first quarter century. Dear God.
itself, is a proof of how bad my
time management has become. It was last year when I was asked by Mike
to write a piece on my ‘coming of age’ as a writer.
Well, I’d just written my
twenty-first book, and it felt to me as though this was itself real,
proof that I was, really and truly, a writer.
nothing is ever that easy, is it?
In the last year I have had a fairly troubled time. A son who is
a challenge; a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy (yes, she’s still a
puppy, but at
seven stone, she’s a bit heavy when she bounces around you);
Brownies and violin lessons; trying to write two books, a novella and a
story or two . . . it all mounts up. Which is why this article is being
only as I complete the twenty-fifth book in the series.
wasn’t going to be a writer when I left
school. With the callow foresight of a greedy teenager, I decided early
I’d become an actuary. Why? Because I heard that the
actuarial profession was
the highest paid of all professions. I didn’t realise that
the definition of an
actuary was “someone who finds accountancy too
exciting”, though. I failed
So instead I
went out and sold computers.
Successfully, too. Unfortunately the industry nose-dived after my
I spent ten years in two companies – but in total I had
thirteen jobs in
thirteen years. After the last I vowed never to work for another lying,
corrupt, venal company in computing ever again. I started writing
When I set
out, I didn’t hit my stride
immediately. The first book I wrote was a (really very good) crime
was set in the present day, and had all the elements you’d
expect. You know,
bombs, bullets, a sniper, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’roll,
loose women, men in tight
trousers. And it all seemed to work well. It was snapped up over the
the first publisher who read it.
it two days later in writing.
book was about the IRA, and
they’d just agreed their first cease-fire, so the book was
out of date. She was
very apologetic, but sadly I didn’t get the money. So that
was an early, hard
lesson about writing: when in doubt, get your hands on the cash first.
It was while
writing that that I read a
couple of books about the Templars, though. What a fascinating bunch
At the time there was a broad concensus that they were pretty repellent
Pope did a good thing in getting rid of them. But gradually over the
accepted story has been looked at with more and more suspicion, until
the Vatican has even
released the document that shows the
Templars were fully pardoned by the Pope.
supposes that the Pope and the King
of France were rather unpleasant characters if they sought to destroy
Templars without any valid reason. Could such people have been so
my contention with all my books that
man has not really changed that much. Certainly, when you look at the
to which conmen will go to deprive pensioners of their money, or the
which originate in Africa to separate
fools from their money, you
can see that the urge to make an easy buck always overrules any
difference in the UK always has
been that here we have had a
low crime rate. But that is changing. The prohibition on drugs has had
the same impact over here as prohibition on alcohol in America –
it’s handed huge profits to any
unpleasant criminal who wants to join in the scramble for sales. And
that crime is increasing. At the same time guns are vastly more easily
available – because gangs smuggling half a ton of cocaine at
a time can find
space for a couple of pistols on their boats to protect their
investment – and
guns in the hands of men and girls on drugs leads to a gun culture and
nothing new under the sun. It’s
always fascinating to me to look at past crimes and then see how things
haven’t changed at all. Not everyone realises that. I have
often been accused
of slapdash research, of an in-built bias against the Church, and of
the use of
too much heavy-handed fiction when a little more realism would be in
books that have caused the most
offence are probably “Belladonna At Belstone” and
“The Chapel Of Bones”. In the
former, I tell the story of an imaginary convent on Dartmoor, out in the
waste, and I’m afraid I speak
of misbehaving nuns. Yes, there are children born to these ladies, and
behaviour of the sort that could grace a Carry On film. But slapdash
Bias? Too much fiction? Dear heaven, I had to tone it all down!
research materials for this book
were the records of the visitations of Bishop Stapeldon and Bishop
These two honourable fellows visited all the convents, and found them
materially dilapidated, and the women inside morally deficient. Yes,
have babies. Yes, they did have too much food, and drink, and pets were
and there was rather too much fraternisation with the servants. All the
examples I gave existed in the records.
story told of a much more
brutal affair, the murder of Walter de Lecchelade, the Chaunter of the
cathedral at Exeter. I have
been reviewed by people who threw a lot of doubt on the idea
that anyone could believe that a Chaunter could be set upon by a mob in
middle of the night in the cathedral close.
it’s not fiction. It happened in
the 1280s. And the murder was not a simple robbery, it was the result
months of political dispute and wrangling between the Dean and the
two loathed the sight of each other, and the Bishop installed his
Chaunter as a
political balance to the Dean’s authority. The Dean himself
ordered the murder
of his opponent’s comrade. Which is why of the twenty-odd men
punished, one was the Vicar of Heavitree, another the Vicar of Ottery
Oh, and one man who was hanged was the mayor of Exeter, Alured de
Porta, who goes down in
history with the dubious fame of being the only mayor in Britain to have
been hanged while in office.
