Authors: Priscilla Royal
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Historical
Walsingham was a famous East Anglian pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages, on a par with Canterbury and even Santiago de Compostela on the continent. There is some debate over when the Holy House was first built under the direction of a local widow, Richelde de Fervaques. Some claim it was 1061, but J. C. Dickinson gives a compelling argument for the earlier part of the twelfth century. In any case, the Church and faithful believed it was the only site in England where the Virgin Mary had visited; thus the wells and the Holy House of the Annunciation on the grounds of Walsingham Priory would have been a suitable pilgrimage destination for Prioress Eleanor had she been real herself.
The tale of the Holy House being moved is part of the legend. When the house could not be successfully finished by the local carpenters, Richelde undertook a nightlong vigil, hoping to receive an inspired solution. Early the next morning, she looked outside to see five angels leaving the finally completed house which had also been moved to a spot deemed more suitable by the Queen of Heaven.
When Richelde’s son, Geoffrey, returned from crusade in the mid-1100s, he founded Walsingham Priory to enclose and protect the Holy House. From descriptions left, the two-story structure (approximately 23 feet, 6 inches by 12 feet, 10 inches) looked more like an English dwelling than anything from Nazareth, but, despite the rich gifts left around it, the house was as simple as Prioress Eleanor described. All was destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII, who had been a devotee in his earlier life, but the shrine has been recreated in modern times and remains a popular pilgrimage site today.
While Canterbury badges were considered superior in quality; Walsingham produced many more badges, according to archaeological evidence. The badges were contracted out to craftsmen, and most were the cheapest blend of tin and lead. Stone molds were used to form them, a craft that required much skill. Sadly, not much is known about the men who made these molds in the late thirteenth century.
Among the other relics in Walsingham was a vial allegedly containing dried breast milk from the Virgin Mary, although she was not supposed to have left any part of her earthly existence behind when she ascended to heaven. One other relic of note was St. Peter’s knuckle bone, although Erasmus, in the early sixteenth century, concluded that the saint must have had been a giant if such a huge bone belonged to him. I have been unable to confirm that these specific items were in Walsingham in 1277. There is evidence of
, but the only documentary proof of these two specific ones is from the 1290s. I opted to assume that Geoffrey probably brought these two objects back from crusade.
The famous Slipper Chapel, where pilgrims left their shoes to walk the rest of the Pilgrim’s Mile to the Holy House, did not exist until the mid-1300s, but there was a tradition of removing shoes and walking some distance long before the chapel was built. Prioress Eleanor followed the custom.
Ryehill Priory, Prioress Ursell, Father Vincent, and the box containing strands of Mary’s hair never existed. But Ryehill with its financial problems was typical of many religious houses in the era. Since priories and abbeys had to be self-supporting, and the smaller ones often lacked rich patrons, the leaders of places like Ryehill usually struggled to feed and clothe their monks or nuns. Some monastics actually starved, their bodies discovered dressed in tatters.
Edward I did go on pilgrimage to the Walsingham shrines at the time mentioned in this story. He visited on Palm Sunday of 1277 while on a journey to acquire 200,000 crossbow bolts from St. Briavel’s Castle for his men invading Wales. The story behind his attachment to the Lady of Walsingham, whom he believed had inspired him to move from his chess game before a large piece of masonry fell where he had been sitting, is true. How she got the message to him is unknown, but he became even more devoted to her shrine than his deeply religious father, Henry III.
As for threats to King Edward’s life, he may have become one of England’s more highly regarded monarchs after his death, but he had plenty of enemies in his lifetime. The idea of a plot to kill him is not unreasonable.
He had angered many during the second Barons’ War under Simon de Montfort, selling out friends and bonding with former enemies to survive. Nor was he beloved by those in the Holy Land against whom he fought. Before Edward returned to England after the death of his father, Sultan Baybars (most likely) sent an assassin to kill him in Acre. Although the king never went back to the Holy Land, he frequently said he wanted to do so. Those who hoped he might never travel again to Outremer surely considered ways to keep him from fulfilling that dream. As for the Welsh and the Scots, they did not love this warrior with a penchant for invasions.
Many learned quickly that Edward was far more dangerous than his less bellicose and more easily manipulated father. It should not surprise if they spent much time praying that Edward I would not have a long reign, while seeking some way of making sure he didn’t
Throughout history, there have always been spies. Although the system in thirteenth century England may not have been as sophisticated as the one in place during the reign of Elizabeth I, every side had eyes and ears in every other camp. As for women acting as spies, they existed. During the de Montfort rebellion, a woman named Margoth, disguised as a man, alerted Prince Edward that the troops at Kenilworth under de Montfort’s son, Simon, had taken few precautions to protect themselves. Thanks to her good information, Edward attacked the young Simon’s army with devastating effects, and the battle at Evesham became a victory for the royalist cause. How she was compensated, why she did this, and what happened to her afterward are unknown. Once she performed her task, like the most successful of spies, she disappeared from view.
It is difficult to prove the sexuality of those historical characters from the Middle Ages whose behavior might lie outside the socially approved. We do not have Facebook for daily confessions. We lack secreted videotapes of what really happened in those medieval haylofts, and we can’t interview the people themselves. So we make assumptions, perhaps correct, maybe not, but we do the best we can with the often imprecise but surviving evidence. The same problem exists in creating fictional characters who are intended to represent credible behavior and people in an era.
From tales, poems, riddles, histories, and legal records, we know that the average medieval heterosexual had sex at times and in ways forbidden by the Church, got abortions, acquired divorces and committed bigamy, formed long and often acknowledged relationships unsanctioned by the requisite officials, and even used contraceptive methods known at the time. We also know, from many sources, that society has always justified forbidden practices, ignored them, or simply redefined them into socially acceptable ones when there was a compelling reason to do so. The Victorians may have been masters at ignoring the obvious or skillfully reinventing the meaning, but they did not invent the art. We humans have always been flexible when it suited us.
So what about gay people? Unfortunately, we do not have a lot of indisputable information about the practices of medieval gay men and women, especially those who successfully survived, and even formed longtime relationships, without suffering religious or secular punishments.
Criminal records are always problematic. They say a great deal about one person or an individual event but less about what was going on in the broader world. Church punishments and admonitions are also flawed. The term
for instance, has many definitions, most of which do not refer to homosexual practices at all. As for common social practices, such as sharing a bed or even forming a bond of brotherhood, none are evidence of homosexual behavior, but to say that sexual relations did not take place within them is equally inaccurate.
In order to create a portrait of a medieval gay man or woman, we should start with the nature of certain social expectations and consider implications. The most important one is medieval marriage and the fact that it was rarely a love match. In the middle to high social ranks, it was primarily a contract intended to bond families for political and economic reasons as well as to stabilize society and produce the children expected for all the above reasons. Although love was not the initial impetus, there was a general hope that it would develop or that the partnership would at least become tolerable. Marriage, for the secular society, was also a way to define when a boy became a man.
Durant of Norwich, no matter what he felt about other men, would probably have married unless he chose the religious life. Quite likely he wanted children. In his case, he was fortunate enough to marry a woman with whom he formed a compatible relationship, and they were both eager to have a family. But marriage left him unsettled and vulnerable to seeking elsewhere for the deep bonding he lacked with his wife, a situation also common with heterosexuals in less than satisfactory marriages. Like many medieval men in his situation, he had recourse to male prostitutes as well as other men who also found solace in secret.
For those who argue that Durant could not be gay because he slept with his wife, cared about her, and was eager to have a family, I point to the extensive documentary evidence from other eras during which homosexuals hid to avoid persecution and were as ignorant as their heterosexual counterparts about their equal part in the human condition. The story of Oscar Wilde may be the most famous, but one of the richest sources comes from the post-World War II era.
According to much individual testimony of that time, gay men and women often did marry but never lost the sense that
a very common phrase. Of these, some divorced and later formed a permanent bond with a partner of the same gender. Others continued the approved form of marriage for too many reasons to list and either had secret lovers or cruised the night streets much as Durant did over seven hundred years ago. Despite our greater knowledge of sexuality and improved, but hardly complete, tolerance, some continue to fall into this pattern today, a potential cause of profound anguish for both spouses.
Historical fiction, like most human endeavors, may contain factual errors, but the writers of the best works are passionate about accuracy. Their books serve an important function within the broader study of history by bringing our ancestors alive to a wide audience of fiction readers and making historical events feel immediate. If we see ourselves in those characters and understand how their times resonate with ours, we might be more inclined to avoid some of the errors they wish they had.
To the scholars who inspire me, I am grateful and, in thanks, always mention a few books that might intrigue other readers as well. This time, I offer the following with the understanding that far more are available to tempt the reader:
The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham
, by J. C. Dickinson, Cambridge University Press, 1956.
Miracles and Pilgrims: Popular Beliefs in Medieval England
, by Ronald C. Finucane, St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others
, by Ruth Mazo Karras, Routledge, 2005.
A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain
, by Marc Morris, Windmill, 2008.
Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges
, by Brian Spencer, Boydell, 2010.
Pilgrimages: the Great Adventure of the Middle Ages
, by John Ure, Carroll & Graf, 2006.
Pilgrimage in Medieval England
, by Diana Webb, Hambledon and London, 2000.
For other books, upcoming author events, or more information please go to:
To receive a free catalog of Poisoned Pen Press titles,
please contact us in one of the following ways:
Poisoned Pen Press
6962 E. First Ave. Ste 103
Scottsdale, AZ 85251