Getting it right

I’m a sucker for a good historical novel, reading about people’s lives in the past and gaining  an understanding  of what made them tick.  In the main, I think, most historical novelists do try to stick to the known facts, that is the documented evidence, unless it gets in the way of the story and there’s usually a note at the back of the book to say where the author has gone ‘off piste’.Little Ease

In carrying out research for my novel, The Perfect Pure Virgin, I have endeavoured to include as much information from extant documentary evidence as is possible. In the case of my story, there are many factual gaps owing to the secret nature of my protagonist’s lifestyle –  which is a actually bit of a godsend for a work of fiction.

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Little Ease today

I have researched in many places: the National Archives at Kew, the British Library, county record offices and grand country houses. I’ve read diaries, chap books, State Papers, judicial reports and autobiographies – the list is endless.  I have also been lucky enough to meet some incredibly helpful people along the way.

On a visit to the Tower of London, I was asking one of the yeoman warders if he knew the whereabouts of the dungeon where many of my characters were tortured.  I understood this dungeon to be in the White Tower probably in the sub-crypt, just below where the lower gift shop is today.  The yeoman warder I was talking to became extremely interested in the premise of my novel and asked me to follow him. He led me to a small opening in the wall, “This” he said “is Little Ease” – an infamous tiny holding cell measuring just 1.2m square (4 sq ft), its cramped conditions preventing the prisoner from ever finding a comfortable position. This was where Guy Fawkes was held before he was put to the rack.  After his interrogation poor old Guido was never the same again – a man broken in mind and body. Nowadays Little Ease it is just an archway leading into a public gallery.  In my photograph the cell is the small section in the foreground of the picture which has had its back wall knocked out to make a passageway.  Visitors to the Tower today walk through without even noticing it!

Sub-crypt tunnel

Sub-crypt tunnel

The warder then produced a large bunch of keys and led me through a series of locked doors, down a couple of staircases and into  a messy storeroom. This was where many of the most famous interrogations took place. I was surprised that a location of such infamy should today be relegated to a dumping ground for old exhibits and discarded packing materials. The warder allowed me to take photographs and the picture here shows one of the blocked-off tunnels.  It is believed that in the sixteenth century, the tunnel led from underneath the Lieutenant of the Tower’s quarters in what is known today as The Queen’s House, directly to the torture chamber.  The chamber would have contained a variety of ghastly instruments and although most people have heard of the Rack, many Catholic priests were subjected to the Manacles or Strappado. This latter was a device where  the unfortunate prisoner was suspended by their wrists until  the full weight of their body was only supported by the extended and internally rotated shoulder sockets.  The technique typically caused brachial plexus injury, leading to paralysis or loss of sensation in the arms.

Now as far as I can discover, there is no documentary evidence giving details of this tunnel, nor are there any maps that show its course from the Lieutenant’s quarters to the sub-crypt. As with much of history, various pieces of the jigsaw have been put together in a certain way – which, let’s face it, may not be entirely correct.  For the purposes of a good story though, I think making assumptions based on what has been handed down is probably as close as we will ever get.

At the end of the day, although fans of historical fiction like to know what they are reading is based on fact, they are also aware of the inevitability of poetic licence.

Another of my research outings was to Baddesley Clinton house in Warwickshire. This house was allegedly rented by my protagonist Anne Vaux and her sister Eleanor, to shelter the leader of the Jesuit church in England at a time when Catholicism was outlawed and Catholic priests were hunted down and arrested on a charge of treason.  The house certainly contains a few priest holes (Warwickshire boasts many Catholic gentry houses where the  owners were related and much intermarried).  There is no documentary evidence of such a lease on Baddesley Clinton but then since everything was done in the utmost secrecy, you wouldn’t expect to find any!  The owner must have been sympathetic enough to allow the priest holes to be built even though he was living elsewhere at the time.

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Baddesley Clinton

I have visited this house on many occasions and seen the priest holes that are on show to the general public.  On one recent visit I got talking to a volunteer guide about the house and he became interested in my research. He introduced me to the House Manager who was incredibly helpful and generous with her time.   When I explained to her that I would like to see the priest hole that wasn’t on show to the public, she led me into her stationery cupboard and

Stationery cupboard priest hole

Stationery cupboard priest hole

pointed to a ladder inside – at the top of the ladder was a secret hide.  Later on that day she very kindly sent me a photograph of the priest hole which is only accessible once you get past the paper clips and ink toner!

