“I was born a story teller. At the age of three, before I could read or write, I can remember opening my picture books at my favourite illustrations and making up new tales. Almost like Mary Poppins, I used to ‘climb’ inside the pictures and imagine myself a part of that world…aged fifteen that I knew I wanted writing historical fiction to be my career.”
Elizabeth Chadwick is an award-winning author of historical fiction and was kind enough to let us pick her brain on all things Middle-Ages…
Historical Honey: I have just finished reading ‘To Defy A King’ (which I LOVED and swooned over many a time) where King John took Mahelt’s brother and even her son hostage in return for the families loyalty. Was this practice very prevalent during the Medieval period?
Elizabeth Chadwick: It happened regularly throughout the Middle Ages, yes, and it could be dangerous if not fatal for the children involved. King John took several children from Welsh nobles who were to stand surety for their families’ bond of honour and when he suspected treachery, he hanged every last child from the walls of NottinghamCastle.
Mahelt’s own father, William Marshal, had been a hostage as a little boy of five or six years old and had narrowly escaped hanging or being hurled from a catapult and smashed against his father’s castle walls. Only the King’s intervention at the last minute prevented it.
HH: In the author’s note at the end of ‘To Defy A King’ you express interest in other historical figures such as Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Do you every get impatient whilst writing one novel, sidetrack and begin another?
EC: No, because I know I’m under contract and I have to finish one before I can begin another, so I tend to keep my focus on the one I’m writing. It’s always good to know I’ve something waiting in the wings though. I do find ideas for the next project come along while I’m writing the current one, so I put them on the back burner to let my subconscious mull over the process in the meantime. I am a multi-tasker, but when it comes to my writing, I deal with what’s in front of me, and let the other ideas gather outside the door in a cosy huddle with coffee and biscuits until I’ve finished and I’m ready for them!
HH: Other than in official capacity Mahelt Marshal didn’t adopt ‘Matildis de Warenne’ from her second husband after Hugh’s death, but would remain a Bigod or Marshal. In a time when women had little freedom, I’d like to think this gave them a sense of their own identity. Do you think this is true?
EC: There could be any number of reasons Mahelt did not take her second husband’s name – including the detail that she might not have liked him very much! It could also have been that she wanted to keep that Bigod connection very clear in everyone’s minds as she fought for the rights of her children. Women’s identities in the Middle Ages were very much tied up in whose daughter, wife or mother they were. Their times of greatest influence were as the mothers of sons and as widows when to an extent they could control their own destinies. For example, a widow called Hawise FitzWarin, paid the king 30 marks so that she would not have to marry again after her husband died. Women’s power and influence tended to be of the behind the scenes kind. They weren’t the direct decision makers as a rule, but they could still wield power of opinion in the domestic chambers and work on their menfolk in more subtle ways. Indeed, they were known in an official capacity as peace keepers and mediators. If a man felt he might lose face or machismo by backing down, his wife could step in and smooth the way. Women greased the wheels in other words, without which the cart could not turn. There were still many constraints compared to today, but there were also different expectations and a powerful sense of duty that affected attitudes when compared to ours.
HH: Your forthcoming trilogy centres on the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. For those who don’t know, can you give us a brief insight into who this woman was?
EC: Eleanor of Aquitaine inherited vast tracts of land in the south of France after her father died when she was just 13. A few months later she was married according to the wishes of his will, to the 17 year old heir to the French throne, Louis VII. She had no say in the matter. When his own father died shortly after the marriage, the couple became king and queen of France. Their marriage was a difficult one lasting 15 years in which they only had 2 daughters – no good for a medieval king where the default need was for strapping sons. He and Eleanor went on crusade together but it ended it scandal (Eleanor was accused of impropriety with her uncle) and ignominy. Eleanor wanted a divorce and eventually obtained one, but not before the Pope had tried to reconcile her and Louis by putting them in bed together and blessing them. The result was their second daughter.
