Monday, 29 December 2014

Fascinating Facts: King Stephen

This is evidence that Britain has had some really useless kings!

Fascinating Facts: Stephen [1135-1154]

  • Nephew of William I and cousin of William Rufus and Henry I, he was a lovely man but a useless king.
  • When his father died, Henry was a surrogate father to him, and everyone thought Stephen would be his heir. But, knowing he was not aggressive or tough enough to rule, Henry named his daughter Matilda and forced all his barons to swear loyalty to her.
  • When Henry died Stephen rushed to gather the support of the barons and the clergy, and was crowned only a few weeks later.
  • When the Scots rebelled and Geoffrey of Anjou threatened Normandy, instead of fighting them, Stephen bought them off.
  • When Matilda landed in England, he made no attempt to stop her gathering an army, which led to civil war. Stephen was a great soldier, but in 1141 he was captured, deposed, and Matilda took the throne.
  • The barons would not accept a queen and the civil war continued. Stephen's reign is often called 'the Anarchy'. The government fell apart and every landowner built a castle to protect his own interests.
  • When Matilda's fourteen-year-old son Henry came to England to fight for his mother, he didn't have the money to pay his soldiers – so Stephen paid his debts and helped him return home!
  • Henry grew up to hold vast lands in France and have great skill in war, so in 1153 Stephen agreed to make Henry his heir as long as Stephen could continue to reign. Stephen died only a year later.

Monday, 22 December 2014

News and Season's Greetings

Over the last few weeks there have been some interesting developments, in the local history area.

I gave a talk to the Gower Society that went down very well. As a result, I was put in touch with two people. The first was a teacher from Oystermouth Primary School. She wants me to give a talk to her class next term about Alina. I went to meet her and we got on well. Two things came out of that.

The class has an interactive whiteboard, where I can display PowerPoint slides. I have a display book of images that I flip through during my talks, and have intended putting them into Powerpoint, but never got around to it. This is the incentive I need to get it done.

The other thing, is that the teacher said, if my talk to her class goes well, the other teachers may want talks too, and the school can help me get my name in front of the other schools in the area who might also be interested in local history.

Going back to my Gower Society talk, the secretary put me in touch with a lovely man who wanted to show me a book he has that includes Alina. My husband took me to his house and we had tea and cake with him and his wife while he showed me this book.

It turns out to be a hand-written novel by John Dillwyn Llywelyn (a famous family in this area), written in the 1840s. Among the pages of the 4 notebooks it fills are delightful pencil sketches and occasional watercolours. The handwriting is beautiful copperplate and the style is reminiscent of other novels of that era. Whether it is actually any good, I have yet to discover. The best thing is that he gave me a transcript, complete with copies of the pictures!

So I have a Powerpoint (or several) to make, and a novel to read. I'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, have a very happy Christmas and a blessed New Year.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

This Blog is Expanding!

Today I have some exciting news! Over the coming months this blog will be expanding to cover the other part of my writing: science fiction.

Don't be alarmed, the fun and fascinating facts about history will still be here, and all the news about my local history books as well as my new project on Magna Carta.

Those who have followed me for a while will know that I run two blogs. This one is my official author blog, and the other one, Ann Marie Thinking Out Loud, is my personal blog. So far, my only claim to authorship is my two local history books, stories from medieval Gower. All my other writing has been talked about on my personal blog.

For many years I have been writing a science fiction series called Flight of the Kestrel. The first book is called Intruders, the second and third books are only in rough draft form, waiting to be worked on. Well, I have just sent Intruders to a professional editor, who will work on it during January. So I am preparing to publish it.

For that reason, this blog needs to cater for future readers of that book too.

I will also be launching a mailing list, where you can subscribe as a reader of my books. There will be options for my history readers and my science fiction readers, so you won't get information you aren't interested in.

So - watch this space!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Fascinating Facts: Henry I

We've all heard of William the Conqueror, didn't know about William Rufus, might have a vague idea about Henry. After all there was Henry VIII wasn't there? So there must have been a Henry I to start off the Henrys. Did you know he was another son of William the Conqueror? We aren't finished with that family yet!

