Saturday, August 13

Illuminated Manuscripts: Treasures from the Medieval Scribes.

The word manuscript literally means ‘written by hand’ and medieval manuscripts refers to those books produced in Europe between about the fifth century and the late fifteenth century. Illuminated manuscripts are works which are decorated with a variety of pictures and ornamentation.

Psalm 27 from the Vespasian Psalter- 8th Century Kent.
It is the earliest surviving English biblical example of an initial with a narrative scene.

The word ‘illuminated’ comes from a usage of the Latin word illuminare in the sense of its meaning ‘to adorn’. Burnished gold was often used in the decorating of books from the 13th century onwards but the term ‘illuminated’ does not only apply to manuscripts where gold or silver is used. It applies more broadly to any manuscript that is more elaborately decorated than with simple coloured initials.

From the early writings of Saint Jerome (who died c.420) to around 1100, the vast majority of manuscripts were produced in the scriptoria or cloisters of abbeys and monasteries. They were primarily theological, liturgical and academic works.

The Lindisfarne Gospels- 8th Century
Written & illustrated probably by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne.

Prior to the time of Saint Jerome, manuscripts (such as those produced in Rome) were in scroll format and made of papyrus. The use of papyrus is problematic in that, as a material, it is more likely to break, especially if it is handled frequently. Early medieval scribes moved to the use of prepared animal skin, the material that we refer to as parchment or vellum. The format also underwent a significant change to that of the book or codex, with separate pages that can be turned, read in sequence and much more easily navigated by a reader.

Initial from the Howard Psalter & Hours- England,1310 -1320.
Clerics sing from a scroll, which contains musical notation. 

The codex didn’t only make life easier for readers. It also improved the lot of those who wrote and illustrated the manuscripts—our medieval scribes. It is much easier to write on the flat, stable surface of a page than on a lengthy, unrolled scroll. But it’s probably fair to say the ‘easier’ is a relative term. Even the preparation was laborious and demanded perfection. Producing fine vellum involved the soaking in lime and skilled, meticulous scraping and stretching of expensive calfskin. Inks such as oak gall and lampblack had to be produced. Guide lines had to be ruled with absolute precision.

Book of Hours- Oxford, 1240, written in & illuminated by William de Brailes.
It is the earliest surviving English Book of Hours.

Note that such precision also had to be achieved using a feather quill pen. Quill pens were introduced around the sixth century and replaced the reed pen. They were most commonly made from the flight feathers of geese but could also be made from swan, duck, crow, or even pelicans and peacocks. Most of the feather was removed and the end sharpened and slit so it could be filled with ink.  The sharpening of the nib was done at different angles, which would make pen strokes of differing thickness. Such careful nib-work didn’t last long. A scribe would have to trim it frequently with a quill-cutter to keep its sharpness.

A seated scribe from the Life of St Dunstan.
Canterbury- late 11th/early 12th Century

All that before the most challenging and skilled task of all: the writing and illustrating of the text. One can only deeply admire the concentration, dedication and sheer physical toll it must have taken, with scribes having no reading glasses, no electric light and no modern heating through freezing and damp winters.

The fruits of their labours, that are the decorations on medieval illuminated manuscripts, are of three main types. First, larger illustrations that can take up a whole page and /or miniatures or small pictures incorporated into the text. These usually illustrate or complement the content of the text.

A map of the whole known world from Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon.
England, last quarter of the 14th century.

The second type are initial letters that contain scenes (known as historiated initials) or that have elaborate decoration. Again, these usually illustrate or complement the content of the text.

Historiated initial 'D'(omine) with a crowned Virgin and Child.
English Book of Hours, 1st quarter of the 15th century.

Third, we have borders and line-endings, which may have many detailed images/miniatures in them. These often do not relate directly to the text and can contain unusual figures.

Marginal illustration from the Gorleston Psalter- Norfolk, early 14th century.
How much do we love the medieval duck? 

And while the illuminations could serve to illustrate or to decorate, they also provided aids for contemplation and meditation for those reading them as part of their daily prayer and devotion. On another (very practical) level, the illustrations were useful markers for less literate readers to be able to navigate a lengthy manuscript. One does not have to be able to read to identify a picture of the Virgin Mary or one of the story of Adam and Eve.

Four scenes from the Book of Genesis, with three of Adam & Eve.
The Huth Psalter, England, late 13th century.

Although so many wonderful works were produced by men (and women) of the church, by 1100 this situation began to change. The production of manuscripts was no longer the preserve of the church, and secular scribes and illustrators rose in importance. This was in part due to the expansion of the content of manuscripts. Romances, chronicles, medical and other texts and aristocratic family trees all began to be produced. The rise of the universities and the increase in book ownership by the wealthy saw a thriving secular book trade in Paris and Bologna by the 13th century.

Guinevere questioning Lancelot about his love for her.
Lancelot du Lac, France, c.1316.

It was another university city, the city of Cologne, that was to trigger the start of the demise of the manuscript. By the 1470s Cologne had become the most important centre of printing in north-west Germany and where a certain William Caxton was perfecting his own particular art. Handwritten texts were being replaced by the printed version.

