As the minutes ticked down to midnight…

As the minutes ticked down to midnight on New Year’s Eve, I was suddenly in floods of tears. They were dripping into my glass of bubbly…

Was I sorry to see the end of 2017? Was I watching a weepy movie? Had I over-indulged my share of the bottle of champagne?

No, none of those! I was crying because of what I’d just read on Twitter…

It was a tweet from reviewer Michelle Ryles (The Book Magnet):-

My Top 20 books of 2017 blog post is now live! 📚📚📚📚📚📚

http://www.thebookmagnet.co.uk/2017/12/my-top-20-of-2017.html?m=0

#TopReads2017 #TopBooks2017

@DavidVidecette @tinaseskis @DickDavisDavis @debbiemjohnson @LilacMills @writingcalliope @keefstuart @janeharperautho and others tagged in photo 😊

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There was my Twitter handle, and look, a picture of my book, Fortune’s Wheel! My goodness, was I thrilled!

Michelle read 182 books in 2017, and in her Top 20 she had included mine, as well as nine other first novels, which is truly brilliant for those new authors.

Michelle reviewed Fortune’s Wheel back in March and here is some of what she said…

I don’t know a great deal about medieval history, but I certainly learned a thing or two whilst reading Fortune’s Wheel, without feeling as if I had been given a history lesson. I had never heard of cottars and villeins and was fascinated by the hierarchy of peasants during these dark times. It was almost like the beginning of the unions as they nominated somebody to stand up to the lord of the manor to argue for more pay. Unfortunately, putting your head about the parapet could see it being chopped off and there are one or two dastardly deeds in Fortune’s Wheel that succeed in keeping us guessing. Let’s just say that some people in Meonbridge are not exactly filled with community spirit.

Historical fiction can sometimes be dry and hard-going but the complete opposite is true of Fortune’s Wheel. … 

I found Fortune’s Wheel completely intriguing, fascinating and surprisingly emotional – I had become so emotionally invested in the characters that I was devastated for Thomas and Joan Miller, who struggled to cope after the loss of their five sons, and I admit to being close to tears at the end of the book when we learn of Agnes’ fate.  I swiftly dried the tears from my eyes as, being book 1 in a series, I know that I can look forward to catching up with these colourful characters again in the future. 

Fortune’s Wheel isn’t just for historical fiction lovers, I’m absolutely positive that many readers will enjoy this medieval saga. Riveting history homework that got top marks from me – more please, Carolyn!

(http://www.thebookmagnet.co.uk/2017/03/blog-tour-fortunes-wheel-meonbridge.html)

The next day, I heard from reviewer Cathy Johnson (What Cathy Read Next) that she had included Fortune’s Wheel in her five favourite reads for December, and she had also included A Woman’s Lot in her list of ten books she’s looking forward to reading in 2018 (https://whatcathyreadnext.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/top-ten-tuesday-ten-books-im-looking-forward-to-in-2018/. No pressure then, Cathy!

Here is a little of what Cathy said in her December review:

I really felt I became part of the village of Meonbridge and totally immersed in the lives of the villagers. There are a lot of characters to get to know initially so I appreciated the helpful list at the beginning of the book. However, it would be an unusual and rather uninteresting village if it didn’t have a varied population and, since the story has three main protagonists, I never felt overwhelmed…

I loved all the detail of village life which gave the story such an authentic feel. Clearly, the author has done an incredible amount of research, introducing me to new terms – merchet, legerwite, heriot – and the many different roles necessary to village life – bailiff, steward, reeve and (my favourite) ale-taster. A glossary would be a fantastic addition to the book and I’d also love to have a map of the village.  There are many fascinating articles on Carolyn’s blog, including this one about life after The Black Death.

…I really enjoyed Fortune’s Wheel and thought it was an accomplished, fascinating historical fiction novel – and an impressive debut. I was thrilled to learn the author is working on a second book in the series, A Woman’s Lot, and that this is due for publication in 2018. I’ll certainly look forward to reading more about the lives of the people of Meonbridge.

(https://whatcathyreadnext.wordpress.com/2017/12/07/book-review-fortunes-wheel-by-carolyn-hughes/)

Catherine Meyrick, too, has listed Fortune’s Wheel as one of her books-to-read in 2018 (https://catherinemeyrick.com/2018/01/05/2017-a-year-of-reading/).

And, only yesterday, Pauline Barclay (Chill with a Book) let me know that Fortune’s Wheel, which obtained  a Chill Award in February 2017, is among the Top Ten Most Popular Posts of 2017 on the Chill site. (http://www.chillwithabook.com/2018/01/top-ten-most-popular-posts-in-2017.html).

Fortune's Wheel

I couldn’t be more delighted by these wonderful votes of confidence!

As you might have gathered, this blog is really a little shout-out for book reviewers, who give authors, both established and newbies, traditionally- and self-published, enormous support. As too, of course, do all readers who take the trouble – thank you! – to leave a great review of it on Amazon and Goodreads. (Critical reviews too are helpful, particularly when they alert the author to something that several readers find annoying!) Feedback helps hugely in giving credibility to an author’s work. But an advantage of book reviewers who also blog about their reading is that they promote their reviews through social media, and therefore also give the books they’ve read a promotional boost.

Fortune’s Wheel has received some terrific reviews from readers and reviewers. To be honest, it’s down to me that I don’t have more… Because reviewer/bloggers don’t approach authors (well, not unknown authors like me), asking to read their books. You, the author, have to approach them. And you can’t just approach them willy-nilly. You have to read their profiles and choose those who are likely to like your book – because, for example, they particularly enjoy reading historical fiction. Then you send them a polite request and, if they’re busy and popular reviewers, they might well not have the time or opportunity to read your book. Even if they say “yes”, you might have to wait a while for your book to rise to the top of their TBR (to-be-read) pile (they generally have mountainous TBRs). You have to be patient.

And patience, as well as doggedness, seems to be the name of the game with all aspects of promoting one’s book.

Twitter pageFor most of 2017, I’ve been focussing on writing the second Meonbridge Chronicle, A Woman’s Lot, and I haven’t give all that much attention to promoting Fortune’s Wheel. I joined (or persuaded myself to join!) the world of social media before Fortune’s Wheel was published. I knew I had to. Even traditionally-published authors have to do at least some of their own promotion, but self-publishers certainly have to. So I signed up to Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads, and I built myself a website, on which I posted – and still do – regular blogs, mostly about writing historical fiction. I’m not a daily poster on Facebook and Twitter, and sometimes I let many days pass without engaging.

But I have made many new “friends” through social media, particularly through Facebook groups. The quote marks, by the way, are not intended to be pejorative, it’s just that these are friends (most of whom) I’ve never actually met, although that doesn’t make them any the less supportive and encouraging. And opportunities can and do arise for sharing writing ideas, and for talking about your writing, which is all useful as promotion, as well as being a lot of fun!

But there is much more that I can do to make my books more widely known and, now that A Woman’s Lot is more or less ready to go off to the publisher, alongside writing book three, I’m also going to put some greater effort into “marketing” – ugh, dread word! I think most writers do just want to write, the very idea of “marketing” and promotion largely abhorrent. But it has to be done.

So, my current number one (well, perhaps number two) New Year’s resolution is simply that, do more marketing. That includes approaching a lot more book reviewer/bloggers, as well as building interest in my books through other means of promotion. If you’re interested, do keep an eye on my efforts, and perhaps you will see the “Meonbridge Chronicles” soar into the stratosphere…

Corhampton Church – a Saxon gem in Provincia Meanwarorum

For today’s blog, I am reposting a piece I wrote for the History Girls blog back in October, continuing my series of posts about the communities of the Meon Valley.