History is constantly being revised and although we shall never know exactly how certain events came to pass, historical novels can contextualise and attempt to explain events of momentous importance to the past and also the future.  No matter how much research is done, the author will inevitably sometimes get things wrong but perhaps we can make some allowances for those poor historical novelists who do their very best to get it right.

 

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A good night’s sleep – something many of us take for granted…

Most people climb into bed at night, shut their eyes and…hey presto – it happens.  They escape into a place where rest is achieved, their bodies recover from theinsomnia1ir daytime exertions and healing takes place.  It’s so automatic that we don’t, generally, question it, wonder about it or give thanks for it.  For some it is so easy they become a little cocky about it.  (No names mentioned here!)

I’ve suffered from poor sleep for many years but about eighteen months ago I began to experience insomnia… couldn’t get to sleep for hours and when I did, I would wake up half an hour later to remain sleepless for the remainder of the night.

The following morning I would struggle to do almost anything, work and driving being the most difficult.  This was the direct result of coming off HRT – I subsequently discovered hormones are a major factor in insomnia in women.

The GP reluctantly gave me pills… not many, they were addictive she told me so only fourteen at a time.  I would cut them up into quarters and try rationing myself to a quarter a night.  After a while that stopped working and I had to increase the dose and soon I was taking a whole pill, alternating it with an over-the-counter remedy bought in drugstores in the US.   Of course in the morning I would feel doped up for at least three hours but it was better than the alternative.

So far, so good…

…except that the pills’ effect began to wear off after a while and larger and larger doses were required to bring about a decent amount of sleep.

Naturally I would mention my struggle to friends and relatives, only to be told by those who fall asleep the moment their heads hit the pillow that clearly I don’t need much sleep.  insomnia3  I’m amazed I haven’t committed murder several  times over!

So my doctor came up with another solution – there’s a website called http://www.sleepio.com which works out how much sleep you’re getting/not getting and what the quality of your sleep is like.  Then it gives you suggestions for promoting a better night’s sleep. All well and good.

Then there’s the Sleep Restriction program.  This is the bit where they tell you to stay away from your bedroom until 1.30 am and then and only then can you go to bed.  The alarm must be set for 6.30am. You will notice this makes for a very short night. (Times vary according to your personal requirements which are determined after you have completed a Sleep Diary for a period of time.)

Over the next few weeks I struggled with SR (as  fellow sufferers on the online forum called it) managing to get to sleep immediately and then waking several times in the night.  At 6.30am I would stumble out of bed feeling as if I’d had hardly any sleep at all.  But eventually it did begin to get better. At my weekly ‘chat’ with the friendly cartoon Prof who doles out the helpful suggestions, I was told I could go to bed an extra 15 minutes earlier until now, I’m going to bed at 12.30am.  I am now managing a good 4-4 1/2 hours’sleep and though it still feels like it isn’t enough, it’s a vast improvement on before and I am not taking pills.  Result!  Hopefully I will continue until I manage to get at least six hours sleep and wake up in the morning feeling rested.  That’s all I ask.

So, I am writing this at midnight and looking forward to being able to crawl into bed.  If you have a problem with sleep, I would recommend sleepio.com.  In the end there’s no point in relying on medication, as sooner or later it won’t work.  Getting back into a proper circadian rhythm is the only way and though it’s been a real struggle, hopefully I can see light at the end of the tunnel. Night, night!sleeping-boy-8427435

 

 

 

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Russia – A very different way

Just back from a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg.  I expected it to be an eye-opener but the reality was, my eyes were opened in a totally unexpected way. Western assumptions about Russia are often still many years behind the times. It is a country trying to play catch up but the major towns, for example, have a very similar aesthetic. The concrete bunker-like buildings still exist but thankfully the Bolsheviks appreciated the value of many of their treasures and kept them safe. Sadly Stalin had different ideas and happily demolished the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to make way for a gargantuan Palace of the Soviets. Construction was only halted when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and a replica Cathedral has now been built on the same site.  Moscow was an unexpected treasure.  I had thought St. Petersburg would be impressive and it really is but Moscow was a surprise.  It is on the one hand a modern city, trying to compete with every other international capital in its commercialism but it is also a monument to beauty and sumptuous splendour that leaves the visitor in no doubt why the Russian Revolution occurred.

