For Want Of A Nail… Horses and The Historical Novel – Guest Post

I’ve invited a very special guest to write a post for me this time out.

I first met Helen Hollick through her Arthurian books, and I loved her vision of Dark Age Britain. A Gwenhyfar who was fierce and real and very solid, Arthur who was very much un-shiny and probably smelt of horse a lot. And the two horses he likely smelt of – Hasta and Onager. Who may or may not have influenced Tyburn and Doubting Thomas….

Nearly every historical novel has at least one horse in it somewhere. Unless it’s a nautical novel or set in the Americas pre-Christopher Columbus. Although, even sailors came ashore, where they would, one way or another, meet with a horse.

So, horses are important. You are unlikely to read a contemporary novel that didn’t, somewhere, mention a car or a bus or a ’plane … a mode of transport, which is exactly what horses were. Cart horses, plough horses, riding horses, carriage horses, war horses. All of them in a variety of colours, heights and breeds. Big horses, little horses. Fat ponies, thin ponies. (Oh, and donkeys and mules.)

You would think, then, that authors would take more care about their inclusion of the  Noble Equine in their novels. The majority of authors take great care, time and trouble with researching their historical facts, diligently describing within the narrative the accuracy of locations, living conditions, clothing, food, battle tactics. Accuracy adds believability to the characters who move through the text as they love, laugh, squabble – or whatever. But the research and accuracy of fact all too often falls short once a horse trots into a scene.

The thing is, when reading historical novels I can pick up straight away whether the author has, or hasn’t, a clue about horses beyond the fact that they have four feet and can gallop about. Good novels have believable characters doing believable (or sometimes unbelievable in the ‘astonishing heroic adventure’ sense of the word) things. But it is a rare treat to read a novel that has believable horses or horsey scenes. (I might add that TV and movies are even worse for this – including horse-orientated TV dramas or movies!) That luxury carriage, or rough and ready stagecoach, cannot be pulled for miles by a team of horses running at a gallop. Come to that, a single horse carrying a rider cannot gallop for miles without serious consequences. The longest British horserace is the Grand National, which covers a little over four miles … but these horses are athletes, fit, healthy and trained. Oh, and carrying very lightweight jockeys. In North America the Quarter Horse  excelled at sprinting short distances of a quarter mile or less. Think sprinter Usain Bolt rather then long distance Sir Mo Farah. Even when used for hunting, horses would not be galloping about all over the place for hours at a time. (Much of hunting is standing around in the rain or cold waiting for hounds to find a scent.)

So there is speed to consider, and distances – how far can horses go in a day? The answer will vary depending on the nature of the terrain, the type of horse, the ability of the rider. A horse can probably travel about 25-35 miles (40 – 56.5 km) without a rest if it is walking at a steady pace. Maybe about 50 miles (80.5 km) if it is fit and healthy, and again the pace is steady, alternating between walk and trot. An endurance competition horse can manage about 100 miles (161 km) in a day. But most horses of the past were not modern, fit, healthy endurance horses!

Then there is the ‘tack’ – bridle and saddle. Saddles have changed a lot from Roman times to present day, especially where a lady’s side-saddle is concerned. Modern side-saddles have only been around since the mid-1800s. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, it is actually more comfortable and safer to ride ‘aside’, providing the rider is seated properly and the saddle fitted correctly. And men also rode aside: grooms would ride a lady’s horse and wounded soldiers returning from war who had lost limbs could continue to ride with a side-saddle.

Breeds. Ponies and horses are very different – one is not just a smaller version of the other! (Give me a pony every day if you want something intelligent and robust. Horses, however, if you want fences to not be knocked down, hedges squeezed through, and to know that of an evening they will be where you left them in the morning. Harry Houdini is not a patch on an escape artist Exmoor pony!) We have lost many breeds over the years: the warhorse Destriers, the lady’s quiet Jennet… Nor is it realised by many an author that in the earlier centuries, up until about the thirteenth, most horses were under fifteen hands high. (A hand = 4 inches and you measure to the withers. If you don’t know what the ‘withers are – look it up!)

