To Caunterbury They Wende

We were in town for the METh conference. Yes, the METh conference. Unfortunately not as audacious as the acronym suggests, we were attending the annual meeting of the Medieval English Theatre society to perform Marge & Jules (written by us) and medieval miracle play John of Beverley (most definitely not written by us).


Máirín taking on the role of big John of B himself

Naturally, when in Canterbury, it would be absurd not to make a pitstop at the Cathedral and buy a souvenir pencil case. After accidentally driving all the way down a pedestrianised high street (pretty embarrassing), we put on our best pious pilgrim faces and blagged our way in for free.

A word of caution, however: when reading your favourite traveller’s guides to Medieval religious dwellings, such as the Canterbury Tales and, er, the other ones, do just check your publication dates before you throw your bundle over your shoulder and slam the front door behind you. Anything pre-1530 could be misleading, and you may well find that some of your favourite saints, relics and even whole monasteries just aren’t where they used to be. I tell you for one who isn’t at the shrine of the holy St. Thomas Beckett at Canterbury cathedral…The holy St. Thomas Beckett, that’s who.

To help you imagine what the big empty void was like when it did in fact house a shrine, they’ve popped a wee candle in the middle of the floor.


Just because we had neglected our post-reformation travel reading however, doesn’t mean that Canterbury was a wasted trip. Reeling from our Beckett disappointment, we turned a corner, and bumped right into King Henry IV. You know, Henry Bolingbroke the enraging antagonist of our beloved Hotspur. Henry Bolingbroke the terrible usurper of his cousin and former friend King Richard II. Henry Bolingbroke son of our favourite wealthy studmuffin Mr. John of Gaunt. The Henry Bolingbroke, indeed, who does that thing in Henry IV Part Two by Shakespeare, where he falls asleep and his son Hal thinks he’s dead and starts crying and wearing the crown and thinking himself King of England, and then his Dad just wakes up again and is really pissed off.

Well, if you wend your way into Canterbury Cathedral of a springy afternoon, that very same King Henry IV is just lying there, actually dead this time, beside his wife Joan of Navarre (also dead).


The way it works for them is that their actual bodies are buried, but they’ve got some really nice fake bodies cast on top so we know what they look like. I personally was surprised to see how short Henry was in the cast iron flesh. (But that’s not a judgement because I’ve always preferred a man with whom I can literally see eye to eye). These great men really aren’t so great when you see them lying down. As his poor, betrayed cousin Richard would have put it right before Henry Bolingbroke went and usurped him:

Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

Naturally we were really excited by this surprise Royal encounter, which frankly was more of a coup than we were expecting, and we had to satisfy our immediate urge for a suitably mournful and respectful set of snaps.

That done, we noticed another interesting thing about these effigies. Henry has a lion under is feet! Heel, Leo! And Joan– I’m not certain– but she seemed to have some kind of lapdog-cum-weasel. I don’t know about you, but now I’ve seen the tombs of some fashionable monarchs, I’m going to be thinking about what kind of strange foot animal I’ll be wanting on my grave. An owl for my great wisdom? A scorpion for my vengeful nature? A hamster, as a memorial to my vegetarian lifestyle? A Pokemon to prove I caught them all? I just don’t know. What would you chose? 


Across from these guys, we found The Black Prince. Possibly the most mysterious Prince of Wales ever, because instead of using his name they always call him The Black Prince. He was great at fighting and would have been King of England instead of poor usurped Richard, but he had dissentry for, like, four years and then died young. For his grave, he was actually resting his head on a lion. What a brave effigy, to dare rest his head on a lion! We know he was surely made of stern metal, that Black Prince! Having overdone the excitement after our Henry discovery, we were a bit less exclamatory about throneless old BP. He had some lovely apparel though. They hung it from the ceiling above his tomb so everyone can see how great his apparel was. Or maybe to avoid another Henry IV/Hal style situation where he’s not really dead and he wakes up and someone’s wearing his fave hat/crown and he’s really, really mad about it. Don’t worry BP your jazzy hat is still there waiting for you! I did observe at the time that it would actually really suit Sarah (she’s great in a hat of yore. See below), but if she’s really keen, she’ll have to find herself a replica, because that cathedral is alarmed…


Lady Percy

We are delighted to announce a rehearsed reading of our latest project Lady Percy which will take place on Wednesday 5th October 2016, at 2pm, in the Shelton Room at the Seven Dials Club on Earlham Street, Covent Garden, WC2H 9LA. Contact us for further information or to reserve a seat.

Lady Percy is the tale of the enigmatic Elizabeth “Kate” Mortimer, Welsh wife to wild Geordie rebel Harry Hotspur. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry IVs, we are reinventing the well-loved tradition of the British History play to honour modern values of gender equality and cultural diversity.

When her husband trots off to topple the King, Lady Percy is left in charge of the castle. There’s a lot more to her story than history records…

Lady Percy Image

Dunstanburgh: an ominous fish

Dunstanburgh Castle
Built: 1313-1322
Price: £4.40 adult
Notable features: No parking. John O’ Gaunt’s gaff.


I highly recommend a visit to Dunstanburgh Castle. Located in Craster, a small fishing village on the Northumbrian coast, it was acquired in 1362 by John of Gaunt – father to Henry IV and one of our favourite historical royals.

We decided on an impromptu visit after spotting the majestic ruins in the distance from the car. Mairin gazed longingly at the horizon:

“Oh, I wish I’d known John of Gaunt!” she declared.

It was 5pm and the castle would be closed, but we threw caution to the wind and decided to attempt a break-in.

Dunstanburgh baffles the Sat Nav, so it was almost 6 o’clock by the time we found Craster. It’s impossible to park anywhere near the castle itself, as it sits on a hill overlooking the sea. The only way there is by foot, a mile and a quarter along the coastline. Craster is definitely a fishing village – confirmed when we discovered this dead fish in a bag, attached to a signpost.


Who put it there? For what purpose? Perhaps, an omen – fisherman’s code – warning us away from Dunstanburgh. Break into Gaunt’s old haunt at your peril, it seemed to say.

The view from the path leading to the castle is truly spectacular. With the wide sea to the right, and endless hills and meadows to the left, one can really imagine journeying towards Gaunt’s home on horseback, wind whipping through your hair. As the view of the castle looms, it becomes clear just how big it is – building began in 1313 by the powerful and rebellious Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, possibly as a way of making a point to King Edward II.

“Check out me bastard massive house,” he might have said. “It’s way bigger than yours, as is my willy.”

He was executed in 1322, so clearly the rebellion wasn’t all smooth sailing.


We made our way around the castle, towards a stony beach lying to the west, but decided against storming the gatehouse, because Dunstanburgh looks quite threatening in the evening light and we still had the ominous fish on our minds. There were many sheep – and some monstrously large cows – standing around in the fields, giving us the eye. We noticed that sheep and cows don’t mix – they stand on opposite sides of the path, like Year 6 boys and girls at a school disco. They are in no way fenced in and would be free to butt you off the cliff if they so wished. They chose not to, and we nodded at them in thanks.

The coastline walk there and back is around 2 and a half miles in total. Worth doing for the stunning views alone, even if you don’t intend to go inside the castle. The village itself is very pretty and pleasant to wander around. If you do visit, be sure to look out for mysterious dead fish hanging off bollards – and consider what this warning may hold.



Warkworth hermitage & the… ghost?


Flintstones-esque Warkworth hermitage

Warkworth hermitage, Northumberland
Built: 1400-ish
Price: £3.60 or get in on your castle ticket! Would be silly not to
Notable features: Possible ghost

This little beauty of a hermitage was built around 1400, probably by the 1st Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy (father of Henry Hotspur). Everyone was called Henry in the Percy family, don’t worry about it.

“Henry!” Elizabeth would say. “Shall I put your tunic on with my white wash?”

“Oh cheers love, nice one”, Henry, 1st Earl would reply.

“Not you, you bellend” Elizabeth would shout back, “I meant Henry Hotspur.”

So confusing.

Is she doing a wild wee? Only she knows.

Is she doing a wild wee? Only she knows.

The hermitage sits on the riverbank and has been cut into the natural rock. Conversely, it probably wasn’t a hermitage but rather a private chapel, where a priest would perform services for the Percy family. Our particular interest in the site lay partly in the fact that we’ve been reading a historical romance novel by author Carol Wensby Scott.* It’s surprisingly fruity and describes in great detail the relationship between our 1st Earl and his first wife Margaret Neville. In the novel, (*spoiler alert*) the Earl buries Margaret (after she’s died, obviously) at this very hermitage. 

Sadly, we don’t think Margaret is actually buried there, but we were intrigued nonetheless. The hermitage lies across the River Coquet, so we had to wait for the official Warkworth boatman to row us there. What a thrill! Mick the boatman took us onto his grand vessel and we sailed the 8 yards across to the other side. As this would ordinarily take about 20 seconds, Mick drifted around the river a bit to give us the full boating experience, for which we were very grateful.


By the time we reached the other side, we were such good mates that Mick called us into his office (a shed). He claimed to have a very interesting photograph to show us. This was when the day took an ominous turn. No, it wasn’t picture of his grandson or his new kitchen. Something much more ominous. It was a photograph taken from inside the very dark hermitage, which we were about to enter… All very dark and ordinary, except in the top right hand corner, we could just make out a little white face! Ghost!

Could it be the ghost of Margeret? Perhaps Hal himself? Gender was hard to distinguish but what we did know was that it made us keen as a pair of badgers to look inside the hermitage.

