Posts Tagged History
In Chapter Eight of Sixty-One Nails, my protagonist, Niall, is sitting at the corner of St Martin’s Lane in London. The Chapter opens with the lines:
I sat for an hour or more before people started walking across the square, heading towards work or some other rendezvous, and it lost its privacy. I was getting chilled so I wandered back the way I had come to find the coffee shop had opened. I ordered black coffee and added sugar before taking it outside. I sat among the deserted tables in the damp air and waited for Blackbird. On the war memorial across the pavement from me I could read the words ‘Humanity’ and ‘Sacrifice’. I hoped it wasn’t an omen.
The memorial Niall refers to is a stone monument to Edith Cavell, and on each side it reads, Humanity, Devotion, Fortitude and Sacrifice. There is a stone statue of Edith at the fore with an inscription that reads:
Brussels – Dawn
October 12th 1915
Patriotism is not enough
I must have no hatred or
bitterness for anyone.
These are her words to an Anglican priest on the night before her execution.
Edith was a nurse, born in Swardeston in Norfolk, she served in Belgium in the Great War, treating allies and enemies alike because they were wounded and needed help. She did not judge people for what they did, or how they saw the world, but only offered them comfort and compassion. She helped some 200 allied soldiers, French, British and Belgian, escape from German-occupied Belgium into the Netherlands and thence to Britain where they were welcomed as refugees.
For helping people escape, she was arrested, imprisoned, court-martialled, and shot by a firing squad on 12th October 1915, 100 years ago today. She was 49. Her remains were recovered and re-interred in Norwich Cathedral, where she is still honoured today.
She was a great woman. Even today as a country we could learn from her example.
Rest in Peace.
While writing The Road to Bedlam, there were a number of things that I wanted to achieve. First and foremost I wanted to continue the story of Niall and Blackbird from where they were left at the end of Sixty-One Nails, and show the impact the events in that book had on their lives. This was the continuation of their story, but I also wanted to reveal more of the world they inhabit.
In Sixty-One Nails, the world was seen almost exclusively from Niall’s perspective, and I wanted to bring in some new viewpoints to balance Niall’s view. As Niall’s new responsibilities took him to new places, I wanted to show that the ancient roots of folklore extended way beyond London. One of the things I love about England is the way that ancient and modern are layered over each other, and the way that English people take things that may have their origins in the beginning of history entirely for granted, simply working around them or in some cases incorporating them into their modern lives.
Near the beginning of The Road to Bedlam, Niall is sent North, in part to get him away from what is going on back at the courts, but also to fulfil his role as Warder and have him dig into some odd incidents. This is part of his initiation as a Warder and his first test in his new role. He uses the mystical routes which traverse the land known as the Ways to travel north, arriving at a node-point in Yorkshire:
I arrived in a cornfield; a twenty-foot-tall brown stone spike emerged from the gently swaying heads. Yards away, another finger of stone pointed upwards. The spike was scored with deep marks as if huge claws had scraped down it. Lichen coloured its surface with curly-edged stains of red and amber. I wondered whether the stones were part of the Way-node or here simply to mark its presence.
The stones in question are known as The Devils Arrows, or The Three Sisters, or sometimes as The Greyhounds. They stand a little way from the A1 trunk road aligned NNW-SSE along a line almost 200 yards long.
Shown here are the smaller two of the stones, measuring 22 ft and 18ft tall respectively. The largest, pictured below, is 22 ft 6 inches tall and is set back in a small patch of grass beneath some trees just across the road that runs down to the A1 junction. When I discovered them, it immediately struck me how well the modern road was aligned with them.
Legend says that the stones were thrown by the Devil from How Hill at the village of Aldborough and fell short, about a mile away, though they predate Christianity by about 2000 years and whoever threw them managed to hit holes that had been carefully prepared and packed with grit and cobbles, as an excavation in 1709 discovered. The stones are rectangular in section and are deeply scored with what appear to be claw-marks, though they show no sign of tool working, either in the grooves or in the way they were formed. The marks are probably due to weathering – similar stones at Plumpton Rocks show the same markings.
Though three stones are standing today, there is at least one other:
“Foure huge stones, of pyramidall forme, but very rudely wrought, set as it were in a straight and direct line…whereof one was lately pulled downe by some that hoped, though in vaine, to find treasure.” John Leland, 1530s
The upper section of the fourth stone is said to stand in the grounds of Aldborough Manor, someone having hauled it that last mile, presumably to save the Devil the trouble, and the lower half forms part of a bridge over the river Tut in Boroughbridge.
Close up, the stones are huge, rough and warm to the touch. They are visible on Google Maps, if you care to look, where they stand in a crop-field much as I saw them when I visited. To the people of pre-Roman Britain they must have been a significant symbol, though whether this was of religious significance or as some sort of boundary marker is lost to us.
What is not lost is the sense of awe one has standing next to them, even after 4,000 years.
Early next week, Sixty-One Nails will be released in the USA and Canada and the sequel, The Road to Bedlam will be released in the UK and Australasia, giving us an excuse for a double celebration here at Shevdon Manor.
Due to the global nature of publishing, there are already fans in the US who are spreading the word and looking forward to the release of The Road to Bedlam in the US in late October, but they won’t necessarily have seen some of the earlier articles on the background and history to Sixty-One Nails, and I thought it was worth posting some links to articles that new readers might find interesting.
