A Norman feminist?

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.

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Empress Matilda

 

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.

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The spy loft, St Alban’s Cathedral

The Drowned Court is 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:

Monday 13 November 11am at Pembroke Dock Library, close to Pembroke Castle where Nest lived

Monday 27 November 2pm at Downham Market Library.

Flying Far and Wide Through Words

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Fontevraud Abbey, Anjou. A hotbed of 12th century intrigue.

‘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:

Wednesday 8 November 1pm at Gaywood Library in Kings Lynn
Monday 13 November 11am at Pembroke Dock Library, close to Pembroke Castle where Nest lived
Monday 27 November 2pm at Downham Market Library.

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Bertrade de Montfort shown with King Philip I of France (known as ‘the Amorous’) in the centre, and with her previous husband, Fulk IV Count of Anjou, on the right. On the left, King Philip’s former wife, Bertha of Hollande, is shown in prison. From the Chroniques de Saint-Denis in the British Library.

Hide a Book

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Today is Hide a Book Day organised by the Book Fairies. Books will be left all over the world for readers to find. This year, the books are also hiding to celebrate the 10th birthday of Goodreads, and that celebration goes on all month. My books are hiding in London, Narberth, Bristol and Toulouse over the coming days.

 

Writing in exile

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In my interview published today on The Displaced Nation, author Harriet Springbett talks about being an English writer living in France:

‘When I go back to England and see bookshops stuffed with books, or blogs featuring new books every day, I feel intimidated. Writing stories suddenly seems rather pointless and I wonder what I can possibly add to the overloaded bookshelves. Then I come home to France and it feels rare and right once more. France is my cocoon. If I lived in England, I’m not sure I’d be a writer.’

Harriet’s Tree Magic is published by Impress Books. She is currently writing a story set in the Pyrenees.

The photo shows the tiny chapel at Alendo in the Pyrenees.

 

Gendering Modernism

Gendering ModernismMy review of Maria Bucur’s book, Gendering Modernism, has just been published in Times Higher Education.

In this book, we learn that the Royal Academy was established in 1768 by a group of artists, including two women, but no other female artists were admitted until 1936 and that 88 per cent of the funding for the 1913 Armory Show in New York came from female art patrons.

The book grapples with the paradox that Modernism challenged gender polarisation and misogyny, but also reinforced and amplified them.

 

Medieval Wales

2 Welsh fortAbove is an artist’s impression of the Welsh fort at Carew that preceded the Norman stone castle occupying the site today. The sketch is based on findings from archaeology digs in the 1990s. The stone cross at the entrance to the site, inscribed with the name of the 11th century king Maredudd ap Edwin, is testament that Carew was an important centre for the royal family of the Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth. My novel series, Conquest, is concerned with the surviving members of that royal family, after the Normans invaded and killed the last king, Rhys ap Tewdwr, in 1093, along with two of his sons. Initially, three of the king’s five sons survived but one of those soon died in a Norman prison. The youngest son was born in captivity in Carmarthen castle and was maimed to prevent any claim from him. Another son, Gruffudd ap Rhys, was hidden by his kin in Dublin and returned when he reached manhood to challenge the Normans for his lost kingdom. My novels centre on the king’s daughter, Nest ferch Rhys, whose colourful life led her to be dubbed Helen of Wales.

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I will be at Narberth Book Fair in the Queen’s Hall, Narberth in Pembrokeshire

on Saturday 23 September 10am-4pm,

along with 34 other authors and tons of books.

There will be talks, readings, workshops, children’s corner.

Entry and all events are free.

My new book, The Drowned Court, is set in the 12th century, and will be published by Impress Books on 30 October.

Into the Map

Limousin Map

For the last few days I have been putting together maps to help readers envisage the action of my latest novel set in the 12th century, The Drowned Court. The characters travel from Dublin, to Wales, to England, and into northern France. Poring over old maps and, as far as possible, walking the terrain myself are essential parts of my writing process.

‘It’s actually treading the ground which makes a difference, which allows…you to inhabit other lives.’ (Jacqueline Yallop)*

Next week I will be treading the ground of my first novels, Almodis the Peaceweaver and The Viking Hostage, when I talk at the Charroux Literary Festival on landscapes inspiring fiction.

I love maps – I have shoeboxes full of them. The old map (above) showing the medieval French counties of La Marche, Perigord, and the Limousin, which I found in the British Library, was an important inspiration for my first two novels. The archivist at the Musee d’Augustins also gave me a copy of a map of 10th century Toulouse which helped me think about my characters moving around that city.

‘The landscape itself often suggests the stories that might be possible within it.’ (Deborah Lawrenson)*

Maps often inspire me to write new scenes and they are full of suggestive text too, which can be put to use. Maps and walks around the triple river estuary of Carmarthen Bay in Wales were the starting points for my latest Conquest trilogy. I’m fascinated by the uncertainty between land and water, by islands, coastlines, spits, and estuaries. I was interested to try to write as if the landscape/seascape was almost a character in the novels itself – rather like the gloomy, ominous heath in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native or the sinking sands of the saltmarsh in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.

‘The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand; the distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rising, the behaviour of the moon … even when a map is not all the plot … it will be found to be a mine of suggestion.’ Robert Louis Stevenson**

* From my article, ‘The Lure of Another Place & Time’ published in Historical Novels Review.

** From Peter Turchi (2004) Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press.

My talk on landscapes inspiring fiction at the Charroux Literary Festival in France is on Saturday 26 August at 9.30am.

Other authors at the festival include Barbara Erskine, Andrew Lownie, and Alison Morton. I am also contributing to the festival’s panel discussion on historical fiction on Friday 25 August at 9am.