Saturday, December 29

Murder in the Cathedral

            It’s rare to know what was happening on this day 843 years ago. It’s even rarer to know what was happening at a specific time of day. But we do. For on 29 December 1170, as Vespers were being sung in Canterbury Cathedral, a group of knights forced their way in and brutally murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. My novel, The Fifth Knight, is based on this infamous historical event.
My take on Becket's murder- including The Fifth Knight
Image courtesy of Andrew Savill

            In the course of writing my novel, I researched Becket’s life and found an intriguing individual. Born around 1118 to Norman French parents, he rose to archdeacon in the church. He was known for his brilliant mind, described as ‘winning…in his conversation and frank of speech in his discourses.’ He had a slight stutter, particularly when his emotions were aroused. He had a gift for managing delicate negotiations. When King Henry II was seeking a new chancellor, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald, recommended Becket.
Theobald had hoped that Becket would be a strong ally for the church, but Becket took to court life with great flair, keeping apartments that were finer than Henry’s. He demonstrated skill in hunting and loved to wear the finest of clothes. More importantly, he became the closest of friends and allies with the younger (by twelve years) Henry. It is recorded that people spoke of them having ‘one heart and one mind.’
When Theobald died in 1161, Henry appointed Becket to be his new Archbishop of Canterbury. In doing so, he passed over far more experienced clerics and it is believed he appointed Becket to increase his own influence and hold over the church. But Henry, like Theobald before him, was to be disappointed. Becket was nobody’s pawn. Instead, he threw himself into his new role in the church. Within weeks, he had resigned as chancellor. He began to work as hard in his role in the church as he had at court. He wore a hair shirt under his robes (discovered after his death), took cold baths as penance and washed the feet of 30 paupers every day.
It wasn’t long before Becket came into conflict with Henry. The justice system of the time meant there were two courts of law: one for the church, one for the state. Clerics were tried in church courts, which did not have the death penalty, even for murder. And the church, through its independence, could criticise the monarch. Becket resisted royal demands for change, a decision that cost him his life.
In my novel, I follow many of the records of Becket’s death. These scenes were very difficult to write, for by then, I had come to know and admire so much about Becket. His death was particularly savage, with his skull carved in two, shattered from a knight’s sword blow. But if I, over 800 years later found it hard to re-tell, it is even harder to fully grasp the shock and outrage of society at the time. People’s belief in the church was absolute. The idea of the archbishop being murdered was difficult enough, but for it to happen in his own cathedral was unthinkable.
Becket’s murder was viewed as martyrdom, that he died defending his faith. Miracles were attributed to him immediately. The cloths stained with his blood brought cures to local women. The monks brought Becket’s body to the crypt and kept guard over it, fearful that the king would try and have it removed. As people came to see the body, the monks recorded any miracles attributed to Becket. The archbishop’s broken skull was put on view. An astonishing 100,000 people came to pray and visit Canterbury Cathedral in 1171 alone.  The attributed miracles mounted up and in ten years, there were a total of 703 recorded. Becket’s intercession was in healing, casting out demons. He was prayed to by women in childbirth. When Queen Eleanor, the wife of King Henry III was expecting her fourth child, 1,000 candles were lit around Becket’s shrine.
Becket was canonized in 1173 and his popularity as a saint grew. Canterbury became hugely popular for pilgrims. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his famous ‘Canterbury Tales’  about pilgrims, and he calls Becket the ‘holy, blessed martyr’. Myths grew up around Becket. One woman claimed she had taught a bird to pray to the saint. When the bird was hunted by a hawk, it sang out Becket’s name and was released. A story circulated that while Becket was alive, he needed a woman to mend his clothes while on his travels. The woman that did so in a convent mysteriously disappeared after completing her task. The woman was deemed to be Our Lady.
And what of Henry, the king whose supposed utterance of ‘who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ set the murder in motion? Henry had to give in on the matter of church courts. He also performed a number of acts of penance for the man who had been his dear friend. The most extreme was on the streets of Canterbury on 12 July 1174, where he was scourged by eighty monks before spending the night praying at Becket’s tomb. In death, Becket had been victorious.
Saint Thomas Becket was a venerated saint for the next four hundred years. Until the arrival of another King Henry, Henry VIII. This Henry was going to take on the church. When he achieved his aim of total control of the church, Henry VIII denounced Becket as a traitor. Becket’s shrine was destroyed, his bones were burned and the mention of his name was outlawed.
But Henry didn’t manage to erase Becket. People continued in their devotion to him as a saint. Today, Canterbury Cathedral still marks the place of Becket’s martyrdom and thousands continue to visit every year. Think of him today, at day’s close.

