Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: welsh history (Page 1 of 3)

The wrap up – affirmation, extreme generosity and the Welsh language

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Over the last two months, I have stayed in London, Bowness-on-Windermere, Caernarfon, Corris, Llangollen, Y Bont Faen, Llandysul and Y Borth. I have worked in the British Library, the National Archives and Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru. I’ve received so much help and affirmation. I have also crossed the line which all Welsh learners yearn to cross – having friends with whom I relate solely in the Welsh language. But how to sum it all up?

Let’s start with the generosity.

I caught an inkling, Mared, wife of Owain Glyn Dwr, would be the subject of my next novel while living in Wales. My friend Aran lamented that there had not been a major film about Owain Glyn Dwr.  I read some books, realized he’d had a wife, and thought, what would it have been like to be that woman? The idea for a novel was born. I set about reading everything I could get my hands on. I also wrote to academics. One of them, Dr Gideon Brough, was particularly encouraging.

At the time, his affirmation was massively important. See, back then, I wasn’t sure I had a right to tell Mared’s story. This uncertainty has been borne out during a number of my recent meetings. From people tentatively asking: so, Liz, what made you want to write about Mared? Er…you do realize this is a contentious topic? Or simply the startled faces of people who have recently moved to Wales: Oh, God, what barrow is she trying to push here? 

I get this tension. When a country has been conquered, annexed and incorporated, when it’s language is fighting for its life, when academics drop in for flying visits and act like they know everything, when Owain’s name has been hijacked by various political causes, or when you’ve simply moved to Wales and want to feel welcome, the idea of an Aussie interloper coming in and stirring the pot is alarming. Yet, Gideon, never once questioned my right to tell the story. He simply said: go for it! This project is long overdue. He also spent a whole day of his kids’ half term holiday (like all day) answering my lame questions.

The day I spent with archaeologist Spencer Gavin Smith and his wife Megan (also an archaeologist) was similarly incredible. I wrote asking a for information and ended up being given a full guided tour of the Glyn Dwr sites (during which I asked an alternate string of lame questions). Because of Spencer, I spent my last day in the library trawling through the Transactions of the Denbighshire Historical Society, unearthing all manner of articles by Derek Pratt. I braved English roads and drove to Lower Brockhampton so that I could see the type of home in which Mared would have lived. I also faced octopus-on-steroids roundabouts in South Wales and learned that SatNav’s work best when you are paying attention – not when you are re-writing story scenes in your head. But that is another story…

In Llandysul, I spent a day and a half with Dr John Davies, a man with an impressive beard, an even more incredible library, and a keen interest in Owain Glyn Dwr’s mother’s family. John drove me around the borders of Owain’s southern estates, answered multiple questions, gave me CDs and memory sticks bursting with information. He also gave me the precious gift of assuming my Welsh was up to the task of discussing history – which it was. An incredible milestone.

Add to the above, the countless people who made time to catch up with me – too many to list but you know who you are – my friend Lorraine who listened to me ‘think aloud’ for a week in Llangollen and, of course, the incredible Veronica Calarco who, through setting up Stiwdio Maelor, has made it possible for me to spend extended periods in Wales. I stayed overnight with my friend Carolyn in Y Borth more times than was polite, took my brand new friend Anne up on her offer of accommodation in South Wales, had the fascinated company of Dee and Iestyn on the John Davies’ magical history tour, got shown around the Senedd Dy by Neil McEvoy and met up with an amazing group of SSiWer’s in the Mochyn Du.

On top of all this, my friend Aled in Australia suggested I catch up with Carys Davies (wife of the late Sir Rhys Davies, author of the incredible The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr) and Gruffudd Aled Williams (author of Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyn Dwr). I felt nervous about phoning the above. I hate cold calling people – especially in Welsh. Added to which, this was Cymru Cymraeg and all the old doubts about my right to tell this story came flooding back. But I took a deep breath, dialed their numbers (rather than confess a lack of courage to Aled), and, as a consequence, enjoyed two lovely dinners in Caffi Pen Dinas. With Carys, I chatted about my mother’s family, how I’d learned Welsh, and my recent Say Something in Welsh Bootcamp. Before long, we were chuckling over the pictures of me clambering onto that pillar on top of Twt Hill (thanks Aran). After lunch, we attended a lecture in the Drwm where I was introduced to people as, Liz, who is writing a novel from the point-of-view of Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife. I thought: okay, maybe, this is going to be alright.

While having lunch with Gruffudd Aled Williams a few weeks later, we discussed history and winced over some of Glyn Dwr’s more anachronistic portrayals – like taking tea with his family in the fourteenth century and Iolo Goch drinking blood from a skull. At some point, I don’t know when, I decided it was safe to share the outline of my story. It is a fragile thing, a story concept, without the build up you put into developing it on the page, and not easily shared but, for some reason, it all came tumbling out. In Welsh. But strangely I didn’t need  language to understand Gruffudd’s response. I saw it in his eyes, the way he smiled, leaning back in his chair. O, hyfryd…

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Longing is a woman’s song – in search of Marred Glyn Dwr

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The idea of writing a novel from Marred Glyn Dwr’s viewpoint came to me early one morning. I woke to the impression of a woman alone in a tower room looking back over her life. I heard her voice that morning, knew she had a story to tell. The aim of the last three days in London has been to forge a tactile connection with Marred and the people in her life.

Public Records Office

My pressing dilemma (because I’m ready to write the scenes) is to determine how long Glyn Dwr served under Gregory Sais at Berwick in the year 1384. It has been pointed out to me that this was possibly not the highpoint of Owain’s military career. That is true. But guess what? This isn’t about Owain! Marred, his young wife, would have been sixteen years old at the time (possibly younger) and newly married. This would have been the first time she’d managed her husband’s household in his absence. The first time she sent him off on campaign. She’d have been homesick, heartsick, perhaps even morning sick. She would have been counting down the days until his return.

There are two entries for Glyn Dwr in the Medieval Soldiers database for 1384 – 24th January and 1st of March. Both are from Muster Rolls. From my reading I had gathered that men undertook to serve on a campaign some months prior mustering. In my mind, the above dates represented the day Glyn Dwr signed up and the day he actually turned up. I’ve since been told this wasn’t the case. I hoped therefore to gain some clarity from the Muster Rolls. A naive assumption, as it turns out. But well worth the effort. See it turns out the Muster Rolls were real, fourteenth century lists enscribed on vellum. Like real. As in six hundred years old real. Faded, barely legible and, of course,  written in no form I could decipher. I am as a consequence no closer to knowing how long Glyn Dwr served at Berwick. But I saw his name on Muster Rolls for 1384, 1387 and 1388. Which gave me a tangible frisson of excitement (even if it isn’t all about Owain).

British Library

I applied for a British Library Readers Ticket online, prior to leaving Australia, and ordered items in advance. There is a system to using both the British Library and National Archives – no pens or pocket knives, multiple security checks, free lockers and large clear plastic bags provided for your research essentials. I particularly wanted to see the Exchequer Rolls in which the evidence of Marred’s imprisonment are to be found. Fortunately, these were not six hundred years old. A historian had been there before me, translating them and publishing them in an easily readable form. But it was thrilling and more than a little sobering to see the black and white paper trail of her final days.

Tower of London
Marred’s son, Gruffudd, was captured and imprisoned around 1405. Since most of Glyn Dwr’s men were executed upon capture, we can only assume that Gruffudd’s imprionment in the Tower was intended to force his father’s surrender. Owain never surrendered. Gruffudd died (possibly from the plague) sometime during 1409. The fall of Harlech gave the king a fresh new set of hostages. I didn’t visit the Crown Jewels while at the Tower or buy an ice cream, or visit the Tudor Armoury, or peruse the Fussilier’s Museum. I simply wandered the grounds trying to envisage the Tower as it would have been in 1409. A palace, a fortress, and a prison. From the £30 spent on their upkeep, we can guess the Glyn Dwr women were initially kept in a degree of comfort. They would have been allowed out into the castle ward under guard and perhaps to worship in the church on Sundays. But the siege of Harlech had been harsh and protracted, during one of the longest, coldest winters on record. Catrin had lost her husband during the siege. Marred most likely knew she would never see Owain again. Starved and heartsick, the women and children faced a long journey to London, whereupon they were imprissoned in a forbidding stone fortress surrounded by a foetid moat. As Catrin’s infant son had a distant claim to the throne of England (stronger than the usurper Henry IV’s) his demise would not have been unwelcome. As it became clear Glyn Dwr wasn’t going to surrender, the women would have become an encumbrance.

We do not know how Marred ended her days. But Catrin and her remaining daughters died in 1413 under suspicious circumstances. They were not buried among the headless bodies of traitors at the Tower, nor in the cemetery set aside for the working community. They were buried in St Swithin’s Churchyard, a brisk twenty-five minute walk away. Why, St Swithin’s? That is a mystery yet to be solved. Though a pamphlet in the British Library hints at a list of St Swithin’s rectors dating back to 1237. Maybe that will hold a clue? St Swithin’s was under the advowson of the Earls of Arundel prior to being assigned to the prior and convent of Tortington in 1367. So that is another possible link. We also know there was a chapel to St Catherine and St Margaret in the church complex. The church was bombed during the Blitz and never rebuilt. Today all that remains is a memorial garden, surrounded by office blocks, builders scaffolding, and the persistent whine of pneumatic drills. A not unfitting resting place for these forgotten women of history. Once I’d found them, I found it strangely moving to be in their presence.

 

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The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr – a review of Gideon Brough’s recent publication

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I am not an historian. I’m an historical fiction writer. There is a difference. For although I’m pretty pedantic about getting details right, I am primarily driven by narrative. Which is fortunate, because in researching, my current project, a novel from the viewpoint of Owain Glyn Dŵr’s wife, there is precious little historical detail to go on. We know she was born, Margaret Hanmer, that her father was David Hanmer, Justice of the King’s Bench under Richard II. She married Owain Glyn Dŵr at some point, gave birth to an unspecified number of children and as a consequence of her husband’s revolt, died in the Tower of London. If she had not married Owain Glyn Dŵr, she’d probably have died in peaceful old age. Her name lost forever to history. However, she did marry Glyn Dŵr. The decision (most likely that of her parents) had an undeniable impact on her life. Therefore, to novelise Margaret, I must begin with the man himself.

Until recently, the most comprehensive work on Owain Glyn Dŵr was The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr by R. R. Davies. Now, I am not an historian, remember. I’m attuned to narrative and, no matter how erudite and comprehensive and well researched I found Davies work, I couldn’t help noticing his narrative had holes. Which is why I’ve been hanging out for the publication of The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr by Gideon Brough.

I’d listened to a podcast by Dr. Brough and noticed he had a slightly different take on the outbreak of the Glyn Dŵr’s revolt. One that promised a more credible version of events. As it turned out, the book had a great deal to offer, on a number of levels. But let’s start with the outbreak.

