Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Viking Ships

Last week I was in Iceland and whilst there took the opportunity to collect information about Viking ships for my third novel in The Daughters of Hastings Trilogy, The Betrothed Sister. It is my work in progress. The Swan-Daughter will be published this summer by Accent Press. By studying Viking ships and early medieval Iceland I was, in a general way, gathering information relevant to the early medieval world in coastal Northern Europe and beyond. In this novel King Harold's daughter Gytha and her grandmother of the same name travel into exile and Gytha (Thea) is betrothed to Vladimir of Kiev. The Vikings famously navigated European rivers especially in Russia where the Scandinavian countries had many links at the close of the Viking period in the late 11thC.

Viking ships are larger than you would think

View towards the stern
Effective means of transport and established routes fostered social and economic growth in Scandinavia and were essential for expansion overseas, for example Iceland, Greenland, Vinland briefly, and Russia. There was also the expansion into England and Normandy. We are inclined to forget that the two kings and the Duke who fought in September and October 1066 for the throne of England were of Scandinavian descent.

In battle

Adam of Bremen writing in 1075 points out that sailing routes around Scandinavia were the most efficient ways to travel from Denmark to Norway and Sweden, and through Russia via its rivers as far as the Black Sea. Ships are the symbol of the Viking Age. These ships have been found in England and in Slav regions south of the Baltic with relevant modifications. The ships which William the Conqueror, a Viking descendent ,himself, commanded to be built for his invasion of England in 1066 were of the same type.

View of the ship
War and travel ships were low and narrow relative to their length. Mostly they seem to have been constructed from oak or pine. Oar ports were distributed evenly along the ship's length with two to each space between the frames. It is possible therefore to estimate the numbers in a crew. When not in use the oar ports could be closed with flaps.  Along the length of the ship was a deck. The mast could easily be lowered and raised because of the design of the mast fish and the mast step. The first supported the mast at deck level and the second was fitted to the top of the keel, fastened to the frames by 'knees'. Thus the ship could be a combination of a sailing and rowing vessel and it could pass under low bridges, could move quickly if attacked and make speed with a wind over the ocean. This combination gave the ship greater manoeuvrability. And of course on the outside of the ship there was the shield-batten.

The shield-batten

Hull construction detail
Scandinavian poetry contains evocative descriptions of ships and fleets. When the king lets the ships run across the sea, says the skald/ poet Arnor, it is just as if the Heaven-Lord's crowd of angels were floating together across the waves.

Raven-Flokki, the second Norseman to arrive in Iceland

When I visited Vikingaheimar in Iceland a museum south of Reykjavik, I was able to walk on the replica of the ship that Leifr Ericsson reputedly used to cross the Atlantic in the 10th century and which was taken on a similar successful voyage in this century. There is no doubt , as the exhibitions in this museum tell us, that the Vikings were indeed the first Europeans to reach America. As for the ship it was marvellous. It was enormous and beautifully constructed. It also interestingly had a hold / crawl-space under the deck. That was a feature I had wondered about. After all, how did William of Normandy transport so much equipment including his ingenious pre-IKEA flatpack concept wooden fortifications which he quickly erected at Pevensey and Hastings? When one looks at the Tapestry it is easy to think that the ships were not so large. In truth they were actually huge!

Here are a few poetic lines from Egil's Saga, an Icelandic Saga, using ship imagery:

I have travelled on the sea-god's steed
a long and turbulent wave-path
to visit the one who sits
in command of the English land.
In great boldness, the shaker
of the wound-flaming sword
has met the mainstay
of King Harald's line.

sea-god's steed=ship
shaker of wound-flaming sword=warrior

Snorri as portrayed at the Saga Museum

Egil's Saga dates in manuscript form from 13thC but is attributed on stylistic grounds to Iceland's greatest medieval historian, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) who was a descendent of Egil.

Detail of the rigging

The Mast Fish 


The Vikings by Else Roesdahl

The Sagas of Icelanders published by Penguin Classics
The World of the Vikings at Vikingaheimar
The Saga Museum, Reykjavik.

The landmark statue of Leifr Ericsson in Reykjavik
A lot of bodies in one ship...

