Saturday, August 30, 2014

Richard III: Elected Monarch or Usurper?

 Very little reliable documentary evidence survives from the Middle Ages. The life and times of Richard III therefore remain a period of frustration and fascination for historians, scholars and interested amateurs alike. So why is it – when one very clear contemporary document survives from that period – that so many people choose either to ignore it, or disbelieve it?

This one original and incontrovertible document dates from 1484. It sets forth in plain language (of the time) the entitlement to the throne of the man crowned Richard III, and states that, after certain facts were brought to light which made it clear that King Edward IV’s sons were now considered illegitimate and young Warwick, Clarence’s son, was debarred by his father’s attainder, Richard, at that time Duke of Gloucester, stood next in line.

After lengthy investigation and consideration of the newly disclosed situation by the Royal Council and the members of Parliament originally called to London for the expected coronation of the young prince, (most of whom were present) the agreed conclusion was that the crown should be offered to Richard, who was already ratified as Protector of the Realm. He was petitioned by the three estates, being the Lords Temporal, the Lords Spiritual, and representatives of the Commons who included a good many leading citizens of London. He was officially and legally asked to take the throne. It could actually be said that he was elected. Indeed, the wording of Titulus Regius includes the words ‘this Eleccion of us the Three Estates’, And yet he is consistently accused of being a usurper, and of having ‘seized’ the throne.

The accepted modern meaning of the verb ‘to usurp’ according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, is simply: “To take a position of power illegally or by force.  Using this definition alone, it is perfectly clear that a man who was asked after due deliberation by England’s government to accept the throne, a right which was then ratified by the full parliament, did not in any manner usurp that position.

However, the modern definition of usurpation does not always sit easily in history. After the initial
tyranny of kings was firmly established in 1066 with the unarguable usurpation of William I, over subsequent reigns England gradually began to modify and moderate her attitude to the royal rights of inheritance and the power of both kings and lords of the realm. Unlike the French model which continued doggedly with absolute power resting in the hands of royalty, England changed, adapted, and finally adopted a system of government by which an alternative administration could substitute for the rule of her monarch in certain matters when he was considered incapacitated either by age or health.

The Plantagenet line continued to uphold the right of kings to pass down the crown to their sons or grandsons, but clearly this was not always possible and under such circumstances, suitable but less direct heirs were necessarily sought within the bloodline. With this in mind, accusations of usurpation have been levelled against the first Lancastrian king, Henry IV who took the throne in 1399 and even against King Edward IV (1461). This went to the heart of the Wars of the Roses, but it is important to remember that in both cases, i.e. the enforced abdication of Richard II and the crowning of Henry IV as monarch in his place, and later the official acceptance of Edward IV’s father Richard, Duke of York, as the heir to Henry VI, these were actions carried out in circumstances where the monarch of the day had forfeited confidence and support by showing himself to be dangerously unfit to rule. And, of course, both these irregular successions were enacted and confirmed by Parliament. The term ‘usurpation’, therefore, now depends on whose side the speaker is on. Clearly the succession rights of kings were not inviolate and the later opinion (of Tudors and Stuarts, for instance) that an anointed monarch held an unarguable God-given right to absolute power, did not at all apply in the 15th century.

In 1483 following the death of Edward IV, it was expected that his eldest son would inherit the throne as Edward V. Yet shortly before his coronation, Robert Stillington (Bishop of Bath and Wells) announced that Edward IV’s marriage to the mother of the heir to the throne had been, to state it simply, bigamous, and that therefore all his children were illegitimate.  Stillington was an important and respected ecclesiastical figure, and a previous Lord Chancellor of Edward IV, so his word would have been taken very seriously indeed. It is hard to see what possible benefit he would have gained from lying. Indeed, a good deal of detriment was the far more likely result had his story been false. His announcement, however, would never have been accepted without enormous investigation. Whatever proofs he offered we can no longer know. There is no surviving record of his exact report, nor of any witnesses called or other evidence shown at the time. But the lady who was named as Edward IV’s first wife was the Lady Eleanor Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury and sister to the Duchess of Norfolk, a widow and member of a noble and highly important family. Not someone to make the subject of ludicrous and improper rumours. The Lady Eleanor was now deceased, but she had been very much alive when Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of his children. Many close and high-powered members of Lady Eleanor’s family were still alive and would certainly not have stood silent if they knew the lady was being wrongfully slandered.

