I really enjoy historically based fiction but sadly just don’t have time to read all the books out there. Edward II featured in my A’Level history many moons ago so I’m delighted to welcome Martin White to Linda’s Book Bag today as I asked him to tell us a bit more about To Catch the Conscience of the King.
To Catch the Conscience of the King is published by Di Butrio Books in e-book and paperback, and is available for purchase here.
To Catch the Conscience of the King
To Catch the Conscience of the King is set against the background of King Edward II’s downfall and is told from the perspective of Brother Stephen, who, as the king’s confessor, sets out to save the royal soul, but instead places his own in jeopardy.
The Shock of the Old
A Guest Post by Martin White
When I went up to Cambridge University in 1972 to study history I found I was obliged to take at least one exam paper relating to the Middle Ages. This did not please me at first. Surely, the only history worthy of study was “modern history”, history no further back than 1750. Surely, I was going to major on subjects relevant to our modern world – the French and American Revolutions, Hitler, the causes of the two World Wars. Well, in the event, I did not major on any of those topics. I did not in fact, major on the Middle Ages, but at least spending two terms studying “Medieval Europe” opened a door, which was later to be of immense significance to me.
Half a lifetime later, when I became a novelist, it was to that door I found myself increasingly drawn. My novel, To Catch the Conscience of the King, in fact relates to the downfall of the English monarch, Edward II, in the fourteenth century. Why so, you may ask? Why go back so very far?
You might as well ask, why travel? Why visit California, Australia, or Timbuktoo? For history, like the globe, is the multifarious backdrop to humanity’s story. If human nature is the most elevated field of study (as we have believed since the Renaissance), and if that nature, as I would contend, is and has been fairly constant, it is its context, varied as between the Gobi Desert and the Amazon, or as between the Stone Age and the Industrial Revolution, which really points it up, really shows it, tests it, in all variety of circumstances. And with history, that context is available at the cost of a book or ebook, rather than that of an air ticket.
Why, for me, though, the medieval period, rather than any other? Jan Huizinga, in his pioneering work, The Waning of the Middle Ages, draws attention to what he calls “The Violent Tenor of Life”. It was a world very different to our own: one of sensory extremes (imagine the fetor of a medieval town, where excrement was thrown into the street, or think of the gaudy colours of medieval clothing, or the teeming environment before its fatal denudation of species began). It was a world of strife, not between nations (they had hardly been invented), but between neighbouring cities and baronies. The mean average age was so low, due to disease and the physical dangers of existence, that society was “adolescent”, much more volatile than our own – even more prone to uprisings and brawling. The aristocracy itself behaved little better than brigands most of the time.
In my novel, I portray the squalor of medieval Hereford, the ritualistic violence of the hanging, drawing and quartering of the king’s favourite, Despenser, the rigours of the monastic life at Blackfriars in Gloucester, and the bizarre sumptuousness of the medieval feast (lamprey cooked with alkanet in a sauce of its own blood, plus skewered starlings, anybody?). As for character and plot, the world I depict is again one of extremes. Edward’s story, with his incarceration at Kenilworth and Berkeley, the plots and counter-plots to release him, his faked death, his sham state funeral, his escape to Italy – all this is so extraordinary, that only now are historians coming to accept its truth – in place of the old, but in its own way similarly fantastic story of his murder by red-hot poker .
If life was violent, so too were the ideas and philosophies it bred. With death everyman’s companion, the proximity of the grave, but also of Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory was a continual obsession. In a Catholic world, individual saints, and above all, the Virgin Mary, were ubiquitous participants, as much in the individual’s daily life as in his ultimate cosmic fate. So important was religion that a whole class of society was devoted to its service, to living a life of study and contemplation (as far removed from the lay world as possible), and to preaching salvation in God’s Kingdom (where all the manifest horrors and injustices of this life would be righted). The central character and narrator of my novel, Brother Stephen, is just such a man of religion. It is through his eyes that we see those horrors, though his ministry that we come to know the complexities and sins of his royal master, and through his growing love for Edward that we come up against the full rigours of medieval religious doctrine, and in particular its loathing and condemnation of “sodomites”.
About Martin White
Martin White was brought up in Gloucestershire, living both in Stroud and Gloucester, before attending Cambridge University in the 1970s. Despite taking an MA in History, he turned to law for a profession, and became a partner in law firm Pinsent Curtis. Having retired early, he has begun a second career as a novelist, and for subject matter has returned to historical themes. He lives in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands.