Monday, December 29

The Murder of Thomas Becket

Midwinter in England can indeed be bleak. Iron-hard frosts, smothering snow, torrential rain and gales: all can sweep down on these short days where daylight is gone by mid-afternoon. But at day's close on the twenty-ninth of December 1170, an event occurred that stunned medieval England and all of Christendom. Archbishop Thomas Becket was brutally murdered by four knights in his own cathedral at Canterbury. The knights came to Canterbury following an outburst by Henry II, king of England and much of France. It was a tragedy that had been set in motion many years before.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

The son of a London merchant, Becket cut an imposing figure. He was over six feet tall (well above average for the period), with an aquiline nose, a "large brow", and "long and handsome face". He had a quick mind and a particular capacity to absorb and retain huge amounts of information. One chronicler states that he could even detect and react to distant smells and scents! Though he had stammered in his youth, he largely overcame this and was a fluent orator.

Appointed as Henry's Chancellor in 1155, Becket did not disappoint the King. He performed brilliantly in the role and the two men, Henry thirteen years younger than Becket, became extremely close. William Fitzstephen records "Never in Christian times were there two greater friends, more of one mind."

Henry makes Becket Archbishop of Canterbury
Liturgical comb c. 1200
© 2014 E.M. Powell 

One mind, perhaps, but of course Henry was king. And he was a king who was engaged in power struggles with Rome. On the death of Archbishop Theobald in 1161, Henry appointed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, believing Becket would simply do his bidding and act at all times on his behalf. Henry could not have been more wrong. Becket stood firm against Henry in matters of ecclesiastical law and power. Their disputes dragged on until in 1170 Henry had his son anointed as king by the Archbishop of York, a ceremony that was witnessed by ten other bishops. Becket's response? He excommunicated the bishops from the pulpit at Canterbury Cathedral on Christmas Day. When news reached Henry, he went into one of his legendary rages.

And his rages were indeed legendary. Henry could really let rip when roused. According to John of Salisbury, Henry once became so enraged during a debate about the King of Scotland that he flung off many of his clothes and started "chewing on pieces of straw." John also has Henry describing himself as "a child of anger." One of Henry's charters states that if anyone "should attempt to quash...this grant, he will incur the disfavour, anger and indignation of Almighty God and me."

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

So it was when Henry was informed of the news of Becket's latest actions. He "struck his hands together and exclaimed against it vehemently", his face "white with fury." His tirade against Becket was about the man's ungratefulness, too: he had raised Becket to a high position, and the only response was treachery. He worked himself up to a frightening pitch, ending with the words: "He has...shamed my realm; the grief goes to my heart, and no-one has avenged me!" Unfortunately, a group of barons who were listening took him at his word. They set off for Canterbury to avenge their king.

And who were these knights? It is unlikely they were part of Henry's intimate circle and acted to increase their favour with the king. William of Canterbury gives us their names and their descriptions. First was Reginald Fitzurse. "Urse" means "bear", and William claims the name indicated the man's savagery. Hugh de Morville's surname translates as "a village of death." William de Tracy is acknowledged as a brave fighter, but had a "sinful way of life." Richard le Bret became the Brute "on account of the depravity of his life." It was these who headed for the cathedral in which the holy man they sought was to be found.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 
The accounts of events from eight hundred and forty four years ago can often be sketchy. In the case of Becket's murder, we have detail upon appalling detail, as five monks were eye-witnesses to it and wrote their version.

When the knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral, daylight was fading. They first took off their armour and went to confront Becket who was in the Episcopal Palace. They most likely had come to arrest him but Becket simply refused to comply. That did not help the situation. The knights went back out and started to put on their armour once more. The monks and clerks who were with their Archbishop were extremely concerned by now for Becket's safety. Even if no-one expected murder, they were aware that Becket could be hideously maimed or wounded in such a tense situation. No doubt Becket himself was also aware that this was now a very real possibility. The monks hustled him through to the Cathedral, though he protested throughout.

Carrying on with the rhythm of the day, the Office of Vespers was being sung, the monks voices echoing into the cathedral's high roof with the only light from candles or lamps. Such illumination would hardly have  pierced the chill darkness and cast instead deep shadows. Once the monks saw Becket, they halted their prayers, rejoicing that he was safe. It was only a temporary reprieve. As he walked to the altar, the knights burst in, armed with hatchets and an axe, Fitzurse yelling "Where is the archbishop, the traitor of the King?"

The Murder of Thomas Becket
Public Domain

Becket kept his composure, replying: "Here I am, not a traitor of the King, but a priest. Why do you seek me?" The knights were not so calm. They surrounded Becket, in a shouting, clamouring group, their lethal weapons ready and raised. Grabbing hold of Becket, they tried to manhandle him away but he grabbed for one of the stone pillars and refused to move. Then the Archbishop delivered an insult to Fitzurse, calling him a panderer or a pimp and challenged Fitzurse to kill him. This seemed to tip Fitzurse over into murderous rage, and he roared at de Tracy to strike. Becket bent his head in submission. He knew he was going to die.

