Richard III Funeral – Benedict Cumberbatch

Its’ been a rather surreal week with the internment of the body of Richard III. A wonderful spectacle and hopefully a prompt for many schools and the public in general both in England and around the world, to learn more about King Richard III. In between many of the rather insipid ‘What do you reckon?’ interviews with various passers by (as aptly described in the Mitchell and Webb sketch below)

plus the usual regurgitation from Mr. Starkey, some of the messages about Richard III’s progressive views regarding religion, the law and publishing did come through.

The perfect choice to read this 14-line poem, written by Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy especially for the service of reinterment of Richard III at Leicester Cathedral, was Benedict Cumberbatch. A happy co-incidence for Cumberbatch is that he’s playing Richard III as part of the Hollow Crown series. It has also been revealed that he’s very very distantly related. Not bad PR for Mr Cumberbatch and I certainly don’t begrudge him it, he’s a wonderful talent. (One might say that distantly almost anyone in England is related – but I can almost guarantee that won’t include me!)


My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,
a human braille. My skull, scarred by a crown,
emptied of history. Describe my soul
as incense, votive, vanishing; your own
the same. Grant me the carving of my name.

These relics, bless. Imagine you re-tie
a broken string and on it thread a cross,
the symbol severed from me when I died.
The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –
unless the Resurrection of the Dead …

or I once dreamed of this, your future breath
in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;
or sensed you from the backstage of my death,
as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.

We are so cynical and superficial these days that the whole process might seems almost laughable and yet, there is something spiritually intriguing around how ceremony, rites, prayers and collective thoughts can make us feel. The man doesn’t care, he’s dead – yet if there is some place beyond the grave, has some good been done?


Could it be Richard III?

Because of the news from the archeological dig in Leicester I couldn’t let today past with out a blog about my favourite Plantagenet.

I first became aware of Richard III after reading a book called the Maligned King by Annette Carson. I don’t often read history books for fun, even though I am a bit of a geek, but this novel really caught me. I remember feeling excited and outraged in equal measure by the claims made by Carson. I even found myself hesitating to end the book, because I already knew all about the battle of Bosworth and the only way was tragedy. Having found this book interesting, I read a few others about Richard III, including one I’ve yet to finish (The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman – for the same reason – it’s all about to go to pot for him).

Yorkist king Richard III grew up at Middleham....

Full of verve, I began to attempt to write a few short stories/plays portraying his last days. I found it a little disheartening therefore, to find out a well known actor (a Mr Richard Armitage) and screenwriter (who is also involved in the archeological dig) have teamed up to write just such a play.

On the other hand, I am incredibly excited  I’ll be able to finally watch a play/film about Richard III portraying him more accurately; as a proven soldier, an intelligent man with a mind for law and progress, a loving husband and father, a trusted Lord. Also of course, as a brutal, pragmatic, pious King, living in a time where life was short and bloody.  How they will play the missing princes card will be intriguing to see.

The difficultly of trying to bring the past to life in the present, is to find ways to get the audience to understand the mindset of Englishmen living in a world that seems alien to us now – without it becoming a history lesson. Peoples morals and beliefs were so different then; what would seem barbaric or laughable to us now, would be see as fair, just and sensible back then.

Guy of Gisbourne in Robin Hood

Having only come to love all things Richard III in the last few years, it seems serendipitous that Leicester University decided to begin the search for his remains. When they began the dig I held out little hope anything would be found beyond a bit of pottery and a pin, but today, what a find!

An intact skeleton, found within the fallen walls of Grey Friars church. An adult male, with a clear wound to the back of the head consistent with a sharp blade, and an arrowhead in the spine. Not to mention a distinct twist in the spine (scoliosis) which would have made one shoulder slightly higher than the other. Not – I repeat Not evidence of a hunchback. (Let’s face it Shakespeare really took that idea and ran with it.)Of course there’s DNA testing to be done and who knows if that will reveal this really is Richard III, I do hope so. (And I do hope they’ve got that play written, would be a great bit of timing…. )

Here’s more info about the dig: and article from the New Scientist.

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Searching for inspiration 3 – in unlikely places

English: Battle of Bosworth Field

English: Battle of Bosworth Field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As anyone who’s read my previous posts will know, I’ve been trying to develop my battle writing skills (we’re talking swords, bows & pitchforks here…) I’ve got a whole list of books visitors to my blog have very kindly suggested – most of them yet to be read and I also rediscovered Shakespeare’s Henry V (and intend to read through more of the great man’s work for other nuggets).