Some now choose simply to disbelieve Stillington’s claim. Yet they have not one shred of evidence to support this, nor one hint that this first marriage never took place. Certainly direct proofs that it did take place are also lacking. A few bewildered souls ask where’s the marriage certificate? But no such thing existed in 15th century and you could, for instance, take a lady’s hand, vow to wed her, and if she accepted, you then tumbled her into bed to consummate the match – and lo and behold – you were legally man and wife. The church was naturally not happy with this sort of clandestine affair without banns being called and often without witnesses – but it happened all the time and it was legally binding.

That King Edward IV favoured this type of thing was blatantly obvious, because that’s also exactly what happened the second time around. He wed Elizabeth Woodville in secret, in exactly that same manner. Indeed, he is often said to have ‘married for love’ – an unusual thing for a king in those days. But it was a very strange sort of love – for he made no mention of his secret wedding for 5 whole months. During those months the lady was never invited to the palace, she was entirely unacknowledged, her existing sons (she was a widow), instead of being taken in and elevated by the king, were given elsewhere as wards, and the king even sent his courtiers off abroad to start negotiating for a foreign princess to become his wife. But then, quite suddenly after those long silent months, to the bewilderment of almost the entire country and the dismay of most of the lords. King Edward announced the marriage. He brought his suddenly admitted queen to court, and that was that. A clandestine wedding led to a new queen and eventually a parcel of royal children.

So had he done this on other occasions in the past, yet never acknowledged it? Certainly Lady Eleanor Talbot came into some unusual bequests for which there is no known explanation, nor clear manner in which they could have been acquired. She then retired into permanent religious seclusion.

It does seem strange to many that this wronged and misused lady did not complain, did not announce her legal status as queen, nor denounce her legal husband, even when he took another wife. I have no answer to this beyond pointing out the logic of the situation. This was a high-born lady, and ladies, especially of a religious nature, did not whine or openly humiliate themselves by publicising the fact that they had been used, bedded, ravished, and then abandoned. Nor did they try to cause rebellion and unease (in a land so recently returning to peace) by accusing the king of dishonesty and immorality. She also ran the risk, if she made public announcements, that the king might deny the marriage and thus humiliate her further. Instead she accepted his apology and his gifts (my assumption), though continued to act (as in the manner of making her last will and testament) as a married woman with a living husband. And after all, while the king lived, it was a personal matter anyway and did not yet affect government or the people. It was not until he died and his eldest son’s legitimacy was in question, that the truth of this situation became politically imperative.

So with Edward V no longer considered of legitimate royal descent, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, stood as the one direct and legally legitimate heir.

The document itself (Titulus Regius) states clearly that incontrovertible evidence existed and could be forthcoming if and when required. It was later stated that proofs had already been brought before the Council “authentic doctors, proctors and notaries of the law, with depositions from divers witnesses.Lady Eleanor Talbot’s powerful family surely stood witness. Certainly none of these relatives came forward to deny the claim, or to defend the lady’s honour by refuting the existence of this clandestine marriage. So why doubt such proofs existed? People were no more stupid at that time than they are now and it is highly ridiculous to presume that they would have accepted such a dramatic and inconvenient fact on the eve of the new young king’s coronation, unless they were well and truly convinced.

The frequent modern assumption that Stillington’s claim of bigamy was not only untrue but a clear manipulation by the evil and ambitious Richard III to usurp and seize the throne, is not only a leap of huge unproven prejudice, but it completely and naïvely overlooks the known power and position of the Royal Council and Parliament of the day. Ignoring the delightful genius of Shakespeare’s dramatic fiction, and the less delightful fiction of Tudor chroniclers who supplied the stories he told, we should at least respect the experience and intelligence of the lords, remembering also the obvious precedent of parliamentary decision regarding Richard II and Henry VI as mentioned above.