If you look at the Bayeux Tapestry all the riders seem to be riding small horses – that’s because they were riding small horses! In one novel I looked at some while ago, set during the fifth century King Arthur was riding a very large horse with lots of hair around its feet: the description of a Shire horse. The story was, apparently written by a history academic. Well he or she needed to go back to the classroom, Shire horses were not around pre-Tudor.

And as for feed… Horses do eat grass and hay, but to be kept fit, for strenuous use – pulling carriages and carts for instance – they need corn. Note to USA readers: no, this does not refer to corn on the cob/maize, which would not have been known in England before the likes of the Conquistadors and Sir Walter  Raleigh. A ‘corn fed’ horse means one fed on grain like oats and barley.

On the other side of the coin, to read a novel where the writer clearly knows her horses is a treat. I cite mine host here. Ms Logue and her motley crew of (alas fictional) rogues ride believable horses, doing believable equine things.

Black Beauty became such a classic because Anna Sewell knew her stuff, and any horse person will instantly understand the ‘for want of a nail’ quote:

For want of a nail the shoe is lost, for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse the rider is lost, for want of a rider the battle is lost, for want of a battle the kingdom is lost – and all for the want of a nail.”

I’ll leave you to figure out why just one lost horseshoe nail could cause such devastation.

Horse people will know.

Helen’s Exmoor pony, Mr Mischief  © Helen Hollick

Website: https://helenhollick.net/

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Howling At The Moon

Or, Two Crazy Blonds Meet A Psychiatric Nurse….

Wulfhere, the hero of our tale….

So astonishingly enough, it seems I’m still alive, still writing, and Hollie’s still stuck in Yorkshire but he’s got an end in sight. Mostly the end of Scarborough Castle, and poor lamb, he has no idea what the New Modell’d Army has got in store for him next year, but – at least he might get to go home for a bit soon.

(He might also have to take the boy Hapless with him, if nothing else because the bloody idiot is hell-bent on spending his off-season lurking around the Rosemary Branch tavern in Islington writing seditious pamphlets. But that, as they say, is a whole other story…)

So I was chatting last night to my friend Paula Lofting, who writes the Sons Of The Wolf series, set in the eleventh century. In civilian life Paula’s a psychiatric nurse – which explains why Wulfhere and the nest of snakes in his head is so sensitively and honestly drawn.

Despite being buff, bellicose, and blond, he’s a thinking, feeling, tormented hot mess. The hero of my series is broken, mildly bemused, and about the only thing Wulfhere and Thankful For His Deliverance Russell have in common on the face of it is hair colour.

Or… is it?

Paula managed to catch up with the man himself recently – I think getting him to open up about the traumas that have made him what he is, has been like nailing jelly to a wall: always difficult to write about a man who tells you nothing – and my boi chipped in to be unhelpful, because it’s what he does best.

Well, Wulfhere, have you had a drink this morning like I told you not to? – your eyes look a bit glazed?

Oh, get off my back – I’m trying, all right?

Wulfhere, you’ve been trying as long as I’ve known you.

Then you should know how hard it’s been, right?

Yes, and you never used to be like this? Lately it’s been poor me, poor me –

Aye, I know, poor me a drink. Do you have any, by the way? The old devil looks at me with that old glint in his eye, but it still worries me.

What?

Mead.

Wulfhere! No! Here, some warmed buttermilk.

I was joking. God I cannot even make anyone laugh anymore.

I haven’t seen you laughing or joking for a long, long time, Wulfhere. I can’t remember that time. Not since Ealdgytha left. And actually, probably long before. Long before Wulfwin too. I know I’ve touched a nerve here; the blue eyes suddenly look grey.

Thanks for the reminders.

