Thursday, April 28

Medieval Irish Wisdom in the Ninth Century Triads.

Anyone who loves history will tell you that one of the most enjoyable things to do is to visit actual historical sites. An added bonus of writing historical fiction is that one can do quite a lot of this in the name of research. One of my more recent trips was to the wonderful Dunmore Cave in Co. Kilkenny in Ireland.

Dunmore Cave, Co. Kilkenny
© E.M. Powell

Dunmore Cave has been used for refuge and storage for hundreds of years. A Viking massacre here is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters, a 17th century compilation of earlier Irish chronicles. In 928 Godfrey and the Vikings of Dublin reputedly slaughtered more than 1,000 people here. Archaeological investigations have found the remains of hundreds of people, with many being those of women and children.  10th century coins, beads, and pins have also been found.

I was particularly pleased to see an information board announcing it as ‘One of the Three Darkest Places in Ireland’. No, this wasn’t just a cheap marketing ploy by the Irish Office of Public Works. It's a reference to the mention of Dunmore Cave in the Irish Triads. Triads, the arrangement of ideas or sayings in groups of three, are common in ancient Irish and Welsh writing. They are a type of wisdom literature, serving to instruct, enlighten and at times entertain the reader/listener with truths about life.

St. Luke- 9th C Irish MS
Public Domain

Trecheng Breth Féne or The Triads of Ireland is a collection composed about the ninth century AD by an anonymous author who was most likely a cleric. One might think that the Irish Triad wisdom of over 1,100 years ago would be remote and/or inaccessible. It’s quite the opposite. So much of what this unknown writer has left us could have the ink still wet on the paper. I thought I’d share my personal favourites.

Some of the triads are simply a geographical reference, such as to Dunmore Cave above. We have ‘The three mountain-passes of Ireland: Baltinglass, the Pass of Limerick, the Pass of Dublin’ and ‘The three uneven places of Ireland: Breffny, the Burren, Beare.’ Anyone who has visited the Burren and had a walking boot wedged in a limestone crack would never disagree with this assessment.

Early Medieval Grave Slab, Durrow, Co. Offaly
© E.M. Powell

Moving on from geography, the writer relates some moral musings:
‘Three rejoicings followed by sorrow: a wooer's, a thief's, a tale-bearer's.’
‘Three things which justice demands: judgment, measure, conscience.’
‘Three things which judgment demands: wisdom, penetration, knowledge.’
Wise indeed, yet quite theoretical. Happily, he gets more specific:
‘Three laughing-stocks of the world: an angry man, a jealous man, a niggard.’ 
Yes, indeed, but closely followed by:
‘Three ruins of a tribe: a lying chief, a false judge, a lustful priest.’ 
‘Three ranks that ruin tribes in their falsehood: the falsehood of a king, of a historian, of a judge.’

Early Medieval Grave Slab, Durrow, Co. Offaly
© E.M. Powell

One has to wonder at this point if the scribe has somehow found a wormhole where he is viewing the 21st century. Leaving his very pertinent observations on human nature, we come to the cleric’s Triads that relate to the natural world. These for me have great lyrical beauty.
‘Three slender things that best support the world: the slender stream of milk from the cow's dug into the pail, the slender blade of green corn upon the ground, the slender thread over the hand of a skilled woman.’
‘Three live ones that put away dead things: a deer shedding its horn, a wood shedding its leaves, cattle shedding their coat.’
‘Three cold things that seethe: a well, the sea, new ale.’
‘Three sounds of increase: the lowing of a cow in milk, the din of a smithy, the swish of a plough.’
‘Three dead things that give evidence on live things: a pair of scales, a bushel, a measuring-rod.’
‘Three renovators of the world: the womb of woman, a cow's udder, a smith's moulding-block.’
Beautiful, of course, but this unknown writer didn’t simply excel at pastoral imagery. He also has a number of observations of human nature that are on the nail and often hilarious.
‘Three rude ones of the world: a youngster mocking an old man, a healthy person mocking an invalid, a wise man mocking a fool.’
‘Three ungentlemanly things: interrupting stories, a mischievous game, jesting so as to raise a blush.’
‘Three ungentlemanly boasts: I am on your track, I have trampled on you, I have wet you with my dress.’ (Note: on this one, I have no idea. I included it because I love it.)
‘Three deaths that are better than life: the death of a salmon, the death of a fat pig, the death of a robber.’
‘Three silences that are better than speech: silence during instruction, silence during music, silence during preaching.’
‘Three speeches that are better than silence: inciting a king to battle, spreading knowledge, praise after reward.’
‘Three things that constitute a buffoon: blowing out his cheek, blowing out his satchel, blowing out his belly.’
‘Three wealths in barren places: a well in a mountain, fire out of a stone, wealth in the possession of a hard man.’
‘Three oaths that do not require fulfilment: the oath of a woman in birth-pangs, the oath of a dead man, the oath of a landless man.’
‘Three worst smiles: the smile of a wave, the smile of a lewd woman, the grin of a dog ready to leap.’

