SEARCHING FOR CAMELOT IN THE DARK AGES BRITAIN
by Persia Woolley
What a pleasure it is to write for the History Undressed readers!
When I set out to do a realistic, historically accurate version of Camelot, told in first person by Guinevere, I figured it would mean about six months of research and six of writing. My first two books--both non-fiction--had taken that long so I thought a novel would also. Instead I spent 11 years researching and writing the Guinevere Trilogy and loved every moment of it.
It began in 1980 with a lot of reading and included four trips to Britain, all of them managed on a shoestring. My itinerary was a blend of where I needed to go for the story and how far away the nearest hostel was. Whenever possible the different stories are set in their legendary domains--Gawain goes into the Wirral to meet his fate with the Green Man and Igraine has her life-changing encounter with Uther at Tintagel. But where stories could not be geographically placed I spread them out all over Britain as Arthur and Gwen would have made regular progresses throughout the realm, cementing alliances, checking crops and assessing defenses.
My longest trip lasted four weeks and extended from London up to Hadrian's Wall then slowly down to Old Sarum. It was at that ancient chalk hillfort that a widow who walked her dog there twice a day pointed out that in Gwen's time there wouldn't have been a single strand of ivy allowed to grow on the steep sides of the bank-and-ditch, lest it give marauders a handhold for launching an attack. As a result the white chalk mound would have been visible for many miles, rising up out of the plain. That description and setting was reason enough for me to move the wedding from Winchester to Sarum.
The shortest trip came after I'd spent a week on a journalists junket between Glasgow and Edinburgh. We were wined and dined every night but as my compatriots were winging back to the States I was extending my ticket for another week, trading my professional clothes for wool pants and parka and running for the last bus to Carlisle in the rain!
On those trips my wardrobe was strictly functional (pants, shirt and sweater) as everything had fit in my backpack. Hostels are only open at night, so my days were spent climbing over Roman ruins and Celtic hillforts, poking about small museums or working my way along Hadrian's Wall. The discovery of a hermit's cave near Warkworth Castle fit so well with Lance's spiritual nature, it was logical to make that charming spot Joyous Gard.
The people were wonderfully friendly, and I'm much indebted to the cleaning lady who talked about a Neolithic site near Threlkeld Knotts where people occasionally lived into the Dark Ages. Or the bus driver who explained that what I was looking for on the River Eden could be found down the path behind the farm we were just coming up to. He let me off with the understanding that when he came back in 45 minutes he'd pick me up again if he could see me coming toward the road; otherwise I'd have to hike back to the nearest town on my own.
By the end of the project I had hauled or sent home roughly 1,000 books, maps, pamphlets and handouts from museums that covered everything from flora and fauna to how to hang wild game, most of which requires a number of days to become edible by humans. Added to that were all the books bought here in the States, often from obscure catalogs which carried very scholarly texts on arcane subjects.
Probably the most unique publication in my bedside reading was the thesis of a student tracing the patterns of taxation by both the Romans and the Saxons on the wagons carrying salt to the interior of the island. The student reasoned that if the people in 650 A.D. had the same taxation hubs as those in 400 A.D. one could surmise that the routes had been at least partially open through the intervening years.
From there it was an easy step to having Arthur and Gwen discuss how to get the locals to keep the roads cleared in return for the safe delivery of the salt they needed.
I sometimes joke that I'm a frustrated architect who only writes novels because I can make a living at it. That is true as far as it goes, though the living is often as much feathers as fowl. But the lure of houses, barns, forts, holy places and town layouts inevitably creeps into my work.
It's one of the reasons I made my Gwen a northern Celt who has to go south to marry that king, whether she wants to or not. Not only would Arthur have picked a bride from among the tribes whose rebellion he'd crushed, I as the author wanted her to be an outsider so she sees everything with fresh eyes and notes it for the reader.
Coming from the north she would have grown up with wattle-and-daub round houses as well as crannogs (houses built over water) on lakes in southern Scotland. And she would have heard about the brochs of Gawain's home turf. The deserted Roman buildings would have been usable and often their locations are phenomenal, such as those at Ravenglass or Hardknott Pass.
Evidence of these structures is generally found in archaeological reports and sometimes on the Ordinance Survey maps of Britain. Whenever possible I went to sites that were being developed by experimental archaeologists, such as Butser Farm in Hampshire which had an example of the Celtic roundhouse. I see on the net that it's been moved, but am sure wherever it is, there are birds still nesting in its thatch.
There was also the Saxon settlement of West Stowe. I well remember that gray and dripping day, and expensive cab fare--without a car one has to hire a fellow for several hours so he will wait and bring you back to public transportation. Compared to the ease with which one can call both places up on computers nowadays, I can't help feeling both primitive and antiquated! But I got to sit in those buildings, to watch the way the shadows fell and stare at the ceilings, the eaves, the trenches dug to drain the rain away...you just can't do that on your computer!
Now, with Google Earth and Wikipedia and every town's tourist board touting their local attractions, it feels as if one might do the research without ever leaving home. But nothing can replace actually standing where your characters did, be that on the wall around Chester or the headland of Tintagel or the top of the Tor at Glastonbury. To smell that wind, to squint into that sunset, to watch a flock of starlings bank and sweep across that sky is one of the great perks of writing historical fiction...at least for me, and I suspect every other such novelist.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Persia Woolley is the author of the Guinevere Trilogy: Child of the Northern Spring, Queen of the Summer Stars, and Guinevere: the Legend in Autumn, as well as How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction. She lives in Northern California.
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ABOUT THE BOOK
Guinevere, the Legend in Autumn by Persia Woolley (Historical Fiction)
The conclusion to a celebrated Arthurian trilogy based on more than a decade of research, Guinevere, the Legend in Autumn is a startlingly original recreation of the tale of Arthur and Guinevere, seen from the perspective of a likeable, realistic Guinevere, a Queen who deserves to become a legend.
Surrounded by traitors, trapped by destiny, Britain's spirited Queen Guinevere recounts the last, dramatic years of Camelot. At King Arthur's side, she reigned over the fabled heroes of the Round Table as her heartbreaking honesty, courage, and integrity were challenged by those she loved most. Torn between duty and desire as he rescued his Queen, condemned to the stake for treason, Lancelot swept her away as she bartered her soul to save Arthur and Camelot from the furies of fate. This is Arthurian epic at its best–filled with romance, adventure, authentic Dark Ages detail, and wonderfully human people.