Sunday, 25 August 2013

Some Summer Reading

Summer is a great time for book reading especially if you are on holiday and have that precious time for relaxing on a veranda somewhere peaceful with a good read. Here is my selection. Of course I would love you all to read The Handfasted Wife, my own historical novel set in the 11th century, but actually here are some books I have enjoyed this long summer in my Greek escape. To celebrate summer reading, I am offering a freebie apple down load of The Handfasted Wife at the end of the reviews.

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Summer Queen

This novel is the first in a Trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine. It is beautifully written and I felt that I was walking in the heroine's shadow, living her life, totally transported into a medieval world, Eleanor's world. Elizabeth Chadwick is an expert in writing the period. She grasped its mind-set as well as creating an engaging set of characters. Her depiction and subtle analysis of these particular regal personalities in a fiction is unsurpassable, her treatment of  a well-trodden story unique, and, for me, this book is a superb and very rich summer read.

A Swarming of Bees by Theresa Tomlinson

A Swarming of Bees

A Swarming of Bees is simply a delight. It is a page turning mystery set in a remote Northumbrian abbey during the 8th century. The prose is beautiful because of the author's delicate touch and the story absolutely fascinating. I was very loath to leave its characters and their lives when the book ended. Highly recommended.

Inceptio by Alison Morton


Inceptio is an unusual and fast-paced thriller set in a future New York and in a mountain kingdom that survived the fall of the Roman Empire. It has a feisty, engaging heroine who discovers her family dwelling in this remote kingdom when she has to escape villains who want to destroy her. They follow her beyond the mountains. Let the chase and thrills and spills commence. This novel is the first in a series and one which has the atmosphere of a graphic novel, although it is not exactly that either. It might appeal to older teenagers and anyone interested in parallel speculative histories such as can be read in Archangel by Ken Follett. A good read.

Brothers' Fury by Giles Kristian

Brother's Fury (Rivers Family, #2)

Brothers' Fury by Giles Kristian is my favourite summer read. It is the best written in my selection and is set during The English Civil War. His writing is poetic but also gritty. He has a deeply human touch. He is influenced, he says, by Seamus Heaney's wonderful poetry. His characters are so richly depicted and the story so engaging that I found myself reading it too quickly. I wanted to see what happened to this family in a time of great strife when brother was set against brother and a daughter sets out to find the Parliamentarian brother who is lost to them. The pace is perfect. I believe Giles Kristian is returning to the Viking period for his next novel so I am going to have to wait some time with along with Beth, the brothers' sister, to find out what happens to my favourite character, her brother, Parliamentarian Thomas and to their Royalist brother Mun.

The River of Destiny by Barbara Erskine

River of Destiny

If you like a well-written, well-constructed time slip this is for you. This one steps into two past periods after a couple retire to a town on the Norfolk coast. The periods are linked through place and though a centuries old lingering atmosphere. Ghostly reappearances of those who lived there once made my heart go bump. It is actually terrifying at times and all three stories link-the early Victorian narrative, the Anglo-Saxon period and also the mysterious ship that slips up the inlet on foggy nights with the present day story which is simply brilliantly told. I loved Erskine's Lady of Hay and this one is fabulous also. Here, I would like to mention another excellent time slip, The Silent Touch of Shadows by Christina Courtney which casts back to a romance set during England's Wars of the Roses. It is an award winning novel and also an excellent read.

Available as paperback from Amazon, Accent Press, and for all e readers

Happy Reading. Have you a novel which you read and loved this summer? Share your choice in the comments and if you would like to win a freebie apple download of The Handfasted Wife leave a contact email in the comments. I shall draw a winner on Sunday 1st September.

Follow me on Twitter @carolmcgrath

Monday, 29 July 2013

Eleventh Century Wall Painting

I have long been fascinated by medieval wall paintings whether they are in tiny churches in Greece where I have spent much of the last year or in closer to home English medieval churches.

This was photographed in a small 11thC Greek Church in the Tagetis Mountains

Wall paintings are very beautiful and, like tapestries from the same period, are a picture book of stories used to decorate and to instruct in a world where literacy was restricted to priests and the wealthiest  nobility. Features of Anglo-Saxon wall painting did not disappear with the Norman Conquest but along with other aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture merged with new art forms brought to England from the continent, particularly Romanesque architecture.

