I have always found setting in fiction to be one of its most important elements for me. There is a triad of these important elements, all of equal importance, which create compelling fiction – character, setting and story. And because I think they contribute equally, I’ve been careful to list them alphabetically!
An avid reader as a child, I always wanted to feel I was there, where the story was taking place. From then till the present day, if I find that the story appears to be taking place in a vacuum, it cannot hold me. The creation of a vivid and tangible setting involves many things, including sensory perception, which I have written about elsewhere, but since I now write exclusively historical fiction, an historical sense of place is an essential part of my work.
My Christoval Alvarez series in mostly set in late sixteenth century London (with forays abroad), but sadly very little of it has survived the Great Fire, the Blitz, and the rash of modern building. My sense of sixteenth century buildings, roads, environment, all has to come from elsewhere. Research books are helpful, of course, but the solidly physical has a special quality.
For my new series, Oxford Medieval Mysteries, I can draw on much of present-day Oxford. The old town, which lay within the town wall, has largely retained its original street plan (dating back to Saxon times), even if many of the streets have changed their names. Fish Street is now St Aldate’s, Northgate Street is the Cornmarket, and Great Bailey is Queen Street. St Mildred Street, where the Farringdons find a home in The Novice’s Tale, later became the Turl, after the “twirling gate”, a turnstile postern through the town wall at its north end. A number of medieval buildings survive in Oxford. For, example, I had a friend at Worcester College who had rooms in the little medieval row which thankfully escaped being torn down when the later buildings were constructed. It survives from the college’s predecessor, Gloucester College.
However, I have one special advantage in this matter of familiarity with the medieval setting in fiction. When my parents-in-law retired, they built a small house in the medieval, black-and-white village of Weobley in Herefordshire, and we have inherited it. We are only able to be there part of the time (though the rest of the family use it too), as we are based mainly in Scotland, but I soak up the atmosphere when I am there.
Our house stands in what was the orchard of one of the medieval houses, dating partly from the late fourteenth century and partly from the early fifteenth. There are half-timbered houses here from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, still standing firm, lived in by present-day families. There was a castle, overlooking the village, but it has gone – much of the stone quietly removed by the villagers for their own building. There were both wind and water mills, also gone, though the mill stream (much diminished from earlier days) runs at the bottom of our garden. The post office leans a bit sideways, as many of these buildings do. They were built from green timber and sometimes warped a little as they aged. Even the former slaughterhouse behind the butcher’s medieval house is a listed building. There are later buildings, of course, including eighteenth century mill buildings and cottages, and a few more modern ones, but the general sense, in the heart of Weobley, is that it retains much of the feel of the medieval village, so providing a source for me of setting in fiction for both my series.
Intriguingly, we have also discovered, quite by chance, two Swinfen connections with Weobley in the very early and mid seventeenth century.
As I have recently written about the history of Weobley, I thought I would append it here. It barely scratches the surface, but will give you some idea of this gem of a survival, in the borderland between England and Wales.
History of a Medieval Village
The village of Weobley is one of the most beautiful in England.
However, lying as it does a mere four miles from the Welsh border, it has known troubles over the centuries, some arising from Marcher warfare, some due to wider national events. Today Weobley has retained a wealth of black-and-white medieval buildings, although some have been lost, and where the castle once stood on an eminence overlooking the village nothing is readily visible above ground but the castle mound and intriguing humps and bumps. Much of the valuable dressed stone from the castle building has found its way into village houses.
Artifacts from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods have been found in the area, including a Neolithic polished stone axe produced by the Graig Lwyd ‘axe factory’ at faraway Penmaenmawr (North Wales), an indication of long-distance trading contacts. Bronze Age cup-marked stones and small metal objects have also turned up, suggesting that this extremely fertile, sheltered and well-watered spot has been occupied since earliest times. Settlement seems to have increased during the Iron Age, Roman, and Romano-British periods, a number of coins having turned up, mostly in the abandoned castle site. If there is other evidence it probably lies under the medieval houses which stand in the long-occupied central portion of the village, and so are inaccessible.
