Guest post: Medieval Colleges of the University of Cambridge

Today I have the pleasure to present a guest post on six of Cambridge’s medieval colleges, written especially for this blog by my very good friend Jonathan Goddard. Jonathan is a fellow Bangor alumnus, an almost Cambridge native (he moved there from Cornwall aged 3 and a half!), and travel writer – you can find him at and @DarkHarteTravel. Jonathan and I often spend time together in Cambridge, and there’s nothing we like more than exploring its colleges, libraries, and churches (and gorging ourselves on sushi!). This post was born of those explorations – I asked Jonathan if he’d share some of his knowledge and thoughts (not to mention his gorgeous photos!) on the medieval colleges – and he agreed! Enjoy!

The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209 by academics and scholars fleeing Oxford in the wake of trouble there between the rival factions of ‘town and gown’. Violent riots in Oxford had led to the deaths of scholars in the city. A group of Oxford academics established a university at Cambridge on the banks of the river. In the early thirteenth century Cambridge was already a market town with a castle, two hospitals (one for lepers and one for paupers), and several religious houses including a priory (which later became Jesus College).

The medieval colleges were predominantly situated along the old high street, which ran from the castle along Bridge Street and Trinity Street into modern day Trumpington Street. The bridge at Bridge Street was the original river crossing in the town, giving Cambridge its name. This post very briefly explores six colleges of the earliest colleges established in Cambridge in the Middle Ages.

Peterhouse, 1284

We begin with Peterhouse, established in 1284. With an unassuming entrance off Trumpington Street, Cambridge’s oldest surviving college appears a modest establishment and has the smallest intake of any of its colleges at 75 students per year. For a long time I wandered past it, wondering where Peterhouse actually was, because it is less noticeable than the surrounding Fitzwilliam Museum and Fitzbillies Cafe. It wasn’t until I was on a university bus that stopped directly outside it that I finally located this rather elusive college. In medieval times though, Peterhouse would have been on the main road through Cambridge


Including the very worn stone step under the entrance gateway, this college has many signs indicating long centuries of use, even if the architecture itself has been updated and re-fronted.


A staircase, Peterhouse, Cambridge.


High Table in the Hall, at Peterhouse.


This bricked up doorway in the college’s back wall shows where an old entrance used to be. The ground leading away from the old door is worn into a noticeable rut.




A view of Peterhouse from the river meadow behind. The long old wall shows the boundary of the college, with its main buildings behind.

Clare College, 1326

The second oldest college in Cambridge, Clare has perhaps the best location of all: a site that spans both sides of the river, and is right in the city centre off the pedestrianised and picturesque Trinity Lane. Set in the heart of the old University quarter and on the Backs (the beautiful riverside sites), Clare’s neighbours include King’s College, Trinity College and Trinity Hall.



Clare College Chapel

Endowed by Lady Elizabeth de Clare, a granddaughter of King Edward I, the college was known as Clare Hall throughout its history until 1966. In 1966 Clare founded a second college, which was then called Clare Hall, and the original community took the name Clare College.


The Scholar’s Garden at Clare, with King’s Chapel in the background.

The College’s founding statutes provided for a community of fifteen scholars, of whom no more than six were to be bound by ties to the priesthood, and ten ‘paupers’ – poor students who were maintained by the College until they reached the age of twenty. Today Clare College has a large community of nearly 800 students in many subjects, and the college is particularly known for excelling in Music.


View from the Fellows’ Garden, looking across the river towards Trinity Hall.

Clare College has lovely riverside gardens, which are the perfect place to wander around on a summer day.


Pembroke College, 1347

A remarkably friendly and open college, Pembroke is also beautiful, and very old. The delights of wandering its grounds – noticing another Gothic archway, a cat-flap cut into a modern door in a medieval building, or simply enjoying the gardens – do not diminish, however frequently you visit. This college lies directly on my route into town, and like Corpus Christi, is reliably open, free and welcoming – so I often bring visitors here, and I love it every time.



The grounds surrounding the college buildings are full of tempting archways and little alleyways leading off into new courtyards and secret gardens, often hung with old-fashioned lanterns and covered with creepers.


Pembroke College was founded by Mary de St Pol, widow of the Earl of Pembroke, in 1347. The constituent parts of the original 14th-century college lay in today’s Old Court: dining hall, chapel, kitchen, Master’s lodging and student rooms. The college’s chapel was the first chapel to be built in Cambridge, and required the permission of the Pope. The original chapel still exists, having been converted to a library, and is now known as the Old Library. A new chapel was built for the college and consecrated in 1665. It was the first completed work of architect Sir Christopher Wren.