Chasse showing the Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket c1190
© 2014 E.M. Powell 

De Tracy's first strike took off the top of Becket's skull and glanced off, injuring Brother Edward Grim. The watching appalled monks fled in panic, as Becket took another blow to the head but still remained standing. He must have been in unspeakable agony and shock, yet managed to speak for the last time: "For the name of Jesus and the good of the Church, I am ready to embrace death." De Bret thrust his sword through Becket's head with such force that the sword shattered on the altar stone. A cleric who had accompanied the knights scattered the Archbishop's brains, declaring, "He won't get up again." It was over. The knights left the cathedral and went to the Episcopal Palace, where they ransacked Becket's possessions.

Becket's body lay cooling on the altar as the traumatized monks made their way back in. Over the next few hours, people converged on the cathedral in horrified disbelief. Those who came dipped their fingers in the blood of their martyred Archbishop, daubed their clothes with it, and collected as much as they could. Terror still filled the air, with rumours flying around that the murderers were coming back to take the body, or to slay others. It was feared that the knights would defame Becket's corpse, and pull it across the city behind a horse, or display it on a gibbet. This could not be countenanced. The monks decided to bury Becket in the crypt as quickly as possible.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

The miracles began that very night. A man who dipped part of his shirt into Becket's blood went home to his paralysed wife. As he wept in his telling of the murder, she asked to be washed in water containing some of the blood. She was cured immediately. A shrine was erected to Becket in the cathedral. 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.

Reliquary casket with scenes of the martyrdom c1173-80
© 2014 E.M. Powell 

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 once 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. (You can read my post on those events here.) In death, Becket had been victorious.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

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. And win. 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.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

But Henry didn’t manage to erase the memory of 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.

Photographer Shane Broderick specializes in studies of castles, churches and places of pilgrimage. To view more and to see his other work, please visit his Facebook Page at Shane Broderick Photography. You can also view his video here for more on Canterbury Cathedral. His photographs on this post have been used with his generous permission.

Abbott, Edwin A.: St. Thomas of Canterbury: His Death and Miracles, A & C Black (1898)
Cathedral: Murder at Canterbury, BBC TV (2005)
Gervase of Canterbury: Thomas Becket's Death, from History of the Archbishops of Canterbury, Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University
Grim, Edward: The Murder of Thomas Becket, Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University
Guy, John: Thomas Becket, Penguin Books (2012)
Jones, Dan: The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, William Collins, (2013)
Staunton, Michael (ed.): The Lives of Thomas Becket, Manchester University Press (2001)
Warren, W.L., Henry II, Yale University Press (2000)
Weir, Alison: Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, Vintage Books (2007)
I first wrote this post or an edited version of it for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog in December 2014.

Thursday, December 11

Medieval Medley: Guest Interview with Charlene Newcomb

It's always really nice to welcome a guest to my blog and today I'm delighted to host Charlene Newcomb. Char is the author of Men of the Cross, a historical adventure set during the Third Crusade.  

It was designated a B.R.A.G. medallion honoree in November 2014. To celebrate Char's marvellous recent recognition, we thought we'd indulge our mutual love of all things medieval with a suitable medley!

Medieval Mate- who’s your hero/heroine?

Men of the Cross features two heroes. Henry de Grey is the son of a minor baron in 12th century Lincolnshire. Stephan l’Aigle has been fighting at King Richard’s side for five years. The two young knights have taken the Cross: Henry because he is passionate about the Pope’s call to retake Jerusalem from Saladin; and Stephan because of his sense of duty and loyalty to Richard. Henry is young, naive, inexperienced in battle. He has a disdain for politics. Oh, the things he will learn as he travels from Southampton to the Holy Land and back.

Medieval Métier- what would your job be?

A busy (quite fierce)
I would have been a lousy peasant. All those domestic chores have little interest to me and my family would starve - I do not have a green thumb. Surely I would have been a scribe or maybe a troubadour with the nine years piano & five years guitar lessons my parents paid for. Either of those jobs would have served as a front for my “real” job: I’d have been involved in routing secret messages and translating encrypted ones. Those years in the U.S. Navy as a communications technician/voice language analyst were useful. Currently I work as a librarian in electronic publishing and coordinate data gathering for external reporting about the collections of a large university library.

Medieval Manor - where do you live?

Char's workplace!
Somewhere...over the rainbow. Or you may know it as Kansas. It’s not all flat farmland if you’re only familiar with Dorothy’s Kansas. We have beautiful rolling hills and prairie here. We don’t have any castles to my knowledge, and certainly no remnants of structures dating back a thousand years. But I’ve long suspected I was fated to be here. The place I work looks like a castle.

However, I wanted to experience the real thing and have travelled to the UK numerous times. Thank goodness that was not via a medieval galley. (I was the Navy seaman accompanying four Army privates on a tour boat in Monterey Bay - guess who got seasick? Yours truly.) Oddly enough, I didn’t have to draw heavily on castle life for Men of the Cross. Many scenes take place in the army’s camps if not on a battlefield. The sequel, For King and Country, will feature Norman-style baronial homes and castles, including Nottingham where the climax occurs.

Medieval Meal- what’s on your table?

It is the Thanksgiving holiday as I’m working on this and I just had leftovers from Thursday’s feast. Our medieval friends would not know the turkey, that American bird. Potatoes? Ditto - brought to Europe by the Spaniards in the 1600s. I wonder if there was something akin to bread stuffing? Stews (or pottage) were often thickened with grain. Pottage might have peas or beans, garlic, onions, and herbs. Turnips, parsnips or carrots might have been used. Fish was plentiful, but meats weren’t consumed too often. Bread and cheese: now that I could live on!
Cooking depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

When compared to a soldier’s fare on an extended march, a meal of pottage, bread and cheese might have been downright lavish. Contemporary chroniclers of the Third Crusade don’t mention food too often, except for near riots over horse meat or spoilage to meat and bread caused by harsh winter weather. The typical soldier’s diet included cheese, bread, dried or salted pork or bacon. The men often packed a 10-day supply. Knights’ provisions were carted by their squires or on wagons accompanying the army.

Medieval Madness- what behaviour could you never accept today?

The marriage of (the adult)
Marie de Brabant
This is more a custom than a behaviour: Arranged marriages and child brides. Like many a little girl, I dreamed of being a princess (and a rock star, but that’s a tale for another day). Fairy tale princesses in books, television and movies? That vision was shattered as I learned more about the lives of people my characters in Men of the Cross would know, or know of. I cannot imagine the young girls sent to live as wards in royal households when they were betrothed. Alys, half-sister of Philip of France, was betrothed to Richard and sent to live in England when she was eight; and Richard’s sister Joan (or Joanna as I call her in Men of the Cross), was sent to Sicily at the age of eleven to marry King William II. These girls may have been raised to expect this as their fates, but I’m glad this is a relic of the past in most cultures now.

A behaviour of the past that I find most heartbreaking was the criminalization of homosexuality, or sodomy as it was called in medieval times. By 1300, secular laws against sodomy existed throughout England and Europe, and of course the Church had penitentials in place for hundreds of years prior to that. However, as I posted on my blog recently (, attitudes about and punishment of homosexual behaviour varied tremendously in the 12th century. Main character Stephan l’Aigle in Men of the Cross is gay; my protagonist Henry struggles with his feelings as his friendship with Stephan deepens. Don’t worry - no erotica contained herein - the novel is about the relationship, not the sex.

Medieval Military- what’s your weapon of choice?

Archer hunting deer
The pen may be mightier than the sword - sorry, I couldn’t resist - and I would say I’d take the blade if I wasn’t so partial to bow and arrow. Of course, sword and lance were the knights’ weapons of choice, though as squires these men would have trained to use the bow. It came in handy when hunting for sport. Axes and clubs were popular too. Robin Hood and his exploits with Richard the Lionheart via books and on the screen are a huge influence on my choice of weapon.

Men of the Cross includes a secondary character, a knight named Robin who is extraordinarily skilled with bow. Readers will learn of his humble origins and the girl he left behind - Marian. Teenaged camp-followers-turned-squires Allan and Little John were so much fun to write. They are wise beyond their years, and also provide a bit of comic relief. In my book blurb, I’ve referred to this as the seeds for a new Robin Hood legend. I’ll be expanding the origins story in Book II, For King and Country, and introducing other familiar figures from the legend.

Medieval Matters- why do you love it so much?

Blondel's Richard the
Lionheart (1841)
I think I am enamored by the ideals of chivalry, which probably started when I saw Disney’s Sword in the Stone as a young girl. By middle school I’d seen Camelot and then read T.H. White’s Once and Future King and became a fan of Arthurian legend. Honestly, I didn’t learn much medieval history in school with the exception of the Norman Conquest and Magna Carta. I recognized names like Richard the Lionheart and Saladin and King John. Television and movies brought them to my full attention. Being skeptical of dramatized versions, I turned to books - biographies, translations of primary sources, and non-fiction social histories, as well as other fiction - to learn more about the people (and not just the kings and queens) and their times. I know every era has an incredibly rich history, but the 12th century captivated me.

The wars were horrific, the politics insane - you cannot make up this stuff! - and not all knights were chivalric, but still, a story about knights going off to battle gave me an opportunity to indulge in my love for adventure in storytelling. If I might return to my Star Wars roots, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away...”: historical fiction takes you to another time and place, albeit not one with X-Wings and star destroyers - a place I hope I can bring to life for readers.

As I'm sure you do, Char! Thanks so much for stopping by to obsess with me a little more about the fascinating medieval world.

Thank you for the opportunity to chat, E.M.!

Charlene Newcomb is the author of Men of the Cross, a tale of war’s impact on a young knight serving Richard the Lionheart and of forbidden love. Book 2, For King and Country, will be published in spring 2015.

For more information about Charlene, please visit her website,, find her on Facebook at CharleneNewcombAuthor, and on Twitter @charnewcomb.

Be sure to check out her special holiday offers and grab a bargain copy- ends December 25 2014!

The Blood of The Fifth Knight is published by Thomas & Mercer on 01.01.2015. You can pre-order it here on or here on Available to UK customers through Kindle First 1-31st December 2014!

Monday, November 3

Medieval Sorcery

At this time of year, there is much talk of witches, with large numbers of people happy to don a pointy black hat and party hard. Medieval people would have been unlikely to join in. The matter of anyone who practised magic was complex and they would have recognised the concept of a sorcerer rather than a witch.