By general consensus, Owain Glyn Dŵr was the son of a disinherited Welsh princely house, after the death of both parents he became a state ward, he studied at the Inns of Court in London, held lands in Cynllaith, Merioneth and Cardiganshire, married the daughter of a minor Anglo-welsh landowner and took part in a number of English military campaigns. After which, in 1388, he disappeared from the historical record. We next hear of him in September 1400 when he lead a cavalry raid against a number of English boroughs. Although, it can not be fully substantiated, the general consensus is that the raid was sparked by a border dispute with his neighbour Reginald Grey and that, prior to setting out on the above raid, Glyn Dŵr  was declared Prince of Wales.

In narrative terms, there a is a huge leap between a young man who appeared to be living a conventional, upper-class life and the same man declaring himself Prince of Wales. In an attempt to leap this chasm, Davies had his own go at storytelling — theorising that Glyn Dŵr rebelled in September 1400 because he had not been knighted on a military campaign in 1387. He had allegedly gone home from that campaign, sulked for ten years and finally decided that the remedy was to declare himself Prince of Wales. Then a year later when, it looked the Prince of Wales thing wasn’t going to fly, he tried to negotiate his way out of the situation. Apart from the fact that this is a singularly unattractive narrative, there is also no evidence for the sulky, failed-knight theory. As far as I can’t tell, only three Welsh men had been knighted between the conquest of Wales and 1388. Three in over a hundred years. None of them Welsh barons, like Glyn Dŵr, who were descendants of the Welsh princes and the natural leaders of their people. So, why would Glyn Dŵr have expected it?

So what does Brough make of the outbreak? For a start, he questions the veracity of Glyn Dŵr starting a national revolt in September 1400. This makes sense to me, seeing as the primary evidence we have for this claim comes from two hysterical English legal proceedings in which Glyn Dŵr was said to be:

Plotting, conspiring, and intending the death and disinheriting of the said lord king and the everlasting extinction of the crown and regality of himself and of all his successors, the kings of England; the death of Henry, Prince of Wales, the first born son of our said king, of all the magnates and nobles of England; and also the death destruction and everlasting distinction of the whole English language.

If Glyn Dŵr truly did set out to do all those things he was a Froot Loop. End of story. Presuming he wasn’t (and most evidence points to him being well-educated, sensible and amenable), then it is not unreasonable to assume that he may not have been declared Prince of Wales in September 1400 either. In support of this theory, Brough points out that Glyn Dŵr did not style himself as Prince of Wales in the early letters he wrote to leaders in Scotland and Ireland, or in the letter he wrote to Henry Dwn in 1403. During Glyn Dŵr’s parleys with crown officials in late 1401, it appears the reinstatement of his lands was all he sought. The theory being that, through the aforementioned border dispute with his neighbour, Glyn Dŵr had been unjustly dispossessed of his inheritance and, having failed to remedy the situation by legal means, had been forced into rebellion.

In addition to the above, Brough argues that Glyn Dŵr wasn’t the first to arms in 1400, that there were a number of other unrelated uprisings occurring in the region at the time. However, as the harsh response to the revolt pushed the disaffected Welsh into further rebellion and Glyn Dŵr’s parleying failed to bear fruit, he had no choice but to take on the national cause. At which point the disparate Welsh groups coalesced under his leadership.

Now, that, is narrative I can work with.

In addition to this original thinking on the outbreak of the revolt, The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr has a number of additional strengths. Far too many to discuss in full on this blog. However, one of the ways in which it stands out from earlier works, is the way in which it sets the revolt in the context of the Hundred Years War. Davies and before him, J. E. Lloyd, made little of this connection. However, Glyn Dŵr’s alliance with France, the subsequent treaties, declarations, military aid and even the eventual failure of the revolt are all inextricably linked to the long running conflict between England and France and indeed the schism within Christendom. Even the stand off between the Welsh/French and English armies outside Worcester cannot be adequately explained unless you take the regional tensions into account. In light of these manoeuvrings, Brough’s theory of what actually happened at Worcester and the possible ensuing treaty are a refreshing addition to the previously vague analysis of this part of the revolt. As is his description of the diplomatic manoeuvring that paved the way for an eventual English military victory.

A final strength, and perhaps one I am ill-equipped to judge in any measurable sense, is the book’s authority on military matters. I’ve read a number of books on Welsh soldiers and English military campaigns in relation to this era. They all made sense in a dry, academic, yes-I-suppose-that’s-what-happened kind of way. However, when reading The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr I had a sense of the author’s authority. Whether it was discussing how many boroughs could realistically have been attacked in September 1400, how fast troops could be moved, the explanation of what terms like ‘a thousand lances’ actually meant, evidence of troop movements on the landscape, prisoner exchanges, negotiations, parleys, the assaults on castles, the muster letters sent out in 1403, even the analysis of Owain’s letters to France, Scotland and Ireland show evidence of a trained military mind. This is not an element of the book that can be endorsed definitively by one as non-military minded as myself. But it made me sit up and notice.

So what am I left with? A woman who married a man who was unjustly treated by the government of his day and became the leader of a national rebellion. How did she feel about that rebellion? What contribution did she make to his efforts? How did she respond to the loss of her home, her lands and, eventually her liberty? No one knows the answers to those questions, at least not in a way that can be historically verified. The novelist’s job is to fill in the gaps in a way that is true to the human heart and hopefully also the era in which the story is set. At least now I have a portrait of Glyn Dŵr I can work with.

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Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndŵr – the last days of Owain Gyndŵr

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No one knows how Owain Glyndŵr spent his final days. He simply vanished. Some claim he died, his mortal remains interred in secret to prevent desecration by his enemies. But as always, when considering the ‘legendary’ life of Glyndŵr, there is much debate. My fictional character, his wife, will not, in fact, know how her husband’s fate. She would have been imprisoned in the Tower long before Glynŵr left the stage. But fiction is not real life. Meaning can be drawn by the writer without the conscious knowledge of the character. I therefore needed to know what people were saying about Glyndŵr’s exit from the world.

