Isabella de Forz – The Lady of the Isle (1237-1293)

Born into a wealthy Devon family; married at twelve years old; widowed at twenty three having borne six children, Isabella de Forz outwitted both the king and Simon de Montfort to remain resolutely a widow and manage her own affairs. She became one of the great medieval landowners and one of the richest noblewomen in England.


Isabella’s Corbel – thought to be the lady herself

Isabella was the daughter of Baldwin de Redvers, 6th earl of Devon and Exeter and Lord of the Isle of Wight. As such she was accustomed to life in a wealthy noble family and understood the expectations held of her particularly in relation to her marriage- an alliance aimed at increasing wealth, power and influence.

At twelve, she was married to William de Forz, the Count of Aumale who was twenty years her senior. He was a loyal supporter of the king, Henry III and was often away on the king’s business. As a result, Isabella, despite her youth, became deeply involved in supervising the management of her husband’s considerable estates in France and the north of England.

In 1260, William died whilst abroad leaving Isabella a young and rich widow when her dower lands reverted to her. Two years later Isabella’s brother died and she became, in her own right, the heiress to the family estates and all at a time when the politics of the country were in turmoil.

In brief the nobles of England, rich and influential, were dissatisfied with the king, Henry III. They wanted more say in the governing of the country and were not at all happy with the favours bestowed on his wife’s (Eleanor of Provence) relatives. After several failed attempts to resolve the barons’ grievances, matters came to a head with Simon de Monfort leading the Baron’s War against the King. (1264-7). Isabella’s husband William de Forz remained a staunch royalist and close adviser to Henry. Whilst her husband lived Isabella followed his royalist lead. After his death however, she trod circumspectly between the two warring factions in an attempt to protect what was rightly hers. Throughout her life she maintained strong personal links between Henry and Eleanor and their son Prince Edward, later Edward I. Equally she remained in contact with Simon de Montfort’s wife, another Eleanor.

Isabella developed a taste and an aptitude for managing her own life as an independent woman rather than as the wife of a nobleman. She put in place a competent team – her affinity – to see to the day to day management of the estates and to advise her. She ran her fiefdom mainly from Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight –Isabella’s family home where she extensively remodelled the Castle turning it into a sumptuous private residence and styled herself as the Lady of the Isle.


Carisbrooke Castle Today

However as a wealthy an influential widow she was a fine catch for any noble. Simon de Montfort, after seizing control of the country saw this very clearly and sold the rights to Isabella’s remarriage to his eponymous son. Isabella was having none of this. During the year 1264/5, She was chased the length and breadth of the country by Simon the younger in an attempt to abduct her and force her into marriage. She hid in Brearmore Abbey in Hampshire but the Abbot revealed her whereabouts to the would-be husband. Later, apparently after suitable gifts, the Abbot helped her escape and she took herself off to Wales to lie low. After the battle of Evesham in 1265, described as ‘murder of Evesham for battle it was none’ both de Montfort elder and junior were killed and Henry held the reins of the country again. The question of Isabella’s marriage raised its head once more. This time Henry sold the rights to her marriage to his second son, Edmond, Duke of Lancaster. In that way the wealth and influence she had amassed would eventually accrue to the crown. However, instead of taking flight, this time Isabella negotiated with the king to arrange the marriage of her daughter and heir Aveline to Edmond and thus eventually the crown would inherit. The plan was thwarted by the death of Aveline and the estates reverted to Isabella.

Although Isabella’s vast estates were enticement enough – she held land and property in more than half the counties of England – it was her possession of the Isle of Wight that worried Henry and Prince Edward.  The island held the status of a semi-independent feudal fiefdom with Isabella’s family, the de Redvers, ruling from Carisbrooke Castle.  The Isle was considered to be of great strategic importance particularly in times of war with France. When Isabella inherited her family estates she took up residence in Carisbrooke and ruled there almost as a queen in her own right, outside of royal jurisdiction.

