Saturday, 16 August 2014

A visit to Cymer Abbey in Wales

Cymer Abbey, or to give it the correct name, Kymer deu Dyfyr means the meeting of the waters, and the abbey is sited at the meeting of the river Mawd-dach and the river Wnion. It is a peaceful setting, or it would be without the traffic roaring on the by-pass and the holiday makers in the small camping and caravanning park, that has sprung up alongside. But, despite these modern day intrusions, it is still possible to discern the original peace and quiet that first drew the Cistercians to the spot in 1198.

The Cistercians sought places 'far from the concourse of men'; somewhere to contemplate God and their own human failing. Cymer must have seemed ideal. It was founded in 1158-9, its first patron Maredudd ap Cynan ab Owain Gwynedd, Lord of Merioneth. The church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. 

The first monks to settle at Cymer came from Cwmhir Abbey in Powys, a sister house of Whitland which was itself founded by monks from the mother house of Clairvaux in Burgundy. Cymer was never a large house, the monks existing in poverty and piety, their living subsidised by sheep and dairy farming and horse breeding. Cymer was noted for the fine horses it provided to Llewellyn ap Iorwerth, more widely known as Llewellyn Fawr (the Great.)

Cistercian buildings were traditionally stark and undecorated but even by Cistercian standards Cymer is remarkably plain and the buildings were never extensive. In the early days the monks lodged in wooden structures, the stone buildings being built over the following years of local boulders and rubble. Only the dressed stone around the windows and doors was cut from buff sandstone and a few carvings in red sandstone. 

Today, all that remains standing of the monastery itself are parts of the abbey church. It was never a large building, measuring no more than 105 feet internally. The aisles are separated from the central church by solid stone walls with three arcaded bays on the western side. The eastern wall has three tall windows remaining and the remains of three smaller ones are just discernible above. These windows illuminated the church interior and allowed the light of the lord to flood in. 

The remains of the seats used by the officiating priest, his deacon and the sub deacon during mass can still be seen. At the opposite end there is an unusual diversion from the conventional Cistercian model in the remains of a tower with a few worn steps which would once have led to the top. The lack of conventional tower is further evidence of the poverty at Cymer.

Only the footings of the cloister and other monastic buildings now remain and there is evidence that the lay brother’s range may never have been completed. The cloister, chapter house and dining hall are all in their expected positions on the south side, but their planning suggests that the monks anticipated a future enlargement of the church. 

The nearby farmhouse has been built on the site of the medieval guest house, the post dissolution building utilising much of the abbey stone. The original building, which would have contained the abbot’s lodging, was a single storey hall and the fifteenth century timber roof still survives but is not accessible by the public.

In 1291 the annual income at Cymer was £28 8s 3d and records show that by 1388 there were just five monks remaining; financial debt, made worse by the war waged by Edward I, is believed to have initiated the decline. By 1535 when Cromwell began his inventory of all monastic property, Cymer’s annual income was just £51. It was dissolved by 1537 but in the nineteenth century a large silver gilt chalice and paten (Eucharist plate) were discovered hidden in the hills above the monastery and are now in the National Museum in Cardiff. You can read more about the chalice and Paten by clicking here.

It is impossible for the modern day visitor to imagine the hardships of medieval Cymer. We turn up in our waterproofs, our bellies recently filled at the local hostelry, our bodies strong from years of good nutrition and modern day dentistry. The monks at Cymer had to work hard for every mouthful, they were frozen by the wind and snow, wet through by the wicked Welsh rains, and their rough woolen habits probably left to dry on their bodies. Their accommodation was stark and windowless and the stone floors upon which they prayed were cold and unyielding. Records suggest that toward the end of the abbey’s life religious observation had slipped. The state rolls of Henry VIII claim that many monastic settlements were nests of evil where “manifest synne, vicyous carnall and abhomynable lyvyng, is dayly used and comytted comonly in suchlytell and smalle Abbeys Pryoryes and other Relygyous Houses of Monks, Chanons & Nonnes...” (HOL,Henry VIII, Roll of Parliament,) but perhaps in retrospect we can be a little less judgemental. After all Henry VIII and Cromwell had an agenda, they craved the destruction of the monasteries and wanted to get their hands on monastic wealth. 

The impoverished monks of Cymer were a different breed from the fat, grasping abbots of the larger houses that we are so used to hearing about. If they hid their only two treasured items up in the hills away from the greedy hands of Cromwell and his king, who can blame them? And if they sometimes skimped on Matins in favour of the meagre warmth offered by their narrow beds well, we all roll over in the morning and hide under our own pillows. And if, starved of human contact, they turned to each other to indulge in a little ‘manifest synne’ I can understand and forgive them for that too. They were after all human beings living in absolute penury and I am far too fond of the comforts of my own soft warm duvet to stand in judgement upon them.

