‘I had looked out upon the wide kingdoms of the Earth as if I were caught up in ecstasy, flying far and wide through words …. Now, however, I will return exhausted to my black-clad life,’ declared the monk historian, Orderic Vitalis, who lived and worked in a Norman monastery in the 12th century.
The Drowned Court is my new novel, published by Impress Books in October, and the second in my Conquest trilogy, focussed on the Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys, and the Welsh struggle against the Normans in the early 12th century. Nest had a very eventful life. As a mistress of the Norman king, Henry I, and the sister of Prince Gruffudd ap Rhys, who attempted to take his lost kingdom back from the invaders, she was unavoidably enmeshed in the conflict, and became a potent symbol for both sides.
Parallel to Nest’s story, which is based on fact, the novel recounts the activities of a Flemish nun named Benedicta (who is fictitious). Benedicta was given to the church as a child, grew up in a Norman convent and is a friend to Orderic Vitalis. King Henry, who is also Duke of Normandy, and his sister, Countess Adela of Blois, have an extensive network of spies operating in Normandy, and Benedicta is drafted into their ranks. They send her to Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou, where she finds one of the largest female monastic communities in Europe. Fontevraud is ruled by women, and is a hotbed of intrigue relating to the enemies of King Henry. The abbey’s founder, Robert d’Arbrissel, has been seen by some historians as an early feminist. He was rumoured to practice ‘syneisaktism’: sleeping with the nuns as a form of mortification of the flesh. Three of the count of Anjou’s rejected wives are at the convent, including the notorious former Queen of France, Bertrade de Montfort. Count Fulk IV of Anjou was ‘a man with many reprehensible, even scandalous, habits’, according to Orderic Vitalis. The wives of the Duke of Brittany and the Duke of Aquitaine, also find their ways to Fontevraud, disappointed by the behaviour of their errant husbands. Sister Benedicta’s scribing skills come in handy as a cover for her spying for King Henry amongst these illustrious and repudiated women.
I will be giving talks on my historical fiction in November: