Sunday, 8 December 2013

Donegal Castle and Out and About in Donegal

Even in chilly late November a trip to Donegal in the west of Ireland is magical. The loughs and the coast, the valleys and the mountains have a sense of late Autumnal wistfulness. Tower house castles are of particular fascination to any tourist, historian or writer interested in Ireland's history. Donegal is where I spent many childhood holidays. Returning to the area for a four day trip, before continuing to Derry for a fire and light festival to celebrate the historical city's year as 2013 European city of Culture, was to see Donegal with a fresh vision.

We based ourselves in two locations , both beautiful. We stayed, first of all, at Harvey's Point on Lough Eske. It is a pleasant country hotel where the service is fabulous and the rooms comfortable. Our second location was a small hotel, Castle Murray, which looks over the inlet at St John's Point. Castle Murray is well-known for its excellent cuisine and romantic setting. This restaurant 'with rooms' is situated beside a Tower House Keep. The tower is now a ruin but it is atmospherically lit up at night.

I am going to allow the pictures to tell the story, though I shall leave Derry until another time as the city is deserving of its own pictorial story.

Loch Eske where we begin.
Our hotel is visible in the distance.
There are beautiful nature walks here.
Long strands, big skies, bracing waves and a surfer's paradise

Donegal Castle is beautifully restored late medieval tower house
It also has a Jacobean manor house.

The Tower House is beautiful, as if it steps from a fairy-tale.

The Manor House dates from the Plantation era, early 17th C

Inside the Tower

The Great Hall has a Jacobean fireplace

Elegant windows grace this Hall

The castle as it was in medieval times

Portnoo Harbour where I spent my childhood holidays.

The island was reached from a strand when the tide was out.
We made up many adventure stories around this place.

The Bay at Portnoo Harbour.
  Lobster and crab were fished by locals and sold at the harbour.

Occasionally we stayed in the bed and breakfast above.
 Sometimes we rented a cottage for the month of July.
Castle Murray Hotel at St John's Point has a French chef.
Bloody Foreland
 where many ships from The Spanish Armada were wrecked.
Another Tower House Castle. Castle Doe near Sheephaven


Finally, Derry. But this is for another time

Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife published by Accent Press and available from amazon as an e book and as a paperback.



Saturday, 26 October 2013

Mystras, a Frankish Crusader Castle

The Castle of Mystras
Mystras is just over the Taygetos mountain from my summertime home near Kardamyli. It is situated only 6 km from Sparti. It is a pleasure to introduce this medieval city to friends and visiting writers. This fabulous Byzantine city covers a hillside. At the summit my visitors discovered the ruins of a Frankish castle, once the stronghold of William II of Villehardouin, a medieval Frankish prince.

Inside one of Mystras's many Medieval Churches

William II was the ruler of the Frankish Principate of Achaia. Here he founded his principality in Greek Byzantium after the fall of Constantinople in 1204. After the fall of Monemvasia in 1248 this knightly foreign prince lost no time extending his power deep into ancient Laconia,  successfully establishing his dominion over the whole Peleponnese. The Chronicle of Morea states:
'he found a curious hill, an outcrop of the mountain ...and he gave orders and upon the hill they built a castle/ and they called it Myzethra, because thus the people cried out its name:/ a splendid castle he made it and a mighty stronghold.' (lines 2985-2991)


Sadly the Franks were defeated at The Battle of Pelagonia in 1259 and William was taken prisoner. To buy his way out of a Turkish prison he ceded the castles of Monemvasia, Mani and Mystras to the Turks. It was unfortunate for him that, by the time he purchased his freedom, the Franks had already retaken all of his fortresses! Consequently for the following decades there were struggles between the two groups of people, Franks and Turks. The Turks put their own governor in charge of the city. None the less, the Franks kept regaining their territory until by the mid fourteenth century emperor John VI Cantacuzenus took stronger measures and sent his second son Manuel to the Peloponnese with the title and authority of Despot. As a consequence, a brilliant period of Byzantine renaissance followed in Mystras.