The Fifth Knight is a #1 Bestseller in Action & Adventure and Historical on 

Tuesday, December 18

A Christmas Tale: The Ghosts In My House

In my medieval thriller The Fifth Knight, there’s a plot development that relies on a minor character. That character is a Jewish moneylender in the North Yorkshire town of Knaresborough. 

Knaresborough Castle
© E.M. Powell

Knaresborough is where the historical record tells us that the knights fled after murdering the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. I knew that there was a thriving Jewish community in the medieval city  of nearby York, but in the course of my research, I was pleased to find evidence of a (much smaller) community in Knaresborough. The town’s Civic Society have even erected a plaque near the site of the 13th century synagogue.

© E.M. Powell

Giving my minor Jewish character the occupation of moneylender was deliberate (as it was necessary to the plot) and not stereotypical in the context of the time period. There was substantial economic growth in the 12th and 13th centuries. The literate, educated Jewish communities that had previously been heavily reliant on trade began to be excluded from mainstream commerce. Many shifted to money lending as an alternative. Under the law of the Christian church, loaning money for profit was forbidden. But it was not forbidden under Judaic law. Crucially, money was transportable, as these centuries also saw repeated mass expulsions of Jews across Europe.

King David playing the harp, Germany c 1375
In 1290, King Edward I ordered the expulsion of all Jews from England, confiscating (of course) all their wealth into the bargain. It would be another 350 years before Jews were re-admitted and before communities began to re-establish themselves. In my adopted home city of Manchester, settlement began in 1780 and had grown steadily ever since, with the largest Jewish population in the UK outside London. The house we live in was built nearly a hundred years ago, but we are the first non-Jewish family to live in it.

So it was without surprise that I answered a knock at our front door one day to see an unknown middle-aged man and woman standing there. We hadn’t owned our house long at the time, and people called to ask about previous occupants. (Representatives from the synagogues also called frequently, until I clocked that I been air-headed enough to leave the mezuzah on the front door post. I returned it to them with profuse apologies).

The beginning of the account of the five rabbis at Benei Braq.
The five rabbis are in the windows of a building;
their pupils are knocking on the door. Spain, N. E., Catalonia (Barcelona) c. 1340

But my latest visitors asked me some strange questions. ‘How old was our house?’, ‘When was it built?’, ‘Did I know the names of people who’d lived there before?’ I must have looked suitably bewildered, until the woman said, ‘I’m terribly sorry to bother you with all this. But you see, I was adopted, and my mother was a maid in this house.’ They were invited right in and the woman (whom I will call Alison) told me her story.

Her mother, Elizabeth, was a maid living with and working for, the Jewish family who owned our house at the time. Elizabeth was an Irish Catholic (same as me).

But Elizabeth got pregnant. Age forty, to an itinerant Irish labourer, who disappeared with all haste. This was 1947, where there was only one option for Elizabeth, pregnant and unmarried, according to the Catholic system of the time. When her baby was due, she was sent to a local convent to have it. Baby Alison arrived and Elizabeth had her precious daughter for a week. Then she was called to the parlour by one of the nuns, where a strange family waited. Heartbreakingly, Elizabeth had to hand her baby over to them immediately, knowing she’d never see her, hold her, touch her, kiss her -ever again.

 Alison had a very happy life. Her adoptive family were loving and very comfortably off and she wanted for nothing. She married happily, but often wondered about her real mother. When she turned fifty, she decided to do something about it. A long, long search led her to rural Ireland. Elizabeth would have been in her nineties by then, so Alison figured she wouldn’t be alive. But she was. The search had almost dried up, but a chance encounter at a hospital, with someone else sharing Elizabeth’s surname, led Alison to her.