From the Arnstein Bible, a large two-volume MS, Germany c. 1172.
It was written by a single scribe, a monk named Lunandus.

But it was English Reformation that was to see the wanton destruction of the illuminated manuscript. Henry VIII decreed that the 'images and pictures' of Saint Thomas Becket shall 'through the whole realm be put down and avoided out of all churches, chapels, and other places.’ The Act against Superstitious Books and Images (1550) ordered that prayer and service books that did not comply with the reformed liturgy should be destroyed. The religious communities did their best to keep their handwritten treasures safe. Books were smuggled out of religious houses and hidden in sympathetic homes. But not all could be saved. Priceless manuscripts were torn up, burned, used to clean candlesticks, clean boots, stop up beer barrels and even deployed in the privies.

The martyrdom of Thomas Becket from the Harley collection-
a rare survival in an English context.
Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century.

Yet despite all of this appalling vandalism, medieval manuscripts have preserved for posterity the lion’s share of medieval painting. As Beal so beautifully puts it: ‘Books have a knack of surviving.’ It is our great good fortune that they do.

Detail of marginal images of apes with books.
France, 1318-1330.

All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. (This online resource is truly a treasure trove and I cannot recommend it highly enough.)
Beal, Peter, A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450–2000: Oxford University Press, Current Online Version. (2011)
Brigstocke, Hugh, The Oxford Companion to Western Art: Oxford University Press, Current Online Version (2003)
Chilvers, Ian, The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (4 ed.): Oxford University Press, Current Online Version (2014)
De Hamel, Christopher, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (2nd ed.), London: Phaidon Press Ltd. (1994).
Kerr, Julie: Life in the Medieval Cloister, London, Continuum Publishing (2009)
Whittock, Martyn, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages: London, Constable & Robinson (2009)

I first wrote this post for the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog, where it was published on May 21 2016.

Tuesday, May 31

John 'Lackland', Lord of Ireland.

I doubt if King John, youngest son of Henry II, needs much introduction. The 800th anniversary of his issuing of Magna Carta was celebrated only last year. Being referred to as Bad King John also tends to stick in people’s minds.  As for Robin Hood, I will say nothing.

Royal Mail Magna Carta Stamp.
© E.M. Powell

But I’d like to share one of the lesser known episodes in John’s life: his first campaign in Ireland. For on April 25, 1185, John landed at the port of Waterford on the south east coast with three hundred knights in tow. He hadn’t arrived as King John, but as the eighteen year old Lord of Ireland. No spoilers, of course, but John being John, all did not go well.

King John as shown on Waterford's Great Charter Roll c. 1370
© E.M. Powell

We need to rewind a little to understand why John went there in the first place. Because EHFA is such a wonderful, well-informed blog, you can read a detailed account of the reasons in this post from March 2016 here. The short recap is that Henry II first visited Ireland in 1171. He had already sent troops there and he wanted to stamp his authority on it. But by 1185 it was in a state of major unrest, with native Irish kings and Henry’s Anglo-Norman barons who had taken Irish lands fighting it out for power.

One of those barons was Hugh de Lacy, Henry’s first Lord of Meath. De Lacy had turned into a major thorn in Henry’s side, being far too good at his job for the King’s liking. Yes, de Lacy had taken the ancient kingdom of Meath (Mide) from the Irish and constructed many castles. But he’d also married a daughter of Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor), the Irish High King. Some chroniclers suggest that de Lacy was lining up to take all of Ireland from Henry.

Hugh de Lacy's Trim Castle in Co. Meath.
© E.M. Powell

The King looked for a solution and believed he’d found it in John. He’d made the nine year old John Lord of Ireland at the Council of Oxford in 1177. Now that John was an adult, it was time for him to assume responsibility for the troublesome isle. One would think John would have been pleased. After all, he’d borne the nickname of ‘Lackland’ (given to him by Henry) for some time. Trouble was, John possibly had his sights set on the Holy Land. Its ruler, King Baldwin IV, was stricken with leprosy and the Patriarch of Jerusalem arrived in England looking for a prince to succeed him.

John’s desires were thwarted.  On the 18th March 1185, the Patriarch came before Henry’s Council at Clerkenwell for a decision. The decision was a refusal. John would not be going east, but west. He would be going to Ireland. Even worse news for John was that he would not be going as king. Yes, the title of Lord of Ireland was Dominus Hiberniaedominus being the title accorded to a king before he was actually crowned. But Pope Lucius III would not sanction it. John would remain under the superior lordship of the Angevin dominions. He was not to be independent of his father. Henry knighted John at Windsor on March 31st and sent him on his way.

The port  of Waterford today.
© E.M. Powell

Happily for us, Henry also included his royal clerk, Gerald of Wales, in the entourage and Gerald wrote an account of the expedition in his Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland). I did mention earlier that all did not go well and it was so from pretty much the moment John’s boots met Irish soil. Still standing tall on Waterford’s quay is the medieval Reginald’s Tower, part of the old city’s fortifications which date from the time of the Vikings.