Initial- 9th C Irish MS
Public Domain

The last of the Triads I have included have a particular appeal. They reflect the contemporary world that the writer lived in, such as this one about Irish appearance.
‘Three lawful handbreadths: a handbreadth between shoes and hose, a handbreadth between ear and hair, a handbreadth between the fringe of the tunic and the knee.’
The world of work is here, too.
‘Three things that constitute a comb-maker: racing a hound in contending for a bone; straightening a ram's horn by his breath, without fire; chanting upon a dunghill so that all antlers and bones and horns that are below come to the top.’
‘Three things that constitute a carpenter: joining together without calculating, without warping; agility with the compass; a well-measured stroke.’
‘Three things that constitute a physician: a complete cure, leaving no blemish behind, a painless examination.’
‘Three things that constitute a harper: a tune to make you cry, a tune to make you laugh, a tune to put you to sleep.’ 

Durrow High Cross, Co. Offaly c850 A.D.
© E.M. Powell

And as it’s Ireland, we have views on hospitality. First, things the writer isn’t happy with:
‘Three unfortunate things for a man: a scant drink of water, thirst in an ale-house, a narrow seat upon a field.’
‘The three worst welcomes: a handicraft in the same house with the inmates, scalding water upon the feet, salt food without a drink.’
‘Three preparations of a bad man's house: strife before you, complaining to you, his hound taking hold of you.’
‘Three sorrowful ones of an alehouse: the man who gives the feast, the man to whom it is given, the man who drinks without being satiated.’
Counterbalanced with what he approves of:
‘Three preparations of a good man's house: ale, a bath, a large fire.’
‘Three entertainers of a gathering: a jester, a juggler, a lap-dog.’
‘Three accomplishments of Ireland: a witty stave, a tune on the harp, shaving a face.’
‘Three fewnesses that are better than plenty: a fewness of fine words, a fewness of cows in grass, a fewness of friends around good ale.’

John- 9th C Irish MS
Public Domain

But I think he must be back at that wormhole, looking over my shoulder. For, lastly, we have:
‘Three glories of speech: steadiness, wisdom, brevity.’
I’ll accept that 1,100 year old advice: brevity it is. Slán!

Images are either © E.M. Powell or are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 

Kelly, Prof. Fergus, SIR JOHN RHYS MEMORIAL LECTURE: Thinking in threes: the triad in early Irish literature: (2003)
Lindahl, C., McNamara, J & Lindow, J. (eds.): Medieval Folklore, Oxford University Press (2002)
Meyer, Kuno, The Triads of Ireland, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, Hodges Figgis & Co. Ltd.: (1906.)
Yocum, Christopher: Wisdom Literature in Early Ireland. STUDIA CELTICA, XLVI (2012), 39–58
I wrote this post or an edited version of it for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog in March 2016. 

Tuesday, April 5

How I Wrote My Novel of Medieval Ireland, The Lord of Ireland.

Yes, it's April 5 2016. Not a red-letter day on the calendar for most, but for me, a very special day indeed. For today is the day that Book #3 in my Fifth Knight  medieval thriller series, The Lord of Ireland, is out. Yes, Sir Benedict Palmer is back- and this time he's off to Ireland!

And here's what it's about:

England, 1185. John is a prince without prospect of a crown. As the youngest son of Henry II, he has long borne the hated nickname ‘Lackland’. When warring tribes and an ambitious Anglo-Norman lord threaten Henry’s reign in Ireland, John believes his time has finally come. Henry is dispatching him there with a mighty force to impose order. 
Yet it is a thwarted young man who arrives on the troubled isle. John has not been granted its kingship—he is merely the Lord of Ireland, destined never to escape his father’s shadow. Unknown to John, Henry has also sent his right-hand man, Sir Benedict Palmer, to root out the traitors he fears are working to steal the land from him. 
But Palmer is horrified when John disregards Henry’s orders and embarks on a campaign of bloodshed that could destroy the kingdom. Now Palmer has to battle the increasingly powerful Lord of Ireland. Power, in John’s hands, is a murderous force—and he is only just beginning to wield it.
Now, some people compare the writing and publishing of a novel to being pregnant. They often refer to the interminable time-scales, the waiting, the expectation, the preparation. I'd second (some of that), along with weight gain, mood swings and the desire for strange food.

With regard to time scales, writing a novel takes many, many months, and with a historical novel even more so. When people ask 'Do you do a lot of research for your novel?', my answer is best summed up with this photo:

Research? Erm...
And for The Lord of Ireland, I did a lot of research on the ground, too. John's failed campaign in Ireland actually took place. Thanks to Henry II's royal clerk, Gerald of Wales, we know some of what happened and where John went. Most (in)famously, John landed at Waterford and proceeded to pull the beards of the Irish chieftains who came to greet him. Retracing John's footsteps brought a whole new level to my research. I told International Thriller Writers all about it recently- you can find my Guided Tour here.