Stillington’s announcement must have been made during the latter half of May 1483. It is clear that in the following weeks the Royal Council and those representatives of Parliament present in London met in discussion many times.

The supposition  that Richard of Gloucester had the power to threaten and bully all those poor cringing medieval lords is frankly laughable. For a start, Richard’s troops were miles away in Yorkshire, whereas most of the lords had their own armed retinues, not to mention huge private armies on which they could call. Many held particular powers and all were men of substance. These were not lords to be easily bullied, nor convinced without very good reason. A figure of 32 lords temporal, 66 knights, 44 lords spiritual with access to the Pope should they feel obliged to call on him, and 30 members of the Commons have been recorded during meetings of four hours or more, although the Royal Council itself was smaller in number.

Are we now arrogant enough to suppose that these were all corrupt fools to be duped or bribed, incompetent cowards to be frightened into compliance, or men without the slightest interest in the future of the land in which they lived and which supported them and their families and property? It appears that many of us completely underestimate the power of the lords, council and parliament during the 15th century and are happy to ignore the legal precedent for the lords and parliament to debate and determine the situation when the king’s rule was, for whatever reason, in question.

Some now argue that even if proved illegitimate, Edward V could still, with parliamentary agreement, have been accepted as king. But it is clear that parliament rejected any such compromise, since the lords logically and clearly preferred the proven competency of a grown man already ratified as Protector of the Realm and known for his leadership quality.

We also need to remember that King Edward IV had several illegitimate children by various mistresses. Making one illegitimate child legally able to inherit the throne, could even possibly have opened a chain of claims by others. Besides, bastardy called into question not only the capability of the bastard himself to inherit, but looking ahead down the generations, even if overlooked in Edward V himself, it invited later questions as to his dynasty.

The often repeated cries of “Bigamy? A pre-contract? No. It couldn’t be true. It was too convenient,” or “Too much of a coincidence,” can come only from those who already assume Richard guilty of ambitious connivance and malicious manipulation.  Only by assuming his guilt and duplicity before the fact, can these accusations be made. This is why we cannot take at face value the handful of hostile narratives from those times, because their preconceptions are evident to even the most cursory scrutiny. And significantly, there are no surviving records from the governing council that supported Richard.

Once you set aside any existing bias, it is clear that this was highly inconvenient, and there was no coincidence at all. It threw everybody into chaos. We cannot even be sure if Richard wanted the throne. Perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps he did. It doesn’t matter. He was the remaining heir and he was asked to accept the throne. Thant’s on record. The matter was put to the three estates of English government who decided that Richard of Gloucester had a clear duty to take the throne. Richard accepted. Actually he had little choice.

Conflicting loyalties and self-interest produced protestors as always, but no one at the time actually refuted the accusation of bigamy posthumously directed against Edward IV. Even Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the ‘princes’ now declared illegitimate, apparently placed no objection.  She was now living within the precincts of Westminster sanctuary, comfortably in the Abbot’s house, where she had direct access to the considerable higher authority of ecclesiastical power (her own brother was Bishop Lionel Woodville) and could easily have made a direct plea to the Pope for a church ruling and intervention. She did none of these things. She accepted the ruling, just as if she had already known the truth of the matter.

Therefore whether you like the sound of King Richard or not – one thing is entirely clear. He was officially and legally petitioned to accept the throne of England, and contemporary legal documentation proves this. He did not usurp nor seize anything. He could be said to have been legally elected by Parliament. He was fully acknowledged and anointed as monarch when his coronation was duly attended by virtually every peer in England, even those whose families supported the Lancastrian dynasty.

So those, including those claiming to be ‘open-minded,’ but who begin their articles by calling Richard III a usurper, or stating that he ‘seized’ the throne, are either proclaiming their secret bias, or they should enlarge their area of research.

With thanks to many, and to various sources, but with particular gratitude to Annette Carson and her books “A Small Guide to the Great Debate,” and “Richard III: The Maligned King.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What Is Truth?