Reginald's Tower, Waterford City
© E.M. Powell

While the Tower would have looked a bit different in John’s day, we do know precisely what he did as he stood outside it. A group of powerful Irish chieftains came to pay tribute to him as Henry’s representative, greeting him as their lord. John’s response? Well, according to Gerald, John ‘pulled some of them about by their beards, which were large and flowing according to the native custom.’

Suitably angered and very unimpressed, the Irish made for the court of one of the Irish King of Thomond, Domnall Mór Ua Briain (Donal O'Brien), where they reported back to him and others on the insults and how John was ‘a mere youth…a stripling who only listened to youthful advice.’ Worse, they decided that rather than make peace with John, they would ‘plot to resist [John’s force]…guard the privileges of their ancient freedom’ with their lives, and ‘make pacts’ to resist him. Those ‘who had previously been enemies became friends for the first time.’

One of Gerald's depictions of the Irish.
British Library- Public Domain

Having alienated many of the Irish, John then began making grants of land to his own friends— land that loyal supporters of Henry already held. The result, according to Gerald, was that those who were dispossessed ‘went over to the side of the enemy.’ And John carried on. He set about establishing castles to take control of the land. We know from Gerald that there were three sites: Tibberaghny, in Co.  Kilkenny, Ardfinnan in Co. Tipperary and Lismore in Co. Waterford.

Slievenamon, Co. Tipperary, as viewed from the site at Tibberaghny.
© E.M. Powell

These speculative grants were a huge mistake, unleashing the ire of the likes of the powerful Ua Briain. Ua Briain had been one of the first to submit to Henry back in 1171, yet ‘the stripling’ John would receive nothing of the sort. Fierce fighting broke out and there were losses of life on both sides. John (or rather, his more able men) made a few gains, but his forces were well and truly routed in equal amounts by some of the native Irish kings. His less able men drank, caroused and fought with each other. When John failed to pay them, they deserted.

As with so many of his writings, Gerald can be accused of bias, for it was his Cambro-Norman kinsmen who made up the first wave of colonists in Ireland. Yet Roger of Howden is of the same view, listing selfish behaviour by John, non-payment of his armies and subsequent desertion and bad losses to the Irish.

The Comeragh Mountains, Co. Waterford.
© E.M. Powell

One would have thought that John would have accepted some responsibility for his failings. But no. Instead, he accused one of Henry’s men of treacherous dealings with the Irish. And that man of course was Hugh de Lacy. There is no suggestion that de Lacy did anything to interfere with John’s campaign. He was by now immensely powerful: Constable of Dublin, and still holding his own vast lordship of Meath. De Lacy did join John for part of his travels through Ireland. What is interesting is that while de Lacy witnessed several of John’s charters, none of them are John’s grants of lands to his friends. It is possible that de Lacy, hugely successful on the battlefield as well as on the diplomatic front, wanted nothing to do with John’s cronyism.

Ninth Century High Cross, Durrow, County Offaly.
© E.M. Powell

John’s campaign ended in Dublin where he stayed until returning to Henry in December 1185, after only eight months as Lord of Ireland. He complained bitterly to the King about the Irish and Hugh de Lacy, and squarely blamed de Lacy for his failure. If de Lacy was poised to make a bid for Ireland, we will never know. De Lacy was assassinated at Durrow, Co. Offaly in July 1186 by an Irish axe-man. Henry is said to have rejoiced at the news and made preparations to send John back to Ireland to assume control. A new Pope had agreed to John’s coronation.

It was not to be. John was mid-journey when news came of his brother Geoffrey’s death. Now just two sons remained: Richard and John. John was needed elsewhere. It would be another twenty four years before John would set foot in Ireland again. And by 1210, he would no longer be Lackland: he would be King John. But he still would not be the English King of Ireland. That would take more than 300 years and another Henry- Henry VIII.
Church, S.D.: King John: New Interpretations, Boydell Press (1999).
Cosgrove, Art, ed: A New History of Ireland Volume II, Medieval Ireland: Oxford University Press (2008)
Duffy, Seán: Ireland in the Middle Ages: Palgrave Macmillan (1997)
Flanagan, Marie-Therese: Irish Society, Anglo-Norman Settlers, Angevin Kingship: Interactions in Ireland in the late 12th Century, Oxford: Clarendon Press (1998)
McLynn, Frank: Lionheart & Lackland: King Richard, King John and the Wars of Conquest: Vintage Books (2007)
Morris, Marc: King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta: Hutchinson (2015)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: King John/Hugh de Lacy
Scott, A.B. & Martin, F.X. eds., The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis: Dublin, Royal Irish Academy (1978)
Veach, Colin, “Relentlessly striving for more”: Hugh de Lacy in Ireland, History Ireland, Issue 2, Volume 15 (2007)
Warren, W.L., King John, Yale University Press (1981)
Note: I wrote this post, or an edited version of it, for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog on April 25, 2016. 

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

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