Saturday, March 9, 2019

Lanhydrock--An Elegant Country Estate

I've just begun writing a new Regency romance, so I'm trying to immerse myself in the world of that era. Visiting Lanhydrock country house in Cornwall last summer certainly provided some inspiration. The house was built and furnished nearly a hundred years after the Regency period so it's more Downton Abbey than Pemberley, but it still offers an appreciation of what country life might be like for the more privileged of my early 18th century characters. The estate includes a fifty-room mansion and 900-acres of parkland with spectacular gardens.
To reach the house you follow an avenue lined with 300 beech trees. At the entrance is the gatehouse (above), a delightfully ornate structure that was originally built in 1651 as a hunting lodge. Some of the landscaping on the estate dates from the 1680's. The oldest trees in the bluebell wood are about 120 years old, although most of the ash, beech, oak and sycamore were planted in the 1950's and 60's. A variety of gardens surround the house, from formal designs to the wilderness garden. There is an adorable thatched cottage that used to be the gardener's home. And lovely landscaping around the church and cemetery, which both seem steeped in time.

Lanhyrock was the family home of Thomas Charles, 2nd Lord Robartes, his wife Mary and their ten children. The house was severely damaged by fire in 1881, but Lord Robartes had it rebuilt. The striking, life-size painting below is likely one of his ancestors.
What's exceptional about this estate is that all the rooms are furnished, authentically recreating what the house must have looked like when the family resided there.

There were eight kitchens for preparing game, fish, hot and cold food and baked goods. I also got a glimpse of the attic/storage areas and the servants' quarters, like the governess's bedroom below.
Alas, due to a memory card failure, many of my pictures didn't turn out, so this is just a sampling of the amazing furniture and decor. In true Victorian fashion, there was quite a number of taxidermy specimens, including a giant moose head, the leopard skin throw below and (horrifyingly) a real polar bear rug. 😞
But if you're going to go for all-out decadent luxury, there's nothing like this map room.
 And the gallery area was truly amazing. The immense room is almost large enough to almost play football in. Although since it is lined with bookshelves and features a stunning plaster ceiling with ornate classical figures, it was likely used in a much more formal fashion.

      It was impossible to absorb all the amazing details in a couple of hours. But the immersive experience definitely convinced me to put a lavish country house in one of the books in my new Regency series. 
      I am hard at work on the first one, Sweet Ruin, about a young woman who feels more at home in a library than a ballroom. Delphinia Fairfield is determined to have a more interesting life than being a nobleman's wife. And if being ruined is the only way to avoid that fate, then that's exactly what she will do.   

Thursday, January 24, 2019

My Welsh Connection

When I first decided to write a historical romance, I instantly knew where it was going to be set—Wales. My love of this intriguing little Celtic country was sparked by two books:  Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave (the first of her Arthurian series) and Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. I was enthralled by the way these authors captured the ancient mystical allure of Wales, its dramatically beautiful landscape and fiercely independent people. 

As a result of my affinity for Wales, my first book, The Dragon of the Island, featured a historical Welsh king named Maelgwn the Great. Since then I’ve written six other books that have a some connection to the country, including the  medieval romance I just finished. Something about the place inspires me and gets my mind spinning with stories.
I’ve visited Wales four times and often referred to it as my spiritual homeland. A few years ago one of my friends developed a ancestry chart for me that revealed I was descended from King Edward I. For a “Welsh-o-phile” like me, that was kind of unsettling, as Edward was famous for oppressing the Welsh...and the Scots (he’s the evil king in Braveheart).

Along with Edward, my chart features several other names I recognize from my research in the medieval era. I was especially intrigued by the listing of my 22nd great-grandmother as “Elen of Wales”. Since I’ve been getting back into genealogy lately, I decided to look her up on the internet. And there she was, Elen of Wales, the daughter of Llywelyn the Great, who is called Great because he came very close to uniting all of Wales and earning the country sovereignty in its own right. 
Llywelyn the Great statue in Conwy, North Wales

I was thrilled to find out I am related to the ultimate Welsh hero. Except….the date was wrong. The Elen of Wales on my chart lived too much later to be Llywelyn’s daughter. But I didn’t give up. Instead, I looked up her husband, and then her husband’s mother, and I found her. My Elen wasn’t Llywelyn’s daughter, she was his granddaughter.
For me, it’s sort of like hitting the genealogy jackpot. Although there is another (English) fly in the ointment. Elen is Llywelyn’s granddaughter by Joan, the illegitimate daughter of King John, who was Edward I’s grandfather. So, in a sense, I am twice royal, although it also means I am related to two of the most sociopathic kings in European history. It’s kind of like finding out you’re related to Tywin and Joffrey Lannister in The Game of Thrones.
But the connection to Llywelyn the Great is worth it, as Llywelyn is pretty much the Ned Stark of Wales.  He’s also the main character in Penman’s Here Be Dragons. In the book, he’s not only a heroic figure, but a romantic hero, who loves his wife Joan so much that he forgives her even after she is unfaithful to him and mourns her deeply when she dies. Incidentally, the man she was unfaithful with, William de Braose, is the father of Isabella de Braose, who is the wife of Daffyd, Llywelyn the Great’s son, who is the father of my Elen of Wales. So, bizarrely, it would appear that I am descended from both Llywelyn and his wife’s lover. (Although he forgave Joan for her infidelity, Llywelyn had her lover William de Braose hanged. That must have been difficult for Isabella, to marry the son of her father’s executioner!)