Following the divorce, Eleanor married again to the young Duke of Normany and Count of Anjou, the future King Henry II of England. He was 9 years younger than her, and an energetic firebrand. Their marriage wasn’t easy either, although it was certainly blessed with children of whom seven lived to adulthood. Due to political incompatibility and some say to the fact that Henry was ignoring Eleanor for a beautiful young mistress, Eleanor encouraged her sons to rebel against their father and also rebelled herself. (I suspect political incompatibilities rather than jealousy over a mistress myself). She was caught trying to escape and Henry sent her to England and made her his prisoner for 16 years. She was freed on his death and went on to rule England during her son Richard the Lionheart’s absence on the 3rd crusade. She also travelled to Cyprus and over the Pyrenees on family business. When Richard was captured and imprisoned on his way home from the Crusade, she saw to it that a vast ransom was gathered together to pay for his release. When Richard died untimely, it was in Eleanor’s arms after she rushed to his deathbed. She then set about securing her last son John’s position on the English throne and also took it upon herself to cross the Alps to fetch her granddaughter to a marriage with the King of France. She eventually died at the Abbey of Fontevraud, aged 80, having designed her own effigy and the effigies of her 2nd husband Henry II, and her beloved Richard’s. Phew!
HH: My Grandma and I are both massive fans of Historical fiction, and often pass books back and forth. She was very excited when I told her we were interviewing you and asked if she could include a few questions of her own?
HH Grandma: It does seem a rather cruel practice that young and vulnerable boys were sent to the families of other Knights to learn their fighting skills. Did this practice last a long time?
EC: I don’t know about outside the 12th century but it does seem to have a long tradition, but also to have been ‘More like guidelines really. Sometimes sons were sent away to be trained, sometimes the sons stayed at home to be educated, but then other people’s sons were sent to join them and be their companions. It’s a bit like going to boarding school I guess. It wasn’t just the fighting skills, but involved a whole raft of educational necessities including learning the manners of a courtier, some awareness of estate and man management, the law of the land,(aristocrats were very into their litigation) and social skills. One would be learning with one’s peers who would be one’s support system throughout life – the Old Boy network if you will. It certainly carried on throughout the Middle Ages and was seen as the norm. The practice of giving small children to the church, however, was halted as it was decided that the child should at least have a vocation before being groomed for holy order – that was the theory anyway.
HH Grandma: You have written many books on the 12th Century. Do you consider it to be the most challenging period to write about? And do you ever struggle to piece together the historical sources?
EC: I think it’s challenging but no more so than many other periods. I have heard historical novelists say (a couple of them prominent and admired) that it’s easier to write earlier periods because there isn’t as much information available and that it frees up the imagination. One of them said he really wanted to write about the late 18th century but had a contract pending with a time limit, so he chose instead to write about the Norman Conquest because he’d only have to study five books for research instead of a roomful. Hearing him say this, I was a bit surprised. The information is there, but you have to dig that little bit deeper. As far as piecing together historical sources – I find it fascinating, and sometimes a challenge, but not a struggle. Usually I can find a couple of versions of the same event and they may differ in the detail, but this is no different from modern times. I then have to choose which version best suits my story, and filter it through my imagination. It’s like blending pictures in Photoshop!
HH: If you could swap places with any historical figure from your novels, which one would you choose and why?
EC: Definitely William Marshal, and in the springtime of his life when he was a jousting champion. I’m interested in what exactly went on at a tourney, especially some of the riding techniques. I’d like to have been in the thick of it and possessing the physical abilities and knowhow to deal with it, which he obviously did.
HH: And finally, do you have any words of wisdom you can pass on to young aspiring writers?
EC: If it’s historical fiction you’re writing, research as much as you need to know to get started, but don’t get hung up on it. Do the rest in the background as you write. Think about how your characters would have thought and felt in their own time. Step out of your own shoes and put yourself in theirs. Most of all, enjoy what you’re doing. At first draft stage you get to find out about your story and your characters and that’s great fun. You might also like to write brief character sketches before you start. What do your main characters look like? What are their likes and dislikes? Are they scared of anything? What makes them laugh? What has brought them to the point where you want to tell their story?
Also, and very importantly, remember that there are no rules. Ignore anyone who tells you there is a set way of writing a novel. To quote Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean, rules should be ‘more like guidelines really.’ Write in a way that works for you.
Elizabeth is currently writing three ground-breaking novels about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, beginning with The Summer Queen, published in the UK June 13th 2013 and in the USA July 2014.