Elizabeth was alive, with eight siblings: uncles and aunts for Alison and a raft of cousins. And not one of them knew of Alison’s existence. Elizabeth had kept her heartbroken silence for over fifty years. She told Alison that having her taken from her arms was the worst moment of her life, and that she thought of her every day, wondering if she was all right. She also told Alison all about the Jewish family in Manchester. How they had been so kind when she confessed to her pregnancy, how they had kept her job open for her. She returned to live with them for many years after, until she returned to Ireland as an elderly woman. This was not a typical reaction in the world of the time. Uneducated Irish maids were two a  penny. An illegitimate pregnancy was usually grounds for instant, unreferenced dismissal. And this was 1947, where the devastating horror of the Holocaust was still a living nightmare for Jewish families and communities everywhere. Yet they showed her absolute compassion and understanding and did the best they could for her.

Some of the Temple implements with the menorah in the centre.
Spain, N. E. (Catalonia), c 1375

Elizabeth died soon after being reunited with her daughter.

What could I do, except show Alison round our house. Many adaptations have been made since the time her mother lived there. The original back door to the kitchen has been bricked up, but this was where Elizabeth would have gone in and out, answering to tradesmen and delivery boys. Some of the original windows were still there. Alison put a hand to one, and said: ‘My mother would have cleaned these when she was carrying me.’ We went upstairs to the small front bedroom, which we guessed would have been Elizabeth’s, now our baby daughter’s. On a shelf was a little statue of Our Lady, given to us by a family friend.

 Shortly after her visit, Alison sent me a lovely thank you note and a copy of a beautiful photograph. Her and Elizabeth, both smiling with an absolute, undiluted joy. As ghosts go, I’m very happy to share with Elizabeth - and her Jewish protectors.

Nativity with Snow
France,  c 1410-1430    

Nollaig Shona Dhaoibh
! (which means Happy Christmas to You All- in Irish).

Unless otherwise indicated, all images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Wednesday, December 12