St Oswald's Priory Wall Painting fragment

 Little evidence survives of eleventh century painted plaster. Most wall paintings would have belonged to churches although I like to think that palace walls and those belonging to great halls may also have been decorated. These buildings were constructed of wood and so in domestic buildings evidence has vanished. I introduce wall paintings into The Handfasted Wife on the exterior walls of Reredfelle, a hunting lodge on the borders of Sussex and Kent which once belonged to Earl Godwin and in the Reredfelle chapel where what is known as a Doom painting becomes integrated into the story's narrative. Wall paintings also appear in a secular way in my work in progress, The Countess of the North, a story about King Harold's daughter and her elopement with a Breton knight.

Nether Wallop. The wall painting was cut through to make way for a later Norman arch

Romanesque Wall painting
Fragments of Anglo-Saxon wall paintings have been excavated so we have an idea of what they were like. For example, painted stone work was discovered in Winchester in 1966. It had been reused in the foundations of the New Minster circa AD 901 but it is much older. It shows the remains of three figures and a border of what is known as pelta-pattern which is similar to sub-antique ornament shown on Carolingian manuscripts. The figure style is similar to the manuscript illumination used in the second quarter of the tenth century in Winchester. The cultural links with Carolingian art is apparent in English art of the period and in Norman writings such as The Song of Hastings ( 1068), a praise poem written to celebrate William's victory over King Harold at Hastings.

Anglo-Saxon painted plaster has in recent decades been recovered from other sites such as Monk Wearmouth near Jarrow where late 7thC to early 8thC fragments belonged to monastic buildings. A timber and wattle building in Colchester may have been a royal chapel. There, fragments remain of the wall paintings including an eye and draperies belonging to figures that may have been life-sized. Other wall painting images include the remains of four angels around the top of the chancel arch on the Nave east wall at Nether Wallop ( shown above) near Winchester. The angels were presumably shown supporting a figure of Christ in Majesty. The Carolingian linear style is very like that on late 10th C Winchester manuscripts. Hem lines are fluttering and the angels wear bulky flying folds that fall over their bodies. 

File:St John the Baptist Church, Inglesham, Wiltshire - wall painting - - 243514.jpg
Anglo Saxon wall painting in situ and almost complete to this day

Wall paintings were executed at the royal nunnery of Wilton as a result of new building works directed by Queen Edith, Harold's sister, just before 1066. Goscelin, one of Queen Edith's scribes, left an account of her major scheme of works.  Saint Edith's timber chapel was added to the main church there. It was decorated with paintings of Christ's passion. Major schemes survive after the Conquest in Sussex churches such as Clayton and Hardham dating from 1100. Here we have the cultures mingling. The iconography and style derive from Anglo-Saxon painting yet the overall effect is Romanesque in Norman tradition. On the Bayeux Tapestry depiction below to the right is thought to be an abbess, possibly another of Harold's sisters, though unconfirmed, standing in the archway of what may be Saint Edith's Chapel at Wilton where Queen Edith undertook building works and wall paintings during the mid eleventh century.  

The promise made by King Harold to recognise William as heir to England's throne. Look at the archway to the right.
1066 did not make a clear break with Anglo-Saxon traditions of plaster painting. As the terrible effects of Conquest gripped the land aspects of two different cultures mingled, and this is the sense that I try to integrate into the background 'wallpaper' of both novels, The Handfasted Wife and my 'work in progress', Countess of the North, a story about King Harold's daughter Gunnhild.

The Handfasted Wife, a story of Edith Swan-Neck, is published by Accent Press and is available from Amazon UK and USA as a paperback and for kindle. It is available from Accent Press on line bookshop and for all e readers.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Eleventh Century Beauty Treatments- My Lady's Cosmetics

Eleventh century women did care about their appearance. Of course they did! Cosmetics were not as horrific as those used in Tudor times, such as lead to whiten the complexion or belladonna to brighten the eyes. These earlier treatments were generally less sinister and not quite so harmful. We know about cosmetics from The Trotula which was a compendium of women's medicine in medieval Europe. The mysterious Trotula was said to be the first female professor of medicine in eleventh century Salerno, south of Naples. Salerno was, indeed, the leading centre of medicine learning in medieval Europe for many centuries.