Corhampton (Quedementune (11th c); Cornhampton (13th); Corhamtone, Cornhamtone and Cornehampton (14th); Corehampton (16th) lies on the west bank of the River Meon, seven miles upstream from Wickham, the subject of my November post. Corhampton is equidistant, at only a little over half a mile, from two other villages, Meonstoke (the inspiration for my “Meonbridge Chronicles”) and Exton. Exton also lies to the west of the river, while Meonstoke – with which Corhampton forms a civil parish – lies on the east bank. Between the three little communities there are, today, perhaps 1000 inhabitants, but each community has an ancient church. Those in Meonstoke and Exton are 13th century, but Corhampton’s church is Saxon, built in 1020, and it is this church that I will explore further in this post.

But, first, a little more about the people of the Meon Valley.

The Romans left Britain in the 5th century, leaving behind a population some of whom at least were Christians. At about the same time, Saxons and other tribes, Jutes, Angles and Friesians, came from Denmark and northern Germany to invade and then settle in Britain, bringing with them the beliefs and customs of the polytheistic Germanic religion of Wodin and Thor. The invaders became known as the “Anglo-Saxons”, establishing in time the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex, which were eventually unified into the Kingdom of England in the early 10th century. Our area, the Meon Valley, lies close to the boundary between Sussex and Wessex.

In the late 7th century, Wilfrith (or Wilfrid), born to a noble Northumbrian family, and appointed the Bishop of York, was obliged to leave the north for a few years and spent his time evangelising the heathen south Saxons. Briefly (and indeed, simplistically, for Wilfrith’s story is actually rather complicated!), Wilfrith was keen to move the northern Christian Church from the old Celtic traditions to the new Roman practices. He was mostly successful, building many churches and founding many monasteries. But he had to appeal to Rome for support against a plan by Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to subdivide his diocese of York. While waiting for the case to be decided, he was forced into exile. He went first to Sūþseaxna rīce (Saxon Sussex) and then travelled to the Isle of Wight and to the Meon Valley, where he apparently began his missionary work. It is thought likely that Wilfrith was responsible for building many mud and wattle churches in the Valley.

Bede (the “Venerable Bede”) was also born in Saxon Northumbria, about forty years after Wilfrith, but he remained a monk, spending most of his life in a monastery in Jarrow. Bede was a scholar and author who, in his time, was as well known for his writing on scientific matters, chronology, grammar, and biblical studies as for the historical and theological work for which he is perhaps best known today.

In his most famous work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (An Ecclesiastical History of the English People), Bede refers to the valley of the River Meon, calling it “Provincia Meanwarorum” or the Province of the Meonwara (“Meon People”), some of the Jutes and Saxons who had come from Denmark three centuries earlier.

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Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum
(Ecclesiastical History of the English People) © British Library

For seven centuries or more (until, and after, the Norman Conquest in 1066) the Provincia Meanwarorum was developed as a fertile farming valley running from the South Downs at East Meon to the Solent at Titchfield Haven. Trading vessels navigated the River Meon, wider and faster flowing in those days. Vessels reached as far as Droxford, enabling flour and other agricultural produce to be taken back to the Solent and to the trading ports of Hamwic (Southampton) and Portesmuða (Portsmouth).

In his History, Bede refers to the hamlet of Cornhampton as a settlement on the west bank of the Meon where corn was milled and traded. The mill (immediately adjacent to, and to the north of, the church) is the possible origin of the first part of name of the hamlet (“Corn”).

The Domesday Book (1086) does not include a reference to “Cornhampton”, but does refer to the parish of Quedementune, which is presumed to be Corhampton. However, there is no mention of a church in Quedementune, which is rather strange as Corhampton Church is considered to pre-date the Domesday Book.

In Bede’s time, there were about thirty villages and churches in the Meon Valley. Around 1000, by which time Christianity was firmly established, parish boundaries had been laid out, and the building of permanent churches was possible, many of those earlier churches were replaced by stone structures. However, in Provincia Meanwarorum, it is only the church at Corhampton, built in 1020, that survives more or less intact from the period. Other post-conquest churches in the valley are built on, or close to, sites of Saxon churches, and some do have links to the Saxon era. But Corhampton Church pre-dates the Norman cathedral in Winchester and most medieval cathedrals except those at Canterbury, Hereford, Litchfield, Rochester, Worcester, and York, some of which have subsequently been largely re-built.

Of the two other nearby churches, St Peter and St Paul in Exton is 13th century, situated on the site of an earlier church dating back to 940 AD, but much restored during the 19th century. St Andrew’s in Meonstoke was built in 1230 and has few later alterations, although the tower was rebuilt in flint in the 15th century, and the roof and aisles were raised in the 18th century, followed by a top to the tower, built in wood.

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St Peter and Paul Church, Exton By Nicholsr (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
Meonstoke_St_Andrews
St Andrew’s Church, Meonstoke By Pterre (Own work)
[CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D

But Corhampton Church is a rare example of a truly Saxon Church, with its Saxon font, original stone side altar, 12th century frescoes, sanctuary chair and Saxon sundial, and most of the original building still in situ. It stands on a mound adjacent to the River Meon beside an ancient yew tree, which almost certainly predates it. When the church was built, Canute was King of England (as well as of Denmark and Norway), his capital of Winchester 10 miles to the west, and Corhampton was a royal estate.

The church is remarkable for many reasons, one of which is that it is one of only a very few churches that are undedicated. It is thought that churches at this time were built under the patronage of the local lord, who would have had the right to choose to whom the church would be dedicated, a saint, for example, as are the churches at Exton and Meonstoke. But, it seems that the church at Corhampton missed out on such a dedication, and has always simply been known as Corhampton Church.

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Corhampton Church, south side © David Hughes

The mound on which the church is built appears to be artificial, rather than a natural undulation in the landscape. This is not common for a Christian church and it has been suggested that the church may stand on the site of a pre-Christian temple of Roman or even earlier which were sometimes built on mounds. Some evidence of a Roman settlement was found in the 1930s just a few hundred yards to the north of the church, and there is a Roman coffin with a lead lining, pre-dating the church by seven centuries, in the churchyard, moved there in 1912 after its discovery in a nearby field.

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Corhampton Church, north side © David Hughes

The church, consisting of a nave and a chancel, was constructed of whole flints, locally available and cheap, which were plastered over. The walls are only 2’ 6”/76cm thick, as apparently Saxon walls often were, but they were strengthened by stone quoins. The stone came from the Isle of Wight, either from Binstead or Quarr, and shipped up the River Meon. The church has survived substantially unaltered. Late in the 19th century, a porch and couple of buttresses were added, together with a vestry-cum-boiler room, and repairs were required a little earlier when, in 1842, the east end of the church collapsed resulting in some rather incongruous red brickwork being added.

Immediately to the right of the porch, set into the wall, is the Saxon sundial, one of the best preserved such Saxon dials in England. It is in fact a “tide dial”, the dial being divided into eight “tides” rather than twelve hours. The day in Saxon times was divided into eight tides, each about three hours long. The eight tides can be clearly seen, as can the hole in the middle where the gnomon, the piece that projects the sun’s shadow onto the dial and probably made of metal, would have been. The dial itself is in a reddish brown stone quite different from any other stone in the church, pre-dating the present building and maybe even dating back to Wilfrith’s time. The dial could well have been in use from the time Wilfrith was in the Meon Valley until the Norman conquest, when the use of such dials seemed to fall away.

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Saxon tide dial at Corhampton Church
© Pierre Terre [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

Corhampton Church is particularly renowned for its wall paintings. The collapse in 1842 of the east end of the church damaged these remarkable works of medieval art, but they were uncovered in 1968 and restored. There is some uncertainty about the age of paintings: they could be as late as 1225, but it is generally thought that they date from the middle of the 12th century.

