A favourite metaphor of mine when describing the changing story of our past is the idea of a tapestry – the woven word if you like. But it’s become clear to me, especially as I continue to carry out research for my books, that the tapestry itself has a weft so broad and a warp so long that no individual can encompass it.
Increasingly, therefore, I tend to concentrate on exploring the threads rather than the weave – the tiny, individual stories within the great story of our past. The threads are personal and visceral – they can make a mark on you as you stumble over them – threads as tripwires! Some threads are tangled and you only have to brush lightly past them to become ensnared. Other threads are broken and you can follow them only so far before you are left exasperated, holding a frayed end. A few threads are truly magical but all threads are of value: like the list I found in a Yorkshire church, of the ordinary local men who went to Scotland with their bills and bows to fight the Battle of Flodden in 1513 or the fifteenth century cloister I stumbled upon in Oxfordshire – still occupied. They are tiny parts of the past but they bring it alive and they illustrate the human condition.
Like other writers of historical fiction I do a great deal of research and there’s nothing I like more now than picking up threads, the little stories or half-stories that have barely left a trace in the evidence trail.
Last week was a busy week for me – a week off from finishing the final book of the Rebels and Brothers series, The Last Shroud. One of the things I did last week was to take part in a tour of the field of the Battle of Barnet on Tuesday, 14th April – the 544th anniversary! It was a glorious day and nothing like the chill fog bound weather 544 years earlier – but we coped.
The walk was led by local man, Paul Baker, and I suppose there must have been about 18 of us in the party. I usually walk battlefields on my own or with my long-suffering wife – who incidentally is, I think, starting to get really interested in them. The particular attraction for her on this occasion was that I wasn’t the one doing most of the talking!
The group also included several local folk interested in finding out more about their neighbourhood and some from London interested in the topic. Some knew almost nothing about the Wars of the Roses and some knew quite a lot.
The walk started with the traditional “brief explanation” of background to the Wars of the Roses and thus the context of the battle. As anyone who has ever tried to do this will know, it is in fact utterly impossible. Every statement brings a cascade of questions and by the time you have unraveled those, most of the group will have forgotten who Henry was and which Edward you are referring to – oh, and who married him? Paul was unfailingly patient and polite where I was tempted to say: “Just accept it and stop asking questions!” or “He’s already told you that. Listen!”
Suffice to say, Paul did an excellent job but there were still a few casualties…
For me there were two experiences going on during the walk: one was getting the feel of the area – albeit five and a half centuries after the event – such as finding the remnants on the battlefield of a hedge that dated back to the time of the battle and is referred to in some accounts.
I tried to imagine the Yorkist men at arms on the right flank toiling up the slope that stretched out away from me.
I saw “Dead Man’s Bottom” which could be a burial pit for the battle casualties and heard that attempts to carry out an archaeological dig there were thwarted by an outbreak of Foot and Mouth a decade ago – some threads are broken…
The other experience was exchanging information with other walkers, absorbing what interested them. A local man lamented that “two pubs stood there either side of the road when I was a lad – both gone now…” The pubs were a thread of his personal historical tapestry – we’ve all got one! I discussed Richard, Duke of Gloucester, at length with another walker – as you do – and inevitably we arrived at the Wars of the Roses’ very own ‘Mornington Crescent’: did he kill the princes or not? Well, of course, we had to agree to disagree on that one.
Then, just as I’m wrestling with all that Paul has told me and attempting to assimilate it with all that I knew already, he drops a bombshell – or, I suppose, a heavy shot from a bombard. He informs us that there are plans to do an exploratory dig at another site a little further north of Barnet which some now suggest might be the real site of the battle.
The ‘real’ site – what do you mean the ‘real’ site? So all my careful weaving together of threads may be in vain. I may be walking over an area that isn’t a battle field at all? And I’ve braved the worst that the M4 and M25 can throw at me to get here!
When I thought about it though, I realised that my walk and Paul’s account embrace just a few of the many threads about the battle of Barnet. If a new site is discovered and proven then that will create more new threads of its own provoking the interest of other seekers after history.
There are always more questions than answers with history – that’s why we like it.
The Last Shroud, which includes the Battle of Barnet, will be released on 31st August this year, completing the novels in the series Rebels and Brothers which spans the Wars of the Roses from 1459-1471.
And yes, young Richard, Duke of Gloucester is in it!
I would like to express my thanks to Paul Baker for his delightful company and invaluable insights about the battle. Paul leads lots of walks in London as well as Barnet. If you are interested, you can find out more on his website: http://www.barnetwalks.talktalk.net
I’m also keen to mention Barnet Museum which I only had time to visit briefly. It is staffed by volunteers and free to visit. It’s not easy keeping such valuable local museums going and I am sure they would welcome support. http://www.barnetmuseum.co.uk