Herbs and spices, essential ingredients

In this wonderful book there is a section entitled 'On Women's Cosmetics'. The suggestions here range from depilatory treatments to hair treatments and face adornment. There are also recorded treatments for whitening the teeth and for lip care.

Here are a few of my favourites, ideas which I have consulted for my second novel in a trilogy about The Women of Hastings that is scheduled to follow from Edith Swan-Neck's story in The Handfasted Wife.

 Look at the bottom of this post for a free I tunes copy of this novel.

Brunette girl in a medieval suit in a Agia Napa Medieval Monastery background - stock photo
medieval girl outside an Italian Monastery

The Depilatory

Take quicklime and orpiment (a yellow sulphide mineral). Place these in a small linen sack and let them boil until they are cooked. If the depilatory be too thick, put fresh water in it to thin it. Take care it is not cooked too much and does not stay on the skin too long. It causes intense heat. And note that the dried powder of this is good for abrading bad flesh and for making hair grow again on the heads of people with tinea (ringworm infection). But first the affected place must be anointed with oil or honey. Then the powder is sprinkled on.

  A Cure for Blemishes

Take the juice of squirting cucumber and almond milk; with these placed in a vessel, gently mix in quicklime and orpiment. Add powdered galbanum (a fragrant Persian gum resin) mixed with a small amount of wine for a day and a night, and cook with this. Once it is well-cooked you should remove the substance of the galbanum and put in a little oil. Having made the decoction, you should remove it from the fire and add a powder of herbs, mastic, frankincense, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove in equal amounts. This ointment smells sweetly and is gentle for softening the skin. A popular depilatory as well.

The Castle Kitchen 12th/13thC


If you wish to have hair soft and smooth and fine, wash it often with hot water in which there is powder of natron and vetch.

After leaving the bath, let her adorn her hair, and first of all let her wash it with a cleanser such as this:

Take ashes of burnt wine, chaff of barley nodes, and licorice wood ( so it may more brightly shine), and sow-bread; boil the chaff and sowbread in water. With the chaff and the sowbread, let a pot having at its base two or three small openings be filled. Let the water in which the sowbread and chaff were previously cooked be poured into the pot, so that it is strained by the small openings. With this cleanser let the woman wash her head. After washing , let her leave it to dry by itself, and her hair will be golden and shimmering.

If indeed you want to have thick, black hair, take colcynth and, having thrown away the insides, let it be filled with laurel to which have been added henbane seed and a bit of orpiment. And let the hair be anointed with this often.

Adornment of Women's Faces   

First of all, let her wash her face very well with French soap and with warm water and with a straining of bran let her wash herself in the bath. Afterwards oil of tartar take and, having first dried her face, let her anoint it.

Oil of Tartar is made thus:

  • break tartar into little bits
  • wrap in piece of cloth and dip in strong vinegar and make it soaking wet
  • place on fire until it turns to coals
  • place in bowl and mix with oil using fingers
  • expose to air for three nights
  • collect the oil in a jug
  • let the woman anoint herself with this oil for fifteen days at night
  • in the morning wash with warm water and fatty residue of starch to soften it
There is also a recipe for the starch.

Are we ready to try to compose treatments!

To conclude, my Lady Elditha and her daughters would have had access to many of the more exotic ingredients mentioned above. There was extensive travel and trading during the early middle ages and ingredients came from very far flung lands, but that is a post for another time. I think I shall be happy to continue using my own modern day natural products and I am not so sure about any of the above!

The Handfasted Wife, a novel about Edith Swan-Neck, King Harold II's common-law wife is published by Accent Press and available on Amazon USA and UK as paperback and is also available for all e readers.  And to celebrate the end of my first month in print a free apple download. Can whoever takes this code leave a message to say it is taken please.

TE9N4N74HLLE ( to redeem go to The Handfasted Wife on I tunes books and click on codes button there. This came as a promotion to my publisher Accent and they kindly gave me a few for reviews etc. Enjoy!)

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Hairstyles in the Eleventh Century

The Handfasted Wife, a novel about Edith Swan-Neck, common-law wife and beloved of Harold Godwinson, opens at Westminster during Christmas 1065. Elditha rides in on her mare Eglantine surrounded by a guard and with her two younger children following in a covered cart. Harold arrives at Thorney Island on a long shaped boat, the Wessex dragon flying at the mast. So, what did this noble 11th C family look like, what, for instance, was their hair fashion or head gear? How did they turn out for King Edward's winter crowning and Christmas feast?

Your age in Anglo-Saxon England, your position in society, your marital status and even if you had been found guilty of criminal behaviour could be detected by your size, bodily afflictions, hairstyle, clothing and jewellery.  Male hairstyles were linked to social status. One of the most heated debates in the early Anglo-Saxon Church revolved around hairstyles, For example, should churchmen be tonsured at the front in Celtic style or as in Roman fashion on the crown?

Harold as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry is always pointing driving us through the story

The Bayeux Tapestry shows King Harold and his followers with long flowing locks and wearing thin moustaches, while William and his men had their hair short, and shaved at the back. Moustaches may have been associated with warrior status. Leofgar, Harold's mass priest in his priesthood kept his moustaches until he became a bishop. It was considered an insult to cut a man's hair and spoil his appearance. In the poem The Carmen, written in 1068 about the Battle of Hastings, the Norman poet is disparaging about the English warriors referring to them in Frank Barlow's translation as 'nancy boys' and in other translations as 'effeminate.' Interestingly, high status English men treasured their combs!

Moustaches, long hair and the Norman short cut!

Women wore headdresses to cover the head and neck. Young girls wore their hair long and loose over their shoulders with a band to keep it from becoming unruly. This was the fillet. In the privacy of their homes all women may have worn their hair this way, loose or plaited, up or down with a fillet to keep it neat. The head cloth concealed head, neck and shoulders. There is some variation in the way the headdress is depicted by Anglo-Saxon artists. Some females wore very loose headdresses with many folds; others have a close fitting version. Sometimes they wore embroidered, possibly jewelled headdresses, or maybe with a simple ornament at the forehead.

A wall decoration showing women wearing veils and fillets

The wimple is a typical headdress, a little like the head covering nuns may still wear today. The cuffia is where the word coif originates. It is a hood and often was of value and was referred to in women's wills. Generally the fillet was worn in conjunction with a headdress of fabric rather than by itself. It might be a decorated band across the forehead with two streamers ending in expensive decorated tags. Sometimes these bands were made of solid metal such as silver or even gold. A woman might wear a cap under her hood. Also she might wear a scarf or a veil arranged in various ways, even turban-style.  A scarf might be arranged around a round or stove-pipe shaped hat too.

One-Piece Walrus Ivory Comb with Ringerike Design 

Women's hair is hidden in depictions in Anglo-Saxon art with only a suggestion at the forehead. There are depictions of the Virgin with a plait or firm mound of hair on which to pin the wimple, hood or veil. Pins appear in glossaries. feax-preon or haer-naedle, hairpin and hair-needle. A frawing-spinel was a pin for curling the hair.

I had a great deal of fun writing about appearance in The Handfasted Wife, working many of these ideas subtly into the story. It all helped me to create the sense of falling into the early medieval past, recreating a faithful older world. If you read this novel I hope you enjoy the little details that are worked into the historical adventure and most of all I hope you enjoy the thrilling journey with my heroine, Elditha, Edith Swan-Neck. 

Find the Handfasted Wife on

It is available also from Accent Press's own online bookshop as a paperback as well as from Amazon. It is for all e readers too. If you read it look for Harold's amber sword decoration as large as a goose egg and his belt, a gift from Edith Swan-Neck. 


Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Greek Mani, A Writer's Hideaway.

This year I am fortunate enough to have found a writing escape tucked away in the Greek Mani not too far from Kardamyli where the travel writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, a scholar gypsy, lived for many years. His home, a unique house overlooking the sea, is to become a writing retreat. He left it in his will to The Benaki Museum, Athens, for this purpose. Last Autumn Sir Paddy's fabulous house was one of the locations for a film to be released over the next couple of weeks starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight. In September, Kardamyli was taken by storm as cameras and film makers descended into the Mani. The local ex pat/ Greek drama group and locals provided film extras.
Paddy Leigh Fermor at home in Kardimyli.