In my quest for inspiration (and because I am a Richard III fan) I visited the Battle of Bosworth re-enactment near Sutton Cheney recently. I was hoping to really feel the spirit of the late medieval era flood through, and I did get glimpses of it. I watched armour clad men clinging to their horses, the arcing flight of many arrows being released at once, horse-riders charging a quintain (which unfortunately was never in any danger of unseating riders….health and safety you know). There were blacksmiths making armour which added clinking hammers and smoke from the fires to the mix and proper canon fire; given their small size they made an impressive amount of noise. So, I suppose I did glean something from it, but the problem with such re-enactments is you already know the outcome, so there goes any tension. The crowd seemed particularly lacklustre in supporting either side – and I think that wasn’t because they didn’t appreciate the effort of fighting on such a hot day and (for some at least) the fighting skills on display, it was just they knew what would happen. Poor Richard would cop it again. Perhaps for just one year they could let him win? – I imagine that would cause proper civil war in the re-enactment camp! Also there was no blood (I’m not braying for real blood but let’s have some ketchup or red hankies!) no one even hit the deck.

I’m willing to admit however, it’s possible my inability to really get much writing fodder out of the day, might have been down to my self-conscious feeling at the contrivance of it all.

So, I went somewhere I thought perfect for inspiration and didn’t quite find it, yet two places I have visited recently provided some quite unexpectedly.

The first was a recent (and my first for many, many years) camping trip. It just so happened, unbeknownst to us, a bikers convention linked to the British army, was taking place in the field we’d booked to camp in. Within a few minutes of unpacking our tents, the field was full of big, hairy bikers. I must stress me and my sister were doing very well putting our massive nine man tent up (I need my space!) but the bikers were so eager to help, we felt it would be rude to refuse them.

Over the weekend we witnessed – and were a part of  – the camaraderie between this band of (mainly) men. And at night? Well we had the wonderful experience of listening to the late night drunken banter, followed by a cacophony of snoring the like of which I have never experienced. Added to this, (as I cannot sleep on air beds) I went old-style and slept on a thin mat on the floor. When I awoke the next morning – after greatly interrupted sleep, hungry, thirsty and sore, it struck me – soldiers on a campaign would wake for a dawn battle in much the same state . The idea of doing anything even slightly physical on that little sleep was an awful thought. I would really have to love my King big time.

The second was my visit to the Reading festival. I had a great day sitting with a load of friends in hot field, listening to some great bands and people-watching. Again there was the atmosphere you only get when you put that many people in a field together – every group with their own territory, but generally very friendly and happy to help each other out. There were the eccentrics and the wonderfully childish characters – Men dressed as Umpa Lumpas, mario brothers, teletubbies, gimps to name just a few. There was the stench of the campsite – a truly sickly sweet odour and the carnage that is the porta-loos (toilets).

None of this has much to do with actual battle – except if you count the idiotic ‘mosh pits’. I was standing on the less populated section of a dense crowd, yet one started right next to me. It’s surprising how quickly the adrenalin and aggressive traits manifest. I found myself utterly determined to stand my ground and  found myself tripping, pushing (and I shamefully admit, punching) the sweaty men back into their pit of pointless violence. I finally came to my senses, having locked eyes with my sister looking just as abnormally aggressive on the other sit of the ‘pit’ and retreated to a safer distance. But there it is, the stupid fights humans will have over almost nothing – and for fun.

Would love to hear about any inspiration that has struck you in unlikely places?

English language: fabulous, inclusive, adaptable – but get it right!

Today someone called ‘Grammar Nazi’ interrupted a twitter conversation to point out I had written Glamourous instead of Glamorous. Despite my instinctive reaction, which was to feel quite indignant, I had to admit Grammar Nazi was right. (Well I didn’t admit it, I actually replied, ‘ Thank you, yes I am’; obviously still feeling indignant at that point!) It did get me thinking however, about the often arbitrary nature of the English language.

It is actually one of the things I love about our language. I love that words like rough, cough, tough through and bough look so similar and yet are not only completely different in meaning, but also in pronunciation.  AsideHow many of of you when watching Sharpe, LofTR or Game of Thrones have made that terrible old joke “Isn’t that Shorn Born (or Seen Been)” upon seeing the deliciously maturing Sean Bean?