Medieval Devil
© E.M. Powell
In medieval Europe two forms of magic existed: natural and demonic. Natural magic used the hidden powers in nature, helping with cures and protection. Demonic magic was a perversion of religion, practised it was believed by those who had turned away from God and instead to the devil. It was the practise of sorcerers.

The Practice of Sorcery

It was a widely-held belief that sorcerers could curse somebody with words, leading to illness or death. Sorcerers were also thought to be able to cause animal death, crop failure or an adverse change in the weather. The evil words could be a corrupted blessing, or a simple appeal to the devil. The supposed victim was not usually present at the utterance of curses.

The Prince of Devils sends out his ministers
 c1325 British Library 
Far more useful evidence to those making accusations of demonic magic were physical objects left on or near their property by the sorcerer. These objects were considered to have magical properties that could inflict harm. They could include animal bodies, mysterious powders, human faeces or even wood from a gallows. Poisoned food was also a frequent accusation.

In 1326, Pope John XXII wrote in his letter, Sorcery and the Inquisitors, of many objects that could serve the sorcerer’s purpose:  ‘Grievingly we observe…that many who are Christian in name only…sacrifice to demons, adore them, make or have made images, rings, mirrors, phials, or other things for magic purposes and bind themselves to demons.’

He had experienced several attempts on his life, including one by poison and alleged sorcery.

© E.M. Powell
There are also records of image magic. A sorcerer in fourteenth century Coventry was accused of making a wax image of a neighbour, sticking spikes into it that caused the man to go mad with a pain in his head and finishing him off by driving the spike through the image’s heart.

It was widely believed that impotence or lack of sexual desire was caused by sorcery. If a man consumed forty ants boiled in daffodil juice, then lifelong impotence would follow. Physician Arnold of Villanova wrote a treatise On Bewitchments around 1300 in which he gave numerous remedies. They include ‘fumigation of the bedchamber with the bile of a fish and smearing the walls with the blood of a black dog.’ That would indeed provide a certain ambience to a love nest.

A devil carries off the soul of a dying lover.
c1325 British Library 

Some accounts of medieval sorcery are on a far grander scale.

Guibert of Nogent, writing around 1115, gives details of the heretics of Soissons. Meeting in underground chambers, they would light candles and then do something unmentionable to naked women with them. Indiscriminate sexual intercourse then took place. Any babies born from these acts were then allegedly burned at later meetings and their ashes baked into bread which was eaten. The strong overtones of blasphemy in this account are very clear.

William of Malmesbury (d 1142) wrote an account of the Sorceress of Berkeley, who had died in 1065. He describes her as ‘a woman addicted to sorcery…skilled in ancient augury, she was excessively gluttonous, perfectly lascivious, setting no bounds to her debaucheries.’ She repented on her death bed and begged for her body to be saved from Satan, with her corpse sewed up in a stag’s skin, placed in a stone coffin and weighted with lead and iron and secured with chains. It was no good. A devil broke into the church and made off with her on the back of a barbed black horse.

A hermit and a devil
c1275-1325 British Library 
The legend of the Sorceress of Ryazan dates from 1237. At Ryazan, a town on the eastern border of medieval Russia, a ‘woman of astonishing ugliness’ arrived with other riders on a snowy morning, demanding tithes. She was spurned. A few months later, a horde of murdering Mongols sacked the town.

Sorcery Trials and Punishment 

Secular laws and Church laws/canons attempted to tackle the problem of sorcery, and mutually influenced each other.  Secular laws dealt with the crime of magic and attempted to address harm done to people by magic.

Penalties included execution. The Church could order penance for the sin of magic and/or could excommunicate the offender. Excommunication, with the threat of eternal condemnation to hell, was as terrifying as a death sentence.

From Sorcery to Witchcraft

A sermon preached by Bernardino of Siena 1427 encourages people to cry out ‘To the flames! To the flames!’ if someone offers to cure the sick with magic. He also encouraged people to report sorcery, because if they did not, they shared in the guilt.

© E.M. Powell
Sorcery trials increased in the fourteenth century, but the latter half of the fifteenth century saw a dramatic increase. Heinrich Kramer published Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches, c 1486), the most important medieval treatise on witchcraft. It strongly emphasised the demonic element in sorcery and (tragically) the conspiratorial nature of witchcraft.

Medieval sorcery was evolving into witchcraft. And in its name, around 50,000 women and men were executed by burning at the stake or hanging from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.

How interesting that John of Salisbury, (d 1180) secretary to Archbishop Thomas Becket, wrote in 1154 of ‘the belief in evil nocturnal assemblies, where infants are murdered and eaten by witches. Such beliefs also state that the infants are granted mercy by the witch-ruler, who returns them unharmed to their cradles. Who could be so blind as not to see in all this a pure manifestation of wickedness created by sporting demons?’ 

Demons tempting people with dancing
c1325 British Library
He answers his own question with a great deal of sense:
‘Indeed, it is obvious from this that it is only poor old women and the simpleminded kinds of men who enter into these beliefs.’

What a tragedy that his view did not prevail.
If you've enjoyed this post, then you'll enjoy my historical thriller, The Blood of The Fifth Knight. It is published in German as Das Blut des fünften Ritters. And yes, accusations of sorcery are made with horrific consequences.

