Friday 28 July 2023

Is there history in your fiction? by Gillian Polack


So...I’m a fiction writer, but I also wrote a book called History and Fiction. A lot of this blogpost comes from the research I did for that. If you want ‘aha’ moments for when I borrow from myself, History and Fiction is the book to call up. The rest comes from more recent research. My new study of writers and writing is called Story Matrices

 History and Fiction: Writers, their Research, Worlds and Stories (Revised) - Polack, GillianStory Matrices - Polack, Gillian

First, my background. I am an ethnohistorian as well as a fiction writer. For History and Fiction I analysed novels using my background in historiography, but I also interviewed writers. Writers are wonderful people to ask probing questions of. I have 80,000 words of answers to prove this.

What was I researching? Different types of novelists hold different types of conversations with history. Also, most novelists hold different types of conversations with history to historians. Today I’ll focus on speculative fiction, with a lot of the Middle Ages, because I was, am, and always will be, a Medieval historian.

When I talk with writers about history, writers reply intimately, personally. Their answers give us amazing insights into how they work and think. The personal is the passion of the history in our fiction. These emotions are important for successful writers: many writers I’ve spoken to who don’t carry that emotion move onto other things or leave historical writing behind. This passion is not a question of ability or of writing skills, because those writers who moved on had short stories published and some have written novels not besotted with history. All the writers who had this passion for history, however, have had successful careers as writers of historical fiction, fantasy, time travel, young adult fiction, period mystery and more. I suspect that the passion for history carries emotion into the novel and helps connect with readers.

Quite simply, any novel where the writer is at a distance from their subject is going to carry a different emotional burden from the same type of novel written by someone who cares.

Before I go any further, I need to define the past and history. I would like us to be on the same page, rather than me on a page of vellum and you on a computer screen. It’s possible to communicate across vellum and a screen but it’s much easier if we use the same words. The past and history, those words, shift in definition so much that I’m going to choose one among many possibilities.

The past, then, here and now, is the temporal opposite to the future. The events in the past are gone. They are out of reach. They cannot be reconstructed in the exact shape they occurred. They cannot be revived. They are not a narrative. History is all narrative. It draws on evidence of the past and it interprets the past. Story is essential to it and fiction writers are some of the creators of this story. When we think about anything historical, we are thinking about the history, not the past. Mediated narrative. Story. The word ‘historia’ in fact, is the Latin word for story, and that’s no coincidence.

History in fiction is part of the world building and it’s essential to the story. I used this satirically in my own novel Poison and Light, where I had my planetary inhabitants re-invent the 18th century. They weren’t living in the past. They were living in their stories about the past. Not everyone told the same story. One character wants power, for example. Another wants the French Revolution. 


One of the most perfect examples of where the history is integral both to the world building and to the story is when Connie Willis pays homage to a work by Jerome K Jerome in To Say Nothing of the Dog. The novel is a delightful frivol in our imagined England and it holds together because of the way Willis depicts that imagined England using stuff many readers already recognise. The Thames of the story is not in a real place or time.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is a near-perfect demonstration of the fact that our invented worlds rest on what we know of history, how we see history, what games we want to play with history. When we write using a known bit of history, for instance, a new tale about Richard and the Princes in the Tower, we validate that. When we invent something that argues against common historical constructs, that’s different. We pull our opinions about history into story.

How novelists do this through using history is by bringing readers into a narrative based on an invented world that rests upon their own interpretation of history. This is partly the role of story, taking readers with it on a journey. A novel that doesn’t bring readers into its journey is very hard to read.

When a novelist chooses something familiar to readers, as Michael Crichton’s Timeline does with its sort-of-heroic Middle Ages, that validates the approach to the story and also expands the cultural validity of the historical constructs. Crichton’s book pushed more people into a particular Middle Ages, where a modern hobbyist could hold his own against professional fighters. Timeline still has so many fans, and to the best of my knowledge, not a single one of those fans are Medieval historians. In fact, because novels validate cultural constructs, unless those constructs are the same as the ones valued by historians, historians are likely to dislike them. Timeline is a wonderful example of this. So, also, is The Doomsday Book. What works for popular fiction can fail historians.

