At long last, I have a new book out! A Knight’s Tale: Kenilworth was published September 19. (It is enrolled in Kindle Unlimited as well.) I’d like to share a few insights here into my thought process while writing the novel.
It’s only my second try at full-length historical fiction/historical romance, and it’s also the first time I have written anything set in the medieval period in England. Research was fun—and sometimes hair-raising because I set the book in the period of the thirteenth century known as the Second Barons’ War (1264-67). There was a lot to learn about the Norman period in England, where an elaborate feudal system had been set up by William the Conqueror after 1066, but where royal power was also in the process of breaking down.
A Knight’s Tale centers around Will Talbot who, when the book opens, in 1260,
is fourteen. He’s riding off to be a squire at the nearby castle,
Kenilworth. He doesn’t know anything about the noble family, the de
Montforts, who live there besides the name—he’s never met them, but is
awed by them. I liked the idea of introducing an innocent character to
a complex situation…into the family of Simon de Montfort, Earl of
Leicester, a Frenchman who’d claimed his ancestral lands in England
years before and who just happened to marry the king’s sister.
As I had Caroline, the main character in my novel Time of Grace,
discover that the country of Ireland was not remotely as peaceful
under English rule in 1915 as she thought it was, so Will gradually
discovers that Earl Simon and his fellow barons have usurped the
king’s power in a reform parliament, which will end up leading to
armed confrontation—and civil war.
I was fascinated to learn more about Simon. A highly intelligent man
who could talk himself out of any situation, Simon de Montfort charmed
his way into King Henry III’s good graces when he arrived in England
in 1230 as the penniless young second son of a noble French family. He
was given the title Earl of Leicester, which he had to petition the
king for. He served at the royal court for seven years. His close
relationship with Henry is evident, but once he seduced the king’s
youngest (and favorite) sister, Eleanor, who had taken a vow of
chastity a few years earlier after being widowed at only sixteen, he
had one strike against him. And yet they married, with the king’s
blessing (though Simon had to rush off and beg forgiveness from the
Pope!). In 1244, after Eleanor had given birth to three young sons,
the family was given Kenilworth Castle as a gift from the king.
But Simon was hot-tempered and fiery, a self-righteous opportunist.
Devoutly religious in his later years, the friend of many bishops and
Franciscan friars, he made clear by his actions that he did not
respect the king at all. Even I, reading his biography in 2017, was
surprised by what he got away with. During a trial in the early 1250s
after he’d had a rocky few years as the governor of Gascony and had
been recalled in disgrace, he snapped at the king, “Are you even a
Christian?” A man who was compelled to rock the boat, he ended up
trying to do the impossible—to rule England via parliament while the
king was ostensibly still on the throne, his power weakened.
Unfortunately, while Simon was a hero of the people (especially to
Londoners and small landowners), he ended up becoming a martyr. I
first became aware of him while watching an English TV documentary a
few years ago. The historian—it may well have been Michael Wood—stood
at the spot near the river where Simon died at the Battle of Evesham
while a local described Simon’s grisly end to him with great emotion.
So much so that I never forgot it. While researching this book I came
to feel a strong sympathy for Simon’s wife, Eleanor, as well. She was
put in an impossible position between her husband and her brother, and
her greatest concern must have been for her sons, who fought alongside
their father. In many ways, they were a tragic family.
But then, as in Time of Grace, I wanted to tell a love story.
Adolescents see themselves as the center of their world, and Simon and
Eleanor’s large and bustling household at Kenilworth is the backdrop
for Will to discover and accept his love for another boy, Stephen, a
chaplain’s clerk with the gift of second sight who serves the
Dominican friar at the castle, Brother Michael. Both Will and Stephen
are fictional characters, of course, but I hope I have made them seem
real. And the two strong-willed Montfort sons, Simon and Henry, whom
Will and his friend Thomas serve as squires, were very real historical
characters. I wanted to show Will growing up and discovering who he is
over the course of a few years, bringing him up to the Battle of Lewes
in 1264 when he is eighteen, after which he is knighted as planned.
But then his life takes an unexpected turn.
I like writing this kind of queer history, writing LGBT characters and
their unruly desires into history. They were assuredly there; it’s
just that so often they have been erased by the historical record. One
has to read between the lines; when someone is described as a king or
queen’s “favorite,” it is a pretty big clue. And although
homosexuality was considered a sin, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance
it was seen as more of an “act” than a lifestyle, which paradoxically
made it less offensive.