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St. Basil’s Cathedral

In Red Square, familiar from the old Soviet displays of military might there were preparations for an Edinburgh Military Tattoo style entertainment with posters of jolly Scotsmen hung around the seating area – the Russians admire the soldiers in their kilts apparently!  Opposite the Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb is the major department store GUM. Once a major trading centre commissioned by Catherine the Great the store has seen many incarnations.  After Stalin’s wife committed suicide in 1932 it was used briefly to display her body. When it reopened as a department store in the 1950s, it was one of the few places where consumer goods could be bought and was the scene of queues stretching all around Red Square as the deprived Muscovites waited in line for necessities. Today it is host to stores like Cartier, Gucci and Prada to name but a few.

Nothing is more beautiful than the gold onion domes of the many churches and cathedrals glinting in the afternoon sunshine.  The Kremlin Palace, gilded and brilliant stands within the red walls but overlooks the Moscow River so that the people could see what wealth and excess was available to those in power.

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Kremlin Palace

It is a bit of a cliché that the Americans like to show they have everything bigger and better than the rest of the world.  Surely it is the Russians though that boast this with their buildings and monuments.

Within the walls of the Kremlin is the largest cannon in the world. The story goes that the gun was never fired in anger due to the difficulty of loading the enormous cannon balls!

Largest cannon ever built

Largest cannon ever built

There is an awe inspiring monument in the river, dedicated to Peter the Great. Again myths surround this gigantic structure. Some Muscovites will tell you that it was originally commissioned by the Americans as a tribute to Christopher Columbus but for some reason they decided they didn’t want it and the Russians cut off its head and inserted Peter the Great’s head in its place.

Peter the Great memorial

Peter the Great memorial

Our journey took us to St. Petersburg, a long cherished destination on my wish list.  Having coped with some very backward facilities – some of the public toilets are no more than holes in the ground still – we were pleasantly surprised by the Sapsan, bullet train.  It is as luxurious as travelling by air in club class and quiet and efficient. The constant announcements became a little annoying as each one in English was prefaced with ‘Dear Passenger’ and we couldn’t contain our astonishment at the warning, ‘Dear Passenger – the tracks on which trains run are dangerous places and we would urge you not to let your children play on the railway lines!’

Sapsan bullet train

Sapsan bullet train

St. Petersburg was everything I had hoped for and more. The sheer number of palaces was dizzying.  It seemed everyone with wealth lived in a palace and some of them were just stunning.  In Moscow and St. Petersburg there are museums and theatres almost on every corner and even though Stalin sold off a lot of the art after the war, the galleries still have many treasures.  Michaelangeo, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Renoir, Manet, Monet, Degas…the list is endless.  You could spend months going round the various palaces and galleries and still never see half of it.

Of course, the most famous palace in St. Petersburg is the Winter Palace housing the Hermitage museum.  It is a beautiful building but I couldn’t help remembering the awful events of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1905 as I stood waiting to go in. A crowd of demonstrators was fired on by soldiers of the Imperial Guard as they marched towards the Winter Palace, hoping to present Tsar Nicholas with a petition. The end result, after the troops began firing, was that thousands of unarmed women, children and their menfolk were cut down. It is an enduring tale of shame and an event that was a catalyst in the Revolution of 1917.

Winter Palace, scene of the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre

Winter Palace, scene of the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre

Dreadful tales of deprivation sit alongside demonstrations of what is frankly, vulgar ostentation.  By my fourth or fifth room I never wanted to see gilding again.

However, having seen Catherine the Great’s coronation dress and the outrageous carriages used by the various royal families, there was a sense that your average Russian peasant must have looked on these people as gods and only utter desperation would have made them rebel in the way they did.

St. Petersburg, like Moscow, is a city devoted to culture.  They even have a square called Arts Square which houses only museums, theatres and galleries.

Whilst much of my sightseeing was done with a group, I did venture out on my own a few times and my journey to the Yusopov Palace gives an example of the way some things don’t quite work very well yet. I was planning on taking a taxi to the palace, the site of Gregory Rasputin’s assassination, after a wonderful boat trip through the canals and along the River Neva. After climbing off the boat I stood looking for a passing taxi – I was told you just stood and waited and one would eventually arrive.  One didn’t.  Our Russian guide, Vera, took pity on me and stood for some time with her arm in the air waiting for a passing cab.  Still nothing turned up.  Eventually, a man, whom I had been aware of standing by the waterside watching us, approached Vera and said something in Russian to her.  The next thing I knew she was bundling me into his car – an unmarked black Mercedes and he whisked me off to, as far as I was concerned, a life as a white slave!  He did stop at the Yusopov Palace fortunately but I was amazed at the trust Vera put in him, having warned us of the very shady characters still to be found, trying to get money off unsuspecting tourists.