Authors of fiction have to look for the drama, and invariably choose to dramatize the ordinary. It’s the necessary ingredient for fiction. After all, we mustn’t bore our readers, and a dull book is unlikely to sell. Everyday life tends to be fairly flat for most of us, and we read to escape that tedium.

But authors of historical fiction have an additional problem for we are also obliged to do our historical research, and discard the overly dramatic in favour of accuracy. I adore research, and I adore accuracy, and long ago I discovered that you can accept both without your writing ever becoming dull or dreary, for history is insistently fascinating. But one thing puzzles me. Why, oh why are we so addicted to those old enduring lies of history? Even when we are told – and have it proved over and over again – that some daft tale from the past is entirely untrue, we still hang on to it. The lies stick in our memory. Drama! So much more interesting than fact.

No, there were never such things as chastity belts. Actually in the medieval western world (as opposed to some of the east and Middle East) virginity wasn’t as important as we now like to imagine. Marital faithfulness was, of course – but there never was a single chastity belt hanging around on bed nobs. Such a silly and unworkable idea anyway, and for obvious reasons.

No, there never was any Droite du Roi either. That scandalously wicked idea claiming that dirty old lords in bygone days could demand the first right sleeping with any new bride anywhere on his estates, is utter nonsense. It never happened in England, (please don’t believe those films) and almost certainly never happened in France either. It’s a salacious fable.

No, Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake,” and Queen Victoria never said, “We are not amused.” Actually she was quite often amused– though that didn’t stop her being a terrible tyrant to her own family.

No, Napoleon was no romantic hero – no hero at all in fact – and the Borgias never did half the things they get up to on television. And no, King Richard III never had a hunchback or a withered arm – and quite probably he never murdered his nephews either. It seems an illogical and unlikely act, but we have no evidence whatsoever, not either way. And by the way, those old bones now residing in an urn at Westminster Abbey are 90% sure to be from a far earlier age and have no connection to the princes in the Tower whatsoever. They could easily have belonged to young Roman girls.

No, the Dark Ages weren’t in the slightest dark (except at night!). In fact they were gloriously light. The retreat of the Roman civilisation from England did not leave everyone quivering back into total ignorance and brutality, and there is enormous evidence to prove that stunning creativity and civilised justice were the more general result. Indeed, the Barbarians were not anymore barbaric than anyone else around at that time, most certainly including the Romans, and the Vandals didn’t vandalise anything anymore than anyone else.

No, not one single woman (or man) in England was ever accused of witchcraft and    consequently burned alive at the stake. Before the 15th century, witchcraft was actually an acceptable business of herbal medicines and foresight, sometimes prized and at the very least treated with tolerance. Nothing to do with Satan. To use astrology or any other mystical art for the sin of foretelling the king’s death or any other criminal behaviour was another matter and certainly punishable. But simple witchcraft was not. There were hideous burnings for the crime of heresy, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries (some also earlier) – but for witchcraft – NO. No Salem in Merrie Old England.

Sorry – but the Pilgrim Fathers didn’t sail off to America to escape religious persecution either. You could almost say they sailed off to America in order to instigate religious persecution. Well, perhaps that’s rather unfair, and they were exceedingly brave, zealous, and very clever sailors. But it was the religious tolerance in Britain they disapproved of and were busy escaping.

And – No – the dinosaurs were not some weird short-lived misbegotten creation – too strange to endure – which quickly went extinct. I was taught in school that the dinosaurs were a ludicrous and laughably unsuccessful deviation of nature. How silly! The dinosaurs evolved perfectly for their environment and their age – and that age lasted millions and millions of years – far, far longer than humanity has yet managed to survive. And by the way, some dinosaurs never actually went extinct. They evolved into birds. So many of us eat dinosaur for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. Do you like cranberry sauce with your roast dinosaur? Some of us even keep small clucking dinosaurs in our chicken sheds, though watch out for the foxes. Those wicked mammals will kill the dinosaurs if they can.

