Back at the start of my novel, now with a title but needing a character revision. This is the third revision, and I realise that the first chapter I always thought was so apt, isn’t at all. I need to think it out again. So I found myself contemplating roses on the walls of an abandoned wing of an Elizabethan house with Cromwell’s head buried in it – history all tangled up and intriguing.
The roses were in bud, in full bloom and blown, all on the same bush. They climbed in their shades of yellow, pink, or blushing white. No red ones, the least subtle. All were fragrant. The afternoon was young and the son of the owner told us that our tour would begin in ten minutes’ time. I looked over the drive to a lake with swans, then fields and copses up a hill with a white horse cut into the chalk. Yorkshire has the northernmost chalk hills in the British Isles, I had been told. So no chalk in Scotland – only granite?
Our guide was a welcoming, ample, middle-aged woman who tackled with zest the complicated history of the various families that had owned the land from Norman times in the 11th century and before in this county of ruined monasteries. We had passed one of them, Bylands Abbey, and counted seven more that we had visited and two that we hadn’t. This house we were about to visit stands where a priory once was. No house or telephone wires could be seen between us and the white horse – amazing in this over-crowded island of 63 million and rising.
Our guide bravely tackled the family that had bought the priory’s land in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries wrought by Thomas Cromwell carrying out his orders. They married, fought, travelled to distant lands and returned with the hooves of a valiant battle horse which they turned into inkwells. The male heirs died or were killed; the female line continued and then failed so distant cousins were summoned to inherit and the name changed again, though the present owners still carry a smidgen of the original owners’ blood.
Upholstery was in shreds but dated back to the early 1700s in the first example of settees or chaises longues with ends that were tied to the back with tough braid, the velvet worn back to bare fabric by arms and heads. I’m no furniture expert, so I asked our guide whether it was a Knole settee and she kept on repeating, ‘It came here through the Villiers family,’ without confirming or disputing the date I suggested. I gave up, noticing that she glowered and wouldn’t talk until a male member of the group, obviously interested in marquetry, had stopped looking at a desk. We all had to look at her and not whisper a word! The house is packed with a jumble of goodies: a painted door with an Elizabethan pattern of flowers and twisting leaves and stems was from the original house that has been altered and added to over the centuries. We passed the burial place of Cromwell’s head, saved by his daughter who married into the family, and ended up in magnificently restored Georgian rooms with fine plasterwork ceilings.
And all the time our guide talked and encouraged us to ask questions – excellent. I was a bit unnerved when she wanted me to say more about ‘The Winter Princess’, or Elizabeth, the unfortunate sister of Henry, Prince of Wales, who would have been Henry IX if he hadn’t died, aged 18, in the same year that his sister left to marry the Palatine prince Frederick in Heidelberg in 1612. A bright teenager, Elizabeth bore many children and, dispossessed by the wars of religion, she roamed the continent and retired, a widow, to her native land. A footnote of history, except that George I and all the 18th-century Hanoverians were her descendants. She was almost as successful as later Queen Victoria was two centuries later in populating European courts.
All the time I was looking at our guide, fascinated by the way she wanted to be in total command of her group, I wondered about one of my characters who is becoming increasingly dominant – Sister Julian. I must create an order for her, and for Celia, who is a lay member. The Order of Saint Ermyntrude of the Holy Paraclete? Ermyntrude was no prude – is the rhyme deliberate? I must develop her backstory. Sisters can come from any background as long as they follow her precepts to care for the Poor, the Ill and the Dispossessed. That encompasses her refugees, prisoners on parole and the hospital she founds in the abandoned college buildings…
The train is arriving at Hull and I must put my musings on hold and change rains.