As you'll know from reading HANGMAN BLIND, Hildegard was brought up at Castle Hutton in the wilds of North Yorkshire where her father was a knight in the service of Earl de Hutton. Lord Roger, the earl's eldest son, was like an older brother. Among other childhood playmates in the castle was Ulf, son of the Earl's Chief Forester and it was Ulf who taught Hildegard how to shoot a straight arrow, use a knife and hunt for game in the forest.
As was usual in the late fourteenth century Hildegard was betrothed at fourteen and married at fifteen. Her husband, Hugh, was the son of a lord of the Welsh Marches. Forced to leave her beloved Castle Hutton she went with him to live in his well-fortified stronghold. During her time there, Hugh, knighted for his military services in the retinue of the Earl of Arundel, fought in many military skirmishes and Hildegard herself led the life expected of women in those days, immured within the castle, running the household in her husband's absence.
By the time she was eighteen she had given birth to a son and a daughter and again, as was usual at that time, both children were sent to live in other households around the age of seven, her son to serve as a page in the warlike Bishop of Norwich's retinue, his sister to become a damosel of the bedchamber in the household of Lady de Bohun near Shrewsbury.
But then disaster strikes. Sir Hugh goes missing in France.
This is the time of the Hundred Years War, sparked by a claim on the Crown of France by King Edward III of England, grandson to the French king in his mother's line. A distant relative of the French king rejects this dynastic claim and with the support of the Duke of Burgundy and several other French nobles claims the crown himself. Diplomacy fails to resolve the issue and famous English victories at the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers later give way to a war of attrition with periodic chevauchees by the English mercenaries into the French countryside. It is during one of these that Hugh disappears, presumed dead.
A year of uncertainty follows for Hildegard. She clings to the belief that Hugh will come back from the dead - but then two mysterious Bretons show up bringing her a casket containing Hugh's ring and some personal documents as proof of his death.
Distraught she relinquishes the Border estates to Hugh's younger brother and moves back to her childhood home of Castle Hutton where she regains possession of her own marriage dowry. She decides to join the Cistercian Order. The alternative is to marry one of the many suitors who compete for her hand now she is a young and wealthy widow but, strong-minded and independent, she cannot contemplate the prospect of yielding her life to another war-lord. By joining the powerful Cistercian Order she is able to wield influence on her own account in the wider world.
The monks at the Abbey of Meaux in Yorkshire are wealthy overseers of England's lucrative wool exports. Their Order is one of the largest, second only to John of Gaunt - himself said to be the richest man in England. The priory at Swyne, where Hildegard becomes a novice, is part of this rich organisation.
By the time HANGMAN BLIND begins King Richard II, now a teenager, has been on the throne of England for six years. The royal ambition of his uncle, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, has not abated despite the destruction of his Savoy Palace by the Londoners during the rebellion of '81. What aroused the populace to rise in revolt against their rulers then was the imposition of a third poll tax, enforced by the Duke as leader of the King's Council and acting in the young king's name. The rebellion was brutally put down. Still shocked three years later by the violence of both sides, the country's loyalties remain divided.
It is now that Hildegard makes her first appearance in HANGMAN BLIND.
FACT AND FICTION
The main characters in THE ABBESS OF MEAUX SERIES are fictitious but some of the minor ones who make fleeting appearances in the annals of the times have been enough to suggest fully-rounded historical characters to me and they play bit parts in the action here too.
I mean such people as Sueno de Schockwynde, a master mason (with a name I couldn't make up!) Or Master Pierrkyn Gyles, King's musician, who retired from court to live in the influential St Mary's Abbey in York. Sir Ralph Standish, said to have made the first sword-thrust that killed the leader of the rebels, Wat Tyler, at Smithfield. Mayor Simon de Quixlay of York and his rival John Gisburne, merchant.
Sir John Hawkwood, infamous English mercenary and for a short time one of the richest men in Italy while in the pay of both the Pope and the Duke of Milan. Even the prioress of Swyne has an historical precedent which will be revealed later. There are many others whose names have intrigued me as I search the records.
When the story allows I hope to retrieve more of these historical figures from oblivion.
MORE ABOUT THE PEOPLE HILDEGARD MEETS
Abbot Hubert de Courcy of the sexy grey eyes and haughty Norman manner, is her superior at the mother house of the Abbey of Meaux. He is also her opponent, heart's delight and nemesis.
He runs the vastly successful wool trade at Meaux, exporting prized English wool to the weavers of Flanders and Italy. With a French diplomat father Hubert is suspected of being a spy for the King of France.
Hildegard fears he is also a partisan of the ambitious Duke of Lancaster and worries about his loyalty to young King Richard Plantagenet. Hubert's doubtful allegiance brings both confusion and fear for the possibilities it opens up. Their relationship, constrained by monastic vows, see-saws between attraction and resistance.
Lord Roger, later Earl de Hutton, lord of vast estates in North Yorkshire as a vassal of the King. His loyalty to King Richard is not in doubt. But times and circumstances change. Hildegard wonders how much value he puts on fidelity.
Roger's fifth wife, Lady Melisen, the daughter of a Kentish Earl, is only a year older than Roger's daughter, the headstrong sixteen year old Philippa. Everyone knows that the Peasants Revolt started in Kent as a rebellion against the corruption of parliament. Underneath her glamour Melisen, too, may be tortured by divided loyalties.
Hildegard's help-mate in tracking down the murders at Castle Hutton, is Ulf, steward of the castle, man-of-action and Lord Roger's right-hand man. Hildegard has known him since they were children playing in the castle bailey. She feels she knows him through and through. But now he has power undreamed of when they were young. Power corrupts. To be on the wrong side in these turbulent times can mean the difference between life and death and Ulf is no fool. To complicate matters, Ulf cannot forget that Hildegard - despite her nun's habit - was his first love.
And finally, there is, of course, the prioress of Swyne, a mistress in the art of espionage, sister of the fiery Alexander Neville, Archbishop of York, politically astute, a manipulator of every situation, with, as she says, only the good of her nuns at heart. But it is the prioress who sends Hildegard on the road that brings murder, mayhem and a vindictive killer in pursuit in a deadly game of HANGMAN BLIND. And in THE RED VELVET TURN SHOE it is the prioress who sends Hildegard across the Alps in search of the talismanic Cross of Constantine.
The fabulous Dufay Collective playing a salterello from their latest cd A L'Estampida.