Imagine a class full of eight year olds hunched over their desks in a village school in Scotland in 1965. Imagine a history lesson. The teacher, Mrs. Robinson is writing the lesson on the blackboard and the students are laboriously copying it into their exercise books.
One of those children was me.
The lesson was covering one of the more exciting and legendary stories from Scottish history. It was February 1437 and King James I of Scotland was about to be murdered by his enemies. His faithless steward had taken out the door bolts so there was no protection for the royal chamber. The steward’s wife, however, a lady called Catherine Douglas, was loyal and thrust her own arm through the door staples to bar the way of the assassins. When the latter broke down the door to get at the king, they broke her arm too and she took the alternative name in history of Kate Barlass.
How much of this story is truth and how much is legend I don’t know, but it made for a fairly riveting lesson. Nevertheless I might have forgotten it in the mists of time were it not for one of the idiosyncrasies of Mrs Robinson’s teaching methods. Once the writing work was finished, the dressing up box came out! This little treat was a basic part of our history studies. Each time we wrote the facts down, they were reinforced by the fun of performing a little play to illustrate them. Pupils would be chosen to play the parts and would act out the scene in front of their classmates. (A bit like the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail where everyone gallops about on pretend horses with someone banging the coconuts behind!) I absolutely loved this part of the lesson. The icing on the cake was being chosen to take part and being able to don a cloak or a fancy hat. On that particular day I was the chief assassin and I remember having a heated exchange with the person playing Catherine Douglas. It was enormous fun, but more than that, although I didn’t realise it at the time, it gave me a love for Medieval history. The seed was sown that was later to grow roots and push into the light.
I also remember being shown a Schools Programme film about the Battle of Flodden which was a disaster for the Scots. Their king, James IV died on the battlefield while opposing the troops of Henry VIII under the command of Thomas Howard. Schools programmes were fairly new fangled then and again, it was a treat to be allowed to watch one. I strongly remember the impact of that programme about Flodden, which was shot as a docu-drama. Several girls came out of that lesson crying over the demise of King James. That I can still remember it means it must have left a deep impression on me, although I wasn’t one of the weepers.
My family moved from Scotland before my history lessons had progressed beyond the late Medieval period and no teacher ever replicated the experience given to me by Mrs Robinson. I had been back in England for around four years when the man who bears equal responsibility with my teacher for my career, rode into my life. His name was Thibaud, Le Chevalier Blanc. I met him in 1972, courtesy of the BBC, when he appeared in a children’s and young adult TV series called Desert Crusader. It was dubbed from the original French and starred this tall, dark, handsome knight in flowing white robes who galloped around the Holy Land and involved himself in romantic deeds of derring do. I fell hard, goodness did I fall! You can read the full story on my blog here.
To cut a long story short (see my blog) I was inspired to write a novel starring my own version of this character. I wanted my tale to feel as real as possible. As a child I’d donned a cloak to become an assassin. As a teenager, my characters needed to be clad in the trappings of their period so that they could function as people of their time. This was purely for my own requirement at this stage. I had to be able to believe that these people were living and breathing in twelfth century Palestine. Since I knew very little about this period, its history and geography, it meant that I had to start researching. I’d head off to the library and return with hoards of books on life in the Middle Ages. I have to say I studied these with far more diligence than my school books. The more I read, the more interested and keen I became. The more interested and keen I became, the more I wanted to read about the medieval period and the more my writing advanced. It became not so much a project as a genuine, abiding, life-long interest in the period between 1000 and 1300, with overspill either side. I suppose it’s like meeting people. Some you’re not going to like particularly, some are going to be neutral, some will become friends, but usually there is a stand out best friend. For me the Middle Ages is that best friend.
Taking up historical re-enactment with living history society Regia Anglorum, also served to increase my love of the period and my respect for it. Using replica artifacts has shown me how skilled and artistic these people were. My earthenware Norman cooking pot is far more efficient on my hob than my modern stainless steel pan when it comes to simmering a stew. The downside is the breakability, but back then it would have been cheap to replace.
Often the perception of the period, garnered from Hollywood, bad history books and certain works of fiction, is of brutishness and mud. It ignores the detail that it is us as we were then and while the world and society has changed, people haven’t – except that we are probably less tough and self reliant today. Our society is a throwaway one (although that may have to change quickly!) and we have forgotten the beauty and practicality of items made to last. We no longer have their hands-on skills at our fingertips.
That’s not to say I have a romanticised view of the medieval era. If you got appendicitis, a serious infection, or any number of conditions treatable e today, you were done for. Disfigurements curable today, such as hare lips just had to be lived with. Life expectation was shorter, but there was sweetness too and a keener appreciation of the simple things. I would love to go back to those centuries for regular holidays but I probably wouldn’t want to live there permanently!
I love the Middle Ages for all the above reasons and I love writing about it because it’s a world far enough removed from my own to be full of surprise and wonder, and yet my roots are part of it, and some of that surprise is in the familiarity. I say at the end of the author’s note in The Time of Singing that I have written about ‘the rich and tangled lives of people long gone, people very different from ourselves – and yet not so different at all, and I hope in this small corner at least, not forgotten.’ That comment encapsulates my attitude to being a writer of Medieval fiction.
If Mrs Robinson, or actor Andre Lawrence ever read this piece then thank you, for setting me on the road both to my career and my love for medieval history. Only you can decide if you have a lot to answer for!