Paddy Leigh Fermor walked across Europe in 1933 when he was eighteen, sleeping in stables, fields, castles, mansions arriving in Constantinople in 1935 where he fell in love with a Romanian princess. At the outbreak of World War II he was living with her in a family mansion in Moldavia. During the war he was a very effective British liaison officer with the Greek Resistance in Crete. He hatched a plan to kidnap the commanding German general of Crete, great derring-do. This audacious kidnap is the subject of the unforgettable Dirk Bogart movie Ill Met by Moonlight. Sir Paddy met his wife Joan after the war in Cairo. She provided the photographs for his masterpiece Mani, 1958 and Roumeli, 1966. Greece was always his great love, so he and Joan settled in the region here, building that beautiful house on a remote bay beside Kardamyli. He is revered in the locality. Some weeks ago I was told by a friend that every time Joan returned to England she always stopped at her grocery store to say goodbye, even on the very last occasion nearly a decade past when Joan returned to England for cancer treatment. She died in London. Paddy Leigh followed her in 2011. When I first came to the region we used to rent a summer cottage close to that lovely house. It is an area so beautiful that, although I would never live here permanently, it is for me, too, very special.

Another writer, who is now, perhaps, not so well known, Bruce Chatwin, spent time in Kardamyli. He died too young, a delicate looking, rather beautiful man, often pictured with his walking boots strung about his neck. That was how I, and my writing visitors of last week, found him- in the lee of a pretty Greek Orthodox Church, a difficult to find, secret place, hidden amongst wild flowers and foliage up a twisting lane and across a field edging a mountain village. This little church, high in the Taygetos Mountains, overlooks Kardymili far below and the deep sapphire blue sea beyond the village. Bruce Chatwin's ashes were placed here by his own request. The classic walking boots photograph of him is held down by stones to mark the precise place the burial urn containing his ashes rests. This special tiny church at Hora is one of the most atmospheric places I have ever experienced, very moving by merit of its pure beauty and simplicity. If you have never read his books, do, because I am told that he transformed travel writing, personalising the genre, making it interesting, exciting, filled with story, about experience and perceptions rather than a map of places to see. Writing decades ago he was innovative, making travel writing identifiable as we see it nowadays.

I visited Kardimyli for the first time in 2000. Smitten by its laidback charm, I have returned nearly every year since, usually in the height of the summer. This year I spent a stormy February here writing and, though cold, I still enjoyed it immensely.  Kardamyli is a charming village with a harbour to the south that is overlooked by an old fortified custom house. A Venetian Castle once stood opposite the harbour on the small island of Meropi. The only sign of any industrial architecture in the area is a tall brick chimney in the centre of the village that marks the ruins of an olive oil soap factory, once owned by Palmolive. This enterprise had grown out of the abundance of olives grown in the region. 

My favourite part of this area is Old Kardamyli, which is historically fascinating and can be found behind the new village, nestled around the Viros Gorge. Its outer buildings are still occupied, but past these there is a compound between the church of Agios Spiridon and the Mourtzinos War Tower where there is much to explore. The church has a Venetian-influenced campanile decorated with carvings in a style typical of the Mani. The whole site gives an evocative impression of what life must have been like in the 18th and 19th centuries when clan leaders ruled the neighbourhood and, just as in the Greek myths, demanded and received tribute from surrounding villages. Writers, photographers and artists all find something inspirational in the atmosphere of this ancient village with its history dating back to the time of Homer and beyond..

Stoupa harbour

Eating out in Kardamyli

Stoupa at twilight.

Finally, if you watch Before Midnight this summer you should see the inside of Paddy Leigh's house, the harbour at Kardamyli, and also a mountain village setting above us here in the Taygetos Mountains. As for me, predictably, I shall be writing the sequel to my debut novel The Handfasted Wife close by, in my stone house, imagining a very cold medieval Yorkshire Castle. Time passes slowly here with a pulse that is not so different to the sense of medieval life that enters my novels. It may not be quite as exquisite as Sir Paddy's place. Yet, it is my perfect writing retreat, a peaceful house, shady and cool, hidden away in the Greek Mani. Also, it is for sale should you be interested in moving!

Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife, a story of Edith Swan-Neck, wife of King Harold II, published May 2013 by Accent Press, available on all e readers and in paperback from Amazon or from Accent's website bookshop.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Reredfelle, an Eleventh Century Estate

Psalters, early medieval calendars, and The Domesday Book yield fascinating information about life on a medieval estate. For instance, a scene from Saint Mary's Psalter depicts the lord's reeve overseeing the harvest. The reeve is behind the cart which is drawn by three horses and is packed full of grain. The illustration climbs the margins of the Psalter page to meet a decoration of oak leaves on one side and acorns on the other. This represents the importance for the medieval villagers of the changing seasons.

