Researching Constantinople of 1555

A visit to Istanbul yielded a rich seam of research for my most recent in series The Familists. Here’s some highlights.

Mehmet II besieged and conquered Constantinople in 1453 and simply moved into what the Byzantines had vacated, re-purposing and repairing as he went. The stunning Hagia Sofia, built nine hundred years earlier in 537 , as the principle church of the Byzantine Empire, became a mosque

Ceiling of the Hagia Sofia Mosque

and the church within the Topkapi Palace grounds was used as an arsenal.

Hagia Eirene, a church in grounds of the Palace

My characters find themselves in Constantinople barely a hundred years later, or more accurately, living across the Golden Horn in an area known as Galata where the many Conversos (Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity) fleeing across Europe finally settled .

Map of Galata 1500s

Conversos were originally expelled from Spain and spoke a Judeo Spanish known as Ladino (the Greek Jews of Constantinople who’d been there long before the Spanish Jews arrived spoke a Judeo-Greek known as Romaniote). I was very interested to see a child’s Ladino textbook in the museum of Turkish Jews in Galata

Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) Text Book

Galata is dominated still by its watch tower built by the Genoese when they captured Galata in the 1300s.

Galata Tower built by Genoese

The area was famous for its fish market even then, which is well worth a visit.

Famous Fish Market of Galata

I had debated whether a trip to Istanbul was necessary since I had already done a lot of research for The Familists and of course it would have changed dramatically since 1555. But I’m glad we made the trip for, apart from being a magnificent city, there were at the very least the vistas which cannot be captured in the same way through looking at images. The view Bethia would have seen whenever she crossed the Golden Horn to take goods to the harem in the Topkapi Palace or visit the Grand Bazaar would have included the Süleymaniye Mosque rising behind the city walls.

Suleymaniye Mosque built 1550-7

The Grand Bazaar established during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II between 1451 and 1481, is one of the largest and oldest covered markets still in existence, with about four thousand shops.

One of the Entrances to the Grand Bazaar

What I could never have captured from research alone was the sheer noise of the place as voices of traders haggling with customers echoed off its high arched roofs – and we were there in the evening shortly before it closed. I can’t begin to imagine how loud it must be in the middle of the day.

I am a lover of castles as those who read my newsletter will know from its regular slot covering ‘Great Castles to Visit in Scotland’ but the Topkapi Palace is beyond any castle I’ve ever visited. We were there for five hours and I barely touched the sides. Above is husband pictured at the beginning of our visit …and below after five hours. In my defence he did spend the last hour sitting reading the book on his phone.

Most fascinating of all was the tour of the harem. My character Bethia ends up running a business selling goods to the concubines who, of course, could not leave its confines. The mostly Jewish women who provided this service, were known as kiras. The harem is inevitably a more confined area than the rest of the spacious palace, with a view only of the sky from its narrow courtyards.

Within the Harem

Even the Valide Sultan (the sultan’s mother) reception room was surprisingly small.

Valide Sultan’s Audience Room

The eunuchs quarters are attached to the harem and also a dormitory. Indeed there were lots of dormitories within the palace for both janissaries and all the administrators who worked and lived there – around three thousand people in all during the time of Suleiman.

Dormitory with sleeping patforms – one of the many

There were men who brought the women of the harem their food from the palace kitchens and went out onto the hillsides to chop wood for the fires – making them a strange combination of servers and loggers. These young men wore their fringes very long so their hair covered their eyes. They were never permitted in the harem proper and any young woman who found herself in the area where they left the trays of food would be in trouble, along with the server. The Chief Eunnuch held great power and controlled the finances of the harem, so the kira were paid by them.

Eunuch guarding the entrance to the Harem

There were lots of museums within the walls of the palace, including those displaying jewels (too long a queue to wait in), armoury, kitchen equipment as well as the courtyard where Suleiman liked to watch his menagerie of lions in action. The museum I found most fascinating was that displaying the clothes the sultans wore.

Kaftan worn by Suleiman circa 1550

The garments were found when the palace was restored in 1924 and remarkably both Mehmet II and Suleiman’s clothes had survived for over five hundred years because of the way they’d been stored. The undershirts were especially intricate with the text from the Koran painted on in the most tiny handwriting.