As for the Vikings? No, they never wore horned helmets, were brilliant boat builders, sailors and explorers, did as much trading as raiding, and went some way towards inventing our system of modern government. Well, the Greeks are credited with inventing democracy of course, but they certainly never extended all that democratic tolerance to all Greek citizens. What, give the vote to women and slaves? No way!

I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. So why oh why do we prefer to believe the myths rather than the truth? Is the truth so dull? Yet history is always a stunning tapestry of tales and insights, and can tell us so much in such an exciting manner. But history isn’t history if we don’t respect the search for truth. Even the dead surely deserve their stories faithfully told without using drama to fabricate personalities they never had, or actions they would never have contemplated. Although it may be hundreds of years since someone died, I still believe it very wrong to fictionalise that person’s life and write of them raping and murdering when no such evidence exists at all.

Then there are some who start off being interested in the truth but end up being far more concerned for their own reputations. It surprises me, for instance, that whenever a new historical fact is unearthed, or a past figure becomes ‘fashionable’ the emphasis switches. Something along these lines has occurred after the discovery of Richard III’s remains and place of burial in Leicester. Even amongst authors and the general public, there has now appeared a strange egotistical bias. It seems that those (it is claimed more women than men, though I find that a patronising assumption) who are fervently in support of vindicating Richard III’s reputation are now held up as soppy romantic females in love with a dead man. That could be partially true since it happens all the time. Some people want to marry serial killers – others have idealised every historical character I can think of – even those probably horrendously unpleasant such as Henry VIII, Napoleon, William the Conqueror and so on. But why does it matter? Aren’t we all entitled to our own little passions, however different to those of others? And personally I’d sooner come across some historically inspired loving, rather than the bitter hatred we so often see instead. And it has nothing to do with history. Why should we be irritated by the emotions of our modern neighbours, if we genuinely desire to study the actual truth of the past?

Now there are those who claim an interest in history yet have quite forgotten to research the facts at all. This is becoming increasingly true regarding Richard III. Some of us are so frightened of being categorised as pathetically romantic Richard-lovers dreaming of sleeping with a skeleton, that we quickly and loudly switch the other way. Some hold up every attempt at serious research as questionable if it dares to veer towards vindicating Richard III and suggesting that he might have been an interesting and decent man who is worth the study. Desperate to show themselves as ‘sensible’, they ridicule the positive discoveries and constantly announce themselves as interested only in the ‘real man’ who was, they shout, no saint. Well, my father was no saint either – but nor did he murder his nephews. This repetitive cry of ‘he was no saint’ simply makes no sense. Simply saying a man did not slaughter or illegally connive is not the same as calling him a sainted paragon. I personally don’t believe saints exist and if they did, they’d be terribly boring. This has nothing whatsoever to do with actual history. Can we please use common sense without being accused of sanctifying the object of our interest? And can we write about the search for the truth and the original subject of our interest – and not just endlessly denigrate the so-called Richard-worshippers of today.

I am interested in Richard III amongst many other historical eras and personalities. I therefore study and research the truth concerning those times. I am interested in that – not in altering my attitude to protect myself from criticism – nor do I think my own reputation is the point. Let’s be honest researchers, not egotistical self-protectors or strident hecklers of others with a different approach.

Yes, the truth matters. But there’s another side to history as well. Myth, fable and imagination. We don’t have to lapse into inaccuracy in order to write fiction. Imagination isn’t some awful twin of the dark-side. There is a wealth of glorious possibility out there amongst the probabilities and possibilities. Exploring the possible is not the same as inventing lies. Researchers after the truth do have a hard job since past documentation is often scarce and invariably biased. That leaves us gaps which we are free to fill in ourselves, as long as we use a little skill, common-sense, and dedication.

