Archive for category History

Strangeness in the UK

To celebrate the release of Strangeness and Charm in the UK, I thought I would follow up my previous post with some more on the church at Kilpeck. in Herefordshire.

I said in my post, Publication Day: Strangeness and Charm, that while he outside of the church was fascinating, the inside held even more surprises. The first thing of note is that the church is not exactly aligned along the east-west axis, as it normally would be, but is offset by a small amount. The reason for this is not obvious until you discover that an underground watercourse runs directly beneath the church, and the church is aligned with that, rather than the compass.

Photo by Mike Shevdon

The Monks at Kilpeck

Inside, the church is in two distinct sections – the Nave is lined with dark wooden pews and is separated from the Apse, which was added later, by a high stone arch. Into the pillars of the arch are carved six monks and each monk holds a token. The tokens are: a cross, a key, a feather, a scourge or flail, an arrow, and a rod or sceptre. The carvings are quite clear and the monks do not look as if they carry their burdens with ease.

Strangeness and Charm

Volume III of the Courts of the Feyre

Beyond the arch, on the floor to the right hand side is a mark in the stone, normally covered by a mat or square of carpet. The mark shows a four-lobed shape, like a clover or a highly stylised cross. The origins and purpose of this mark are unknown. On visiting the site, I couldn’t avoid the impression that the monks are hiding or protecting what lies beyond in the apse, and that this duty weighed heavily upon them. Clearly, though, that protection worked, since the church and all the carvings are still there, while the neighbouring castle is not.

You might be able to discern from John Couthart’s beautiful cover that the six objects play a central part in the story of Strangeness and Charm, and that the church and the relics are bound in with the story. As a writer it led me to ask myself what it was that the monks were protecting, and why such a thing would be placed in a minor church when only twelve miles up the road there’s Hereford Cathedral.

I hope you will enjoy the discovery of what the strange mark is for, and why those particular objects are carved into the pillars of the arch.

Strangeness and Charm was released in the UK on 7th June 2012 and is available from all good bookshops.

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Publication Day: Strangeness and Charm

Kilpeck Church

The 29th May is the official US publication day for Strangeness and Charm, the third in the series The Courts of the Feyre, and it’s cause for celebration here at Shevdon Manor. For your delectation, the kind folk at Angry Robot Books have posted a sample for you to whet your appetite upon, which I hope will encourage you to go out and acquire a copy.

To celebrate, I thought I would share with you a little of the research that  inspired the book. This is the church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck in Herefordshire, a little south and west from Hereford itself. This is a remarkable building in many ways, not least for its age – it was built around 1140, replacing the saxon church that preceded it.

The Portal

I’m not a geologist, but the archway appears to be carved from pink sandstone and is remarkably well preserved. Around the door are the most fantastic carvings – mythical creatures, angels, animals and looping vines, carved all around the doorway. You can see for yourself that it is a portal of significance.

The tops of the walls around the church are decorated with corbels – an architectural term for a bit sticking out to provide additional support – which are again carved into strange creatures, knights, animals and faces. The most rare of these is a sheila-na-gig – a female figure displaying exaggerated vulva. There are very few of these left in Europe and Kilpeck has one of the best examples still in existence.

That’s not the only significant thing about this particular church, though. The church stands next to what remains of a castle which was slighted (demolished to prevent further use) by the parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War, at around 1645. The castle is a grassy mound with a few remnants of a wall. The church, however, is untouched.

You might not think that was remarkable, given that it is a church, but these were puritans and were against the decoration and ornamentation of churches. There are any number of churches throughout England where statuary was pulled down, murals obliterated and stone carvings chiselled off.

Kilpeck's Sheila-na-gig

Many of my stories begin with the questions: why and what-if, and in this case the obvious question – why was a church bearing pagan imagery and the naked and blatantly sexual image of a woman left completely untouched by a puritan army, while the castle right next door was utterly demolished?

What if the reason the church wasn’t touched was that it was protected? And what if the reason it was protected was that it held something that needed to be kept safe and hidden away?