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Corhampton Church wall painting, south wall
© David Hughes

Not all the scenes in the paintings can be deciphered. However, the painting at the top of the south wall is said to depict stories from the life of Swithun, Bishop of Winchester in the mid 9th century. One is the miracle of the eggs. Here, Swithun is inspecting a bridge being built over the River Itchen and, in the crowd that has gathered, an old woman is jostled and her eggs fall from her basket. But Swithun puts the broken eggs back together. To the right of this, the painting is thought to relate to the story of a young man who fell into the Itchen after being frightened by two wild women. He was judged to be dead when he was pulled from the river, but his body was laid for three days by Swithun’s tomb and was restored to life. Below these paintings is a border pattern coloured red and green, and below that are swags and a large medallion featuring two doves back to back with their heads turned to face one another. I understand that designs such as these are very rare for this early period. I really recommend a visit to Corhampton to see the paintings in their full glory!

Finally, an impressive feature of the churchyard of Corhampton Church is the huge, and thriving, yew tree, one of the finest and oldest examples in the country. Its branches grow at about half an inch (1.25cm) a year, and its girth is 23 feet/7m, so it is almost certainly 1000 years old and may even pre-date the church. Some historians think that churches were built next to ancient trees rather than the other way round. Certainly yews are characteristic of English churchyards, and some are estimated to be well over 1,000 years old. It seems that they may have been planted as some sort of act of sanctification. Apparently, the Druids regarded the yew as sacred and planted them close to their temples. Early Christians often built their churches on those ancient consecrated sites, so the association of yew trees and churchyards may simply have been thus perpetuated. On the other hand, some think that yews were planted in churchyards to ward off evil spirits, or because they grew so well with their roots feeding on the corpses that there was a plentiful supply of the wood for making good bows!

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1000-year-old yew in Corhampton churchyard
© David Hughes

Whatever the truth of the planting of the yews, the tree in Corhampton churchyard is magnificent. And it is truly remarkable to consider how much of the history of the Meonwara it has witnessed!

A Woman’s Lot – the second “Meonbridge Chronicle”

Some weeks ago, I sent the manuscript of the second Meonbridge Chronicle, A Woman’s Lot, to my editor. Her initial thoughts are positive – hooray! – but I haven’t yet received her full considered feedback. I’m hoping to receive that when I return from India (which is where I am right now – home again in a few days). Then there will be more work to do before I can send the finished manuscript off to my publisher.

Keep an eye on my website Book pages for news of the book’s cover and publication date. If you follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter, then I’ll be posting news there too.

But in the meantime, I thought it was time to tell you a little bit about the book, to whet your appetite perhaps…

A Woman’s Lot

How can a woman stand up to the misogyny of men?

A resentful and intemperate cottar rails against a young freewoman’s efforts to build up her flock of sheep…. Another man, overworked, and grown melancholy and ill-tempered, succumbs to idle talk that his loving wife is a scold… A third, fearful of the potential power of women, determines to keep them in their lowly place…

The devastation wrought in society by the Black Death has given women a window of opportunity to break free from the yoke of chatteldom: a chance to learn a trade, to build a business, to be more than simply a man’s wife.

Not all men resist women’s quest for change – they desire it themselves. But many men hold fast to the teachings of the Church, and fear what the daughters of Eve might do if they usurp the roles of men and have control over their own lives.

And it takes only a few misogynists to unleash the hounds of hostility and hatred…

Like Fortune’s Wheel, A Woman’s Lot is another “everyday story of country folk”, this time mostly about some of Meonbridge’s women. The storylines (for, again, there are several threads) are about marital discord, women’s thwarted ambitions, and the quest for love, and also about the tensions between the poorer in society and the richer, and the ups and downs of rural life in medieval Hampshire. But especially about the particular attitude held in the Middle Ages by men – or at least some of them – towards women.

The novel begins about two years after the end of Fortune’s Wheel, in the spring of 1352. Danse_macabre_by_Michael_WolgemutI had shown in Fortune’s Wheel that, after the devastation wrought by the Black Death in 1349-50, society as a whole began to change, as feudal lords lost their former power in the face of resistance by their tenants, no longer willing to be confined to a single manor or to be paid less than they could obtain elsewhere.

It seemed as if women’s lot might also change. When so many people – perhaps as many as a third or even a half of the country’s population – had died from the plague, it seemed logical that everyone, including women, might have to turn their hand to whatever needed to be done. And perhaps, at first at least, this was what happened. Women saw opportunities for them to break out of the old mould and take on new occupations, and indeed to be a little more independent. But it didn’t last. By the fifteenth century, everything had returned more or less to the status quo. Male dominance reasserted itself and women were put back in their place. And I suspect this might actually have happened quite quickly, once society had recovered a little from the initial devastation.

So, underpinning the storylines of A Woman’s Lot is this status quo of male dominance, thwarting – or attempting to thwart – women’s struggle to improve their lot. Mediaeval women were for centuries subjugated to men (some, of course, still are). Men generally wielded control over their wives, daughters and servants, sometimes directly in the form of overt misogyny, sometimes in less overt but nonetheless powerful assertions of male authority. This is by no means to suggest that all mediaeval men were misogynistic. But such an attitude in one or two individual, influential, men could have disastrous consequences.

ob_57b905_adam-et-eve-pommeIn some contemporary mediaeval literature we find a contrast between the chivalric idealisation of the noble lady, based on the cult of the Virgin Mary, and a misogynistic contempt for women as the inheritors of Eve. Women were seen as “second class”, expected to devote themselves to their domestic functions, and refused any sort of public office. The restriction of women’s rights was justified on the basis of their limited intelligence, wiliness and avarice. Indeed all sorts of weaknesses were often ascribed to women as a class, including vanity and greed, wantonness and volatility. Some men despised women, or feared them perhaps, as the dangerous daughters of Eve. Others perhaps simply believed that women were neither very bright nor trustworthy, and felt they had to be kept in their lowly place. (I am aware that this attitude is probably not confined to the Middle Ages!)

Men’s control over women was perhaps strongest among the upper classes, where power and money lay in the making of beneficial marriages and the production of heirs, though the peasant classes, too, were interested in making useful alliances. However, I suspect the clergy – or some of them – were especially eager to keep women under strict control, fearful perhaps, and therefore critical, of their supposed wickedness and frailty. There is no doubt that the function, role and social position of women in fourteenth century England was heavily influenced by religious dogma and the teachings of the Church, and all men of every class would believe in their “God-given” right to dominate and chastise their wives.

36b886cec10c25994edaae3a0d07b346I daresay it is true that mediaeval women generally accepted their lot in life. That’s not to say that they believed that they were either especially wicked or frail, but it perhaps did not occur to most that there was much they could do to change the way things were.

However, there is also evidence that many mediaeval women were not down-trodden chattels. Competent manor chatelaines, wealthy peasant housewives and business women were strong and capable and very far from either the feeble-minded or the saintly creatures portrayed in much of the literature. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a good example of a woman who was more than a match for the men in her life! And I somehow doubt that all men held women in contempt: many – well, at least a few – surely loved and respected them, and understood what they were capable of?

The main drivers, then, for the story of A Woman’s Lot are the misogynistic attitudes of some Meonbridge men, which set in train events that lead to tragedy or almost tragedy. But, countering their misogyny are other men, and women, who recognise the injustice that those attitudes can engender.

A Woman’s Lot is narrated in the voices of four women, Eleanor Titherige, Susanna Miller, Agnes Sawyer and Emma Ward, all of whom had a role in Fortune’s Wheel.

fullsizeoutput_af9Eleanor, left orphaned by the Black Death, inherited her father’s substantial flock of sheep and, after initial worries about her own abilities to cope, decided to make a go of it. In A Woman’s Lot, her flock is thriving, but her path will not continue smoothly, neither on a business level nor in her love life.