I’m sorry, I know it hurts but maybe if you talked about it more, you’d get it off your chest and not have to get drunk every day to manage your emotions.

Well, I’ve never been any good with those. But I’m here now.

So, you want to talk? I mean about stuff? And why you’ve been such a prick lately.

Am I really that bad?

Yes, you are.

Christ’s blood, I never mean to be, I just feel better if I’m angry.

As I said, you never used to be like this. When you were young, you put up with a lot from your father. You said you would never treat your children the way he treated you and your brother, Leofric. What happened?

He seems to be pondering. He sits down on the porch outside the longhall, looking defeated.

She did.

Which one? – there are two women you’ve tortured throughout this story!

That’s not fair! They haven’t been exactly easy to get along with.

I can’t help but burst out laughing. And I don’t think those ladies are the only bad thing that’s happened to you, there’s a few people that you can blame the way you are on, Helghi for one. Earl Harold for another.

I can’t lay the blame at Harold’s feet, he was just doing what he thought was right.

I’m inclined to agree with him, however he hasn’t always thought that way and I can’t blame Wulfhere for feeling resentful. Come on Wulfhere, you know he’s made your life difficult and you can’t deny you have felt aggrieved by him.

This is true. I have. I shouldn’t have given in so easily to him. And now I feel guilty. My father wouldn’t have.

Don’t beat yourself up, whilst Harold was only trying to keep the peace in his precious Sussex, he could have listened to your concerns more, after all you were the best of friends once. And another thing, you’re not your father.

I’m not my father, nay. As for Harold, I did think at first perhaps his idea of Freyda wedding the son of my enemy would help solve things between my family and Helghi’s. The earl has always had the knack of making you think he is doing the best for you. But I can’t help think that my father would have stood up to him more.

Wulfhere, that’s not true. None of his men have ever defied the earl as much as you have over this. You married Freyda to Leofnoth’s son instead, if that’s not standing up to him, then I don’t know what is. Then when Harold ordered that Winflaed should marry Helghi’s son, you did all you could to stop that from happening. It wasn’t your fault that in the end Win decided to offer herself as a bride for Edgar. There are tears in his eyes now at the thought of his darling little girl in the hands of Helghi. You did your best.

Ealdgytha didn’t think so. Nor Wulfric. He told me I am a coward. But he doesn’t know how hard I tried to stop her from going to Helghi’s.

So there, you feel guilty. And I can understand that. It’s the job of a father to keep their children safe, and you’ve lost two already because of this feud.  

It’s not the best time for a crazy blond from the 1660s to join the party, but there is never a good time for Russell, really. (Also, he stopped drinking a long while ago, when it stopped agreeing with him. He’s a coffee man, and he doesn’t like the look of mead. Or warm buttermilk.)

Children are precious, no? He looks thoughtful, or terrifying, depending which side of the scar you’re looking at. I have all this to look forward to, you understand. My boys are two and four. Hellions, the pair of them, but too young to be considering such matters. Your father was, I think, a harsh man, but fair? For myself – I was reared by my sister. Who was harsh, and not fair. She told me I was worthless, and wicked, and that I deserved for the Lord to punish me. It was my own fault that she could not love me as a child deserves to be loved, apparently, and she must hurt me for the good of my soul. She said. You are not your father, Wulfhere, any more than I am my sister – but before God they make us what we are, still.

I see my Wulfhere looking very strangely at this weird looking guy from another time as if he’s gone mad, then he smiles, showing off his own horseshoe scar from a sword swipe on his cheek as though it’s a scar competition.

My father was harsh. He is looking at Russell. He took no prisoners and he brooked no fools. And he hated seeing me and my brother in tears over something he considered childish. He once whipped my arse bloody because I lost the first blade I was ever given. I was twelve. I was supposed to be a man, and the seax was to signify my free status. Men don’t shed tears, my father barked at me. After he’d finished, I went to my bed and spent the next moments sobbing. He came into my chamber, dragged me out, and whipped me again, just for crying. After that, I tried not to show my feeling. Then I met Ealdgytha and Aelfgyva.