There are some truly wonderful books out there about Robin Hood, Odysseus, Merlin, King Arthur and a host of other semi or wholly mythical characters. We can be fairly sure these great personalities never existed exactly as they have been depicted in the old stories. But there is a very good chance that some element of genuine historical basis stands at the foundation to many myths. T.H. White’s incredible “The Once and Future King” inspired my love of history just as much as the castles, contemporary records and old manuscripts. My greatest inspiration was Shakespeare – and we all know how little actually accurate history he included in his plays. He was writing drama, not documentaries. I doubt any dramatist, however brilliant, would get away with the same amount of distortion today – but Shakespeare still brought history to life.

That leaves authors of fiction free to imagine – to be inspired – to delve and create. Let’s write what really might have happened – what we wish could have happened – what we genuinely think did happen. Just don’t let’s perpetuate those silly old lies, or purposefully invent something completely unlikely and unpleasant about someone who actually existed, can no longer defend themselves, and who deserves some respect for his or her own long passed actions and motivations.

Well, honestly, the truth is much more intriguing than the lies anyway. We won’t always agree about what actually happened – we can’t always know – and that’s fair too. It’s what makes history fun.    

B.G. Denvil

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The King's Shadow Is Now Available

I'm pleased to share with you that my latest book, The King's Shadow, is now available in print in Australia and New Zealand. It's a tale of "abduction, murder, and subterfuge". I hope you enjoy it!

Read Chapter 1 of The King's Shadow here.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

My ears hurt, swelling with the high reverberating squeal of a raptor – an eagle perhaps – or something even larger. Then I see it. It is vast, scarlet scaled and leather winged. It is a dragon, and it is looking for me. I am chased up a blackened and fire-ravaged mountain side. I can barely hold on for the hand-holds are few, and they are sharp. The rock cuts my palms. My feet slip as they search for balance. I dislodge small stones which scatter and cascade beneath me, tumbling down into the endless pit. The dragon’s eyes are immediately over my shoulder. Its breath burns my cheek. I turn. A sharp pain slices my hand. I fall.

It is another night and I am at peace. The world is beautiful. I am sitting in a glass baobab tree, and I am cradled by small pink flowers. I am not sure why the baobab tree is all glass but it made this choice and I have no objection. Within its strange bulbous trunk, I can see the reservoir of water. It is half full. Inside that little gurgling lake in the trunk are tiny fish – little dashing sparks of silver light which swim within the tree. I look down from my comfy perch in the leaves. The leaves are not glass, they are ferny and pretty, and the little pink flowers smell gorgeous. The colours are vivid and the perfume is rich, similar to the sweet lilac which I remember with such nostalgia from my childhood. I decide to stay where I am until it is time to wake up.

A few nights later I am climbing through an underground cave. It is extremely deep, and has become home to thousands of bats. But being night, the bats are out on the wing, searching for fruit and insects and mates. And perhaps for blood. I continue to climb through the series of lightless caves. There are stalactites and stalagmites, and they break off as I touch them, cold and damp. I am looking for someone and I know he is looking for me. I see eyes in the black shadows. But are they his eyes? Or someone else who also knows I am coming? Shall I risk going on further, or shall I wake myself up?

I have read many theories concerning the basis of dreams, where they come from, what they mean and why we dream at all. There are several theories about what different dreams actually mean, and quite a few varying theories about why we need to have such sleeping experiences. To be honest, none of these have ever entirely convinced me. Most of us know of the so-called Freudian phallic symbols and the other neat little explanations for our vivid night lives – but are these true and if not, what is?

I doubt those explanations, not because I have any scientific training, nor because I have any better ideas myself about the dreaming process. Certainly stress and worries can affect my dreams occasionally, but most of my night-adventures are not noticeably driven by simple day-time problems. All I know is that my dream life has always been one of the most inspirational aids to my life, my emotional stability, and my writing. I do not remember my dreams every single night, nor – when I do remember them – are they always inspirational. But more often than not they are deep, detailed, exceptionally vivid, and often wildly exciting.

I have sometimes dreamed of events which have later happened in precisely the way I originally dreamed them. I have also met old friends, and talked with members of my family who have passes. Sometimes a series of dreams will be repeated, or an adventure from one night will produce a sequel on the next. One year when I was much younger, I enjoyed a particular series of dreams which continued and developed over almost a hundred nights, finally growing into a most complicated plot with many consistent characters. I have other dreams which seem to be direct lessons, teaching me exactly what I need to know for a challenging position in which I had found myself. Other dreams actually appear to solve some question I have been trying to sort out – and most of all, many are simply glorious adventures which inspire my writing.

