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Photo Tour: Hatfield House (Queen Elizabeth I’s Childhood Home)

During my summer 2000 sojourn in England, working on a software project, I tried to see as much as possible during my weekends. Many of the places I visited were either related to the book I was writing at the time (later published as Twist of Honor), but some were purely for my own edification, to see for myself the location of certain historical events I’d read about.

The July morning started off sunny, so I decided to head to Elizabeth the first’s childhood digs, Hatfield House. Like Henry VIII’s palace, Hampton Court, Hatfield House is public-transportation-accessible– in fact, the Hatfield train station is right across the street from the gates to Hatfield Park. It took about 20 minutes from King’s Cross station by train, and the countryside north of London is very pretty– rolling hills, horse pastures, and hedges.

There are actually two Hatfield Houses: the old house, a late-medieval brick mansion built for a bishop in the 1490′s, later acquired by King Henry VIII after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and partially demolished in the early 1600′s when the Cecil family decided to build a new house next door; and the Jacobean house, finished in 1612, which is where the Cecil family (the current Marquess of Salisbury) has lived since the 17th century.

Elizabeth I grew up in the old Hatfield House, which was built around a large courtyard, similar to Hampton Court. Only the Great Hall part of that house remains, known now as the Banqueting Hall. It’s normally open to visitors, but I didn’t get to go inside today because there was a wedding reception in progress.

The oldest part of the Jacobean house is also open to visitors– the Cecil family still lives in the house, but they’ve moved to one of the renovated wings. The place is enormous… it’s a pity that we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the house, because a lot of the old decor and furnishings remain. (2013 update: the official Hatfield House website features a number of photos from inside the house.)

The chambers are wood-paneled and high-ceilinged, the ceilings carved and gilded in most of the rooms. There are portraits of Cecils and their royal friends hung everywhere on the walls. The first Cecil raised to nobility, as Lord Burghley, was Elizabeth I’s trusted advisor and Chief Minister for most of her reign. Another Cecil served as Prime Minister multiple times under Queen Victoria.

One of the most interesting things about being a really old building is seeing the little signs of wear and tear– the steps in the staircase are hollowed from thousands of feet, and the oaken planking that serves as the flooring in the upper stories is a little uneven, and the house itself has sort of sagged and settled over the centuries, so that the floors in some chambers are no longer level.

All of the rooms open to visitors were quite impressive, but my favorite was the library. It was floor-to-ceiling books (10,000 of them, some of them dating back to the 1560′s), had a gorgeous view over the side garden (the docent was a dear and let me snap a photo of the knotwork hedges from the window, since you can’t really see the patterning from the ground level), and a really fascinating collection of original historical documents on display.

Among the highlights– several letters penned by Elizabeth I to William Cecil, a letter from her brother Edward to Henry VIII (in Latin, with lots of corrected bits), a deposition signed by Henry VIII regarding the annulment of his marriage to Anne of Cleves, and a letter written by Elizabeth when she was 15 to her sister, Queen Mary Tudor, denying that she was pregnant or living in scandalous circumstances.

Another cool display was downstairs in a long gallery called The Armoury. The suits of armor displayed there hadn’t been worn by any ancestors, though– they were Spanish, part of the booty awarded William Cecil after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

And finally, a funny story about more recent happenings. The family was one of the first to have a telephone and electricy installed in the house, in 1881. However, the electic system was pretty dangerous, and the wiring in the Great Hall frequently burst into flames during dinner parties. According to the tour book, “the family members sitting beneath would nonchalantly throw up cushions to put the fire out and then go on with the conversation.”

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Photo Tour: Leeds Castle

I was lucky enough to spend the summer and autumn of 2000 working in a suburb of London, and I tried to explore as much of London and the surrounding English countryside as possible during my sojourn.

One weekend near the end of September, I decided to visit Canterbury (hey, I was an English Lit. major…how could I forgo a chance to retrace the steps of the Wife of Bath?). On the way back to London, I decided to stop off at Leeds Castle.

The previous day had been uncharacteristically warm for England–82F and sunny. Alas, this brief interval of good weather did not last.

Ominously, the further I got from Canterbury, the cloudier it got. By the time I disembarked at Bearsted and hopped on the bus going to the castle, the sun had completely disappeared. I was hoping it was only fog– there’s nowhere in England that’s very far from the sea.

But the stopover proved well worth it. Leeds Castle is acres of eye candy– a postcard-perfect medieval castle in the middle of a lake, surrounded by miles of gorgeously-landscaped grounds.

I took the tour of castle first. Sadly, the foundations that owns the caste does not allow photos indoors, but it was still interesting. The building’s interior was a mix between medieval and modern (it was lived-in until about 1963, when the last owner, Lady Baillie, bequeathed it to a foundation to open to the public, because the upkeep — and the inheritance taxes– would have bankupted her heirs).