Filled with enthusiasm, we climbed the set of stairs into the hermitage, which was comprised of a chapel and other small chambers. One of these chambers may have been where the Earl would have sat to view the services. It was peaceful, although a little eerie, particularly after what Mick had shown us.There was an altar with what looked like a carving of a lady (Margaret?) and another carving of a Nativity scene, though this was tricky to distinguish. All was calm and quiet.


Tragically, this peace was broken by the arrival of an older lady called Margaret and her Church group, who had apparently been given the job of preparing a PowerPoint presentation on the hermitage for the benefit of the congregation. We know this because Margaret shouted about it loudly. We scurried away quickly but not before getting a few shots inside the hermitage and a couple of selfies.

Back down by the riverbank and flicking through the photos we’d taken, we discovered some rather unsettling white spots on one particular photograph of the altar. Had the ghost had made another appearance? Decide for yourselves.


No, not my fingers at the top. Just BELOW my fingers…

*If anyone has any info on Carol Wensby Scott, please let us know. Or if you are Carol Wensby Scott, let us know. We’re trying to get in touch.

Warkworth & the rogue shrew

11750633_10155965222265454_4412860271380371361_nWarkworth castle, Northumberland
Built: mid 12th century
Price: £5.40 (adult)
Notable features: very well preserved keep and brilliant audio tour

Warkworth! Home to the Percy family, Kings of the North! More importantly, home to our heroine, Lady Percy. We were particularly enthusiastic about Warkworth because we think this was where Elizabeth spent most of her time whilst married to Hotspur. Incidentally, Mairin and I spend most of our time (too much) thinking about what Elizabeth and Hotspur’s marriage might have been like. It can be said with confidence that he was a ballsy man on the battlefield, and we presume that this would have translated into the bedroom. One can only speculate; and spending time in their family home encouraged us to speculate about this a great deal.


We were thrilled to learn that alongside our entry tickets we received headphones and a free audio guided tour. Now, we don’t usually have high hopes for these but the one at Warkworth is fantastic. Apologies to real-life guides Barbara and Pam whom we met at a later date, but this was just better and you can rewind the tour if necessary. You can’t force a retired member of the National Trust to repeat that crucial bit of info about the dating of the stonework, as French tourists gaze on, confused; it’s just not practical. However, this audio guide takes you, alone (and French tourist-free), across the bailey and into the keep, explaining the past use of each room. It even guides you to where the toilet would have been (very thorough).11144960_10155965222410454_727844960390782922_n

The first thing to say about this castle is that the keep really is in excellent condition. The design is from just after our period, when the castle was redecorated by Elizabeth’s son, the 2nd Earl of Northumberland, some time after 1416. However – fear not – it was apparently very similar in design to the earlier Medieval castle. It was amazing to see where the family bedrooms would have been (facing North – and where the wee 2nd Earl was conceived?) and to look out at the beautiful views of the Estuary and the sea that the family would have had. Looking out the other way, towards the view of the bailey, it was hard to imagine it busy and bustling with life. Warkworth has a strange, haunted quality and only the remains of the Great Hall are left. However, it would have been its own little town, with soldiers and cooks and knights milling about, busy at work.


We thought about this as we ate our boiled egg picnic. It was eerily quiet and all you could hear was the flapping of the flag on top of the keep. The wind was getting up so we decided to have a nice, warming cup of tea, but unfortunately, Mairin (eager to prevent any leakage) had screwed the lid of our flask so tight it was quite literally fused shut. We decided to ask a passing male and then preceded to emasculate him when he too found it an impossible task. Finally, after handing the flask back, ‘Muscles O’Hagan’ did the impossible and opened the flask. We told the man he had probably loosened it, but the truth is, Mairin just has the strength of a buffalo.

You would think this enough excitement for one day; however, after taking a little rest on a bench just outside the castle, we witnessed a lot of drama over a very small shrew.


A gentleman and fellow castle enthusiast began grabbing at the rogue shrew, who had been minding its own business and chilling on the grass and occasionally, (for funsies) the pavement. The man insisted that it shouldn’t be there because grass isn’t a shrew’s natural habitat. I don’t think this is true and the shrew looked happy enough to me, apart from when the said gentleman kept poking it. Next, a woman’s dog tried to eat the shrew. However, the shrew didn’t give a shit and basically stuck two fingers up to everybody by milling about playfully, clearly displaying its devil-may-care attitude for all to see.

The frenzy over, we returned to Warkworth to buy a couple of very useful books:

‘Medieval Women’ by Henrietta Leyser
‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England’ by Ian Mortimer

I did try to look on Amazon to see if they were cheaper, but due to Northumberland’s county-wide lack of signal, I gave in and bought them from the gift shop. Also, I felt bad because as a castle enthusiast, one should support castle gift shops.

Let that be a lesson to you all.