Still reading? Here is an excerpt from Chapter One of A Knight’s Tale:
I grew up near Kenilworth, a small town in the county of Warwick. It
was in the middle of the green month of May that Richard de Havering,
Earl Simon de Montfort’s steward, rapped on our manor door with a big
stick. I had glimpsed him from afar for the past couple of years as he
rode over to collect the annual rents from my lady mother, Alice. When
my father was alive he had attended the joyous Christmas revels at
Kenilworth Castle, where the Montforts lived. I had been told about
them, but by the time I was old enough to go with him, Father had
Sir Richard was coming to collect me. At fourteen years of age, rather
late to start, I was bound for the castle, to learn the life of a
squire in preparation for knighthood, as my father had wished. It
helped that my mother had recently remarried, and our house and lands
were now in the possession of her new husband, Sir John, as the laws
During the beginning of our journey, I chatted politely to Sir
Richard. As we neared the castle walls, though, I fell silent.
“Don’t be afraid, boy,” Sir Richard said.
I was more awed than afraid at that moment. Instead of a moat, there
was a lake surrounding the castle, vast, calm, peaceful, with two
white swans floating on it. Oddly, they were followed by four little
“That’s the Great Mere,” Sir Richard told me. “Keeps
attackers at a distance. This is a very well-defended castle, you
know. It was built more than a hundred years ago and then reinforced
by King John, the present king’s father.”
The present king was King Henry III, that I knew, and his youngest
sister, Eleanor, was the lady of this castle. It had been granted to
her and her second husband, Simon de Montfort, around fifteen years
previously, in the early years of their marriage. Now the Montforts
had six children, five sons and a daughter. I would see the sons in
the Great Hall; I would probably serve them, train with them, and
attend to their horses.
“Will they know who I am, up at the castle?” I asked. It bothered me
that I would have to introduce myself, that they might see me as a
“Just mention your father’s name,” Sir Richard said. “You are William
Talbot, son of Geoffrey, a faithful vassal of Earl Simon.”
Will I be well treated here, was what I wanted to ask him. But I bit
my tongue, because it sounded fearful and peevish. I was an only child
and had rarely played with boys my own age. If I had been more
bookish, I might have been sent to the friars in Coventry to become a
scholar or a clerk, but my parents had not pushed me in that direction
and I’d not been drawn to it. I was active, strong, a good horseman.
My eyesight was excellent. But I was also curious and, in my mother’s
words, sweet-tempered. “You expect the best of everyone, child,” she’d
We clattered up a sort of long, narrow bridge that led to the outer
castle walls. The sun was shining on the reddish facade and I gazed up
at the tall sandstone keep. My father had described it many a time.
Most castles were gray and grim, like Warwick Castle, not too far
away, which I’d glimpsed once, but Kenilworth had a warm beauty, a
The portcullis drew up (’twas natural, since we were being watched by
the guards whose job it was to man the walls) and Sir Richard and I
trotted through the gate. He placed a protective hand on my shoulder,
this gray-haired man of my father’s age. He would have been fifty or
so, I see now, looking back as I do from the same age he was then. His
body was still vigorous, but he seemed aged to me.
I smiled at him, which caused him to look slightly taken aback at my
“I promised your father I’d deliver you to Kenilworth,” he said
gruffly. “But from here on, it’s your job, boy. To prove yourself, to
show your worth to your masters. Indeed, you may not see me for
another year. But I’ll be watching out to see how you do.”
He clapped me once more on the shoulder and dismounted onto a wooden
block that was provided for him by a groom. I slid off my own smaller
horse, Lucy, a chestnut mare, not waiting for any assistance, should
any be offered. I clutched the leather traveling bag my mother had
given me and awaited further orders.
“His horse will go in the stables,” Sir Richard said to the groom. “In
case he has to go back home for some reason, it’s better to keep the
animal here. Don’t worry, she’ll be well kept.”
The man nodded silently and led Lucy away.
There was constant, bewildering movement within the walls as I looked
around, people calling to each other, windows opening and closing. The
kitchens must be close, because I could smell the aroma of roast
meats. I also smelled the kitchen fires. But the courtyard was oddly
Sir Richard pointed to an opening in the wall. “There’s a staircase
inside there. Go up, and you’ll be on the first floor, where the Great
Hall is, and there should be a solar there for you. You’ll have to
share with another lad, I forget his name.”
“A solar?” I repeated.
“Yes, a solar, a bedchamber,” he said impatiently, looking around.
“Ah, good,” he said, as another man approached with a tankard of ale
for Sir Richard. The servants wore aprons, I noticed, both men and
women. They were neatly dressed and polite, I would discover in the
days to come, unlike the knights, both young and old, who were rowdy
“Bring some ale for my young friend here,” Sir Richard told the man,
who scurried away.
“Nay, sir, there’s no need,” I told him, for I was not used to ale.
The water in our well was pure enough, and I sometimes
drank a little red wine with dinner.
“You’ll want to fit in with the others, won’t you?” he said as if it
was obvious. “Might as well start now.”
The serving man returned and I drank from the pewter tankard until Sir
Richard appeared satisfied. I wiped my mouth rather uncertainly.