However, Isabella managed her relationships with Henry and Edward with intelligence and acumen. She was not cowed by either of them, standing up for what she saw as her rights. She is said to have possessed a copy of the laws of England which she used in her many legal spats with the king, other nobles and tenants. Even family members were not exempt from her insistence on her rights. There was a long-running dispute with her mother concerning the income of Isabella’s northern lands. The monks at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight were said to have “an unwholesome fear” of her because of her claims to rights and lands previously held by the Abbey.  She stoutly defended her rights to the wrecks of the seas around the Isle which often had high value. Attempts by Henry and Edward to claim these rights were given short shrift by Isabella.

Her relationship with Henry seems to have been one based on mutual mistrust. Perhaps Henry believed her sympathies to lie with the Barons. When she inherited her estates from her brother she was slow to come to court and swear homage to him, ignoring one summons and responding to the second summons only after Henry appointed the sheriff of Hampshire to take charge of her English lands. For Isabella’s part she appeared to mistrust Henry’s promises and at periods when the threat of war with France loomed she formally negotiated detailed terms with him by which he could garrison the Isle of Wight, such garrison to be withdrawn when the crisis was over. This was also probably part of her strategy to demonstrate her loyalty to him.

Her relationship with Edward, once he became king, was quite different. Edward, always careful of royal rights appeared to be equally solicitous of Isabella’s. Whilst carrying out his own review of the appropriation of royal property and rights, he discovered a number of cases where manors had been illegally taken from her. These he restored to her. However Edward was not averse to putting pressure on Isabella and constantly sought to persuade her to sell the Isle and her other estates. When she was at her most vulnerable after the death of her daughter, Aveline, he was quick to draw up deeds of sale of her lands. However grief stricken she was, she held firm and the sale came to nothing.

In 1293, when she was fifty six years old and after thirty three years of widowhood and independence Isabella was taken ill on her way to Canterbury.  She had outlived all her children and so, on her deathbed, she finally agreed the sale of the Isle of Wight to Edward for about six thousand marks (c. four thousand pounds).


Isabella’s Seal reads “Personal seal of Isabella de Forz, Countess of Devon and the Isle”

Edward later claimed that Isabella had made him her heir and so he immediately inherited the money he had just paid out. The transaction later had to be defended by Edward’s son since it was regarded as highly dubious. Isabella was buried in Breamore Abbey in Hampshire.

In many ways Isabella acted as a conventional noblewoman. Managing her estates, interceding for her tenants and employees, giving grants and gifts of land to those of her affinity, religious patronage – these were normal areas of activity for noblewomen. However she went beyond these local responsibilities and acted on equal terms with the other barons. As one of the wealthiest noblewomen in England (at her death her fortune was around two million pounds in current value) she had influence and authority. The extent of her estates and particularly the Isle of Wight and her need to defend them against the encroachment of others brought her into the highest level of society where she gained the respect and confidence of the other nobles. She had a clear sense of self and what she was owed, a strong will and the intelligence to pick her way through the politics and allegiances of these troubled times to guard ‘her own’.


Long Time No Blog!

I thought that you might like to see the cover for my book The Weave – yes I know my Facebook followers have already seen it but it doesn’t hurt to remind you! Hope you like it. Should be out in November.

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However, I could really do with some feedback about the proposed ‘blurb’ to go on the back cover. Bit of a cheek I know considering I’ve had six months away from the blog but sometimes life just gets in the way. Anyhow, this is the proposed wording. It was harder to write than the book itself and this is the fourth version.

1598: When Oskar, Comte de Tréville asks the witch Ombrine to save the life of his son, she demands a high price. Oskar must leave his family and his lands and travel with her, as a servant, to Barbaria in search of the deadly Amerello spiders.

On his return to France five years later Oskar finds he is wanted for the murder of his wife. Unable to prove his innocence he allies himself with Ombrine who persuades him to take the Jouance – a life-prolonging drug made from the venom of the Amerellos.

He and Ombrine embark on a career of crime using Ombrine’s witchcraft and her Szellem – creatures called up from the dead.

Three centuries later, Oskar, now wealthy and leisured uncovers the truth about the fate of his family and has only one remaining ambition – to exact a long slow revenge.

2013: Debut author Richard Pease suffers from writer’s block. He is also broke and bedevilled by fears of his own inadequacy. He has just six weeks to complete his second book or lose his publishing contract.