All images unless otherwise stated are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 

Kieckhefer, Richard: Magic in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press (2000)

Kelly, John: The Great Mortality, Harper Perennial (2006)
Kors & Peters (eds.): Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700, University of Pennsylvania Press (2001)
Lindahl, C., McNamara, J & Lindow, J. (eds.): Medieval Folklore, Oxford University Press (2002)
Maxwell-Stuart, P.G.: Witchcraft- A History, Tempus Publishing Limited (2004)
I wrote this post (or an edited version of it) for English Historical Fiction Authors on November 02 2014.

Monday, October 27

The Blood of The Fifth Knight: Cover Reveal & Giveaways

I tried to write so many sensible crafted introductions to this blog post. I tried the differences between the written and visual medium. I tried the emotions pictures evoke in a reader. I tried a build up from The Fifth Knight to The Blood of The Fifth Knight.

In the end, this seemed to work best: ta-dah!

The Blood of The Fifth Knight is released on 01.01.2015. To celebrate this cover reveal of Sir Benedict Palmer's second adventure, I'm running a number of giveaways for a signed paperback copy of his first, The Fifth Knight. 

There's one on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment. It's open to worldwide entries until November 2nd 2014:

There's another open on Goodreads. Entries are accepted on this giveaway from the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada and Australia. It's open until November 14th 2014:

Last (but by no means least!), I'm running a third giveaway on this very page. Please leave a comment with your contact details to enter. Worldwide entries are accepted and it is also open until November 14th 2014.

Please enter any or all of these. There'll also be giveaways in the next few weeks for The Blood of The Fifth Knight. Why not sign up for e-mail alerts on my website to make sure you don't miss out?

Good luck!

Find E.M. Powell's books at:

Thursday, October 23

Guest Post: Interview with Ginger Myrick, Historical Fiction Author

Ginger Myrick

It's always nice when other writers stop by my blog!

Today, I'm delighted to host Ginger Myrick, winner of the Rosetta Literary Contest 2012 and author of five historical novels. She is also one of the most supportive writers I've met through the Historical Fiction community, dropping everything to bail confused bloggers (that would be me) out where necessary.

Ginger writes in a number of different time periods, so I thought I'd kick off by asking her about that:

Welcome, Ginger! You've written five novels so far, which is very impressive. Out of those, which is your favourite?

I am currently working on number six! Each book is like a child and has something special about it that I love. The Welsh Healer has a twist of magic and incorporates British myth and folklore.
Work of Art is an updated Cinderella story with a dark twist. But for the Grace of God is my take on Christian values and an argument for human equality, two things about which I am passionate. Insatiable, the Marie Antoinette book, is a dark rollercoaster ride through 18th century France on the verge of revolution, with all the drama that setting entails.

But I would have to say that El Rey is closest to my heart. It was my first book, the first time I experienced that strange gift of inspiration. I didn’t know how long it would last, and so I threw everything I had into that story. It’s nearly 600 pages and the biggest reflection of me as a person. Basically, it’s my life story fictionalized, and that lends itself to favoritism, or at least it’s more personal than the others. There is also a sense of freedom in that book—with a sea journey and horseback rides on rolling green hills—that I find utterly intoxicating.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

Hahahahaha! I still don’t consider myself a writer and avoid using that title as much as I can, although my husband bandies it about with alacrity. I suppose my attitude stems from the fact that I never aspired to any of this. One day out of the blue, I had a sudden inspiration for a story, so I sat down and began to type. El Rey was the result, and here I am a couple of years later working on book number six. Although the term writer is debatable, there is no denying that I have produced five novels, so novelist is a term I tolerate a bit better.

 Have places inspired your stories?

In order to write convincingly, I need a good visual in front of me, but I’ve only been to the places I’ve written about via the internet. When I began scouting a location for El Rey, I fell in love with Terceira.
It’s an island in the Azorean archipelago, a Portuguese territory. The island chain is volcanic and sits in the Atlantic Ocean, so the scenery is dramatic with steep coned peaks sloping all the way down to the shore along with the rolling green hills mentioned above. It’s also covered with hydrangea, always a plus for someone who loves flowers.

As you can tell, I get swept away simply by the idea. I have a standing invitation to visit, but I’m not sure when I’ll be able to take advantage of it. I have a Labradoodle who would pine away for me if I left him for more than a few hours! I would also love to see the Seven Wonders of Wales, which also held me quite enchanted as I wrote about them.

Which historical person would you want to meet and why?

I have always been fascinated with John of Gaunt, probably because Katherine by Anya Seton was the book that lit my fire for historical fiction. I have even made several subtle homages to that work in El Rey. I have always been intrigued by John’s complex character, his strong ambitious side juxtaposed with the tenderness he held for two of his wives, Blanche of Lancaster and Katherine Swynford. He did everything right, but could never quite succeed in the things he held most important. He acted honorably enough, but he still could not win the love of the English people.
John Wycliffe reading his translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt.
Ford Madox Brown
Yes, he hungered for a crown and married a foreign princess—a Castilian one—in hopes of sitting a throne, but how is that different than any other prince of the time? I guess I am sort of carrying a torch for him, but don’t tell my husband. Even if John of Gaunt has been in the grave for over 600 years, hubby would still be jealous!