At the end of Fortune’s Wheel, Susanna had just married the miller’s younger brother, Henry, and seemed happy. Two years later, she is still mostly content, but has a nagging worry that will lead her into disaster.

Agnes went missing before the start of Fortune’s Wheel, and the reason for her disappearance, and her brother John’s efforts to find her, are a constant thread throughout the novel. In A Woman’s Lot, Agnes is one of those women who would like to break the conventional mould a little and grasp what she perceives as the new opportunities brought by the Black Death. Emma, too, believes there are more opportunities “out there” for her and her family, and is eager to pursue them.

 

So, A Woman’s Lot is an everyday story of ordinary folk, but very much of its time. Of course, such misogynistic attitudes to women as I portray are not without parallels in our own time, but I am not attempting to draw comparisons. My tale is one of the fourteenth century, one that does not try to make Meonbridge’s women “feminists”. Their stories are not about women’s rights and liberation, but about making the best of opportunities within the context of the society they live in. Although she is a successful farmer, Eleanor isn’t happy about being unmarried: she has the usual desires for love and family life but, more importantly, she believes that social mores, as well as practicalities, really do require her to be wed. Susanna is a good mediaeval wife – she doesn’t wish to throw off the bonds of marriage but wants to make her marriage better, in the mediaeval way that she understands. Agnes and Emma, too, are not seeking to overthrow society, just to make, in their eyes, a more worthwhile contribution.

It is an interesting time to write about, and I do hope that you will want to read the latest chronicle of life in Meonbridge…

Wickham: not just “a pretty townlet”

For today’s blog, I am reposting a piece I wrote for the History Girls blog back in September, continuing my series of posts about the communities of the Meon Valley.

The motivation for my posts about the history of the Meon Valley is simply that this area of Hampshire, as well as being where I live, is the setting for my historical novels, the “Meonbridge Chronicles”. Not that all my posts have been directly relevant to my novel-writing research, but it’s just fascinating to explore the past of a place you love, and turn up interesting little snippets of information about it that you didn’t already know. So, I’ve decided to continue with my theme, and this time I’ve discovered at least one snippet that I found really quite surprising…

Last month I wrote about Titchfield, the settlement near the sea end of the valley of the River Meon and, today, I’m moving a few miles upstream to the next place of any size along the river, Wickham (oð wic hæma mearce in the 9th century; Wicheham in the 11th; Wykham in the 13th; Wickham in the 14th).

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Wickham is an attractive little town (or large village – I’m never quite sure which it is, with a population now of about 4000), popular with visitors. In the 16th century, the writer John Leland described it as a “pretty townlet”, so it was agreeable even then. Wickham is no longer a market town (apart from the occasional farmers’ market) but it became one in the 13th century, and remained so for many centuries thereafter, and a busy, prosperous place it was, as it still is. Wickham also has a very famous son – a 14th century son –and both the town’s history and that of its son are certainly worth an airing.

In Neolithic times, the only sign of any habitation in the place that would one day be “Wickham” was probably a fording place that enabled travellers to cross the River Meon. Neolithic artefacts found in the village bear witness to these possible early visitors. There is evidence too of Iron Age and Roman sites in and around the village, including iron and bronze making as well as pottery kilns. Wickham is sited on the route between the two important settlements of Winchester and Chichester, probably making it of strategic value to the Romans. It is possible that Wickham became an important Roman settlement, with an industrial base.

The first mention of Wickham in history is in a document dated 826 AD, when the village is mentioned in a royal charter. The original village lay on the east side of the River Meon, where the church still stands and the medieval manor house was once located.

After the Norman Conquest, the king, William I, granted the manor of Wickham to Hugo de Port, one of many lordships he granted to the de Port family. The village appeared in the Doomsday Book of 1086 as part of the Titchfield Hundred, and the present church of St Nicholas dates from 1126 and was run by the Canons of Titchfield.

Wickham’s record in the Domesday Book says:

4 brothers held it from King Edward as 2 manors. Then and now it answered for 12 hides. Hugh acquired it as 1 manor. Land for 7 ploughs. In lordship 2 ploughs; 15 villagers and 6 smallholders with 7 ploughs. 5 slaves; 2 mills at 20s; meadow, 8 acres; woodland at 5 pigs. Value before 1066 £10; later £4; now £7

Its total population at that time was probably around 120.

In the 13th century, Wickham was held, under the de Port overlordship, by a family called Scure. The manor passed down through the Scures until 1381, when Sybil Scure, who was married to John Uvedale, inherited it and brought Wickham into a family with whom it remained for the next 350 years. The manor house of the Uvedales stood to the south of the churchyard. Excavations in the 1960s showed that manorial buildings had been erected on the site in the late 11th century, when a large, aisled, timber-framed hall was built. It was replaced with a smaller, stone-built, hall in the 13th century, with a moat and some fish-ponds. The lords of Wickham seem to have been both important and wealthy, for excavations also revealed the high quality of some of the pottery they had imported from Normandy and Spain.

However, there is more to tell of the 13th century lord, Roger de Scures. For, on August 13th 1269, King Henry III granted a charter to Roger, allowing him – “for ever”, the charter says – to hold a market in Wickham every Thursday and an annual fair on the anniversary of the Translation Of St. Nicholas.

“Know ye that we have granted and by this our charter have confirmed to Roger de Scures that he and his heirs may have free warren in all the demesne lands of his manor of Wykham in the county of Southampton for ever. So that those lands be not within the boundaries of our forest. On condition that no one shall enter those lands to hunt in them or take away anything that may belong to the warren without the leave and will of the said Roger or his heirs upon forfeiture of ten pound. We have also granted to the same Roger that he and his heirs shall have for ever a market at his manor aforesaid every week on Thursday and that they may have there a fair ever year for three days, that is to say on the vigil, day and morrow of the Translation of St Nicholas unless that market and fair may be to the damage of the neighbouring market and fairs.” 

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Saint Nicholas depicted in a 14th-century English book of hours

The “Translation” refers to the movement (or rescue), in 1087, of Saint Nicholas’s relics from Myra (in present-day Turkey) to Bari, in Italy, to save them from potential destruction in the religious conflict that was ravaging the region. The relics still remain in the Basilica of Saint Nicholas in Bari.

The event is celebrated as a religious holiday in some Eastern Orthodox churches, but it seemed to me a curious anniversary for a little town in southern England to honour with a fair. The rationale for it is, I suppose, simply that Saint Nicholas was the saint to whom Wickham’s church was dedicated.

 

The holiday was originally celebrated on May 9th, the date in 1087 when the relics were brought to Bari, but it was moved to May 20th (something, I think, to do with the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian) and thus it has remained. The Wickham Fair – a three-day event in the Middle Ages –attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area, dealing in goods of all kinds.

But what might seem extraordinary is that Wickham still holds a one-day fair on May 20th every year, 750 years after it was instituted.

In earlier centuries, the fair apparently traded in livestock of many kinds, including pigs, sheep, cattle and horses. But eventually it became essentially a horse-trading fair, which is what it is now, and is thought to be one of only two such events in the whole country. Thousands of members of the traveller community come from all over the country to show and sell ponies and horses, and to race them, with and without buggies, up and down the Winchester to Fareham road. A funfair fills Wickham’s great square for the rest of the day on the 20th.

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Wickham’s square is said to be one of the largest in Britain and it is from the time of the royal charter of 1269 that the layout of the village, with this broad market place, probably began to emerge. A road sign on the approach to Wickham from Fareham declares the village to have a “13th century market square”, which I have always thought just a little misleading. For, while it is undoubtedly true that The Square had its beginnings in the 13th century, and would once have been surrounded by contemporary buildings, sadly, few medieval buildings are still standing there.