In the novel I’m currently writing this is one of my themes (it’s not a key theme but still, its a thread running through it). I’m writing about a fantasy England full of sword fighting knights, gypsies, pagans and an emerging new church. During the adventures on this small isle we meet a gallimaufry (just found this word so i’m using it – can’t pronounce it though!) of races, languages and beliefs. I’m not trying to make any grand comment on multiculturalism – I’m woefully uneducated to do so, I’m just revelling in the richness of our ancestry and being a little bit nostalgic about what we’ve lost. (My Grandfather was a Welshman who lived for many years in Cornwall.  He had the most beautiful mixture of accents/dialects. I would love to be able to speak both Welsh and Cornish, but (notwithstanding my complete inability to learn other languages) the last Cornish speaker died in 1777.

Old English (500-1100 AD)

English: Map of England and Wales, showing Ang...

English: Map of England and Wales, showing Anglo-Saxon and Celtic kingdoms as of c. 600. Redrawn from a map in James Campbell, The Anglo-Saxons, Penguin Books, 1991. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Apart from my Grandfather’s nationality, I also love Welsh and Cornish because (as well as Irish, Scottish and Breton) they contain remnants of Brythonic and Goidelic; spoken before West Germanic invaders arrived from Jutland and southern Denmark in the fifth and sixth centuries (the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes). These invaders spoke a language called Old English similar to modern Frisian (region of the Netherlands).

Old English developed into a range of dialects, notably,  Northumbrian (Northern England), Mercian (Midlands), West Saxon (South and west) and Kentish (Southeast).

Also influencing English at this time were the Vikings. Norse invasions began around 850, bringing North Germanic words into the language.

Although the majority of modern English words come from foreign, not Old English roots, Old English is more important than this indicates. About half of the most commonly used words have Old English roots; like be, water, and strong, for example. Old English, whose best known surviving example is the poem, Beowulf, lasted until c1100, shortly after the most important event in the development of the English language, the Norman Conquest.

Middle English (1100-1500)

I love the term Middle English, I like to imagine it originates somewhere in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In reality it came into existence after William the Conqueror (from Normandy) conquered the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 AD.

I didn’t realise until recently how completely the Normans crushed the Anglo-Saxons. Fairly well know is The Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North, a series of campaigns by William the Conqueror[1] in the winter of 1069–1070 to subjugate Northern England. The death toll of over 100,000, caused substantial social, cultural, and economic damage. William installed new overlords speaking a dialect of Old French, known as Anglo-Norman.

Language very obviously discriminated between the indigenous population and this new French speaking aristocracy. Great examples of this can be found in our words for meats and the animals they came from: Pork comes from the Norman-French word for a pig, porc, whereas the animal itself, variously pig, swine, hog, etc. comes from Anglo-Saxon. Mouton is French for the meat of a sheep. Beef would be eaten by the Norman aristocracy, while the Anglo-Saxon commoners who tended the cattle, retained the Germanic word, cow.

Sometimes French words replaced Old English words; crime replaced firen. In other instances French and Old English combined to form new words; the French gentle and Germanic man formed gentleman. Sometimes two different words with roughly the same meaning both survive into modern English; like the Germanic doom and the French judgement.

In 1204 AD, King John lost Normandy to the King of France. Norman nobles became estranged from their French cousins. Consequently they adopted a modified English as their native tongue. 150 years later, the Black Death (1349-50) killed a third of the English population. Labouring and merchant classes grew in economic and social importance, and English increased in importance compared to Anglo-Norman. This mixture of the two languages came to be known as Middle English. The most famous example of which is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Early Modern English (1500-1800)

The revival of classical scholarship in the Renaissance brought many classical Latin and Greek words into the Language. These borrowings were deliberate and some people disliked their adoption. Shakespeare’s character Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost is a satire of an overenthusiastic schoolmaster too fond of Latinisms. Many familiar words and phrases were coined or first recorded by Shakespeare, some 2,000 words and countless catch-phrases are his. such as: One fell swoop, vanish into thin air, flesh and blood and the words, critical, leapfrog, majestic, dwindle, and pedant.

There was also something called the Great Vowel Shift; a change in pronunciation which began around 1400. While modern English speakers can read Chaucer with some difficulty, his pronunciation would be unintelligible to the modern ear. Shakespeare, on the other hand, would be accented, but understandable. Long vowel sounds began to be made higher in the mouth and the letter e at the end of words became silent. Chaucer’s Lyf (pronounced leef) became the modern word life. In Middle English name was pronounced nam-a, five was pronounced feef.

After the advent of the printing press in England in 1476, literacy became more common and brought standardization to English. To neatly include my favourite King of England, Richard III into this blog, I would like to point out that in 1483, he was the first monarch to take his coronation oath in English. He also ensured laws were printed in English, so as to be more easily understood by the population.