Very sensibly – and most uncharacteristically – Russell says nothing, shivers as if something has walked over his grave, and lets Paula carry on uninterrupted…

So you grew up thinking you had to be harsh too? You never touched your children. Never. If anyone was punished it was Ealdgytha who did that… until Tovi.

Oh God, Tovi. I didn’t want to do that. But he slapped his mother, and I couldn’t let the boy do a thing like that. Not to his mother.

No, I can see why you felt you needed to belt him. But my point was that no matter what your children did, you never laid a finger on them. You threatened them enough times, but you would never have done that.

There was a time when I would have rather cut my sword hand off than hurt my children. I always said I would not do what my father did to me. But that day I broke my oath because my son hit my wife, and that was unacceptable. Believe me I hated that, but today I know that wasn’t the worst thing I ever did to him.

What was, then?

I sent him away. Took away everything he ever desired in life. So you see, it’s not always the pain that you inflict on flesh that hurts the most, but the harm that words and actions can do.

Russell, leaning up against the longhouse wall, is nodding fiercely in agreement.

Look what I did to Ealdgytha? Time and time again I made promises I couldn’t keep, betraying her for another. Then that thing happened with the child. I led her to believe my own bearn by another woman was a foundling left in a byre. Who does that to their own wife? And Aelfgyva, I let her down. I promised I would never abandon her and I did that twice.

And now you feel sorry for yourself.

Look at me. One son is dead, killed by my enemy. Wulfric hates me. Aelfgyva took our child away from me. I haven’t seen Tovi in three years and may never see him again and I long too. I’ve lost my little bird, Winflaed, to Helghi – I’ll never hear her wittering away at me again. Freyda is married and has a life of her own, and Ealdgytha has gone and taken the smallest one, Gerda, with her and who can blame her. And all of it is my fault.

And that is why you are constantly off your trolley?

What?

Off your face. Out of your skull. Drunk.

Oh. Aye. I have come to that conclusion.

Good, now we’re getting somewhere.

We are? So, getting off my face, so I can forget what an idiot I am, what a bad man I am, is a good idea, right?

Of course not, but at least we understand why you are drinking. After all, drinking to oblivion is generally something people do when they don’t like the way they feel.

I didn’t realise that was why I do it. But I like feeling as though I don’t care. I like it when I am drunk and angry.

And maudlin?

Nay, that usually comes before the drinking.

Hmmm, I don’t know. I have seen you maudlin and drunk.

Have you?

Yes, I have. Look, now that we know why you drink, I want to ask you about Ealdgytha. He looks devastated at the mention of her name.

I thought you would.

How, Wulfhere? How could you be so stupid? You had her in the palm of your hand, and you messed it up again!

I know.

You could have started over. She would have come round. But then you had to go and call her bloody Aelfgyva!

It’s hard. I’ve thought about this so many times, and all I can think of is that that woman cast a spell on me! She has cursed me. Even Ealdgytha thought that too.

Now don’t do that, Wulfhere. You know I come from the 21st Century. I’m not going to let you do that. It’s not even right for an 11thc person to blame something that is their fault on witchcraft. He gives me that sullen, ‘you bitch’ look. Don’t do that either, young man.

I’m 38 going on 39.

Ooh! Same age as me! – sorry….

That’s young in my world. Right. You know why you called the woman you were trying to convince to stay with you the name of your lover, don’t you?

Do you think I meant to say it? I tell you she has me in her –

Nope! We are not doing it. Listen, I believe you when you say you didn’t mean it, but come on. You have to face the truth, you loved her. You have always loved her, Aelfgyva, I mean. She is as much a part of you as you are yourself. And when you can’t have someone, you obsess about them.

I loved them both. Is that so wrong?

It is when you have a wife!