We talk about a "small world" and "sixth degrees of separation", but it really was true in the medieval era, especially among the circles of the nobility. That was part of the reason the Church has such strict rules about who you could marry. The other thing to remember is that lots and lots of people alive today are related to the kings, queens and nobles of Europe. These powerful people had the resources to ensure their offspring survived.
I have another misgiving about my royal connections. John's father Henry II invaded Ireland and established a Norman-Anglo power base there that would result in England dominating and oppressing the Irish for nearly 800 years. Since my husband is more than half Irish genetically and 100% spiritually, my Plantagenet lineage (as Henry II's royal line is known) makes us blood enemies. Oh, and the main noble who invaded Richard de Clare II?  I'm related to him too. The only saving grace is that he was part Welsh. 
So, there's my Welsh connection. Maybe. I've found one link in the genealogy chain where not all the sources match. Who knows if I've related to Llywelyn or Edward or any of them. But it doesn't matter. My love of Wales is soul deep. I don't need genetic proof for it to be real. 
Dolwyddelan Castle, built by Llywelyn the Great

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Tower of London

The first time I visited London we got very close to the Tower of London, but had no time to tour it. On my recent trip there in May, I was determined to tour this most famous and infamous of castles. We took the Big Red Bus tour there, which afforded us views of some of the nearby sites that are nearly as dramatic as the Tower. 

The "Tower" is actually a complex of several buildings surrounded by two sets of defensive walls. It takes its name from the  White Tower, which was built in 1078 by William the Conqueror. Other kings added on to the castle complex, mainly over the 12th and 13th centuries. 

It's likely William built the tower as a symbol of his dominance over England. It would have "towered" over the other structures in that part of London as well as being clearly visible to anyone traveling on the Thames. It was also intended to be the royal residence and had amenities such as four fireplaces, latrines built into the walls, and a chapel.

The royal palace aside, the Tower is probably best known as a prison, as it functioned in that capacity for over 800 years. Individuals detained here include such royal figures as the "princes in the tower" (Edward V and Richard, sons of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville), Elizabeth I (before she was queen) and Sir Walter Raleigh. To the north of the Tower is Tower Hill where over 112 people were executed. 
I bypassed the more gruesome aspects of the tower as a prison and also decided not to wait hours in line (in the pouring rain) to see the other main attraction of the tower, the Crown Jewels. Instead, I went in pursuit of evidence of another use of the tower, as a menagerie.

We know that during King John's reign, lions were kept there and in 1235, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II presented John's son Henry III, with three leopards. Since lions and leopards were often confused in that era, the gift may have been commemorating the three gold lions  featured on the royal standard, which first appeared during Richard I's reign. (Richard was John's older brother and ruled for a few years before him). 
In my medieval romance The Leopard, my hero and heroine visit the leopards in the Tower, and my heroine, tender-hearted Astra, is immediately filled with pity for the poor beasts, confined to their dark, gloomy cages. It's likely the animals housed there did not receive the best care. 
In addition to the lion skull above found at the tower (and now housed in the Natural History Museum of London), the skulls of 18 mastiffs were discovered. The huge dogs were probably used to control the big cats when their keepers moved them or cleaned their cages. 

In addition to the "royal lions/leopards", the menagerie housed various other big cats, as well as a lynx, bears, jackals and hyenas. A polar bear resided in the Tower for a time and was allowed to fish in the Thames while secured on a long chain. That must have been a sight to see! An elephant also lived there briefly, although the poor animal quickly expired, either from the cold temperatures of London or perhaps because it was given red wine to drink. 

In the 1700's the menagerie became a zoo, open to the public. It housed all sorts of big cats, as well as baboons, monkeys, birds and wolves. In the early 1800's the menagerie was closed and the animals moved to the London Zoo.

Although the whole concept of the menagerie seems cruel to us now (and like Astra, I think I would have been appalled even back then), it does show the human fascination and sense of awe with which we regard wild beasts and our intense urge to identify with them.

The creature most associated with the tower is not a big cat but a bird--the raven. There are six ravens that live at the tower and the story is that if they ever leave the Crown will fall and London with it. Although it sounds like ancient folklore, the tale probably dates from the Victorian era. 

Ravens have been associated with castles and royalty for centuries. Two years ago on my trip to Wales, I visited Castell Dinas Bran, which has been variously translated as Raven's Fortress. Fortress of Ravens or Raven City Castle. 

Part of the thrill of traveling and visiting historic sites is the amazing sense of walking along the very corridor or climbing the very tower that some king or queen did. I feel as if the ancient stones should be able to tell me things, whisper stories to me about the past. 

I want to imagine the pageantry and spectacle of knights facing off in full armor, banners flying, their huge destriers snorting and pawing the ground.

It's the reason we're drawn to productions like The Game of Thrones, which bring to life a harsh, raw world that is also gloriously vivid and alive. 

Of course, I don't want to think about the grim realities involved with all that pomp and pageantry. Or the petty, stupid wars and all the lives they cost. Or the suffering and social inequalities and cruel injustices of that world. 

The Tower and other sites like it are best viewed through the mists of time, where we can parse out the beauty and drama and ignore the disturbing realities. 

That's why I write historical romance rather than straight historical fiction. I want the happy ending, good to triumph over evil and justice to prevail. 

My latest book, Lady of Steel, features some gritty parts. My hero is hardened and scarred by his experiences on Crusade, and my heroine has been brutalized by her cruel husband. Despite their intense attraction to each other (they make love during their first meeting), their journey to love is fraught with mistrust and misunderstanding. Eventually they find their happy ending, but not before being challenged and tested in many ways. 

I love bringing the medieval world to life and using the color and intensity of the time period to paint a vibrant tapestry. But what I love most of all is being able to balance the darkness and the violence of that time period with beauty, joy and happiness and to imagine a world where things are as they should be.