Reginald's Tower, Co Waterford:
witness to beard-pulling.
But whatever research one does, however carefully crafted a plot, all is for nothing unless you have fully fleshed characters. Palmer and Theodosia are here again, which I'm sure/hoping will please readers. I hope they'll like the new ones too, for they were hugely enjoyable to write.

Many are real historical figures. Royal clerk Gerald, who travelled to Ireland with John, provided me with his own outrageous historical views on the Irish and I might (just might) have gotten my own back on him a few times. I've written about Gerald's questionable views on the Irish in a previous post on Medieval Ireland. He was also a great chronicler and I talk more about that in this post.

What Irish Women Get Up To- according to Gerald of Wales.
And no, they don't/didn't. 
Hugh de Lacy, Henry II's first Lord of Meath and a big threat to the King, is a major character. We have Gerald to thank for a physical description:
'What Hugh’s complexion and features were like, he was dark, with dark, sunken eyes and flattened nostrils. His face was grossly disfigured down the right side as far as his chin by a burn, the result of an accident. His neck was short, his body hairy and sinewy. He was a short man. His build- misshapen.'
Gerald goes on to tell us what a great fighter de Lacy is but that he's not to be trusted as he has taken a daughter of the Irish High-King, Rory O'Connor, as his second wife. Gold to a novelist, yes?

Interior of  Hugh de Lacy's Trim Castle, Co. Meath
De Lacy had a remarkable life and I've talked more about it in this post.

I had fun with my fictional characters, too. But the path doesn't always run smoothly with naming them. In despair one day, I sent this e-mail to another Irish writer, the wonderful and wise Kevin McMahon:
'My character is native Irish, a huge, battle-axe wielding warrior and a great fighter and I want to give him a single Irish that describes him. I also need to avoid the following letters that would start his name, as it can look clumsy on the page when people have the same one. So, to avoid: B, C, D, E, J (I know that’s out anyway in the Irish alphabet, along with K, Q, V, W, X, Y, Z, if memory serves me correctly), G, H, L, N, O, P, R (but might get away with this one), T.'
Despite my ridiculous parameters, Kevin came back with Uinseann, which means 'victor'. How wonderful and wise is that?

The native Irish, as depicted by Gerald of Wales.
Granted, Uinseann does actually do some of this.
And there is one character that without whom the book wouldn't exist, the Lord of Ireland himself. John, the future Bad King John. What can I say, except that I think I actually enjoy writing my villains more than my heroes. John's campaign started badly and went downhill from there. Gerald had expected the worst. He describe's John's decision to 'bypass the venerable church of St. David's' as he travelled to Ireland as a 'sinister omen for his expedition.' 

King John as depicted in Waterford's Great Charter roll c1372.
Sinister, indeed, but a gift for me. Sir Benedict Palmer awaits you in medieval Ireland. 

The images from Gerald of Wales are in the the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. All other images are © E.M. Powell.

Tuesday, March 22

Gerald of Wales: Colourful Medieval Chronicler.

I think that most lovers of history would agree that very little beats a first-person account. There is something very special about reading the words of someone who was there, who witnessed momentous events or who was in the presence of individuals famous and infamous. And the further back in history one goes, the scarcer such accounts are. Yet in the world of the twelfth and early thirteenth century, we have the work of a prolific chronicler to bring much of it to life.

 Scribe writing the Gospels of Kildare.

Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, was born around 1146 in his noble family’s castle at Manorbier. He could count leading Anglo-Norman families in south-west Wales as well as native Welsh princes among his kinsmen. Unlike his older brothers, Gerald had no desire to become a knight. From an early age, he was destined for the Church and was educated in Paris. In 1184, Gerald entered into the service of Henry II as a royal clerk and remained so for twelve years. Though he harboured a lifelong ambition to become bishop of the see of Saint David’s in Wales, he was ultimately to be thwarted which caused him much bitterness.

Saint Kevin and the blackbird.

Gerald’s written output was considerable. He wrote poems, the lives of saints, letters, opinion pieces- and histories. Arguably Gerald’s four most important books are those he wrote on Ireland and Wales. The two volumes on Ireland are the Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland) and Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland). The images in this post are all from his Topographia Hibernica. His Welsh books are Itinerarium Cambriae  (Itinerary of Wales) and Cambriae descriptio (Description of Wales). The books contain some controversial views, especially the Topographia Hibernica (I have written a previous post on it and you can find it here.)

 Bernard blowing the horn of Brendan.

Gerald has also been described as gossipy, opinionated, quarrelsome, prejudiced and critical and that he veers into anecdote. While one can see examples of all of the above, his works also contain a wealth of information about the world as he experienced it. So much of what we know about Ireland and Wales at the time comes from him. And that includes Welsh teeth. In the Description of Wales, Gerald informs us: ‘Both sexes exceed any other nation in attention to their teeth, which they render like ivory, by constantly rubbing them with green hazel and wiping with a woollen cloth.’