I was saying this, as is my wont, and Van Ikin (an Australian literary critic and academic) challenged me to prove it. I wrote my own Medieval history time travel novel, Langue[dot]doc 1305. When it was released, I watched my Medieval circles closely. I am still welcome in those circles, so my novel validated the way Medieval Studies people see the Middle Ages… but my novel will never sell well, because it doesn’t validate the constructs the wider public normally associates with the Middle Ages.

History in fiction is not about accuracy. It’s about meeting the needs of the novel and the expectations of readers. You can see how this works for yourselves if you read Timeline and compare it with Langue[dot]doc 1305. There are writers who are clever enough in both worlds to cross that divide. For the fantasy Middle Ages, the gold standard for this is Judith Tarr.

Fiction is way more important than we like to admit. It supports culture, it transmits culture and it changes culture. It helps us translate our own experience into words and constructs that help us move through our lives, and to interpret what’s going on. George RR Martin is a useful testing ground for this. Game of Thrones both validates people who want to break down rule of law, and allows others to appreciate the role of law in maintaining a stable society. Why did I bring up Westeros? Because that dual view of a lawful and a broken society that Martin shares is part of US culture. We’ve seen it playing out. Stories matter.

Stories help us interpret the past, and they underpin our own understanding of the world we live in. We use them to discover truth and to place ourselves in a cultural context, and more. And, for the record, religious stories also fill this function. Never dismiss the importance of religion in giving cultural validation. The fact that we live in largely Christian societies means that the ‘neutral’ position for novels is not actually neutral at all. It validates our Christianity-based societies. In Muslim countries, the neutral setting is Islam.

Tolkien’s cauldron of story is handy for understanding this. You can find it in his essay On Fairy Stories. People like me are the chemists who work out what element does which, but most writers and readers are looking for flavour and texture, a good solid meal, or a fine snack.

We don’t talk enough about what goes into that cauldron. History is not just one ingredient in the cauldron, but many. Think of cooking as an interpretative act. Choose ingredients, some fresh, some from the back of the cupboard. Choose how to chop them, how to cook them, how long to cook them, and everything else right to the moment the food is on the table in front of us, the consumers. That’s what writers do.

Let’s look at what a couple of writers interpret what they do with history, from my interviews.

Chaz Brenchley explainedmeeting Tolkien had ruined my writing life: I'd always wanted to write fantasy, but I spent my teenage writing bad Tolkien and then swore one of those great adolescent oaths that I would write no more fantasy until I had an original idea. Twenty years later, the postman delivered it, in the form of a brochure advertising a reprint of Stephen Runciman's history of the Crusades. People in exile from their own culture, at war on all their borders, at war between themselves, magic and mysticism and myth all around them”. Brenchley’s Outremer series was triggered by a specific emotional reaction to a particular moment in history.

Australian writer Dave Luckett was more pragmatic. He said, ‘the setting is a marker for a recognisable genre, and that in turn allows me to work with a set of conventions and reader expectations’. Except that Dave already had the emotional links and the knowledge from an undergraduate degree in Medieval Studies.

Most writers who use the Middle Ages in speculative fiction use it for craft reasons, with intellectual background added judiciously. Their work is read by the historians I mix with because mostly, it’s not seen as the Middle Ages. It’s seen as fantasy. Most historical fiction writers use reasons closer to those of historians to explain their writing and the way they research novels is somewhat closer to the way historians research. Kate Forsyth is a good example of this. This makes it harder for historians to read, because we can’t say to ourselves “It’s intended to be fantasy. It can't possibly be real.”

Franco-Australian fantasy author Sophie Masson says ‘I love the Middle Ages because they’re so full of fantastic stories, and peopled with such amazing and individualistic characters. I love the contrasts of the Middle Ages –the frankness, humour, passion, beauty and earthiness combined with spirituality, violence, craziness and chaos.’

Sophie’s statement is the most typical one of professional writers, and reflects what Chaz said. The writer’s relationship with the subject of the novel matters to both writer and reader.

The history of historians is a complex dynamic, a discourse, a set of never-ending conversations. History for historians is an interpretative bridge and history for novelists is whatever we need to make the story work, whether it’s drawn from the history of historians or if it’s invented because sources are hard to find and time is short. 

There are some important things that writers have to take into account when bringing history into their fiction.

First, M. K. Tod’s 2018 Historical Fiction Survey made it very clear that readers choose history in their fiction by subject matter and genre. Fantasy and science fiction readers mostly don’t want historical fiction – they want books that confirm to their ideas of subject and are fantasy or science fiction. The historian's Middle Ages is way less important for most readers, then, than what novels tell us about the Middle Ages. This is another of the reasons that Willis is a best seller for The Doomsday Book and I never was for Langue[dot]doc 1305. I don’t meet wider reader expectations, and I can’t because I addressed the expectations of Medievalists in my novel. It’s not the past novelists bring to life, it’s what we tell ourselves ought to be the past.

How we tell the stories is also important.

Every novel has a built world. Where we don’t consciously and carefully construct our world, we draw on things we already know, or think we know. We introduce elements of diaculture, shared cultural knowledge that we think the readers will enjoy or that will help our story along.

Even when we write history into our fiction with great care, the history is often going to be subsumed by the other things we bring into our built world, ranging from tropes, stereotypes, popular assumptions, to stuff from our lived experience. This is one reason why Medieval fantasy novels used to contain so much stew. It’s why some novels set in London contain much rain. Dan Abnett’s Triumff does, and so does the opening of my own The Green Children Help Out. In both cases, it’s a way of showing place that’s part of the way readers expect see the place.

Where a trope, stereotype, popular assumption or lived experience is easy to hand, it can replace what we know historically about a place or time. For example, 17th century Jewish life is mostly missing from Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver: she uses her own understanding to create the story. 

What we ourselves have lived through, from what we eat and what we learn, to how we walk down the street, what we dream of, what we complain about, what we remember, these create our personal historical experience. Only a tiny, tiny number of people in the world share most of our personal experiences. Unless we research it and question it, however, the world view we carry every day developed through these experiences is the world view we carry into our fiction. This is why so many novels in English have a Christian underpinning to their world view even when they’re written by atheists.

To make it worse, not all Christianity is the same. The current kerfuffle about whether Tolkien created a Christian world or not changes in nature according to whether you’re looking at the built world in his fiction, or his private life. There is overlap. There is always overlap. Our personal experience of history is a deep part of our culture. So many US friends of mine identify major events by what they were doing at the time of that major event. These remembered moments are very handy for fiction writers, because they give moments of shared understanding that help the novel along. This element of US culture reaches into novels written outside the US.

One of the best examples in English literature of a writer demonstrating how experience translates into history is, of course in Octavia Butler’s Kindred. That book is brilliant. A contrasting one is Franz Kafka’s The Castle. They both articulate horrendous everyday experiences and translate them into fiction using history. Readers get entirely different messages from the work of both writers, depending on how they themselves can translate historical knowledge and lived experience into the world of the story. For some readers, the history isn’t visible in Kafka. Others describe it as the Jewish Narnia. For still others, it is fable-like and unreal.

There is no single correct interpretation. Experience translated into fiction is about relationships between the writer and their writing, between the writing and the reader.

What we think we know about the past, what we share with other people, is a big source of emotion in fiction... and of bias. That bias can become the story. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo's Dream paints Galileo as the Great Man in a Great Moment, that is so much part of what most people think history is. It’s the application of a particular cultural interpretation to history. 

 Without Robin Hood and Arthur and Troy as wishes for what history contained, our novels would be much poorer. More historically accurate, but not nearly as much fun. If you want a fun comparison of different cultural interpretations and their effect on the history in a novel, compare the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer with Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series.

What is most important for any approach to history in fiction, however, is credibility: a reader’s capacity to trust the story triumphs. Connie Willis’ ‘facts’ in The Doomsday Book are actually tidbits that enable the reader to trust that the history is credible, because many readers believe that history is full of facts, because, to be honest, school history is full of facts. Verisimilitude is another thing that can convey credibility: this thing is depicted in a way that is real-seeming to the reader. Claire G Coleman creates a science fictional future in Terra Nullius and draws her verisimilitude from Australian history. Both facts and verisimilitude rest very heavily on the reader’s background, rather than on the history of a place or time.

All novelists make decisions relating to their work. We’ve talked about some of them, but let me add two more.

Do I reinforce the reality of the past, through using writing techniques that help the reader situate themselves in the time of the novel?” The choices in writing techniques usually relate to the genre of the novel, because so much of the marketing is done through genre. The genre signals push the reader just as choosing a genre pushes the writer into how probable their history has to be, how much telling detail they need, and how to make the story credible. Language, clothes, mapping a submarine in Peter Dickinson’s Emma Tupper’s Diary, period illustrations in Jack Finney’s Time and Again – there are many techniques. Harry Turtledove uses telling detail spectacularly in the opening of The Guns of the South and Joan Aiken fills her fiction with grime and doom to bring her readers into her version of the Industrial Revolution.

Credibility is critical. If a reader can’t see the story as possible, then they don’t accept the story. Credibility is, however, a shifty thing. Historical fiction requires a sense of ‘this history is real’ so the writer needs a closer acquaintance with the history of historians. Every single writer in the History Girls (except maybe me) is an excellent example as this.

The more formulaic a genre is – and here I’m thinking of quest adventures, romance, and mystery – the more historical detail shores up the formula rather than working independently of it. The ultimate formulaic sub-genres in this respect are those that are represented by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and much fantasy that claims a Medieval backdrop.

The bottom line is that novels are not one-size-fits-all and that history in novels reflect the nature of a given novel. All novels are interpretive acts, and that the nature of the interpretation rests on the nature of the act. The form of the story, the content, and even the writing style affect how history is depicted.

This is an edited and abbreviated version of a talk I gave at Balticon, in May 2022. If you’d like the complete version, ask here:

Friday 21 July 2023

From Spanish Horror Into French Hell

Maggie Brookes

When one story ends, another begins. My novel Acts of Love and War finishes in 1939 as my protagonists leave war-torn Spain and cross into France. They have experienced the horrors of the brutal civil war, but also helped to save the lives of hundreds and thousands of children by joining the small band of humanitarian aid workers.

It is thought that by November 1938 there were more than a million refugees in Catalonia, escaping General Franco's army. They toiled up into the Pyrenees, often on foot, ill shod and not clothed warmly enough for winter in the mountains, knowing that Franco's fascists executed Republican sympathisers without mercy. The long column of fleeing refugees was strafed by Italian and Spanish planes. Thousands of people began to congregate in border towns like Puigcerda, and the relief organisations ran mobile canteens to feed them.

But reaching the French border was only the beginning of further trials to come. To begin with the French had closed the border, and no Spaniards were allowed to leave the country. The French government feared that the Spanish 'Reds' would spread communism into France, and didn't want to anger Franco's powerful fascist allies Hitler and Mussolini. However the Spanish - French border in the Pyrenees crosses open fields and rivers, and local people were able to direct refugees to un-manned crossing points. To the locals it was all Catalonia.

The refugees had been starving for months or even years, because the farmlands of Spain were in Franco's hands, and the only food was being supplied by foreign governments and charities. They hoped that when they crossed into France where food was plentiful, they would be treated with kindness, expecting a country of liberté, égalité, fraternité which respected human rights. A few were taken in by French Catalans, but for the majority, a new terror was beginning.

On January 26 Barcelona fell to General Franco, and on the 28th the French government opened the border, but only to women and children, splitting families. It is difficult to imagine the misery of these starving people crossing the border to escape bitter reprisals, and discovering that families could legally be torn apart. Women, children, the elderly and the infirm were sent to accommodation centres, not knowing when or if they would see their menfolk again. They were dispersed to nearly two thousand barracks, factories, fortresses and prisons, scattered all over France.

At every crossing point on the border, civilian refugees and soldiers were pushing to be let into France. Then, on February 5th, the French government opened the border but designated all Spanish asylum seekers as 'undesirables'. This label meant that they could be imprisoned without trial. The massive influx of half a million people into France which followed has been named La Retirada (Spanish for Retreat).

About 100,000 men were herded towards a so called 'internment camp' on the beach at Argeles-sur-Mer, and about 60,000 to Saint-Cyprien. No preparation had been made for them, except to enclose a section of treeless beach with barbed wire.

 This was early February and it was bitterly cold. There was no shelter, no means to build fires and the drinking water was salty. They dug holes in the sand to sleep in, though three feet down they hit water. For weeks there were no latrines. A similar internment camp soon followed at Le Bacares. It was a place of unspeakable squalor. Hundreds fell ill, or died of pneumonia, dysentery, typhoid or of gangrene in untended wounds. An estimated 15,000 died of dysentery and related diseases in the beach camps.

Quaker aid worker Dr Audrey Russell, said at the time, 'I have seen such awful things that I have no feeling left. There has never been anything so horrible as this since the Middle Ages. The French authorities refused all help at the beginning. They turned away the Swiss Red Cross vans that had come to save the wounded. They seized the Spanish ambulances, mobile operating theatre and hospital instruments and would not let them be used. And we were not allowed to help.'

As well as being imprisoned behind barbed wire, the prisoners were guarded by a special branch of the gendarmerie and Senegalese troops.  The photojournalist Robert Capa said 'for sport many mounted and armed French guards beat up dying men … One night in February seventeen died of exposure and were buried where they lay.' 
Prisoners who retaliated were perceived to be 'troublemakers' and sent to a punishment camp at Collioure.

Over the next weeks, the prisoners made shelters for themselves out of blankets, rags, bits of tent, corrugated iron, or by burrowing into the sand. One group of fishermen from Santander stole along the shore at night, gathered reeds and built a hut tall enough to stand up in. Seventeen men lived there. The French immediately installed guards to stop any other people gathering reeds.

 Just outside the main camp at Argeles-Sur-Mer two hundred women with a hundred and sixty children were living in le Arenes, a former bullring. Their husbands were in the camp and they had threatened to kill themselves if they were not allowed to be near them. The French had given in but said the women must all have their heads shaved or go to prison. The head shaving commenced but many women were crying so much that in the end the guards didn't have the hear to continue.

Inside the beach camps, the authorities set up huts they called hospitals, but there wasn't enough room in them for all the sick and wounded. The prisoners who were well enough tried to maintain their morale by forming choirs, playing sports, running adult classes and creating works of art.

In the spring of 1939 the beach camps were emptied out. The French authorities tried to recruit the prisoners to the Foreign Legion, but those who didn't want to go were moved to 'concentration camps' spread over the South of France where they were to be joined after the German occupation (from May 1940) by other 'undesirables' including Jews.

The camp of Gurs was a vast sea of huts on a flat plain a little north of the Pyrenees. In the winter it was a sea of mud, in the summer, parched and dry. There were many Basques in this camp, a large contingent of airmen, and a number of International Brigaders. They faced a future of slave labour in Nazi occupied France.

However, many Spaniards escaped and joined the French resistance and in 1944, they took part in the liberation of a number of French regions. The first armoured vehicle to enter Paris in August 1944 was driven by Spanish Republicans.

At the end of the second world war, around 150,000 Spaniards stayed in France. Others went to Mexico. They would have been killed by Franco's regime if they'd tried to return to their homes. Spain was not safe again for them until 1975 when Franco died.

Grateful thanks to P-O Life. Life in the Pyrénées-Orientales, for photographs 1, 2 and 4.

Friday 14 July 2023

A visit to the Cathedral Church of St Michael in Coventry.... by Adèle Geras

Back in early April,  Celia Rees, of this parish, Linda Newbery and I met in Coventry with the express purpose of visiting the Cathedral of St Michael.  We felt  quite triumphant when we got together because we'd been trying to arrange this outing since before the Pandemic.  Something always came up....and we felt at times as though we'd never make it, but at last we succeeded. 
I took the photograph below at a station, as I was on my way. I'm afraid I can no longer remember whether it's Nuneaton Station or Coventry and Google won't help me. was on the way to meet Linda and Celia that I saw it and it lifted my spirits in  a way that I felt boded well for the whole day. 

 After meeting up and a bit of mild rejoicing that here we were at last,  we walked along to the Cathedral. Celia, who knows Coventry well and has visited often, led the way and I was delighted to see the sky with its dramatic clouds, reflected on a the walls of a rather impressive modern building.

And of course, Coventry wouldn't be Coventry  without Lady Godiva.

But we were here to visit the Cathedral. I've known about it since childhood and can't understand why it's taken me 60 years to get to see it. I can remember when it was consecrated in 1962. I was still at Roedean School, and we knew all about it. Our Art teachers had kept us up to date as it was being constructed. Its progress mirrored my school life and there were frequent photographs in the press between 1956 and 1962. I was at school from 1955-1962.

The photograph above and the next three photographs that follow  show the ruins of what was left of the Cathedral after it was bombed in November, 1940.  The decision taken to leave the ruins as they were and raise a new Cathedral alongside them was an inspired one. What it means is: anyone who approaches the present day Cathedral, designed by Sir Basil Spence, has to walk through the's a sobering experience and one that ensures that the events of 1940 can never be forgotten. 

But the emphasis everywhere here is on Forgiveness. There are many, many references to it  all over the Cathedral.  All the art is uplifting. Nothing is grim, nothing is forbidding.  Anyone who has visited this place will notice that I didn't photograph the Graham Sutherland tapestry and there's a reason for that. Ever since I first saw a reproduction of it as a schoolchild, I'm afraid I have not liked it at all. I apologise for this....I had hoped that when I saw it in real life, I might change my mind, but alas, I didn't. Readers who would like to see it can find it on Google easily. 

What I loved best in the Cathedral was the West Screen: a wall of glass etched with flying angels. It's known as the Screen of Saints and Angels. This is the work of John Hutton and it's completely beautiful. It truly does give the impression that angels are trapped in the glass. The three photos below give some impression but  you have to see the real thing to get the full effect.

The other highlight of the visit for me was seeing the  Baptistry Window. This photo doesn't do it justice. You need the light. Even postcards of the Window can't convey how beautiful it is. It was designed by John Piper and made by Patrick Reyntiens and there are 195 panes of glass in colours ranging from white to the deepest possible reds and blues. 

But the message of the Cathedral  is reconciliation. Below is the Charred Cross. It's made from two of the medieval roof beams, found in the rubble of the Cathedral when it was bombed.  A Cathedral groundsman called Jock Forbes set up this sign of Christ's suffering instinctively. The beams were bound together and placed first in the Sanctuary of the Ruins. In 1978, it was brought to its present site, inside the Cathedral. The beams were first held in place with medieval roof nails. The original Cross of Nails has become a symbol for peace and reconciliation, recognised all over the world. 

While we were having lunch, we realised that we hadn't been to see the statue of St Michael's victory over the Devil, by Jacob Epstein. This has become the best - known artwork associated with the Cathedral. To me, it says: even with forgiveness, and even with reconciliation, we must also acknowledge the work of the Devil and strive to overcome it. We didn't have the energy to go back so we will  have to visit again. I'm very happy to start planning a second trip.  And I was pleased that I'd found  a St Michael fridge magnet in the gift shop. 

Friday 7 July 2023

How do you dig a Siege Tunnel?

If you've ever been to St Andrews you'll know it's not only the home of golf and site of Scotland's oldest university but the town itself is steeped in history. Once a great centre of pilgrimage, the cathedral was left in ruins after the Scottish Reformation in 1560. Although I grew up in St Andrews the ruins were simply part of the backdrop of daily life. I was twelve years old before our history teacher, Miss Grubb, took us to visit what was left of the cathedral.

St Andrews Cathedral

We also visited the castle where there is there is the most remarkable siege tunnel, dug in 1546 and the best surviving example of siege tunnelling in Europe from the era.

St Andrews Castle

You enter it from the side of the dry moat via a steep and uneven few steps. Almost immediately you're bent double and for anyone who is at all claustrophobic a quick retreat is in order.

Entrance to Siege Tunnel

Creeping down the central trench, at constant risk of scraping your back on the rough stone above, you come to a fork which leads to a dead end. You retreat and continue along the main tunnel, the sense of being squeezed growing ever greater until you can barely draw breath. Then suddenly the narrow passage ends. There's a wall of rock before you and nowhere to go. Yet looking down you spy an entrance hole.

Dare you squash yourself throughand descend the metal ladder to find out what’s below? Down you tentatively go and the space opens out. 

The tunnel is a tale of two halves and this part is broad and high with steps leading to the sealed off entrance beneath a house in North Street. There’s also a grating visible, which my brother and his friends entertained themselves during school lunchbreaks by howling down from the street above, to terrify (or perhaps create atmosphere for) the tourists beneath.

From the moment I first went down the siege tunnel at St Andrews Castle I was utterly entranced. And when I learned the men who had taken the castle early one morning by stealth, murdered its cardinal in revenge for the burning of a Protestant preacher, and held it against all comers for the next fourteen months called themselves 'the castilians' I felt a shiver of foreknowledge. What a perfect title for a book, I thought… I didn't know then how very long it would take me to write it!

I did however always wonder what the point of tunnelling in was. Surely as soon as the besiegers popped their head up out of the tunnel it would likely be knocked off? When I came to do the research for The Castilians I finally understood.

The information is in the name – I have so far referred to this long underground passage as a siege tunnel and was confused as a schoolgirl why it was called the mine and counter mine.

It was never the intention of Mary Queen of Scots forces (we are in the period of regency and Mary is only 3 years old) to tunnel into the castle, capture the Protestants holding it and thus break the siege. The purpose of digging was to undermine the curtain wall, set explosives beneath it, bring it down and then storm the castle.

This is why, when you go down the tunnel/mine it's a tale of two halves. The first part is low and narrow and clearly dug at great speed. Once you climb down the iron ladder into the second part it's wide and high.

The besiegers began to dig in what was then known as Northgait, now North Street, at the back of a house, and hidden from those patrolling the castle walls. The aim was to dig secretly and deep until they gauged they were beneath the curtain wall. They'd then support the roof of the mine with wooden props, set explosives around the props, light fires and run fast as they could out the tunnel before it blew. The explosion would bring down part of the wall, the troops would charge and the castle would be re-taken.

But…this is the great era of siege warfare and those who are holding the castle are well aware their besiegers will likely try to get them out by undermining the walls. One of the ways those inside the castle could ascertain if mining was happening was to set up bowls of water around the courtyard and see if the water was rippling – a sign of underground activity.

False Start

In the case of the siege of St Andrews Castle those within were fairly certain the besiegers were tunnelling in. The aim then was to counter mine out as fast as they could and intercept the mine before the besiegers got beneath the curtain wall. 

The challenge was to work out where the besiegers were actually digging if they were to intercept them and inside the castle there are a couple of very deep holes to be found – false starts. Eventually they found the right spot… here's an exert from The Castilians

They hear sounds of alarm; it seems they are discovered. Any attempt to stay quiet is given up and they excavate as hard and fast as they can. Someone has fetched Richard Lee and he pushes past Will, directing them to attack the ground beneath, and not before them.

‘We must be quick,’ he hisses, ‘else they’ll have time to set explosives and blow us into eternity.’

Will shovels the rubble behind him to keep the area clear for the miners to work – there’s no time to scuttle back up the passageway with it now. A hole has appeared in the floor of the tunnel. Lee has a man shield the candles, whispering that he needs it dark to see if there’s torchlight shining through from below.

Will, Lee and the two miners all huddled tight together nudge one another: light is shining through. They enlarge the hole, cries beneath them growing loud, then fading. Lee kneels at the edge, and sticks his head through. Will can feel Lee’s body tense, ready to pull his head back. He is a brave man. They wait.

Lee lifts his head out and smiles. ‘It could not be more perfect.’

I still wonder at the amazing feat to dig, and dig so fast. There’s little reference to it in the papers of the time. The French ambassador to the English Court mentions the mine and counter-mine in his letters of November 1546, but by December it’s over and the attempt to break the siege has failed again…

St Andrews Castle

If you’re ever in St Andrews Castle, don’t forget to go down the mine and counter-mine. The entrance is not obvious to find, sited as it in the side of the dry moat. It’s one of the most atmospheric places you’ll ever visit.

And in answer to the question, how do you dig a siege tunnel…by cunning, subterfuge, courage, determination and punishingly hard work.

The Castilians, the first in series of The Seton Chronicles is available as an ebook, print and audio book.

For USA click here