The contentious figures of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford were key figures in the court of Richard II, and the Katherine appears in this novel. What is your take on them and their relationship?
To royal watchers, they are the familiar Charles and Camilla of their day. Katherine was Gaunt’s long-time mistress, even having bastard children with him, and finally marrying him when Gaunt, already the richest man in England, had nothing more to prove. Gaunt already had his own impressive resume as a statesmen and general. You don’t necessarily get that far by being a nice guy, so I see him as a plotter and a shrewd businessman. It didn’t mean he didn’t have his tender moments. And his relationship with Crispin is singular and heart-wrenching when they do meet. Gaunt appears in most of the novels except for those years he is in Spain battling for his right to the throne of Castile. In his absence, Crispin encounters Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke, part of the Lords Appellant who were harrying King Richard. He nearly takes the throne from his cousin (but it is some years later when he finally does). It is Crispin this time that plays the father figure to Henry whom he helped to raise. And after seven novels, I felt it was time to finally bring in Katherine Swynford. She, like Chaucer, will make occasional reappearances in the novels as time marches on.
Some of the aspects of medieval life which you have portrayed might surprise some readers; in particular, attitudes towards marriage and sex. Do you feel that modern and medieval people are more similar than we might think?
That’s a yes and a no. Some of their notions of love and marriage are familiar to us, but other aspects are certainly foreign. Marriage was not a romantic entanglement but a business relationship to create heirs and to cleave two houses and dynasties together, at least for the upper crust. For the lower, uh, crusts, it was also a combining of houses and fortunes and perhaps a way for a person to rise in ranks. An apprentice or servant might marry the widow of his former employer thus bringing him upward above his former class. This was the same for men and women. The merchant class in the medieval period were definitely upwardly mobile. Becoming an alderman of the city was to give you all but the nobility you sought. The sheriffs were chosen from the aldermen and the Lord Mayor chosen from the sheriffs. It was as high as you could go without a “sir” in front of your name, though many were acquiring that, too.
There is also another recurring character in the series, a person who was a real person in Crispin’s London, John Rykener. He was a cross-dressing male prostitute who serviced not only men but women as well, called himself “Eleanor,” and had other work as an embroideress. Homosexuality was little understood in this period, but was not as vilified as it was in later years.
The only information we have on Rykener was when he was arrested for plying his trade. Though he got himself in trouble for whoring he was in greater trouble for dressing as a woman. This seemed of more concern than his being homosexual (we tend to think of the medieval period as getting medieval on people with torture and abuses by the Church, but in England more of that occurred near the end of this period, as they entered the Renaissance.) In his court documents Rykener even claimed he had a husband who would defend him in this suit, living as woman as he did in the early fifteenth century, and though this might have been an unusual defence in its day, it did not seem to have been cause for outcry. Rykener is another of those friends Crispin acquired when he was first let loose on the streets of London without a clue as to how to survive, and Rykener’s place in the novels underscores the many diverse people that populated such a large city as London, making it as cosmopolitan then as it is now.
What have you got planned for Crispin next?
The next book that I am currently writing and finishing up is A MAIDEN WEEPING. Crispin awakens from a drunken tumble the night before to find his bedmate dead, strangled. Accused of the murder, he is arrested and it’s up to his faithful apprentice Jack Tucker to do the investigation this time. It’s a medieval courtroom drama, involving a relic of the Tears of the Virgin, and the strangulation deaths of more women in London. Why are the Tears of the Virgin at the heart of it all, and will Jack find the real culprit before they convict and hang his master?