Clothes worn by the Princes circa 1500s

It was upsetting to look at the clothes on display once worn by the sultan’s children and know that only the son who succeeded would survive after the sultan’s death – virtually the first action taken by a new sultan on succession was to order his siblings strangled.

Delightful display ofTurkish Delight

A grim note to end upon, so I shall leave you with a picture of the amazing Turkish Delight to be found in Istanbul’s many, many confectionary shops.

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Venice: Secrets of the Doge’s Palace and Other Tales

Visiting Venice last year I had the opportunity to delve into aspects of city life in the 1550s, all helpful research for the then work in progress, The Apostates. For instance, the current Rialto bridge wasn’t in existence when my characters were living there, in fact there was no bridge at all at the time since it had collapsed under the weight of a crowd rushing to watch a wedding.

Rialto Bridge designed by Antonio da Ponte, construction began in 1588 and was completed in 1591

The city fathers were determined to replace previous wooden bridges with a stone built one that would last (see the painting below by Carpaccio of an earlier bridge made of wood) and asked Michelangelo, amongst others, to submit a design. When the Rialto Bridge was finally erected, many assumed it too would collapse from the weight of the marble, especially since it had no central supporting pillar. The gondoliers no doubt were very happy that it took thirty odd years before the new bridge was constructed since they provided the only means of crossing the Grand Canal.

Segment from Carpaccio’s Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross at the Rialto Bridge, 1496.

In writing The Apostates it would’ve been all too easy to assume the current Rialto Bridge, finished in 1591, would’ve been in existence. It’s those small details which can really catch a writer of historical fiction out – or this one anyway.

My research is never particularly well planned, more a stumbling on curious facts and following my curiosity. For example, cities in Europe during the era were invariably bounded by high city walls, very necessary for their defence, and yet Venice has no such defences, apart from the Fort of San’Andrea. However the canals themselves formed a line of defence. There were markers in the very shallow water within the lagoon to guide ships and boats, which could, at need, be removed making any attacker likely to run aground.

Nevertheless I found it curious that the Ottomans had never attacked – if they could take Constantinople then Venice wouldn’t have posed much of a problem. Although at times they were at loggerheads, the two regimes kept ambassadors permanently in one another courts. Cyprus for instance, was under Venetian rule and in 1570 Famagusta was besieged by the Turks yet it never erupted into open warfare between the two states. The Venetians eventually surrendered Famagusta in 1571 but the Turkish commander, furious that he’d lost over 50,000 men, breached the terms of the surrender and murdered all the Christians left in the city then flayed alive the Venetian commander.

In response the Venetians, in an unusual alliance with Spain and the Pope, won the sea battle of Lepanto and displayed the heads of the Ottoman commanders on their ships (which I cover in the most recent in series, The Familists). But these territorial skirmishes never resulted in an open declaration of war between the Doge and the Sultan. The smooth flow of trade, it seems, was more important than territory.

Da Vinci’s design for a canal dredger

The islands of Venice sit within a tidal lagoon and the waters rise and fall by several feet each day. Even in the 1400s there was a concern about how to maintain the depth of the canals, which were the receptacles for all the sewage, detritus and general rubbish of the day. Leonardo’s design for a dredger was never actually built but it shows the pre-occupation with depth.

We booked a tour of the secret rooms and hidden passageways of the Doge’s Palace. Here’s the torture chamber where a prisoner could watch, from the small square window high on the right, his fellow inmate being tortured knowing it would be his turn next.

Torture chamber within the Doge’s Palace

The cells in the basement of the Doge’s Palace flooded when the tide came in so prisoners would find themselves waist deep in water every twelve hours. The wealthier prisoners were held in the attics, which had the benefit of being dry but they either baked in the summer or froze in the winter beneath the lead roof.

Columns of San Marco and San Teodoro in Piazza San Marco

The two pillars in St Mark’s Square, one with a winged lion and the other with the figure of St Theodore patron saint of Venice atop, were a gift from the Byzantine Emperor in the 12th century. Brought from Constantinople, there was a third column but it fell off the ship into the sea. In the era in which my books are set any member of the aristocracy sentenced to death would be hung between the two pillars and his body left swinging there for several days as a warning to others.

Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

Visiting Venice was incredibly helpful to get a sense of the sheer scale of the buildings and the opulence my character Bethia, a wee lassie from St Andrews in Scotland, would have been exposed to. In the first in series The Castilians, Bethia’s mother is obsessed with having a painted ceiling but it would’ve been much diminished next to the grandeur of Venetian painted ceilings such as the one pictured above.

The Scuola Grande was an organisation of merchants and others who did charitable works – a precursor of the Rotary Club perhaps – but they clearly needed a grand setting in which to meet and chat about those good works.

The mosaic marble floors too would have been stunning, and so smooth underfoot for a Scottish lass.

15th century Venetian floor reminiscent of the Dutch artist Escher

Venice is a city of light and water and flowers. But windows then still had opaque glass. Here’s one from Ferrara that has survived for five hundred years – not great for letting in the light but very beautiful to look upon.

Window of House in Ferrara dating from 1500s

My third in series, The Apostates, is set partly in Venice.

The Apostates by VEH Masters

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How do you dig a Siege Tunnel?

If you’ve ever been to St Andrews you’ll know it’s not only the home of golf and site of Scotland’s oldest university but the town itself is steeped in history. Once a great centre of pilgrimage, the cathedral was left in ruins after the Scottish Reformation in 1560. Although I grew up in St Andrews the ruins were simply part of the backdrop of daily life. I was twelve years old before our history teacher, Miss Grubb, took us to visit what was left of the cathedral. 

Ruins of St Andrews Cathedral

We also visited the castle where there is there is the most remarkable siege tunnel, dug in 1546 and the best surviving example of siege tunnelling in Europe from the era.

St Andrews Castle

You enter it from the side of the dry moat via a steep and uneven few steps. Almost immediately you’re bent double and for anyone who is at all claustrophobic a quick retreat is in order. 

Entrance to Siege Tunnel

Creeping down the central trench, at constant risk of scraping your back on the rough stone above, you come to a fork which leads to a dead end. You retreat and continue along the main tunnel, the sense of being squeezed growing ever greater until you can barely draw breath. Then suddenly the narrow passage ends. There’s a wall of rock before you and nowhere to go. Yet looking down you spy a narrow entrance. 

Dare you squash yourself throughand descend the metal ladder to find out what’s below? Down you tentatively go and the space opens out. 
The tunnel is a tale of two halves and this part is broad and high with steps leading to the sealed off entrance beneath a house in North Street. There’s also a grating visible, which my brother and his friends entertained themselves during school lunchbreaks by howling down from the street above, to terrify (or perhaps create atmosphere for) the tourists beneath. 

From the moment I first went down the siege tunnel at St Andrews Castle I was utterly entranced. And when I learned the men who had taken the castle early one morning by stealth, murdered its cardinal in revenge for the burning of a Protestant preacher, and held it against all comers for the next fourteen months called themselves ‘the castilians’ I felt a shiver of foreknowledge. What a perfect title for a book, I thought… I didn’t know then how very long it would take me to write it!

I did however always wonder what the point of tunnelling in was. Surely as soon as the besiegers popped their head up out of the tunnel it would likely be knocked off? When I came to do the research for The Castilians I finally understood.

The information is in the name – I have so far referred to this long underground passage as a siege tunnel and was confused as a schoolgirl why it was called the mine and counter mine.

It was never the intention of Mary Queen of Scots forces (we are in the period of regency and Mary is only 3 years old) to tunnel into the castle, capture the Protestants holding it and thus break the siege. The purpose of digging was to undermine the curtain wall, set explosives beneath it, bring it down and then storm the castle.

This is why, when you go down the tunnel/mine it’s a tale of two halves. The first part is low and narrow and clearly dug at great speed. Once you climb down the iron ladder into the second part it’s wide and high.

The besiegers began to dig in what was then known as Northgait, now North Street, at the back of a house, and hidden from those patrolling the castle walls. The aim was to dig secretly and deep until they gauged they were beneath the curtain wall. They’d then support the roof of the mine with wooden props, set explosives around the props, light fires and run fast as they could out the tunnel before it blew. The explosion would bring down part of the wall, the troops would charge and the castle would be re-taken. 

