This week I returned to the place where Tancred’s story begins – to Durham, where the city’s annual Book Festival has been taking place this month. An enthusiastic audience joined myself and my event host, Dr Giles Gasper, lecturer in medieval history at Durham University, for a discussion about Sworn Sword and its connection with the city.
One of the questions I was asked was why I chose Durham in particular as the place to begin the novel. In fact the battle that forms the opening chapters was a real-life event that took place on or around 28 January 1069, and it’s spoiling none of the plot to say that it marked a significant turning-point in the story of the Conquest. Indeed this was the biggest defeat that the Normans had suffered since arriving on these shores more than two years previously.
Around Christmas 1068, William the Conqueror appointed Robert de Commines, Tancred’s lord, as Earl of Northumbria, the only part of England that had thus far refused to acknowledge him as king. Together with his army – the sources disagree on exactly how many men – Robert marched to subdue the recalcitrant northerners and take the province by force. Soon after arriving in Durham, however, the earl and his forces were routed in a surprise attack under the cover of darkness. The Normans were cut down in the streets and Robert himself was killed. There were few survivors.
Walking around the city on my visit there this week, I was reminded just how dramatic a location Durham is, and how its very geography makes it a fascinating setting for a battle. The castle and the cathedral that nowadays dominate the skyline had not yet been built by 1069, but the peninsula on which they are built would have made this a naturally defensible site, protected on three sides by water and by steep inclines that would make any direct assault difficult except from the north. While there is little explicit evidence for any fortification on the site before then, to my mind it seems likely that a stronghold or fastness of some kind must have existed, as I have suggested in Sworn Sword.
Whether or not such defences existed at the time, the very fact that the Northumbrians were able to defeat the Normans here was by all accounts an impressive achievement, and a famous victory. Conversely, to the Normans this would have been seen as a major setback to their conquest of the north. The loss of so many men in one night would not only have dented their confidence but in addition must have placed a very real strain on their defences, especially once the enemy began their southwards march not long after.
The Durham connection was just the starting-point of a great discussion about the Norman Conquest and historical fiction. Topics ranged from the use of Old English place-names in the novel to getting inside the medieval mind, the importance of research and site visits, and my plans for future novels in the series. I certainly enjoyed myself and I hope that my audience did too.
Many thanks to all those involved in the organisation and smooth running of this year’s Festival. Particular thanks also go to my host for the event, Dr Gasper, who generously gave his time after the talk to give me an exclusive tour of Durham Castle’s Norman chapel, which is normally off-limits to the public. One of the earliest stone chapels of its kind known to have been built in England, it is thought to date from the 1080s when it was attached to the house of the Bishop of Durham, who probably used it as a private place of worship. It was a privilege to be allowed access to such impressive architecture, and an unexpected bonus on my northern travels.
I’m hoping to be back in Durham at some point in the New Year, and in February I’ll also be visiting York, the centrepoint for much of the action in Sworn Sword, where I’ll be giving a talk at the Jorvik Viking Festival – more details to follow in due course. Keep checking my Events page for further information about all my upcoming appearances.
The Durham Book Festival runs until tomorrow, Sunday 23 October, with further events for young writers continuing through half-term week to Friday 28 October. For more information visit the Festival website.