Clark’s Hangman Blind is
the first book in the
Abbess of Meaux medieval crime series and is set in England
in the reign of Richard II.
Published in hardback (March 08) and paperback (September 08) by John
To be followed by The Red Velvet Turn-shoe
in 2009. Shots
asked Cassandra about the
genesis of the serial and what the future holds for the Abbess.
for many years, first as a playwright and then as a writer of genre
have always held the view that writers’ block is a figment of
that is, until I was asked to write a profile about myself. For about ten days now I
have been staring at
the blank screen, making coffee, walking round the block, opening wine,
Mister Pip, opening wine and, this
morning, again, staring at the blank screen.
stalling me is; why have I started writing medieval crime?
short answer is it seemed a good idea at the time. And I like the
the music. The food sounds intriguing. And as for the Rhenish and the Guienne
…Done. But this scarcely fills one
fraction of a mega mega byte.
started with a dream.
not one of
those people who draw up a carefully crafted plan and write pages and
about their characters before they start. I do, however, like to have
everything firmly in my head for some time and only when I’ve
mulled it over do
I write straight through. Hangman Blind
was different though. It arrived fully formed with no mulling.
This is how
happened. After going through a bad seven years which absolutely nobody
want to know about I was at that stage you must have experienced
when your face hasn’t actually cracked for sometime.
You’ve forgotten about
that thing people call humour. You don’t mean to be dour but
levity is simply
not in your emotional repertoire any more. Well, I astonished myself
by waking up cackling with laughter. In the dark. In the middle of the
Alone. Having been sound asleep.
I sleep alone and it meant I could haul myself out of bed and prowl
over to my
desk and return to the nest with a notebook and pen without disturbing
anybody. The dream
that had led to this
chortling good humour, this sunbeam through the rain, was vivid. There
characters there, context, dialogue, sight, sound and after scribbling
down I went back to sleep and woke next morning feeling more
I’d felt for years.
over I discovered my notes. It was a scene between somebody called
two others called Ulf and Roger. My face cracked again. Who were these
invading my dreams? They were so full of rough, northern good will,
with a kind
of gallows humour, that it made me want to know what they were going to
to next and, more, what they were doing living away in my head as if
been there for years. It was clear they’d been around for
some time by the
completeness of their back-stories, their looks, the nature of their
their manifest purpose.
scene came the novel and from the novel the whole Abbess of Meaux
of unacceptably northern humour have long been honed. The characters
though and it was a question of allowing them to step forward, clothed
capuchons and houpelandes, clutching their endless cups of Rhenish and
of ale, the further the action.
first their habitat was familiar and vivid I was keen to find out the
geography and historical period. It soon became clear they were living
late fourteenth century in the East Riding of Yorkshire and that
‘nun’ in the dream – had connections with
what had once been a famous and
wealthy abbey near Beverley called Meaux. The series spans the period
People’s Rising of 1381, through Richard II’s
dramatic and tragic reign, with a
planned end shortly after his murder.
I spent my
childhood in Yorkshire, running
wild in the woods in a village
not far from Meaux.
It was one
great abbeys of the pre-Reformation period, along with Fountains and
and, although I’m in favour of the Reformation and the
Enlightenment it preceded,
I feel an immense poignancy at the thought that Meaux is now reduced to
nothing. The thought of its demise would have been astounding to the
his men in the 1380s. they ran the blue chip company of their day,
wealth and power from their involvement in the wool trade. They were
exporters, cosmopolitan, trilingual, litigious and, if the chronicles
around 1395 is anything to go by, as secular as most of us. Almost
after the dream I was lucky enough to discover that there was an actual
chronicle of the abbey written in exactly the period I was being drawn
then on everything began to slot into place. The drama of life in
reign had me hooked.
historian, I’m a philosopher. It means I have to do a lot of
ground work to
unearth the necessary facts to support the narrative. This is such a
as I’m luck enough to live around the corner from the best
library in London. Not the
British Library, but the little
non-conformist one set up by Dr William’s in the nineteenth
there are magicians. Time after time I’ve gone in with some
prefaced by, ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got
anything connected to…’ and within
minutes they emerge from their archives with exactly the dusty tome I
how I got
hold of the chronicle, surely unopened since it was first put on the
the library was founded.
library I use. It’s a writer’s paradise called St
Deninol’s in the Welsh
Marches and was again a bequest by another magnificent, philanthropic
Victorian, Prime Minister Gladstone who bequeathed 132,000 volumes of
books to star things off. By now it’s thoroughly up-to-date
and the joy is you
can liver there, sleeping yards from your desk in the library,
all the historical sources you could desire (followed by a glass of
round a log fire in the evening after a good day’s work.)
haunting libraries my research involves talking to people in churches,
galleries, castles, and to professional historians. There are experts
everywhere, giving generously of their time and knowledge and liking
of getting their knowlesde out to a fiction reading public.
that’s how I
do my research: dreaming, asking questions, and ferreting around in
One of the
predisposing factors to my writing crime is my fear of having to write
violence. The nastiness in my previous plays and novels was always
sepia – secret betrayals, glancing defeats – where
no actual blood was drawn.