I wanted a scholarly book (trust me there are some wild theories out there), written by a writer who understood the poetic traditions surrounding the Glyndŵr and was keen to explore them in non-fanciful ways. Gruffudd Aled Williams appeared to be my man. He grew up in Glyn Dyfrydwy, Glyndŵr’s old stomping ground, and is a renowned scholar of Welsh medieval poetry. His book, Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndŵr was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year in 2016. I placed an order and looked forward to the book wending its way across the world to my letter box.

‘Mam and Dad have read that book.’ One of my fellow Welsh tutors informed me one Tuesday evening. ‘They are in the same historical society as Gruffydd  Aled Williams.’ (like, is there anyone in Welsh speaking Wales that doesn’t know everybody?)

‘Was the book any good?’ I asked him.

‘Yes. But it wasn’t an easy read.’

Now, I can read Welsh. Of course, I can. I read I Botany Bay, didn’t I? And Fy mhobl i? And Blasu (sort of). But here’s the thing. My leaner’s Welsh is not as fluid as it was while living in Wales (sob). Added to which, when two first-language Welsh speakers who are living in Bala (the heart of Cymru Cymraeg) say the book was not an easy read, then you are facing a seriously difficult situation.

Fortunately, I live in a part of Melbourne that is densely populated with Welsh speakers. There are four of us living within two kilometres of each other. That’s right, practically a ghetto. One of them, my friend Ceri, is a Welsh woman from Harlech who studied Welsh at Aberystwyth University when Gruffudd Aled Williams was head of the Welsh Language Department (ditto, the comment about anyone and everyone). I asked Ceri whether she’d help me read the book. She took it home, perused the beginning and handed it back.

‘Have a go at reading the first chapters,’ she said, ‘then we can meet.’ (Did I also mention she trained as a teacher).

I read the first four chapters quite easily. They simply summarised aspects of the revolt I am now familiar with. But Aled’s parents were right. This was academic writing, with literary forms of verbs, multiple clauses and subtly wrought arguments. When Ceri texted, suggesting we meet in a cafe and tackle a couple of chapters together, I jumped at the offer.

We met at Padre and read aloud in tandem, not bothering to translate word for word, so much as paraphrase to confirm meaning. For example, on reading the following sentence:

O’r manna a gysylltir ȃ ddyddiau olaf Owain Glyndŵr, ei farwolaeth a’i glad – chai ohonynt a chanddynt well hawl i gael eu hystyried o ddifri na’i gilled – mae’n drawiadol cynifer ohonynta leolir yn Swydd Henfordd; one of us would say something like:

‘So, there are a few places in Herefordshire worth considering.’

‘Yr oedd rhai o’r mannau hyn o few terfynau’r sir felly bodolai yn ystod cyfnod   y gwrthryfel; daeth eraill, a leolid mewn arglwyddiaethau ar gyrion y sir, yn rhannau o Swydd Henfordd yn sgilDeddf Uno 1535-6.’

‘Because the borders were different before the Acts of Union.’

Every now and again, Ceri would insert unknown words to save me looking them up in the dictionary. Sometimes she would say, I know the meaning but I can’t think of the word in English. Still other times, we would be completely stumped and would have to consult multiple sources. I mean, we meet regular to speak Welsh in the ghetto but we don’t often discuss antiquarians (hynafiaethydd), chancels (canghellau), burial chambers (beddgellau), outlawry (herwriaeth), illegitimacy (anghyfreithlondeb) or, indeed, concubines (gordderchadon). When the cafe finally kicked us out at closing time, I felt like I’d been put through a heavily soiled washing machine cycle. I suspect Ceri felt the same. It was a sincere measure of her friendship that she offered to meet again the next week – and in the weeks following.

By week three, all sites, in Herefordshire had been thoroughly discussed. We were racing against the clock, meeting twice weekly in order to finish the book before Ceri returned to her university studies. To my profound relief, the discussion had crossed the border back into Wales. Look, I know the boundaries were different back then, that large parts of Herefordshire were in fact Welsh speaking. But hasn’t England taken enough, without adding Wales’ national hero to the body count? (yes, I take a cool-headed non-partisan approach to my research) 🙂

On the final coffee afternoon, we got kicked out of the cafe with only a few pages left to read. We sat on a sun-bright bench on Lygon Street reading about Glyndŵr’s final days with the metallic sgleen of tram-wheels in the background. It is a measure of the writer’s success that, by that point, we were reading fast and furious, desperate to reach his final conclusions. Which, although sombre, were, in the end, quite satisfying.

What’s that, I hear you say? Where was Glyndŵr finally buried?Buried! What kind of soft question is that? Glyndŵr didn’t die. He vanished. The poets all agree. He rests beneath the mountains surrounded by gold and jewels the likes of which man has never seen. When a bell tolls he will rise with a mighty army and drive our enemies beyond the sea. That’s how all good Welsh stories end. What were you thinking?

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An S.O.S. from Biskit the family dog

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Help! If you are reading this, I’m in danger. The only place I feel safe is rolling around in the dirt beneath the house. But now Andrew’s setting booby traps. No, I’m not joking. It’s real. All around the world, small white dogs who were originally bought for the youngest daughter who left home are under threat. Seriously, Andrew’s on the phone at the crack of dawn and late into the night. He speaks in code, of course. Uses phrases like site remediation and safety procedures, but I hear those American accents and know he’s operating on a global scale.

