I am a self-confessed bibliophile. You only have to walk into my study, bedroom, bathroom, or in fact any room in my house to know that I speak the truth. I am surrounded by books in all their glorious shapes, sizes and bindings. There is nothing more reassuring than the smell and feel of a book as you hold it in your hand and unfurl its pages. It has the power to take you through time, to transport you to worlds real or otherwise, to explore the views and opinions of others whilst all the time growing the boundaries of your own world and understanding. They are the sources of adventure, they are companions and they are the keys to knowledge. For all their mystic abilities books though cannot give you the complete picture. Every so often you need to round up your begrudging/willing friends and hit the road.
It is too easy to spend a great deal of time absorbed into the world of books, manuscripts and many other things stored in the archives when researching. I myself can be guilty of this habit. A world of books is my go to place. It reassures me. But getting out on location to see first hand the realities of my subject is priceless and I highly recommend it.
I have been researching Edward II for nearly twenty years and in that time, no more so than in the last two, I have taken every opportunity to travel around the country seeking out places the king visited, besieged, held parliaments, fought battles or was imprisoned. There is nothing more powerful than standing in these locations, pushing your skills of analysis and subsequent interpretation to their limits as you begin to unpick the world in which your key characters lived. Writing a historical biography about a medieval personality where you only catch direct yet fleeting glimpses of your key subject, means being on the ground is even more relevant. To look first hand at what you see, to test theories and challenge ideas in those spaces that have survived over the last 700 years, and in which your character inhabited, is vitally important. It adds another layer to your interpretation, another window in which to peer through.
For me this was no more relevant than my recent visit with friends to Stirling Castle in Scotland. Stirling, or rather the valley below the castle, was the scene of the battle of Bannockburn fought between Edward II and Robert Bruce in midsummer 1314. There are many theories about the battle, including the likely position of Edward’s army, the location of the English encampment which some say was on marshy ground, the individual events that took place leading up to the main battle and much more. However, despite years of scholarship there remains little consensus.
Armed with weeks of research I left Warwickshire and stood on the windswept walls of Stirling castle and played out the battle time and again in my head. Appreciating that the landscape has opened up, the forest is greatly reduced since the time of the battle and water levels have changed, did not make it difficult to look back 700 hundred years. The fundamentals remain the same, even the Roman road that is now alight with cars and lorries making the journey between the Highlands and Lowlands which has been played out for millennia, does not detract. If anything it reinforced the world I was attempting to peer into thinking back to the chroniclers who describe Edward’s attempted march up the Roman Road to the castle. Standing there I found clarity, and more importantly the confidence to follow my instinct which I believe is enshrined by factual evidence about the details of what played out over those two fateful days in June 1314. I was able to see the battlefield in a way that I could not just by relying on a book.
One certainly does not trump the other. Only by being forearmed with research from my books and then getting out on location was this greater clarity possible. The two are mutually beneficial. I was also able to visit the nearby Bannockburn Centre and test out my theories privately with two of their weapons masters, who are ex-marines, and talk through battle tactics in context of the period. These guys were brilliant and gave me food for thought and the freedom to test out theories, play with weapons and reason with them over possible tactics that may have been deployed. If I had not taken the time to leave the comfort and confines of my study I would never have found the answers to what I was looking for.
It even gave me inspiration for a possible next book.
I am travelling to northern England next week (so no post on my blog for two weeks), to visit Caerlaverock, Carlisle, Knaresborough and Scarborough castles as well as Durham Cathedral and Dumfries Abbey amongst other places. All these sites have relevance to my research and I am already confident that visiting them will only help broaden my knowledge, give depth to my understanding and also refresh my writing.
Getting out and about also need not be terribly expensive either. So many historic sites are either part of heritage organisations like English Heritage, National Trust, Cadw, Historic Scotland and National Trust for Scotland, that taking out an annual membership scheme with a relevant organisation saves you considerable entry fees. It also means your hard earned money is used to continue the ongoing and never ending conservation programmes at these sites. As a Heritage Manager myself I appreciate first hand the work and the cost that goes on behind the scenes as teams work endlessly to preserve the nation’s heritage for now and future generations to come. So as well as visiting them, you get to support them financially, write about them in your books and encourage others to follow in your footsteps. A win, win.
Feature & Image One – BL Royal Ms 15 E VI f. 155r
Image Two: Image of author (Author’s Collection)
Image Three: Bannockburn Panoramic (Author’s Collection)