Many men have mistresses, and their wives accept it.

Hah! Mine would put my balls between two bricks, were I so foolish as to stray from her bed. Ah. Sorry. I’m not being helpful, am I?

Russell, shut up! I’m frustrated by Wulfhere’s misogyny, but I have to accept that things were different back then. Wulfhere, you are not like them. Those are the sort of marriages where there was no mutual attraction. They marry for convenience or their family. You and Ealdgytha had a beautiful alliance. You were so happy together. She loved you and you loved her. She never looked at anyone else and nor did you. You went everywhere together, you even took her to court. Then your children came along and you had everything. A lovely home, your horses, your place at court. You were doing well.
Then Aelfgyva. Why did you turn to her? What went wrong?

Ealdgytha started nagging. She had always been happy… I think it was when she went to visit her sister, to show her the children. Her sister was married to an important thegn, much more important and wealthier than me. She was never the same when she came back. She was different. She started telling me I needed to aim higher at court. Start pushing myself forward. That we had so many children we needed more land, more wealth. I told her that wasn’t me. I knew what went on at court. The more you have, the more they expect of you. And the jealousy and rivalry that went on – I didn’t want to be part of it. I was happy with my lot. My friends were the same. I had all the wealth I needed. I have plenty of wealth and property, just not a lot of land, only five hides, but it’s enough. The money I have will be enough for the children to buy their own land when it comes to it. I just wanted to be left alone.

You told her, I take it.

Of course. She’d always known this. But her sister had reminded her who her grandfather was. “Tovi the Proud would not have been pleased to see a granddaughter of his living so humbly.”

He was Cnut’s standard-bearer, right? A very wealthy man. And I understand her other side of the family are moneyers?

Yes, and she was often apt to remind me, but just light-heartedly, until then. She started rubbing my nose in it. I was a Sussex thegn, with a mere 5 hides. That made me a ceorl in her eyes.

I put on my mental health hat, And how did that make you feel?

Worthless. Just as my father had.

But you never told her that. Not at first?

Aye. I never said a word. But I told her I was not going to be the man she wanted me to be. I had been good enough for her when we married. Then I should be good enough now.

I understand that. Is that why you went looking for someone else?

He looks at me sharply. You would too, if it were you.

I have to admit, I might have done. Possibly, but I would try to fix it with her first.

I was too hurt by the things she said. I would never have said those things to her.

What sort of things?

That I was stupid, I was only good for fighting and making children. I’d had no education like she’d had. I couldn’t speak French and Latin. I hadn’t gone to a stuck-up nunnery school. I could barely read.  And all this she would say in front of people. The worst thing she ever did was speak to me like I was dirt on her shoe, in front of the children. I wanted to kill her for that. I could just about take what she said when it was people I knew around, but not my children. That was sacrilege. Aelfgyva made me feel enough.

I’m shaking my head. I never knew, Wulfhere. I’m sorry…. You have made Ealdgytha suffer too, though. Humiliated her with the whole child in the stables thing, imagine how she felt when Aelfgyva came here to take back the child and Ealdgytha realised who the babe was.  

Wait what, you meant to pass off your mistress’s child as a foundling for your wife to take in? Are you out of your mind altogether, man?

I know, I would never have wanted that to happen. Aelfgyva’s servants to bring the bearn to me. She thought she was dying after giving birth to the wee thing. I couldn’t turn the poor little mite away. And then Ealdgytha discovered a child had been left in the stables, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell her who she was. We had not long lost our youngest daughter, and Aelfgyva’s child was like a gift from God to Ealdgytha. She was so happy, I couldn’t pour water over her joy by admitting the babe was mine.

Yes, that was a pickle you got yourself into. And it got worse didn’t it? Because Aelfgyva didn’t die. And when she was stronger, she came back for her baby. And Ealdgytha was broken.

It broke me to see her like that.

Imagine how she felt.

