The Colour of Betrayal is the latest whodunit in the popular ‘Sebastian Foxley’ series of medieval murder mysteries by author and historian Toni Mount. Inspired by true stories the series is notable for its accurate historical atmosphere; here Toni shares the basis for some of the main characters in her books.
Today, we have a special treat. A guest post by author Toni Mount!
Foxley village, Norfolk
A few years ago I was asked to become the volunteer leader of our creative writing group at my local library; I wanted to take this new responsibility seriously and make a success of the task so I signed up for another Open University course, this time I would study for a diploma in English Literature and Creative Writing.
As part of the course, we had to write the first chapters of a novel and needless to say my interest in medieval London led me naturally to set my story there. My tutor didn’t like the name I chose for my hero, so I changed it for my final submission, but my fellow students approved of my choice, so I changed it back and Sebastian Foxley was born.
I stumbled across a village in Wiltshire called Foxley, and as in the Middle Ages, many took their names from their home town, in my head initially this was where I thought Seb and his brother Jude would come from. Then last year I was asked to give a talk in Norwich, so we made a weekend of it and had time for a look round the beautiful county of Norfolk. This is when we discovered the tiny village of Foxley, no more than a hamlet really, but there, was a small Norman church, St Thomas’s, and we couldn’t resist a closer look.
It was Sunday morning and there was a service in progress so we looked around the churchyard, with the idea of finding local family names that might also feature as Seb’s relatives in what by now was growing to be a series of medieval mysteries. When the service was over we ventured into the church, where the congregation was taking refreshments. We were warmly welcomed, not least because the two of us had increased their numbers by a quarter. Indeed, another couple already there revealed they too were on holiday staying in a cottage nearby.
The church is very simple, with plain white walls; there are some wonderful 17th-century box pews and hidden behind the plain black civil-war pulpit a patch of red wall painting is exposed. But the main feature of the church, previously unknown to us but quite renowned if you know about these things, is a beautifully painted 15th-century rood screen. Clearly, as an artist from this period, this had to be the home of Sebastian’s family, perhaps he may even have had a hand in the painting(?)
Our first visit was brief, so we planned to visit again and in September 2017 we returned to Foxley. In the meantime we had done our research – the medieval village had a medieval manor house and of course, the manor house had a moat. Regrettably, over the centuries, the manor had been razed to the ground but the moat was still there, hidden by trees but visible on maps and worth a visit if we could find it. Foxley Wood is well known for its bluebells in the spring and is an area of medieval ancient woodland which in Seb’s day would have been much more extensive, so we would look there too.
But we couldn’t risk the church being closed on our visit so we contacted the church warden John Harvey, and asked if there was anyone local who could tell us about the church. He very kindly offered to meet us there himself, so a visit was arranged.
The woodland was a bit disappointing and the track to the moated manor cut off by barbed-wire, but Mr. Howard didn’t let us down and met us in the churchyard as planned. The church was on Anglo-Saxon foundations. The nave is Norman and was extended to the west in the later Middle Ages. The porch has the carving of a ‘ragged staff’ which is a badge of the Grey family which held Foxley’s moated manor from 1390 to c.1500. Edmund Grey was appointment as treasurer of England in 1463 and created Earl of Kent in 1465, shortly after the marriage of his eldest son, Anthony, to the king’s sister-in-law, Joan Woodville. Anthony Grey died in his father’s lifetime but George Grey, 2nd Earl of Kent, married Anne, Joan Woodville’s sister.
Inside the porch, the door is 700 years old, but most of the interior, the pews, the windows and the gallery are much later, installed when the village was thriving and the congregation much larger than now. The ‘Reader’s Desk’ in front of the pulpit dates from Elizabethan times and the two-decker pulpit dates from Queen Anne’s reign (1702-1714). So none of this, apart from the door and its magnificent 16-inch long iron key would have been there in Sebastian’s time.
So that just left the rood screen with the wonderfully painted doors that separate the nave from the chancel of the church. Mr. Harvey pointed out the cut marks signifying their removal in the reign of Edward VI and old iron brackets where the screen had been re-installed later.
On each of the doors are a pair of ‘Latin Doctors’ so four in total in gorgeous ecclesiastical robes. Significantly though, although two of the portraits are complete, the other two have had their faces erased.
The painted panels of the south (right-hand) rood door, show St Jerome with the red hat and gown of a Cardinal holding a music book or psalter. The painting is so well done that you can clearly read the music although it is upside down. The second south panel shows St Augustine of Hippo. At the bottom of these two panels, the donors are represented as small caricatures with their names shown on the scrolls they are holding. The names appear to be Marie Baynardt and ? Baynardt. It is interesting also to study their period costumes which can go towards dating the painting at around c.1485.
On the north (left hand) door is the second pair of ‘Latin Doctors’ St. Gregory, Pope Gregory the First, and the Bishop of Rome. Both have been defaced probably at the Reformation or possibly by the Puritans.
So who painted the panels – could it have been a relative of Seb and Jude, as often sons followed fathers into their trade? Or even Sebastian himself, as he is due to return to his home village in the book I can now start writing: The Colour of Death, hopefully to be published next year …
Oh, by the way, I passed my Creative Writing Diploma and the writing group is doing well….
Toni Mount is a popular writer and historian; she is the author of Everyday Life in Medieval London and A Year in the Life of Medieval England (pub Amberley Publishing) and several of the online courses for www.medievalCourses.com.