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. 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Bodmin Moor

Our visit to Cornwall in June included several days on Bodmin Moor. When I hear the word "moor" I envision Heathcliff and Cathy running wild among desolate rocky outcrops, their hair streaming back in the wind. Or the hound of the Baskervilles lurking in the mist, waiting for its next victim. Much of the moor is indeed wide open spaces, rock-strewn hilltops and stubby, wind-ravaged vegetation. There are long, sweeping views with few signs of humans and their influence.
The residents here are long-maned white and black Cornish ponies, sharp-horned, colorful sheep and shaggy wild-looking cattle.
This is a place of mist and haze and sunny days are rare. And yet the very openness of the landscape makes it feel exhilarating rather than oppressive.
Ferns unfurl among the rocks and the vegetation is vivid green even if it is low and close to the ground. Everywhere, runlets of water trace patterns in the land. It was fairly dry when we were there, but it's obvious that this is a place that is wet and boggy much of the year. 
Tucked away in a deep valley of the moor was an ancient farmstead that again reminded me of Wuthering Heights (although the book is set in Yorkshire rather than Cornwall). 
Parts of the Mennabroom Farmhouse B & B (where we stayed two nights) dates to the 1300's, including this ancient hearth. I can almost imagine the surly Earnshaw servant, Joseph, reading his bible nearby and muttering curses about evil Heathcliff and Cathy and how they're going to hell for their sinful ways. 

Mennabroom is surrounded by gardens and vegetation that capture the bucolic charm of a rural England that has existed for centuries.  

A highlight of our trip to the moor was a hike up Rough Tor (pronounced "roo tor"). A tor is a prominent heap of rocks, especially on a hill. The climb took me back to my childhood memory of scrambling up the rock formations of southeast Wyoming.  
Although the "tors" of Wyoming are surrounded by golden prairie and sagebrush, and stubby pines and mountains often loom in the background. Rough Tor is a different sort of landscape, older and far more worn away by geologic time and years of mist and rain.
At the top of the tor is a marker dedicated to the Wessex soldiers who gave their lives in World War II. It features a gryphon, another reminder you are in a place steeped in centuries and centuries of mythology
All of Cornwall felt like enthralling and fascinating visit to the world of my long-ago ancestors. But the moor aroused my most intense hereditary memories. I could imagine my forbears in this wild landscape, which still seems only partially tamed today. (My great-grandfather Ernest Logan claimed that the Logan name came from a "loggin" or rocking stone off the coast of Cornwall.) I’m reminded why I write historical novels. Because the past often seems more real and compelling to me that modern high-tech world I normally inhabit. 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Tintagel Castle--Legend and Ruins

A sprawling fortress, set on a breathtaking precipice above the turbulent sea. Pounded by violent storms and accessible only by a narrow strip of land with a sheer drop on either side, Tintagel is the perfect setting for an epic adventure story. It’s not surprising that this site on the southwestern edge of Cornwall is said to be the birthplace of the legendary King Arthur.

Very little is known about Arthur, the Roman British warlord who fought the Saxons and went on became the most famous king of all time. The few scant “facts” we have about him date from writings in the 7th century, well over a hundred years after he lived. It’s unlikely we will ever know his true place of birth, but it doesn’t matter. Tinagel fills the role nicely. Even today it remains a magical place, steeped in the mists of time. 
The site does have dark age ruins, so the legend is not entirely without merit. On the terraces on the east side of the island (which was connected by an isthmus to the mainland until the late Middle Ages) are the remnants of an extensive settlement. In addition to numerous buildings, there was likely a seawall protecting them, although the stone barrier has long since crumbled away. Pottery found at the site dates from the fifth to the seventh centuries, which perfectly fits the Arthurian era.

The ruins of a medieval castle are even more prominent on the site, and indeed, the area is known as Tintagel Castle on all the maps and signage. The castle dates to the early 13th century, and was built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III. A gate tower and some of curtain wall are still standing.
What is especially intriguing about the castle is that it was built on both the island and the mainland and the two parts of the fortress were connected by a narrow bridge that spanned the gap between them.

On the shore below the impressive promontory is a beautiful beach with vivid blue water,  a stunning moss covered shoreline and an impressive opening into the cliff wall known as Merlin's Cave, probably based on the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson in which Merlin plucks the infant Arthur from the sea. 

If all the history and legends of Tintagel weren't enough to inspire awe, the scenery by itself is stunning. The dramatic coastal formations, topped by emerald green grass, reminded me very much of the northern coast of Ireland. 
 I left Tintagel with several story ideas in my head. Perhaps I would return again to the dark age era of Maelgwn the Great, my first fictional hero and a contemporary of Arthur. Or maybe I will write a medieval romance set in the beautiful wild countryside of Cornwall. Or even a Regency era tale, as the people of the early 1800's were as enthralled with the legend of Arthur as we are today. 
If everything a writer experiences is material for their stories, then Tintagel is breathtaking enough to inspire a dozen tales.  
My latest book features a love story as dramatic and powerful as the wild sea crashing against the Cornish coast. In Lady of Steel, a hardened Crusader knight and a fiercely independent and secretive lady must learn to trust each other and give in to the fiery passion that binds them.