Apostate Nuns and Rowdy Schoolboys:
Treasures in the Historical Record
by Candace Robb
Before handing over the Owen Archer manuscripts to the production team at Diversion Books this summer, I checked that the final copy edit changes had been made along the way. I had dreaded the task, but I ended up enjoying myself. For the first time, I experienced the series as a whole; while writing it, my eye was always on the book at hand, the deadline, and the next book. Now I could sit back and observe its progression, how I’d developed the history, the characters, the locations. When you invited me to write a guest post, I thought I’d share what I noticed about the various ways in which I used the historical record.
Characters: I didn’t intend to include any actual historical figures, but as The Apothecary Rose developed I needed John Thoresby, Archbishop of York, as well as Henry, Duke of Lancaster and John of Ghent, his son-in-law and successor to the title. And then quickly Alice Perrers and King Edward joined the ensemble of players in The Lady Chapel. By the third book (The Nun’s Tale) I added Geoffrey Chaucer to the cast. Eventually I added some of the merchants of York, as well as clerics in York and in St David’s, Pembrokeshire. What these historical figures add for me is insight into the times, and an anchoring in what actually happened. Part of the fun for me is folding the real stories into my fictional plot. I explore how they might have interacted with Owen and Lucie, and in doing so I often gain valuable insight into the times.
Plots: Some of the books rely heavily on actual historical events for the plotline, particularly The Nun’s Tale and The Guilt of Innocents. Others use historical events to enhance the plot or provide motives: the Goldbeter legal case in The Lady Chapel; King Edward’s battle to convince the pope to approve his choice for the bishopric of Winchester in The King’s Bishop; the financial troubles of St. Leonard’s Hospital in The Riddle of St. Leonard’s; the gathering of Owain Lawgoch’s supporters in Wales in A Spy for the Redeemer; William Wykeham’s humiliation in parliament in The Cross-legged Knight. And I’d say two of the books are cradled in events that provide the setting for the story: a mission to recruit troops and fortify the Duke of Lancaster’s properties against the threat of an invasion from France sends Owen and company to Wales in A Gift of Sanctuary, and John Thoresby’s last illness in A Vigil of Spies.
The first two I mentioned were gifts from my research. In The History of Clementhorpe Nunnery (R. B.. Dobson and Sara Donaghey, York Archaeological Trust for Excavation and Research, 1984, p. 15) I found a cryptic entry and ran with it. What writer could resist:
In 1318 there is mention of [an] apostate, Joanna of Leeds. Archbishop Melton ordered the dean of Beverley to return the nun to her convent... Apparently Joanna had defected from her religious order and left the nunnery. However, in order to make her defection credible, she had fabricated her death at Beverley and, with the aid of accomplices, even staged her own funeral there. The archbishop was prepared to take a lenient view of these excesses. He directed the dean of Beverley to warn Joanna of the nature of her sins and, if she recanted them within eight days, to allow her to return to Clementhorpe to undergo a penance. Melton further urged the dean to undertake a thorough investigation of the case, and to discover the names of Joanna’s accomplices so that he might then take suitable action.
I did move the occurrence to John Thoresby’s time as archbishop. The entry left a great deal for me to fill in, which is perfect!
I discovered the story that sets off the investigation in The Guilt of Innocents in the newsletter of St. Peter’s School in York, which often includes interesting items from the school’s past. What caught my attention was the story of a bargeman who fell into the Ouse during a skirmish between the scholars and the bargemen; I was struck by the image of his being carried to the statue of the Virgin outside the gates of St. Mary’s Abbey, and the fact that despite the prayers, he died—particularly because the event actually took place in the month of May, which suggested to me, the ever suspicious crime writer, that the man did not necessarily die of hypothermia. I found Angelo Raine’s book on the history of St. Peter’s School that same day, in which I read that the tension between the young scholars and the bargemen had existed for a long while, a variation on “town and gown” conflicts in many university towns. This brought the past alive for me—suddenly the young scholars were mischievous and the bargemen gruff and resentful.
Throughout the series I used the concerns of the times to deepen and motivate both the characters and the action. The 14th century became my compass and my anchor as I created fictional characters and wove intricate plots.
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About the Author:
Growing up, Candace Robb wanted to be a ballerina, tap dancer, folk singer, journalist—but on the day that she walked into Liz Armstrong’s undergraduate class on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, that all changed. A gifted teacher, lively, witty, always laughing even when cringing at a lazy response, Dr. Armstrong launched into the opening stanzas, and within a few lines Candace’s ears adjusted to the middle English—and she was hooked. Chaucer’s psychological study of the two lovers was a revelation to her. The next quarter was The Canterbury Tales. That clinched it. Candace went on to graduate work in medieval history and literature, and ever since she’s been engaged in bringing to life the rich culture of the period, from the arts to the politics. She is the internationally acclaimed author of thirteen crime novels featuring the sexy, brooding, clever Owen Archer, who solves crimes for John Thoresby, Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor of England, and the young Margaret Kerr, searching for her missing husband and establishing her own role in a Scotland overrun by English soldiers. Candace is currently under contract with Pegasus Books for a new crime series set in 15th century York, the Kate Clifford mysteries, which will debut in 2016. Writing as Emma Campion, Candace has published two historical novels about the women of the English court in the 14th century, A Triple Knot and The King’s Mistress.
Born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Candace grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has lived most of her adult life in Seattle, Washington, which she loves for its combination of culture, natural beauty, and brooding weather so like Yorkshire, Wales, and Scotland, which she visits as often as possible. She has taught the art of writing the crime novel in the University of Washington’s certificate program, and offers workshops in writing the historical novel and in creating and plotting the crime series. Candace (and Emma) blog about writing and medieval topics at A Writer’s Retreat.
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