A chance encounter with Oskar takes Richard to the Nonesuch Club, a writer’s retreat in France run by Oskar and Ombrine. There he finds the block to finishing his book lifts.

The mysterious disappearance of a fellow club member and the discovery of a drug laboratory in the Club plunge Richard into a centuries-old tangled web of deceit leaving him not only fighting for his career but also for his life.

So what do you think? If you saw the cover and read the blurb in a bookshop or on-line would you rush to buy or give a great big yawn and move on?

All ideas, suggestions, yah-boo-it-sucks welcome. Leave a comment below and thank you.

The Power of the Press

Happy New Year to everyone and I hope it will be all that you hope. After lying dormant for most of the festivities I had a belated present from a most unexpected source.

Yesterday I was doing some housekeeping on this blog site when I noticed that the day’s statistics on viewing numbers were shooting through the roof. As I squinted at the numbers going upwards all the time I tried to figure out what was happening. In one day I received as many views as I have in some years!

Finally I noticed a “pingback” message. Basically a pingback tells you that another site has inserted a link that comes to a post on my blog. Intrigued I checked it out. It was in The Guardian. There were just two words “Ravenser Odd” and, given the subject matter of the article – flooding and sea defences – the puzzle was solved.

I incorporated the post –  Ravenser Odd – The Town Under the Sea into my local history book – Close to the Edge: Tales from the Holderness Coast. It has proved to be one of my most popular posts.

Whilst theoretically I understand how quickly and how far the press can spread the word, when it comes to spreading some of my words, it’s quite breathtaking. I hope all those who came to read the post had a good snuffle around the site. As a bonus, sales of the book have suddenly shot up too.Lovely start to the year.

Getting in touch with the Thirteenth Century

I have been taking a sabbatical from social media as I was finding it extremely difficult to promote my books  and continue with the research and writing of the next one. In the end I took time out to try to create a more sensible regime for book promotion. This has freed up a bit of time for research and allowed my mind to wander around the thirteenth century (the era of my next book).

One question I was trying to answer was how would some of my characters react, feel and think about some of the natural phenomena that occur on this beautiful planet? Phenomena that we now understand and can explain. How would things such as meteors and comets, whirlpools, fossils, disappearing springs and ‘petrifying’ cascades be reasoned and explained? There are few eyewitness accounts but a wealth of folklore to pick through that give us some insight into the average medieval man’s mind.

Taking examples from my own environment here in France – how would my characters react to the disappearing spring at Fontestorbes? Regularly, throughout the day the water appears gushing out of a cave in the mountain-side and then it vanishes leaving the cave dry-ish  – all done in the space of half an hour. Did they really believe in fairies? Did they think that it was some sort of magical launderette and the local fées took all the water to do their washing and woe betide any human that got in the way?


Now you see it – the stream making its appearance


Now you don’t!

Then again what would people have made of Les Cascades de la Turasse tumbling down thirty metres of steep wooded hillside at Roquefort les Cascades? We know that minerals in the water created the petrified objects lying in the stream and the basins of tufa. Would they wonder who created this tufière and how? Did my thirteenth century peasants fear that they would be turned into stone and so whispered a little prayer as they passed by? Or is that some later folklorique aimed at the passing tourist trade?

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The Cascade – all the green is moss in various stages of ‘petrification’


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Part of an old tree getting petrified

However, above all, we have the pronouncements of churchmen and monks who interpreted these phenomena for their less-educated flocks – albeit within limited parameters: God or Devil; Good or Evil.

For example there are springs of Belesta and Celles. In both instances events took place that were quickly attributed to the Virgin Mary and the church took control.

At Belesta a poor shepherd tormented by ulcers on his legs came to drink at the spring known as the Amourel. There he was allegedly visited by the Virgin Mary who instructed him to wash his legs in the spring and he would be healed. Overcoming a natural (for the time) reluctance to bathing he did as she bid him and the next day…not an ulcer to be seen. The news got around and local folk made a simple shrine by the spring. Then the churchmen took over and  built a chapel on top of the spring itself.  Pilgrims from far and wide travelling there to be healed, now had to descend into the crypt to drink the water  leaving their offerings of gold and silver .

belesta crypt

Just my luck – on the day I visited the spring had run dry.

The spring at Celles was the scene of another Virginal visit.  Appearing as a white dove before taking up a corporeal form she had a wee bit of a chat with local boy Jean Courdil. She warned Jean that the inhabitants of Celles had to change their ways and asked him to spread the news. (There was at the time much discord and dissension about religious matters throughout France and allegedly four of the local women had beaten up the curé). There was, the Virgin said, a greater likelihood of all the villagers going to The Other Place rather than Heaven unless they all repented. A procession of repentance was duly held and calm and order returned to the village. It was then that the spring where Jean met the Virgin was transformed into a source of healing and relief of suffering. As at Belesta, the pilgrims flocked there to a little chapel that was erected alongside the stream.

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Chapel at Celles

Turning away from watery subjects to stony ones. When I lived on the Holderness coast in East Yorkshire I regularly came across fossils on the beach.  My medieval characters held a host of superstitions and beliefs about fossils. What they were; where they came from. In particular they endowed many of them with magical or curative properties.

The Ammonites were known as Snakestones (it is not by chance that this is the title of my next book) and were thought to be headless serpents that had turned to stone. William Camden in his work Britannia describes them as:

“Stony serpents wreathed up in circles but eternally without heads.”


Ammonites aka Snakestones

Attributed with several useful properties Ammonites were believed to provide an antidote to snake bites, cure blindness, barrenness and impotence to say nothing of warding off lightning and evil spirits.

Echinoids (sea urchins) some of the most common fossils, were considered to be fairy loaves because of their bun-like shape. In Medieval homes one was often placed by the hearth to ensure there was always bread in the house. If there was a week when the house was bread-less, it was thought that witches had been at work and blocked the fairy loaf’s protective powers,

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Echinoid (Fossilised Sea Urchin)

Gryphaea (bi-valves) were believed to be toenail clippings from Old Nick himself and acquired the title of the Devil’s Toenail because of the curved shape and growth bands. For some strange reason they were often worn as a cure for rheumatism and arthritis.



Sadly, although I have several in my little fossil collection and they ain’t done nuffink for me!


La Guerre des Demoiselles – The War of the Maidens

This is one war that you are unlikely to find in the history books. It took place in the Ariege Department of France in the 19th century but was at its height in 1829-32.


In 1827 the government brought out a new forestry code to be applied by 1829. This code prohibited what local people regarded as their long-established traditional rights in respect of how they accessed and used the forests around them.  They used wood for building, collected firewood, hunted, fished and gathered food and used parts of the forest for pasturage for their small herds and flocks.


The implementation of this code was a disaster for them and anyone caught breaking the new laws was subject to a heavy fine and/or imprisonment.

To make matters worse growing industrialisation also created a need for charcoal and deforestation started to take place on a grand scale. The charcoal burners, the forge masters and the forest wardens (known as ‘the salamanders’ because of their yellow and black uniforms) became the most hated classes of men amongst the mountain people.

Les Demoiselles (the Maidens) made their first appearance in Saint-Lary in May 1829. Twenty forest guards found six trespassing shepherds and their flocks and tried to seize them. They were quickly surrounded by around a hundred Demoiselles who hurled insults, threats and stones until the forest guards were forced to beat a hasty retreat. Other bands of Demoiselles began to form in many of the villages and from this point a type of guerrilla war broke out, confined at first to the Couserans and western parts of the Ariege but eventually spreading throughout the Department.

The name Demoiselles derived from the disguises the groups of men adopted – blackened or masked faces, a sheepskin or veil over their heads, long white shirts worn over their trousers like a dress. They commanded huge local support and the different village groups communicated either by horn toots or by smoke signals.

The king and his government marched in thirteen companies of infantry and eight brigades of gendarmes to quell the uprising but to little effect. The reason was simple. The Demoiselles knew the wild, mountainous terrain and the soldiers did not. Of those Demoiselles who were arrested most were quickly released as there were no witnesses to speak against them.

The ineffectiveness of these measures prompted the government to take more severe action. The fines for incursions in the forest were substantially increased and payable on the spot which for many was impossible. For good measure there was also a huge increase in taxes.

Nothing daunted the Demoiselles continued their resistance and from 1830 they marched and protested – these protests turning increasingly more violent. They targeted in particular the forge masters who took wood in great quantities to feed their forges and the ‘Salamanders’ who were supposed to protect them.

Finally a Commission was established to find a solution. In 1831 a ministerial decree restored the grazing rights to the people and a second decree cancelled the code of foresters which started the war in the first place. As an additional act of benevolence, the government gave a general amnesty to all imprisoned and called a halt to any further judicial proceedings.

Over the next thirty years the rebellion never quite died away; rather it smouldered sullenly, bursting into flames every now and again and the Demoiselles would rise again to harass charcoal burners and forge masters.  However the arrival of the railway and the discovery of iron ore in the area reduced the need for charcoal, put the brakes on deforestation and the Demoiselles disappeared quietly back into the forests.


Writing, Waiting & Wondering

This blog will be reporting me for neglect before too long but I assure you I’ve not flown off on my broomstick to pastures new and green.


However, I do feel like I’m in limbo land at the moment. After the build up to launching  The Siren and Other Strange Tales;  – all the editing, formatting, checking and double checking – once it was over I felt rather flat and a bit lost.

feeling flat

Then the reality of marketing and promoting set in. There were sites where I needed to upload/update the book’s details; social media to manage, guest blogs to write. I understand that I need a fan base, a platform from which to launch my wares but I struggle to find creative, diverse and subtle ways of saying ‘just buy the bloody book will ya?’

Somehow through it all this Blog got put to one side.

Following on from The Siren’s launch I drafted a plan for loosing my first novel ‘The Weave’  into the world. I had approached a few agents, more in hope than expectation, all of whom said thanks but no thanks. Then I had one more try and the synopsis and first three chapters duly landed on the agent’s desk. I forgot about it until I got an email asking to see the whole mss. I sat looking at the email, my mouth so far agape I began to drool on the keyboard. Now this might not seem like much but for me who has never had a foot over the threshold of trad. publishing, it seemed like a huge step forward.

But then the spanner hit the works. Do I go ahead with my own publishing plan anyway? Do I commission the cover? Do I send review copies out? What if (wild imagining here) the agent wants to represent me, everything will change, won’t it? And at that point, just as my ancient PC does when I give it too much to consider and organise, I froze; hung up; went into stasis and will not unfreeze I suspect until I have a reply from the agent.

In an effort to  break loose I began book number 2 set in the 13th century. I got about a quarter way through the first draft and then lost the plot…literally. I am back to my old nemesis – I know what the beginning and the ending are going to be like but what happens in between…??? I may have mentioned it in earlier posts I have a disc full of novel sandwiches without their filling. I am determined that this one will not join them and have decided to take a break from it for a wee while. Instead I am researching and pitching some magazine articles just for a change of scene.

So there’s a quick update for those of you wondering whether I’m away travelling on my time machine. I would say watch this space but I won’t because it may only be a blank screen.

Oh and did I mention that I’ve quit smoking, the cartilage in my right knee has gone awol  so I need a new knee and I’ve acquired a gorgeous seven-month old Alsatian/Husky dog called Petra?

10 Beautiful Things That Can Come From Writing Failure #MondayBlogs #Writers

Something we all have to face up to – not just writers


I have done all sorts of things with writing failure; experienced it, avoided it, ignored it, buried it deep inside of me, tweeted about it, written blog posts about it, moaned about it, cried about it, drank too much wine whilst thinking about it, got down about it, laughed about it, had sleepless nights about it, written lengthy emails to writing friends about it and filled out hundreds of diary pages on it.

Recently I have started to see it in a new light. Once you remove the emotion from a writing failure; literary rejection, a shelved draft novel, a piece of flash fiction which only attracts negative comments, a failed literary course assessment, negative feedback which breaks your heart, blog posts which don’t set the online world on fire, a podcast which nobody listens to and a beloved main character who beta readers dislike, you will start to see…

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