Nonetheless, it is an impressive square, with a fine collection of 16th, 17th and 18th century houses surrounding the broad marketplace, a few of them quite grand, probably built by the increasingly prosperous merchants and skilled craftsmen. But there are certainly houses with 15th century origins in Bridge Street, a narrow road, apparently known as Grub Street in the Middle Ages, that crosses the River Meon at the east end of the square.

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These cottages on Bridge Street are known as “The Old Barracks” and represent one of the best examples of a Wealden hall house in the area. They are timber framed with plaster infill and with later brickwork cladding. Timbers have been dated by dendrochronology to c1495. There is apparently a reference in the Parish Register to three cottages in Bridge Street called “The Barracks” in 1556 (the reign of Mary Tudor), which probably refers to this building.

Bridge/Grub Street is thought to have been part of the early settlement, referred to already, centred around the church and the (long since disappeared) manor on the east bank of the River Meon. After the development of the new square and its associated buildings in the 13th century on the drier, west bank of the river, Bridge Street was the connecting route between the old settlement and the new, via what was at first a ford, then a wooden bridge, and finally, in 1792, a stone bridge.

In 1334 Wickham was worth 6 pounds, 8 shillings and 6 pence in taxes paid to the Crown, which was more than Fareham, which today is vastly larger, so 14th century Wickham must have been a prosperous place. By 1700 it probably had a population of around 500, and two hundred years later the population had more than doubled. Now there are more like 4000 inhabitants, though that presumably doesn’t include the many residents of neighbouring villages who regard Wickham as their local centre. And it certainly doesn’t include the thousands who flock there, not only on fair day, but on every other day of the year, especially in summer, to admire the broad square and lovely old buildings, and to do some trading of their own in the antique shops, and enjoy a meal in one of the many restaurants and cafés.

But what of Wickham’s most famous son?

William was born in 1320, his father a modest freeman, John Longe, who moved to Wickham with his young family. Somehow the lord of the manor, then John de Scures, recognised that young William was bright and sent him to a school in Winchester.

And John was right. This bright but poor boy became clerk of the king’s works, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor of England. He called himself William of Wykeham, in honour of the place that nurtured him.

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Winchester Cathedral
WyrdLight.com [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
On leaving school it seems that William became secretary to the constable of Winchester Castle, before passing into royal service in 1347. In 1349, he was appointed rector of a living in Norfolk, despite apparently not having taking holy orders, but then a few years later took on a series of jobs as clerks of works. He rose rapidly in service to the king, Edward III, and by 1359 was responsible for the castles of Windsor, Leeds, Dover and Hadleigh, as well as many royal manors.

But only two years later he was a royal secretary, concerned with the king’s finances, and by 1363 was a royal councillor. It is hard to understand how one man could undertake so many rôles, but in these few heady years, he seems to have taken part in the negotiations between England and France during the Hundred Years War, he was a canon at Lincoln Cathedral, and a Justice in Eyre in the Midlands, and also Lord Privy Seal. By 1366, William was elected as Bishop of Winchester, but also held other livings with an annual income exceeding £800. The following year, when he was consecrated as bishop at St Paul’s in London, he was also appointed Chancellor of England. However, he found it hard to raise the money for the king to resume his conflict with France, when it resumed in 1369 and, finally, he lost the king’s favour and resigned his role as Chancellor in 1371.

However, all was not lost. As Edward III’s health and energy declined, William maintained good relationships in high places and received more important appointments but, in the topsy-turvy world of medieval politics and jockeying for position, he fell out of favour again and in 1376 was banished from court, his church incomes seized. But his banishment didn’t last, and in 1377, he was pardoned by the new king, Richard II, shortly after his grandfather, Edward, died. (The king’s own father, Edward, the Black Prince, had died in June 1376.) Under Richard, William resumed his position as a royal councillor, and served as Chancellor again from 1389 to 1391.

In the meantime, William was making educational foundations. It seems that he was genuinely kind-hearted and generous, excusing poor tenants on his manors their customary payments, paying off debts of others, and giving food daily to many poor people. He also supported poor scholars at Oxford University for many years before he founded New College in 1379. His grammar school, Winchester College, in Winchester, obtained its royal licence in 1382, though it was several years before either institution was open for business. At both, however, William required daily prayers to be said for the king and queen, for himself and his parents, and all of his former patrons, including Sir John Scures.

William was concentrating on his foundations by the time Henry IV deposed Richard II in 1399, but he welcomed the new king in Winchester in 1400. He died at Bishop’s Waltham (a few miles north of Wickham) in 1404 and was buried in his chantry chapel to the south side of the nave in Winchester Cathedral. At the time of his death, he was one of the richest men in England and, although he did leave legacies to his descendants, much of his wealth went into the schools and colleges.

Strong, Sampson, c.1550-1611; William of Wykeham
William of Wykeham (Photo: New College, University of Oxford)

William’s motto was “Manners makyth man”, adopted also by his foundations. Jean Froissart, in his Chronicles, said of him: “Everything was done through him, and without him nothing was done.”

Quite an accolade for a poor boy from a little Hampshire village.

Everyday stories of country folk? (a reprise)

Excitingly, I’ve just sent my manuscript of the second Meonbridge Chronicle, A Woman’s Lot, off to my editor. Naturally, I’m hoping she won’t tear it to pieces, though I do of course expect some cogent feedback. But I’m hopeful of being able to publish it in the first quarter of 2018. I’ll write more about A Woman’s Lot in a future post, but today I thought it might be helpful to reprise a blog post I wrote earlier this year.

For those readers who are not already acquainted with the first Meonbridge Chronicle, Fortune’s Wheel, the post goes some way to explaining what type of historical fiction it is. Because “historical fiction” is hardly a single genre, but encompasses many different kinds of writing including: what one might call broadly “kings and queens”  alternative biography; romance; murder mystery; adventure; war and conflict; time slip and so on and so on…

At the beginning of this year, only three months after Fortune’s Wheel was published, a reviewer described it (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I later discovered) as an “an everyday story of country folk”  At the time, I was rather miffed, feeling that he was somehow denigrating my “literary” credentials by comparing my work to a soap opera.

However, I had in fact (in my own blog) already referred to it as “more the ‘everyday lives of country folk’”, by which I meant that my novel’s plot was based on social history, the stories of ordinary people, and their everyday lives, rather than high-level politics, war, or the lives of the nobility.

TheArchersLogoAnyway, a couple of months after the “soap opera” review, I wrote the blog that I’m reposting most of here. For, by then, I had happily reassured myself that I had no reason at all to be “miffed” by that reviewer’s assessment. Rather, that it was perceptive, and indeed I should be pleased by the prospect that my work might possibly turn out to be as popular as The Archers!

I thought it was interesting then, and I think it is still interesting now – and therefore worth reposting – to consider in what respects the Meonbridge Chronicle might be seen as a form of soap opera.

 

Wikipedia defines soap opera as “a serial drama on television or radio that examines the lives of many characters, usually focusing on emotional relationships to the point of melodrama.”

The Free Dictionary says: “A drama, typically performed as a serial on daytime television or radio, characterised by stock characters and situations, sentimentality, and melodrama.

Oh dear – I don’t at all like the sound of “stock characters and situations, sentimentality, and melodrama”  Of course, the term “soap opera” is often (invariably?) used pejoratively, to imply something trashy and trivial – which is obviously why, at first, I was rather put out at the suggestion that my work was of that ilk. However, whereas, obviously, the Meonbridge Chronicles don’t exactly fit those definitions, because they are novels and not television or radio dramas, they do have a few of the same elements as such dramas, which I thought were worth exploring.