Peter and Paul Fortress from the Neva

Peter and Paul Fortress from the Neva

On my final day, I rushed out to the Peter and Paul Fortress on an island in the middle of the Neva.  This contains the Cathedral where all the Romanovs are buried, including Tsar Nicholas, his wife and children.

As I was in a hurry, my transfer to the airport would be only a few hours away, I ordered a taxi from the hotel – my previous experience of finding taxis leaving me jaded.  The driver arrived promptly and though he had little English, offered, through hand signals and phoning his English-speaking boss and passing the phone to me, to pick me up again.  When we arrived the driver slipped the security guard a back-hander for letting him onto the island in the car (I was told I would have to walk across the wooden bridge, no cars were allowed on the island!). The driver then refused to take money for driving me there and pointed to his watch, signalling he would be back in one hour.  I then visited the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul to see the tombs of Catherine the Great, Peter the Great and of course, Tsar Nicholas II and his family, shot and beaten by the Bolsheviks in 1918. It was, of course, a moving experience.  I would have been more moved if I hadn’t been knocked over in the rush by several tour groups and their leaders waving a selection of pandas, roses, flags and umbrellas in the air.  I left, wondering whether my driver would turn up, comforted by the thought that he hadn’t yet had my roubles.  Sure enough, he was waiting at our pre-arranged spot, eating a Big Mac and waving at me.  He charged me exactly what we had agreed.  I was amazed.

Interior of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul

Interior of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul

Barely time to catch my transfer back to the airport, I took one last look at the this amazing, beautiful, corrupt and confusing city.  Like Moscow it lives in two worlds and is struggling to catch up with the commercialised cities of its old enemies while clinging to its glorious, over the top, outrageous past.

Burial place of Tsar Nicholas II and his family

Burial place of Tsar Nicholas II and his family

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The Trouble with Confidence

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How to get confidence?  It’s a tough one.  If you’re born without it, getting hold of it can be a nightmare. In short, the only way to confidence is  (as we used to say in my psychological therapist days)  to act ‘as if’.  What does this mean?  Well, to put it another way: fake it till you make it.  Confidence comes with… confidence.  I know it sounds bizarre but unfortunately it’s true. As parents we are taught to praise our children, to tell them every day how great they are.  The very sad truth is, although we can do this until the sky turns green, no amount of our praising is going to give a child (or adult) confidence if they have a very low self-esteem.  Children will say ‘well, you’re my mother/father, of course you’d say that’ which is so frustrating because they will only believe good about themselves (on the whole) if someone else says so.

When I was fifteen I was terrified of the telephone.  If forced to answer it at home I would invariably trip over my tongue and say something stupid. I looked on the phone as my enemy and would get into a panic every time it rang.  A few months after my fifteenth birthday my father died and I found myself at work, in a public relations office.  I had no clue what PR was all about – in fact I thought I was working in a pet shop as our main client was a pet food manufacturer and there were budgerigars in cages in my room!  Now this office was the busy hub of (I kid you not) the Budgerigar Information Bureau and one of my first jobs was to answer the BIB hotline.  This was the telephone number people rang if their beloved budgies had French moult or were feather-plucking.  It was the first port of call if they wanted to know how to breed.  (They even used to send me their bird’s droppings in the post!) Imagine my horror when told on my first day that it would be my job to answer the BIB Hotline!  I felt sick, got into a sweat whenever the red phone rang… and it rang frequently.  One of my first callers announced in a geeky voice ‘Hello, I’ve got a skyblue cock!’… but that’s another story.

Almost worse than answering the Hotline was a task given to me when our press officer ran off to a remote island with a Czechoslovakian baron and a replacement couldn’t be found quickly enough.  I was to phone around to all the newspaper and magazine editors whenever there was a photo call or an event (a frequent occurrence) featuring budgies!  I seriously considered just leaving this job and trying to find another but the staff were kind and the wage good for those days, so I stuck it out.  Every day would be a nightmare where I forced myself to pick up the telephone and speak to, let’s face it, the cynical and sometimes less than patient journalists.  But after a few weeks something amazing happened.  I began to do it without shaking and sweating and stammering.  I got to know the journalists and established relationships with them and my confidence began to grow. Fake it till you make it.