Inside the chapel built by Sir Christopher Wren, one of only two Wren Chapels in Cambridge.

A cloister built adjacent to the Chapel contains a war memorial to the many members of Pembroke who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars.


Gonville and Caius College, 1348

One of the oldest and largest colleges in Cambridge, Gonville and Caius is today a community of 1000 scholars, including Professor Stephen Hawking. Its main site is a small island of sorts in the heart of the city’s old streets, surrounded on all four sides by Trinity Street, Trinity Lane and Senate House Passage. The location of Gonville and Caius at the heart of the city is confirmed by its neighbouring sites, including Senate House, where student graduations take place, the market, and Great St Mary’s Church.


Great St Mary’s was historically the centre point of the city, and University charters dictate that students must live within 10 miles of this church – a tradition that is still applied to this day. Gonville and Caius (pronounced Gonville and ‘keys’) is also adjacent to the old church of Michaelhouse, a remnant of the lost medieval college of the same name, made famous by Susanna Gregory’s books.


An impressive old vine shelters this turret doorway in Tree Court.

The college excels at rowing, and although Caius does not lie on the river, the Cam is only a stone’s throw away and can be reached by a short walk from its central site along Garrett Hostel Lane.


Gonville and Caius has some of the most picturesque buildings, like this sundial with an old door to the street.


The college wall, with the sundial, juxtaposed with the Georgian buildings of Senate House behind demonstrate the range of architecture in this part of Cambridge.

The college was founded as Gonville Hall in 1348 by Edmund Gonville, a Rector based in Norfolk. His dream of providing for twenty scholars to study arts and theology floundered due to financial problems soon after the rector’s death. Management of the college was then taken over by William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich, who founded neighbouring Trinity Hall in 1350. In 1557 the college was refounded and extended by John Keys, a former student and Fellow of Gonville Hall. He used multiple different spellings for his name, as was Elizabethan custom, and the Latin version ‘Caius’ was adopted to fit in with the college’s existing statutes, which were all in Latin.

Gonville and Caius has produced twelve Nobel Prize winners, more than any other Oxbridge college except Trinity College Cambridge. These include Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, Sir Howard Florey, co-discoverer of penicillin, and Sir James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron.


Trinity Hall, 1350

Trinity Hall is often confused with its grander neighbour, Trinity College, but Trinity Hall is much older and (in my opinion!) prettier. Its late medieval chained library is a gem even in a city of beautiful medieval architecture. A compact site that uses its space well, Trinity Hall is a college of wonderful, immaculately-kept old buildings and pretty gardens, sitting on the banks of the River Cam.

Founded in 1350 by the Bishop of Norwich to teach canon law, Trinity Hall was one of the ‘plague’ colleges established to deal with the dearth of learned men in the aftermath of the Black Death of 1348. Unusually for this time it was not a theology college but a school for lawyers. A college with an inclusive, egalitarian ethos, provision was deliberately made for poor men to be able to train as scholars.

Trinity Hall

Trinity Hall

The Old Library at Trinity Hall is a very rare surviving late medieval chained library. The books were fastened with iron chains so that they could be kept in place and available to all students and fellows wishing to use them. The library still contains its chained books, and is the oldest library in Cambridge still in its original setting.

This floating door used to connect up to the Master’s Lodge opposite via a wooden walkway, so that the Master of the college could walk directly from his house to the library. The books were kept on the top floor of the building so that if the river flooded the valuable books would not be damaged.

Trinity Hall

Inside, the Old Library has a rarefied, musty atmosphere and a dark wooden floor warped with bumps and dips. It is all excellently preserved and it is hard to believe the surroundings are so old. The oldest book in the library dates from around 1066.

Trinity Hall

The waterfront at Trinity Hall, neighbouring Clare and King’s Colleges.

These oldest colleges (Peterhouse, Clare, Pembroke, Caius and Trinity Hall) are open to visitors most days and none of them charge for admission. Worth a visit!

Corpus Christi College, 1352

Unusually, Corpus Christi was founded by townspeople, the members of two Guilds, and it is the only college in Cambridge with this background. Corpus is another ‘plague’ college, intended primarily to train priests in the aftermath of the Black Death, which had killed many members of the clergy across Europe.