We had explosions the week after Christmas, then there was thunder. I managed to force my way through the barriers along the sides of the house only to find miles of deadly blue cabling had been installed. I had to chew my way out. Liz doesn’t realise. Why doesn’t she realise? She thinks this is about dirt and fleas. I dragged a length of cabling out to demonstrate the situation. The next morning the secret international phone calls stopped. Andrew hunched over his mobile phone trying to communicate with the outside world. He said he’d have to ‘go into the office.’ Liz didn’t seem too worried. She never does. She just flipped over to 4G and kept on reading. About Owain Glyndwr, for heaven’s sake, a fourteenth century Welsh malcontent. She needs to forget about Wales and  and start focusing on what’s happening in her own backyard.

When Andrew got home from ‘the office’, that night, he found the cable. Grim. That’s the only word for his face. He hammered on Liz’s study window. Called, it an ADSL line. Used the words, No WIFI, No phone. Liz turned pale, saw the effect it was going to have on her social media profile. She sided with Andrew. Yes, you heard me. She sided with Andrew. Called the ADSL police. Had those trip wires re-installed in no time. Now my days are numbered. I’m hacking into Liz’s blog to get my message out. She’s going to be furious. I’ll be kept in close confinement from now on. But if you’re reading this, you’ll know the truth. So, please, please, please come and rescue me.

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Owain Glyn Dwr’s offspring – and Iolo Morgannwg’s meddling

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Researching a novel is like tackling a giant jigsaw puzzle. You start with an image in your mind. In this instance, a woman alone in a prison looking back over her life. But before you can form that image you need to tip the pieces out on the table and begin sorting them – into corners, edges and colours. Or in this instance, historical details, character motivations and story threads. To this end, I have been reading reading books on kings, medieval daily life, women’s roles, soldiers, armour and most recently a book on growing up in the middle ages.

Growing up? I hear you ask. Do you intend to give a blow-by-blow account of your protagonist’s life?

No, but experience tells me you need to know a great deal more about a character than ever appears on the page. Even if I do not fictionalise Marged’s childhood, I need to know what it looked like. Added to which, she raised offspring of her own. According to the nineteenth century antiquarian and genealogist, Jacob Youde William Lloyd, Marged bore Owain Glyn Dwr eleven children. A shattering number for anyone considering writing a novel. I mean, the woman would have spent the whole time, pregnant or giving birth. Which may have been the case for many medieval women. But in story terms, there are only so many times you can show the pacing husband, difficult delivery and lusty newborn infant before people start to yawn. I shared this problem with my Welsh class in the bar of the Celtic Club (yes, there is a price to having me as a tutor).

‘I’m going to have to kill a few children,’ I said’. Eleven is an impossible number.’

‘You can’t do that!’ A circle of shocked faces. ‘You have to be accurate.’

unknown

They were right, of course. That is one of the challenges of writing historical fiction, the balance of crafting a good story against the historical record. Every novelist sets their own parameters. For me (and it seems my Welsh class), it must involve a degree of accuracy.

But eleven children! When were they born? What were their personalities? How did they all live before the revolt? What about afterwards, when their lands were declared forfeit? How did poor Marged stop them from sickening and squabbling while hiding out in the mountains of Snowdonia? (yes, insert the remembered pain of taking four children on family holidays here). In fact, this book was beginning to take on the feel of a vicarious form of post traumatic stress syndrome. But, apart from becoming a mass murderer, I could not see any way out of the situation.

I mentioned this problem (in an electronic form of a hand-wringing) to Gideon Brough, a historian, whose book The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dwr is due for release in December, thinking he may know of of a cave, or safe-house (big enough to house eleven children) or, failing that, evidence of an illness that wiped out half the family. His was answer was in fact, infinitely more satisfying:

Contemporary sources only appear to confirm four children born to Owain and Margaret; Gruffydd, Maredudd, Catrin and Alys. Iolo Goch’s poem says that they came in pairs, the longer list of names you might have read appears to have been invented by Iolo Morgannwg centuries later.

Next Tuesday, after Welsh class, someone asked how my research was going (actually, they may not have asked but, as I said before, there is a price). I told them about the Morgannwg theory.

‘But,’ one brave soul asked, ‘why would Iolo have made that up?’

Indeed, why did Iolo make anything up? He was probably the biggest literary forger in Welsh history, creating a vast body of work, reputedly dating back to the druids. The whole bardic ceremony at the Welsh National Eisteddfod is, in fact, a product of his fecund (always wanted to use that word) imagination. Now, it seemed he’d also foisted an imagined family on Glyn Dwr.

family-tree_23-2147512823

At this point, I hear a collective howl from all those who claim descent from Glyn Dwr. You are out there, I know you are, Wikitree and Geni.com attest your existence. But do take heart, there are also rumours of multiple illegitimate offspring. So many, in fact, that I wonder poor Owain had time to pull his braise up, let alone lead a national uprising. But for my part, I’m sticking with the four children mentioned in the contemporary record – Gruffudd, Catrin, Alys, and Maredudd -because four is far more manageable in terms of crafting a novel. In fact, I may have even lived that situation.

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Permission to create – or ditching the fear factor

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I’m a belt and braces kind of girl. Terrified of making mistakes. I’m not sure why. Hours of introspection and countless man-with-a-cardigan counselling sessions have not provided answers. But for a writer (or indeed anyone) a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ can be paralysing. I distinctly recall telling my writing group that I wanted to make sure my novel was perfect, so perfect that it wouldn’t be rejected. I still recall the silence that greeted this naive announcement.