But…this is the great era of siege warfare and those who are holding the castle are well aware their besiegers will likely try to get them out by undermining the walls. One of the ways those inside the castle could ascertain if mining was happening was to set up bowls of water around the courtyard and see if the water was rippling – a sign of underground activity.

False Start

In the case of the siege of St Andrews Castle those within were fairly certain the besiegers were tunnelling in. The aim then was to counter mine out as fast as they could and intercept the mine before the besiegers got beneath the curtain wall. 

The challenge was to work out where the besiegers were actually digging if they were to intercept them and inside the castle there are a couple of very deep holes to be found – false starts. Eventually they found the right spot… here’s an exert from The Castilians

They hear sounds of alarm; it seems they are discovered. Any attempt to stay quiet is given up and they excavate as hard and fast as they can. Someone has fetched Richard Lee and he pushes past Will, directing them to attack the ground beneath, and not before them.

‘We must be quick,’ he hisses, ‘else they’ll have time to set explosives and blow us into eternity.’

Will shovels the rubble behind him to keep the area clear for the miners to work – there’s no time to scuttle back up the passageway with it now. A hole has appeared in the floor of the tunnel. Lee has a man shield the candles, whispering that he needs it dark to see if there’s torchlight shining through from below.

Will, Lee and the two miners huddled together in the cramped space nudge one another, there is a light. They enlarge the hole, cries from below growing loud, then fading. Lee kneels at the edge, and sticks his head through. Will can feel Lee’s body tense, ready to pull his head back. He is a brave man. They wait.

Lee lifts his head out and smiles. ‘It could not be more perfect.’

I still wonder at the amazing feat to dig, and dig so fast. There’s little reference to it in the papers of the time. The French ambassador to the English Court mentions the mine and counter-mine in his letters of November 1546, but by December it’s over and the attempt to break the siege has failed again…

St Andrews Castle

If you’re ever in St Andrews Castle, don’t forget to go down the mine and counter-mine. The entrance is not obvious to find, sited as it in the side of the dry moat. It’s one of the most atmospheric places you’ll ever visit. 

And in answer to the question, how do you dig a siege tunnel…by cunning, subterfuge, courage, determination and punishingly hard work.

The Castilians, the first in series of The Seton Chronicles is available as an ebook, print and audio book.

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Seven Ages of Man, Three Ages of Woman

Writing historical fiction set in the early modern period in Europe ( characterised as roughly from the beginnings of the Renaissance and the invention of printing to the French Revolution and early Industrial Revolution), I have been endlessly curious about what it would be like to be a woman in those times. My books cover events early in the period so specifically I was interested in what was it like to go through the changes that happen for a woman in the 1550s.

I began by thinking about how men were described.

Seven Ages of Man

The seven ages of man, outlined in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, was not original to the playwright and reference to these stages of a man’s life can be found in Ancient Greek Literature as well as in the writings of Horace. William Vaughan (1571- 1641) in his Naturall and artificial directions for health deriued from the best philosophers, as well moderne as ancient, wrote of each age being ruled by a planet, from infancy by the moon to the final stage, ruled by Saturn.

Woman is generally not referred to in these seven stages, except as an adjunct to man. Instead we are more commonly seen as having three stages – Maiden, Mother, Crone.

Gustav Klint, The Three Ages of Women. Wikicommons

In the early modern period the body was generally understood to be ruled by four humours… phlegm, black bile, yellow bile, blood … otherwise described as melancholic, sanguine, choleric and phlegmatic. Any imbalance in the humours would lead to sickness.

The Humours were also used to describe the physical and behavioural changes that occur during aging. People were born naturally warm and wet and, over the course of their life, this dissipated so that by old age they had become cold and dry. Since women began life with a colder constitution than men they were characterised as drying out more quickly.

The Four Humours Wikicommons

What food you ate affected your humour. Here’s a description of the impact of consuming garlic from Lazare Riviere, The Universal Body of Physick, 1657.