Cymer Abbey lies near the village of Llanelltyd, just north of Dolgellau, Gwynedd, in north-west Wales, United Kingdom. Entry is free.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Undressing my man - and my woman

Anna Belfrage
For various reasons, I have honed in on the 17th century in my writing. Not exclusively, as now and then I will drop in on the 14th century – or the early 19th – but in general I am stuck in the 1600’s and all the tribulation and innovation that goes with it. After all, this is the century when Europeans finally discovered tea, and that, in my book, is in itself reason enough to fall in love with this particular period in history.

From a fashion perspective, the 17th century has a lot going for it. Okay, I am no fan of the ruff collars that open the century, not am I overly fond of the periwigs that close it, but in the in between period, some things are quite good. Men no longer wear dresses, nor do they swan around in ridiculously tight leggings (a.k.a. hose) that leave very little to the imagination. Let’s face it: very few people, whether then or now, have the physical attributes required to leave very little to the imagination… The trunk-hose of the 16th century has been replaced by breeches, and in general men are starting to dress like men.

So the men of the 17th century sport breeches, boots, short fitted coats and rakish hats – all of this adorned with lace and ribbons (not too much ribbon, please). And the women experience a period in time where clothes are more comfortable than they have been – or will become, and it is skirts and bodices, lace at collar and cuff and hats. Stop a moment. It’s not only hats, as women are still expected to keep their hair neatly covered, so it’s coifs and lace caps and hats. 

When writing historical fiction, it is important to get the clothes right. Not so that every historical novel needs to be a fashionista’s guide to the period, but a general understanding of what people wore, how they kept their clothes clean and how they fastened them is a must. Buttons, hooks laces and zippers – they all have their place in a historical setting, but a zipper in the 17th century would not fly, and the thorough author knows this.

Whether you want it or not, all this boils down to one thing: the author must – literally – undress his/her characters, all the way down to their birthday suit. My Matthew doesn’t like it when a woman other than his wife undresses him. His wife, Alex, most definitely doesn’t like it when I disrobe her man, even if I keep on telling her it’s for research purposes only. She hovers like an angry bat at my shoulders as I catalogue Matthew’s clothes, from the woollen stockings that cover his legs (“I made them” Alex tells me proudly – rather unnecessarily, as I’ve watched her struggle with her knitting) to the flowing cravat Matthew hates but Alex finds so decorative.

Starting with the essentials, Matthew wears a long shirt. It reaches to his mid-thigh, has ruffles at the 
cuffs and laces closed. I don’t know about you, but I feel there’s a certain je-ne-sais-quoi about a man in one of those shirts – preferably without his stockings.

“Without my stockings?” Matthew shakes his head and pulls on his heavy woollen stockings, pulling them right over his knees. Sometimes he garters them, but mostly he wears breeches that are tight enough around the leg to hold his socks up.
Shirts and stockings are the extent of Matthew’s underwear. Once his shirt is tucked into his dark broadcloth breeches and he has laced them into place, he tightens his belt and hunts about for his shoes. If it is cold – or he has a formal engagement – he will wear a coat over his shirt. He has two: one for every day wear that is patched and mended, the other an elegant creation in light grey, decorated at the cuffs with elaborate embroidery Alex has spent hours on. The buttons are of pewter, and this is the third coat they adorn, being far too expensive not to move from one garment to the other.  Should it be really, really cold, he’ll wear his cloak as well.
On his feet, Matthew will wear shoes or boots. During the summer (and if he’s at home), he’ll go about barefoot or in clogs, not wanting to wear down the leather unnecessarily.
In the best of worlds, Matthew will change his shirt once a week.

“You bet he will,” Alex tells me, wrinkling her nose. But Alex is an anomaly, a 20th century woman thrust three centuries backwards into a time where she desperately tries to implement some hygienic standards.  His coat and his breeches will be vigorously brushed and aired on a regular basis, but that’s about it. His lace collars and cuffs, the cravats he sports on formal occasions are always kept clean and starched, and if things are really fancy, he will exchange his woollen stockings for his single silk pair – in black.

It doesn’t really matter what stockings Alex wears, as no one ever sees them – well, beyond her husband, who takes great pleasure in undoing the garters and rolling them down her legs, one by one.
“Which is why I have such pretty garters,” Alex grins. And she does, most of them in red. She always garters her stockings, as otherwise they would slide down her calves. Over her stockings, she wears a shift – or chemise – that reaches mid-calf. Being somewhat vain, Alex has embroidered most of her shifts (“I am not vain!” “You are too!”), and the one she is presently wearing is further enhanced by a series of narrow pleats that allow the garment to follow her bodily contours rather than flap about.
To further enhance those contours of hers, Alex wears stays – an old-fashioned corset.

