Yes. The first quarter century. Dear God.
That, in itself, is a proof of how bad my time management has become. It was last year when I was asked by Mike Stotter 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, vital proof that I was, really and truly, a writer.
Except nothing is ever that easy, is it? In the last year I have had a fairly troubled time. A son who is proving rather 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); juggling of Brownies and violin lessons; trying to write two books, a novella and a short story or two. . . it all mounts up. Which is why this article is being written only as I complete the twenty-fifth book in the series.
I wasn’t going to be a writer when I left school. With the callow foresight of a greedy teenager, I decided early on that 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 every exam.
So instead I went out and sold computers. Successfully, too. Unfortunately the industry nose-dived after my second firm. 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 instead.
When I set out, I didn’t hit my stride immediately. The first book I wrote was a (really very good) crime thriller. It 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 phone by the first publisher who read it.
She rejected it two days later in writing.
The whole book was about the IRA, and they’d just agreed their first cease-fire, so the book was out of date.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 I read a couple of books about the Templars. What a fascinating bunch they were. At the time there was a broad concensus that they were pretty repellent and the Pope did a good thing in getting rid of them. But gradually over the years this accepted story has been looked at with more and more suspicion, until at last the Vatican has even released the document that shows the Templars were fully pardoned by the Pope.
Which supposes that the Pope and the King of France were rather unpleasant characters if they sought to destroy the Templars without any valid reason. Could such people have been so vicious?
It’s my contention with all my books that man has not really changed that much. Certainly, when you look at the lengths to which conmen will go to deprive pensioners of their money, or the new frauds which originate in Africa to separate fools from their money, you can see that the urge to make an easy buck always overrules any humanitarian motives.
The big 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 exactly 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 means 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 increasing murders.
There is nothing new under the sun. It’s always fascinating to me to look at past crimes and then see how things really 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 order.
The two 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 naughty behaviour of the sort that could grace a Carry On film. But slapdash research? Bias? Too much fiction? Dear heaven, I had to tone it all down!
My main research materials for this book were the records of the visitations of Bishop Stapeldon and Bishop Grandisson. These two honourable fellows visited all the convents, and found them materially dilapidated, and the women inside morally deficient. Yes, they did have babies. Yes, they did have too much food, and drink, and pets were allowed, and there was rather too much fraternisation with the servants. All the examples I gave existed in the records.
The latter 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 the middle of the night in the cathedral close.
Except it’s not fiction. It happened in the 1280s. And the murder was not a simple robbery, it was the result of some months of political dispute and wrangling between the Dean and the Bishop. 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 arrested and punished, one was the Vicar of Heavitree, another the Vicar of Ottery St Mary. 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.
No. I couldn’t make it up.
I guess 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 percent 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.
My books 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 working days 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 hard – but to an extent this was a servile people living under the brutal control of Kings and barons who dealt death without compunction.
The best example is the deplorable Sir Hugh le Despenser, supposedly the lover of King Edward II. Despenser became the second most wealthy man in the country, but he did it by bullying any who was weaker than himself. By this, and blatantly twisting the laws and customs of 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 with death. A penalty he only escaped by breaking out of his gaol and fleeing over the channel.
There was 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, and in 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 not unique. In this age, knights were often found to be less than honourable. Look 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. Or the Folvilles, or the Coterels. These men may have learned the principles of chivalry, but they extended it only to their peers. Peasants counted for little.
But that is not surprising, bearing in mind this was only a couple of hundred years after the end of the rebellions caused by the Norman invasion. There was still a measure of contempt in the manner in which the populace was treated. It took the Hundred Years War in the middle of the century for the English to be welded together as a united whole. It was at that time that it became expedient for the English King to begin 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 really 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 a year to write!
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 real time through their history, it means that I have to contend with the bigger 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 international war, between England and France. I’m having to follow the fortunes of the King, the Queen, their son and the Queen’s lover, Mortimer.
Which is hard. It means learning more about the mayhem of the period, about the motivations of the rulers and ruled, and about the devotion and loyalty shown by individuals.
The great thing is, they were none of them all that honourable. So when you read my books and see that I show a nice, kindly old buffer like Bishop Walter II as being a thieving, unscrupulous bastard, just reflect on the fact that I will have done my research.
After all, 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 his own round.
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.
Still, I 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 saying 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 own.
He was probably about right. Maybe I should close this series down and start something completely different. But I 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.
Luckily, since all the books are still in print and selling nicely, thank you, it would seem that the reading public agrees.
Long may it continue.
Michael 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