It is in the Saxon period that Weobley truly enters documented history. The name Weobley is of Saxon origin and is recorded in the Doomsday Book as Wibelai, which means ‘Wibba’s clearing’. Wibba may have been the son of Cribba, first king of Mercia (late sixth century). A ‘lai’ or ‘ley’ was a glade or clearing in woodland, used for a settlement. The house called The Ley is a sixteenth century building on the outskirts of the village.
The original form of the name as Wibelai perhaps accounts for the present-day pronunciation, which is ‘Webly’, the ‘o’ not being sounded. The pre-Conquest lord of Weobley at the time of the Doomsday Book (1086) is listed as Edwin. A priest is also recorded, so it seems there was already a church in the village. The Conqueror’s inventory of the lands he had seized indicate a flourishing agricultural settlement.
As a side note – we own a house on the banks of the brook which runs through the village. It seems that this was regularly allowed to flood in winter, thereby depositing silt washed down from the limestone Burton and Wormesley hills to the south, resulting in what is still an extraordinarily rich soil.
Weobley, with the surrounding area, was granted post-Conquest to William fitzOsborn, Earl of Hereford. (The city of Hereford is twelve miles to the south.) The family did not long remain in possession, for a rebellion by William’s son, Roger de Breteuil in 1074 was put down by Walter de Lacy, who then succeeded him as tenant-in-chief of the crown. He himself did not enjoy his lordship for long, as he fell to his death in 1085 from St Peter’s Church in Hereford while it was under construction. (Faulty medieval scaffolding?) His son Roger therefore held Weobley at the time of the Doomsday survey, and may have been the original builder of the castle.
Weobley was to see more war and rebellion. During the Anarchy, the struggle between the Empress Matilda and her cousin Stephen for the crown of England, Weobley Castle was held for Matilda in 1139. Stephen besieged and captured it in 1140, an experience which must have had a serious effect on the villagers. By the late 1180s, the castle was held by Matilda’s son, Henry II. The de Lacy family continued to be prominent in the area, although for a time they were mainly concerned with their lands in Ireland. More trouble was brewing, however.
The second Walter de Lacy married Margaret, daughter of William de Braose, lord of Brecon, who was one of the barons who rose against King John, using Weobley as his headquarters. It was from Weobley that de Braose may have launched his attack on Leominster, burning the town, and it was while he was in Weobley that King John demanded that he should surrender and hand over his son as hostage. As a result of his father-in-law’s activities, Walter de Lacy lost his lands and only regained them in 1213, at which time (wisely) he probably rebuilt and strengthened Weobley Castle. This de Lacy went on to have a distinguished career as Custodian of Hereford Castle, and Sheriff of Herefordshire. In this latter role he implemented the new royal policy (alas, short-lived) of protection of the Jews.
While all this political strife was happening, the people of Weobley were getting on with their lives. By this time Weobley had become a flourishing market town, serving the neighbouring villages, as well as being the centre of a prosperous agricultural district. At some point it must have been granted a charter for an annual fair, since Walter de Lacy petitioned for a change to the date in 1231. The very wide central area of the village would have been eminently suitable for holding a fair, though the slope might have made the pitching of stalls something of a headache! It is likely that this same busy de Lacy may have laid out more properties in the village, to increase his income from rents. Weobley was on the rise.
By 1255 Weobley had its own jury in the court of eyre, which would be presided over by the king’s justices – the mark of its increased status as a borough. Weobley would no longer need to send its cases for trial in Hereford. (The nineteeth century courthouse survives, now the library and museum.) Even earlier, a case in 1229 cites Weobley as a borough. And from 1295 to 1303 Weobley sent two Members to Parliament.
The powerful de Lacy family was to die out. When Walter died in 1241, his only heir was his granddaughter Margery, now married to John de Verdon, a family which has remained notable in the area down to modern times. The lordship of Weobley passed to John, then to his son and grandson (both called Theobald).When the younger Theobald died in 1316, the heir was again a woman, his daughter, another Margery, thereafter known as the Lady of the Manor of Weobley.