In 1381 Corpus Christi was stormed by a crowd of angry townspeople, led by the Mayor of Cambridge, in protest against high rents extracted on houses owned by the college. Many books and college documents were burned.

Thanks to a donation of manuscripts by Matthew Parker in 1553, Corpus’s library has one of the world’s greatest collections of Anglo-Saxon and early English books. Parker was an undergraduate at Corpus who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I, and then Master of his old college. He acquired many books from monasteries that were cleared out during the Reformation, and donated them all to Corpus.

In 1573 the college passed new rules that required Latin to be spoken at all times during term. Students were punished for speaking English, including by being beaten.


Corpus Christi possesses one of the oldest sights in Cambridge in its Old Court, constructed at the college’s foundation in 1352.

Old Court bears a memorial plaque to the playwright Christopher Marlowe, a Corpus alumnus. Today the college is the smallest of the traditional colleges after Peterhouse, and has a community of around 500 students and Fellows.


Behind the college lies Free School Lane, the site of the famous Cavendish Laboratory for many years. The college sits squeezed between two churches, St Botolph’s to the south and St Bene’t’s on the north side. St Bene’t’s (short for Benedict’s) Church is the oldest standing building in Cambridge, and has a rare Saxon tower. St Bene’t’s churchyard joins on to the college and lies partly in the college grounds.


The old graveyard of St Benedict’s Church, part of Corpus Christi College.

Do you know any other interesting facts about any of these colleges? Please tell us in the comments below!

All photos are by Jonathan Goddard and should be credited DarkHarte Travel.


Filed under Medieval buildings

Terrain and Topography: The Middle Ages as Home

On Friday I had a meeting on the Strand for The Academic Book of the Future Project. I decided to take the number 15 bus from my native East London, not just for reasons of practicality (it would essentially deliver me door-to-door for a modest sum, plus the weather was good for once, making the Tube even less appealing than usual), but also because I have a sentimental fondness for that bus route. The no.15 is London’s unofficial tour bus, traversing some of the city’s most historic streets and thoroughfares. It runs past Aldgate (Chaucer’s neighbourhood), the Minories, the Tower of London, the square mile of the City, St. Paul’s, Fleet Street, and on to Trafalgar Square and Regent Street. Sit on the top deck of the no.15, and London’s history unfolds before you. It’s pretty special.

Tower of London

The Tower of London, as seen from the top deck of the 15 bus. Credit: Bex Lyons

For as long as I can remember, my mum and I have set out on many happy adventures along this route. The journey and its sights are deeply ingrained in my memory and consciousness, an intrinsic part of who I am. On Friday, as I passed the Tower on the no.15, it suddenly dawned on me all the time I’ve spent at that royal fortress over the years. As a resident of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (literally, the hamlets by the Tower), I have the privilege of being able to enter the Tower and its grounds for the humble sum of £1. That, along with its proximity to my family home (about a 15-minute walk) mean that I have visited at least once a year – if not more frequently – for, honestly, as long as I can remember.

Overflowing with history, mystery, and legend, the Tower of London has always held enormous fascination for me, both as a child and now, as an adult. I was awed and fearful when my mum told me how London would fall if the ravens ever left. Deliciously chilled when my dad told me how, as a boy, he’d snuck down to the Tower one evening. He swears he saw the headless ghost of Anne Boleyn at one of the windows, and ran away home in terror. When a Beefeater – one of the Tower’s historical wardens – regaled me with the tale of the poor princes in the Tower, about my age then, I felt the tragedy and mystery of it all very keenly – and immediately bought a book with my pocket money to try to get to the bottom of it all. As a teenager the gore of the Bloody Tower held cool appeal, and I was morbidly fascinated by the inscriptions of prisoners etched deep into the stone walls. As an adult I appreciate all of this, as well as the architectural and temporal layers of the Tower’s structure; the tragic inevitability of Anne Boleyn’s demise; the many roles the building has played over time – (including royal zoo!), and much more. The wonders of this place are inexhaustible.

As I sat on the bus, these thoughts and memories became interwoven with others around my recent trip to the US for a medieval conference. It had been my first trip to the States, and although I hadn’t consciously thought about medieval monuments and landmarks (or a lack thereof) whilst I’d been over there, looking at the Tower I realised that this was something I had subconsciously noted. Something had been missing. The structures of the Middle Ages had been conspicuously absent from my Stateside travels. Perhaps, I considered – given my upbringing in London, and my close relationship with its medieval places – my path was inevitable. Perhaps I was always going to be interested in the Middle Ages.

