Visiting the Middle Ages

It can have escaped few people looking at my blog that I love reading historical novels and history books in general. In that genre I include everything right up to the First World War, though not really beyond that. Which is not to say I don’t read novels set at a later date, but that I don’t really count them as historical fiction because the life described in them is not so very different from the one I really live.

Though I love visiting the Middle Ages, I think I would have been a very poor resident. When immersed, I am so in there that if the phone rings my heart nearly leaps out of my chest with fright.

I have favourite authors, a quick trawl through back posts will show that, but I don’t think I have said enough about two women writing today. Not Hilary Mantel, though for me she is peerless, but Elizabeth Chadwick and Sharon Kay Penman. Both of them have written graphically and brilliantly about a period in English history which I find absolutely gripping.

A period which is chronicled by contemporary and extant documents which both of them take the trouble to look at, read and translate for us into a marvellous sequence of novels. Sharon Penman has now comprehensively covered the Angevin Dynasty, which gave us and lost large tracts of France; encompassed the Crusades; and put the Plantagenets firmly on the throne of England from 1154 until 1485. Her last book A King’s Ransom, the follow on novel from Lionheart, is due out shortly and will cover the period from Richard I leaving Outremer for England, and all that followed. She has declared that this is her last essay into the Angevin family saga.

The titles in the series are: When Christ and His Saints Slept, Time and Chance and The Devil’s Brood and The Sunne in Splendour (one of the best novels about Richard III that I have ever read).

She has also written about the Gwynedd Brothers, Princes of Wales but I would recommend Edith Pargeter (aka Ellis Peters) who wrote a magnificent quartet covering this period: Sunrise in the West, The Dragon at Noonday, The Hounds of Sunset and Afterglow and Nightfall.
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Elizabeth Chadwick covers the same period but from the point of view of some of the most famous families in England at the time, the Marshals and the Bigods. To start with the family of William Marshal who became in his lifetime the most powerful man in Britain. There are three titles, though actually Elizabeth Chadwick didn’t write them in this order: A Place Beyond Courage, The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion. The first title, which Elizabeth Chadwick wrote last covers the life and times of John FitzGilbert Marshal an ambitious man living in extreme times and father to William. Both John and his father, Geoffrey had been Marshal to the King, first to Henry I, then to Stephen and then switching loyalty to Mathilda and finally to Henry II and William followed the tradition.

Henry I who died in 1135 from a “surfeit of lampreys” had no living son and neither had he declared his successor, to the end he wavered between Mathilda (aka Maude) who had the strongest claim to the throne, but had the misfortune to be a woman (see Helen Castor‘s excellent TV series The She-Wolves of England) in a man’s world and Stephen, Count of Blois, who had a weaker claim but was the right sex. The battles that these two fought for the throne were bitter, unforgiving and sere. Even the contemporary chronicles describe this as a time “when Christ and his saints slept”.

The endless acts of attrition, with barons switching from one side to another, fighting over castles, lands, manors and power affected England like no other previous period. The fighting forces plundered farms, looted towns and cities and used a scorched earth policy so that the enemy troops had nothing to forage for when they came on behind. However, this caused severe famine amongst the peasantry, for not only were crops not harvested and very often burned, but the fields lay un-sown so there were no crops for the following year. Nothing was sacrosanct. The famous incident at Wherwell, when John FitzGilbert turned the nuns out of their walled convent and fought off Stephen’s troop; who in turn burned the place to the ground while everyone, horses and troops were still there, is a case in point. John himself and one other, survived by climbing into the bell tower, but the melting lead fell on his face causing hideous scarring and blinding him in one eye.

The most famous event in this varied and colourful life was the sacrifice of his son William, whom Stephen demanded as a hostage. The child was about six years old and John gambled on the fact that Stephen was soft-hearted, hoping that if he broke his bond, which he fully intended to do, Stephen would not kill William. Indeed, Stephen did not and William Marshal, the subject of the next two novels by Elizabeth Chadwick, eventually became Regent for Henry III until his majority.

There are countless historical novelists, many of them women. It is a genre of writing that requires imagination and research and along with few others Sharon Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick capture the mind so that while you are reading it is total immersion. As I said before, not a time I want to live in, but one I love to visit.

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