 Fascinating Facts: Henry I [1100-1135]

  • Brother of William II, who had made a pact with their brother Robert Curthose (Duke of Normandy) to exclude Henry from the succession of both England and Normandy. When William died, Robert was out of the country, so Henry seized control.
  • He was cold-blooded and cruel. He once tore out a captive's eyes with his bare hands.
  • Unlike other Norman kings, he could read and write.
  • He was constantly engaged in intrigue, devious and deceitful and broke faith with nearly everyone.
  • When Robert proved weak in Normandy, Henry campaigned to take control, captured his brother, and imprisoned him for life.
  • He loved hawks and had hundreds at court and would go hunting at dawn. He preferred rare white falcons.
  • In 1120 Henry and his whole family sailed from France to England. The White Ship carrying the young people, children of the king and many nobles, delayed leaving while they partied. When it eventually sailed it struck a rock and sank. Only one man survived.
  • In 1135, aged 67, Henry died from eating too many lamprey eels. As the famous book 1066 and All That said, he died of a surfeit.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Hello again!

In my last post I explained that I was taking part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) so I wouldn't be posting. Well, it's over, so I'm back.

The challenge is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I didn't make it.

I'm a bit sad, mainly because the winners tee-shirt has a dragon on it, and I love dragons.

But I learned some valuable lessons, which I'll be blogging about on my personal blog, and I have 35,000 words of a novel that I can work on in the future. More importantly, I wrote at least several hundred words every day, which is a great habit to nurture, and I intend to continue.

So, normal service will be resumed, both on my blogs and with my other writing. The main project is my book on Magna Carta, which will be out early next year in time for the 800th anniversary celebrations. I hope you'll drop by.

Monday, 27 October 2014

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)

If I don't post regularly for a few weeks, it's because November is National Novel Writing Month.

Known for short as NaNoWriMo, this began as a challenge between friends to write a novel in a month. The idea spread and was put online as a means of keeping everyone in touch. Now, hundreds of thousands of people all over the world take part every year.

I have taken part several times, but only succeeded last year, with the rewrite of my science fiction novel Flight of the Kestrel: Intruders. However, I have several partly-written novel drafts to work on. I am preparing to take part again this year, with another science fiction novel called Rayt.

The challenge is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. You are allowed to plan, outline, research, build characters etc., in advance, but you don't write one word of the novel until 1st November.

Then it's an average of 1,666 words a day, every day. So I'm going to be really busy.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Fascinating Facts: William Rufus

What do you know about William Rufus?


William Rufus was the son of William the Conqueror, and succeeded him as king.

Fascinating Facts: William II (Rufus) [1087-1100]
William Rufus seal
  • Third son of William the Conqueror, he was never expected to rule. He ruled England and his brother Robert Curthose inherited the dukedom of Normandy.
  • He was rough, outrageous and immoral, and probably bisexual.
  • He dressed like a dandy and grew his red hair long down his back like a woman's. His red hair earned him the nickname 'Rufus'.
  • In memory of his father he raised a costly monument in gold and silver studded with jewels.
  • When he moved from place to place with his huge entourage they stripped the countryside of food and wagons, and raped and pillaged like it was enemy territory.
  • When he was 33 he became dangerously ill and thought he was dying. He confessed his sins and promised to change for the better. He got better and forgot it all.
  • One day he went out to shoot game, and was struck in the heart by an arrow, dying instantly. It was speculated that a hunting death a few months before had given assassins the idea, but it was never proven.
 The plaque on this monument reads: "Remember King William Rufus who died in these parts then known as Truham whilst hunting on 2nd August 1100"

Monday, 13 October 2014

New Book: Magna Carta Demystified

I mentioned on my other blog in July that I had submitted a book pitch to a publisher. I was really excited. 

Although their website said submissions would be acknowledged and decisions given in 3-4 weeks, I heard nothing. I resubmitted, and still heard nothing. Now I have discovered that their Twitter account has not been used since July. Just my luck!

