Monday, 18 July 2016

What Anna Belfrage learnt while researching her latest series

Next up in the "What I Learnt..." series is Anna Belfrage. She is a prolific writer, who since 2013 has published ten novels and won many awards. She is a great writer, who manages to make everything she writes entertaining, so I am extremely pleased to welcome her to my blog.

What Anna Belfrage learnt while researching her latest series

As long as I can remember, I’ve had a thing about the Middle Ages. My first writing efforts were all set in this time period, most of them featuring a very brave and determined girl who dresses up as a page and saves Richard the Lionheart from repeated assassination attempts.

Some years down the line and I met my other half, who happened to come with an absolutely fascinating family history set in the 17th century. Yes, I was seduced (both by the man and the story). Yes, I turned my back on my first historical love and spent many, many happy years digging through the complexities of the 17th century before publishing an entire series set in this time frame.

But, as they say, one never forgets that first love, and through various convoluted means I was drawn back to the heady environment of the Plantagenets and their kingdom. Thing is, something had warped, and instead of digging into the familiar territory of Richard, baby brother John, impressive mama Eleanor and wonderfully contradictory daddy Henry II, I jumped forward a century or so. I had discovered the tumultuous reign of Edward II.

I knew a bit about Edward beforehand – and especially about that enigmatic gentleman, Roger Mortimer, who was to play such a pivotal role in Edward II's life. Why? Because I had a talented history teacher back in the good old days, and Mr Wilmshurst had three passions: The Maya empire, the reign and enforced abdication of Edward II, and perfectly coloured maps. You wanted an A from Mr Wilmshurst, and you’d best ensure every single map was delivered with beautifully outlined borders and blended colours.

Edward II and Roger Mortimer are two very different men – or so they are remembered. Where Edward II was the disappointing successor to an impressive and powerful king – Edward I was a hard act to follow – young Mortimer rose rapidly through the baronial ranks, applauded for his competence, his courage, his strategical skills, all qualities Edward II supposedly lacked. Well, maybe not courage, because Edward II demonstrated repeatedly that he could be very brave when so required.

What both Edward and Roger have in common is that people tend to approach them with a predetermined view of who they were. Edward is often dismissed as a homosexual fop, while Mortimer is the sadistic bastard who rammed a red-hot poker up the fop’s arse. Hmm. I’d say very, very few historians – if any – believe Edward was killed in such a ghastly way.

If we start with Edward, my recent years of researching this unhappy king, paints a complex picture. Undoubtedly intelligent, Edward was also vain, fickle, vindictive, and far too dependent on his selected favourites. He was also the father of four legitimate children and at least one illegitimate child, which would indicate he was fully capable of heterosexual relationships.

Whether or not Edward preferred male companions in bed, we don’t really know – we just think we know. His overt affection for men like Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser could be construed as going beyond friendship. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. After all, in the medieval period it was not unusual for men to share a bed with no other intentions but to sleep.

We do know that for many years Edward lived in a relatively harmonious marriage with his beautiful and much younger wife, Isabella Capet. We do know that at some point in the early 1320s, his hitherto working marriage came under considerable strain when he deprived his wife of her dower lands. Some think he may have done this for one of two reasons: Isabella was French, and England and France were at war over Gascony, or, Isabella was suspected of being in cahoots with Mortimer, who was determined to oust Hugh Despenser once and for all from Edward’s life – an ambition Isabella eagerly applauded.

For those who do not share my passion for all things medieval, a very quick and dirty summary of events is that Hugh Despenser rose to be Edward II's royal chancellor and enriched himself as he went, appropriating land belonging to others, blackmailing widows and orphans into paying him substantial amounts for them to have access to their inheritance, and in general being a somewhat unsavoury character. Despenser and Mortimer were hereditary enemies – Mortimer’s grandfather had killed Despenser’s – so when Despenser’s star rose, Mortimer’s fortunes fell, to the point that he felt obliged to rebel, which ended with an extended stay in the Tower before Mortimer fled for France.

In conclusion, what we really know about Edward II is that he was an inept king who looked the other way when his favourite Hugh Despenser rode roughshod over the law to increase his wealth. We know his marriage collapsed in 1325 – in the sense that once Isabella left for France (she was sent to negotiate a treaty with her brother) she never came back to resume her position as Edward II’s loyal and devoted wife.  We know he hated and feared Mortimer and the barons who sided with Mortimer in his attempts to curb Despenser’s power. We know that when Mortimer and Isabella returned to England in 1326, Edward fled west with Despenser but was captured. Despenser was executed, Edward incarcerated. He was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, and reputedly he died in September of 1327. Some say he was murdered. Some say he sickened and died. Some say he didn’t die. Well, obviously he did die at some point, but maybe not in September of 1327 at Berkeley Castle.

