Background to Sanctuary

Why I set Sanctuary in the Middle Ages

I find the Middle Ages a fascinating time. It’s so different to our own that it almost feels alien. There is a sense that more adventures could happen, that it was lawless and anything was possible. You can have adventures in the past which would be less likely to happen today. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but it sometimes feels that way.

The exact opposite of that same coin is that it feels like people’s lives, especially women’s, were more circumscribed. That they were born into a particular role and couldn’t break out from it. That also isn’t strictly correct as people did move classes either by hard work or through marriage. But it’s interesting to write a story that has to deal with these restrictions and find ways that my characters can work around them.

Why I wrote Sanctuary

My experience of writing is that it helps a person work through a question in a way you couldn’t do if you’re just mulling things over or chatting with friends. So most of my stories are explorations of bigger questions.

What those questions are get sparked by the smallest things. I had two prompts that got this story going. The first, which is a very old idea of mine revolves around a feeling of what it’s like to arrive as a stranger and be the outsider in a community. I’ve explored this idea from quite a few angles, almost always starting from the moment when a stranger arrives at a convent or monastery. I’ve taken to calling those books – a man comes to a monastery. 

The second spark for this book was an interview I saw on TV with a child soldier in Africa. He was really young, around eight years old and had already been fighting for a few years. He told some awful stories about his experience, one of which I borrowed for my main character, Mal. It got me wondering what it would be like for someone once they get away from being a child soldier. Hence in Sanctuary Mal gets away from his troop and arrives at a convent.

Where the story is set

I’ve been deliberately vague about the location of the story. It is more or less set it in the north of England along the east coast, but the town names are made up as are all the characters. Nobody named ever existed (or if they did it’s sheer coincidence). This is why the book can’t be called historical fiction, which requires that the characters are based on actual people who lived at the time.

When is the story set

The story is set in 1393, fifteen years after the Peasant’s revolt. The revolt was a pivotal moment for the main protagonist. It was the moment when Baron Castlemere put down the rebellion in his county. He burned down Mal’s village, killing all the men of fighting age and scattering the women and children. In the chaos that ensued Mal was separated from his mother and taken as a child soldier by the sheriff.

Historical accuracy

I try to be historically accurate and stick to what was done in the Middle Ages. The clothes people wear, the food they eat, how much things cost, the modes of travel and the way things are done are as described in history books.

Sheriffs like the one in my book did exist. They were supposed to collect taxes and maintain law and order but had a free hand in how they did it, and many of them were tyrannical. Holy houses (monasteries and convents) did engage in trade. They often cornered their local markets and made themselves unpopular with the local townsfolk who were required to pay a tax on goods traded in the town or to pay to have their wheat ground at the holy order’s own windmills. 

If you do spot something that’s historically inaccurate, please let me know, and I’ll  correct it for the next edition of the book.

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