Telling Stories Through Tapestry

Bayeux 2Nicola here. Today I’m talking about telling stories through tapestries as last weekend I went to the unveiling of our wonderful Parish Textile Map. I love story telling in all its shapes and forms, whether it is through words, paintings, music or any other medium and ever since I was a small child on a trip to France and saw the Bayeux Tapestry I have been entranced by the way that people used textiles as a way of telling a story.

Most historic tapestries were luxury items, created in specialist workshops and used for both decoration and warmth. The first tapestries were entirely hand made although with the introduction of a new type of loom in the 14th century, tapestries became more common. Often they were produced for the nobility to commemorate an event or tell a particular myth or story.

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DARK DESTINY: The road home

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo, aka M. J. Putney

This time, it’s personal!

Tomorrow, Dark Destiny, my third YA novel as M. J. Putney, will be released by St. Martin’s Griffin.  Twice I’ve sent my YA heroine, Lady Victoria Mansfield, and her friends from Regency England to World War II so they could use their magical abilities to aid their country, which is fighting for its life against Hitler’s forces. 

For book 3, my storyteller instincts said that it was time to turn the tables:  this DarkDestiny_revised2time, it’s Tory’s world that is threatened by invasion. 

I’ve always been intrigued by the similarities between the Napoleonic wars and WWII.  In each case, Britain stood alone against an overwhelming continental conqueror, protected by the English Channel and the nation’s stubborn refusal to surrender. 

The Regency technically began in 1811, when the Prince Regent assumed power on behalf of his father, mad King George III, but I set the Dark Mirror series a few years earlier, in 1803 – 1804.  I chose that period precisely so I could do a Napoleonic invasion story. 

The French were seriously interested in a British invasion in the late 1790s, and they made some small scale attempts.  Those plans were put aside while Napoleon concentrated on Egypt and Austria

Napoleon at BoulogneBut after the end of the Peace of Amiens in May, 1803, Napoleon set his sights on Britain again.  The Army of the Ocean Coasts (also called the Army of England), was over 200,000 strong.  Troops were stationed and trained along the coast of the English Channel, with headquarters at Boulogne.  A vast flotilla of barges was constructed to carry troops across the Narrow Sea. 

There are two quotes I love that sum up the French and British attitudes, and which became the epigraph for Dark Destiny:

“Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours and we are masters of the world.”
 Napoleon Bonaparte while contemplating an invasion of Britain

“I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea.”
 Admiral Lord John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent, when he was Admiral of the Channel Fleet during the Napoleonic Wars

History records that the French barges worked badly, along with other problems and in 1805 the emperor decided against invading Britain and he turned his attention to the east.  But in an alternate history where magic exists—well, anything can happen!

A hugely useful piece of research toward this book came from a blog by Wench Nicola Cornick, who wrote a wonderful post called The Last Invasion of Britain. I’d never heard of this successful invasion of Wales.  It was tied in with French attempts to destabilize Ireland since the Irish were always willing to be stirred up against the English. 

I didn’t use the actual 1797 invasion of Fishguard because it was too early for Dark Destiny, but the incident provided inspiration and details for my fictional invasion of Carmarthen, on the Welsh coast.  (A town I’ve visited several times.)

But even if Merlin’s Irregulars, my students from Lackland Abbey, can help foil an invasion of Wales, what about the larger threaet?  Not only are there a couple of hundred thousand French soldiers slavering to cross the Channel, but in this time period, magic is acknowledged. 

Darkpassage-newcolorFor the first time, Tory and her friends will have to go against experienced French mages.  They send a cry for help to their friends in 1940 because maybe, just maybe, a girl they rescued from occupied France in Dark Passage might be able to help. 

Rebecca Weiss has only just discovered that magic exists and that she has power.  Now she’s being called on to pay her debt to Merlin’s Irregulars, who saved her and her family.  Can she do it?  She’ll certainly try, even at the risk of her life.  And her friend Nick Rainford will be right at her side to help her.  Handsome Nick, who would like to be more than a friend despite the unbreachable religious divide between them…

