The Sea Yett and the Perilous Climb

A wee heads up that The Castilians is on offer at 99p/99c from now, until next Friday 18 June…but now onto Sea Yetts.

When I was plotting The Castilians I had to work out how I was going to sneak its heroine, Bethia, inside St Andrews Castle. The obvious way – through the gate in the curtain wall, and across the drawbridge — wasn’t going to work.

Main entrance to St Andrews Castle – although it was re-positioned here during the re-building work after the Siege.

Although around 2500 people lived in St Andrews in the 1500s (there were 60 bakers alone), the chances of Bethia, as the daughter of the well-kent Merchant Seton,  being observed by someone who knew her were high. 

The obvious solution was for her to gain entry by a gate on the seaward side and, in the ruins of the castle, such a gate still exists.…

The Sea Yett – there is some debate as to when it was knocked through, however I’m going with those chroniclers who think it was already there in the time of the Siege. It would’ve been essential for the off-loading of Cardinal Beaton’s rich supplies, especially as it was much easier and cheaper to transport goods by sea.

Problem solved.

But how is she going to get in here? The castle sits perched on a cliff. Last summer I realised I needed to get a good look at the castle from the sea, but this is COVID times and there were no boats going out. Instead I went at low tide and scrambled over the rocks in a most precarious, and undignified, manner.

Wow, the castle is impressive from the seaward side. Shame about the graffiti halfway up, which rather destroys the atmosphere.

It’s also high – how am I going to get Bethia safely in and out of there, especially if the sea is rough?

Stormy Seas seen from St Andrews Castle

They reach their destination sooner than she expects, bumping up against smooth rocks which form a jetty below the cliff. Geordie leaps out and offers his hand to steady her. She tips her head back; the crumbling sandstone is soothing to the eye, but the castle wall rising over it is grey and forbidding.  She can see a small gate high above, but she can’t see any way to reach it.

Geordie shouts and after a few moments a face peers through the bars of the yett. Geordie sniffs, ‘They must be thinking God is keeping watch for them, since they’re no bothering.’

‘Bethia Seton, what are you doing here?’

She sees James of Nydie’s blonde head and frowning face looking down.

‘Is there a way up, I need to speak with Will.’

‘There is a ladder but it’s not an easy climb.’

‘I’ll manage,’ she calls, voice quivering.

A rope ladder is unraveled and hangs, swinging in the breeze. Geordie grabs the end and she goes to step on.

‘Wait,’ cries James and the end of a rope comes slithering down. ‘Tie it around you.’

Up she goes, the ladder swaying and banging off the cliff. She keeps her eyes fixed on the uneven rock close to her face, so close in places that her nose and knees bump off it, and her knuckles scrape over it. Her skirts catch around her legs, restricting movement. Her breathing is loud in her ears, fluttering and panicked. She’s grateful to James for the rope, doesn’t think she could have done it otherwise.

Ye’d better no be long,’ Geordie shouts, as she’s crawling through the gate. ‘If the tide gets too far out the boat will be stuck till it rises again.’

One day recently I visited Tantallon Castle, near North Berwick. Castles served different purposes and St Andrews Castle is really a wee fortified bishop’s palace. Tantallon is a BIG castle on a GRAND scale.

Tantallon Castle

And there I found the perfect explanation of how goods would be lifted from the deck of a ship a long, long way below and hoisted into the castle.

Drawing of the winch for bringing goods up from a ship and/or jetty at Tantallon Castle

Perhaps Bethia could have been hauled up this way— but I suspect she’d prefer to stay with the ladder, rather than being swung around in the air in a most unsafe, wind-tossed ascent.

Ps Do note the walkways around Tantallon – all without barriers. Terrifying!!

Pps The Castilians is on offer for 99p/99c until Friday 18 June.

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Usurper King – Guest Post

It’s a great moment for a newbie author to have her first guest post and I’m delighted to welcome Mercedes Rochelle who has been kind enough to answer the three short questions I posed. Mercedes has recently published book three of her Plantagenet Series, Usurper King to add to what is a growing list of previously published books, both fiction and non fiction.