What’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said about your writing?

That would have to be a sentiment expressed in a personal email that my writing helped a friend through a major loss. She said that El Rey allowed her to finally cry where she hadn’t felt free to do so while holding her family together during their crisis. To know that I have touched someone in such a profoundly personal way is priceless. It’s what I hoped to achieve from the start.
Another cool thing is that I’ve had readers ask me if I am Portuguese, Welsh, or Irish, insinuating that I must have some connection with the cultures I have written about. This gave me untold satisfaction in regard to The Welsh Healer, because the folklore and traditions run so deep. I figured I must have done a good job if people thought I had grown up with the beliefs of such an isolated people.

On a bit of a side note, The Welsh Healer was catalogued into the library at the Madog Center for Welsh Studies where I had some translation done for the book. I’m not going to lie, that definitely made me feel legitimate! People have even treated me like an authority on Marie Antoinette, but I am only learned on a given subject for as long as I am writing about it. When the research for a project is finished, I go back to being a Jack(ess?) of all trades, master of none.

What’s next for Ginger Myrick?

I have just begun writing another book in the Insatiable series.

This will actually be the first volume—Marie Antoinette’s story being number four—in what looks like a six part rewrite of French history. My WIP centers around Catherine de’ Medici and will explain the genesis of the mysterious plague turning ordinary French citizens into the mort-vivant. I had originally intended to write the books in chronological order but thought I might garner more interest with such a flamboyant figure as Marie Antoinette. It didn’t quite work out the way I anticipated, but everything in its time.

In closing, I would like to thank the lovely E.M. Powell for hosting me and all of you who took the time to listen to me ramble on. I am grateful for your time and interest. You are what makes this journey worthwhile.

As do you, Ginger! Thanks so much for providing such interesting insight into your writing world.

 Winner of the Rosetta Literary Contest 2012, Ginger Myrick is the author of five novels: But for the Grace of God, Work of Art, The Welsh Healer, El Rey, and Insatiable: A Macabre History of France ~ L’Amour: Marie Antoinette. A Christian who writes meticulously researched historical fiction with a ‘clean’ love story at the core, she hopes to show the reading community that a romance need not include graphic details to convey deep love and passion.

Visit her website at
You can find all her books on: and

Thursday, October 16

Fair Rosamund, Mistress of Henry II

In The Blood of the Fifth Knight, my second medieval thriller with Sir Benedict Palmer, somebody is trying to murder the Fair Rosamund, the beautiful young mistress of King Henry II. Henry summons Palmer to find out who is responsible. Events do not, of course, go to plan. But I really enjoyed writing the character of Rosamund, although little is known about the real woman. Here are some of the facts and the myths about her. 

Fair Rosamund
John William Waterhouse, 1916
Public Domain
King Henry II has a deserved infamous reputation for extra-marital affairs. Documented evidence exists of several liaisons, some of which produced illegitimate offspring, with women rewarded financially for their services to the King. By far the most well-known of Henry's mistresses is Rosamund Clifford, the young woman who is often referred to as Fair Rosamund. A less flattering contemporary description comes from Gerald of Wales, Henry's acerbic chronicler, who refers to her as 'that rose of unchastity.'

Her story has been embellished by layers of myths and legends over the last eight centuries. Born to Sir Walter de Clifford, a knight who had served Henry faithfully, Rosamund may have begun her affair with Henry at a very young age. The affair became open and public in 1174 when Henry had imprisoned his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, for her part in a rebellion against him. Later chroniclers mistakenly claimed that Rosamund bore Henry children, but there is no evidence that she did so.

Fair Rosamund in her Bower
William Bell Scott, after 1854
Public Domain
The bearing of children is one of the tamer stories that grew up around Rosamund. Ranulf Higdon, monk of Chester, born almost a century after her death, claimed that Henry had built pleasure gardens and a labyrinth or a maze for her at Woodstock in Oxfordshire. There is no evidence of such structures at the site which is located near Blenheim Palace. The spring and pond known as Rosamund's Well were not part of the buildings at Woodstock when Rosamund lived there.

Rosamund's Well today. The well is beside the lake in Blenheim's Great Park.
  © Copyright Philip Halling Creative Commons Licence

But that didn't stop the rumour factory of popular imagination. A further embellishment was that Rosmund had been murdered by Eleanor, who had found her in the maze.

Thomas Deloney, a renowned writer of  popular ballads who died about 1600, wrote 'The Ballad of Fair Rosamond'. An edition in circulation between 1658 and 1664 is titled: 'A mournful ditty of the lady Rosamond, king Henry the seconds concubine, who was poysoned to death by Queen Elenor in Woodstocst [sic] bower near Oxford.'

Poet Samuel Daniel wrote 'The Complaint of Rosamond' in 1592 and dedicated it to his wealthy patron, Mary, Countess of Pembroke. Again, the myth of Eleanor poisoning Rosamund endures, with Rosamund uttering such lines in the poem as;

‘And after all her vile reproches used,
She forc'd me take the poyson she had brought...
The poysoon soone disperc'd through all my vaines,
Had dispossess'd my living sences quite.’