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Lost in Romance

On a recent trip to India I re-read M.M.Kaye's The Far Pavilions, a beautiful novel of romance and chivalry set in Afghanistan and Rajasthan during the 19th century. It was my fourth trip to India and this time I was visiting neither of these places but, rather, Hyderabad in the Deccan region. Hyderabad was once India's most beautiful city. Indeed, in many ways it still is. Beyond the frenetic markets, the wilderness of traffic, the haze of pollution, not far from the old city, whilst exploring a 16th century fort, I discovered romance. 

The Golconda Fort

The Golconda Fort, situated 11km west of Hyderabad on Shepherd's Hill, projects an atmosphere of long ago intrigue and trysts. Today, it retains a ghostly echo of an exotic and a hint of a dangerous past that lingers in the present. It emanates from thick walls, corridors, deserted rooms, steps, stone carvings and dried up fountains. Romance is trapped within its ruined courtyards, the once heavenly and scented gardens, its intricate harem quarters, and in the sinister great Hall of Judgement where the Nizam would sit on his throne within a stone balcony, high above the populace, ready to pronounce judgements and thus make or destroy the fragile lives summoned into his autocratic presence.

Entry into the Hall

It is easy to remember great Indian epic poetry here, that sourced from history and legends; poetry that contains the markers of history, if embellished; these were poems of bravery, love, great deeds, glory, sacrifice and death.

During the period of the Raj the sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda between them retained control over central and southern India. As William Dalrymple writes in his book, White Moghuls, set in the region:

 'the great city states of the Deccan-like those of Renaissance Italy- were always more eclectic and open to outsiders than even the cosmopolitan Imperial Moghul courts in Agra.'

Relationships between Hindus and Muslims were easier in this region than in the north. For example, middle eastern immigrants from the 16th C on turned the Deccan into the greatest centre of Arabic learning and literary composition beyond their homelands.

Hope Diamond.jpg
The Hope Diamond

The area around Hyderabad was wealthy as it was famous for gem mines. The Hope Diamond was produced here and also the Idol's Eye and the Koh-I-Noor. I am not wealthy enough to purchase diamonds, but I admit it, I did fall for a creamy string of pearls. These are available everywhere and of excellent quality. John Keat's beautiful and reflective poem 'On Receiving a Curious Shell' opens with the lines: Hast thou from the caves of Galkonda, a gem/ pure as the ice-drop that froze on the mountain'.

The beginnings of the fort date to 1143 during the Hindi supremacy. It fell into disrepair until the Moghuls conquered the region around 1507 and as a consequence expanded what was once a mud fort into a massive fort of granite with crenelated ramparts. It is 5 km in circumference. Certainly walking over this ruined fort today is not for those in flipflops or high heels. Wear sensible walking shoes and carry water. There is a long climb up hundreds of steps to the top. Discovering this fort's every interesting nook and ancient corner is impossible. This is not a great loss, since its16th century Moghul architectural beauty is evident in its exterior pavilions, gates, entrances and domes. There are apartments, halls, temples, mosques and stables, all of them haunting ruins.
the fortress covers a huge site

This great fort is known for its magical acoustic system. A sound made at the entrance can be heard a kilometre away at the highest point. It is also believed that there is an underground tunnel that leads from the Durbur Hall to end in one of the palaces at the foot of the hill. I cannot help but wonder could this have been used for secret romances or for narrow escapes from displeasure. Does the fort and its palaces have its own long forgotten  stories reflective of M.M Kaye's famous novel?

The palace buildings have a perfect natural ventilation system with fabulous and exotic designs at every turn. This is so intricately executed that cool breezes can reach the interior of the fort, even during the intense heat of summer. Finally, an incredible water system dating from the 16th C was designed to pipe hot water into the palaces, cold water also and yes, oh yes, ladies, rose water for your pleasure. Now, how sophisticated was this way back in the 16th C.

The Golconda Fort and its palaces tempt one to dream of the past; to imagine tales of long ago lovers. Today the fort is the haunt of romancing couples, though if they are caught they may face strange consequences. It was, for instance, reported in a local paper that one such couple faced a bizarre punishment of enforced press ups when they were caught smooching around the decayed corridors.
The answer is obvious, find a hidden place amongst the ancient stones and do not get caught. The nature of romance and chivalry found in The Far Pavilions may not in the 21st century involve such extremes as suttee but romance is still very alive in The Golconda Fort and I doubt that a few press ups will be any deterrent to what was then and of what it is to be human, namely to love and to be loved.

The Handfasted Wife by
Carol McGrath
published by Accent Press



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.    http://tinyurl.com/pfv9lsj



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.