couldn’t make it up.
other stories have been invented –
cannibalism hasn’t been known on Dartmoor for a few
centuries, I would think, and yet even
that is possible. There were rumours of such dubious cookery in Kent at the
time, you see. After all, this was
the period of the Great European Famine, and at a time when some thirty
or more of the population was expiring from starvation, it’s
not a huge stretch
to think of people eating whatever came to hand. If the Victorians
could do so
(look at the case of the Mignonette) I am quite
sure that our medieval
ancestors could have done so with fewer qualms.
aren’t taken from pure fiction,
you see. My stories are based on the things that did
happen. I write
about ordinary people living in dreadful times. There were fewer
than today, true, and people weren’t castigated for drinking
too much – in an
age when a gallon of ale a day was reasonable for a monk, that would be
but to an extent this was a servile people living under the brutal
Kings and barons who dealt death without compunction.
example is the deplorable Sir
Hugh le Despenser, supposedly the lover of King Edward II. Despenser
second most wealthy man in the country, but he did it by bullying any
weaker than himself. By this, and blatantly twisting the laws and
the land, he took over pretty much the whole of southern Wales as his own
fiefdom. Any who opposed him
found themselves made the enemy of the King – even the
King’s own best general,
Sir Roger Mortimer suffered that fate, being captured and threatened
death. A penalty he only escaped by breaking out of his gaol and
one lady, a Madame Baret, who
was the widow of one of the King’s knights. Her husband fell
while fighting on
the King’s behalf. Despenser coveted some lands of hers,
though, and so he had
her captured, and tortured. It is said that all her limbs were broken,
the end so was her mind.
That is only
one of the catalogue of
hideous offences committed by this deeply unpleasant man. But he was
unique. In this age, knights were often found to be less than
at the King’s household knight, Sir Gilbert Middleton, who
turned to simple
highway robbery, even daring to catch two papal envoys on their way to
negotiate peace with Robert the Bruce, and robbing them of everything.
Folvilles, or the Coterels. These men may have learned the principles
chivalry, but they extended it only to their peers. Peasants counted
But that is
not surprising, bearing in
mind this was only a couple of hundred years after the end of the
caused by the Norman invasion. There was still a measure of contempt in
manner in which the populace was treated. It took the Hundred Years War
middle of the century for the English to be welded together as a united
It was at that time that it became expedient for the English King to
speak English himself.
So I am hurt
when I am said to be bending
the truth, making certain groups of people out to be worse than they
were. I don’t. I try to accurately show what people were
truly like. I use
accurate examples culled from Coroners’ Rolls, from court
records, and only
rarely make up stories from scratch. That would be hard, with two books
I am having
to expand my horizons now.
Because my books move through time sequentially, with succeeding books
following on the heels of the previous one, and my characters living in
time through their history, it means that I have to contend with the
national and international affairs. In the past I’ve had to
work through little
disasters, like the famine, and Bannockburn and
Boroughbridge. They were all fine.
But now I have the beginning rumbles of both civil war and
between England and France.
I’m having to follow the fortunes of the
King, the Queen, their son and the Queen’s lover, Mortimer.
hard. It means learning more
about the mayhem of the period, about the motivations of the rulers and
and about the devotion and loyalty shown by individuals.
thing is, they were none of them
all that honourable. So when you read my books and see that I show a
kindly old buffer like Bishop Walter II as being a thieving,
bastard, just reflect on the fact that I will have done my research.
the London mob
wouldn’t have cut his head off with a
breadknife if he was considered as a nice old fellow who always bought
But that, of
course, is in the future. I
think his murder will happen around book twenty-nine of the series. So
far I am
still travelling with the King’s son, Earl Edward of Chester, to France.
That’s going to take me a while.
have come of age. I’ve hit the
quarter-century, and I’m already planning book twenty-nine. I
was sitting on a
panel some while ago, and a colleague and friend answered a question by
that he didn’t think any series could survive beyond eleven
or twelve. I had to
nudge him and point out I’d just finished book nineteen in my
probably about right. Maybe I
should close this series down and start something completely different.
can’t. The story of the period is too fascinating, the events
so surprising at
every turn, that I am fixed on it like any other junkie.
since all the books are still in
print and selling nicely, thank you, it would seem that the reading
Long may it
Jecks is the author of the Templar
series. The twenty-fourth The Templar, The Queen and
Her Lover is
available now from Headline Hbk £19.99