For example, The Archers has a large cast of characters, and the storylines alternate between them. Not all of the characters appear in every episode, indeed some don’t appear for months before popping up again.

The Meonbridge Chronicles too have quite large casts, which a few readers of Fortune’s Wheel seemed not to care for very much. Some found it hard to remember who everyone was, while others felt there were too many characters for them to identify with any of them properly. But other readers love having lots of characters – or at least don’t find it overly daunting as, said one reviewer, with the “list of all the important characters at the beginning of the novel… I soon acquainted myself with them all.” I too like a large cast in a novel, as well as in a soap opera, as long as it’s not too difficult to distinguish between the characters… And it’s my job, as author, to ensure that every character is an individual.

cast_thousandA major challenge of having a large cast, however, is controlling multiple protagonists, and weaving together their many different story threads. We are often told as writers that we “should” have a single strong main protagonist, one character for readers to identify with or root for (or indeed loathe). But I have three main protagonists in Fortune’s Wheel, four in A Woman’s Lot, seven in my as-yet unpublished novel of the Middle Ages, The Nature of Things… And there are very many protagonists in The Archers, some undoubtedly more significant than others.

So how do readers/listeners cope with such a plethora of people to love (or hate)? Do they in fact fail to find anyone to root for? I suppose some do fail – perhaps like those people who didn’t like the large cast in Fortune’s Wheel? But I suspect that many listeners to The Archers are simply drawn to one or a few characters in particular, and follow their stories with more interest than others. That’s certainly true for me. I often find myself listening eagerly to the next instalment of so-and-so’s story, but switching off my ears for a while when the scene changes to somebody else’s story in which I’m not quite so interested. Even in a novel, with far fewer but still several protagonists, it is likely that readers might be drawn more to one character than another, and a few readers of Fortune’s Wheel have told me this was the case for them.

In both the Meonbridge Chronicles and The Archers, storylines alternate between the protagonists. Stories in soap operas tend to be about relationships between the characters, and the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives. Occasionally, a storyline might draw on a topic of national or political importance, and sometimes a story will be full of drama and tension, even horror, as one or more of the characters has to face an extraordinary event that is beyond everyday experience. But these dramatic storylines are interspersed between the more gentle, commonplace incidents of normal life. Some storylines are relatively short and insignificant, while others are major, sometimes harrowing – and authentic-seeming, partly because they seem to be playing out in real time – dramas that spin out over many episodes, sometimes lasting for months.

dscf2268The effect is not dissimilar in Fortune’s Wheel. As one of a series of novels, individual characters’ storylines may not be concluded in one novel, but will (or may) continue in a subsequent one. The stories are also essentially about relationships, some joyful, some troubling, others challenging and even devastating. There are of course far fewer storylines in my novel than in The Archers (if only because its scope is so very much more restricted), but certainly there is at least one, and sometimes more than one, storyline for each principal protagonist. Dramatic events are interspersed between the minutiae of everyday life. Weaving together the different story threads in a way that maintains interest in the storyline that is centre stage, without detracting from those waiting in the wings, is one of the challenges of both a soap opera and this type of novel.

Another of the challenges of having a large cast is, of course, distinguishing between the characters. Obviously, this is relevant to all forms of drama and fiction, but is perhaps of particular pertinence here…

On the radio, it is true of any drama but, I think, particularly so with something like The Archers, that one has to tune one’s ear to the different voices, and there are certainly times when I can’t distinguish between the young men – is that Tom Archer or Chris Carter or one of the Fairbrother brothers? Or indeed, between the young women – is that Helen? Pip? Alice?

For a radio drama, it is especially important – if particularly tricky – to ensure that different characters have different, distinctive, voices. This is partly an issue of actors. But language is also a factor. And this is also true in a novel.

But all writers have to try and ensure that their characters’ voices don’t just all “sound” the same, with the similar vocabulary, turns of phrase and intonations. And I actually think this is quite difficult to achieve, particularly if the novel does have, say, two or three characters of the same gender and age, and from broadly the same social background. In my unpublished novel, The Nature of Things, for example, two of the principal narrators, Tom Godewryght and Peter atte Hyl, are both young men, essentially from the same sort of background – relatively lowly peasant stock – who, in their different ways, go “up in the world”. Although their narratives are decades apart in the novel, so that they never do actually “appear” together, it still seemed important to try and make sure that they sounded like quite different, and therefore more distinctively “real”, people.

In A Woman’s Lot, I have a similar problem with two of the young women, both of whom appeared in Fortune’s Wheel and, in the sequel, are two of the four principal narrators. Emma Ward and Susanna Miller are both cottars and are of a similar age, so how do I ensure each sounds distinctively herself?

A good test of voice differentiation is, I think, when each voice is sufficiently distinctive that the dialogue could be written without attributions. If the voices are adequately differentiated – especially when the characters are talking to each other – you should be able to “hear” which of them is speaking even if their names are not tagged on the page. That’s the theory, anyway. Have I achieved it? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly my aim…

So, there are (at least) three ways in which the Meonbridge Chronicles might possibly be considered similar to soap opera: they have large casts of characters; they include multiple, interwoven storylines, with a mix of everyday and high drama; and they provide the writer with the challenge of creating many distinctive and “real”-seeming voices.

This is hardly a tightly-argued analysis! But interesting, I think.

9781781325827-Cover.inddSo are my novels a form of soap opera? Well, perhaps – a bit. It’s true that I might prefer my novels to be regarded as works of “literature” but, when all is said and done, if they ever turned out to be even as remotely popular as The Archers, why on earth should I object? As long as, I suppose – and this is very important! – they are not simply dismissed as trite or trivial or melodramatic, which has not so far been the case with Fortune’s Wheel. Even the reviewer who sparked off this train of thought certainly didn’t say that!

A Woman’s Lot is another everyday story of country folk, this time mostly about some of Meonbridge’s women. The storylines (for, again, there are several threads) are about marital discord, women’s thwarted ambitions, and the quest for love, but also about the tensions between the poorer in society and the richer, and the ups and downs of rural life in medieval Hampshire. Stories that are, essentially, fourteenth century versions of those that you might hear in The Archers.

And I will write more about the background to A Woman’s Lot in a later post…

Were there once ships on the River Meon?

Titchfield, in Hampshire, was once one of the most significant towns on the River Meon, enjoying considerable prosperity and status during the mediaeval period, at least partly because of its port. But, over time, as with many places whose fortunes rose and fell, Titchfield declined in importance, largely for social and economic reasons, but also partly perhaps because of its geography.

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Titchfield, South Street, looking towards the square. Public domain.

Titchfield lies at the seaward end of the River Meon and, up until the mid-17th century, the town supported a small port. The woollen industry was important in the area around Titchfield, and mills along the river banks powered the production of iron, tanned goods, salt and cloth. The port enabled the goods produced to be distributed to larger centres such as Southampton, and also allowed the local gentry to move around by boat instead of travelling by road.

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Speed’s 1611 map (http://www.geog.port.ac.uk/webmap/hantsmap/hantsmap accessed 07/08/2017)

But, in 1611, the life of Titchfield as a port began its decline when the estate owner, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, blocked off the estuary of the River Meon and built a canal directly from the sea to the town. These actions were intended, presumably, to maintain the port, in the face of the silting up of the river mouth, but it is generally considered that, in practice, what he did rather hastened the decline of the town’s prosperity.

(In Speed’s map, the River Meon estuary is very wide compared to that of the Hamble. Interestingly, the estuary is also not blocked here, despite 1611 being the year that the Earl of Southampton closed of the river and built the canal.)