‘Liz,’ one of them ventured gently. ‘No matter how good your work is, you are going to be rejected.’

They were right, of course. I’ve had my work rejected countless times. Sometimes more painfully than others. I’d like to say I’ve developed a thick skin. But I haven’t, not nearly thick enough. As evidenced by my fear-of-getting-it-wrong approach to my latest project.

Researching my first novel, I read countless diaries, nineteenth publications and more recent historical analyses in order to get my immigration facts straight. In terms of the Welsh fairy tales that run like a seam through the novel’s pages, well, I may have gone a little overboard. In fact, I learned a whole language. But although the conditions on board my nineteenth century emigrant vessel are as authentic as I could make them and, although my knowledge of fairy tales has grown exponentially, the voyage, the ship, characters were all fictitious. This gave me a degree of license.

Not so with my current project – a novel written from the viewpoint of Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife. You see, Marged Glyn Dwr was an historical figure, as was her husband (a national hero in fact). The revolt, the circumstances, all the supporting characters of my story, are historical. This makes the likelihood of receiving an irate letter from a Welsh nationalist informing me that I have misrepresented Wales noble history imminently possible.

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I’d like to say that I’m handling the pressure well, cool as  cucumber as I pore over tome after tome in the state library, that my bookshop is not groaning under the weight of newly acquired purchases, groaning so loudly that when I mentioned to my husband that I may have ordered a few books, he politely asked whether I had set a budget.

Budget, I gulped, yes, of course, I have a budget.

With these tight (cough) budget constraints in mind, you can imagine my frission of excitement to come across this paragraph when reading a library book about the non-judicial confinement of medieval women:

Margaret, the Wife of Owain Glyn Dwr, their daughter Catherine […] and an unclear number of her children, all of whom seemed to have been without personal culpability were taken at the capture of Harlech and were held in the Tower of London from 1409 until at least 1413, when the death of Catherine and her two daughters is the last that is heard of them. Their confinement can be interpreted as a ‘family guilt’ confinement, or as a quasi-hostagehood intended to put pressure on Owain who was still at large.

I wrote to the historian, Gwen Seabourne, outlining my project, and asked whether she could recommend the best sources of information concerning Marged Glyn Dwr. Her answer was disappointing. Or was it? Apparently, that paragraph is pretty much all anyone knows about the fate of Marged Glyn Dwr. Which means, as long as I thoroughly research of conditions in the Tower, my potential for making mistakes has just considerably diminished.

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Buoyed by the success of this contact-an-academic strategy. I contacted another. One whose book on The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dwr is soon to be released (I have it on order – yes, part of my carefully worked out budget). I have read a number of titles on Glyn Dwr and no one seems to know why his military service terminated so abruptly in 1388. Or why he actually rose in revolt in September 1400 (apart from the perfidy already mentioned in earlier blog posts). Many theories have been posed. But none sit well with me. Least of all that he was disgruntled at not receiving a knighthood and sat wallowing in self pity until one morning, ten years later, he got up and declared himself Prince of Wales. Even if  that version was true, which I seriously doubt, you can’t develop a novel on such a vague premise. You have to give the characters conflict and believable motives. I asked this particular historian his opinion on the matter. He wrote back:

There does not appear to be any evidence which gives a firm indication at all of Owain’s feelings after the 1387 campaign, nor any reason to explain why he was not available for service in 1388. That means that there is nothing concrete to justify the notion that he was disgruntled but nothing to definitely refute it either. Effectively, you have carte blanche in that sphere.

The historian, Gideon Brough, whose work promises to be a great deal more nuanced than previous offerings, urged me to think differently to the received version of events, to “do something beautiful and creative with my carte blanche.”

Carte blanche? Did you hear that? There is a smattering of circumstantial evidence and a great deal of theorising going on, even among historians. Which means, as long as I do my research and make sure I understand the social and political issues of the time, I can add my own theories to the mix. Which just made the whole process a lot less scary in my opinion.

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Library lessons – from the other side of the desk.

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My name is Liz, I work as a librarian, and I love libraries. The public ones, due to their underlying principle of equity of access, research libraries due to their wealth of information. In addition to my multiple Aussie public library memberships, I hold Gwynedd and Powys library cards. I am also a member of the National Library of Australia, State Library of Victoria, and the Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru (LLGC). 

One of my methods, when reading a secondary resource is to pore over the bibliography and footnotes, identifying further reading materials. A search on Trove made it plain that some of the items I require – like the Denbighshire Historical Society journal – will not be found in Australia. Others, are available through the LLGC website, and are now on my iPad in PDF format. Many of the medieval chronicles, parliamentary proceedings and patent rolls are also available online. But because I am a mildly (cough) obsessive person, I have also registered with the U.K. Data Service in order to acesss the Dyffryn Clwyd court rolls, intermittently presided over by Reginald de Grey, the man whose actions pushed Glyn Dwr into open rebellion. 

Yes, I know, major excitement.

But Liz, I hear you ask, do you need all this detail when much of it is provided in the secondary sources? Possibly not. But I am learning to trust the process. Indeed to revel in it. For my recently completed novel, I spent two afternoons in the Victoria and Albert Reading rooms sifting through nineteenth century theatre play bills. Did any of them make it into the novel? Well, no. But they made the whole damn thing feel pretty real. And when you are trying to connect with an historical character, real is important. Imagine my excitement, when scrolling through a muster roll of medieval soldiers, to see Owain Glyn Dwr listed. To quote Billy Elliot:

‘It was like electricity.’