The Walls

During Mystras's Frankish rule, a town grew up around the castle because many inhabitants of the surrounding area came to the fortress for protection. In 1265 the Cathedral of Ayios Demetrius was built. By 1290 there were the Monastery of Brontochion and the church of Ayioi Theodori and that of Aphentiko just outside the town wall. The walled town itself contained a magnificent Palace and the dwellings of officials, magistrates and burghers.
Ayia Sophia

Exploring the ancient city takes easily three hours and every time I visit I take different routes around Mystras and always discover new things. The art in the many churches alone, the frescos and the fabric of these churches and the monastery provide a visual voyage. If you were to visit this site, bring a few snacks and a water bottle and during midsummer do set out very early. Midday in summer is exacting for the most intrepid traveller. Wear sensible shoes and a sun hat is indispensable. You will climb, explore and lose yourself here.

One of the hundreds of wall paintings

During the last centuries of the Byzantine empire, Mystras saw restoration and external threats, internal upheaval. Yet it remained important, the haunt of artistic and intellectual eminence. Mystras also became the centre of military campaigns and diplomatic intrigue as the Franks of Arcadia lost control. After the Turks finally controlled the region, Mystras had direct links with Constantinople. This was to the city's advantage since it became a centre for philosophers, historians, painters, bibliographers who brought a high level of sophistication to the area. It became a city in which indigenous Greeks, Franks, Despots who intermarried with prominent European Houses, dwelled together in relative harmony.

The Monastery Entrance

By the fifteenth century the Venetians attempted to capture the city but initially failed. They brought silk production and with that prosperity to a town of around 40,000 inhabitants. Mystras was finally taken by the Venetians in 1687 who held it for decades until the Turks recaptured it during the second decade of the eighteenth century. Following its recapture Mystras had a chequered history until the new town of Sparta was established during the nineteenth century and the medieval city was finally abandoned.

Monastery of Peribleptos

St George
Mystras was a solitary, elegant city with a fabulous history. Looking over the plains from the Castle at the top I can imagine the thirteenth century, my favourite era, that of the Franks. It is so easy to think about the Crusades that brought Western kingdoms east, of Frankish knights, the hammer of their workshops, their monks and nuns and the vibrant life of an emerging medieval city. This is a very romantic image but as a writer of historical fiction, perhaps one can, perchance, dream. If you get the opportunity do visit Mystras. It is one of the fascinating sites in the Peloponnese. 

My cousin sharing a moment with the cats of Peribleptos

Our lovely friend and guide Spyros took us to ancient Sparta on this visit, another 'must see' and off the well-trod tourist track

Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife, the story of Edith Swan-Neck, King Harold's Handfasted Wife published by Accent Press and first novel in a trilogy entitled The Daughters of Hastings.


Monday, 14 October 2013

Edith Swan-Neck Identifies the King's Body on Senlac Hill

The Handfasted Wife is the story of King Harold's wife Edith Swan-Neck. As 14th October is the anniversary of The Battle of Hastings here is an extract from the novel.

The soldiers escorted Elditha to the battlefield shortly after Matins. They brought her to where Duke William had remained all night in his bivouac encampment, to where she could see Harold’s captured standards flying alongside the Duke’s own by the entrance to his tent.  Desperately looking around she saw a horrific sight. Everywhere bodies were already stripped of mail, hauberks and weapons. Even boots and hose had been taken from them. The Duke’s soldiers had been at their grisly plunder during the night.  Torches burned over it, lighting up the grim sight. She sat on her horse, her long neck erect and with Ursula by her side. They were accompanied by the two monks who had come with the King from Waltham. They had said that they could not identify the King’s fallen body, only his head. The rest was mutilated, in pieces. They told the Norman leader that Elditha Swanneck would be able to recognise her husband and reunite the King’s severed head with his body. So here she was, unceremoniously lifted onto a horse, escorted from the camp and marched north to the boundary of Harold’s estate of Crowhurst that was marked by a grey apple tree, and into the meadows of death that lay around the ridge.

 Her very sense of herself was frozen. She searched for him through the piles of the dead, pointing for this body or this limb to be turned over. Her fine boots were slippery with blood and she had to clutch her veil close against the metallic smell of it; not only that, but also the stench of shit and spilt guts. Duke William, his brothers Bishop Odo and Robert of Mortain, and a group of knights were watching her as she moved amongst the copses of departed Danish house-ceorls and Saxon aristocrats. A great gathering of priests was permitted to take away the corpses of fallen noblemen for burial. Another quarter hour passed and still she had not found Harold.

‘You have done what you can, Lady,’ said William Mallet, half a Norman and half English-man, a knight who had lived at Edward’s court. She had known him then. ‘Would you rest?’ he added.

            ‘This place will too soon become a Golgotha of skeletons, a vast field of bones,’ she cried out. ‘What evil have you done here? You will rot in hell for this, Mallet. I shall find my husband.’

            He turned away from her. She refused to be consoled or stop searching, but frantically carried on asking for bodies to be lifted, peering closely at any torso that resembled her husband’s. It was as she made a second tour of the dead up on the ridge, that she found him. She identified his long body by marks on his shoulder.  There were battle scars, too, which she now recognised on his torso and bracelet tattoos on his other arm. When she found his severed leg close by she could see the swan’s feather and the blood-stained, green-eyed dragon that encircled it and by these marks, she knew the limb was his. It was then that she sank into the mire and wept for her loss.

‘May my lord’s soul rest in peace.’ She took a cloth from her belt and carefully wiped away the blood from around the marks.
Read on...The Handfasted Wife is published by Accent Press and can be bought from Amazon Books or ordered from bookstores everywhere.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Embroidery in the 11th Century

This month, September, sees the anniversary of the first two battles of the Norman Invasion of 1066, Fulford Gate and Stamford Bridge. The Battle of Hastings occurred three weeks later, on October 14th, 1066. The story of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings and the battle itself are famously recorded by 11th century English embroiderers on the Bayeux Tapestry, thought to be commissioned by Bishop Odo, William's half brother, for his church at Bayeux in Normandy. Some Tapestry scholars think that the Tapestry was designed in Canterbury but that its panels were embroidered in both Wilton Abbey and in Canterbury workshops. One reason for this thought is that if you study the wide angle pictures and the small vignettes, you realise that the first half of this work tells the Godwin story and the second the events around the actual Norman Invasion. The death of Edward the Confessor divides the two sides of the story as it falls right in the Tapestry's centre section. Structurally this event links both as well as being the crucial factor that heralded The Norman Conquest.

Above: The Death of King Edward from The Bayeux Tapestry

 Edith Godwin, King Harold's sister Edward the Confessor's widow, was one of the most famous English embroiderers of the time. She was patron of Wilton Abbey where there was a school for young noblewomen and embroidery workshops. It is very likely that Dowager Queen Edith wanted to tell her family's story and she may have been involved in the overall plan for the Tapestry's dialogue. She was pragmatic and after Conquest she is one of the few English landowners recorded in The Doomsday Book who retained all of their pre-Conquest property. When she died in 1075 King William gave her a state funeral in Westminster where she was honoured and buried beside her saintly husband. She was not ignored by the Norman nobility and retired after The Conquest to Wilton Abbey.

Edith z Wessexu.gif
Queen Edith
English textiles had a reputation for quality on the continent. Fibres used in the production of these textiles were wool, silk which was imported, and linen. Flax was the best known plant fibre used in the Anglo-Saxon period. The plants were harvested by pulling up whole plants, which were then dried. The seed pods were removed by using a wooden toothed rippler and stems were placed in water for some weeks, a process known as retting. Once the stems had partly decomposed fibres could be removed from the tough outer surface. They were pounded with wooden mallets and using a scutching knife the Anglo-Saxon flax worker would move up and down the flax stems against a vertical wooden board to remove the fibres. They were heckled using long iron teeth to clean and separate them ready for spinning. Quite a process! Linen was the background material used for The Tapestry. The embroidery on The Bayeux Tapestry depictions is of wool, not silk.

Scutching knives

Only three great embroideries survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. The Bayeux Tapestry is the largest at 70m. The Durham embroideries were designed during the early 10th century and were discovered in the tomb of St Cuthbert. The collection has an embroidered stole, maniple and a girdle, which are closely related in design and are embroidered with gold and silk threads on silk fabric. They are thought to be Southern English work and the first two items have inscriptions to show when they were commissioned between 909 and 916. The third embroidery from this period comprises of gold thread and silk on linen. The pieces that survive are thought to have been commissioned for an altar frontal decoration. This embroidery is influenced by Anglo-Saxon art from The Book of Cerne and the Brunswick Casket. However, scholars think that they may have a Rhine-Meuse origin that is, in fact, influenced by Anglo-Saxon art.
From the Book of Cerne

Research suggests that England was pre-eminent amongst European Nations for embroidery during the Middle Ages, not just the early Middle Ages. It was a great art never since equalled in design, technique or the quality of the materials employed. It was much sought after. St Aldhelm Bishop of Sherbourne referred to the skill of Anglo-Saxon women saying

'The shuttles, not filled with purple only but with various colours are pushed here and there amongst the thick spreading threads, and then with the art of embroidery they adorn all woven work with groups of figures.'

William of Poitiers, 11th C, wrote, 'The women of England are very skilled with the needle and in the matter of tissues of gold.'

File:Harold bayeux tapestry.png
King Harold from The Bayeux Tapestry

Finally, in the Domesday Book, two specialist English embroiderers are mentioned by name, Alwid and Leviet who worked on textiles for the king and queen. Interestingly, too, Dowager Queen Edith, Edward the Confessor's wife, was reputed as skilled in d'or argent work and she is said to have dispensed beautiful works from her own workrooms and to have embroidered robes for the king. It is, I suggest, very likely that this talented aging queen had a hand in the execution of the beautiful Bayeux Tapestry.  


English Medieval Embroidery by AG Christie, Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
Anglo-Saxon Crafts by Kevin Leahy, Gloustershire: Tempus.
The Blackwell Encyclopaedia Of Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing ltd.

Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife, the story of Edith-Swan-Neck, King Harold II's Handfasted wife, an historical fiction, published by Accent Press.


Friday, 6 September 2013

The Anglo-Saxon Heiress and The Norman Conquest

Anglo-Saxon women played an important role in the years following The Conquest by providing the opportunity for intermarriage into the landowning class of Saxon society. This intermarriage gave legitimacy that cloaks the conquerors with respectability. Oderic Vitalis writing in the early 1130s speaks of rich English magnates who were Normans already settled in England before 1066 and also those who were Normans from mixed parentage and raised in England. Normans and French men who settled in England before 1066 were regarded as Anglici suggesting that to an extent integration had begun before Conquest.

convent or marriage?

In the immediate post-conquest period there is evidence that William gave confirmation of lands and rights to the Anglici. However, according to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, William did not grant such favours for nothing. In fact the loyal English and Anglici bought their lands off the king. Queen Edith, Harold's sister and Edward the Confessor's wife, was confirmed in her lands after 1066. Similar provision may have been made for Harold's mother, Gytha, at least until she refused to pay the king's tax in Exeter and as a result brought William's wrath down on her dower town with a siege that lasted for three mid-winter weeks. On the other hand, manors belonging to the male members of the Godwin family e.g. the brothers and family of Harold II were divided amongst royal followers such as William Fitz Osbern (the central shires) and Odo of Bayeux (Kent and the south-east).

