cold hearth is no hardship to an old soldier like me. You should go to bed, Mother. I too. The candle is almost burned down, and they are too precious to waste now that we must pay Parliament to live on our own estates.”

“Robert, will you not say the rosary with me first?” He kissed her hand and picked up the candlestick.

“Tomorrow, Mother.” He must beg the forgiveness of man before he sought that of God. He must finish the letter.

* * *

https://sites.google.com/view/sundial-magazine/short-stories_1/bloody-dock?authuser=0

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