When I used to see clients in the GP surgeries where I worked to give them assertiveness training, many of them felt so defeated they wouldn’t even try to help themselves.  No matter what exercises and tips I gave them, they couldn’t take that first step.  Usually what worked best was getting them to imagine they were someone else.  We all have daydreams, we all fantasise about being the most beautiful/intelligent/fascinating character.  I used to get them to walk into a crowded room and imagine they were the person they most admired and also to focus on just one person and try to find out all about them. ‘Forget about you, think about the other people in the room who are probably just as self-conscious as you are. Make eye contact and show interest in them – ask questions about them but if you’re feeling intimidated by them, imagine them naked with just a pair of bright green socks on!’  This seemed to work well.

The trouble with confidence is that to find it within yourself, you have to take risks, put yourself out there.  But the rewards are so great there is nothing to lose but… confidence!


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Happy Birthday William and hello Stratford LitFest

The Shakespeare Birthday procession in Stratford-upon-Avon is held annually on the weekend nearest his birthday (it’s assumed his birthday was on or around April 23rd as his baptism entry is April 26th and three days was the usual length of time between the birth and baptism).  Every year the great and the good turn up to process around the town which is always full of locals and visitors to the town.  It’s an event that I wouldn’t miss  now.

My day started at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre where the Friends of the RSC met for their annual Shakespeare Birthday party (9.30 in the morning might seem a little early to start on the Buck’s Fizz but no-one was complaining!). Actors from the current company gave readings from the Bard’s work, Jasper Britton (currently playing the lead role in the Jew of Malta) and Matthew Kelly (playing Friar Jacomo) to name but two.  Greg Doran Artistic Director of the RSC proposed the toast to William and Jasper Britton cut a splendid birthday cake which served as my breakfast for the day.

cakeWe then walked to the High Street past Morris dancers and street entertainers to the RSC Friends’ flagpole where actor Geoffrey Freshwater  (Friar Barnadine) unfurled the RSC Friends’ flag.  The procession began and was led by a glorious pair of horses hitched to a cart that carried a huge birthday cake decorated with a ‘Battle of Agincourt’ theme by community arts groups and local schoolchildren.The Deputy Head boy from KES (Shakespeare’s school) then led our group into the procession.  We all carried bouquets of flowers (or in my case 3 rather droopy daffoldils) and slowly walked around the town, past Shakespeare’s Birthplace, to Holy Trinity Church.  The procession included local schools, members of the local council, actors from the RSC, what looked like most of the cohort of students from King Edward Sixth school, University of Birmingham, Shakespeare BirthpProcession2lace Trust (including Michael Wood, that fantastic TV historian and a whole slew of academics, Tudor folk, Polish dancers, life-size teddy bears and many, many, children.

On arrival at the church, we halted as the various groups ahead of us gave in their floral offerings to be laid on the Bard’s grave.  I would guess we were placed about mid-procession and by the time we arrived, the chancel was awash with spring flowers.  It’s a stunning sight to behold and we would have lingered were it not for the press of the crowd behind us.  We emerged into the weak spring sunshine to meet friends and colleagues and discuss the day and events to come.

But today also saw the start of the wonderful Stratford Literary Festival which brings the cream of the talent in the literary world right to our door – or to the door of the Stratford Artshouse.  I attended the launch party in the early evening and went onto the Bear Pit Theatre a few doors along Rother Street to see Robert Douglas-Fairhurst talking about The Story of Alice, an illuminating and often funny examination of the peculiar friendship between the Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell, the child for whom he invented the Alice stories.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst signing copies of his book

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst signing copies of his book

The events to come at the Literary Festival are an absolute feast and it’s just a shame that it will all be over by May 3rd.  Having said that, I  think next year I’ll go into training because looking at my diary over the next ten days, I’m going to need some stamina!