Certainly I have learned a lot from my dreams. For instance, I spent one night trudging through brambles and thorns, trying to get to the bright hypnotic light I could see far, far off in the distance. It seemed to take me hours and was hard going. I got there eventually, but when I arrived, I realised there was a much quicker path, had I realised it. There was a little hill and I could have climbed this in an instance, and arrived at the glorious light in just a moment or two. But on the other side of the hill, I couldn’t see the light. By insisting on going the way I could see and understand, instead of taking a leap of faith, I had expended a night of exhaustion. Patience, in other words, can make things happen quicker – and giving up can sometimes be another way of getting what you want.

Another lesson came in minutes when I went through a swing door and found a form of paradise awaiting me. I learned then that the door that opens on opportunity is actually the same door that has previously closed on something else.

Have I taught myself these lessons? Where do dreams come from and how important are they? And could I possibly be an author of fiction without the wild exciting inspiration that comes to me night after night after night?

I am by no means the only author, especially of fiction, who dreams in this manner. I have come to believe that this is a common form of direct inspiration. In dreams I meet my characters, I live through amazing events, and I generally wake with half a book buzzing in my head, pushing me to rush to the computer and start making notes. I walk dark cobbled medieval streets, I look through tiny windows barely visible in candlelight. The soaring stone of castle walls rise up before me. I wander the deserted desolation of a battlefield where the blood and the fallen weapons are still strewn across the tramples crops. After nights spent in this way, I am almost compelled to write!

Of course sometimes the inspiration is not so direct – but at the very least my dreams serve as a widening of the imagination, almost as if I have been taken swimming through tides of awakening – refreshed and inspired without quite knowing how. I am frequently far more awake in my dreams than I am when I actually wake up and have to face the day.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Torture of the Rack

Not far from me, soar the unexpected battlements of a small castle. Standing in the neat pastoral greenery of the Australian countryside, it is fairly easy to spot that this is a modern replica. Sadly there are not many genuine medieval castles in the Australian countryside! No – this castle is purely for children and tourists and I have played the tourist there myself. It is good fun, well made and well presented. Entertainment takes many forms.

But one aspect I actually found rather sad, for there is a large replica rack set up in one of the courtyards – the most common form of early authoritarian torture. Below this there is a torture chamber complete with gory exaggeration, magnified screams and oozing artificial blood. The children love it!

But in the past, the rack was all too horrifyingly real. There is no record of who originally invented this vile instrument, but there is documentation of its use back in Roman times. The exact dimensions were probably altered over the centuries but the basic method of use remained the same. The medieval design we now recognise consisted of a rectangular wooden frame with a large roller at one or both ends. Chained by his ankles to the lower roller, and by his wrists to the higher, the victim was gradually stretched as the interrogator or his assistant would turn the levers, forcing the rollers to turn contrary to the victim’s body.

The pain would be utterly excruciating as the chains or ropes pulled taut and then wound away over the rollers, possibly (if the prisoner persistently refused to confess) to the point of dislocating and finally breaking his knee, ankle, elbow, wrist and eventually even his shoulder and hip joints. The muscles and tendons would be torn beyond mending, and the victim would be crippled for life. Eventually the bones, cartilage, ligaments, muscles and tendons could all be entirely destroyed. But since he (or sometimes she) would undoubtedly talk and confess at some point during this relentless torture, he would then be executed anyway. Many could no longer walk to the place of execution, bend their knees, nor raise their hands.

As if this terrible agony was not sufficient, other abuses could be applied at the same time. Castration, the brutal extraction of toe and finger nails, and burning with red hot branding irons were all sometimes applied. When the sufferer fainted, he was brought round and forced to face his fate again. Certainly this brutality confirms that those employed to inflict such horrors were undoubtedly sadistic by nature. However, this awful pain was not actually considered simply as a punishment. 