Woman playing a harp.

That, for me, is the type of detail that makes a time and a place come alive. Gerald makes people come alive, too and that is one of the aspects of his writing that I enjoy the most. Here are some of my favourite examples.

Diarmait Mac Murchada (Dermot MacMurrough) was the Irish King of Leinster. In 1166, Mac Murchada appealed to Henry II of England for help in the recovery of his kingdom, from which he had been exiled by his enemies. Because of this act, Mac Murchada is regarded as the instigator of English involvement in Ireland. Gerald describes him thus:‘Diarmait was tall and well built, a brave and warlike man among his people, whose voice was hoarse as a result of constantly having been in the din of battle. He preferred to be feared by all rather than loved. All men’s hands were raised against him and he was hostile to all men.’

A man killing another.

Of fellow Cambro-Norman, the second earl of Pembroke Richard fitzGilbert de Clare (familiar to many as Strongbow), Gerald has this to say:‘He had reddish hair and freckles, grey eyes, a feminine face, a weak voice and a short neck, though in almost all other aspects he was of a tall build. He was a generous and easy-going man…In war he remained steadfast and reliable, in good fortune and bad alike. In adversity, no feelings of despair caused him to waver, while lack of self-restraint did not make him run amok when successful.’

A stag, a hare, a badger & a beaver.

Gerald’s description of his king brings Henry vividly to life with its detail: ‘Henry II was a man of reddish, freckled complexion, with a large round head, grey eyes that glowed fiercely and grew bloodshot in anger, a fiery countenance and a harsh, cracked voice. His neck was thrust forward slightly from his shoulders, his chest was broad and square, his arms strong and powerful. His body was stocky, with a pronounced tendency towards fatness, due to nature rather than self-indulgence, which he tempered with exercise. For in eating and drinking he was moderate and sparing.’

Men of Connacht in a boat.

Less favourable is Gerald’s assessment of Henry’s relationship with his young mistress, Rosamund Clifford, the Fair Rosamund of many mythical stories. ‘The King, who had long been a secret adulterer, now blatantly flaunted his paramour for all the world to see, not a rose of the world, as some vain and foolish people called her, but a rose of unchastity. And since the world copies a king, he offended not only by his behaviour but even more by his bad example.’ 

Gerald also provided an opinion of Henry’s sons. Of Richard I, the Lionheart, Gerald states the he ‘cared for no success that was not reached by a path cut by his own sword and stained with the blood of his adversaries.’

A priest and a wolf.

Geoffrey, Henry’s son who was Duke of Brittany fares very badly under Gerald’s pen. Geoffrey was ‘overflowing with words, soft as oil, possessed, by his syrupy and persuasive eloquence, of the power of dissolving the seeming indissoluble, able to corrupt two kingdoms with his tongue; of tireless endeavour, a hypocrite in everything, a deceiver and a dissembler.’ Ouch.

Gerald was of the view that Geoffrey and John (the future King John) looked alike physically: ‘one was corn in the ear, the other corn in the blade.’ As for Gerald’s opinion of John, describing him as a ‘tyrannous whelp’ gives us some idea.

A fox and a wolf.

It is of course easy to criticise Gerald. Much of his writing is his personal, embittered opinion and it can veer into the ludicrous and/or downright dangerous. Yet it can also be wonderful and shines a brilliant light on the medieval world. His words still have the power to surprise, inform and entertain, even after 800 years—and that’s pretty remarkable.
All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.
Bartlett, Robert‘Gerald of Wales', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006
Gerald of Wales: The History and Topography of Ireland: Penguin Clasics (1982)
Giraldus Cambrensis: The Description of Wales (Public Domain Books)
Jones, Dan: The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, William Collins, (2013)
Scott, A.B. & Martin, F.X. eds., The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis: Dublin, Royal Irish Academy (1978)
Warren, W.L., Henry II, Yale University Press (2000)
Warren, W.L., King John, Yale University Press (1981)
Weir, Alison: Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, Vintage Books (2007)
Note: I first wrote this post or an edited version of it for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog on February 22 2016.

Sunday, March 13

The First Normans in Ireland: Guest Post from Edward Ruadh Butler.

I always enjoy hosting guests on my blog, as do many historical fiction writers I know. But I wonder how many can claim that their guest has written the Origins story of their current novel? Yes, I’m delighted to be joined by Edward Ruadh Butler, author of the Invader series, the first of which is Swordland.

Swordland is the story of Cambro-Norman warrior, Robert FitzStephen. FitzStephen was the first warlord to land in Ireland in 1169, brought there at the behest of an Irish King. Ruadh’s novel shows that early conflict in all its bloody, brutal, compelling glory. Yet it is set just sixteen years before the start of my latest novel, The Lord of Ireland, in which King Henry II sends his youngest son, John, to bring order to an Ireland torn between the warring Norman barons and independent Gaelic kings. So why was Ireland in such a state of unrest and why did Henry feel he had to take the action he did? Luckily for me, Ruadh has the intriguing story, so I shall hand over to him.