Further information about the Literary Festival is available at:  http://www.stratfordliteraryfestival.co.uk/

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Reburial of a king

I’m just back from Leicester where I attended a service in the presence  of the mortal remains of King Richard III.  This was such an extraordinary experience, even now, a day on, I’m still trying to process it all. As a long standing member of the Richard III Society, I was overjoyed when his skeleton was found in what were the foundations of the old Greyfriars, a Franciscan friary destroyed at the Reformation.  My interest in Richard goes back to childhood.  I was born in Leicester and grew up with the old story that the King’s remains had been thrown into the River Soar after the monasteries were dissolved. Growing up, I read widely about Richard and always felt history and, let’s face it, Shakespeare, had painted him with an undeservedly appalling reputation.

Slab which was in Leicester Cathedral - now in Richard III Visitor Centre

Slab which was in Leicester Cathedral – now in Richard III Visitor Centre

Some years ago I attended a Local History conference at the University of Leicester and one afternoon we were taken on a tour of Leicester’s historical sites.  On entering the Cathedral I discovered a slab in the ground which stated Richard III was buried at the Greyfriars.   I was so surprised I asked the archaeologist who was taking us for the tour how to find Greyfriars.  He told me that no-one knew exactly where the friary had been but pointed vaguely in the direction of a road called, unsurprisingly, Grey Friars and I wandered around for some time without finding anything to indicate a location.  I know now that I tramped past a certain car park several times without realising how close I was to walking over King Richard III’s remains and the man who pointed me in the right direction – Richard Buckley, the archaeologist now famous for his discovery!

When I arrived in Leicester, I made straight for the Cathedral and was flabbergasted at the long line of people queuing up to see the coffin.  Some of the pilgrims had been waiting over four hours to gain entry into the Cathedral.  I noticed that the area around the Cathedral had been re-landscaped since my last visit.  There was rich12now a large square in front of the main doors and camped out on the grass were film crews and journalists from all over the world with their ladders, tripods and photographic equipment .  Next to the grassed area, Channel 4 had set up a portable tv studio from where Jon Snow conducted interviews and reported on events.  The atmosphere was unlike anything I have experienced before, a buzz of expectation and excitement that carried on throughout the day and night.  I found it quite overwhelming that this story had touched so many people and during the course of the day I met visitors from Australia, Germany and the Philippines who had travelled to Leicester to pay their respects to a king who had died over 500 years before!

The new Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester is marvellous.  Built over the car park area where the grave site was discovered, it tells the story of Richard’s life and death in a variety of interactive and interesting ways.  As you enter you find yourself in a palace where characters talk about events in the King’s life.  It’s akin to being in a room with them, a witness to all that is happening.  Quite amazing. On the first floor of the Centre there is a display about the science and technical knowledge used to find the body and the subsequent examination of the bones. All fascinating stuff.  But for me, the most poignant moment was entering the room which displays the grave site.rich13 It has all been done with such sensitivity and respect. The floor is glass so you can see the site of the grave and get a feel for the choir where Richard was buried by the friars. Every so often a projection of Richard’s skeleton, as it was found in the grave, is cleverly cast into the grave itself, showing how he was buried in haste after Bosworth. I spent a long time sitting by the gravesite, reflecting on the appalling treatment meted out to a man who was, after all, an anointed king of England.

Sitting by the grave many visitors wanted to be still and pause a while yet they also wanted to talk.  I had many conversations with people, some wearing a white rose or Richard III funeral badge or in the case of one German lady, a velvet cap similar to the one he wears in the famous National Portrait Gallery painting.  She and her photographer husband had flown in from Frankfurt to pay their respects and would have travelled anywhere to be part of this astounding event.

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Later that evening, I queued with about 600 other people who had been lucky enough to be given a ticket for the Richard III Society service in the Cathedral. We took our seats just in time for the seven o’clock start, filing past his coffin which was draped in a specially designed pall, covered in figures not only from his lifetime but with those members of the Society mostly responsible for finding Richard in the first place. It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was because members of the Society and Philippa Langley in particular, persevered with what most people thought was a mad idea, that the grave site was eventually discovered and Richard’s remains recovered.

It was a solemn and moving sight, the coffin, draped in the black velvet pall with a simple crown on the top; a crown very similar in description to the one that Richard wore on his helmet at the Battle of Bosworth.  markpic

The service was led by The Reverend Alan Hawker and The Very Reverend David Monteith, Dean of Leicester. The sermon was preached by The Right Reverend Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester. Members of the Society read about Richard from contemporary sources. Philippa Langley’s reading from Sir George Buck’s biography was very touching. Buck was Master of the Revels in James I’s reign, he also served as a government envoy to Queen Elizabeth I.  His biography critically analysed the accusations made against King Richard and then defended him, uncovering hitherto unknown sources such as the Croyland Chronicle and the Titulus Regius which justified Richard’s accession to the throne.