Violence is abhorrent to me. There’s too much of it around.
One way to deal
with it is to keep it safely in the past.
century, like any other, was brutal both in daily life and in its
law-breakers – and there were a lot of laws. Women and the
particularly vulnerable. As members of craft guilds women had access to
protection of their livelihoods and the Saxon tradition of strong,
self-determining women lived on after the conquest, especially in the
where William was resisted most fiercely and his ethnic cleansing was
thorough than anywhere else. Even so, three hundred years later, it was
probably often safer for a woman to be married (your trading debts
passed on to your husband, for a start).
alternative was to join one of the many religious orders where you
would find a
reasonable degree of protection from casual violence as well as a
a Cistercian by choice, and privileged by being a member of an
Some of the
chronicles make most priories sound like five-star hotels. Of course we
take into account that these were written by men and therefore possible
with envy. It was a sure thing, however, that the nuns were as
hard-headed in business as the monks. With constant visits from the
suspect they had a rollicking time too.
Hildegard, of course, is pure of purpose. A widow, to put paid to the
she knows nothing of men, she simply wants to improve things.
She’s as moved by
child poverty, violence, disease and so forth as anyone today and sees
ambition to set up her own small cell somewhere near York as a step
into doing something positive.
she’s as prone to the emotional folly of us all and finds
caught up, not only in murder and political intrigue, but with several
chief being the sexy and lethal Hubert de Courcy, who, as her abbot and
possibly a French spy, is as embroiled in political intrigue as she is
It was the
of the Schism when there were two popes. Urban in Rome whom the
English rather preferred, and
Clement in Avignon, who had
the final say in the activities of the
Cistercians in England.
As well as this political opposition, both Hildegard and
constrained by the vows of their Order. Any rollicking that goes on is
likely not for them. Hence a certain tristesse
in their relationship.
interests me greatly. Is it a case of Big Bad Bolingbroke out to murder
beautiful boy, King Richard? Or a paranoid tyrant King humiliating his
clever cousin? Who am I to have a view? I’m not an historian
as I’ve said but a
view is necessary and one of the intriguing aspects of writing a series
find a way through the evidence to something like ‘the
I’m the sort of person who’ll climb on a soap box
at the drop of a hat.
Currently the box invites me to ran about the way many contemporary
are writing out of existence the story of the people, in which, of
include women. But the more I find out the more I want to know about
histories of the ones who survived the initial blood-spurges after the
the so-called peasants, actors in the first great revolt of the English
the corruptions of autocratic government. Their big mistake, with
control of London in their
grasp in the summer of 1381, was
to believe the promises made by the King and his council and imagine
justice had won the day. I want to know what happened to the thousands
who marched with Wat Tyler and John Ball. Where did they go, these
There are few records, of course, although some recent archives are
re-examined, and all we have to go on are hints and shadows.
with the leaders of dissent at Oxford when the
Archbishop of Canterbury was
ordered by Rome to
exterminate them as heretics at this same time. It’s on the
record. We know
Richard turned a blind
eye. They were not sent to the stake as in France and Germany. They were
expected to recant or go to
prison for a spell. The records tell us what happened to them after
the history of the people, the once forced into outlawry for their
have a say in the way their lives were being run is largely forgotten.
attractive, though doomed, about hoping to restore these lost histories. They can only remain as
fiction. But in some sense maybe it’s possible to create a
sense of the loves
of the bonded and newly un-bonded workforce, the burgesses who founded
major towns and cities, the craftsmen and apprentices who risked their
for freedom of belief and the right to speak as they chose. They paved
for the end of theocracy and intolerance and set up the idea that
a good thing. We should not forget what they did nor let it lightly
our grasp. The sheer courage of those who fought for freedom of speech
belief, the right to read what they wanted, the basis of free press,
remain in oblivion. For me fiction is a way of keeping them alive and
them out of the footnotes of history.
may seem a far cry from a dream that turned into an historical crime
It’s quite a journey from a short scene concerning a nun, a
lord and a steward
to a polemic about democracy. But it should explain why I chose
fiction. It’s nothing to me unless it can stand in a wider,
context and go some way to explaining how we got to where we are now.
So there it
Why Hangman Blind? Why the Abbess
Meaux? That’s where we came in.
I had a
And so far I
haven’t even mentioned the clothes, the food – or
Hangman Blind is published by John Murray
September 2008 pbk £7.99