What’s in the church then becomes interesting, but that will be the subject of my post for the UK launch on June 7th, when we will discover even more mysteries in this fine building.


The Devil’s Arrows

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.

The Devil's Arrows (photo by Mike Shevdon)

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.

The stone by the road (photo by Mike Shevdon)

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.





Global Cooling

Here in the UK, the cold weather is finally upon us. Cold air over continental Europe will, this week, hold back the giant anti-cyclones out in the Atlantic and result in cold and frosty mornings – at least that’s the forecast. When one lives in Britain, one gets used to the weather being a subject of constant review.

Meanwhile, discussions continue in Copenhagen about the future of our planet, our contributions to global warming and what we plan to do about rising sea-levels, increasingly violent storms, spreading deserts and all the other effects brought on by man’s thirst for energy. At least we seem to have agreed that something must urgently be done and that we will all have to play our part.

With the weather very much in the news, it seemed to me to be an appropriate moment to look back at how our weather used to be, in particular during the Little Ice Age, a period lasting about 300 years from approximately 1550 – 1850. This affected the whole world and was caused by a number of coincident factors. There was a period of reduced solar activity – effectively the sun cooled a little. Then there were a number of large and violent volcanic eruptions, causing tiny particles of ash to be thrown into the upper atmosphere and an increase in emissions of sulphur, both of which caused more of the suns light to be reflected back into space rather than fall on the Earth. The Black Death, a plague which caused significant reductions in human population and consequent re-forestation of some areas of Europe, resulted in a decreased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Even then, man played a part in climate change.

It may seem odd to talk about a period of global cooling when we’re all discussing global warming, but I believe it may be of interest to consider the effect that even small changes in global temperatures can bring about — and it was a small change. During the Little Ice Age, global temperatures fell by less than one degree Celsius. This is a far smaller change than is predicted for global warming where most models predict a global rise of more than two degrees Celcius by 2100, even if we take action. If we continue as we are, it will probably be more like five degrees.

So what happens when the Earth cools by less than one degree?

The Frozen Thames, 1677. Original painting in the collection of the Museum of London. Artist not known.

In 1536, King Henry VIII travelled from Westminster to Greenwich by sleigh along the river Thames. Approximately thirty years later, Queen Elizabeth I donned a pair of skates and “shot at marks”, a form of archery-on-ice on the river. King Charles is known to have eaten from an ox roasted whole on the river at Whitehall. It seems that the frozen Thames provided the equivalent of a photo-opportunity for the monarchy.

In the winter of 1683 to 1684, the Great Frost was recorded. During this period the river Thames froze over solid for two months. London Bridge, which was the lowest point at which the river could be crossed by bridge, was a toll crossing and you had to pay to cross. In the Great Frost, Londoners, ever watchful for a bargain, began crossing the ice rather than paying to cross the bridge. The river soon became a thoroughfare.

An eyewitness recorded: “On the 20th of December 1683, a very violent frost began, which lasted to 6th February, in so great extremity that the pools were frozen 18 inches thick at least, and the Thames was so frozen that a great street from the Temple to Southwalk was built with shops and all manner of things sold.”

Frost Fairs continued through the Little Ice Age, though the effects of the cold were not all beneficial. The diarist John Evelyn recorded: “The fowls, fish and birds, and all our exotic plants and greens [were] universally perishing. Many parks of deer were destroyed, and all sorts of fuel so dear that there were great contributions to keep the poor alive…London, by reason for the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal…that one could hardly breath.”

The last frost fair was held on February 1st, 1814 and lasted four days. This was at the end of the Little Ice Age, the weather was growing milder and improvements to the flow of the Thames (including the removal of the medieval London Bridge) made the river less likely to freeze. Even then, the river was so frozen that an elephant was led across the ice below Blackfriars Bridge.