I tried to apologise-

Yes, I know, but you have to understand, she has been hurt over again. And for Ealdgytha the pain was a double-edged sword. Aelfgyva was her friend..

He sits there for awhile and I can see that the tears are welling in his eyes. He wipes them away and sniffs, cuffing the snot from his upper lip. I can feel his desperation to not spend the tears. Can you see why she left you? Can you understand why Aelfgyva wants nothing more to do with you? He nods. So, you have to make amends to them both.

How can I?

It’s not for me to say. It’s up to you.

But I will never see either of them again.

Well. you can start by stopping the drunkenness for a start.

It won’t help them.

It won’t help you, either. I tried drink – when first I was hurt – mostly what it got me, was regularly beaten up by my superiors. And a more or less perpetual headache. It is no answer.

Aelfgyva, maybe not, but it’ll help Ealdgytha to know you are acting like a grown up for a change. You’re looking after what’s left of her kids remember.

Wulfric? Well, he looks after himself. Besides, he hates me.

He still needs you. He lost his twin brother, you know.

He has a wife to look after him.

There you go, wanting to abnegate your duties. Stop it! Pull yourself together.

Thanks for the empathy, you’re a great nurse.

Look, you’re damaged. I get it. But most of this is stuff that you brought on yourself. It won’t get better by drinking. I know you feel bad. You hate yourself for the way you treated those women. You loathe yourself because you let your daughter down, so, you’re a bad father. You let Tovi down when he needed you to be strong for him. And ok, you feel guilty because you weren’t able to stop Wulfwin from getting killed. You, my dear Wulfhere, are on one huge guilt trip which becomes bigger every day, because you’re using it as an excuse to get smashed out of your brains-

What?

Drunk!

Aye, I am. I’m a dirty worthless drunk. A useless husband, a bad father who might as well be dead.

If you were, you wouldn’t be able to put things right, now would you? At this point, I want to hit him with a sledge hammer. So, what are you going to do?

You’re right. I’ll stop drinking.

Good man!

Thank heaven. Just take it a day at a time. Because you are going to have to pull yourself together like nothing on earth! Those children of yours are going to need you at some point soon and you will need to be Wulfhere the Brave again and not Wulfhere the Weakling.

There’s one thing though.

He is smiling. That huge grin that used to light up his handsome old face and crinkle his blue eyes melts me. Oh yeah?

That’s going to be up to you too, you’re the one who writes this bloody thing.

The crazy blond looks at his fingernails.

Book-women, hm? A monstrous regiment of book-women. Well, by God’s grace they may yet write us our respective – what is it? – Happy Ever Afters, so with that we must rest content.

He does not smile. Possibly he thinks he’s freaked Wulfhere out enough already for the one day without that unsettlingly lopsided and toothy grin. He does, however, pat him on the shoulder, carefully.

All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. Ah. Sorry. She’s a bit after your time, Dame Julian, but – aye, her. That. And good luck.  

ABOUT PAULA

Paula Lofting has always had a love of history since she was a little girl and it was her dream to one day write a historical saga set in the medieval period. This dream was eventually realised when she published her first novel in the Sons of the Wolf series and then the second, The Wolf Banner, and is now working on the third, Wolf’s Bane.  Paula has also collaborated on a historical fiction ghost anthology, Hauntings, and is also participating in Iain Dale’s latest book on Kings and Queens.

Paula can be found on her blog, 1066: The Road to Hastings and Other Stories, where she blogs about her research into the world in which she is writing about in her novels.

She is also a founding member of the History Writers Forum and has participated in historical discussion panels on zoom, the next one being on January 29th about the identity of the mysterious lady on the Bayeux Tapestry.

By day, Paula is mum to three grown up children, a granddaughter, and little grandson, and also a psychiatric nurse. She hopes that her third novel in the Sons of the Wolf saga will be published later this year. The first two can be found here –


myBook.to/Sonslive

myBook.to/WolfB