I'm not totally unaware of my road as I step outside my door and sniff the air - I know my destination – I even know some of the major places I intend visiting along my way, but at this stage all the smaller stops in between remain a mystery, as does much of the landscape. How are my characters going to go from what they are at the moment to the changed people they will be at the end of the novel - after I have put them through the wringer? That is the irresistible challenge and enticement.
I need to consider the history and the landscape that will shape their personalities, their interactions, the structure of the narrative. At this stage I only have a general notion of that aspect. I now have to acquire that knowledge and in so doing, begin to map my roads. You would think that after more than forty years of dedicated historical research into the twelfth century I'd be au fait with it all by now but that's not true. The more I learn, the more I realise how little I actually know.For my new project I am revisiting William Marshal, whose life story I covered in THE GREATEST KNIGHT and THE SCARLET LION, the former novel a New York Times bestseller and the latter nominated by Richard Lee, founder of the Historical Novel Society as one of his top ten works of historical fiction in the decade between 2000 and 2010. Since writing those novels I have continued to study the Marshal as a personal project and have gained an increased knowledge and understanding of him and his family. I was asked to give the Founder's Day Lecture at Cartmel Priory in 2011 to celebrate William's life and I have given talks about him at a few academic venues. I also had my brains picked for several hours on behalf of historian Thomas Asbridge by his researcher Catherine Stefanini for his BBC TV programme on the Marshal in 2014.
A part of the Marshal's life I didn’t cover in my earlier novels about him except on a very superficial level was the period he spent on pilgrimage between 1183 and 1186 following the tragic death of his young lord Henry the Young King, eldest son of Henry II. Partly this decision was taken in order to keep down the word count of the novel because commercial publishing has its constraints, especially if one wants to sell in overseas markets. and my agent keeps a stern eye on that factor. Another reason was that very little is known about what William actually did on his pilgrimage and it would have taken a tremendous amount of extra time to research the historical background of the Middle East for that particular section of the novel, and the digression would have diverted the narrative mainstream flow. I took the decision to cover his sojourn in the Middle East with brevity and skim over it.
Nevertheless, the subject of what William Marshal did on that pilgrimage has continued to tug at me and with it a growing conviction that it really has to be written. I need to know what happened to him during that time because the experience must have had a huge impact on him and been a vitally important part of the great man he was to become, and yet we know so little - although much can be extrapolated and mined from delving into books on the subject. I have taken a conscious decision to call his experience a pilgrimage rather than a crusade because I believe it was an immense personal journey of the soul.
The novel has the working title of TEMPLAR SILKS (which I very much hope will be its final title when published). It’s a reference to William Marshal’s burial shrouds, which I knew were going to be the start of my journey and the compass on my road. Why should these be so important? One of the few things we do know about William Marshal’s time in the Holy Land is that he obtained his own shrouds in the form of two pieces of silk of ‘choice workmanship’. He brought them home with him and then put them away out of sight, not telling anybody until he was on his deathbed and it was time to send for them to the castle where they were being kept. That in itself tells us a great deal about William's personality. His control, his ability and wish to keep the personal things out of the public eye.
"Bring me the two lengths of silk cloth which I gave to Stephen to look after."
And then when they arrived:
"Look at this fine cloth here!'
"Indeed my lord (says his retainer Henry FitzGerold), but I can tell you that I find them a little faded unless my eyesight is blurred."
The Earl replied: "Unfold them so that we might be in a better position to judge!"
And once the lengths of cloth had been unfolded, they looked very fine and valuable, choice cloth of good workmanship. He called for his son and his knights to come before him and once they were all present he said: 'My lords, just look here! I've had these lengths of cloth for thirty years; I had them brought back with me from the Holy Land, to be used for the purpose which they will now serve; my intention has always been that they will be draped over my body when I am laid in the earth; that was the destination I had in mind for them.'
.... "These are my wishes, with the Templars is where I shall lie, for so I have vowed and arranged it."
Source: The History of William Marshal vol II edited by a.J. Holden with English translation by S. Gregory and historical notes by D. Crouch. Published by the Anglo Norman Text Society Occasional Publications series number 5 2004.
We don’t know the colour of the shrouds or anything about them, only that they were of high quality. We don’t even know how he came by them. Some biographies say he ‘bought’ them, but the only source we have for the incident says not that he 'bought' them but that he ‘obtained’ them. Which could mean many things. And since at the time William was a man of limited means and on a budget, purchasing two lengths of expensive silk cloth was quite likely to have been outside of his means. I have already decided what my version is, but now I have to bring him to that moment via a journey of epic proportions, both his and mine. It's daunting, exciting, a moment to savour as I hoist my pack, take that first step away from my door and embark on a pilgrimage.
Here are just some of my reading list books for TEMPLAR SILKS. Some I've already devoured, others I've dipped into. Yet others await their moment. And already my path is rolling out before me, full of rich and textured possibility.
Elizabeth Chadwick is an award winning author of 22 historical novels. Her latest work The WINTER CROWN, the second novel in her Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy is published in paperback in the UK on the 17th of November.