Fair Rosamund & Queen Eleanor
Edward Burne-Jones, 1861
Public Domain

There continued to be numerous references to Eleanor carrying out the ghastly murder of Rosamund. As well as poisoning, there was stabbing, burning, bleeding and doing something unmentionable with toads. In Alfred, Lord Tennyson's play, Becket, Rosamund becomes the reason for Archbishop Thomas Becket's murder in Canterbury Cathedral. 

La Normandie, Jules Janin
Public Domain
Rosamund's life certainly was cut short. She died at Godstow Nunnery in Oxford in 1176 to where she had retired. The cause of her death is not known. Henry paid for a highly decorated tomb to be erected before the altar at Godstow. The records also show Sir Walter de Clifford making grants of 'several mills and a meadow' to Godstow in memory of his wife and daughter.

Godstow Nunnery today
© Copyright Pierre Terre and licensed for reuse under  Creative Commons Licence
Henry's generosity continued after his death in 1189. Bishop Hugh of Lincoln visited in 1191 and found the tomb still adorned with silk cloths and looked after by the nuns in accordance with Henry's wishes. Bishop Hugh, however, took a rather dim view of what he found. He ordered the removal of Rosamund's tomb to the nearby cemetery for 'she was a harlot.'

Fair Rosamund
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1861
Public domain
It was finally destroyed during Henry VIII's Dissolution. But even Henry VIII couldn't succeed in wiping out the memory of Fair Rosamund. Her myths endure to this day.

References and sources:

Archer, T.A., rev Hallam, Elizabeth, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press 2004-2014)
British History Online:
Broadside Ballads Online- from the Bodleian Library:
Daniel, Samuel: 'Delia. Contayning certayne Sonnets: vvith the complaint of Rosamond.' 
Guy, John: Thomas Becket, Penguin Books (2012)
The Poetry Foundation:
Warren, W.L., Henry II, Yale University Press (2000)
Weir, Alison: Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, Vintage Books (2007)

I first published this post, or an edited version of it, on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog in October 2014. English Historical Fiction Authors: Fair Rosamund, Mistress of Henry II:


Thursday, September 25

Sisters in Crime September Blog Hop

Yes, I write historical thrillers. Much of what I blog about is the historical part, less so the thriller part. Not any more! For I have been tagged by fellow Sister in Crime Member, H.A. Somerled as part of the September SinC-Up. You can read her post on her musical muses here.

The blog co-ordinators at SinC posed some great questions, so here's my choices.

1. Which authors have inspired you?

For thrillers, it has to be Tess Gerritsen. She's a thriller writer that I read and think, 'Damn! Why can't I do that?' She writes great female protagonists that have their feet firmly on the ground yet can really piss people off too. (yay, Detective Jane Rizzoli!)There's no pink, no wittering on about shoes and no needing men to rescue them.

One of my all-time favourite novels is Robert Harris's Pompeii. You don't get many water engineers who are heroes, but Marius Attilius Primus most certainly is. Harris showed me in this book the thrilling story telling that can result when ordinary (fictional!) people are caught up in extraordinary historical events.
2. If someone said 'Nothing against women writers, but all of my favourite crime fiction authors happen to be men', how would you respond?

Tess Gerritsen. Kathy Reichs. Tana French. Karin Slaughter. Agatha Christie. Patricia Cornwell.Val McDermid. I got those ones out in one breath. And I have plenty more breath left.

3. What's the best part of the writing process for you? What's the most challenging?

The best part is those wonderful scenes that just pour out as if someone else is doing it. Finding a solution to a plot problem that is far, far more entertaining (and grisly!) than in the original synopsis.

The most challenging is when it doesn't fly. When the writing is sat there like a muddy lump and I am boring even myself. I carry on, then delete. I should learn to delete faster.

4. If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?

Learn your craft. Like any apprenticeship, you need to learn which nuts and bolts fit together. If you don't, nothing works quite right. Worse case scenario, it falls apart.

Use the fantastic resources that are writers' organisations. Like Sisters in Crime. Like Romance Writers of America. Like the Historical Novel Society. Whatever your genre/cross-genre is, there will be an organisation for you. The support, the expertise, the sharing the frustrations, the generosity of other members: all this will help you greatly.

Yes, it costs to join. But not a great deal. And they're worth their weight in gold!

I'm now tagging fellow SinC member, Judith Starkston to write her September SinC-Up post. Judith writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire.

Her novel, Hand of Fire (Fireship Press September 2014), tells Briseis's story, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad. There was more to her than the handful of lines Homer gave her. Imagine a woman who can both challenge and love that most conflicted of heroes, the half-immortal Achilles.

Visit Judith's website at:

The Fifth Knight is a #1 Bestselling historical thriller. Find it here on and here on The sequel, The Blood of The Fifth Knight will be published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1st 2015. Find it here!

Thursday, September 18

Book Review: Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700

Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History (Middle Ages Series)Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History by Alan Charles Kors
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When writing historical fiction, it's always important to access historical research that's as accurate as possible. My fiction is set in twelfth century England and research into events or issues can present challenges with the passage of some eight centuries.