They were a very good fit with my proposal, too. They have (had) a series called Bitesize History, and my proposal was a book about the Magna Carta for the layman. I have now sent the pitch to another publisher, but I haven't had an acknowledgement from them either. Oh well.

It's not all bad news. The idea for the book has taken hold, and I've decided to write it anyway. It will be released as an ebook. 

June 15th 2015 is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Any place that can lay claim to a connection to the occasion is organising events. There will be UK-wide events to celebrate this anniversary, preparations are already being advertised in the press. There is also a market outside the UK, as Magna Carta was the foundation of many nations’ constitutions and legal systems worldwide, such as the United States Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and throughout the Commonwealth.
My book  Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John is about the rise and fall of William de Breos (or de Braose), who was a close confidant of King John. When William’s wife revealed John’s greatest secret, John’s revenge was brutal. His treatment of the family was the final straw which led to Magna Carta.
Because Broken Reed was written mainly as a local history book, it views the events surrounding Magna Carta from a Welsh point of view. I plan to expand it to cover the wider aspects to produce a book of interest to everyone.
So, in between interesting bits of medieval history, I'll be posting news updates about the new book. Oh, and any ideas for a better title? Leave your ideas in the comments, please.

UPDATE 27 FEB 2015: The book is now called The Magna Carta Story and will be out in March 2015

Monday, 6 October 2014

Fascinating Facts: William the Conqueror

What do you know about William the Conqueror?

Coin of William the Conqueror

Probably just a few dry facts and the general impression that he was one of the bad guys. You may be surprised to find he was deeply religious, faithful to his wife, and convinced his claim to the throne was valid. Here are some more fascinating facts:

Fascinating Facts: William I (The Conqueror) [1066-1087]

  • His father died when he was seven and his life was continually under threat. His uncle repeatedly smuggled him out of the castle and hid him in a peasant's hut to keep him safe.
  • He married Matilda, daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, and had four sons and five daughters.
  • He was a distant cousin to Edward the Confessor, King of England, who named him his heir.
  • Harold swore an oath of loyalty to William and sealed the pact by marrying his daughter Agatha.
  • He had remarkable self-control and self-discipline, and was faithful in his religion and his marriage.
  • The pope gave William his backing in claiming the throne.
  • He tried to learn English, but spoke only French.
  • He spent over half his reign in Normandy, keeping control there.
  • He had trouble keeping control in England. Every time he put down a rebellion, he built a castle!
  • When his subjects heard he was dead they cowered in fear. He was so superhuman that they expected natural catastrophes to follow.

I think he was actually quite a guy!

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Horrible Histories

Imagine living in a country where the trees drip with human blood.
A country where dragons are out to roast you for dinner.
And where lords invite you to dinner so they can massacre you.
A country invaded by Viking sea-raiders from the west. They smash down your churches or set fire to them if you try to hide inside. And then Norman knights from the east arrive and build castles and churches (and kill a few peasants who get in their way).
It's a country where gangs of murdering robbers attack you as you walk through their forests.
A country where the punishment for stealing cattle is to have your arms cut off and the punishment for a servant who steals from her mistress is to be burned alive.
Where is this hideously horrible place? Transylvania in the reign of Dracular?
No. Germany in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm?
No. …
The horrible country is … Wales!
The GOOD news is the trees no longer drip with blood and the dragons have disappeared … probably killed off by knights in fireproof knickers. The Vikings have stopped raiding and you can steal as many cattle as you like without having your arms cut off.
All those things happened in Wales's horrible history.

That is the introduction to the Horrible Histories Wales book. 

I wrote last week about making history fun. Horrible Histories is a great way to do that. It's not to everyone's taste, but it's working to make history accessible. With an introduction like that, most readers would want to know more, especially children. In a less crazy way, I'm hoping to do the same, mostly about medieval Wales.

If the introduction above has piqued your interest, I've already written about where lords invite you to dinner so they can massacre you.  and way back in 2010 I wrote about castle building. If you look around this blog, maybe you'll find other interesting bits of history.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Making History Fun

When I was in school, in the 50s and 60s, subjects like history were largely taught almost by rote. Lists of kings and wars and laws and on and on.