“There. Good. Well, I must get on. Just go up the inside stairs, as I
said, and you’ll find yourself in the Great Hall, where some woman of
the household will be there to assist you.”
He mounted again, and I watched rather incredulously as Sir Richard
rode away through the open gate.
“He’s a busy man,” a curly-haired boy of my own age said, appearing at
my elbow. “Who’re you?”
“I—Will Talbot. My father was Geoffrey Talbot,” I stammered.
“Will. I’m Thomas Despenser. You’re a squire too?”
“Well, what is it? Cat got your tongue?”
“No, it’s just…” I looked around. “I don’t have any idea where to go.”
“He told you to go up the stairs, didn’t he? That’s the way to get
inside this place. I’ll show you.”
Thomas wore a tunic and bright scarlet leggings. I assumed as I
followed him up some winding stone stairs that I would probably be
sharing a room with him, most likely sleeping in the same bed. The
thought didn’t alarm me, and I was glad he was friendly, but I felt
The dark stairway opened out into a beautiful long room with a massive
fireplace at one end and two trestle tables covered in white cloth.
This would have been the room my father saw every Christmas. I looked
around in awe at the thickly woven wall hangings, more fancy than any
I had seen, depicting ladies and unicorns and battle scenes. The floor
was covered in rushes. It was deliciously cool after the heat of the
day outside. No doubt in winter it would be freezing, but then there
would be a roaring fire.
“Stop dreaming,” Thomas said, nudging me. “We sit at the lower table,
you know. The family sits at the high one, nearest the fire. The round
He smiled, and I smiled rather awkwardly back.
Since we were alone in the room, I whispered, “Are they good people?”
He grinned. “Aye. Henry and Simon in particular, the two older sons,
they’re able fighters. You’ll see a lot of them. Earl Simon and Lady
Eleanor travel around a lot. They’re gone now, in fact, to Paris. About ten years ago they spent most of their time in France. Earl Simon was seneschal of Gascony then, at the
This information rolled off his tongue proudly. I felt dazed.
A comely damsel of perhaps sixteen approached, her brown hair neatly
tucked under a cap.
“This is Christiana de Craiwell,” Thomas said. “She serves the Lady Eleanor.”
“I’m Will,” I told her.
She smiled. “I can bring you to your solar.”
“You’d better tell him who he’s with,” Thomas muttered.
“You’ll be with Stephen,” Christiana said, lowering her voice. “He’s…”
“The chaplain’s clerk!” Thomas said in disgust.
“Now, Thomas.” The girl’s voice was cool. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“There wouldn’t be anything wrong if he was more normal.” A sneer
tightened Thomas’s features. “But he’s not, and we all have to suffer
his foreign ways.”
“There’s nothing wrong with him,” Christiana said stoutly.
“You don’t think so,” Thomas told her, “because you’re a girl.”
It was an argument they had probably had a few times. And I could see
how fond he was of her as they stood close together, bickering.
Meanwhile, from the other end of the room, a boy approached.
He seemed to float through the room towards me. The tall windows were
letting in golden slants of sunlight, and the sun flashed on his blond
hair as he approached. His paleness was in marked contrast to Thomas’s
tanned skin; he was also very slender.
He happened to have my mother’s coloring, along with her pale blue
eyes. My father had passed down to me his brown, shaggy hair and
blue-green eyes, though my own hair was more of a healthy mop. I ran
my hand through it in a nervous gesture. This was the boy, then, that
I was going to be sharing a chamber with? He seemed older than me. He
probably was, I guessed, but not by more than a year.
For some reason my breath caught in my throat. I waited for the couple
by my side to introduce me. They said nothing.
“Are you Will?” Stephen said, as he got closer. There was a sort of
smile in his voice that marked him out as different from the other two
I stood with, more of an adult.
“Stephen.” He held out his hand and I took it. I expected it to be
cold and clammy, but in fact it was warmer than mine, and he gave my
hand a good squeeze.
“Just as we were speaking about him. I’ll see you later, Will,”
Thomas said over his shoulder as he strode away. Christiana exchanged
a polite smile with Stephen and hurried after him.
I was glad they were gone. It was difficult for me to understand the
way they treated him, and I didn’t want him to see me as part of a
group who excluded him. But I wasn’t quite sure what to do next,
either, so I hoped he would take the lead.
Which he did. His English was perfect, but he spoke with an odd,
slightly lilting accent that seemed as if it wanted to break into
French any minute. So that was what Thomas had meant by foreign, I
supposed. Yet Earl Simon himself was of French birth, and no one held
that against him…
“Come this way,” Stephen said. His walk was graceful, fluid, but I saw
what Thomas meant. He seemed more like a courtier than anyone I had
ever met, fit to be at a royal court. This was lavish enough, but not
quite the place for him. I wondered how he had come to be here.