I wished to include the issue of witchcraft or, to be more accurate, sorcery in my current novel. Many books on witchcraft/sorcery tend to concentrate on later centuries but I was thrilled to find entries in this book that covered the time period I needed.

This book chronicles the rise and fall of witchcraft in Europe over 1,300 years, starting (as per the title)in 400 A.D. It presents contemporary accounts and primary documents. While of course these are at times more challenging to follow, the translations are accessible for the non-expert (such as me!).

There are notes on each entry, along with meticulous attribution of sources. There are also suggestions for further reading.

My only quibble would be the lack of an index as it makes finding specific issues a bit more laborious. But it is a minor criticism and certainly should not put off anyone who is interested in reading reliable information on the subject.

View all my reviews

Sunday, September 14

The Joy of Re-enactment: Medieval Clothing

As a historical fiction writer, so much research is done through written materials or inanimate objects stored in museums. Such resources are of course marvellous but there is one type of research that is very special in bringing history to life. I am talking of course about re-enactment.

Earlier this summer, I was very fortunate in meeting a group of medieval re-encators, Historia Normannis. Historia Normannis is a 12th century re-enactment group, focusing primarily on the events between the reign of Henry I and King John and they bring history to life in a historically accurate, engaging and exciting way. And not only that, they were unfailingly patient and generous in giving me lots of time and answering innumerable questions.

One of the topics we discussed was the clothing of the period. They had so much valuable information and were very happy to share it via this blog.

Medieval Society

To give an indication of how clothing differed across the classes, the re-enactors provided this striking line-up. As we pan from left to right, we first see the peasants with plain or non-dyed clothing. The colours and materials of the clothing become ever more sumptuous and expensive as we rise up the ranks to the right. We end the line with an Earl, the most richly-dressed of all.

Earl in full robes
The fabrics are linen and silk, and his long belt is dyed red. Originally, this would have been genuine ox-blood leather, taking its name from the dye used.

He is bare-headed with no coif or head-covering, as that helps to show his status.

The detail of the embroidery on his mantle shows a lion. But it's a twelfth century lion. Norman lions were depicted with no manes as most people had only ever seen lionesses.
Norman lion

Next we have lesser nobles, still dressed expensively.

To modern eyes, a black cloak may look unremarkable but black dye was costly, coming as it did from the iris root. It would take a whole field of irises to yield enough dye for one cloak. The black favoured by monks was actually more a dark brown, coming from the natural black wool of Welsh sheep.

The length of the cloaks may look impractical but were designed to shield the wearer from the weather. Worn when riding a horse, only the head got wet. The lanolin in the wool would have acted as a water repellent.

I also got to try one on (no, no pictures!) and they are incredibly heavy.

Again, the details are so beautifully done.

And  noblewomen of course also displayed their high status through their clothing.

Noblewomen's dress

The woman on the left wears a linen and not a wool dress. The colour is lighter as linen takes up dye less than wool. Blues and purples (from woad and clam shell dye/murex) were among the most expensive, with murex costing more than gold. Both women are wearing clothes that use colour contrast to add to their striking appearance. Necklines are high, with dresses laced tight at either side to follow the curves of a woman's body.

Their dresses have pendulum sleeves, which were a favourite fashion of noblewomen. The design was a way of demonstrating wealth (as the sleeves used extra fabric) as well as demonstrating that the wearer did not engage in any kind of manual work.

Again we see that she has a thick, beautifully decorated cloak. Her wimple, secured with a decorated pin, is white. All wimples were white as it demonstrated purity.She also has a hefty set of keys on her belt along with her Pater Noster beads.The keys suggest she has been left in charge of the estate by her husband, which occurred frequently.

Historia Normannis's sweetest re-enactor!

One of the most junior re-enactors was willing to be included too!

She a little bemused by the woman in hiking boots and raincoat asking her lots of questions. But she was so charming and polite, and I think she wins a special prize for utterly looking the part.

Still charming and polite (but perhaps not quite so sweet!), came our knights.

Mercenary knights

These  two would be considered mercenaries. They would own their chain mail, a horse, a shield and a sword and their ambition would be to try and serve in a household, thus guaranteeing them a living.

Set of armour and weapons
Chain mail of course gives protection against a blade and is flexible when fighting in. Well, I say flexible. I tried to pick up the mail coat in the picture and could hardly get it off the ground!

With full armour weighing in at about four stone, I guess flexibility is subjective. I was assured by the re-enactors that one develops muscles to cope with wearing it. Mail of course didn't protect against blows, and men could suffer massive bruising in battle.

Mail also picked up all sorts of unmentionable debris in battle, ground into the small metal links. It was the unenviable task of a squire to clean it using only a barrel of sand.

And last, but not least, for he was doing an awful lot of the actual work, we have our peasant.


He is dressed in his rough, plain-dyed wool, with his coif or hood to protect him against all weathers. One suspects he was probably a bit muddier in real life, but even so, his contrast to the wealth of the nobles could not be more stark.

It was a fascinating day and such an opportunity to get up close and personal with history. Historia Normannis are such a welcoming and enthusiastic group. You can find out more about them and see many more fascinating pictures of them in action at
I first published this post or an edited version of it on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog on September 13th 2014.

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