At the time of her inheritance, Margery Vernon was married to William le Blount, who was made joint heir in her father’s will. William died in 1337 and manor and castle passed to Margery and her heirs. As it was not normally the custom for a woman to hold a castle on her own, in 1338 she granted it for life to John le Blount, who may have been her brother-in-law. At some point Margery married a Marcus Husee, then in 1356 married for a third time, to John de Crophull or Crophill. If you do the sums, Margery was quite a remarkable lady. This third marriage was forty years after she had originally inherited from her father, when she was already married. How old was she? There is little information available about her second husband, but the Black Death occurred between 1348 and 1349, so he may have been a victim of it. Like everywhere else in Europe, Weobley is likely to have had a third to half its population wiped out.
On his marriage to Margery, John de Crophull took possession of her property, and on his death in 1383 left it to his granddaughter Agnes. Considering the way the manor and castle of Weobley was passed around, it seems as though Margery had no children, or at any rate none who survived. It would have been impossible (given what must have been her age) for Agnes to have been her granddaughter. It is curious also how often the heir to the manor of Weobley was a girl.
Agnes was under age when she married Sir Walter Devereux – it was not uncommon for a rich heiress to be married off as a child – but in 1386 Sir Walter was able to prove that she was ‘of majority’, so that he could claim ‘livery’ of her lands. As usual, the husbands of these women took control. Weobley therefore fell into the hands of the Devereux family (of whom more later). Sir Walter was killed on 22nd June 1402, fighting under the Marcher lord Sir Edmund Mortimer against Owain Glyndwr at the battle of Bryn Glas (not far from Weobley), during the reign of Henry IV – a battle mentioned by Shakespeare. Sir Walter’s tomb is in the church of St Peter and St Paul, Weobley.
Agnes, the Lady of the Manor of Weobley, then married Sir John Marbury (or Merbury) of nearby Lyonshall. He seems to have been living at Weobley Castle when he made his will in 1437. This mentions the ‘king’s chamber’, which suggests that there had been at least one royal visit to Weobley by this time. The tomb of Agnes and John Marbury is also in Weobley church.
Much of the fifteenth century was, of course, blighted by the Wars of the Roses and Weobley was not exempt. Walter Devereux, grandson of the dead hero of Bryn Glas, fought on the losing side at the battle of Ludford Bridge. The enormous fines he was forced to pay were granted to the Duke of Buckingham in 1459. Ten years later, Weobley was to have another visitor, later to become a king. At the age of four, Henry Tudor had been taken captive by William Herbert, and later made his ward. When Herbert died in 1469, his widow, Anne Devereux, took the twelve-year-old Henry home with her to Weobley, where he lived for several months.
The final years of the fifteenth century saw further dramatic events when in 1483 Henry, Duke of Buckingham, attempted a rebellion against Richard III, using Weobley as his base. The rebellion was a failure, and although the Duke fled, disguised as a countryman, he was captured in Shropshire and taken for execution. His Duchess was seized in Weobley, but a Mistress Olliffe, governess to their two small boys, hid them in Weobley, then escaped with them, disguised as girls, to Hereford. Six years later the son of the Walter Devereux who had fought at Ludford Bridge, rode off to Bosworth, and died there. So many of the events involving Weobley seem to have found their way into Shakespeare’s plays!
While all these gentleman and knights were fighting and dying, the ordinary people of Weobley continued to build a prosperous town. It grew rich in the wool trade, and was famous for a number of manufactured articles, principally gloves, ale, and nails. One of its chief agricultural products was fruit, and the byproduct of its apple orchards, cider.
During the sixteenth century Weobley saw few dramatic events – no doubt to the relief of the inhabitants – and the Devereux family continued to hold the manor. From being minor gentry, however, they rose under the Tudors, another Walter Devereux being created Earl of Essex by Elizabeth I, and his son, the second earl, rising to the giddy heights of royal favourite. This Robert Devereux – arrogant, wilful, and (dare one say?) stupid, decided to lead a coup against Elizabeth in 1601 which, not surprisingly, was an abject failure. He was executed for treason and his lands forfeit. His widow was Frances Walsingham, daughter of Elizabeth’s late spymaster Francis Walsingham. Their son Robert was ten at the time.
