The Dragon of Handale is the fifth novel in Cassandra Clark's acclaimed mystery series set in the 14th century.
How I came to write a medieval mystery series is something of a mystery to me. Until the idea for Hangman Blind came to me I was a playwright and author of contemporary fiction. It had never occurred to me to write crime and certainly not to write an historical novel of any kind. Yet, after a very dark period of my life when both my parents died, things changed. It was a time when I was beginning to feel I would never smile again, let alone write, but one night I woke myself up, laughing aloud. Lol?
The cause was a dream where a tough and ribald knight called Roger de Hutton, a tall, blond, rangy Saxon called Ulf, and a feisty young woman with no name but clearly a nun, were sitting in Roger’s solar, drinking wine and having a party. I fumbled for a pen and notebook as writers do in the middle of the night and wrote down the dialogue that had made me chuckle into wakefulness. Then I went back to sleep.
Next morning I rolled over onto my notebook and discovered a little scene that still made me smile. I could feel my face crack. The whole story soon followed and Hildegard of Meaux, as I discovered the nun was named, set off on her sleuthing adventures, putting wrongs to right and always getting her man.
Very quickly, and to my astonishment, it turned into a series set in the reign of Richard II. I started from the year after the Great Revolt of 1381 (misnamed by the Victorians as The Peasants’ Revolt) because I was curious to know what happened to all those thousands of people from all levels of society and every corner of the kingdom who survived the brutal repression set in motion by Richard’s uncles, John of Gaunt and the Duke of Gloucester in particular. Where did they go? How did they survive outside the law? They are a constant theme throughout the series because even after Richard’s eventual murder the rebellion continued until it merged into the Wars of the Roses.
I’ve just started book 7, The Scandal of the Skulls, set during the Merciless Parliament of 1388 – which was as merciless as they come, with 21-year old Richard being the victim of his brutish uncle, the duke of Gloucester, who beheaded or otherwise did to death every one of Richard’s allies within the three terrifying months of that dark spring.
I should say I’m now totally fascinated by Richard II’s reign as even a cursory glance at the records - the chronicles with their authors’ time-serving prejudices, uncensored Parliamentary Rolls, city records and so on - show a very different young man to the one Shakespeare portrays. That period of English history, too, deserves to be better known. It wasn’t the barbaric witch-burning epoch we might imagine. Not until Richard’s regicidal cousin Henry Bolingbroke authorized the first judicial burnings in England were you likely to finish up at the stake. And then of course, later, the psycho Tudors really got out their tinder boxes.
As a one-time history tutor for the Open University I discovered the importance of first-hand accounts and how to sift them to link up the facts. Secret histories lie in the archives to be revealed when historians have time to sleuth through the scrolls. I’m passionate about discovering how people with no real power managed to survive in such extraordinary times. The pressures they were under and the decisions that meant life or death make a never-ending saga about our ancestors.
But my main characters are fictional. Although you might be reminded of the story of Abelard and Heloise when you meet the sexy Abbot of Meaux, Hubert de Courcy, being monastics doesn’t stop Hildegard and Hubert from having a red hot passion for each another. Of course, as good Cistercians, they are bound by their vows…aren’t they?
What I love about writing this series is that I have an excuse to rootle through dusty archives, haunt ancient ruined abbeys and listen to early music - and call it research. I’m just so glad I had that dream.
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About the Author
Cassandra Clark has an M.A. from the University of East Anglia and taught for the Open University on the Humanities Foundation course in subjects as diverse as history, philosophy, music and religion. Since then she has written many plays and contemporary romances as well as the libretti for several chamber operas. The Dragon of Handale is published on 17th March 2015. Find out about Cassandra's other books on her website at www.cassandraclark.co.uk and follow her on Twitter @nunsleuth