When my children were in school, in the 80s and 90s, history lessons were a bit better, but covered a limited range of topics that didn't make a lot of sense to me. The GCSE course covered medicine in the American West and the Long March in China, amongst other things.

No wonder people think history is boring and irrelevant!

My grandson, who is 9, is reading the Horrible Histories books and watching the TV series. There is a web site too. The facts they give are all true, but they pick out the horrible bits, which kids love. The books are full of cartoons, and the TV series is full of silly songs. The author of the books, Terry Deary, says they are his revenge for boring history lessons when he was a child.

There are lots of things done today to make history more interesting. One of the best is the re-enactors, groups of people who dress up and act out daily life and battles from history. I even went to a history chef presentation where we learned how to make medieval food, and it tasted quite good.

One day, I stood and looked up at ruins of Swansea Castle, which stand in the city centre, and wondered what it was like when it was lived in. My original idea was to write a time-travel fantasy where someone went back in time in the castle. I went home and Googled it, and became fascinated by stories from the medieval lords of Gower.

These were real people with real problems. Some of them were clever, some were hopeless, just like people today. I got drawn in to do more and more research, and as I pieced together the story of William de Breos and his son-in-law John de Mowbray, I discovered their story had not yet been told. Using Alina, William's daughter and John's wife, I was able to tie the story together.

I figured if it fascinated me it may well fascinate others, and turned it into a book, Alina, The White Lady of Oystermouth. The White Lady is her ghost that haunts Oystermouth Castle, where the family lived. The book has so far sold about 350 print copies, mostly to locals and tourists, and a few copies in ebook form.

The success of that book sent me back to my research and resulted in Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John, which tells the story of Alina's ancestor who rose to great heights as a confidant of King John, and then fell to utter ruin.

My aim through these books is to tell a cracking good story in an accessible way, to make the history come alive. I hope I've succeeded.

Monday, 1 September 2014

New Book: Magna Carta Demystified

I mentioned in my other blog in July that I had submitted a book pitch to a publisher. I was really excited. 

So far there has been no reply. Their web site says they will acknowledge receipt immediately and then give a decision in 3-4 weeks. When I heard nothing after a month, I resubmitted. I’ve still not had an acknowledgement. Excitement dissipated. I’m telling myself maybe it’s holiday time. I’m trying to be patient.
In the mean time, I’ve realised that the book pitch has worked on me! I think the book is definitely a good idea, so I’m going to write it anyway, and produce an ebook.
In my previous post, I didn’t reveal the details, but now I want to tell you about it. This post just appeared on my other blog, because it's about writing, but I'm repeating it on this blog, because the new book is another medieval history book. Any comments would be a great help. Let me know what you think.
Magna Carta (Wikimedia)
June 15th 2015 is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Any place that can lay claim to a connection to the occasion is organising events. There will be UK wide events to celebrate this anniversary, preparations are already being advertised in the press. There is also a market outside the UK, as Magna Carta was the foundation of many nations’ constitutions and legal systems worldwide, such as the United States Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and throughout the Commonwealth.

My book Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John  is about the rise and fall of William de Breos (or de Braose), who was a close confidant of King John. When William’s wife revealed John’s greatest secret, John’s revenge was brutal. His treatment of the family was the final straw which led to Magna Carta.

Because Broken Reed  was written mainly as a local history book, it views the events surrounding Magna Carta from a Welsh point of view. I plan to expand it to cover the wider aspects to produce a book of interest to everyone.

Both of my stories from medieval Gower are written in an easy, accessible style, with line drawing illustrations. They also have endnotes and a bibliography for academic robustness. I plan for the new book to be the same. The only differences are there will not be a print version, unless a publisher wants to take it up, and I have not yet spoken to my illustrator.
I’m off on holiday soon, so I’ll see if I get a reply by the time I get back. Watch this space!

Monday, 25 August 2014

What Was a 'Real' Knight?