Garlick is hot and dry almost in the fourth degree, for outwardly it exulcerates the skin, but it is weaker being boyled than raw, and moves urine, excites the flowres [menses], begets wind, and hurts the eyes; it helps the concoction of the stomack. It opens the obstructions of the bowels, cuts thick and clammy humours, and cleanses them; it purifies the lungs, and makes the voice clear; it kills worms, and resists poyson, so that it is called the Countryman’s Treacle.

Here’s how women were advised to eat during pregnancy to balance the humours and protect the foetus

All meats too cold, too hot, and too moist, are to be avoided, as also the use of Salads and Spiced meats, and the too much use of salt meats are also forbidden, which will make the child to be born without nails, a sign of short life. Her meats ought to be Pigions, Turtles, Pheasants, Larks, Partridge, Veal, and Mutton. For herbs, she may use Lettice, Endive, Bugloss, and Burrage, abstaining from raw Salads: for her last course, she may be permitted to eat Pears, Marmalade, as also Cherries and Damsins; she must avoid all meats that provoke urine, or the terms; and such meats as are windy, as Pease, and Bean. The Compleat Midwife’s Practice, 1698.

Menstruation was said to occur because women lacked heat to purge superfluities whereas men could do so through their facial hair and because they sweated more. Excess or corrupt humours could also stop the menses by bearing sway in the blood.

Maidens and mothers were useful to men, crones much less so. But for women menopause freed them from being sexual prospects and an endless cycle of painful and often dangerous child bearing. This gave older women a modicum of independence which was by no means popular in a time when women were considered adjuncts of men.

A woman’s appearance was seen to be important, and more important than a man’s physical appearance, and thus the depictions of aging women are harsher. Women were said to age more quickly and within the descriptions of the seven ages of man, men have two to three stages within old age (only becoming toothless at the very end) whereas woman jumps straight from mother to crone.

The Old Hag by Jan de Bisshop Wikicommons

Here’s how Spencer in the Faerie Queen describes one old woman:

A loathy, wrinkled hag, ill favoured, old…
Her Teeth out of her rotten Gums were fell’d,
And her sowre breath abhominably smeld;
Her drieds dugs, lyke bladders lacking wind,
Hong downe, and filthy matter from them weld;
Her wrizled skin as rough, as maple rind.

Another way to characterise the Crone is as a Wise Woman but the perils of being such in the early modern era was to be labelled as a witch – much safer to be a Crone.

Diet in pregnancy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Michael Kaye Eshleman

The Medicalisation of Menopause in Early Modern English Medical and Popular Literature by Anne Graham

The Seton Chronicles are set in Europe of the 1550s.

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Slains Castle and Dracula

In my never-ending quest to feed my castle-visiting addiction I stumbled across Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire a few weeks ago and discovered Bram Stoker was said to have drawn inspiration from it for Dracula’s castle.

Slains Castle

Dracula, of course, was loosely based on a real prince connected with the Ottoman Empire, one period in whose history I’m currently researching for my next book. It’s always amazing how things tie up!

Inevitably Slains Castle had a long and chequered history prior to one Abraham (Bram) Stoker’s visits. The castle was owned by the Earl of Errol who reverted to Catholicism in 1587, as part of a plot supported by Spain. Not an especially wise decision since Scotland had been Protestant for nearly thirty years by then. Errol fled the country and James VI had Slains Castle destroyed. Yet when Errol returned to Protestantism in 1597, he found favour with the king and came home to rebuild his castle (although the family again shifted allegiance much later to support Bonnie Prince Charlie).

Massive windows into internal courtyard

Perched on a cliff top, with some deep gullies and long drops the remaining ruin is an atmospheric hotchpotch of towers and courtyards added at various times by various Errols over the centuries since.

Samuel Johnson and his companion James Boswell spent a night at the castle during their tour of Scotland in 1773, although Boswell had some complaints to make about his night’s sleep…

I had a most elegant room. But there was a fire in it which blazed, and the sea, to which my windows looked, roared, and the pillows were made of some sea-fowl’s feathers which had to me a disagreeable smell. So that by all these causes, I was kept awake a good time.