Here’s a brief excerpt from Dark Destiny

    “I will not have a black market operation run from my house,” Mrs.  Rainford said firmly.  She handed another plate of cake to Rebecca Weiss, who was staying with the Rainfords to study magic.  “But some sugar now and then would be nice.”
    “We can arrange that,” Allarde said as he clasped Tory’s hand under the table.  She could feel his amusement.  
    She bit her lip, thinking how much she would miss this freedom to be together when they returned to Lackland Abbey.  Male and female students were strictly separated in the abbey.  Only in the Labyrinth, the maze of tunnels below the abbey buildings, could they work together as they secretly studied magic.  And only there could she and Allarde have the privacy they craved.
    “What is a black market?” Tory asked as she cut more slices.
    “Illegally selling rationed goods, and Nick would dive right in if I let him.” Mrs. Rainford said with a laugh.  
    She laid her hand on Tory’s, but before she could continue, magic blazed from Mrs. Rainford through Tory to Allarde, kindling another blaze of magic from him.  Allarde’s hand clamped hard on Tory’s and he exclaimed, “No!” 
    “Justin?” Tory said dizzily, shaking as she channeled power and shock between Allarde and her hostess.  “What…what just happened?”
    His gaze was unfocused.  “I…I saw Napoleon invade England.  Barges landing, soldiers pouring off.   French soldiers marching past Westminster Abbey.”
The Irregulars gasped with horror.  The threat of invasion had been hanging over their heads for months as Napoleon Bonaparte assembled an army just across the English Channel from Lackland Abbey.  Jack asked, “What makes you say that?”
    Tory felt Allarde’s effort to collect himself.  “Mrs. Rainford and I both have foreteller talent, and Tory’s ability to enhance magic seems to have triggered a vision of the future when the three of us were touching.”  He glanced at their hostess.  “Did you see images of invasion?”
    “I…I saw Napoleon in Westminster Abbey,” Mrs. Rainford said unevenly. “But that was fear, not foretelling!  We know from history that Napoleon never invaded.”
    Allarde shook his head.  He was still gripping Tory’s hand with bruising force.  “I don’t know about your history books.  What I saw was an event that may well happen if we don’t act.  We need to return home immediately.  If and when the invasion takes place, Lackland will be a major landing site.”  He swallowed again.  “I saw French barges landing in Lackland harbor and soldiers pouring off.  The village was burning.”
    Jack Rainford rose from his chair.  “My family!”  
    “The French are not going to invade!” Mrs. Rainford repeated.  “I’ll get a history book and show you.”  She left the room, her steps quick.  
    Tory took a swallow of tea for her dry throat.  Mrs. Rainford was a schoolteacher and well educated, but Allarde’s magic was powerful.  “Foretelling is what might happen, not necessarily what will happen, isn’t it?”
    Allarde eased his grip, though he still held her hand.  “This felt very, very likely.”
    Mrs. Rainford returned with a textbook.  As she thumbed through the pages, she said, “There’s a chapter about how close Napoleon came to invading, but he didn’t.”  She found the chapter she was looking for and caught her breath, her face turning white.
    Tory peered at the book and saw that the letters on the page were twisting and flickering like live things.  The words couldn’t be read.  
    Mrs. Rainford said in a choked voice, “I remember what this chapter said, but…it doesn’t say that anymore.”

Of course there's more, as the characters grow, make choices, and learn to accept the consequences.  And maybe to face unexpected destiny. 

Here in Maryland, we were been hit by the ferocious storm system that crashed through the eastern states on Friday.  Luckily, I have power, but no broadband, so this is going to require some juggling to post for Monday morning! 

Assuming the blog goes up on time, Happy Canada Day to our Canadian readers!  And stop by on Friday for a delicious interview with Karen Harper as she tells us about her new book, Mistress of Mourning.

Darkmirror-newtype-2I’ll wrap up by saying I’ll give a copy of one of my M. J. Putney YAs to someone who comments between now and midnight Tuesday.  And if you were also hit by the storms—I hope you have your power back on!

Mary Jo


The Last Invasion of Britain

Whisper of Scandal bookmark 1Nicola here, dusting down a classic blog post that sank without trace (appropriately enough!) when I last posted it up on my own site!  I love this story and wanted to share it on the Word Wench blog because not only is it a real life tale of Georgian adventure but it also throws light on a little known episode in British history, that of the last invasion of Britain. The major invasions – the Romans, the Normans – are well known. And of course Napoleon planned to invade Britain and the country was on high alert against such an event… And it happened in Wales in 1797.

This time last year I went on a holiday in Wales. As with a lot of my holidays it turned into a research trip when I stumbled across the Last Invasion Tapestry in the little town of Fishguard. The tapestry was made in 1997 to commemorate the bi-centenary of the last invasion. This took place in February 1797 and was the last time that a foreign military force was successful in landing on British soil, albeit the invasion itself was an abject failure. The invasion force consisted of 1400 troops from Napoleon’s Legion Noire (The Black Legion) so called because they wore the uniforms of captured British soldiers dyed dark brown or black. They were led by an Irish American colonel, William Tate, who had fought against the British during the American War of Independence. The fact that Tate was one of Napoleon’s colonels fascinated me because at the time my book One Wicked Sin had just come out, which had an Irish hero who had been fighting for the French. Tate’s background and that of a number of his troops confirmed the research I had done, which showed that a number of officers in the French army were Irish, supporters of Irish republicanism under politician and revolutionary, Wolfe Tone.

Tate’s force consisted of 800 regular troops plus another 600 deserters, convicts and Royalist prisoners. They sailed in four ships of the French Navy, two frigates, La Vengeance and La Resistance, a corvette La Constance and a small Lugger, Le Vauteur, the fleet under the command of Commodore Castagnier. Despite the fact that the invasion descended into chaos, it was no poorly planned or undermanned expedition; it was a serious attempt at invasion and the troops were well-armed. The initial plan was to land the men at Bristol and raze the city to the ground before marching North to take Chester and Liverpool. Napoleon believed that the working classes would join the revolution and that the release of French prisoners of war from the gaols in Britain would add up to an overwhelming force.