Books and films have encouraged the idea of the 'knight in shining armour' right up to the present day. He was courteous, loyal and brave, and lived by a code of conduct. Always ready to rescue a 'damsel in distress' or go on a quest, right wrongs and fight evil.

But, as Horrible Histories Measly Middle Ages says, “These knights were big bullies who battered British peasants into doing as they were told or fought for the king and battered foreign peasants.”

So how did the truth get so completely turned around?

Well, it didn't. Both versions of knighthood actually existed at the same time in the Middle Ages. That's not to say there were two different kinds of knights (though there were bad knights) – a knight would hold to the ideal at the same time as behaving in the most brutal way.

It's all because of King Arthur.

Around 1100, poems, songs and stories began to be written about a bygone age, when all of society worked together for the good of all. The peasants worked the land to provide food for everyone, the Church looked after the spiritual needs of the people, and the knights defended and protected them all.

Far from believing this age was over and gone, medieval people considered they were the faded remains of this great age. As stories grew, the ideal took hold. Knights began to be 'dubbed' in a special ceremony, and agreed to a code of behaviour, which included protecting the weak.

Stories like King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, Tristan and Isolde, and Piers the Ploughman told knights how they should live. Training for a knight not only involved rigorous physical training but learning about the literature and culture of his class.

Mind you, the medieval romances were also about forbidden love and impossible quests to prove your devotion to your lady, who may be married to someone else. Lancelot and Guinevere are a case in point.

Against this ideal, was man's natural desire for wealth and power, and the brutalising result of war, including the Crusades. The ideal was impossible to live up to, but many knights made a valiant effort, and certainly, away from the battlefield, displayed their courtly manners.

One last point is worth making. There was no clear delineation between fact and fiction in the Middle Ages as there is today. History and romance were both seen as vessels of truth, and not kept apart. So 'histories' written then would include the ideal as well as the factual. In the case of knights, this accurately reflects the way they endeavoured to live as well as their achievements.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Has Anyone Seen My Treasure?

In medieval times the king didn't hold court in one central location. He traveled about from place to place.

Sometimes he was leading an army against invaders or subduing a rebel lord, and he would hold court in the most convenient castle. At other times it was necessary to move because of the strain on the local area for providing food and fodder for the court.

Along with the king, it was necessary to transport everything he might need, including his treasure. For two particular kings, this proved to be a very bad idea indeed.

King John
King John is known as the bad king who was eventually made to sign Magna Carta. But he immediately had it annulled by the Pope, and his barons rebelled, turned to France and offered the crown to Prince Louis. The story is told in part in my book, Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John. John traveled the country trying to raise support, taking his treasure and crown jewels with him.

He was becoming more and more exhausted and ill, and in 1216 he travelled from Lincolnshire to Norfolk. In between was the huge estuary known as the Wash, full of mudflats, marshes and quicksands. John went the long way around, but he sent his baggage train across the causeway, which was only navigable at low tide.

The Wash
The horse-drawn wagons were very slow, and maybe he thought it would be quicker to go straight across. Unfortunately the wagons were too slow to beat the turn of the tide, and they were lost in the water.

I found this passage from Charles Dickens' A Child's History of England:
looking back from the shore when he was safe, he [the king] saw the roaring water sweep down in a torrent, overturn the waggons, horses and men, that carried his treasure, and engulf them in a raging whirlpool from which nothing could be delivered.” 

John died just over a week later, and the treasure has never been found.

King Edward II

Unlike King John, there are those who argue the case for Edward II, but he is generally regarded as a bad king. His story is told in my book Alina, The White Lady of Oystermouth.

The barons rebelled against him and after a seeming victory, were eventually defeated. But Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer raised an army in exile and landed in England. The barons flocked to join them and the king was forced to flee.

He, his favourite Hugh le Despenser, and their retainers fled westwards and ended up in Wales, at Neath Abbey. Their next stop was to be Swansea Castle, and they sent word to strengthen the defences and sent all the king's treasure and personal effects ahead to Swansea.

The next day Edward and Despenser were captured in open country. Despenser was tried and horribly executed. Edward was persuaded to abdicate in favour of his son.

It wasn't until a few years later that an inquiry was set up in Swansea to locate the king's goods and treasure, which was estimated to be worth £63,000 (about £29m today). It included gold and silver plates, coins and jewellery, fine clothing, arms, armour, and horses. Many of the king's papers were found. After three inquiries about £3000 worth was recovered, and in April 1336 a Royal Commission sought to bring to justice those who had stolen the rest. It does not appear that anyone was convicted.

Monday, 11 August 2014

William Marshal: The Greatest Knight

There was a programme on TV recently about William Marshal. I knew of him because he comes briefly into the story of Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John, but I didn't know much about him.

Effigy of William Marshal in Temple Church
I was astounded at what I learned. The presenter called him 'A forgotten hero of our history' and 'The most celebrated warrior of his age'. The programme title called him 'The Greatest Knight'.

His name, Marshal, comes from the fact that his father John was Marshal of the King's horses, so he was called John the Marshal. Not a high rank, though it was a Norman family. William was born in 1147, one of six sons. John served King Stephen, but then supported the Empress Matilda in the war for the throne. John gave the five-year-old William to Stephen as a hostage in return for a truce, which he then broke. Stephen threatened to hang William, but John is reported to have said, "I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!" It was suggested to shoot the boy over the city walls from a catapult, but Stephen took pity on him and kept him prisoner for a while. How history would have changed if William had not lived!

At the age of twelve William sailed to Normandy to join the household of William of Tancarville, the chamberlain of Normandy, to learn how to be a knight. He was there 6 years. In 1166 he was knighted to fight against Flanders. He acquitted himself with some skill, which he used in peacetime to earn a living from tournaments.

William Marshal unhorses Baron Guisnes at a joust
William saved Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II, when he was escorting her and she was attacked. She paid his ransom and called him to court as mentor and companion to her son, the Young King Henry. William rose to the head of the retinue and people became jealous. A whispering campaign was started accusing him of adultery with the Young King's Queen, but when he challenged his accusers no one would fight him. He was forced to go into exile. The Young King realised how much he needed him and recalled him with his reputation intact.

In 1183 the Young King died without being able to fulfil his desire to go to Jerusalem. William went on his behalf, and fought for 2 years. In 1186 William returned to the court of Henry II and over the next 20 years forged his reputation as the greatest knight, defending the land and proving his loyalty.

In June 1189 he faced the rebellious Richard the Lionheart in battle while defending Henry, but lowered his lance and struck Richard's horse. He would not kill the heir to the throne. Two months later Henry died and Richard became king. Richard called on William and challenged him that he tried to kill him in battle. William said, “I am strong enough to aim my lance.” Richard brought him into his retinue because he had proved himself loyal to the last.

Chepstow Castle
He finally had the opportunity to settle down and have lands of his own. He married the heiress of Chepstow, Isabel de Clare, and became the Lord of Chepstow at 42. He now had his own knights and children. Isabel was the daughter of the Earl of Pembroke, and when he died, William became the Earl. His fame was such that he was not referred to by name or title, people just called him 'the Marshal'.

Pembroke Castle
William served Henry II, Richard I and King John. When John died, England was in danger of French occupation but John's son Henry was only nine. A few nobles who had remained loyal to King John met and begged William to protect him. He was crowned and William knighted him. William pledged to protect him as long as he was able. William became regent, because it was the honorable thing to do. As regent, he re-issued the Magna Carta, and it can be seen today with his seal on.

In May 1217, aged 70, he rode into battle against the French at Lincoln and inspired the troops to victory. If the battle had been lost, England would have become part of France.This was a time when men were considered old at forty. William died 2 years later.

His role has been rediscovered through a medieval manuscript – his biography. The first known biography, written in Anglo-Norman French, in verse. It was commissioned by his son, so we have to question whether the text tells the whole truth, but much is verifiable from other sources.

He served 4 kings and preserved the throne of England, but William Marshal and knights like him stemmed the tide of royal tyranny and promoted the rule of law. He rose through the ranks, was a great warrior, politician and courtier, and earned the reputation of the greatest knight in the world.