Red Light District in a Convent Garden is an article on the history of Covent Garden, one of the main locations for Sixty-One Nails, proving that truth can sometimes be more surprising than fiction. This is a genteel area in the heart of the West End now, but it has a seedy past.
Temple and the Templars looks at the history behind the Inns of Court and the area around the Royal Courts of Justice, showing how the forge in Tweezers Alley came to be there and charting the rise and fall of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon.
Lethal London looks at the underground rivers that flow beneath the streets of London, hidden from view in all but the most obscure of locations, including the river that flows openly through the basement of an antiques shop. Though the Thames may be London’s famous river, it is by no means the most dangerous.
Quit Rents Ceremony 2009 is an account is the ceremony held annually at the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in London, which I attended so that I could watch the testing of the knives and the presentation of the nails and the horse-shoes. It’s a fascinating event, and highly recommended if you happen to be in London in October.
There are other articles with a historical leaning to be found under the History link in the sidebar; please feel free to explore and browse. I will be posting some articles on the background to The Road to Bedlam in the near future, so keep an eye out for those. There is also an RSS feed for those using that service.
Sixty-One Nails will be released in the United States of America and Canada on August 31st 2010, and The Road to Bedlam is released in the UK and Australasia on 1st September. It’s going to be an exciting week.
Regular visitors to these pages will by now be familiar with the Ceremony of the Quit Rents and some of the rituals and artefacts associated with the ceremony, in particular the six horse shoes and sixty-one nails referred to in the newly released novel, which is for a forge in Tweezers Alley, just south of St Clement’s Dane, which stands in the centre of the Strand, close by the the Royal Courts of Justice.
The rights to the forge were granted in 1211 to Walter-le-Brun who was a former Sheriff of the City of London. The forge was to be sited at the corner of a field on land belonging to the Knight Templar, which may have been their tournament or practice field or may simply have been next to where their horses were exercised.
But what were Knights Templar doing on the banks of the Thames, far from the Holy Land and the conflict there? The Templars were originally nine knights, together with their followers and servants, who took monastic vows on Christmas day in 1119 and styled themselves as poor soldier-followers of Jesus Christ. Their symbol, two knights riding a single horse, was supposed to reflect this poverty and to remind the knights of their vows and their reliance on each other. They were housed in the ruins of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, of which only the Wailing Wall now survives, and they dedicated themselves to protecting the routes used by pilgrims through Europe and down through the Levant to the Holy Land.
Clearly nine knights were not sufficient to protect a pilgrimage through the whole of medieval Europe to the Middle East, but these were not just any nine knights. These were men of power and influence who had dedicated themselves to a spiritual quest. They believed they were saving the souls of the many pilgrims who made their way via Malta, Rhodes and Cyprus to Tripoli and down through Syria to Jerusalem. With a modern perspective we see the crusades rather differently, but for these men there was no nobler cause.
In order to protect the pilgrim roads, they needed men, supplies, horses, arms, and castles from which to deploy them, and for that they needed money. They organised themselves and began building a network of recruits. In cities across Europe they built small round churches after the model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, calling them New Temples, and around those churches they formed a military, administrative, political and diplomatic machine. They provided a secure way to transfer wealth across Europe and became one of the pillars of European commerce, a prototype for international finance. They bank-rolled expeditions and formed links with every major house in Europe. A hundred years later and the original nine have spawned an organisation of huge wealth and power, forming the rear echelons of crusader armies with a network of fortresses from one end of Christendom to the other.
One of the New Temples was to be found on the banks of the Thames, consecrated in 1185, and because of the financial and diplomatic connections, a key relationship was formed with the newly formed Exchequer, which needed secure accommodation near to Westminster and the links into international trade, banking and diplomacy that the Templars could provide.
Such power brought suspicion, though, and the secrecy surrounding the Templars only served to deepen this. The attempts to seize the Holy Land for Christianity had failed and there were allegations that the Templars were turning away from their original purpose of protecting pilgrims to the pursuit of power.
The end came in 1307 when King Philip IV of France ordered the current Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templar, the Frenchman Jaques de Molay, to attend him in Paris and to bring the treasure of the Order with him. The Grand Master should have been more circumspect, for Philip IV of France was a religious zealot who had been fiercely critical of the Templars, describing their practices as blasphemous and accusing them of sexual immorality. More importantly, he was broke.
The Templars were arrested and a papal investigation instigated. When little evidence of any wrongdoing emerged, the members of the order were tortured to provide the necessary confessions. The Grand Master and sixty of his men were burned at the stake and the wealth of the Order was seized. The Pope, Clement V, who was in thrall to the King of France, suppressed the Order and they were disbanded. Over a third of their members tortured or killed.
However, England disputed the seizure of the spoils by France and the land south of Fleet Street was claimed by the throne. Members of the Templars were allowed to enter other Orders and to remain. The land became administered under the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St John and tenant societies were formed, taking on the education and tutelage of the lawyers and advocates of the land. The links with the Exchequer remained strong and the societies flourished in their new role.
The Honourable Societies of the Inns of Court became the successors of the Knights Templar who vanished as an Order, but the symbols of their origins are still evident. Wandering around Middle Temple today, you will see in the stonework and in the emblems on doors, and above gateways, the symbol of the Lamb and Flag as it was carried back from the crusades by the Templars. It stands over the doorway to the main hall where the barristers gather their pupils to eat and hear lectures on law and advocacy, and of course it is within the name of the Inns of Court and the Temple tube station that serves them.
The Templars may have gone, but their successors still bear their mark.