Matters went awry from the start. Adverse weather and the treacherous tides in the Severn Estuary forced the fleet to land their men in West Wales instead of at Bristol. Although the fleet was flying British Colours they were spotted off the coast of Pembrokeshire by a retired sailor who raised the alarm. An attempt to land in Fishguard was driven off by cannon from the fort and so the fleet landed 3 miles away in the bay at Carregwasted under the cover of darkness. They began to move inland and Tate established his headquarters at Trehowel Farm, Llanwnda. The French forces had been instructed to live off the land and this was where things started to unravel. The convicts and pressed men deserted as soon as they set foot on British soil and began to loot local villages and hamlets. One group broke into Llanwnda Church to hide and burned the bible and the pews to keep warm.

By the morning of 23 February the French had moved two miles inland and occupied strong defensiveLast invasion tapestry 3 positions on the high rocky outcrops of Garnwnda and Gangelli giving an unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside. However discipline had collapsed amongst the convicts when they had discovered that a Portuguese ship had been shipwrecked on the nearby coast a few weeks previously and the locals had stashed away all the wine on board. The convicts rebelled, mutinied and got blind drunk or simply ran away. One French soldier was so drunk that on hearing the ticking of the grandfather clock at Trehowel he thought it was a soldier creeping up on him and shot it! The clock with the bullet hole still  exists. Morale declined as indiscipline grew. Meanwhile the British, although outnumbered, with forces of only 300 reservists, 250 militia and 150 sailors from two revenue cutters, had decided to attack. The Welsh local population were not particularly friendly either and had already been involved in skirmishes with the French – they flooded into Fishguard volunteering to fight alongside the troops.  Welsh heroine of the hour was Jemima Nicholas, who rounded up a dozen French soldiers armed only with her pitchfork and imprisoned them in St Mary’s Church. Late that day the British troops under the command of Lord Cawdor advanced on the French position  at Gangelli but withdrew in the failing light. They had narrowly missed walking into a French ambush.

Last invasion tapestry 2That evening, two French Officers arrived at the Royal Oak Inn in Fishguard Market Square, where Cawdor had set up his headquarters. They wanted to negotiate a conditional surrender but Cawdor played a very cool bluff. Claiming to have a superior numbers of troops he issued an ultimatum to Tate, stating that he would only accept the unconditional surrender of the French forces. Tate had until 10am the following morning to surrender on Goodwick Sands or Cawdor’s men would attack. The following morning, at 8am on the 24th February 1797, the British forces lined up in battle-order on Goodwick Sands. Up above them on the cliffs, the inhabitants of the town had come to watch and await Tate’s response to the ultimatum. It is said that the French mistook the red cloaks of the Welsh women for more British troops in their red uniform and so thought themselves outnumbered. Tate surrendered and at 2pm the French drums led the column down to Goodwick. They piled their weapons and were marched away through Fishguard to prison. Later a group of prisoners made a daring escape from the Golden Prison in Pembroke by stealing Lord Cawdor’s yacht. It is said that they were helped by two local women who had fallen for the charms of two of the French officers and who ran off and married them.

The French naval squadron did not fare much better than the ground troops. On 9th March 1797 SirLast Invasion Tapestry 1 Harry Neale of HMS St Fiorenzo and Captain John Cooke in HMS Nymphe encountered La Resistance and La Constance, which had been crippled in bad weather off Ireland. Cooke and Neale engaged the ships for half and hour, after which both ships surrendered.  La Resistance was re-fitted and renamed HMS Fisguard and La Constance became HMS Constance. Commodore Castagnier, on board Le Vengeance, made it safely back to France.

This whole story is told in stunning visual detail in the tapestry. (I've reproduced the pictures quite large so that you can see the detail.) The exhibition also gives the bigger picture in the country at the time; everyone was on high alert against the possibilities of a Frech invasion and the population was very jittery. When the invasion happened the British economy was within hours of crashing. Only some cool heads in London and the speedy defeat of the French troops prevented the country from going bankrupt.

In 1853, amidst fears of another invasion by the French, Lord Palmerston conferred upon the Pembroke Yeomanry the battle honour “Fishguard”. This regiment has the unique honour of being the only Regiment in the British Army, regular or territorial, that bears a battle honour for an engagement on the British mainland. (Culloden is not recorded as a battle honour for any regiment and rightly so!) It was also the first battle honour awarded to a Volunteer Unit of the British Army. In 2003 divers discovered the wreck of one of the boats that had been used to ferry troops and ammunition from the French fleet to the mainland.

LlanwndaAfter we had seen the tapestry on display at Fishguard Town Hall we went out to Llanwnda to see where the French had made their HQ and where they had looted and burned the church. We had intended to go for a walk to Carregwasted to see the memorial stone at the landing place but the weather was so bad by now that instead we went home for Welsh cakes and tea! The Last Invasion tapestry is a superb piece of work and I would encourage anyone visiting West Wales to drop by and see this wonderful exhibition. And I think there is definitely inspiration for a book in there somewhere. Perhaps someone has already written it! 

Apart from the Bayeux tapestry I’ve never previously seen an historical event recorded in this way. Have you ever seen a story told through a tapestry or similar work and do you like seeing stories visually?