Scarlet Stiletto- The gospel of cecily

Two posts in two days is unusual for me, but as I was writing yesterday’s post about Susanna Gale I was discussing the fictional story I’ll be working on as a result of the research for that post. In doing this I realised I hadn’t written anything about my recent win at the Scarlet Stiletto Awards. The Scarlet Stiletto Awards are a prize offered by Sisters in Crime Australia for Australian women writing crime short stories with a female protagonist. This year I entered my story The Gospel of Cecily and was lucky enough to take out the Cross-Genre Prize and third place overall.

So why is this relevant for Historical Ragbag? There’s a few reasons. One is because I’ve spoken about writing fiction here before and I wanted to give an example, a second is because the word limit for the story was 5000 words and I was right on the word count so I didn’t get the chance to write an historical note and thirdly because the story is about a real medieval woman.

So a little about the story first: The Gospel of Cecily takes us to Hereford in the Welsh Marches in the year 1200. Cecily, formerly Countess of Hereford, is reading when she is interrupted by shouts of a body in the library. What follows is an exploration through time, story and sorcery as Cecily and her friend Marcus trace the body, which inconveniently keeps reappearing, through Hereford’s illuminated manuscripts in the hope of saving a life.

As you can see from the description, there’s a fair bit beyond a straight historical narrative. What excited me most in writing it was putting Cecily front and centre and exploring the very real illuminated manuscripts that would have been at Hereford Cathedral at the time.

Not much is known about Cecily. She was the daughter of Pain FitzJohn a middle rank Anglo-Norman Baron and Sybilla who was probably a de Lacy- an important Marcher family (the Welsh Marches are the lands on the border of England and Wales). Cecily married Roger Earl of Hereford firstly then when he died in 1155 she probably married twice more. There really isn’t a great deal more known about her. If you’ve ever read Elizabeth Chadwick’s books she appears as a minor character in Shadows and Strongholds. In this book she’s a young woman, but when I appropriate her for my narrative in 1200 she is in the last years of her life, she probably died in around 1204. I have no proof she was in Hereford in 1200, but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. So she became my lead character.

The main reason I wanted to write about Hereford in 1200 was to include the illuminated manuscripts. I started with the Hereford Gospels (something I’ll write a longer post about on another day) which are magnificent 8th century illuminated gospel books probably made in Wales. They’re one of the treasures of the Hereford Cathedral Library. You can see some of the illuminations below.

But the collection of manuscripts in Hereford Library is much more extensive and I had a lot of fun using the catalogue to work out exactly what books would have been there in 1200 so my characters could explore the illuminations. Below are the illuminations that are specifically featured.

Leviticus- probably gifted to the library by Ralph Foliot- a canon at Hereford Cathedral by towards the end of the 12th century
Lamentations- definitely added to the library by 1200.
A psalter from pre 1200.
A psalter probably made in France but the property of the cathedral from pre 1200.

These are just some of the specific illuminations that inhabit the world of the story. While the books were why I set the story in Hereford I have also done my best to be faithful to the history of the cathedral itself. In 1200 the cathedral was in a bit of a state of flux as it was between Bishops. I have appropriated Dean Richard (the Dean was the head of the chapter of the Canons who were the ruling body of the cathedral), as he would probably have been the figure of authority without the presence of a Bishop. Nothing is known about him, so I’ve made his an overly officious antagonist to Cecily, that’s one of the nice things about fiction you can fill in gaps as you wish. I have also stayed as true as possible to the lay out of the cathedral. The story is set within the cathedral complex, and I’ve imagined the cathedral school as closer and slightly more organised than it probably was (again there isn’t a lot of information available), but the new Bishop’s Hall is based on early descriptions. You can see Hereford Cathedral as it stands now, below.

What you see now is partly 19th century as the west tower collapsed catastrophically in 1786 and major restoration works were undertaken in the early 1800s. They were based on the previous layout of the cathedral though. Really the room I have taken the most liberty with is the library, as it is unlikely that there was a room dedicated as a library in 1200, the books would have been stored in the places they were being used. I have tried to reflect this, by having some of the books in different areas of the cathedral and the complex, but narratively I needed a library so I’ve also had the library irretrievably damaged by sorcery which can of course explain its absence from history. Again there are many advantages to fiction.

I just wanted to finish with a brief mention of my other main character Marcus, he’s not an historical figure but does feature as a main character in my as yet unpublished historical fantasy novel set in 1185. So you may see him pop up again in the future.

I did want to include the chained library and the mappa mundi which Hereford Cathedral are rightly famous for, but sadly they were too late (chronologically) for my purposes.

That’s all really, I hope you’ve found the exploration of Hereford, its illuminated manuscripts and the process of incorporating them into a fictional narrative interesting and if you would like to read The Gospel of Cecily you can buy the ebook of all the stories for only $5.00 from Clandestine Press- it’s the 13th cut



Catalogue of the Manuscripts of Hereford Cathedral Library by R.A.B. Mynors and Rodney M Thomson

Site visit 2012

Hereford Cathedral information booklet

Chained Library information booklet

The photos are mine and the illuminations are from the above Catalogue

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