Aiming for a Sense of Place

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One of the things I want in a historical is a sense of place as well as a strong sense of time. In Lion of Kent, most of the action takes place in Sir Robert’s household and the surrounding woodlands, so—like many historical writers—we had to ‘build’ an imaginary castle. The best way to convey a sense of place is, of course, to write about a real location, tweaked accordingly to fit the status of our twelfth century lord.

Now, the UK has more castles than there are days in the year, with constructions ranging from scrappy baileys with collapsing walls to earthworks to massive fortresses still inhabited by nobility. Some of them are even in Kent. However, the castle I used as a model for Sir Robert’s household was Warkworth Castle in Northumberland, a place I’d visited back in February.

Lion of Kent is set in 1176, and though Warkworth Castle was constructed at a slightly later date, the basics of medieval castle building changed little in the interim. Warkworth was laid out around 1180-1200 by Roger fitz Roger and developed by its subsequent owners, the powerful Percy family, earls (later dukes) of Northumberland. The great tower was built for the first earl in 1377 by the master mason of Durham Cathedral, and it’s the interior of the great tower that provided the inspiration for a pivotal moment in the story. In this snippet, the hero, young squire William Raven, is returning to the festivities in the great hall when he hears an odd noise:

As he made his way back to the great hall, William heard a sound. He stopped, listening, filtering out the shouts and music from the hall and the hum of noise from the kitchens. At length the strange sound came again, and this time he identified it as two men speaking in urgent whispers. Curious as to who had slipped out of the hall or kitchen for a conversation, William followed the whispers around the dark walls.

The corridor narrowed and made a dog-leg, then opened out again near the central light well that ran for the full height of the keep. On each floor two windows overlooked the light well, which provided illumination and fresh air to what would otherwise be the darkest, stuffiest rooms in the castle. Now William understood why the voices sounded so strange—they were distorted by an echo.

William approached the window that opened into the light well, keeping to the shadows so he wouldn’t be seen by the whisperers. He angled himself against the recess of the window and peered up, wondering if the voices came from Sir Robert’s private chambers or the guest rooms above.

Another low murmur, and William drew back. The men were standing directly opposite him on the other side of the light well. From the direction of their voices, the whisperers must be standing in the lower part of the chapel, the section reserved for the household servants. It was as good a place as any for a clandestine meeting, and he wondered who they were and what they were doing.

Light wells are often used in castles not just to provide daylight for interior rooms, but also to collect rainwater to sluice out latrines. Visitors often don’t realise the light wells exist—and certainly I’d never paid any attention to them before!—but the construction of the great tower at Warkworth made a real feature of the light well, which does indeed have a window from a corridor looking across the light well into the chapel.

This is the castle chapel from the direction of the light well—you can see the corbels that originally supported the balcony/mezzanine floor where the lord and his family would have gathered to worship, and at the front you can see the piscina and the edge of the sedile as well as the dais for the high altar. The sacristy is tucked away just to the right. You can see how narrow the chapel is—now imagine it full of household servants. At the height of the Percy’s power, Warkworth had a permanent staff of 166. Our fictional Sir Robert would of course have far fewer servants and retainers, but even so, it’d be quite a crowd!

Throughout Lion of Kent we’ve tried to give a flavour of the hustle and bustle of daily life in a castle, from the food and drink on the table to the procedure for bath times to a knighting ceremony to the various types of entertainment—singing and dancing as well as that most masculine of entertainments, the hunt. We hope you’ll join us in sharing the medieval experience.

Kate Cotoner (www.katecotoner.co.uk)

7 thoughts on “Aiming for a Sense of Place”

  1. Amora says:

    Oh, wow. That’s incredible. Thank you for sharing that. Can’t wait to read the book.

  2. Marcie says:

    It’s so wonderful to see what you were seeing when you wrote this. And, I have to say, it isn’t far from what I had imagined from the thorough descriptions you gave in the book.

    Thanks so much for sharing this.

    PS- I loved the book! :)

  3. Inez Kelley says:

    I love when images provoke words. And Damn you for adding to my TBR pile.

  4. Debra Kayn says:

    Wow, Kate. The pictures are wonderful. I can’t imagine what it would be like to see the castle in person.

  5. Eleri Stone says:

    Love the pictures. Makes me want to visit…and read the book.

  6. What a great castle! Awesome to think of it alive, filled with people and intrigue.

  7. One of the reasons why I’m really, really happy to be over in the UK – so much medieval STUFF everywhere. :)

    (I’m working a short walk away from where Shakespeare had his first little theatre – before he crossed the river and started the Globe. Awesome).

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