I experienced a similar frisson of excitement when I found the Bulletin Board of Celtic Studies journal on the state library catalogue, with issues spanning all the way back to 1921. The record said:

Available  Phone 03 8664 7002 to arrange delivery from Offsite Store  YA 913.36 B87

Ten o’clock Monday morning I called the state library. ‘Good Morning, I said. I am phoning to order some journals from offsite storage.’

Silence.

‘Hello? The catalogue said to phone, is this the correct number?’

‘Yes.’ A sigh on the end of the line. 

‘Are you the person I need to talk to?

‘I am, but it will be difficult.’

‘Difficult?’

‘Our process is clunky.’

At this point a younger, less experienced version of myself may have said, ‘Oh, I see, well, sorry to bother you.’

But I am no longer a girl and I work in a library and I have it on good authority that this is not how one is supposed to conduct a reference interview. In fact, I strongly suspected this librarian was being lazy. ‘Would it be easier if I came in and made the request?’

‘No,’ another sigh. ‘What journal are you after?’

I gave him the name of the journal, heard the keyboard clattering, imagined a bald, bespectacled librarian, let’s call him Lionel, peering at the screen. (yes, yes, I know, a stereotype, but some of them are real okay) ‘Yes, it is in our collection.’ Lionel dredged the admission up from the soles of his scuffed, brown lace-up shoes. ‘What issues are you after?’

I pulled up my list, began reeling off years and numbers.

‘Hang on a sec!’ Did I detect a note of smug triumph in Lionel’s voice? ‘You are only allowed six items.’

‘So, you want me to order six items now, cycle into the library tomorrow, then call again the next day and order six more issues, cycle home, then repeate the whole process the following morning?’

A longer silence. To give credit where credit is due, Lionel was starting to register my level of persistence. ‘Leave it with me,’ he said. ‘I’ll make enquiries.’

When Lionel called back a couple of hours later, he told me that he had managed to put in a trolley order. ‘I’m not sure if it will work,’ he added with a signatory puff. ‘But hopefully there will be something on the reserve shelf tomorrow.’

The next morning, I don’t mind admitting, I approached the reservation shelf with a degree of pessimism. I was not surprised to find that there were no journals under my name, only the three additional books I had ordered through the catalogue. However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard borrowers announce that their reservation is not on the shelf, only to find it below, the items under letter of their surname having spilled over onto a lower shelf. I scanned the reservation area, saw four huge cartons, with my name on them. Journal upon journal, some wrapped in plastic due to their infrequent use. Lionel had delivered. Big time. From which I concluded he wasn’t a lazy librarian at all. Though, I strongly suspect the poor fellow has confidence issues. 



 

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History – a matter of perspective

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I have started researching a new novel, set between the years 1383 and 1413. It will begin in the Tower of London and end in the Tower of London and range from Flintshire to Snowdonia before finally reaching its harrowing climax in Harlech Castle. That’s all I’m going to say at this point. Apart from the fact that (to my knowledge) there are no statues of my viewpoint character in Wales, hardly anything written about her. Why is that? I’m sure she played her part. Why do men’s exploits so dominate the pages of history?

Before we ponder that question, let us examine my suitability for the task.

I was raised in Australia. I did a project on beef cattle in grade four (for which I received a gold stars), heard a fair bit about convicts (despite SA where I grew up being colonised entirely by free settlers). I absorbed similar jaw cracking stories about the sailors from the good ship Corromandel who absconded in the Adelaide Hills, along with obligatory visits to pioneer village and old government house. I did a term of American history in year ten, focussing on slavery, a term on the Russian Revolution, another on the French, and similar units on the history of China and India. In my final school year, I studied the causes of the First and Second World Wars. I did an undergraduate history degree majoring in history (primarily Australian) and my urban history units touched on Europe. But there was no Welsh history in that mix, barely any English (apart from those horrible old judges who sent innocent convicts to the antipodes for stealing handkerchiefs).

So, on paper, hmm… not so well qualified.

Fortunately, I’m a librarian <insert research junkie> and I have a slight (cough) interest in Wales. I’ve made it my business to do a spot of reading on the side and, now, thanks to the recent referendum, I am able to buy second hand books far dirtier and cheaper than I could a month ago. I have started with an overview of the period. This entailed re-reading, Land of My Fathers’.

Land of My Fathers’ is an unashamedly partisan history of Wales. It’s author, Gwynfor Evans, was a Welsh hero, politician and statesmen who took on Maggie Thatcher and won (yep, that good). I believe every word of his history. I read parts of it every now and again to regain a true perspective on the world. However, despite the fact, that I share the author’s considerable biases, I thought it best to cast my research nets a little wider. Over the last few weeks I’ve also read, The Hollow Crown, Owain Glyndŵr: the story of the last prince of Wales, The Three Richards, The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr, The Time Traveller’s guide to Medieval England, A History of Wales, and the Cambridge University Press title: Medieval Wales. 

Amazon tells me David Walker, the author of Medieval Wales was “born in or near Wilmington in or near, North Carolina, the son of a slave father and a free black mother (thus under the laws of slavery, he was born free).” These biographical details can’t be correct, as the book’s prefaces Walker as a former senior lecturer in Medieval studies at University College Swansea, a contemporary of Glanmore Williams (b. 1920) and R. R. Davies (b. 1938). I don’t know where he hailed from or what his background. Only that reading Medieval Wales felt like receiving a series of slaps in the face.

Here is what Walker had to say about the reign of Owain Glyn Dŵr, the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales.