Modern English continues to develop to suit our needs. This inclusivity, this tendency to adapt and assimilate only adds to its vibrance. It also means if I can induce enough people to start writing Glamourous, then eventually the OED will have to enter it into the dictionary! 😉

I do mourn the loss of old languages like Cornish and the fading out of words (still heard in northern England) like thee thou, thy, thine, aye and nay. Bring them and top hats back, and I shall be a happy lady 🙂

Are there any quirks of the English language you particularly like, bad grammar that gets your goat or bad habits you’re trying to shake?

The enigmatic Richard III

OK, so the leader on my blog states a ‘little bit of history’ will be included, ‘mainly the Plantagenets’. This might seem like a pretty random subject to include on a blog about writing. It is – a bit – but as history is a subject I’ve always loved and one that provides a great deal of fodder for my writing nosebag, it might not be as arbitrary as it first appears.

A few years after starting my current work in progress, I came across the book Richard III: The maligned King by Annette Carson. Now, I’m not going to debate the accuracy, or not, of the claims made by Carson in this book, I’m just going to say it excited me more than any history book ever has.Prior to this book all I knew of Richard III was based on what I was taught at school: Richard III was a deformed, mean spirited old man who imprisoned and murdered his nephews in the Tower of London in order to seize the throne of England. He got his comeuppance when the rightful King of England, Henry Tudor killed him at Bosworth field. (I imagine I’m in the majority in believing this account for many years, except perhaps for anyone brought up around York).

Yorkist king Richard III grew up at Middleham....

What Carson’s book reminded me is that history is only a record of what we are told by our ancestors – the bits they want us to know. The many Tudor monarchs who ruled after Richard III had ample time to bad-mouth the man from whom they had taken the throne. (Henry Tudor, by the way, had no legitimate hereditary claim  and Richard III was already King when the princes were murdered.) They were ably abetted by a playwright living during that era, Shakespeare, who really went to town with the claims of Richard’s deformity…

But I, — that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty,
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up…”

Propaganda might seem like a 20th century invention, but it has been going on since man could speak.

I’m not going to claim Richard III didn’t murder the princes (no-one really knows), or that he didn’t have his darker side. In some ways knowing definitively what he was like as a man and as a king, might make him less inspiring to me as a writer. I like the enigma. Having read a number of books since Anne Carson’s (and planning to read many more), what interests me is the conflict in Richard’s character and the fierce nature of his maligning.

It is my ambition to become a good enough writer to produce a play, or novel, anything in fact that accurately evokes my sense of this man. For me Richard III was an excellent soldier; strong and skilful. He was also very intelligent, interested in law and progress.  Richard was devoutly religious and attempted to improve the rights of the common man. He was possibly more devoted to his wife than was usual for men of his era and position. He was also the last King of England to lead his men out to battle.

On the other hand Richard III was ruthless. He acted decisively where executions were concerned and certainly, as a man who valued loyalty so highly (his motto being loyaulte me lie – meaning loyalty binds me), he was particularly hard on those who appeared loyal then betrayed him. I am also interested in how he is often represented as a bit of a control freak, who took his administrative duties a great deal more seriously than his predecessor. I imagine him being frustrated by the negligent attitude of other holders of high office towards their duties.

I wonder if in his last years he would have been torn apart by the frustrations of his office and questions of morality. Regardless of the fate of the two princes or his professed desire for the throne, as a man who had so adored his brother Edward IV, I think he would have been morally tormented by having to declare Edward’s sons illegitimate. I don’t think he would have seen a problem with it in a pragmatic sense; it is undoubtedly true England was better governed by a seasoned soldier than a twelve year old boy. He would certainly have accepted this.

I truly believe Richard was striving for peace in his time. He kept the southern lords in post when he took the crown because, as he was seen as a northerner, he needed their support. Of course once they tried to unseat him he was forced to bring in men from the north he could trust. The southerners were never going to be happy being ruled by northern Lords, so it did not help his popularity, but he did what had to be done. I envisage him as being utterly exasperated and frustrated by such matters. The more he tried to keep things stable and get on with business, the more the world appeared to conspire against him. Not least because of the rumour mill eagerly spreading lies about him.

By the time his young wife was dead (less than a year after his only son), Richard could have felt, if it came to it, he may as well (as Tolkien would say), ‘Make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.” He saw his chance to save his country by his own hand on the field of battle. By all accounts he took down the big men surrounding Henry Tudor. Unfortunately Tudor had the luck of the devil, so we’ll never know what kind of a king Richard would have been had his reign been longer. All we have is a tantalising glimpse of an enigmatic man.