Saint Bartholomew
British Library Public Domain

The chronicler Gerald of Wales tells us that almost 846 years ago, upon the eve of the Feast of St Bartholomew (or August 23 to you and me) in 1170, a Welsh-Norman army of some thousand warriors landed at Passage East on the south coast of Ireland.

Passage East, Co. Waterford
© Edward Ruadh Butler
At their head was a man whose name has become synonymous with the Norman invasion: Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare, who also went by a name that may well be more familiar: Strongbow. The name conjures a picture of a gigantic warrior likely proficient with the war bow used by the men of Gwent during this period. However, Gerald describes him as a man of pleasing – almost feminine – appearance; modest in his bearing, delicate in features with a weak voice, tall with red hair, freckles, and grey eyes.
“In war Strongbow was more of a leader than a soldier … when he took-up his position in the midst of battle he stood firm as an immovable standard around which his men could re-group and take refuge. In war he remained steadfast and reliable in good fortune and bad alike …”

Strongbow had steadfastly supported King Stephen throughout the latter stages of the civil war known as the Anarchy (1135-1154).

Matilda & Henry I
British Library Public Domain
But upon the ascension of the Empress Matilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet, as King of England, Strongbow found himself very much out of favour. His declining fortunes saw him lose lands in England, Wales and Normandy, as well as his father’s earldom. As Gerald wrote, Strongbow had become a man “whose past was brighter than his prospects, whose blood was better than his brains, and whose claims of succession were larger than his lands in his possession”.

By early 1167 Strongbow had suffered thirteen years of rejection by the new royal court and was at his lowest ebb. He was suffering from financial hardship and severe debt, particularly to Aaron of Lincoln, the greatest Jewish moneylender in twelfth-century England.

However, Strongbow’s fortunes suddenly took a turn for the better when he was contacted by an exiled king from Ireland called Diarmait Mac Murchada (Dermot MacMurrough). Mac Murchada sought his help to reclaim the throne (of Leinster) from which the Irish king had been deposed the year before. In return for Strongbow’s military assistance, Diarmait promised his own daughter Aoife’s hand in marriage to the Norman baron and to name him as his successor. The chance of earning a kingdom was too good a deal to pass on and Strongbow immediately began to concoct a plan that would allow him to achieve this aim without arousing the suspicions of King Henry II. Both his plans to raise an army and to marry without his liege lord’s permission were grounds that could been used to declare Strongbow a rebel.

A Ship at Sea with Archers.
British Library Public Domain
Having avoided (or been denied access) to the royal court for over a decade, Strongbow now volunteered his services to his king and was given the unrewarding role of accompanying King Henry’s eldest daughter Matilda to Germany for her marriage to the Duke of Saxony in February 1168. Upon his return he floated the idea of serving Diarmait as a mercenary with King Henry II and, not receiving a definitive refusal, took this as permission to begin raising an army of invasion from amongst his remaining Welsh vassals.

Diarmait had quickly become impatient to return home to Leinster and, as seen in my first book, Swordland, he had hired another out of favour Cambro-Norman knight named Robert FitzStephen to accompany him back to Ireland. FitzStephen and his army of some four hundred had landed in Ireland on 1st May 1169 and their campaign was filled with intrigue, adventure and no little success.

It took almost three years from his meeting with Diarmait for Strongbow to at last feel ready for his invasion of 1170. However, in preparation he sent one of his junior officers, Raymond de Carew, together with an advance force of ten horsemen and seventy archers to make a bridgehead on a small headland on the southern Irish coast.

Baginbun Point Co. Wexford. Raymond de Carew landed here in 1170.
© Edward Ruadh Butler
That story – taking place between the end of spring and Strongbow’s arrival on August 23rd – is the subject of my next book, Lord of the Sea Castle.

Strongbow's first target upon setting foot in Ireland was the city of Waterford. It was, in 1170, one of the biggest cities in Ireland, with trading links to the continent and England. Though nominally ruled by the O’Brien dynasty, it was in reality still independent and real power lay in the hands of the descendants of Viking invaders of the ninth and tenth centuries.

Model of Waterford in 1160
© E.M. Powell
It was upon their walls that Strongbow first launched his army and they quickly overran the city. In the streets still running with the blood of the dead, Strongbow married Princecess Aoife before his army travelled north to besiege the greatest Hiberno-Norse fortress of them all: Dublin. It was the greatest city on the Irish Sea but it soon fell to Strongbow’s warriors by the middle of September 1170 to make him amongst the most powerful men on the island.

