Saturday, October 25, 2008

Guest Blogger: Jeri Westerson on London as a Character

We are very excited to welcome author Jeri Westerson to Historical Tapestry today. Jeri's new book Veil of Lies is being released 1 November 2008. Jeri is guest posting today, and then we will have a review of Veil of Lies posted in a couple of days.

I love the idea of a place as a character in a novel. One that comes readily to mind is Tara in Gone with the Wind. The plantation Tara becomes a palpable character as well as a representation of all that transpires in the book. Tara is a reflection of Scarlet herself. Tara weathers the destruction of the war but remains. Tara is eternal. Tara is at first Scarlet's prison and then her goal. Tara is a wonderful character.

So, too, in my new novel Veil of Lies; A Medieval Noir, is London a character. London of the 14th century. A London somewhat familiar but also foreign, given time and changes over the centuries. But like Scarlet's Tara, London can also be a metaphor for my protagonist Crispin Guest, a disgraced knight turned detective on the city's mean streets. Much like London itself, Crispin is proud, he's been beaten around a bit yet still thrives despite setbacks.

When one city becomes the exclusive setting for the action it can become very personal. I have come to love all the raw odors of butchered meat, the dark alleys, the winding streets with the shops and houses swaying toward the center, their rooftops nearly touching across the cobblestoned way, the pungent smell of the Thames and the docks wafting up from the stony banks.

Unfortunately, that London is long gone except in a few walls, a few foundations, a few structures. Mostly what survives can be found on maps..

I have a couple of copies of maps from about the 14th century and a stunning one from the 16th century. What enthralls me about these two maps is how much London grew in two hundreds years and how much it also remained the same.

The city of Westminster (now officially part of London) is where we can find Westminster Abbey, the church where the monarchs are crowned, a structure built by Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king, and the place William the Conqueror crowned himself William I of England. It is also the place where the royal residence sat. Westminster Palace boasted its amazing hall, built by William the Conqueror's son, William Rufus. It is 68 feet wide by 240 feet long. At the time Westminster Hall was built, the high ceilings were upheld by columns. But when Richard II rebuilt the hall, the roof was reconstructed to be upheld by cantilevered oak hammerbeams, leaving it the largest clearspan medieval roof in England. The hall—the place for meeting, milling, feasts, courts, and state affairs—is the only remaining structure from the original medieval palace. Often, palaces were rebuilt and refurbished to reflect the times. But in this case, a fire in the 19th century destroyed what remained of the ever-expanding palace. The rest of the rebuilt palace is now known as the familiar Parliament building that sits along the Thames at Westminster Bridge, where Big Ben's Tower now stands.

Because there were few drawings or paintings from the medieval period of the city and its structures and streets, we rely on the maps. It's the street angles and pitches, the crowded conditions in the detailed drawings, and even the street names that draw me in.

Due to a little thing called treason, my character Crispin has lost his title, his lands, and his wealth—in short all that made him who he was. All he could afford were mien lodgings on the Shambles, the butcher's street. The Shambles becomes Newgate Market to the west, Cheaspside to the east. Newgate Market remains today as Newgate Street and still spills into Cheapside.

Crispin spends a lot of time as well at his favorite tavern, the Boar's Tusk, which lies on Gutter Lane a few blocks away. If you travel east down Cheaspide today you will still encounter Gutter Lane, although it will look nothing like its medieval ancestor. Many of the street names are still in existence and remain mostly in the same place they used to be.

London Bridge, the only bridge between the banks of the Thames in 1384, is no longer there. It now lives on Lake Havasu, Arizona, where it was disassembled brick by numbered brick, shipped to America, and reassembled like some giant Lego. London Bridge in its heyday, however, was a city within a city. It had gates on either end and all along its length, there were shops and houses (if you ever wondered how a stone bridge can burn down, that's how).

The street names might mean little today (a Rose Lane was a pissing alley. An ironic little name, what?) but many of them stem from their functions. Fish Street, Bread Street, Milk Street, Newgate Market were named for what was bought and sold there. Paternoster Row (still there) was the place to buy rosaries (otherwise known as paternosters) and was just north of St. Paul's Cathedral. Not the St. Paul's we know today, with Christopher Wren's 18th century dome towering over the street. The old cathedral had burnt down, along with much of London, in 1666, 282 years after the action of Crispin's time. But fire was always a worry. Even in Crispin's era, thatched roofs were outlawed in London. That law went lax in the 17th century much to the chagrin of Londoners. The new Old Globe Theatre on the present day south bank of the Thames was the only thatched structure allowed in London's precincts for many hundreds of years.

London, with its rich history and center of much drama was a natural for a character. It's Crispin's town. He was born and raised there and even though it was also the scene of his disgrace, he cannot leave it. He lives in the shadow of Newgate where he was imprisoned. He is no more than a half an hour's walk to Westminster Palace where he was a courtier and lived and served his mentor, the duke of Lancaster, and he moves along London's seedier streets mingling with even seedier characters. London is his salvation and a constant reminder of what he has lost. London never fails him. She is solid and strong. Eternal. Much as Crispin is himself.

If you'd like to read more about Crispin's London, go to his blog or read an excerpt of VEIL OF LIES at


We would like to thank Jeri for taking time to post with us today, and wish her every success with her novel. Jeri is visiting other blogs to publicise the release of her book. If you would like to read more from Jeri, then please check out the list of blogs where Jeri will be appearing by clicking here.

Stay tuned for Ana's review of Veil of Lies to be posted shortly.


  1. I'm really looking forward to reading Veil of Lies when it comes out.

  2. I am fascinated by the idea of old London, mainly because coming from such a young country, everything that is still in London seems really old anyway!

    Thanks for a fascinating post!

  3. What an interesting post! I really enjoyed reading it. Veil of Lies is on my wish list.

  4. Thank you for such an interesting post! I really enjoyed Veil of Lies and I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

  5. Thanks you for such a wonderful post! I am really looking forward to reading your book!

    That is so funny about "Rose Lane".