Eventually wealthy Anglo-Normans might build up such a manor, maybe after a few centuries 

An obvious way to secure land was to marry an heiress. The Breton Geoffery de la Guerche apparently acquired the lands of Leofine, Harold's brother who died at Hastings through marriage with Leofwine's daughter Aelfgifu. Sometimes the enforced marriage policy was not welcome and the ladies took refuge in nunneries 'not for love of religious life but from fear of the French', according to Oderic Vitalis. William also had been concerned to restore land to the English nobility who accepted Norman rule. Just after Hastings penances due from William's men for destruction were lessened if they married into the enemy. And this penance for Norman knights could be costly.

Medieval Wedding
The Romantic Anglo-Norman marriage! She wed the knight! ( it is a very romantic pre-Raphaelite image rather than a faithful one)

The bulk of male English survivors were royal servants and officials of varying kinds. For example Edward of Salisbury, the sheriff of Wiltshire, an official appointed by Edward the Confessor, survived Conquest and held onto his office. According to The Domesday Book he had an estate of 300 hides in 1086. Widows holding lands in alms were also able to acquire or recover something of the pre-conquest wealth and status. Thus, although the royal court was dominated by foreigners much of local business was in the hands of Englishmen.
A Sheriff such as Edward of Salisbury

The integration of both peoples after The Conquest did draw on similarities of both peoples and was possible because of similarities as much as the imposition of one set of customs on another such as castle and cathedral building. Oderic Vitalis describes markets of villages and towns as 'filled with displays of French wares and merchandise'. William of Poitiers speaks of how the women of the English race excelled in embroidery and cloth of gold.

The most famous embroidery of the 11thC
Marriage between incoming Normans and native English families was commoner than surviving sources indicate. There was inter-marriage at all levels of society. One evidence is that women's names changed less rapidly than men's names suggesting that newcomers sought English women as wives. Marriage with an English heiress might help secure possession of her family's lands. William was concerned immediately after the take-over to keep loyal Saxon/English magnates loyal. Though it must be said that the greatest Norman lords still sought their wives from France. It was those who made their fortune in England who found English wives an advantage. Here is an example of a 'lesser' heiress's marriage and how within this family the tradition continued through several generations.

Robert d'Oilly and Ealdgyth, daughter of Wigot of Wallingford
Matilda their daughter married Miles Crispin
Robert d'Oilley II married Edith, daughter of Farne, son of Sigulf and she, interestingly, had a son by Henry I called Robert. It is likely that Henry I, William the Conqueror's youngest son, married off his Saxon mistress to Robert d'Oilley.

Henry 1, of course, married the greatest English heiress of them all Maud /Matilda of Scotland who was the niece of Edgar Aetheling often regarded as the true and rightful heir to the English throne after Edward the Confessor's death.

Henry 1 who married the most prestigious heiress of all,  Matilda

Then, as well, there is the scandal concerning Gunnhild the youngest daughter of King Harold and Edith Swan-neck who eloped with Breton Alan of Richmond, (a cousin of King William) from Wilton Abbey. She is the subject of my new book in progress, The Swan-Daughter.

King William recorded land in the Domesday Book 1086

As a consequence inter marriage produced families that spoke English and Norman French. By the end of the 12th century an aristocracy that described itself as English indicates how English became the language of most Anglo-Normans. Sadly though, English wives and mistresses did face a twofold imbalance in power because with the Conquest Norman society gave them less influence than they previously held before 1066. Also, often, the dispossession of male English aristocrats meant that many aristocratic English women who married into the first generation of Normans, French and Bretons, lost what family backing they once had. Equally, they were a factor in the assimilation of two peoples and, by the end of the 12th century, marriage with the Anglo-Saxon heiress contributed to the triumph of an English identity

The Handfasted Wife is the story of Edith Swan-Neck and can be purchased from Amazon as kindle e book, for all e readers, paperback and also from Accent Press

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.

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