“Huh”, she snorts. “Enhance? It sort of squishes you together.” And enhances, lifting her breasts and narrowing her waist – but Alex will tell you she doesn’t need the stays to look trim.
“I don’t, do I?” she demands of Matthew, who is wise enough to tell her that of course she doesn’t, she is at her bonniest when entirely undressed. Clever man, our Matthew, but then most married men are, having learnt since ages back how to navigate the minefield of female vanity and insecurity rolled into one.
Over the stays come her petticoats – also of practical length, ending some inches below the knees. She ties her petticoat pocket into place – this is where she keeps the odd hairpin, some coins and her concealed knife, this last item having come in useful on more than one occasion. All of this is hidden below her heavy russet skirts which are tightened at the waist before she puts on her bodice. As it is summer, the blue bodice is sleeveless, and Alex uses green ribbons to adorn the linen sleeves of her chemise. Almost done, except that Matthew is shaking his head. Alex rolls her eyes, but dutifully braids her hair, coils it and covers it all with a linen cap.
“Much better,” he says with a grin. He holds out his hand as she skips towards him.
“See?” I say to Alex. “That wasn’t too bad, was it? And look at you both, all neat and tidy.” Alex sniffs – she’s quite good at sniffing.
“We’re going down to the river,” she says. “In this heat, we need a swim.”
“Oh.” I make as if to come along, but Matthew fixes me with a bright hazel stare.
“Alone,” he tells me.
“Oh.” I try not to sound too disappointed.
“Privacy, remember?” Alex grins widely. “Besides, you already know what we’re wearing – and what we’ll be taking off.”
“More or less everything,” Matthew fills in.
“Oh.” What else can I say? 

The Graham Saga is about two people who should never have met. My male protagonist, Matthew Graham, is a devout Presbyterian, a veteran of the Commonwealth armies and a man who, initially at least, tends to see the world as black or white. Which is why I gifted him with Alex Lind, an opinionated modern woman who had the misfortune (or not)  of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, thereby being dragged three centuries back in time to land concussed and badly singed at an astounded Matthew’s feet.
Due to religious persecution and an adventurous life in general, Matthew Graham and his wife end up in the Colony of Maryland. Not an easy existence, and in the recently released sixth book of the saga, Revenge and Retribution, things become excessively exciting and dangerous for both Matthew and Alex – as is exemplified by the below excerpt.

The yard was a hive of activity: loud male voices, horses that danced with excitement, dogs barking, and there was Matthew already astride Aaron.
Alex was not quite sure what was happening to her: no matter how hard she tried to breathe, no oxygen seemed to be finding its way down to her lungs. Her eyes stuck on Matthew, but he was halfway up the lane, followed by sons and neighbours, and Alex was quite convinced that, at any moment now, she’d die, because something was blocking her throat, and she had no idea what to do to dislodge it.
Someone whacked her back.
“Breathe.” Mrs Parson whacked her again.
Alex tried.
Mrs Parson took hold of her hands, sank black eyes into Alex’s. Her eyelashes were grey, Alex noted, grey and short.
“Lass,” Mrs Parson said, “Alex, love, look at me.”
So she did, and when Mrs Parson inhaled so did she, when Mrs Parson exhaled she followed suit, and slowly, her pulse stopped thundering in her head. With a little sound, she fell into Mrs Parson’s arms, and for all that Mrs Parson was old and several inches shorter, she stood solid like a rock and let Alex cry into her collar.
“A panic attack,” she diagnosed herself a half-hour or so later. They were sitting under the oak, holding hands.
“A what?” Mrs Parson said.
“I was frightened. No, I am frightened.” Alex chewed her lip, reliving in far too much detail the last time she’d had the misfortune to be eye to eye with Philip Burley. And now he was here, mere miles from their home. She swallowed and swallowed; she coughed and swallowed some more, all under Mrs Parson’s concerned eyes.
“It would take a right fool not to be scared of them,” Mrs Parson said.
Alex nodded, hating it that her eyes were filling with tears again. Here – they were here, and Philip Burley would never rest until Matthew was dead, and then he’d…Oh God, he’d come here.
Mrs Parson gave her hand a little shake. “We’ve bested them before, no?”
Alex tried to smile.
“This time we’ll best them for good,” Mrs Parson said. “It’s time to rid the world of yon misbegotten brothers once and for all.”
Yet again, Alex tried to smile.
“For good,” Mrs Parson repeated.
“For good,” Alex parroted, but for the coming hours she remained where she was, eyes glued to the lane, until she saw her man and his companions come trotting down towards her.
“No luck?” An unnecessary question as she could see in their body language that this had been a long day’s ride for nothing.
“Nay.” Matthew dropped off his horse. “They’re like ghosts: no sooner do we pick up their trail but they vanish.” He took off his hat and scrubbed at his hair. “I sorely miss Qaachow’s sentries,” he muttered.
“His sentries? You think they’re no longer there?”
“Why would they be?” Matthew spat to the side. ”His precious foster son is no longer here, is he?” He sounded bitter – and scared.

All of Anna’s books are available on AmazonUS and Amazon UK
For more information about Anna Belfrage and her books, visit her website!
For a somewhat more visual presentation of The Graham Saga, why not watch the book trailer?