I've Been The Apprentice

            Apprenticeships have existed since medieval times. In The Fifth Knight, my medieval thriller, I have a group of apprentice boys forming a mob to pursue my hero and heroine through the streets of Knaresborough.
Thanks to reality TV shows, everybody today knows what an apprentice is. Not usually given to chasing people for reward, but more commonly someone who learns from their skilled master, who emulates them, who wants to be like them one day. Apprentices traditionally weren’t paid, or were paid very little, which is still the case for many modern apprenticeships. It’s a testimony to its effectiveness as a system that it has still survived. After all, many other medieval occupations didn’t.
Arming Squire? Well, most 21st century dwellers don’t wear plate armour on a regular basis. Probably just as well. The Arming Squire’s job was ok when putting said armour on. Yes, there could be up to twenty-four separate pieces of a full suit. Yes, they weighed up to 60 pounds. But the squire was also responsible for taking it all off again. And then cleaning it. Now, a medieval knight’s armour fresh from the battlefield will be covered with all manner of dirt: mud, horse manure, the blood of his enemies. A challenge for the squire, indeed. But remember there is also the cleaning of the inside of the armour. Armour that a knight would have been in for many, many hours. The sweat of battle would have been the easy part. The difficult part related to the fact that a suit of plate armour didn’t have any means for the knight answer a call of nature, no matter how loud (and one suspects in the heat of battle, it would be very loud) that call might be. Happily, the squire would have had his cleaning materials at his disposal: a scouring paste made of sand or grit, vinegar and urine.
Leech Collecting (or at least as it was performed in medieval times) has also become an extinct occupation. Leeches were central to medieval medicine due to the practice of blood-letting. Leech gatherers did it the hard way. They would wade into marshes and wait for the leeches living in there to latch onto their bare skin. The more they could collect the better. And of course by their very nature, leech wounds continue to bleed for several hours. There was also a very high risk of infection.
So to return to the far less messy subject of apprenticeships. I too have served an apprenticeship in working to achieve my goal of publication, as I believe all writers have to in learning their craft. None of us starts off fully formed and able to produce a competent novel. For me, my apprenticeship was two-fold: a lot (an awful lot) of practice, and membership of a wonderful organisation called Romance Writers of America. Now, there’s a lot of other great writers organisations out there but for me, RWA was the master. A master that insists on its apprentices getting their craft right, starting with the basics. Every RWA chapter runs classes, hosts contests. A novice writer thinks ‘Great, I’ll enter a contest, get my work in front of an editor or an agent in the final round. Shouldn’t be too hard.’ But oh, those score sheets. Section after section. Grammar. Spelling. Punctuation. Formatting. Character Development. Character Goals, Motivations. Conflict. Plot. Pacing. Relationships. And for specialist sub-genres, like historical romance, there’s accuracy, time and place. And so on and so on.
Yes, I entered a contest. Or several. Guess what? I didn’t final. I didn’t have most of the above to a high enough standard. It would have been easy to have rejected those scores and helpful, constructive comments provided by those anonymous RWA judges. But they were right. My writing wasn’t good enough. Plain and simple. And what those judges were doing, being the journeymen (or more correctly, women) to my apprentice. I, like so many novice writers, was thinking I could carve a replica of Saint Paul’s Cathedral or the Eiffel Tower, when the truth was I couldn’t even hold a plane the right way up. My writing was still a regular block of wood: there, but completely without form or shape.
Instead of rejecting those judges opinions, I took them on board. Took on-line classes with RWA. Read Romance Writers Report every month, with all its articles on every aspect of writing and getting published. I got critique partners through RWA. And I wrote and wrote and wrote.
I got better. Slowly. There were hiccups along the way, like the critique partner who had a venomous dislike of the word ‘was’ and would return any pages immediately that contained it. She didn’t last long. Neither did the writer who had her heroine armed to the teeth before she left her house every morning (this was a contemporary romance), and who like to frequent a bar that ‘smelled of socks and vomit.’ That was usually the prelude to brutal hand-to-hand, or knife-to-guts combat. Interesting stuff, but perhaps not even romantic elements.
In time, I graduated to becoming a contest judge myself. This was a huge privilege and I tried to provide the helpful (but honest) feedback I had received. There was also the unforgettable incident of what I will only refer to as the Saga of the Necrophilia Entry. I will say no more, except to say necrophilia is NOT a sub-genre of romance.
Finalling in my first contest was a huge motivator. Unfortunately, the final round judge was an editor, who far from providing any encouragement, dismissed my entry as ‘generic’ (fair enough), before seizing on the use of the word ‘nightcap’, as in drink. She declared, ‘Nobody has used that word in this country since Carey Grant, and he’s been dead a long time.’ Eh? I regret to say that her feedback has left me with a sort of limited Tourette’s. Today, whenever I’m watching a modern movie or TV and someone says That Word, my reaction is swift and immediate. ‘SEE? Nightcap! They said it! SEE?’ Trouble is, I don’t even need someone else sat in the room with me to hear me say it. Emotional scarring aside, contest finals and final round feedback were invaluable. The wins added to my credentials and the editor and agent feedback helped so much.
Those blocks of wood that were my early attempts at novel writing gradually took shape. I worked on them until they fit to be put up for sale, and somebody liked the look of one of them enough to buy it.
Am I still an apprentice? Probably not. Is there still a ton I have to learn? Definitely, which is why I’m still a proud member of RWA. And thankful every day that I don’t have to clean out armour or harvest leeches.
Note: The Fifth Knight can be found on Kindle Serials at  The Fifth Knight. At this time, only US customers can purchase the serialized format. The book will be released in complete format by Thomas & Mercer in 2013.

