A Landscape of the Heart: Building the World of my Books, Part 1.

Norfolk has a firm hold on my heart, my imagination, and a place in the construction of my fictional world.

The English county of Norfolk, as those who have been following my blog for some time know, is my second home. When I will see it again, in the wake of COVID-19, is another question, but it has a firm hold on my heart, my imagination, and a solid place in the construction of my fictional world.

Anyone who knows Norfolk – and my books – may now be asking how?  A flat land, for the most part; arable, with little rivers and chalky soils and patches of reedy fen. Not the hilly, sheep-grazed moorland that so much of my world encompasses. No, the influences are more subtle.

Firstly, Norfolk was part of the Danelaw, the part of England under Scandinavian rule. Twenty-nine existing places in Norfolk have ‘thorpe’ as a suffix or prefix, and while this happens to be my last name, its meaning ‘outlying hamlet, small village’ is from the Norse þorp, and from it I take my settlement names in Linrathe and Sorham.  In fact, Ingoldstorp, mentioned several times over the series, is the name of the village (Ingoldisthorpe, pronounced Inglesthorpe) just north of the one where I have spent my winters since retirement.

The next village north from that is Snettisham, and I borrowed Snetti’s name, too, for a minor character. There are more examples, but I won’t belabour this point. But in the last paragraph I wrote ‘twenty-nine existing places’.  There are also thirty-three ‘lost’ villages in Norfolk with ‘thorpe’ in their names, and it is these missing settlements that also inform my world.

Deserted medieval village is the correct term for these abandoned settlements.  In many cases there is nothing but a few lumps and bumps on the ground, and perhaps the ruins of a church. (Or sometimes, a church still in use, but standing in the middle of nowhere, apparently.) The reasons for abandonment are many, including land enclosure and parkland created for manor houses. Others suffered as rivers changed course or land flooded. But in Norfolk, one reason was simply depopulation.

Norfolk is now 40th of the 48 counties of England in population density, the number of people per unit of land. But in the middle ages, it was the most populous county, and its county town, Norwich, the second city of England. Until the plague: first the Black Death in 1349; then, two centuries later, a third of its population died in the  epidemic of 1579, and another third in 1665.  

The land Lena inhabits is like this, a depopulated land, villages scattered and distant, too few men to defend the land against threats from two directions. The reasons for the Empire’s depopulation and that of Norfolk are pretty much the same, although the Eastern Fever isn’t the Black Death.

But while Norfolk – and the Empire – are depopulated lands, they both have long histories. If Lena rides east from her coastal village, she will come to the military road, running north and south, wide and paved. If I walk or drive east from my Norfolk village, about, in my mind, the same distance, I come to a Roman road, running north and south. No longer paved; no longer very wide, but a reminder, every time I walk it, of a time there was a Roman fort on the coast, and villas along the ridge overlooking the Wash, and the coins in use bore the likenesses of emperors far away.

Peddar’s Way Roman Road, Norfolk

Danes and Romans; disease and depopulation; all these are important aspects of my books, influenced – sometimes consciously, sometimes not – by what I know. Not reproduced, but borrowed, moulded and transmuted into a different form, almost recognizable, almost history.

map of Scandinavian place names https://www.mygen.com/users/outlaw/Outlawe_Viking_Origins.htm

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“I’m only a kid.”

In an early medieval setting, is it reasonable, historically, that a 14-year old boy would be chosen to lead a country?

“Welcome, Prince,” said Aslan. “Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the Kingship of Narnia?”
“I – I don’t think I do, Sir,” said Caspian. “I’m only a kid.”
“Good,” said Aslan. “If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been a proof that you were not.”

~ C. S. Lewis

In my new book, Empire’s Reckoning, Ruar, the heir to Linrathe, the land north of the Wall, is proclaimed its leader when he is fourteen. While I call what I write ‘historical fiction of another world’, most of it is firmly grounded in actual history. Ruar isn’t automatically the leader (Teannasach) of his country; he’s chosen by a council of nobles, a process based on both the Witan of the Anglo-Saxon kings and the methods of choosing a king in early-medieval Scotland.

While Linrathe is based on Scotland, very few reliable records exist about very early Scottish monarchs. More is known of those who ruled in England. So it is reasonable, historically, that Ruar would have been chosen to lead? He has a couple of things going for him: he’s a son of the traditional ruling house, and, he’s fought in battle, so his nobles respect him. If we look at the kings of England (which wasn’t really all of England, but that’s another story) in the 10th C, here’s who we have:

Edmund I (ruled 949 – 946) was 17 or 18 when he was crowned, and like Ruar had fought for his country in a very bloody battle two years earlier. He died young, and was succeeded by his older half-brother, who ruled for nine years. But after his death, Edmund’s oldest son, Eadwig, succeeded: he was somewhere between 14 and 16.   Three or four years later, his brother Edgar succeeded him, also at about 16. Two even younger monarchs followed: Edward the Martyr, who was about 13 when he was crowned, and Aethelred, who was about 10.  They were all related; like Ruar, born into the ruling house. So, based on what we know about early-medieval kingship in Britain, it’s entirely likely Ruar would, indeed, be chosen leader.

Ethelred the Unready.jpg
Æthelred in an early thirteenth-century copy of the Abingdon Chronicle, a 12th C monastic history.

How much these young men ruled without regents or a council is a matter of debate, but then, neither does Ruar. Nor is this limited to pre-conquest Britain: Edward III of England was 14 when he was crowned, although his infamous mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer were regents for him until Edward’s successful coup d’etat at 17 – the same year Edward’s first child was born to his slightly younger wife.

Which brings me to another subject – and a thorny one in historical fiction: the ages at which people were considered adult, whether it was for marriage or kingship or the inheritance of land. I’ll address this in another post; it’s a subject of discussion among my characters, too, but what happens in my world reflects what happened in Britain and Rome in the equivalent time period.

But, returning to my original subject, young leaders are not restricted to the far-distant path. Alfonso XIII of Spain, who had been king from birth due to his father’s death, took on all the rights and responsibilities of kingship on his 16th birthday in 1902. So perhaps, in a parallel world 1200 years previously, it’s not that unlikely that 14-year-old Ruar assumes the leadership of his land!

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