Nest ferch Rhys, the 12th century Welsh princess, is the heroine of my fiction trilogy, Conquest. Nest was wife or mistress to a Norman king, a Welsh prince, and the Norman constables of Pembroke and Cardigan castles. Interpretations of the few facts known about Nest ferch Rhys vary greatly. In my novels I am attempting to imagine and tell her complex story from her perspective. I will be talking with bookshop visitors and signing copies of my books on Friday 28 July 11am at Victoria Bookshop, Haverfordwest.
And on Sunday 30 July at 1pm, I am giving a guided walk around Carew Castle, which was one of Nest’s main residences, built by her first husband, Gerald FitzWalter, the Norman steward of Pembroke Castle. I will be talking about the historical facts behind my fiction. Taffire Theatre Company are also presenting an outdoor performance on Nest’s life on the same day at 11am and 3pm.
‘The only plagues of London are the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires’ wrote William Fitz Stephen in his account of the city in the 12th century.
On a recent trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts I came across a little book called Norman London in a second-hand bookshop. The book contained Fitz Stephen’s account of London written sometime before 1183, together with an essay by Frank Stenton and map research on 12th century London by Marjorie B. Honeybourne. The book was a silvermine for my research as a historical novelist and it is ironic that I travelled to a second-hand bookshop in Massachusetts (the wonderful Raven Books) to find it.
Last year my novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, was published by Impress Books. It is the first in the trilogy charting the life of Nest ferch Rhys who was a potent symbol in the struggles between the Normans and the Welsh. The second book in the trilogy, Conquest: The Drowned Court, will be published this autumn. Nest was one of the many mistresses of the Norman king Henry I and parts of the novels are set in London.
The complicated business of the great 12th century city was conducted by the aldermen of London in the Husting which met in the Guildhall every Monday. Husting is a Scandinavian word and it is likely that this city institution had its origin during the Scandinavian occupation of London in the time of King Alfred. The Husting was the court of civil business hearing pleas on debts, land disputes, land gifts, regulating foreign merchants, controlling weights and measures.
Stepping into Medieval Worlds is an illustrated talk on Norman London that I will be presenting at The Guildhall Library on 8 June. It will address the literary sources for my fiction, including Fitz Stephen’s account. It is exciting to be speaking on this topic at the site of the 12th century Husting in the Guildhall which is on a street, Aldermanbury, named after those aldermen in Norman London. I will talk about the range of medieval literary sources I employ to construct the fictional worlds of my novels including Orderic Vitalis’ chronicle of the ‘extremely unrestrained’ Normans, viking poems, recipe books, maps, and medical manuals from the Middle Ages, the songs of the female troubadours, and the lascivious writings of medieval archbishops and dukes.
Is historical fiction bodice-ripping escapism, taking liberties with historical facts, or a genre putting flesh on the skeleton of history, and engaging with contemporary society? In this event Tracey Warr will discuss a wide range of historical fiction writers from Mary Renault to Bernard Cornwell, from Ellis Peters to Sarah Dunant. She will be presenting short readings from her latest novel set in the 12th century and consider the research and inspirations for her own writing.
Followed by aperitifs at 12 noon
Tracey Warr is the author of three novels, published by Impress Books. Her stories are set in early medieval Europe. She also writes for Historical Novels Review magazine.
I told Lisa that ‘Conquest was sparked by my travels back and forth by train across the spectacular triple river estuary at Carmarthen Bay, with its string of Norman castles including Llansteffan, Laugharne and Kidwelly.’ Her review: ‘The detail about daily life at court, in Norman castles or in convents is always interspersed with great character development, engaging dialogue and page-turning action.’
2017 Book Events: I am talking about the history behind the novel at Carew Castle, Wales, on Sunday 30 July as part of a day’s events celebrating Nest ferch Rhys, the heroine of my story. Other events in Wales that I am participating in include: 28 July Victoria Bookshop, Haverfordwest; 23 September Narberth Book Fair; 30 September Tenby Library as part of Tenby Arts Festival; 14 October Pembroke Dock Library for National Libraries Week.
Dreaming Place is a new ebook by Anna Keleher with illustrations by Anna Keleher and Claire Cote. The two artists made two journeys wild-camping in the Marble Arch Caves Geopark which straddles the Ireland/Northern Ireland border. They talked with lots of local people about the relationship between the land and their dreams. They recorded local musicians, storytellers, potholers, artists. They wanted to find out about both old and new approaches to off-grid living.
They made a series of radio programmes, a mobile listening and recording studio and now this book.
The book includes 25 line drawings by the artists and is a lively, humorous and vivid read.
It is available from Amazon for £2.75 or free on Kindle Unlimited. I highly recommend it for Christmas presents, accompanying a journey to Ireland, or cosy armchair travelling.
It’s interesting to think about how contemporary details find their way into historical fiction. I’m not talking about errors and anachronisms, but how writers use what they see and hear around them and turn it into something else in their fiction. The locusts kept in a classroom by the creepy tutor in my new novel, for instance, are based on my own schooldays in north London when we had a huge vitrine of chirping locusts down one side of the classroom.
A lot of detail in my early medieval novels comes from historical research but equally a lot is contemporary experience that I’ve transfigured and transported back in time. I saw a couple parting from each other at a bus stop in Oxford and transformed that into an 11th century French countess separating from her Catalan lover at Narbonne Harbour. I had lunch with my Dutch neighbour and was transfixed by the beauty, verve and humour of one of her gay friends. He became the model for the Fleming lover of a 12th century Welsh princess. The appearance of the 10th century Count Audebert de La Marche in my second novel, The Viking Hostage, is based on a dear friend who died a few years ago. A scene where a 12th century lady is surprised by King Henry I with a magical birthday punt on the Thames at midnight, is based on my own midnight birthday punt with friends many years ago in Oxford.
Two of my novels are set in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where I breathed the atmosphere of castle ruins, studied the lay of the land, their relationships to rivers, imagined how to break in or break out. I gazed at Carmarthen Bay seascapes from train windows and walked the Wales Coastal Path. I lurked in medieval ruins, accompanied by my long-suffering best friend, who had to frequently suppress the urge to say, ‘can we go home now?’.
I walked into the nave of the medieval church of Eglise Saint-Jean at Najac in France, and stepped on the coloured light patterns projected by stained glass windows. I imagined how it might feel for one of my heroines, to be stepping in silk slippers on these pools of coloured blue, red and yellow light, walking towards the altar to marry a man she had only met once before in a childhood betrothal. You never know how the present will turn out either, when you start making things up in fiction.
Tracey Warr’s new novel Conquest: Daughter of the Last King is published by Impress Books today.
*My blogpost title is a quote from Maria Loh’s marvellous book on Renaissance Artists (Still Lives, 2015).
My new novel Conquest: Daughter of the Last King is published by Impress Books next week and is the first in a trilogy about Nest ferch Rhys – the daughter of the last independent Welsh king at the end of the 11th century. Nest is a controversial historical figure. She makes significant appearances in medieval accounts as a wife two or three times over and mistress to both the Norman King Henry I and the Welsh Prince Owain ap Cadwgan who kidnapped her from one of her Norman husbands. I was partly motivated to write the trilogy by irritation at some recent historians’ too easy attribution of her eventful marital and extra-marital career to her own lasciviousness or her extreme beauty – ‘the Welsh Helen of Troy’. I wanted to try to write into her story, discovering other possible interpretations of what happened to her.
In advance of the book’s release on 1 October you may be interested in a couple of my recent interviews on writing medieval fiction: