One of the joys and challenges of writing fiction based in history is fitting your story into the historical facts as far as possible. There is always room for licence, of course, but it is a fascinating exercise to try to stick as closely to history as possible. I find it much easier to keep to the facts in the big picture when I invent my characters and have them in their own stories running parallel to the real history taking place around them.
The story of William the Marshal, first earl of Pembroke, and his unfailingly loyal and heroic service to five Plantagenet kings, often under very trying circumstances, has fascinated me since I came across it in my university days. The Marshall and D’Erleigh families have a rich and extensive but comparatively little known history of close ties with each other, as well as to the Plantagenets.
William Marshal, along with John D’Erleigh, did much to ameliorate the worst consequences of King John’s reign and keep the kingdom together. He served as regent for King Henry III. John D’Erleigh was first William’s ward, then a dear friend. He married into William’s family, and worked and fought alongside him, especially during King John’s difficult reign. Both William Marshal and John D’Erleigh were adroit politicians as well as great knights.
My first idea was to write about a lesser known member of William Marshal’s household, but then I discovered John D’Erleigh (also, in the charming way of the period, Earley, or Erlegh). Whilst a considerable heir in his own right, he was also closely associated with William Marshal by means of guardianship and later friendship and marriage. This is a great piece describing the links between William Marshall and the D’Erleigh family.
The D’Erleighs are recorded in the Domesday Book as owning the manors of Erlegh St. Bartholomew and Erlegh St. Nicholas near Reading, Berkshire, from about 1160 until 1362 as well as considerable land holdings in Somerset. Culverhay is a ruin now, but was once a fine castle in Somerset. So I took the liberty of giving it to the D’Erleighs for the purposes of my story.
Whilst I was reluctant to make a well documented real person my main character, the idea of a by-blow was not far-fetched, and so the fictional Hugh Fitzwilliam, illegitimate but acknowledged and much loved half-brother to John D’Erleigh, was born.
My fictional heroine Eleanor de Tracy’s links with documented history are much more tenuous than Hugh’s. But sufficient unto the day was the fact that there is record of the de Tracy family holding the property of Barnstaple castle and estates during the years Eleanor was notionally concerned with it.
King John of England took many hostages during his power struggle with the barons in he months before the Magna Carta was signed at Runnymede, near Windsor, on June 15th 1215. Many barons’ loyalties were, shall we say, fluid at the time, and (though it might be an outrageous injustice to the real de Traceys of the thirteenth century, for which I apologise unreservedly) in my book Eleanor de Tracey’s father is suspected of rebellious tendencies. Eleanor being taken hostage to secure the obedience of her father exposes her to more danger than most hostages because she has been hiding from the consequences of an old crime punishable by death.
One of the king’s nicknames, referred to in an early chapter of my book, was John Sans Terre, or John Lackland. Being the fifth legitimate son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and youngest of their eight children, he had little expectation of any great inheritance. As in my book, he died at Newark of a stomach complaint. Whether or true or not, there is a story that a priest had to be fetched from a neighbouring monastery because priests at Newark refused to see the king. This provided the basis for some moving scenes in the book.
I did tinker with history with the birth of the princess Eleanor. Queen Isabella’s fifth (and last) child with King John was born at Gloucester, not at Windsor, in 1215. And in fact King John died before ever seeing her. But if you do ever chance to read my story you will see why I could not do other than what I did with this event. Too good an opportunity to miss!