“How long have you been at Kenilworth?” I asked, clearing my throat.
My words seemed blunt compared to his.
“Oh…” Stephen seemed to consider this as he led me through a doorway
at the top of the room, beside the fireplace. “A long time. Earl Simon
brought me back from France around ten years ago, after one of his
“You are an orphan?” I blurted it out and then stopped to think how it
must have sounded. “I’m sorry, I just assumed…”
“Yes, an orphan.” He turned to face me and we stood close together in
a little passageway. “So I’m told.”
I could feel his breath on my face. It was actually sweet, as if he’d
been chewing mint, which he probably did, I thought. Maybe they all
did that here… I was conscious that my own breath no doubt stank of
ale, and that I was sweaty from the ride.
“We sleep here,” he said, turning again, gesturing to a stout door
that swung open to reveal a little room, the walls whitewashed, with
one narrow slit as a window. He showed me how the door bolted from the
“So there’s no way out,” I mused.
“Except the door. That’s right,” he said.
A shaft of light from the window shone on the flagstones, which were
covered sparsely with rushes. A simple wooden pallet, topped by a
straw mattress and bolster, lay in each corner. I spotted two chamber
pots and a deep cedar clothes chest, which we would share, I supposed.
It was more like a monk’s cell, or what I imagined that to be, than
“They had one proper bed in here years ago, but then someone became
sick…” he murmured. “I’ve not had a chamber-mate for the whole time
I’ve been here, though.”
“I wonder why they changed it now?” I asked, lowering my bag onto the
bed that was clearly mine. Then I sat down myself.
“Don’t know,” he answered. “Perhaps because the room is so small, they
didn’t fill it…”
“Oh,” I said, worried that he might have preferred to stay alone.
“No, no,” he said quickly. “Don’t misunderstand. I’m glad to have
you.” He curled up on his bed, still looking at me. “It’s lonely.”
His smile was unexpected and disarming. I smiled back, since the way
he talked to me actually made me feel more comfortable than I’d felt
when the other men, Sir Richard and Thomas, had spoken to me. His
friendliness seemed more genuine, perhaps. Deeper.
“I’ve never met a French lad,” I said. “Is the name Stephen used over
“It is,” he said. “Etienne is what we say, or Stephane.”
“Which do you prefer?” I asked.
He thought. “I don’t know. I don’t remember what my parents called me,
I mean, I don’t remember their voices, speaking to me. But I think
Etienne is probably the name I was christened with.”
He looked down rather shyly, and I blurted out, “My father is dead too.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” After a moment, he asked, “What did he die of?”
“Smallpox.” As I said it, the last dreadful image of my father on his
deathbed three years previously passed through my mind, and I
grimaced. “My mother caught it too. She survived. I nursed her through
“You must be very brave,” he whispered.
And that, I supposed, was what Thomas meant by not normal. Because
even I knew that it was unusual for a boy to say that to another. Yes,
his manner seemed more like a girl in some ways. I could see how he
could be tremendously flattering.
I gulped. “I… don’t know about that. It was my mother. The servants
were afraid to come near. But I didn’t catch it. I think they thought
we were all going to die…”
He gazed at me intently. “I’m terrified of it. Smallpox. My face being marred.”
I almost laughed. “You shouldn’t say that sort of thing, you know. Admit that.”
“I know,” he murmured. “But it’s true, and perhaps you won’t judge me.”
“I won’t judge you,” I said. “Would you like to come see Lucy, my mare?”
He gave me a surprised look and his face brightened. “Yes, of course.”
I didn’t know if he liked them, horses, and this was a test that he
passed with flying colors. As I watched him feed Lucy a carrot, his
hand up close to her teeth, I wondered if there was anything he did
that wasn’t graceful, deft.
“You must ride, then,” I said at his elbow.
“A little. I like it, when I get the chance.”
“Do you dance too?” I teased. He regarded me oddly.
“You seem like a courtier. You seem like you would dance.”
He said nothing for a moment. Then, “The women are taught to dance
here. Not the men.”
Lucy stood still while I stroked her ears. “Good girl,” I told her.
“You can come see her whenever you miss home,” Stephen said quietly.
“I hope I will be too busy to miss it,” I mused. I didn’t feel like
telling him about my mother’s new husband, Sir John, how things had
changed so dramatically for the worse since he had appeared in our
lives. It was something I was not able to put into words, even for
And she was with child, her belly already swollen.
“Is your mother dark, like you?” Stephen asked.
“No, she’s fair.”
Like you, I almost said. It was on the tip of my tongue. We stood
there side by side in the quiet, warm stable smelling of hay and dust,
our shoulders almost touching.
There was one good thing about this new life, I thought: I would never
tire of his company.