Thank you to Pembroke Dock Library for such an enjoyable event last week when I presented my new novel, The Drowned Court, and talked with the audience about medieval life and the process of writing historical fiction. And thanks too, to Bob, my ‘muse’, for driving me around Pembrokeshire again, so that we were able to tread in the 12th century footsteps of Nest ferch Rhys and her husband Gerald FitzWalter.
We visited the splendid Bishop’s Palace at St Davids where Nest’s son was bishop, and the vast Bishop’s Palace at Lamphey (after a very fine lunch at Lamphey Hall).
The massive corn barn at Lamphey Palace stored a huge amount of grain which the Norman overlords took in taxes from the Welsh tenant farmers. The palace’s dovecote, deer park and four ponds supplied the bishop with meat and fish, and three orchards provided apples, and cabbages and leeks for his potage.
The Bishop’s Palace at Lamphey was where Nest’s wily husband Gerald FitzWalter left a faked letter tricking the Welsh attackers of Pembroke Castle into believing that he had plenty of troops and supplies to defend the castle when, in fact, most of his men had deserted and he had no food at all. The ruse worked and he was the only Norman lord who managed to hang on to his toehold in south west Wales during that round of attacks by the Welsh.
The date of my illustrated talk at Downham Market Library has been changed to Monday 11 December, 2-3pm. Booking essential on 01366 383073. (Tickets £3, includes refreshments.)
Since characters in Dublin who appear in my novel trilogy, Conquest, play the Viking boardgame, hnefatafl, I was excited to see a 9th century set of glass pieces from the game in a fabulous exhibition of medieval glass at the Cluny Museum in Paris this week.
I am giving illustrated talks on the Conquest novels
My new historical novel, The Drowned Court, is published tomorrow by Impress Books. It covers the years 1107-1121 and focusses on the tumultuous lives of the Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys, and the Norman king, Henry I.
I am giving a number of library talks in November in Norfolk and Pembrokeshire to celebrate the new book:
Mon 13 Nov 11am Pembroke Dock Library. Free event.
Mon 27 Nov 2pm Downham Market Library, Priory Road, Downham Market, PE38 9JS. Illustrated talk, £3 including refreshments. Booking essential on 01366 383073.
My new historical novel, The Drowned Court, is published next week and a guest post by me on writing the novel is up today on Tony Riches’ blog, The Writing Desk.
‘I approach writing all my novels by asking questions that I have, after researching the historical evidence.’ The questions that drove my writing in this new novel include:
Was the Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys, lascivious, or a victim, or is there another way to look at her colourful life?
What kind of man was King Henry I and what motivated his relationships with the numerous women in his life: his wives, mistresses, sisters, and daughters?
Why was Amaury de Montfort such a stubborn opponent to King Henry in Normandy?
What would it have been like to be a spy in the pay of the Countess of Blois (King Henry’s sister) at the great abbey of Fontevraud, which was ruled by women, and housed many illustrious, repudiated wives, including Amaury’s notorious sister, Bertrade de Montfort, the former Queen of France?
Publication Day for my new historical novel, The Drowned Court, is approaching. The novel continues the story of Nest ferch Rhys and King Henry I in 12th century Wales, England and Normandy.
A review of the first book in the trilogy, Daughter of the Last King:
‘As the drawbridge came down, I ventured in. In fact I remember nothing of what happened in my every day life until I came out at the end.
The level of detail and care and attention which has gone into this novel is spellbinding but it never gets in the way of the plot at all. It strengthens and improves it explaining how life must have been, how daily tasks were carried out to how the ward of a king must behave. The story of Nest is complex and multilayered but reads like a charm. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this book will be heavy going given the subject matter, it’s not – it’s a brilliantly woven tapestry of historical intrigue where I felt as if I’d been part of the novel, and part of Nest’s life and I missed her for a while afterwards.’
King Henry I was the third Norman king of England, after his father, William the Conqueror, and his older brother, William II. Henry reigned in England and most of Wales for 35 years, keeping a peace there, but he struggled with frequent outbreaks of rebellion in Normandy, where he was Duke from 1106.
It is interesting to speculate about King Henry I’s attitude to women. Because of his cross-Channel kingdom, he was frequently absent from England and, on several occasions, he entrusted the Regency of England to his capable wife, Queen Matilda. He had a close personal and political relationship with his extremely able sister, Countess Adela of Blois, who kept him well-informed about events in Normandy and France through an extensive network of spies.
King Henry had at least 15 mistresses and 22 illegitimate children. Spending time with women, hunting, and collecting relics appear to have been his main leisure activities when not coping with the enormous task of managing his kingdom. He took care of his mistresses and acknowledged, educated, and advanced the children he had with them, including his illegitimate daughters. A number of his mistresses were nobly born and were with him for several years, suggesting that these relationships were emotional and intellectual engagements, as well as sexual encounters. He had three children with Ansfride and between four and six children with Sybil Corbet.
He made a serious attempt to install the first female sole ruler of England, when he named his daughter, Empress Matilda (or Maud), as his successor, after the death of his only legitimate son. He forced the English and Norman barons to swear oaths of fealty to Maud as heir to the throne. But when King Henry died suddenly in 1135, Maud was pregnant in Normandy and her cousin, Stephen, sped to Westminster and usurped her throne, sparking off 13 years of civil war in England.
Two of the Kings’s sons (his legitimate heir, William Adelin, and his illegitimate son Richard, by Ansfride) and one of his illegitimate daughters (Mathilde, Countess of Perche) drowned in The White Ship disaster in the English Channel in 1120, along with many other young members of his court, which must have been a devastating event for him to deal with.
There is one blip in his record of relationships with the female members of his extensive family. His illegitimate daughter, Juliana, by Ansfride, attempted to kill him with a crossbow after he had allowed her two small daughters, his granddaughters, to be taken as hostages and then maimed. They were blinded and had their noses slit. The incident was the fault of Juliana’s husband, Eustace of Breteuil, who was in rebellion against Henry and had first maimed the boy hostage in his care. However, as king, Henry could have chosen to protect his granddaughters. Instead, he chose to act according to the letter of the law, however brutal in this case. He was, certainly, a fascinating and complex character and a highly successful king.
The spyloft in St Alban’s Cathedral inspired a scene in my new novel, The Drowned Court. In the scene, King Henry first lays eyes on his last known mistress, Isabel de Beaumont. A spyloft was a structure with a concealed passage and spyholes, giving the monks the ability to discreetly keep an eye on visiting pilgrims and the priceless relics they had come to venerate. In the novel, King Henry, instead, uses the spyloft to gain an eyeful of the young Isabel.
The Drowned Courtis published by Impress Books in October, and is the second in my Conquest trilogy, focussed on the eventful life of the Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys, who was one of King Henry’s mistresses.
I will be giving talks on my historical fiction in November:
‘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: