One of the difficult things about writing historical fiction is that you can never give a perfect interpretation of the past. There is a lot of information about York in the 16th century, and of course it has a background of very famous events.
It is particularly difficult for those who make dramas and movies because you must have some version that connects with the audience that isn’t continuously too unpleasant. And of course, parts of any city then would be incredibly unpleasant. I wanted my version to be accurate without being seen through the lens of modernity and all our values. Values were different, but not all that different.
In the western world, all our laws are based on Judeo-Christian culture. And you only need to reflect on the ten Commandments to see how close they have been to our laws over the centuries. So many of those values have remained, and even though it’s a time when we presume the people were killing each other left, right and centre, it was mostly in battle or part of a supposed judicial system. Something as we know, that was quite severe. And as mentioned, everyday warnings like the irresistible heads on spikes were around for everybody to see if they were to break the law. It’s something I touch upon a lot in the stories, hopefully in a light-hearted manner.
So, it was quite convenient that I had a vehicle where somebody was seeing York in the 1540s for the very first time and irritatingly can’t stop going on about the smells. Hygiene would have been poor and erratic. The shambles, one of Britain’s hottest tourist spots, is undeniably quite quaint, and beautiful, but in the 1540s, blood and offal would flow down the street daily as butchers set about their work. If somebody with money wanted to avoid filth, smells, offal and vermin, they would choose an existing house (or have one built) in an area where that could be controlled a little more. Except for a few very privileged places, there were no toilets in houses, for some, none outside either so if you walked towards the river, even though there might be some discretion in the act, it would not be impossible to see someone defecating and, I don’t just mean animals. You don’t see that often in movies, do you?
But we all know what privilege means. Many people dressed well, were clean and were relatively healthy, and lived in the nicer parts of the city. Robert Hall was privileged throughout his life, as was anyone who worked within the Liberty walls of the Minster. The Minister was almost like a little city of its own, separated from York itself. Within reason, they had their own rules and laws and thought little of the people outside until they attended for mass. However, there was a streamlined agreement between the city and the Minster so that culture, advice, judgement and yes, money flowed both ways.
And then there was disease. In the specific period I’ve been writing about, there is no plague, but it is no stranger to York either. It’s easy to forget that a slight cut or a minor infection could be fatal. There is no understanding of bacteria or what it does to the body. Although some of the real-life characters in my books live to a wonderful age, 40 would be very respectable and child mortality was high.
What I wanted to write about (and I’m not the one to say whether or not I succeeded) was what life was like for regular people. Histories are rarely written about them. The constant bereavements took their toll, and even though people could boldly talk about death daily, it hit them as hard as it would hit us. Life was constantly challenging. Therefore, this shift in what happened to the Christian faith was threatening and confusing for a lot of the population. In simple terms, the Agents, who were not academics or intellectuals, still grasped the core values Christ left people with. Forgive others, love your enemies, put other people first, turn the other cheek. They realised it had already become lost amongst the constant factions trying to enforce their view of the faith, only to get worse in the centuries to come.
York was an incredibly important city. It was almost the most important city in England. Little more than a toss of a coin decided whether the archbishopric of Canterbury or York should be the senior position. York came second, but nevertheless was an important seat in the nation. It is no wonder that the Council of the North was set up nearby, and so much emphasis placed on loyalty to the king and loyalty to the new faith once the Act of Supremacy was established. You have probably worked out that the stories begin in 1541 because of the massive event that happened during that year. Henry VIII visited York seemingly as a gesture put does not forget to leave his thousands of troops behind in London. It was a statement of power. A reminder who was in charge after recent rebellions.
As you can imagine, I feel as though I could write on this topic for hours if it wasn’t the fact that some of my blogs are already a little long :)
There is so much to say. Still, I close my eyes and I have my picture of what York was like and I can navigate through it. If you read this and you’ve never been there, you should. I purposely tried to make sure that every place that I mention in the stories can still be visited and that’s why I created the ‘Micklegate companion to York,’ which is free if you want to look at it. I also genuinely welcome any additions or thoughts, even if it’s just about York now or in the past.