So what of Roger Mortimer? What do we know of him? Born the heir to a Marcher baron, he contracted a fantastic marriage with Joan de Geneville which made him very, very rich. The couple had chemistry, resulting in at least a dozen children, the oldest born when Roger was fifteen or sixteen. He was a loyal servant to the crown, both in Ireland and in attempting to establish some sort of truce between Edward II and his fiery cousin Thomas of Lancaster. Life was pretty good for Roger well into 1318 – which was when Despenser began rising to true prominence thereby thwarting Mortimer’s ambitions. Edward no longer viewed Mortimer favourably, and in 1321 things exploded into rebellion. By 1322, Mortimer was in custody and labelled the King’s Greatest Traitor. I guess Despenser laughed his head off – for a while, until Mortimer escaped the Tower.

As an aside, because Mortimer was arrested and attainted – twice (once in 1322, once in 1330) – detailed records of what he owned survive. Out of the murky rolls steps forth the image of a man who enjoyed his luxuries, who preferred to sleep on (red) silk sheets, who had a predilection for decorating his fabrics with whimsical butterflies, who was serious about his fighting apparel, owning an impressive collection of armour, horses, weapons. A man of refined tastes, who read books and played chess, flew falcons and rode to the hounds. In truth, Roger was something of a bon vivant – and rich enough to indulge himself. Something he had in common with his king, I suspect.

When Mortimer escaped the Tower and fled to France he was warmly welcomed by Charles of France, Isabella’s brother and Edward’s brother-in-law. Why would a king support a rebel? Well, Roger was known as a great general, a proven leader of men, and such men were always useful. Did Charles suspect Edward wasn’t treating his baby sister as he should? No idea – nor do I think it would have affected Charles’ behaviour. Royal consorts were expected to deal with things, not whinge.

Whatever the case, in 1325 Isabella also showed up in France as her husband’s ambassador. Edward had demanded Mortimer be expelled from the French court before Isabella arrived, and initially Charles complied. But by December of 1325, Mortimer was back, and he and Isabella embarked on a love affair. We think. We don’t know, even if a lot of things point in that direction – like the fact that they seem to have spent a lot of time together – joined at the hip, almost. Some say Isabella and Mortimer were an item already back in 1322-3, that she helped him flee the Tower. Very doubtful – but it makes for a great story.

What we do know is that in 1326 Isabella invaded England – with Mortimer at her side. It is an equally undisputed fact that for the coming four years he was more or less always at her side, co-regent for Edward III. Were they lovers throughout this period? Did they share moments of pleasure in between ruling the country and restoring law and order? No idea – but I like to think so.

As stated above, in 1327 Edward II supposedly died. Some say at Mortimer’s hand – accusations of murder were made at Mortimer’s trial in 1330, but once again, we don’t know. But had he done it, I dare say he’d have resorted to subtler means than a red-hot poker. What we do know is that Mortimer died in November of 1330 – hanged by his neck after having been drawn through the streets of London. Did he deserve to die? Probably – but more for his usurpation of power than a purported (and unproven) murder. Was Isabella heartbroken? No idea – but she was also punished for her role in attempting to control the young hawk that was Edward III. In difference to Mortimer, Isabella did not hang. She was simply retired from the centre of things – for good.

In summary, after all my reading, all my researching, both Mortimer and Edward II remain shadowy creatures, the facts we know offering little more than an outline. What they thought and felt, how they grieved and celebrated, remains something of a dark hole. To paraphrase a popular TV series, all that reading and it can be summed up as “You know nothing, Anna Belfrage”. Thing is, this is not a bad thing for a historical novelist. In fact, it is absolutely perfect, allowing me to create my own images of these two flawed men and presenting them to the world. Is it a true and fair representation? Probably not. But I hope it is plausible – and engaging!


Anna Belfrage is the author of the acclaimed time-slip series The Graham Saga, winner of multiple awards, including the HNS Indie Award 2015. Her new series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, is set in the 1320s and features Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first book, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published in 2015. The next book, Days of Sun and Glory, has just come out and Anna urges you to “enter a world of political intrigue, follow Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer as they invade England, watch my protagonists Adam de Guirande and his wife Kit navigate a world in which loss is certain and life is not.”

If you want to know more about Anna, drop by her webpage or her blog.