Nicola here. Today I’m reflecting on the sorts of story ideas that catch our imagination. Last week on my way to the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference I called in at Boscobel House in Shropshire to do a spot of research. Boscobel is the house where King Charles II hid from the Roundheads after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The story is very famous; hunted by Cromwell’s soldiers in the aftermath of the battle, Charles took refuge in an oak tree in the forest that surrounded Boscobel and he and his officer Captain William Careless (not the most confidence-inspiring name!) slept in the branches whilst the Roundheads scoured the forest around him. Later, cold, wet and in low spirits, Charles was taken to Boscobel House where he took dinner, dried his clothes before the fire and slept in a hiding place in the attic.
Boscobel is a gorgeous little house. It was given a deliberately romantic name – Boscobel, meaning beautiful wood – and was build right in the middle of the forest. The oldest part was built in the 16th century and since then it has been added to and altered by each successive owner. When you step inside it feels ancient, with its black and white timbering, its oak panelling and its uneven stair. As if it wasn’t romantic enough that it sheltered a fugitive king, Boscobel also has two priest’s holes because the family who built it were Catholic in their sympathies and were persecuted for their beliefs.
I loved the parlour at Boscobel and stood there for ages imagining Charles being ushered in on that September evening, dripping wet, having spent an uncomfortable time of it in a tree! Although the room has been altered since the 17th century the family who owned Boscobel in the 19th century recreated it to commemorate his visit. It’s immensely atmospheric and it only takes a small step of the imagination to visualise Charles sitting there before the fire.
I also climbed up to the attic to see where Charles had spent the night. The king’s hiding place was described like this in a piece of writing from 1660: “His majesty got up early (his dormitory being none of the best, nor his bed the easiest) and near the secret place where he lay had the convenience of a gallery to walk in, where he was observed to spend some time in his devotions, and where he had the advantage of a window which surveyed the road…” Poor Charles – at over 6 foot he must have spent a very uncomfortable night in the claustrophobic priest’s hole.
Out in the fields behind Boscobel House you are directed to the site of the oak tree that gave Charles shelter. The forest has gone now and the fields are largely open with a few patches of woodland. The original oak tree became so famous after Charles’ restoration to the throne in 1660 that it attracted many visitors. They plucked off twigs and branches as souvenirs and gradually the tree became denuded and died. The oak tree that people visit at Boscobel these days is a younger tree that grew from one of the original tree’s acorns. That too was damaged by storms so they are now growing a third generation tree next to it. You can even buy your own oak tree as a souvenir, grown from an acorn from the Royal oak!
I stood in the tree’s shade wondering whether it mattered if this was the original tree or not; is it the idea of the sheltering oak that is so important to the story as much as the tree itself? It reminded me that so many ideas associated with history are vague or unknown; the site of certain battles are frequently disputed, for example. Does it matter if something is in the wrong place as long as it engages our imagination? Does it matter if a historical hero such as King Arthur may not have existed if the stories about him are so vivid?
Visiting Boscobel made me think about how deep rooted (sorry for the pun!) and popular some stories are. They seem to have all the elements that appeal to our imagination. This made me wonder what those elements are. I suppose it’s different for all of us depending on who we are and the type of books we like. For me, stories whether they be fact or fiction, that combine the elements of the Boscobel story are perfect. They are historical, they are romantic in the sense that they have a handsome fugitive hero fighting for his life against the odds. Other elements to the tale are the loyal friends who help him, the tension and suspense, the drama and the excitement. Not to mention the heroic oak tree! All that is lacking is the beautiful heroine (and with Charles II it’s surprising there wasn’t one!)
Storytelling has been a part of our lives for milennia. A good story is not only entertaining but it creates a strong emotional response in the reader or listener. What are the important elements of storytelling for you? Do you have a favourite story about a historical or fictional character, and what is it that makes that story special to you?