The Lutrell Psalter also shows medieval agricultural scenes

The estate Reredfelle described in The Handfasted Wife can be found in The Domesday Book. Here it is written:

King William holds in demesne Reredfelle of the fee of the Bishop of Bayeux. Earl Godwin held it and then as now it was assessed for 3 hides. There is land for 26 ploughs. On the demesne there are 4 ploughs and 14 villeins. 6 borders have 14 ploughs. There are 4 serfs and a woodland yielding 80 swine for pannage. There is a park...

Outside the palisade, photograph by Paula Lofting, author of Sons of the Wolf

This was a perfect location for Earl Godwin's hunting estate with its park (deer park), woodland and agricultural activity. Reredfelle therefore became fictionalised as follows:

'Reredfelle was a sprawling territory of ash, beech and oak only a day's ride from Canterbury. On its southernmost edge, where the forest opened up into parkland fields and hamlets, Earl Godwin of Wessex built his new two-storey hall, a magnificent thatched building. The long side walls were painted with great hunting birds and in the centre of the front short wall an oak door led into an aisled room with a raised central hearth. Upstairs, Earl Godwin had his private rooms, an antechamber and through a doorway hung with a curtain of crimson and blue tapestry, his own bedchamber. Here he had two windows of glass, like those in the old minsters, set into deep oak frames; so you see, his wealth was great and he was not shy of showing it.'
The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath, published by Accent Press.

woman weaving outside the hall, photograph by Rich Price.

In  The Handfasted Wife, Edith Swan-Neck (Elditha), King Harold's wife, takes control of this decaying estate and restores it to its earlier glory. It would not be right here to give the spoiler, what happened to Reredfelle in 1066. I like to think of it as a successful and busy place, just as I have imagined it early in the story:

A wide track meandered past the woman's bower, a kitchen, stores and barns to a three-barred gate set into a palisade which protected the hall, its outer buildings, herb gardens, dovecote and a Chapel to our Lady. The same track curved from the gate, through parkland loved by huntsmen, and disappeared into the encroaching forest beyond. There was however a secret way in and out of Reredfelle. A small latched door was set into the orchard wall, concealed by fruit trees, which were shaped to arch over and conceal it...

The hall approach, photograph thanks to Regia Anglorum, An Anglo-Saxon hall reconstruction in Kent, near Canterbury

You can actually read a little more by opening up the book on Amazon where a sample is available. As a writer, I considered it important to set up this estate in a lyrical way so that the reader could visualise the exciting and horrific events that occur at Reredfelle later in the novel, and care about its survival, and about Edith Swan-Neck's fate as described in the novel.

Lower Brockhampton, Herefordshire
The decoration could be ornate

Anglo-Saxon Building

Wood was the predominant building material for domestic and secular buildings. High status late Anglo-Saxon buildings may have been very ornate as can be seen on The Bayeux Tapestry.  I wanted Reredfelle to feel both authentic and romantic.

A few facts:
  • A builder was timbriend and a tile maker was a tigelwyrthta.
  • Walls were of timber planking. Many estate buildings had turf or thatched roofs.
  • Sadly, traces of these 11th century buildings are ephermeral  consisting of post holes and pits that mark out their locations and size but little else. Many modern villages and towns have their origins in earlier settlement now lost to modern developments.
  • Life was governed by the seasons- Autumn, the harvesting of grain, slaughtering animals, salting meat, the preservation of fruit. Winter- repairing fences, killing the odd wild pig for the Easter feast, weaving, spinning, working with wood. Spring-ploughing, sowing, planting the gardens and fields, birthing lambs. Summer-hunting, tending the fields and orchards.

Hall Buildings

Changing Times

After the Norman Conquest of England, King William set about the task of working out what his new kingdom was worth, how much he could extract in taxes. To this end he instigated a survey of his domain. 'He sent men all over England and into every shire....what or how much everybody who was occupying land in England in land or cattle, and how much money it was worth.'
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, 1085.

The early medieval lady, photograph by Rich Price

The Domesday survey is a treasure for writers of historical fiction as it allows us to take information and reshape it into the fabric of an historical novel set during this period.