[Pictures from Wikimedia]

Friday, 1 August 2014

Why Visit a Castle?

Oystermouth Castle
1. Because it's there
Don't you have any curiosity? Even if you know nothing about history, you can't ignore the heaps of stone, doorways, towers and underground rooms perched majestically on a hilltop.

2. Because it's a fun playground for the kids
Castle ruins are a great place for kids. They provide a climbing frame, hiding places, open spaces, towers, dungeons, and a great stimulous to their imagination, with tales of kings, knights, fair maidens, and great battles.

3. Because it's the embodiment of history
Here is tangible evidence of the past. The castles were built by the conquerors to keep the conquered in check. Who were they? Sometimes they changed hands several times. How and why? Sometimes they were damaged in battle, sometimes ruined on purpose. Why would they do that? Some were left to decay, some are still lived in today. This is history about real people and real places. People not so different from ourselves, when you come down to it.

4. Because it inspires the imagination
It's not just children who have great imaginations. Looking up at the ruins of Swansea Castle, which is right in the town centre, started me asking questions that led to my fascination with medieval Gower and the writing of my two books, Alina, The White Lady of Oystermouth and Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John. Go on, admit it – don't you sometimes dream of being a fair maiden or a brave knight?

5. Because all of human drama has been within its walls
Loyalty, betrayal, kindness, cruelty, love, hate, friendship, conspiracy. Courage and strength of character, cowardice and every fault of humankind. Wives and children protected, and used as pawns. Brothers and comrades kept close, and pushed away. Whatever kind of stories you like, you will find them here.

I've written about most of the castles of Gower, and this summer I hope to visit them all and bring you first-hand updates.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Loughor Castle

Loughor Castle is very easy to miss, unless you know where to look. Like Swansea Castle, it stands on a hill overlooking a river, but there is so much going on around it that the ruins are hard to see. 

For a start, it lies alongside the busy A48 road, with screening either side. Away from the road, it lies behind houses. And there are steep banks and a lot of trees. When I visited I could find no signposts and no way to access it except scrambling up the bank. I am not up to scrambling these days, so I didn't get near it.

Loughor lies at the western gateway to Gower. In that respect it was Swansea's counterpart. Strategically placed at the estuary of the River Loughor, it was originally used by the Romans, who built a fort there and called it Leucarum. The fort guarded the road to Carmarthen and was a major communications route.

When the Romans left in the 4th century the fort was abandoned and fell into decay, until the coming of the Normans in the 12th century. The Welsh name is Llwchwr, which the Normans couldn't pronounce (neither can most non-Welsh people today) so they called it Loughor. The Earl of Warwick, Henry de Beaumont, built a ringwork castle on the same site, but after many Welsh attacks and burnings a stone castle was built.

Loughor Castle was one of those given to William de Braose (or Breos) by King John in 1203. The story of William's rise and fall at the hands of King John is told in my book, Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John. When Gower was regained by the de Braose family, William's grandson John de Braose became its lord, and added a low stone curtain wall. The rectangular tower which is the main feature of the ruins was built in the late 13th century by John's son William for residential use.

In 1302 a later William gave Loughor Castle to his steward John Iweyn. The story of William's daughter and son-in-law is told in my book, Alina, The White Lady of Oystermouth. Alina's son John de Mowbray eventually inherited the castle along with the rest of Gower.

Monday, 14 July 2014

What's the Difference Between the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages and the Medieval Period?

Coming to medieval history as a complete novice, this question was a puzzle to me. The terms seem to be interchangeable, so why not stick to one? I thought you might wonder too, so here is the explanation.

The Middle Ages were so named by humanists in Italy in the late 15th century. They were working to revive Classical learning and culture, and looked back to the ancient Greek and Roman Empires as the last high point of culture. In between the two, was the 'Middle Ages'.

The word 'Medieval' is the adjective used for the Middle Ages. It comes from the Latin, meaning 'middle age'! So, Middle Ages and Medieval Period mean the same thing.