Tuesday, December 4

Blowing Up The Moon

            There was a lot of chatter last week, both on and offline, about  a reported plot by the United States to ‘blow up the moon’ at the height of the Cold War. Drilling down into the detail of the story, the plot centred around setting off a nuclear bomb on the moon, with the accompanying mushroom cloud terrifying the enemy of the time.  
            Coinciding with the story, here in the north-west of England, we had some beautifully clear, frosty nights, and the full moon sat there in the sky in all its un-bombed glory. I had to wonder about the guy who decided it might be a neat idea to discharge a nuke up there. Perhaps he had the rather stern children’s encyclopaedia  we had as children. In answer to the question ‘What is the Moon like?’, it stated: ‘The Moon is very different from Earth. There is no air, no weather and no life.’ Fair enough. But it went on: ‘It is a dreary, dusty place that is boiling hot by day and freezing at night.’ Whoa! Yes, there may be extremes of surface temperature. But dreary? I don’t remember Armstrong’s ‘One small step…’ being followed by a polite yawn. And dusty? It’s moon dust, people: not pet hair and dead skin.
What Mr Moon Bomb and Encyclopaedia of the Unimaginative have in common is a total disregard for the moon’s huge influence on mankind. That influence has been both practical and cultural. (Mr Moon Bomb might also have missed the lesson on the earth’s tides.) Those influences of course change over time.
Medieval European astronomy had the Earth at the centre of the Universe, with the moon, the sun and every other planet following our globe. God was responsible for this perfect celestial order. One of the things determined by this order was medical treatment. Physicians’ treatment manuals had details of the location of the sun and the moon, as well as planetary movements. The time of onset of an illness was important in determining both the cause and the treatment. Instructions for the bleeding of patients took account of which planetary house the moon was in.
For the medieval world, planetary alignment could have far more deadly implications for health. John Kelly, in his superb book on the Black Death, The Great Mortality, cites the Compendium de epidemia per Collegium Facultatis Medicorum Parisius. The Compendium is the work of the Paris medical masters of the time in trying to explain the plague epidemic. In it, they conclude that responsibility for the plague is due to a ‘configuration of the heavens’ on 20 March 1345, leading to a ‘deadly corruption in the air.’  Jupiter, deemed to be ‘wet and hot, and drawing up evil vapours from the earth’, and Mars, hot and dry, came together and ignited vapours that were spread by high winds.  Given that between 1345 to 1350, millions of people died from the plague (estimates range from one half to one third of the entire population of western Europe), it must have made the planets a terrifying presence.
The other source of terror comes from the moon’s mythology. Humans losing their sanity or being transformed into wild beasts have long been attributed to a full moon. Werewolves make their  documented appearance as far back as 500 BC, with the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar imagining he had become one. Reports of werewolves persisted across central Europe well past the medieval period and into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We’re less afraid of werewolves now, preferring them instead to be the moody (and surprisingly un-hairy) third of an angst-and-fang-ridden love triangle.
Okay, so historically the moon’s had pretty bad press as some arbitrary harbinger of death and destruction. But for all of the fears, the moon served older civilizations than ours very well. Our modern western society likes its artificial light- NASA’s photographs of the world at night light up the location of our urban sprawl, our determination to take on the night and win. Our medieval ancestors had no such weapons against the dark. What we consider to be easy, getting from A to B outside of daylight hours, was hazardous in the extreme for them. Travel was often planned around the moon, where its light could make a journey possible. The phases of the moon were common, necessary knowledge. As well as travel, people hoed, planted and mowed by moonlight.  Thatchers could work by its light. There are Swedish accounts of the very poorest carding wool by moonlight.
Most people in medieval society could not read or write and knowledge was passed down orally. Yet by the 17th century, with the revolution of printing firmly underway, one of the most popular printed work was the almanac. An almanac charted the moon’s progress in monthly tables, as well as providing other information. A. Roger Ekirch’s wonderful At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, tells of one in three families in England possessing one. That’s an astonishing 400,000 copies. In early America, almanacs were the most popular publication after the Bible. And in these almanacs, we find each full moon named. In England, the first full moon after the winter solstice (December 21) was ‘the moon after Yule’, followed by the wolf and Lenten moons. The harvest moon and the hunter’s moon are also included in there, terms with which we are probably still familiar. But the egg moon, the flower moon? American versions differ: in one, January is the wolf moon, followed by snow, storm, pink, flower, strawberry, buck, sturgeon, harvest, hunter’s, beaver and cold. In another version, February is the hunger moon, November the frost moon.
In my medieval thriller, The Fifth Knight, I have several scenes that happen at night. The story is based on Thomas Becket’s murder, which took place on December 29, 1170. So I had to make sure I had a Yule moon in there, and the night sky had to reflect what was happening as the story unfolds in time. I think my characters who fight, chase, die and fall in love by moonlight and starlight, would be horrified by the proposed actions of Mr Moon Bomb.
Horrified too, I believe, would be the real inhabitants of the medieval world. I think they would have been a lot happier with Mr Eugene Shoemaker. Shoemaker was a legendary planetary geologist who died in a car accident in 1998. He had dreamt of going to the moon, but a medical disorder prevented that from ever happening. Instead, he taught the Apollo astronauts to be field geologists. As a tribute to him, some of his ashes were carried to the moon aboard the Lunar Prospector space probe in 1999. The capsule carrying his ashes was inscribed with the following passage from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
And when he shall die
Take him and cut him out into little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Next time you see that big old moon, say hi to Shoemaker- a man that gave to the moon, instead of trying to blow it away. I love it that he’s there, and not the remains of a bomb. I’m sure the medievals would too. 
Note: The Fifth Knight can be found on Kindle Serials at The Fifth Knight. At this time, only US customers can purchase the serialized format. The book will be released in complete format by Thomas & Mercer in 2013.
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