There were many moments to reflect silently on this very surreal occasion.  How was it possible that a King of England, lost for over 500 years, was now here, in this Cathedral about to be reburied in the county where he lost his life?  There was an odd merging of timelines – 1485 – 2015, the king whose name was so completely blackened by the Tudor propaganda machine yet who was, by all accounts, a loyal man, a fair and conscientious ruler; from medieval England to the 21st century. The sense of time shifting back and forth was bewildering!  It still is.

rich15As I walked thoughtfully back to my budget hotel room, I was thinking about the connection I have always felt to this enigmatic man.  When I reached the Travelodge I was amazed to find that on the site of the hotel had stood the Blue Boar Inn, the place where Richard III had supposedly spent his last night on earth!!

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Celebrating Magna Carta

Yesterday, 3rd February I was at the British Library.  I had been lucky enough to win tickets in a ballot for  what the British Library were calling  the Magna Carta Unification.  What this in fact meant was that for the first time ever, the four surviving copies of Magna Carta were in one place, unified for the 800th anniversary of the granting of the Great Charter by King John.    Two of the copies are already housed in the British Library, the other two copies were loaned by Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals.  I think all those of us attending – and there were 1215 of us through the doors yesterday – felt privileged to be there, we had won our tickets out of almost 50,000 people who had applied.

Why is Magna Carta so important?  Well, today particular clauses in the document are held up as the origins of our democracy.  Back in 1215 it was a way for King John to get the Barons off his back.  The document was sealed at Runnymede in Berkshire, a beautiful meadow which is nowadays used for picnicking by the River Thames.  It’s geographical importance in June 1215 was that it was between Windsor, where King John was staying and Staines where the Barons were camped out, ready to fight to protect their rights.  And make no mistake – in 1215 it was all about the Barons’ rights, not your average man in the field’s.  However, it is seen as the beginning, a first stage in the long, bloody path to a democratic society.  It was the first document to suggest that the King wasn’t above the law of the land – if only Charles I had read it!  Its most important clauses though are 38 and 39.  Clause 38 states: : “No official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.”  Clause 39 is possibly the best known. “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights and possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”

Unfortunately King John, being the rotter that he was, reneged on the deal as soon as the Barons tried to enforce the terms of the Charter.  The King persuaded the Pope to agree  that Magna Carta was illegal and unjust, especially to the King, harming his royal rights!  The Pope declared the charter was null and void.  Unsurprisingly this led to full scale civil war which only came to an end when John died in 1216.  Nevertheless, some of the principles outlined in the Charter are relevant today and are the very foundation of our (unwritten) constitution as well as the constitutions of many other countries, including the United States.

Yesterday’s event at the British Library was a mixture of fun and facts.   It began with a fascinating talk by historian Dan Jones (author of ‘The Plantagents’ – a brilliant book in my opinion) and presenter of the recently aired television programme ‘Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty’.  He explained a little of the background to the granting of Magna Carta and talked about the four copies we were about to see.

Then we were led into the British Library itself, greeted by a variety of medieval characters,  including knights, barons, bishops, jesters, soldiers and peasants.  On the stairs  a medieval scribe was painstakingly writing out a copy of the Charter while a knight stood  reading it out aloud.  A nice touch!  Then we proceeded to the  Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery to view the documents. All four were remarkable in their own right and quite different from each other.  One of them housed at Canterbury Cathedral in the Middle Ages, had been slightly damaged in a fire in the 18th century.  This was the only charter with a seal attached (although somewhat melted!). It was a very moving moment, to see what, eventually, became the basis for our democracy, written on parchment in ancient script.

photo courtesy of British Library

Photo courtesy of British Library

On the way out of the exhibition gallery we were given a ‘goody bag’.  Among the postcards and pens and chocolate Magna Carta seals, was a ‘golden ticket’ which entitled the holder to free entry into the Magna Carta exhibitions being held throughout the year at the British Library and Salisbury and Lincoln Cathedrals.  There was also a certificate on which a scribe entered my name in beautiful calligraphic script and which was subsequently sealed.

 

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I felt the British Library got the balance just right – the event was informative and fun and I felt extremely fortunate to have been able to attend.

 

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