At the time it was generally supposed that if a suspect of some serious crime refused to answer questions or acknowledge his sins, then he (or she) should be encouraged to do so by the use of torture. Fear and pain, it was believed, would enforce cooperation. No doubt this was frequently true. However, such agony as that produced by prolonged use of the rack would also force the victim to say anything and everything, whether true or not, in order to put a stop to the suffering. Clearly victims often implicated other innocent people in order to save themselves. 

But it is only recently that we realise the obvious – which is that information obtained under torture is by no means reliable.

This form of torture was more commonly used in France during the medieval period, but the rack was brought to the Tower of London in the mid 1400s by the 2nd Duke of Exeter who was Constable of the Tower at the time, and thus gave the rack its nickname, i.e. The Duke of Exeter’s Daughter. However, any use of torture was illegal in England during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, but was then legally permitted during early Tudor times specifically for the crime of treason. Those suspected of treason could, in this way, be ‘persuaded’ to admit their own complicity, and name their co-conspirators. 

Gradually this practise became more readily sanctioned and as the Tower turned from a royal palace and centre of diverse and busy occupation into a collection of dungeons with a reputation of dread and terror, the screams of the victims of torture grew more regular. As the Tudor reigns continued, so other methods of torture were also devised, and use of the rack became a frequent ‘deterrent’.

I researched the use of the rack and its terrible consequences for my recent novel ‘Sumerford’s Autumn’ and quickly realised the appalling possibilities of Tudor torture. What haunted me even more than the vile device itself, was the state of mind of someone who could invent such a device, the state of mind of someone who would willingly put it into practice – and finally the state of mind of the wretched victim, knowing what he was about to face. Indeed, sometimes victims were forced to watch the torture of some other accused prisoner first, with the expectation that what he saw would make him quickly confess rather than experience such agony himself. Yet the courage of some was phenomenal, and there were those who refused to talk even after hours of undergoing such cruelty.

The enforced dislocation of one joint after another must have been excruciating. I personally find it hard to imagine the sheer horror of both my knees being ripped apart at the same time. Nor can I easily visualise the methodical sadism of the torturer as he slowly rotated the lever, to further cripple the victim. I am haunted by those sounds echoing in the cold stone chamber – the creak of the cogs and wheels, the rumble as the rollers once again begin to turn, the jangle and snap as the chains pull suddenly taut, the murmured demands of the torturer and finally the agonised screams of the prisoner.

Perhaps pain was accepted as a little more inevitable in those days when few diseases were curable and everyday comfort was comparatively rare. Ordinary folk worked crushing hours at backbreaking toil, and there was no proper anaesthetic to help with the cut and slice of surgery and amputation, the pain of childbirth and the frequency of common accidents. Beyond all such average conditions, there was also battle, which was a matter of hand to hand violence involving intense brutality, enormous bloodshed and appalling suffering before death. Certainly the preaching of the church at the time was considered imperative, and devotion to God was an accepted principal of everyday life. Sadly however, the church itself was not beyond advocating violence. The earlier conflicts of the crusaders for instance, often shockingly cruel on both sides, were born from the beliefs of Pope Urban II in 1095, while the Vatican considered that heresy should be punishable by burning alive, and torture was authorised by the church itself during the Inquisitions.

But there was equally an understanding of love, empathy, kindness, care, generosity and loyalty just as strong as we have now. People in general were by no means stupid nor cruel by nature. So one cannot help wondering about the conscience of those who sanctioned and applied the use of torture themselves, while fully understanding its implications. 

So use of the rack continued, and was accepted right up until the 17th century. Copies of the terrible device still stand in many places, reminding us of the horrors once inflicted. Yet now I have researched the truth, it is definitely not something I will ever be able to laugh at, nor treat as amusing entertainment. I can only wonder at the dread of living in the past, when even an innocent soul might sometimes be faced with torture. Writing of such an episode in my historical novel ‘Sumerford’s Autumn’, I found quite a harrowing experience.