The River Meon had been important for millennia to the groups of people who lived in its vicinity, as a source of water, undoubtedly, and food, perhaps, and also as a route through the woodland of Neolithic Britain (c.4000-2000BCE), and a means of transporting goods upriver from the sea. In due course, the river’s tidal estuary also made it suitable for water-powered industries to grow up along its banks.

In the 10th century, Titchfield was referred to in documents and maps as Ticcefelda, in the 11th century, Ticefelle, in the 13th and 14th centuries, Tichefelde, and by the 16th century, the town was documented as Tytchfelde.

The Domesday book entry for Titchfield states:

The King holds TICEFELLE. It is a berewick, and belongs to MENESTOCHES. King Edward held it. There are 2 hides; but they have not paid geld. (There) is land for 15 ploughs. In (the) demesne (there are) but 2 oxen (animalia), and (there are) 16 villeins and 13 borders with 9 ploughs. There are 4 serfs, and a mill worth 20 shillings. The market and toll (are worth) 40 shillings. [http://www.titchfieldhistory.org]

“Menestoches”, by the way, is Meonstoke, 12 miles or so further up the Meon valley (and more or less where my fictional “Meonbridge” lies).

A port of some kind seems to have existed at Titchfield since the turn of the first millennium CE, with the River Meon possibly serving as an industrial and commercial waterway, at a time when the river was still easily accessible from the sea. Such a port may not have been all that sophisticated. It is likely that large ships would have just anchored up outside the mouth of the river to unload their goods into little boats, which would then have ferried them to the bank and, perhaps, a little further upriver.

It is thought that, prior to the 10th century, the River Meon was negotiable by small boats along much of its length, possibly as far as Droxford, about a mile and a half south of Meonstoke, making it a viable alternative to road travel through the area. But the late 10th/early 11th century was the start of the construction of many water mills all along the river, mills that were used mainly for grinding corn but also in other industries, such as wool and cloth, iron, tanning, and salt. The mill at Titchfield, mentioned in the Domesday Book, was worth 20 shillings, but there were as many as thirty mills along the river’s length, and they underpinned the area’s economy for the next thousand years. However, it seems that, over time, the very development of the mills, and the associated bridges, weirs and other engineering works, especially those further towards its source, meant that river travel beyond Titchfield became difficult and eventually impossible.

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Titchfield Market Hall, built in 1620s, now at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, West Sussex. MilborneOne at the English language Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Sometime also in the 10th/11th centuries, Jean de Gisor, a rich Norman merchant, and a vassal of the kings of England, first Henry II and then Richard I, seems to have established a base at his property in Titchfield, in order to facilitate his cross-channel trade, implying the existence of a port that de Gisor hoped to exploit. Titchfield’s location would also have provided a good stopping off point for officials travelling between England and France, and a family like the de Gisors would certainly have attracted a wide array of important visitors, wishing to make use of cross-channel travel facilities. However, by 1180, the de Gisors had already moved on, to found the city of Portsmouth, and, presumably, develop its much bigger and more viable port. One can only speculate, but perhaps de Gisor found that the silty mouth of the River Meon was not as suitable as it might be for the establishment of a really successful port.

However, a century and half later, in 1232, the Bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, established a Premonstratensian abbey at Titchfield, which, perhaps because of its high social and political standing, in itself resulted in significant economic development both in the town and the surrounding rural landscape.

Titchfield already had a valuable market in 1086, as shown in the Domesday Book. When a town was granted a market or fair, it was a signifier of its importance. In fact Titchfield’s markets was one of the first in Hampshire and, by the 12th century, it was the only place in the Meon valley to have one. In the late 13th century, presumably after the establishment of such an important abbey, which was almost certainly visited often by officials and even royalty, King Edward I granted the town permission to hold an annual five day fair, which was of enormous economic significance.

By the 1330’s, Titchfield was one of Hampshire’s richest towns, despite still being relatively small and, in 1333, it was also one of Hampshire’s most heavily taxed towns, implying that it was both thriving and important.

However, the town suffered excessively in the Black Death of 1349‐50. The population was substantially reduced, perhaps by as much as 80%, and during the plague’s recurrences in subsequent decades, the tenant population of Titchfield was depleted still further. This dramatic demographic shift must have had a significant economic impact on the town. Before the Black Death, prices were high and labour abundant, and landowners grew rich. But the huge loss of life severely affected the production of key exports such as wool, and the reduction in labour, demands for higher wages and the excess untenanted land unbalanced the economy, at least for a while, with estate owners finding their incomes falling and trade presumably not so buoyant. The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) presumably also had an adverse impact, with the inevitable restriction of trade between England and Europe, and the burden of taxation imposed by the government to fund the king’s armies.

So were economic difficulties caused by the plague and the war the start of Titchfield’s gradual decline in significance? Possibly they played a part, but not quite yet…

Titchfield abbey
Titchfield Abbey/Place House. [Photo © Rosalind Hughes]
The abbey was abandoned by the Premonstratensian order following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1537, but the estate and the monastic buildings were quickly taken over by Thomas Wriothesley, who was granted the abbey and estate for his services to the Crown during the dissolution. Thomas was a member of the royal secretariat, and helped secure the king’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon. He was knighted in 1540, and became 1st Baron Wriothesley in 1544, when he also become Lord Chancellor. He was created 1st Earl of Southampton in 1547.

In 1542, Thomas had the abbey buildings converted into a home, known as Place House, some parts of which can still be seen (managed by English Heritage, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/titchfield-abbey/).

Titchfield continued to be prosperous for some further decades but, as already mentioned, the mouth of the River Meon had always been “silty” and, in 1611, the situation became so bad that the 3rd Earl, Henry Wriothesley, Thomas’s grandson, took action.

Wriothesley_southampton
Henry Wriothesley. Attributed to John de Critz [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
As a momentary diversion, Henry was an intriguing character, if only because of his connection with William Shakespeare, who, in 1593, dedicated his narrative poem Venus and Adonis to him. The following year, he  did the same with The Rape of Lucrece, and the words of the latter dedication were really rather over the top:

“The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end … What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours”

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Dedication to Henry Wriothesley by William Shakespeare [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
Henry was Shakespeare’s patron and it seems that Henry may indeed have been the “Fair Youth” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, though he is not the only candidate! However, he appears also to have been a rather disreputable fellow, despite his high status, getting into scrapes of various sorts, one of which so upset Queen Elizabeth that she refused to receive him at court for a while, though his banishment did not last, so perhaps he was silver-tongued as well as handsome?

Anyway, in 1611, Henry took the decision to block off the estuary of the River Meon from the sea, and build a canal adjacent to the river, one of the very first canals to be built in England. A sea lock was built across the estuary, thus removing the port. The sealock would control the passage of ships to and from Titchfield, but would also control the freshwater levels in the area, for a further objective of the scheme was apparently to reclaim the large stretch of sea-marsh lying between the town and the blocked-off estuary (now, the haven) for, one supposes, arable farming and sheep rearing to supply the woollen industry, which was perhaps seen as of greater value to the local economy than the river itself.

Taylor 1759 map
Taylor’s 1759 map showing the river Meon estuary blocked off from the sea. (http://www.geog.port.ac.uk/webmap/hantsmap/hantsmap accessed 07/08/2017)

The canal was built, presumably, as an alternative to the river, providing a direct link from the town to the sea, and to replace the functions that the River Meon had supported. It was evidently, however, not very successful in the long term and a hundred years later it was no longer in use.

Taylor’s 1759 map shows the River Meon estuary blocked off from the sea and the adjacent canal running up to Titchfield Abbey/’Place House’. By this period, a road runs along the sea wall and over the sea lock bridge. This might suggest that the canal was completely redundant by this time as it no longer flowed into the sea.

