Saturday, 18 August 2018

Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff

For the historical novelist, primary sources are always a bit like finding your way through a maze. We are, in effect, looking back and reading what we would reasonably expect to be accurate. But, of course, this isn’t always the case. The old adage says that history is written by the winners and, for the most part it is, even today. Just look at the non-reporting of some events such as demonstrations and especially the number of protesters, against the policies of a sitting government.

When it comes to the mediaeval period, primary sources are not abundant. In the first of the new Gideon Rooke series, Loyalty in Conflict, I am writing about the events in March 1470 surrounding the most obscure of the battles in the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Empingham, sometimes called the Battle of Losecote Field. Despite spending almost a year researching this book (and being side-tracked quite a lot) it was only recently I found out the battle allegedly lasted a mere 45 minutes with Edward IV overcoming the Lincolnshire rebels led by Sir Robert Welles. This despite the king having less than 8,000 people in his army whereas Welles was leading a force of just under 15,000.

It is at times like these that reading the various sources, primary and otherwise can lead to utter confusion. More than one source says only Sir Richard Welles (Robert’s father) was beheaded whilst kneeling between the two armies, so that Robert could see Edward IV meant business. However, in the contemporary account Chronicle of the Rebellion in Lincolnshire 1470 edited in 1847 by John Gough Nichols, it clearly states that Sir Richard Welles and Sir Thomas Dymoke were both executed whilst kneeling between the two armies. Other accounts have Dymoke being executed in Stamford, but they are not written by the man on the spot at the time.

So I will go with this unnamed chronicler, who, although he is unashamedly on the king’s side and calls Edward’s traitorous brother that weak and worthless prince, George, Duke of Clarence, was there at the time. His account also tells of a servant of the worthless Duke of Clarence being found dead on the battlefield with a convenient casket of letters confirming the treachery of Clarence and the Earl of Warwick (usually known as Warwick the Kingmaker). What a convenient find.

More recent accounts throw doubt on whether the casket of letters ever existed at all and assert that it was propaganda for Edward to prove the treason of his brother and his cousin. And in the intervening 548 years, we have only to think of the Hitler Diaries, the casket letters of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the diamond necklace letter to Marie Antoinette, to know that this kind of propaganda still prevails.

The dilemma of trying to wade through thousands of words to get to the truth may at first glance be a cause of difficulty to the writer who wants to keep the history as true as possible, but it also provides that lifeblood called what-if? This is one of the most enjoyable aspects of planning a novel. The oooh moment: if he does that, I can make X do this. And, if you can cite a source that confirms your assertion, so much the better because it might just have happened the way your novel plan wants it to have happened. If it doesn’t, the answer to critics is But it’s fiction.

So, gentle reader, if I decide to accept one account and not another, you will have to accept that if my fiction meets your fact, my fiction will win.
 
April Taylor


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