Drop from window to rocks below

The house was let as a summer home in early 1900s and both Lord Asquith, and Winston Churchill visited.  Bram Stoker never did stay in the castle but locally at the Kilmarnock Arms Hotel in nearby Cruden Bay. He came each summer for his annual month long holiday and this was where he started writing Dracula.

Cruden Bay

On my return home, coincidentally, the story of Vlad Dracula pops up on my video feed. It’s part of a Netflix drama documentary series called The Rise of Empires, and this season is focused on the war between the Ottoman Emperor Mehmed II and Vlad Dracula of Wallachia. My own next in series is partly set in Constantinople so I’m enjoying learning as much as I can about it, although 1462 is slightly earlier than my period. I settle down to find out more about the real Dracula.

Mehmed II from Netflix Series

The first thing is the name is not pronounced Dracula with the emphasis on the first syllable but Dracula, emphasis on the second syllable. Wallachia, a Christian country, was part of present day Romania, which was then expected to pay a tribute to the Ottoman Empire, who controlled it as a buffer zone between them and Hungary.

Ottoman Empire and showing Wallachia almost in the centre

As a boy Vlad Dracula and his brother Radu were held as hostages and surety of their father’s loyalty at the Ottoman court. They were educated alongside the future Mehmed II which meant Mehmed and Vlad knew one another’s strengths and weaknesses very well. Vlad and Radu would also have studied the Koran as part of their education, but only Radu converted to Islam.

In 1453 Mehmed took Constantinople bringing an end to the Byzantine Empire. His intention was to advance as far west as Alexander went east, and he adopted the title of Caesar of the Roman Empire. A remarkable tactician and a gifted engineer, Mehmed was a cunning man with a web of spies throughout Europe.

Vlad Dracula from Netflix Series

When Prince Vlad reclaimed the throne of Wallachia he resented paying the tithe Mehmed demanded and nailed Mehmed’s ambassadors’ turbans to their heads leaving Mehmed in no doubt of his intentions. Vlad tried to negotiate the support of his Hungarian neighbour to free him of the Ottoman yoke but Sultana Marija, Mehmed’s wily stepmother who was a former princess of Hungary and an Orthodox Christian, visited the Hungarian Court and used her influence to persuade the Hungarian king to prevaricate.

Sultana Marija from the Netflix Series

Mehmed was not a man to show weakness, and he crossed the Danube with a vast force determined to subdue Vlad. Outnumbered, yet very cunning, Vlad ran a campaign of guerrilla warfare and night attacks leaving a trail of death, destruction and scorched earth behind him. He even infiltrated lepers and sufferers of tuberculosis and the plague into Mehmed’s camp – a kind of germ warfare.

He was trying to free his country from the tyranny of the Turks however, even by medieval standards, Vlad Dracula was exceptionally cruel. The moniker impaler was ascribed for his particular skill, and fondness, for shoving a stake into his enemy and hammering it with a mallet until the point came out the other end. He was especially adept at  avoiding the vital organs which meant death was prolonged – and he had both women and men impaled.

Forest of Death

The terror culminated in The Forest of Death where 24,000 Moslems and Turkish soldiers were impaled and arrayed like a forest: a most gruesome art form.

Vlad came close to murdering Mehmed but in the end Mehmed’s superior numbers prevailed.  Vlad escaped and spent the rest of his life on the run.

Vlad’s younger brother Radu, known variously as Radu the Beautiful and Radu the Coward, remained loyal to Mehmed. There is some evidence he was sexually abused by Mehmed as a boy and ended up as Mehmed’s male concubine, although this isn’t directly referred to in the Netflix series.

Mehmed replaced Vlad with Radu. Those loyal to Vlad soon came over to Radu who was considerably less bloodthirsty and known for his quiet intelligence.

The series is beautifully shot. Although primarily a drama, the action is paused every so often while historians give us detail of the background story, the key players, the clever tactics and an insight into motivation. Well worth the watching.

And as for Slains Castle, it’s a most stunning walk along the old carriageway and then down to gorgeous Cruden Bay. Well worth the visit.

Paddling at Cruden Bay

References: The Historical Dracula: Monster or Machiavellian Prince? by John Akeroyd
Netflix Series: Rise of Empires Season 2
and lots of Wikipedia entries

Cruden Bay