Today’s guest is so much more than a writer, as you will see. Over to you, Nicky.
I’d always expected that when I’d finally get round to writing a novel, it would be a science fiction one. After all, my shelves were groaning with SF; it was what I’d mostly read since I was a teen, and the short stories I’d written could all fit comfortably within the genre.
Then the focus of my life changed when my (ex) husband asked what I wanted for my 50th birthday, and I jokingly replied, a gold torc. He gave me a do-it-yourself torc kit, a metal detector… My first job out of uni was as an archaeological digger, and I’d kept in contact with the local Archaeological Unit even when I had to stop and get a proper job (i.e. one that paid the rent). When I came across something chunky and metallic about 18 inches down in a meadow (nearly blowing my head off from the strength of the signal), I asked them to come over and do a mini dig.
It turned out to be a large rectangular lead sheet, lying flat on top of a destruction layer – and no-one could give me any explanation as to what it was doing there. Over the course of the next few months, I began to build up a picture of what had been going on in that meadow. I was getting a lot of iron nails – hand-made ones, possibly even made by the same person, because they had a quirky triangular head. And bells; not the common sheep ones, but nice little handbell-sized ones. Then there were the 12thC equivalent of welly boots – iron patens, which when filled with wood and tied with leather like Japanese sandals, were supposed to keep you out of the mud. Not very well, clearly – there were quite a few of them, usually singletons, but some in pairs. I was beginning to have the voices of men in my head, swearing as they slogged home with wet feet…
But what men, and when?
As the weather closed in I retreated to the Suffolk Record Office, and tried to work out what I’d found. Nothing fitted; maps of the area going back to Tudor times showed a blank in my meadow. I’d kept very careful records of what I’d found where, and had mapped it all out. It was clearly a sizeable set-up; but what was it?
Then a breakthrough – Canterbury Cathedral sent out a fund-raising leaflet for their roof appeal, and included a description of roof tile manufacture. They mentioned that it had been done this way for a thousand years, and gave the standard dimensions. I went back to my records and checked that lead sheet – YES! It was a roofing tile!
I knew that there was a local priory, but the remains were clearly visible a good couple of miles away from my meadow. But the weather was still vile, so I started to research it. With great good luck, many of the priory charters were still around, including some of the earliest, dating back to 1188. I read the description of the original land grant, and frowned. That didn’t sound like the known site at all! I copied out the grant, and went and stood in my meadow. Alder grove there – yes! Spring there, with stream flowing that way – yes! Major road through here – well, it’s a footpath now, but with some imagination – YES! But why on earth was it in the wrong spot?
I started reading about the man who founded the priory, and became engrossed in it.
Wimer the Chaplain was born a stone’s throw from my house, the youngest son of a Saxon peasant farmer. He should have stayed a peasant, but pretty much on the 100th anniversary of the Norman invasion, here he was in the Pipe Rolls – the court accounting records of the day – acting as a personal secretary to the Earl of Norfolk. Wimer kept popping up in the records, his career doing very well indeed. In the 1170s he was working for the King, working as the local Sheriff to build Orford Castle and being made Rector of its church; then disaster struck, and he was excommunicated by Thomas a’Becket. He was bundled off to a tiny little priory in the middle of the Norfolk Broads to sort out their finances. Then the King had a purge of corrupt sheriffs, and Wimer was one of the few men left untouched by scandal – he was promoted to what was one of the richest jobs in England, the Sheriff of all Norfolk and Suffolk, in charge of commerce and taxes all up the fast-growing East Anglian coast.
There is a record in the Pipe Rolls that raised the hair on the back of my head. The same scribe wrote the records for years on end; but 1178 had a note written on top, in a different hand – Wimer’s resignation letter. He’d left all his fortune with the King, in case anyone wanted to sue him; he was going to go home and found a Priory, in expiation of his sins. I think he wrote it himself…
So there I was; three years of research had given me the bones of a nice little monograph that I could publish. I went back to the founding charter and re-read it one more time – and stopped dead as I recognised the names involved. The King’s MISTRESS had given him the land – a cool 1000 acres, conservatively worth about £14M in today’s money. Why?!
The monograph went out of the window. I had a mystery to write…
Sheriff and Priest is available as an ebook on Amazon:
And as a paperback here:
Wimer has his own Facebook page
And Nicky’s website is here.
Book 2 in the Dodnash Priory chronicles is due out in September 2019.
My thanks to this weeks guest for a great post. I hope you all enjoyed it.
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