Marriage of Strongbow & Aoife
© E.M. Powell
The death of King Diarmait in May 1171 led to a general uprising against the Normans of Dublin and Waterford. Though he survived two sieges in summer 1171, so hard pressed was Strongbow by this war that he had to send envoys back to King Henry II to surrender all his newly won lands in return for help against his Irish enemies. On 17 October 1171, King Henry II landed at Waterford at the head of a huge army to accept Strongbow’s submission (and that of several Irish kings). King Henry quickly took the three wealthy cities – Dublin, Waterford and Wexford – into his own domain while the rest of Leinster he granted to Strongbow and his heirs. His heirs would not have long to wait, for Strongbow died in 1176.

Strongbow's Monument (1837)
Public Domain
From Easter 1172 when King Henry departed Ireland, the trio of merchant towns were ruled by a series of royal governors who did not always act in a manner which favoured the crown or the new merchants who had taken up residence. In fact a lot of the time, including in the years leading up to 1185, the governors barely acknowledged the King’s authority and embezzled money and position meant for royal coffers. Surrounded on all sides by enemies (both Norman and Gaelic Irish), and a hounded by a hostile church still reeling from the turbulent takeover a decade before, King Henry poured fuel upon the fire by sending his youngest son, John Lackland, as Lord of Ireland to restore order to Ireland in April 1185.

John, Lord of Ireland
© E.M. Powell
So now you see why I asked Ruadh to tell the Origins story. And if that weren’t neat enough, Ruadh also has a personal connection to The Lord of Ireland. His paternal ancestor, Theobald Walter, first set foot in Ireland as part of John’s retinue. And guess what? Theobald Walter appears in my novel. I think, historical fiction fans, it doesn’t come any neater than that. Thanks, Ruadh!

Edward Ruadh Butler is a writer of historical fiction from Tyrone in Northern Ireland.

His debut, Swordland, based around the little known events of the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169, was published by Accent Press in February 2015 and will be released as a paperback on April 7th.

The second in the series, Lord of the Sea Castle, will follow in 2017. Find out more at

His Facebook Page is at and you can follow him on Twitter

His books are on sale at:

Wednesday, February 24

Who's Who in the Medieval Monastery.

In around 530 A.D, the Roman Christian, Benedict of Nursia, sickened by the sinfulness of Rome, decided to live apart from the world as a hermit. And he wasn’t just apart: one of his early holy dwellings was a cave half-way up a cliff face. Although a community grew up around him and he established a group of monasteries, it’s doubtful that he could have envisaged just how popular his vision for monastic life was to become.

By the medieval period, those who inhabited monasteries made up a substantial section of the population. It has been estimated that by 1348, some thirty thousand people lived a full-time religious life in England, with two percent of adult males being clergymen. Most houses were male, but around two thousand women lived in one hundred and fifty nunneries.

Much in monastic life had evolved over the centuries, including how it was ordered by, and for, those who lived it. According to the Rule of Saint Benedict, the abbot was to be seen as the father of his monastic family and had ultimate authority in the running of his holy house. He was to be obeyed in all matters. The abbot was indeed the head of the medieval monastic community. And by medieval times, he also got the best food.

Many monasteries owned huge amounts of land and running it profitably became the abbot’s responsibility. The chronicles of monastic houses recorded ‘bad’ abbots whose mismanagement caused debt or loss of land. Those who had been successful in running the estate were deemed to have been virtuous.

Such an undertaking was complex and demanding, so a number of monks were appointed to hold offices or ‘obediences’ to assist the abbot and were known as ‘obedientiaries.’  Deputy to the abbot was usually the prior. (In a priory, the prior is the superior.) As the abbot would have to travel, often for weeks or even months at a time, so the role of day-to-day running of the monastery fell increasingly to the prior.

Another obedientiary was the cellarer, responsible for seeing that sufficient food and drink was available. This meant extensive dealings with outside tradesmen and those on the monastic estate who produced food. The food rent attached to Ramsey Abbey in Nottinghamshire in around 1000 A.D. consisted of 80 bushels of malt (for brewing), 40 bushels of oatmeal, 80 bushels of flour (for bread), eight sides of bacon, sixteen cheeses and two fat cows. Eight salmon were required in Lent. Yet this was only enough to feed the monks and servants of a large monastery for a week or two. In Wales, food rents consisted of loaves of bread, oats, cattle, sheep, pigs, butter, ale and honey. The cellarer also had the headache of feeding the large numbers of visitors who would pass through the monastery.

The sacrist had charge of the vestments and sacred vessels (including the corporals), while the precentor directed the church services. The corporals are pieces of linen on which the bread and wine are placed and consecrated in the Eucharist. The sacrist would launder these and there is an account of the sacrist at the London Charterhouse hanging the corporals on the lavender bushes to freshen them.

Timekeeping also fell to the sacrist. He would ring a bell or strike a board to wake his fellow monks in the (very early) morning, to assemble for prayer or to gather for a meeting. Without a mechanical clock (which did not make an appearance until the late thirteenth century), the sacrist might use a candle clock, a water clock, a sundial or rely on the position of the stars. Norwich Cathedral Priory acquired one of the earliest mechanical clocks in the 1270s but they were hugely costly.