In the literary record his prospects and his capacity as soldier and leader were, by well known convention, overstated. […] The records suggest that Glyn Dŵr had a sense of style and he knew the value of the outward trappings of power, but the limitations of his power were all too easily identifiable. […] Plunder and thinly disguised extortion provided (Glyn Dŵr with) short-term supplies but left a legacy of bitterness […] In one important sense the Pennal scheme was well based: an independent Welsh church was a sound ambition. In another sense, […] it implied a capacity to inflict a massive defeat on the English King which was far beyond Glyn Dŵr’s resources.

Now by English standards of wealth and power, Glyn Dŵr may not have been considered a great threat. But as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, there are two worlds in Wales – the English speaking and the Welsh speaking – and, my preliminary reading tells me, this phenomenon was active in fourteenth century Wales. In the Welsh speaking world, Glyn Dŵr was considered the pre-eminent claimant for the title. Under the surface of an outwardly subservient populace a powerful network of kinship alliances and aspirations was in operation. Added to which, the English crown was in disarray – the King having been usurped and starved to death by his own cousin.

The History of Wales was written by the late John Davies, an eminent Welsh historian who won the Owain Glyndŵr Award for his outstanding contribution to the arts. The tone of his work is less condescending than Walker’s. Here is what Davies had to say about Glyn Dŵr:

By 1400, Owain Glyndwr was a man with considerable experience of the ways of the world. In addition to the mass support which Owain received from the villeins and poorer clergy, he also won the allegiance of most of the members of the low ranks of the Welsh official class. By 1404 […] so great was the prince’s authority and so feeble the reaction of Henry IV that English officials, Marcher Lords and the inhabitants of the border counties were making their own local agreements with the new power that had arisen in Wales. At the same time, Owain was seeking an alliance with the Percy and Mortimer families. […] At the beginning of 1405, French soldiers (yes, he had secured the backing of the Pope and the French King) landed at Milford Haven.

History is a matter of perspective. And most often a male perspective.

Yet amidst these records of power bases, battles and alliances, there is another narrative. The story of a woman, all but forgotten by time, who lost her home as a result of her husband’s decisions, who watched many of her children die, who ended her days a prisoner of the English crown. A Welsh woman, of Norman descent, Marged ferch Dafydd, who lived, loved, laboured and no doubt played her part. Yet history simply remembers as the wife of Owain Glyn Dŵr.

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Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel

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One of the things about claiming your Welshness late in life is that there is so much to learn. You accept the fact. You have missed out on a whole lifetime of knowledge – about flora, fauna, history, language, social customs. You know you can never fully belong, those formative experiences are lost, forever. Yet, for some perverse reason, it still comes as a shock, to realise there are things about Wales you simply never knew. In this instance, I am talking about artists, or specifically one artist. Gwen John. You would think  having lived in an artist’s residence for seven months, I’d be all over the topic. But I’m not. At least, I wasn’t, until I read Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel. 

Girl in Profile is primarily told from a shifting first person female point-of-view, but it also has some short male epistolary segments. The overall effect – quirky and humorous, with an adventurous use of metaphor and simile that gives the reader a kind of head spinning, like wow, like this is amazing type sensation.

The opening viewpoint character is Gwen John, a Welsh artist who was born in 1876. Having lost her mother at an early age, Gwen John moved from Haverfordwest to Tenby, where she was raised by her two aunts, who were strict Salvationists. In 1895, she began to study art at Slade School of Art, the only school in the U.K. that then allowed female students. She won the Melville Prize for figure composition in her fourth year. In 1903, Gwen John travelled to France and shortly afterwards began modelling for the much older sculptuor Auguste Rodin. She became his lover (as you do) her passion for him continuing unabated for ten years. Unfortunately, Rodin’s passion abated far sooner (as it often does). The novel opens with Gwen John pining for Rodin.

Gwen John’s viewpoint is juxtaposed against the modern day viewpoints of Elizabeth, an elderly woman, suffering dementia, who lives in a care home in Tenby, largely ignored by her distinguished children, and who is writing letters to an American prisoner on death row. Here is how Elizabeth describes her self. 

“Constrained in every decade I’ve been. Stoned in my teens; pregnant and insecure in my twenties; husband, two children and a springer spaniel in my thirties; midlife crisis in my forties; age-defying creams and faradic machines in my fifties; and now in my sixties losing my marbles.”

The third viewpoint character is Moth, a mother of two young children Roan and Dove who was Miss Carmarthen at twenty two and devoted to her children. Though, she is considering having an affair with her son’s art teacher Adam:

“He’s wearing a white shirt and blue jeans, same as me. No visible tattoos. He’s not the kind of guy to have a tattoo. Drew’s (her husband) got “Moth” on his chest and “Roan” and “Dove” on either wrist. Looks plain dirty if you ask me, and imagine when you’re old. I drew the line, with a full stop at piercings. We’re his heart and arms, he says. Load of crap. It’s just his tribalistic, sadomasochistic, look-at-me way of displaying us. Branding. Establishing ownership rights. If you name it, you.”

Girl in Profile is a literary novel, rather than a feel good book. But that doesn’t mean is it depressing. The novel explores the complexity of women’s choices – the ones who follow their passions and the ones who subsume them for the the love of their family. The poignant letters from the man on death row give us a sense of the life cycle – you’re born, you live you die. They also illustrate Elizabeth’s sense of pointlessness as her control is taken away by her institutionalisation and the disease that is eating away at her brain. 

I read each segment of the novel, unsure how the author was going to bring the story together. Then, I had this kind of ‘oh, wow’ lightbulb moment and found myself wanting to read the whole thing over. So, if you want a book to make you think, or a story to make your head spin, or a writer in whose audacious use of language makes you blink and marvel and chuckle, then head on over to Honno, the Welsh women’s press, and buy Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel. 

 

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