The Handfasted Wife
The novel

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath is available on all e readers and as a paperback, published by Accent Press, May 2013.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Handfasted Wife

The Handfasted Wife is Edith Swan-Neck, the common-law wife of Harold II who was defeated by William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings. Handfasting was a traditional marriage ceremony that was frequently favoured in early medieval England. The marriage ceremony usually took place in a hall or manor house. Before the marriage ceremony could occur contracts were exchanged between the two families involved. During the wedding ribbons were used to tie the bride and groom's hands together to represent their union. The pair may also have exchanged rings. The bride and groom traditionally made their promises by the whetstone at the entrance into the Meade-Hall. If the couple were lucky it might be a love match but more likely it was an arrangement between families. When Harold married Edith he was a second son and she was an heiress.

 Edith Swan-Neck held land in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Kent. One of the sources for this story is The Domesday Book. My references include the primary sources The Waltham Chronicle, The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, The History of William the Conqueror by William of Poitiers and many other primary and secondary sources. Most interesting though were general research topics such as Handfasting, Clothing, Food, Buildings, Medicine, Religion, will making, women and property and generally, women's day to day life in 11th century.
Handfasting at Stonehenge

Although a priest might be present at a handfasted wedding this was not a union sanctified or blessed by the Church. Handfasting was a traditional eleventh century Danish marriage form. For a king, it allowed a 'get out' later! This happened in the real historical account of the marriage between Harold II and Edith Swan-neck. She was set aside after Harold was elected king so that he could make a political alliance that would unite north and south and therefore help him to protect England from  invasion.

It was traditional to bind the hands with ribbons

 Edith Swan-neck first interested me years ago when I was viewing The Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy. The video accompanying The Tapestry, which can be viewed in Bayeux, Normandy, suggests that Edith Swan-neck identified King Harold's body parts on the battlefield at Senlac Hill after the English defeat. The image of an eleventh century woman searching for her husband's ruined body on a battlefield haunted me.

Hastings and re-enactment

 After the Battle of Hastings, Edith recognised Harold's broken body. According to The Waltham Chronicle, this was by marks only known to her. So what were these marks? My curiosity was aroused. As soon as I returned from Bayeux I visited Oxford's Bodleian library to research further Edith Swan-Neck, her Northern rival Aldgyth, the Godwin family, Edward the Confessor, his wife Edith who was also Harold's sister and Harold's mother Gytha. I then read extensively about daily life in the eleventh century- particularly women's lives. Embroidery during this period is fascinating and very skilled, and so I have incorporated tapestry and embroidery into the fabric of the novel. I was also curious as to why this Norfolk heiress was called Edith Swan-Neck. It is evidently because of her long neck and white skin which was fashionable and a sign of beauty in the 11th century.

Carnage and embroidery

Then, I wrote The Handfasted Wife, published by Accent Press for all major e readers on 29th April 2013 and as a paperback on 9th May 2013.

The Handfasted Wife

The Handfasted Wife tells Edith Swan-Neck's story. In the novel I dramatize how Edith was set aside when Harold was crowned king and how she survived this. Harold needed to unite North and South against the threat of invasion and the handfasted marriage, not recognised by the reforming 11thC church, allowed a way out of the contract with Edith. Edith moved to a hunting estate near to the south coast.  In September 1066 many properties on the south coast were destroyed when William landed at Pevensey. The picture of the burning house on The Bayeux Tapestry with a woman and child fleeing may have been, historians, for example, Andrew Bridgeford, suggest, Edith Swanneck and Ulf, her youngest child. This novel follows Edith's story after she recognised Harold's body on the battlefield of Hastings, as her youngest son, Ulf, is taken as hostage by the enemy, possible remarriage, escape and pursuit through the war-torn south and over the sea to Dublinia where her older sons had been sent before The Battle of Hastings. Finally, she learns that her eldest daughter is in danger in Exeter and returns. When the royal women become trapped in the Siege of Exeter of 1068 the question will be: can not only they survive but how?

 If you read The Handfasted Wife, I hope you enjoy it!  Feel free ask me questions here and I shall do my best to answer them.

The Burning House

The Handfasted Wife contains themes of loss, love and reconciliation. Throughout the novel other royal women enter Edith Swan-neck's story. As in any historical fiction I embroider the facts. The knack is, I feel, to remain faithful to the mores and the atmosphere of the period in order to create a believable historical world.

A woman of 1066

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath is available as a paperback from Accent  Press:
click on the book cover.