The infirmarer cared for the sick but maintained the health of the well, too.  Bloodletting was performed on healthy members of religious communities at regular intervals throughout the year. It is described in monastic customaries and mentioned in visitation records and account rolls. It took place in groups and was quite a social occasion with the added advantage of plenty of good food and the chance to sleep in the infirmary after.

The infirmary was a place of warmth and comfort. Music might be played and prayer was considered an essential part of recovery. Injuries such broken bones, scalds and burns had to be treated in the infirmary as well as disease. When mental ill health occurred, it was often considered to be demonic possession. Behaviours such as uncontrolled raving or blaspheming called for Satan to be banished or expelled from the individual. Again, it was believed that such occurrences could be countered with prayer. But very little could counter the sickness that came calling to almost every monastery in England in 1348. The plague killed almost two-thirds of their inhabitants, the close proximity in which people lived helping the spread of the deadly disease.

The almoner was the monk who carried out charitable acts on behalf of the holy house and looked after the poor of the neighbourhood. His duty was to distribute alms for those deemed fit to receive them.

The majority of the monastic community consisted of choir monks or nuns whose days and nights were centred on the liturgy. Anyone wishing to become a monk had to first undergo a probationary period known as the novitiate. The novitiate could last up to a year but many novices completed only a few weeks before their acceptance.

The novice master had charge of the novices, a responsibility with challenges all of its own. One can hear the frustration of 14th century novice master Henry of Kirkstead: ‘novices acquire years sooner than understanding.’

Once they completed their novitiate, the novices were professed as monks and made full members of the community. The ceremony to receive them into the brotherhood took place in front of the entire community. Each of them made a will. Then the sacrist had another duty to perform: the new monk was given a tonsure.

The tonsure is of course the part of a monk's or priest's head left bare on top by shaving off the hair. The familiar image of the medieval monk bears the tonsure of Saint Peter: either a circular patch on the crown, or the whole upper part of the head so as to leave only a fringe or circle of hair. There are other types. In the Eastern Church the whole head is shaven (the tonsure of St Paul). In the ancient Celtic Church, the head was shaved in the front of a line drawn from ear to ear, which is the tonsure of St John.

Many of the new monks went on to take Holy Orders and become priests. Lay brothers, however, did not. Lay brethren took vows of obedience and were required to observe various liturgical Offices but unlike the monks, their day was centred on manual labour. They farmed the land, reared livestock and did building and repair work. They wore work clothes rather than habits and did not receive the tonsure. Their work was supported by other non-religious servants.

Monks were often known by where they came from, such as Hugh of Durham. Others were numbered. Thorney Abbey had a Jocelin I, a Jocelin II and a Jocelin III.

One would not perhaps expect to find a child in a monastery. But children sometimes were gifted to the community and were known as oblates. A younger son of a nobleman who would not inherit his father’s land and/or title might have met such a fate. Oblates received an education until the age of seventeen, then took their vows. The practice flourished in the eleventh century but was phased out during the twelfth and prohibited at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

The last group to find shelter within a monastery’s walls were its visitors. They included patrons. The monasteries were closely bound in to the secular elites, who patronised a monastery as a matter of family prestige, to ensure that they would be remembered in the monks’ prayers and buried in an honoured place in the church. Relatives of the brethren, as well as visiting monks and other travellers would also seek accommodation. And, of course, pilgrims. Making a gift or a donation to a monastery would allow the pilgrim to be let off a penance. By the thirteenth century, one could acquire, for the right sum, indulgences for souls in purgatory.

One can only wonder what Saint Benedict, living in his isolated cave, would have thought.
All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 
Dyer, Christopher: Making a Living in the Middle Ages, Yale University Press (2002)
Jones, Terry & Eriera, Alan: Medieval Lives, London, BBC Books (2004)
Kerr, Julie: Life in the Medieval Cloister, London, Continuum Publishing (2009)
Knowles, Elizabeth, ed.: The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2 ed.) Oxford University Press (2005, Current Online Version: 2014)
Livingstone, E.A.,ed.:The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2 rev.ed.), Oxford University Press (2006, Current Online Version: 2013)
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England. London: The Bodley Head. (2008)
Note: I wrote this post or an edited version of it for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. It was published there on January 19 2016. 

Tuesday, February 9

The Bernicia Chronicles Series- Interview with Matthew Harffy.

I write novels set in the 12th century, a time period that I love and am fascinated by. I have had a few comments from other historical fiction writers along the lines of ‘Oh, I could never go back that far- too difficult.’ I’ll admit it has its challenges, as the further back in history you go, the more challenging it can be to get a handle on it. And my guest on this post is Matthew Harffy, author of The Bernicia Chronicles series, which are set in Britain in 633 A.D- half a millennium before mine. I was intrigued to know more and am delighted to welcome Matthew to my blog.

