Category Archives: Research

Holyroodhouse – A sanctuary for an exiled Bourbon

It has been several months since I last updated this blog – it actually came as a shock to me to realise that I have not posted on here since May! In the intervening months since my last post, I have been enjoying something of a break from writing, spending time with my family and going on summer holiday. However, summer is over and I’ve started work on my second Ailsa Rose book once again.

Today I wanted to share with you a fascinating anecdote I came across when researching this second novel, which is largely set in the Canongate/Holyrood area of Edinburgh. This tale concerns Holyroodhouse, the palace which sits at the foot of the Canongate, and is the official residence of the monarch in Scotland. In its time, the palace has hosted many royal occupants, but did you know that in the 1790s it housed French royalty?

Holyrood House and Chapel from Calton Hill, engraving, 1842. From Wikimedia Commons.

In 1796, Holyroodhouse became the home of the exiled Charles Philippe, the Comte D’artois and his mistress, Louise de Polastron. The comte was the brother of King Louis XVI, and the future Charles X, reigning from 1824 to 1830 after the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty in 1814/1815. He had fled France in the wake of the French Revolution, eventually coming to Edinburgh.

The Comte D’Artois by Henri Pierre Danloux, 1798. From Wikimedia Commons.

The accommodation which greeted the comte upon his arrival, however, was likely far from the grand and sumptuous palace we might envisage. In her book Holyrood and Canongate: A Thousand Year History, E Patricia Dennison tells us that the Hanoverian kings had allowed Holyroodhouse to fall into decay, and that during the eighteenth century, its neglect had led it to become a crumbling building which at times had hosted an assortment of debtors and squatters for tenants.1 Not exactly fit for royalty, then, although in some ways perhaps suitable. In her 1992 article, Furniture for the Comte D’Artois at Holyrood, 1796, Margaret Swain informs us that as the palace was built on the site of an ancient monastery, it was still considered a debtors’ sanctuary and the comte was on the run from his creditors.2 Swain goes on to tell us that refurbishment of the comte’s apartments took four months, during which time the comte and his party had to live in the rooms of Lord Adam Gordon, the governor of Edinburgh Castle.3

Louise de Polastron, mistress of the Comte D’Artois, by Alexander Kucharsky. From Wikimedia Commons.

The comte and his mistress seem to have remained at Holyroodhouse for several years, although by the early 1800s they had relocated to London, where Louise de Polastron died from tuberculosis in 1804. In 1830, the palace played host to Charles Philippe for a final time, following his abdication from the French throne. As Swain tells us, the furniture from his previous stay had to be ‘hastily reassembled’.4 He stayed for a couple of years, before being granted sanctuary by the Habsburg Emperor and living in the Austrian Empire for the remainder of his days.

As those of you who have read The Wax Artist will know, the protagonist Ailsa Rose is a French émigré. As this is a key part of her background, I just love coming across French connections during my research, and this one really caught my imagination. I wonder what Ailsa Rose would have thought about the king’s brother living just a stone’s throw from her humble room in the Canongate! It is fun to consider it.

The Wax Artist is available to read in e-book and paperback now. Find out more here.

References:

  1. E Patricia Dennison, Holyrood and Canongate: A Thousand Year History, (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2005), pp. 111-112
  2. Margaret Swain, “Furniture for the Comte D’Artois at Holyrood, 1796”, Furniture History, (1992), p. 98
  3. Margaret Swain, op cit, p. 98
  4. Margaret Swain, op cit, p. 99

A Preoccupation with Solitude

Over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself quite interested in histories relating to solitude, in terms of what being alone has meant down the centuries, and how people have responded to ideas of solitude over time. My interest in this was first sparked by a couple of radio or podcast series, the first being Thomas Dixon’s A Short History of Solitude for the BBC, and the second being the Spaces of Solitude podcast by researchers at Queen Mary University London. I mentioned both previously on a blog post about my favourite podcasts – more here. Thinking back, I don’t think it’s too much of a surprise that this subject resonated me – in the pandemic times, I found myself both isolated from the outside world, but rarely ever alone at home, with all my family ‘locked down’ beside me. Solitude, I came to realise, is something I need in order to create. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

One of the topics within this theme of solitude which really intrigued me was that of religious hermits, anchorites and anchoresses; those who devoted themselves to lives of piety and solitude in the medieval period (although perhaps were not always as alone as we might think, as Thomas Dixon’s series explores). In recent times I’ve become quite an enthusiast for medieval history – something which has come as a surprise, since I was always a devoted early-modernist in my student days. I suppose the two interests, therefore, go hand in hand. With all this in mind, yesterday I stumbled upon a really interesting story…

First, a bit of context. My current work-in-progress has reclusive people at its heart. I’m not sure that was a deliberate choice I made when I began to write; rather, I think it was a subconscious one which developed quickly and which, given my recent preoccupation with solitude, isn’t all that surprising. My two main characters find themselves alone for diverse reasons, some circumstantial, some matters of choice, but both are grappling with their solitude in their different ways. The novel is set in Cumberland (now Cumbria), along the Whitehaven coastline. Yesterday, as I was redrafting, I found myself wandering down a bit of a Google rabbit hole (it happens often). One of the characters mentions the village of St Bees; I went on Google to check a detail and, just like that, I found Saint Bega.

View of the South Head from the golf course at St Bees, Cumbria, by Doug Sim. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St_Bees_south_head_from_path.jpg

Not far from St Bees is St Bees Head, a headland which reaches out west and is home nowadays to a RSPB reserve and a variety of sea birds. It is also said to be where, in the ninth century, an Irish princess called Saint Bega was shipwrecked after fleeing her homeland and the prospect of a forced marriage to a Viking prince. Bega settled for some time in the area, becoming an anchoress, before eventually fleeing further east into Northumbria as the threat from raiding pirates loomed large. The name of the village is a corruption of its Norse name, Kyrkeby Becok, which translates as ‘church of Bega’. St Bees Priory, which has its own long and interesting history, was also dedicated to her.

Stained glass window at St Bees Priory depicting the arrival of St Bega at St Bees, sometime after 850 AD, by Doug Sim. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St_Bega_stained_glass.JPG

There is more detailed information about St Bega’s life, the relic and cult of St Bega, and indeed whether or not she ever existed at all over on the St Bees website. However, having unexpectedly discovered this story yesterday, I just had to share it. And now you know, as I do, why St Bees is called St Bees!

New Year, New Writing Goals

Happy new year to you all, and I hope you had a restful festive season. My first blog post of the year typically concerns my goals for the year ahead, and this one is no different! So, here we go…

2021 was a productive year in terms of my writing, with the release my first new book in two years, which was also the first in a new series of historical mysteries. One of my goals this year is to write the second Ailsa Rose novel, and I’m very much looking forward to returning to Georgian Edinburgh and continuing Ailsa’s story, as well as giving her a new mystery to solve! I’m pleased to say that the preparatory work for this novel is well underway – indeed, I was already writing this one in my head while I was finishing The Wax Artist!

The biggest challenge for me this year is that I intend to write not one, but two books. This is something I haven’t managed before, and it will definitely be quite tough to achieve. However, there is a story I want to write which is quite different from any of my previous output, and this feels like the right time to do it. More on that as things develop, but right now I’m having a lot of fun creating some new characters and putting a plot together.

Finally, I’d just like to say thank you to everyone who has bought a copy of The Wax Artist, and thank you also to those who’ve read it and been in touch to let me know your thoughts. It’s been great to hear how many people have enjoyed it over Christmas! Writers always appreciate ratings and/or reviews so if you have time after reading it, I’d love it if you’d consider leaving one on Amazon, Goodreads, or wherever else you would normally post these. Thank you!

In Remembrance

As a novelist, I love stories. I love reading them, creating them, writing them, and discovering them. As a historical novelist, I am drawn to the tales of the past, to imagining (and re-imagining) past peoples, places, and events. Perhaps most of all, I enjoy blending research and creativity to bring the past to life through storytelling. I love digging around in the records, discovering those delightful snippets of information bequeathed to us by time and wondering, what then? Why? How? I suppose that same curiosity is what drew me to another interest of mine: genealogy. Over a number of years, I have been researching my own family tree and unearthing the stories of my ancestors. Today, on Remembrance Sunday, I thought I would share with you one of those stories.

The photo above was taken by Darge Photographic Company at Seymour Army Camp in Victoria, Australia, around 21st November 1915. The young man pictured is my ancestor, Thomas Brocklebank, who in July 1915 enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force to fight in the First World War. Five days after this photograph was taken, Private Brocklebank embarked with the 24th Battalion from Melbourne, aboard the HMAT Commonwealth. The records indicate that he first travelled to the AIF Training Camps in North Africa, including Zeitoun Camp, near Cairo. From there he travelled onwards to France and the western front. On 3rd July 1916 he went missing in action. He was never found and following a Court of Enquiry in 1917, was declared to have been killed in action. He was nineteen years old. As he has no known grave, he is commemorated on the Australian National War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux near Amiens, northern France.

As is so often the case with history, the answer to one question provokes many others. While researching Thomas’s tragic story, I found myself repeatedly wondering how a young man from my family ended up enlisting with the Australian Imperial Force. As far as I knew, I had no connection to Australia, nor did the Brocklebank branch of my family tree, a branch firmly rooted in Cumbria, northern England. It was quite the mystery – a mystery I felt compelled to solve. So I dug further into the records, tracing Thomas’s life through both the military records and census data, taking the clues it offered and building it into the story of his life.

This, I believe, is his story.

Thomas Brocklebank was born in the village of Baycliff, near Dalton-in-Furness in 1897, the youngest son of Thomas Brocklebank snr and his wife, Mary. Mary Brocklebank appears to have died during Thomas’s early infancy, and sometime afterwards his father seems to have left for South Africa, where he fought in the Boer War and subsequently remained for the rest of his life, working as a miner. By 1901, Thomas was living in the Dalton area with his aunt and uncle, Margaret and William Raven, and their family.

Thomas then disappears from the British census records, and I believe therefore that sometime before 1911 he emigrated to Australia with another of his aunts, a lady called Clara Smith and her husband, Richard. They lived in Swan Hill, Victoria, where Thomas worked as a farm labourer until his enlistment in 1915. Thomas’s military record contains some deeply sad correspondence between his aunt Clara and the authorities concerning his whereabouts during the time he was missing, asking for information about what had happened to him. His story is sadly an all too common one, with so many of his generation losing their lives on the battlefields of Europe. Seeing those records, and knowing the profound sense of loss which sits between the lines of Clara’s letters, was very moving.

Unlike many British war records which fell victim to the Blitz, the Australian records remain intact and have been digitised. Whilst census data, by its very nature, can only provide a snapshot of a person at a moment in time, the Australian war records present a timeline of a young man’s army life from enlistment, through training, in combat and ultimately, to his death. The records make for heart-wrenching reading, demonstrating the impact of the war on one young man and his family. They also give some very specific details. I know, for example, that Thomas was five feet two inches tall, with brown hair and green eyes. But a lot of other information has, of course, been lost to time – most importantly, Thomas’s voice. He left no record of himself, no words of his own to stand as testament to what he saw, thought and felt during those short but tumultuous years. And that, for a curious historian and a descendant, is one of the saddest details of all.

Today is Remembrance Sunday, when we commemorate the sacrifice made by millions of men like Thomas. They were the lost generation of the early twentieth century. Lest we forget.

Writing in the Time of Covid

As we reach the final quarter of the year, I think most of us will be looking back on what a difficult time 2020 has been. Each of us will have had our own challenges and hardships over these preceding months. I saw a meme on social media earlier this week which captured this sentiment perfectly – in essence, it said that though we are all going through the same storm, we aren’t all the same boat. It’s perhaps a statement of the obvious to say that this situation we’re living through touches every part of daily life. For me, it has undoubtedly affected my writing, both in terms of my ability to find the time and space to write, but also how I go about developing a story. One area which has definitely been affected is the way in which I do my research.

From pexels.com.

As some of you will know, my latest project is set in late Georgian Edinburgh. The seeds of this story were sown around nine months ago, during my second Open University assignment. I wrote a short story about a psychic sleuth who, having seen a genteel young woman’s dreadful fate during a leaf reading, tries to intervene with unexpected and rather creepy results. I loved the sleuth so much that I knew I had to write a novel about her – indeed, a series of novels about her. At the time I looked forward enthusiastically to the research I’d be able to do – as anyone who has visited Edinburgh will know, it is a deeply historical and atmospheric place, with a wealth of landmarks and museums to visit.

Candlemaker Row, Edinburgh. From pexels.com.

And then Covid came along.

At the time of writing, things are beginning to open back up but are by no means ‘normal’, meaning that some of the visits I’d planned, particularly to museums, can’t go ahead. Fortunately prior to Covid I had been to some of the places on my list, notably The Georgian House (which is just wonderful, by the way), and as someone living in the nearby Lothians I am broadly familiar with the city. But there were gaps in my knowledge, particularly in understanding how Edinburgh would have looked c.1800 (trust me, even seemingly old cities actually change an awful lot).

Thank goodness for books, and of course, the internet.

I thought today I’d share with you a couple of the absolute gems I’ve come across online during my lockdown research. The first is the Edinburgh World Heritage website, which contains a wealth of information about the old and new towns in the city. This is a really good starting point for anyone interested in the city’s history, and for finding interesting bits of information about individual streets and buildings. The second is the Maps Section of the National Library of Scotland website. I think I’ve lost count of how many hours I’ve spent poring over eighteenth century town plans, cross referencing streets and just generally building a mental image of the Edinburgh my characters inhabited.

North Bridge, Edinburgh, c.1809, from Wikimedia Commons.

In these past months, the internet has been an invaluable resource. If it was hard to imagine life without it before Covid, it seems impossible now. As an historical fiction writer, its importance to my research over these past months can’t be overstated. Quite simply, my latest project wouldn’t be happening without it.