The core of the castle is Norman (those guys really went on a castle-building binge after conquering England in 1066), but with lots of later additions.

From the 13th-century on, the castle and the estate was a traditional gift of the kings of England to their queens, and most of the queens of England through Anne Boleyn were listed as owners of the Leeds Castle. From the 16th century on, it was owned by the Culpeper family and their descendents.

Although most of the rooms are furnished in the modern style, two of rooms, the Queen’s Bedroom and the Queen’s Bath, are furnished as they would have been for Queen Catherine de Valois in the early 1400′s. (Interesting tidbit: Queen Catherine, the wife of Henry V, married her Welsh gentleman-attendant, Owain Tudor, after Henry V died. She died in childbirth at the age of 36 or 37; he was executed by beheading for his presumption in marrying the Dowager Queen. Their descendants eventually rose to the throne of England.)

The castle grounds were filled with all sorts of cool stuff. They converted the medieval tithing-barn (where the portion of the crops due the lord of the estate by his tenant farmers was stored) into a restaurant. There was also a maze, a formal garden, and a Jacobean-style walled garden, with all sorts of sweet-smelling flowers laid out in geometric beds, divided by brick pathways.

My favorite, of course, was the exotic-bird aviary, complete with lots and lots of parrots: cockatoos, macaws, eclectuses, Amazons, lorikeets, conures, and toucans. Being off-season… and pouring rain by this time… I had the aviary all to myself. It was a hoot to see how the parrots reacted to the heavy downpour. Instead of huddling in their heated nestboxes, they came out in the large wired enclosures, hung upside down with wings and tails spread wide, and gleefully bathed in the rainshower.

(Lady Baillie, the final private owner of the castle, loved birds, and it was she who established the aviary at the castle. Her suite of rooms at the castle are decorated with paintings of birds and bird statues– a woman after my own heart!).

Soaked to the skin (I’d left my umbrella checked into the castle cloakroom, near the gates, along with my backpack), I decided to head home. It rained all the way back to London, but I was so glad I had decided to make this detour.

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Photo Tour: Medieval English Castle

In August of 2000, Marian and I toured Orford Castle, located on the east coast of England, about halfway between London and Norwich.

At the time, I was working in London on a six-month software development project, and Marian came out to visit me for a couple of weeks, during which we did some on-site research in Belgium for the second half of Glass Souls and toured medieval sites in southwestern England. We were in the early stages of plotting a historical romance set in early 13th-century England (a book, alas, we never got around to writing) and decided that Orford Castle might be a good setting, so we took a detour on the way home to London and spent an afternoon visiting this extremely well-preserved medieval fortress.

Construction began on the castle in 1168, as part of King Henry II’s plan for improving England’s coastal defenses along the English Channel. It was intended to guard the harbor of Orford, then an important port.

The castle has an unusual polygonal shape, with two round Great Halls (one located in the lower story and one in the upper story), with a maze of tiny corridors leading to various chambers (kitchen, chapel, latrines, prison cells, etc.) around the perimeters of these halls. Since it was in the nature of a military barracks rather than a residence, some of the usual luxury features of a residential castle are not present at Orford Castle.

A complete floorplan can be found on Orford Castle’s Wikipedia page.

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House Of The Rose Photo Tour: Medieval European Houses

One of the things that fascinates me about writing historical fiction is discovering how ordinary people lived. It’s one thing to visit castles and cathedrals; another to see the home of an ordinary family that’s survived the centuries.

The House of the Rose novels take place in many different countries in the 13th century, and the Houses of the Rose in each country are built to conform to that land’s norms. It was a lot of fun to research our various locales in the course of writing the five novels that comprise the series, from England to Constantinople (modern Istanbul)…to that end, I’d like to share some of the photos I took on various trips between 2000-2012.

The medieval homes in this slideshow range from a 12th-century Moorish courtyard house in Southern Spain (itself built on top of a Roman villa, whose mosaic floor can still be seen in the house’s cellar), to a 13th-century Great Hall home in England, complete with a open hearth-pit in the center of the hall, and finally, a selection of late-medieval/early Tudor houses from the English towns of Norwich, Salisbury, and Lavenham.

Slideshow: Medieval Houses

Photo Tour Of 17th-Century England

While writing Twist of Honor, I had the opportunity to work in London for a few months. Naturally, I took the chance to do some on-the-spot research for the work-in-progress, as well as exploring the beautiful English countryside and visiting nearby historic houses, castles, and cities, such as Salisbury and Bath. Oh, and indulging in some truly wonderful pub lunches during my wanderings, usually accompanied by a tall, cool glass of hard cider.

I’ve put together slideshow that lets you take a virtual tour of some of the places described in Twist of Honor, as well as historic homes from the 16th and 17th centuries, and even a couple of Newgate’s notorious gaol cells, lovingly preserved at the Museum of London!  Enjoy!

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