Matthew published the first instalment, The Serpent Sword, in April 2015. The Bernicia Chronicles follow the story of Beobrand, a young man from Kent. His story begins with him as an orphaned farmhand, certain that his brother’s death is murder. His quest for revenge takes him to war-torn Northumbria and he becomes a famed warrior in the retinue of royalty in the Northumbrian kingdom of Bernicia. Each novel focuses on some real historical events in which Beobrand plays a part.

Although he currently lives in Wiltshire, Matthew’s early life was to prove part of his inspiration. ‘I lived in Northumberland as a child and loved the place,’ he says, ‘with its castles perched atop rocky cliffs overlooking the slate-grey North Sea.’

Like so many writers of historical fiction, he can remember his ‘a-ha!’ moment. ‘In 2001 I saw a TV documentary about 7th century Anglo-Saxon graves being excavated at Bamburgh Castle. Something sparked in me and I started writing that night. After writing a few pages, I began researching and realised what an interesting and important period the 7th century was for Northumbria and Britain as a whole. I was captivated by the era, the place and the characters that had begun to emerge in my story. After that, I was hooked, and I could not escape the idea of finishing the book.’

That book is of course The Serpent Sword, published last year to rave reviews that continue to pile up. Book #2, The Cross and the Curse came out in January 2016.

Matthew has had great success with both books and readers are lapping them up. He has chosen the Indie route to publish them and I wondered what led him to that decision. ‘It was not my first choice,’ he says. ‘I went through the process of getting an agent, who in turn queried publishers, but unfortunately, none of the editors snapped up my novels. I then needed to make a decision – give up on the books I’d written, or self-publish? Well, that was hardly a choice at all. I am quite technically savvy, so I decided to take on the process of preparing the books for release myself. The tools to get a book out to the public are available for anyone nowadays.So why allow books that have not been traditionally published to languish, gathering dust in a drawer?'

It was while he was waiting for that first sale to a traditional publisher that Matthew wrote the second book. ‘I set myself a deadline for the sequel, based on the expectation my agent would sell the first book to a publisher and we agreed it would be good to have the second book ready.’ Ah, the dreaded sequel! So many writers really struggle with Second Book Syndrome, and I count myself among them. But it wasn’t something that fazed Matthew. ‘The writing itself was not exactly more challenging. I tried to make the story of The Cross and the Curse a bit more complex than that of The Serpent Sword though, with more interlocking threads. So I didn’t have much time to worry about the writing!’

Nearing release day, he did experience a few jitters. ‘When it came to releasing the second book, I was more nervous than with the first. This is because there is a heightened expectation from others. There were people who had read The Serpent Sword and were hoping for more of the same or better. It is easy to lose faith, but you just have to hope for the best and trust your instincts.’

Along with a writer’s instincts, research also had to be done. Matthew read all around the period and specifically the couple of years the next book covered to try to find events that would be compelling and that Beobrand and his friends could get involved in. 'Once I’ve fixed the events in my mind, I put a plot together that hopefully tells a good personal story, as well as covering the historical context.’ All research yields wonderful surprises but Matthew won’t be drawn. ‘Any really fascinating snippets I try to get into the books, so I’m not telling you!’ What a tease, eh?

I mentioned earlier on in the post about the Bernicia Chronicles getting rave reviews. Matthew tells me he has been compared favourably a few times with the great Bernard Cornwell, which is praise indeed. He is also very appreciative of getting praise from established, talented and successful authors.

But as with so much with this writing game, it was something unexpected that he especially treasures. ‘I think the thing that has moved me most is a friend from work who said he didn’t read for pleasure. I gave him the first draft of The Serpent Sword and he loved it. He has since read early drafts of the next two novels that I’ve written and enjoyed them too. But more importantly, he now reads all the time. He loves reading and I feel in some small way responsible for sparking his interest in books. That’s a great feeling!’ A fabulous result indeed, and one to make any writer proud.

As for the Bernicia Chronicles, Matthew is still hard at work. ‘I have already written book three, By Blood and Blade. That should be out later in 2016. I’m also writing a standalone prequel novella, Kin of Cain, which I am close to completing the first draft of.’

After that? ‘Then I’ll start work on book four of the Bernicia Chronicles.’

And after that? Again, I can’t draw him. ‘Who knows?’

But I’m guessing he does. You can keep an eye on Matthew Harffy at, and

Author of the Bernicia Chronicles series Matthew Harffy has worked in the IT industry, where he spent all day writing and editing, just not the words that most interested him. Prior to that he worked in Spain as an English teacher and translator. He has co-authored seven published academic articles, ranging in topic from the ecological impact of mining to the construction of a marble pipe organ.

Matthew lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters

You can purchase Matthew's books here:
Buy The Serpent Sword:
Buy The Cross and the Curse:

Note: the book cover images and author photo used on this post are copyright of Matthew Harffy. All others are All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.