Today, in commemoration of the Frost Fairs, there are five slabs of slate with an insciption by the artist Richard Kindersley on the pedestrian underpass of  Southwalk Bridge which are carved with scenes from the frost fair and with the following inscription:

Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats
Here you may see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit
There you may print your name, tho cannot write
Cause num’d with cold: tis done with great delight
And lay it by that ages yet to come
May see what things upon the ice were done

These are just local fragments of what happened when the Earth cooled by less than one degree. There were typhoons, famine, bread-riots and disease. Finland’s population fell by a third and the Norse colonies in Greenland vanished due to starvation. In 1607 there was ice on Lake Superior in June, and in northern Europe in winter, it was possible to sledge from Poland to Sweden, across the Baltic Sea, stopping overnight at temporary inns built upon the ice.

All of this from a change of less than one degree.

From a Copenhagen perspective, within two or three generations our world will be transformed by a change of at least three times the magnitude of the Little Ice Age but in the opposite direction. The world will get much warmer, that is now inevitable.

Just how bad the change will become is up to all of us, but whatever happens, we are going to be witnesses to changes far more significant than those recorded here.


Temple and the Templars

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.

The Lamb and Flag Emblem

The Lamb and Flag Emblem

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.


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Red-Light District in a Convent Garden

Covent Garden - Mike Shevdon in the Apple Market courtesy of Mark Lewis photography

One of the main locations in SIxty-One Nails is Covent Garden Market.

Blackbird brings Niall here after they first meet to purchase a token gift before they descend beneath the streets into the hidden world of Gramawl and Kareesh. When they emerge into the plaza, she turns to him….

“Oh, I’ve missed this. It’s one of the old places.”
Blackbird’s mood lightened as she crossed onto the cobble stoned plaza.
I corrected her. “It’s not as old as people think, actually. The flower market is only late nineteenth century.”
“And why do you think they built a flower market here?”
“Well, I guess it was part of the original settlement. Maybe there were market gardens here once?”
“Oh, there were gardens here, convent gardens actually, and there was a market here long before Christianity and for much more than flowers. Herbs and potions, talismans and wardings, you could buy anything here, once.” She stepped up onto the paving around the covered market and breathed in as if inhaling a heady scent.
“Blackbird, if you don’t mind me asking, how old are you, exactly?”
“Didn’t I tell you it was rude to ask someone’s age?” She arched an eyebrow at me, but I was prepared for her evasion this time.
“No, I don’t think that’s actually what you said. I think you asked me what age I thought you were and then, when I told you, you laughed and said you were a lot older than that, but you never told me how much.”
“Perhaps I thought you were being nosey.” The comment was not harshly made and left just enough of an opening for me to ask once more.
“Are you going to tell me?”
“No, I don’t think so, except to say I have rolled in the buttercups here and come away dusted in their pollen. I have slept here under the stars on the solstice and been gifted with dreams of the future and I have fought for my life here and come away bloodied, but unharmed. It is a place that has been special to me for a long time.” Her words hung in the air despite the milling tourists that passed us by, unaware of her reminiscences.
“Buttercups, huh?” I mused.
“Trust you to latch on to that.”

It’s true that Covent Garden is much older than people generally realise. The 4th Earl of Bedford, Francis Russell commissioned Inigo Jones to redesign the square in the 17th century, giving it the delightful open plaza in front of St Paul’s church that you see today. The market itself, though, predates that considerably.

Situated between St Martin’s Lane, leading down to St Martin’s in the Fields, and Drury Lane at a time when the lanes were actually country lanes and the white spire of St Martins was surrounded by fields, it was bounded at the north by Floral Street and to the south by what is now Chandos Street. The land was part of a 40 acre allocation granted by King John late in the 12th century to St. Peter’s Abbey Westminster, to provide food for the monks. The surplus produce was often sold and therefore the market came into being.

Before that, it was part of Roman London, and before that, it belonged to the Saxon settlement of Aldwych (from the Middle English meaning ‘Old Town’) just to the south.