Mercedes was born in Missouri but now lives in New Jersey and I was curious as to what drew her to become a writer of medieval historical fiction.

Your novels are all set in England. What got you hooked about English History?

It seems like an accident, but I keep bumping into Shakespeare as inspiration for my novels. The first, HEIR TO A PROPHECY was actually inspired by “the Scottish play”, but most of the action is in England anyway. Could it be because most of us Americans have a soft spot for our ancestors? I feel that I can relate to the English, and the Plantagenets really call to me. My thirty years as a medieval reenactor probably has much to do with it, too.

The characters you write about were often blood-thirsty and cruel. How do you make them appealing to the reader (and to you as the writer)?

I would say that the middle ages were pretty blood-thirsty and cruel in general, though they probably didn’t see themselves that way. Regardless, I’m a firm believer that good fiction thrives on conflict. I also believe that nobody is 100% evil. After all, the villain is the hero of his own story!

So part of the conflict, as I see it, is the innate contradiction between a character’s good and bad side. Does the protagonist always have to be a hero? Trying to see past the actions to the man inside keeps me interested. King Richard II was a prime example. He did so many questionable things! Of course, that’s why he lost his crown.

At the same time, he was very kind to his wives and to children. He wasn’t a bad man—just traumatized by events in his minority. I don’t think he could help himself. I hope that the circumstances surrounding his fall made up for the fact that he wasn’t particularly sympathetic. I didn’t want to whitewash him, so explaining his actions rather than excusing them was my solution.

Henry Bolingbroke with Richard II at Flint Castle from Jean Creton’s The Capture and Death of King Richard. Harleian Collection, British Library

What’s the biggest challenge in writing about people and events from over 700 years ago, and what’s the most fun part?

In essence, I don’t think people were all that different than today. One of my challenges is the language. Idioms are anathema, and at the same time we often don’t even realize we are using them. I always have an etymological dictionary running in the background and look up words that sound modern to me. If the word was first used in the 17th century, for example, I’ll find something else. It limits my vocabulary!

The other thing I struggle with is travel time. Often and again I’ll read a history that claims so-and-so traveled in an impossibly short time (Harold Godwineson from London to Stamford Bridge in 1066, for example. I wrote a blog post about it.) Under the best of circumstances, a man probably wouldn’t travel more than 50 miles in a day; the average was more like thirty. How about the second day? Without a relay, the horse would give out. I really don’t think they had relay, or posting stations before the 18th century (except for the Romans). So I also have a map running in the background so I don’t screw up my distances.

My enjoyment comes from deciphering the events I’m reading about. We almost never learn exactly what, why, or how a person decides to do something. We just learn about the fact. When a character acts “out of character”, it’s quite a challenge trying to sort out a reasonable explanation. Why did Hotspur rebel against the king, when he had so much to lose? Why did his father, the formidable Henry Percy, fail to show up for the Battle of Shrewsbury? Why did King Richard go to Ireland immediately after he took away Henry Bolingbroke’s inheritance? To me, these are the things that make historical fiction rock!!

THE USURPER KING

First, he led his own uprising. Then he captured a forsaken king. Henry had no intention of taking the crown for himself; it was given to him by popular acclaim. Alas, it didn’t take long to realize that that having the kingship was much less rewarding than striving for it. Only three months after his coronation, Henry IV had to face a rebellion led by Richard’s disgruntled favorites.

Repressive measures led to more discontent. His own supporters turned against him, demanding more than he could give. The haughty Percies precipitated the Battle of Shrewsbury which nearly cost him the throne—and his life. To make matters worse, even after Richard II’s funeral, the deposed monarch was rumored to be in Scotland, planning his return. The king just wouldn’t stay down and malcontents wanted him back.

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ps. Mercedes writes a very informative blog, fascinating to any history buff.

pps. Her books are available in Audible too.