There is much debate over exactly when the Middle Ages began and ended. It covers roughly 1000 years, from the fall of Roman civilisation to the Renaissance. But Roman civilisation didn't collapse overnight, and the Renaissance came to different places at different times.

The web site gives the following dates: 

The Beginning of the Middle Ages
476 AD Regarded as the end of rule across Europe by the Roman Empire. Although Roman control of many parts of Europe had ceased several years previously due to rebellions and uprisings; in fact the Roman armies finally left Britain almost sixty years prior to that date.

The End of the Middle Ages
1453 The capture of Constantinople by the Turks
1453 The end of the Hundred Years' War between the English and the French
1492 The Muslims’ being ejected from Spain
1492 The discovery of America by Columbus
1517 The Protestant Reformation starting

Many people like to use round numbers to make it easier and say that the Middle Ages was 500AD to 1500AD. The second date is when the modern world is considered to have begun. Historians have also put forward cases for the Renaissance beginning in the 14th and even 13th centuries, and sometimes as late as the 17th century, but the 15th century is a good general date to use, and gives us that round number of 1000 years.

Now, just to complicate matters, the Middle Ages is split into three periods:
1. The Early Middle Ages (6th to 10th centuries)
2. The High Middle Ages (11th to 13th centuries)
3. The Late Middle Ages (14th to 15th centuries)

It was the first period which was known as the Dark Ages. This was originally named because it was assumed to be a time of ignorance and barbarity, and little was known about it. As historians learn more about this period, the term has fallen into disuse. I wrote about this in another blog post.


Monday, 7 July 2014

Penrice Castle

Castles are mysterious places. They fire our imaginations as we wonder who built them and what their lives were like. They are full of history.

Penrice Castle is even more mysterious, because there is no public access, which is a shame because there is a lot left. It is the largest castle on Gower. You can glimpse some of it from a nearby public footpath, but it stands on private land.

The family of knights who owned the land in the 13th century took their name, Penres, from Penrice. There was a simple wooden castle there before but when Sir Robert de Penres married in 1237 he decided to build in stone and chose another location nearby. Like many castles, it was built in stages. Originally there was just a keep and a thin curtain wall cutting off the promontory on which it stands.

In the 1250s and 60s Robert strengthened the site by enclosing it in stone walls with tiny round flanking turrets. More buildings were added – a barn, hall block and gatehouse. His son, also called Robert, added a solar block and a chemise around the turn of the century.

The core of the land around Penrice Castle and the village has remained in the family and they have now lived there for twenty nine generations. In the 1960s the overgrown land was cleared and gardens planted and in the past twenty-five years many of the traditional cottages and houses owned by the family have been converted into holiday homes.

The great park around Penrice Castle, the deep woodlands that encircle it, and the strange marshlands at its foot are still intact and form a landscape composition that is hard to beat in the whole of South Wales. If you add glimpses of the prow of Oxwich Head and the rich brown background of Cefn Bryn, the whole area lying at the back of the dunes of Oxwich Bay takes on an Arcadian quality.
~ Wynford Vaughan Thomas 1976


Monday, 30 June 2014

Dinefwr Literature Festival: Bookshop Leads

At the recent Dinefwr Literature Festival they had a bookshop set up in the house, run by a local bookshop, as well as the regular on-site bookshop run by the National Trust. We went to have a look round and I spotted some local history books.

I am never one to miss an opportunity, though I am scared to approach people. I carry one of each of my books with me always, as well as some promotional literature. I approached a man working in the bookshop and asked him if they would be interested in carrying my books. I showed him the books and gave him a leaflet. I didn't expect his answer!

He offered to take my two books and put them on sale there and then for the rest of the festival weekend! I wished I had taken some more copies. He also gave me the bookshop details and invited me to contact them.

Then he gave me directions to the on-site bookshop so I could approach them too. The lady at the on-site shop gave me the contact details for someone in the National Trust.

By the end of the festival the two books hadn't sold, but I was grateful for the opportunity, and the lesson that it never hurts to ask. People are usually very nice and helpful. It encouraged me to have more courage in future.