Interestingly, before he blocked off the estuary, the Earl established an iron mill, powered by the River Meon, which surely suggests that he expected his actions over the port to support, and even boost, Titchfield’s prosperity. And, over time, that mill did produce a huge quantity of iron. Wool, cloth, salt, and leather also still kept the town a viable trading community, but perhaps, ultimately, Titchfield could not keep up with the productivity and connections of the larger urban centres to the east and west – Southampton, Fareham and Portsmouth. So, although industry in Titchfield didn’t just fall away immediately following the closure of the river port, at length the importance it had once held did decline.

It is probably unjust to lay responsibility for the downfall of Titchfield’s economic health at the door of the 3rd Earl – though some do – when it seems that he hoped his engineering works would be the town’s salvation. But perhaps factors simply conspired, over time, to bring about the decline in the town’s importance. The silty nature of the lower River Meon, the industrial development along its banks, and then the Earl’s attempts to overcome its natural limitations, together with the lingering social, political and economic effects of plague and war, eventually reduced the town’s ability to sustain a port and, finally, its trading prosperity.

 

Some of the discussion as to the background to Titchfield’s decline I shared during the writing of a Masters dissertation, The Economic Significance of the old port at Titchfield Hampshire, by Rosalind Hughes, which was submitted for a Masters degree in Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2011 (unpublished).

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Historical fiction – love me, love me not?

I was delighted recently to have a guest spot on Anne Williams’s lovely blog, Being Anne, talking about ways of trying to make historical fiction seem “authentic”…

Do have a look at: http://beinganne.com/2017/09/guestpost-carolyn-hughes-author-of-fortunes-wheel-writingcalliope-silverwoodbooks/ Being Anne

In the post, Anne herself made a very interesting comment about historical fiction, which I would like to explore a little further. Anne said that she has:

“a well-advertised aversion to kings and queens, generally prefer a dual time thread, and there are distinct periods to which [she] naturally gravitate[s]. The fourteenth century isn’t one of those periods…”

So, you might well think, there’s not much chance of Anne ever wanting to read one of my books!!

But not so. For she went on to say that:

“everything Carolyn has told me about this book [Fortune’s Wheel] and her approach to historical fiction has made me really want to sample the Meonbridge Chronicles. Much as I’d love to, I sadly just can’t find the reading space for this one – but I guarantee I’ll be reviewing the second in the series, A Woman’s Lot.”

Thank you so much, Anne!

But Anne is not the only one to feel that maybe historical fiction isn’t for them. A few reviewers of Fortune’s Wheel have said how much they enjoyed the book, despite not being fans of historical fiction

“…I don’t normally opt for historical fiction, but Fortune’s Wheel was captivating and has opened my eyes to a personally unexplored genre.”

“For some reason, I’m always a bit apprehensive when I start to read an historical novel because I can’t always cope with strategic plots involving kings and earls and knights of the realm and so on, especially when I know they are taken from real life. Also, I don’t want every book I read to be full of wars and bloodshed,  again, especially when I know it’s real history. There was none of that in this book…”

“This book was recommended to me and, although normally I am not a fan of fiction about the middle ages, I was very surprised how much I enjoyed it. Carolyn Hughes has done a great deal of research and created wonderful descriptions of life for the working classes (and the elite) at that period in time in a feudal village in Hampshire….Well done – an excellent novel. I recommend it.”

http://amzn.to/2qHheHu

9781781325827-Cover.inddOf course I’m delighted that Fortune’s Wheel might have “converted” one or two readers to historical fiction, though obviously it can’t be everyone’s favourite read! However, I do think it might be true that quite a few people avoid it because they feel it’s all about “kings and queens” or “wars and bloodshed”. But of course, as with other genres, there isn’t only one kind of “historical fiction”.

When I came to write Fortune’s Wheel, the first of the Meonbridge Chronicles, I wasn’t immediately sure what kind of story I would write, what sort of historical novel it would be.

I did know in which period it would be set – the Middle Ages! I had long been intrigued by the mediaeval period, for its relative remoteness in time and understanding, and, I think, for the very dichotomy between the present-day perception of life in the Middle Ages as “nasty, brutish and short” and the wonders of the period’s art and literature. I wanted to know more about the period, and, through writing an historical novel, I would have the opportunity both to discover the mediaeval past and to interpret it, to bring both learning and imagination to my writing, which is I suppose what all historical novelists want to do.

fullsizeoutput_96aSo, yes, a mediaeval novel… But which sort of mediaeval novel? I somehow knew that it wouldn’t be a mediaeval mystery, or crime, or romance (although mystery, crime and romance would surely all play a part…). Nor would it be alternative history, or alternative biography, or dual period/time slip. But, if it were none of these, what would it be?

What I did know was that I wanted to write a “naturalistic” novel, one that portrayed the lives of mediaeval people – and, in particular, “ordinary” people – as naturally and “authentically” as I possibly could. (There are potential issues with such an objective, which, if you are interested, I have explored in earlier blogs: “The problem with historical fiction” (I to III) in November 2016, and “Authenticity in historical fiction” (I to VI) in January-March this year.) I soon became excited by the idea of building an imaginary mediaeval English village society and populating it with a variety of interesting and hopefully engaging, albeit “ordinary”, characters.

To make a story, I would of course have to give them challenges to meet and problems to solve, private agonies to bear and public disasters to face. And also pleasures and joys – it couldn’t be all misery and doom! But my novel would certainly be more about people than events, more about their interactions with each other than the twists and turns of whatever situations I put them in.

AKG864626_kindleThe challenge I chose for Fortune’s Wheel was the aftermath of what we called the Black Death, the plague that swept across Asia and Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, killing between a third and a half of all people, in the most hideous, terrifying way imaginable. Its particular terror lay in that the disease – like other natural (or perhaps man-made) disasters – was presumed then to be God’s punishment for man’s sin. People might have wondered which of their sins could be so great that God would want to punish them so cruelly…

But it was the aftermath of the calamity that I was particularly interested in – how ordinary people put their devastated lives back together again. Imagine the sheer turmoil that must have ensued, not only in society as a whole, but also at a personal level. For those of us who live in village or small town communities, we may know, or at least be acquainted with, a great many of our neighbours. But we in the twenty-first century generally live quite dispersed lives, having our homes in these communities but probably working elsewhere. But in former centuries, when communities worked together too, the death of half of your neighbours must have been truly devastating.

Women lost husbands, men lost wives, and both lost children. Young people were orphaned and had to learn to fend for themselves. Workers realised they were now a scarce resource and had some bargaining power, and said so, while their lords and masters tried hard to cling on to the status quo and keep the workers in their place. As the peasants rebelled against the old ways, priests railed against the upsetting of God’s pre-ordained social order, and preyed upon people’s fears of further divine retribution for their so-called sinful lives.

Yet, amidst all this turmoil and fear, normal life must have continued: fields had to be ploughed and sown, crops harvested, meals made. People fell in and out of love. Babies were born and children cherished. Friendships and families were sometimes put under strain. Resentments boiled, some of which found reconciliation, while others ended in treachery.

And all of that is the story of Fortune’s Wheel. A story about people. Or, as one of my reviewers once said, “an everyday story of country folk”.

I sometimes think of Fortune’s Wheel as a kind of “relationship” novel, but set in the fourteenth century. It is focuses mostly on the relationships of women, and the story is told through the voices of women. Although we do hear the words of men, it was, and still is, the women’s viewpoints that interested me most, if only because women in history often do not get much opportunity to “speak”. In future Meonbridge Chronicles, of which A Woman’s Lot is the next novel (hopefully to be published early in 2018), it will continue to be mostly the women of fictional Meonbridge who will be revealing their lives to us, and whose voices I hope many, many readers will come to know – and perhaps even love.