For centuries Covent Garden was the main fruit, vegetable and flower market for London, though it also had other trade. In the 18th century it was a notorious red-light district, leading to the term flower-girl being used as a euphemism for a prostitute. There was even Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies detailing their addresses and specialties. It may be that George Bernard Shaw knew this when in Pygmalion he called his Covent Garden flower-girl, Eliza Doolittle, though perhaps that’s just speculation on my part.

Now the area is a famous tourist destination, and you can buy all manner of gifts and presents, which is why Blackbird brings Niall here to purchase some semi-precious stones as a gift, though to find out why he needs a gift and who it’s for, I’m afraid you’re going to have to read the book.

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Quit Rents Ceremony 2009

The land known as The Moors, Shropshire

The land known as 'The Moors', Shropshire

Those of you who follow these postings will know about the Quit Rent Ceremony. For the uninitiated, this is the oldest legal ceremony in England apart from the coronation. It involves the rendering of two medieval quit rents which date back to the thirteenth century.

The first is for land known as The Moors near Bridgenorth in Shropshire. The quit rents for this property is two knives, one blunt and one sharp. The Moors is now a farm on private land some distance from the road. It is not easy to find, but as you can see from this photograph, the house shows it’s ancient origins still.

This ceremony is performed annually in the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in London and this year’s ceremony took place on Monday. I was accompanied by a ‘good number’ of friends and family, adding to the occasion and allowing us to mark the occasion of this week’s publication. Here is a short extract from the afterword of Sixty-One Nails, which digs into some of the history of this ancient ritual: ~

….a piece of wasteland, known as the Moors, just south of Bridgnorth, was retained and held directly of the Crown. The earliest record of a tenant is of Nicholas de Morrs who occupied 80 acres of land, 20 acres of meadow and 80 acres of pasture from 1211 upon the rendering of two knives, one blunt and one sharp. The purpose of the knives was to create tally sticks for the receipt of taxes where a hazel rod of one year’s growth (roughly the length of a man’s forearm) was notched with the blunt knife to represent payment. The sharp knife was then used to split the rod in two, forming two corresponding halves of a receipt.  In 1521, the obligation to provide the knives passed to six Mercers and then in 1556 to Richard Mylles. In that year one of the city men attending for the confirmation of the sheriffs attempted to perform the service with the knives. Neither knife would cut the hazel rod and Richard Mylles was fined ten shillings for contempt.

The reason for quoting this particular section is that the rendering of the quit rent did not pass quite as smoothly as it has in past years. When it came to the testing of the sharp knife, the blade did not initially cut the hazel rod and there was a murmur of tension as the rod stubbornly refused to be cut. Fortunately, a little judicious sawing cut through the hazel and the day was saved. Even so, the Comptroller carefully tested the edge of the blade afterwards with his thumb, assuring himself that it was indeed sharp.

(c) Mark Cator from Keepers of the Kingdom

(c) Mark Cator from Keepers of the Kingdom: The Ancient Offices of Britain

Because the ceremony is held in court, the normal constraints of court are followed and one of these is that no cameras are allowed. Consequently I cannot bring you photographs of this year’s ceremony, but I can show you this beautiful portrait of the Queen’s Remembrancer, resplendent in the tricorn hat of a cursitor baron and holding one of the knives in one hand and one of the horse-shoes in the other. This picture is taken from a superb book called Keepers of the Kingdom: The Ancient Offices of Britain, by Bruce Alastair with photographs by Julian Calder and Mark Cantor. It contains many other interesting, odd and fascinating portraits.

It is the Queen’s Remembrancer’s role to judge whether the quit rents have been rendered successfully and he may well have been put off somewhat by this slight mishap, since when it came to the counting of the horse-shoes and the nails he called out ‘Good Service” instead of “Good Number” which is the phrase usually used. Nevertheless, the quit rents were accepted and the ritual maintained for another year. Long may it be so.

Finally, I would like to offer my best wishes to the current Chief Clerk to the Queen’s Remembrancer, who is stepping down in the coming year to pursue other activities.

Given the importance of the role of her fictional counterpart in Sixty-One Nails, I hope she has a peaceful and happy future.

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