Frances sought to have her son’s inheritance, including Weobley, restored, and in this was ably assisted by John Swinfen (d.1632), one of my husband’s ancestors. (So the family connection with Weobley goes back a long way. Interestingly John christened a son born in 1603 ‘Deveroxe’, a spelling which suggests how the name was pronounced at the time.) The appeal was successful and young Robert Devereux regained his lands in 1603.
He was to become a general on the Parliamentary side in the Civil War and was yet another to have no male heirs, leaving Weobley to his eldest daughter, called Frances after his mother.
There was another royal visit in 1645, when Charles I stayed at the Unicorn Inn after the battle of Naseby. The building was renamed The Throne in commemoration of the king’s visit, and is now a private house. The ‘new’ Unicorn was built across the road, also in the seventeenth century. The sixteenth century house looking across at the Throne is called Throne View, and was where my parents-in-law stayed when they first came to Weobley.
Weobley church contains a magnificent memorial to Colonel John Birch, a member of the Moderate Party in Parliament during the Civil War, and a friend of John Swynfen (1613-94), grandson of the other John.
Both John Birch and John Swynfen fell out with Cromwell, being opposed to the execution of Charles I, as they supported the peaceful establishment of a constitutional monarchy with greater powers for Parliament. Cromwell had them excluded from Parliament. Birch retired to Weobley, where he purchased Garnstone Manor and became a prominent and highly regarded landowner, rebuilding the church spire in 1675, which had been destroyed in a storm 30 years before. He was MP for Weobley 1679-91.
Weobley had resumed sending two Members to Parliament in 1628, and continued to do so down to the nineteenth century, by which time the once flourishing town had declined drastically in population, so that following the Reform Act of 1832 it was declared a ‘rotten borough’. After Weobley ceased to become politically useful, a number of apparently empty houses were demolished. However, recent research suggests that many of these may have been temporary buildings erected to house a ‘rent-a-crowd’ of voters, imported for elections only.
The nineteenth century saw the erection of a rather fine brick-built workhouse on the northern outskirts of the village. Like other rural workhouses, this did not function in quite the same way as the urban workhouses described by Dickens. During the winter, they served as a refuge for casual farm labourers and their families when work on the surrounding farms dried up for the season. There are even records of entertainments laid on for the inmates, and the contracts for suppliers contain evidence of ample provision of food and clothing.
After the excitements of earlier years, a major event in 1857 was the disappearance of Mr. Ford’s pig. Having searched high and low for her, to no avail, he despaired of finding her. The story had a happy ending: ‘At the time of the disappearance, a steam threshing machine was working outside his house, and it was a full three weeks later that Mr. Ford discovered his missing pig buried under the straw. The poor animal had had nothing to eat or drink, and was heavy with piglets, but with much care and attention she recovered from her imprisonment and soon produced 10 piglets.’
In the mid nineteenth century it must have seemed a disaster when the widespread development of railways passed Weobley by. Without easy access to this new speedy form of transport, Weobley declined into gentle decay, but it was almost certainly this which saved all the wonderful medieval houses. There was a further disaster in 1943 when a group of houses (including a bakery) on a small triangular plot in the very centre of the village caught fire and burned down before the fire engines from Hereford could reach them. Looking at the tiny flower garden which has replaced them, it seems they must have been very small.
With the expansion of car ownership since World War II, Weobley’s fortunes have changed again. Once more it outdoes all other villages in the area, with shops, schools, post office, pubs, restaurant, doctor, dentist, museum, library and all manner of social activities. The de Lacy and Devereux families may be gone, along with the threat from Owain Glyndwr, but the people of Weobley have a flourishing community in one of the loveliest villages in England.
So that gives you some idea of one of my sources for setting in fiction, that vital element. I must admit, after researching Weobley’s own history, I have a feeling there might be the seed of more stories here. All those girls who inherited the manor of Weobley . . . Well, perhaps someday!
Till next time,