Stars and stripes and skyscrapers in Chicago.

Stars and stripes, and skyscrapers in Chicago. Credit: Bex Lyons

In the past when I’ve tried to retrospectively chart the course that led me to study medieval and Arthurian literature, I’ve tended to place the blame squarely at the foot of my mum in my early years (for telling me fairytales, encouraging my reading, buying me books); my secondary school English teacher Ms Waters (for introducing me to Chaucer); and my undergraduate tutors Dr Raluca Radulescu (for Malory), and Dr Sue Niebrzydowski (for enchanting me with Middle English, spoken aloud). But I have never held my gloriously medieval city and its pervasive influence accountable for my life and career choices.

St. Paul's cathedral from the bus

St. Paul’s cathedral from the no.15 bus. Credit: Bex Lyons

As I was thinking through some of these embryonic ideas on the bus, and how environment (at least in my case) has played such a significant part in my interests and passions, I happened to read an article on my phone (Ferris Jabr. ’The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.’ Scientific American. 11 April 2013. It discussed the different effects that hard-copy and digital texts have on reading and learning. One point that it made was that the brain doesn’t have a special ‘reading’ function concerned with such elevated things as ‘thoughts and ideas, tones and themes, metaphors and motifs.’ Instead, the brain ‘essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them.’ The article went on to discuss the physicality of the real, tangible, paper book – how physically moving through one as a reader, turning the pages, using the corners as aids to navigate through the text, give a sense of terrain and topography – of a real, complex object – that ebooks have not yet been able to replicate or reproduce. This in turn has a powerful effect on learning and memory. For the brain, objects are how we interpret what it around us, how we learn.

In one of those wonderful moments when many disparate thoughts and strands come together to merge and synthesise, it occurred to me that I have been embedded in the physical objects of the Middle Ages  – have been reading them – my entire life. Immersed in the terrain and topography of the medieval, my formative years were a lesson in object-oriented medievalism, in learning by objects. I visited medieval places (the Tower, for instance); travelled self-consciously through medieval spaces which have retained much of their names and shapes (Aldgate, Cheapside, Newgate); heard medieval tales being told; touched medieval objects (such as the Roman wall at Tower Hill), and so on. This sensory immersion in, and interaction with medieval spaces and places has, I think, seeped into the way I think about the world, how I apply meaning. It’s not all – but certainly a large part – of what makes me tick. The Middle Ages are home.

Temple Church, Fleet Street

The no.15 bus also passes Temple Church, hidden just behind Fleet Street. Credit: Bex Lyons


Filed under London, Medieval buildings, Medieval history

The Academic Book of the Future: exploring academic practices and expectations for the monograph

Well hello there! Apologies for my absence – I’ve moved house, moved PhD (transferred to Bristol in order to follow my lovely supervisor), and started a new job – so it’s been an extraordinarily busy and exciting start to 2015! As well as a final year PhD student, I’m also now a Research Associate at UCL, working on a really exciting two-year AHRC-funding project called The Academic Book of the Future – perfectly balancing my interests in the book between the past, present, and future! This post introduces the Project that I’m working on. It originally appeared on LSE’s Impact Blog, and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

What does the future hold for academic books? Rebecca Lyons introduces The Academic Book of the Future, a two-year project funded by the AHRC in collaboration with the British Library in which a cross-disciplinary team from University College London and King’s College London explores how scholarly work in the Arts and Humanities will be produced, read, shared, and preserved in coming years, and investigates key questions around the changing state and modern contexts of the academic book.

  • What is an academic book?
  • Who reads them?
  • What can technology do to help make academic books more accessible?
  • How can we make sure academic books, whether print or electronic, are kept safe, and preserved effectively?

Some of these questions – for instance “what is an academic book?” or “who reads them?” appear deceptively simple. However, the academic book is changing – contexts and readers even more so – and therefore these questions have potentially very complex outcomes. As with all the best research questions, they also suggest a huge network of other sub-questions, some of which this two-year project will be addressing in the hopes of finding some answers.

Anyone who uses academic books will have noticed a change (or several) in recent years in the terrain. There is the obvious expansion in the range of available formats, from traditional hardback and paperback books, to the wide world of digital, including epub, HTML, pdf, and so on. These developments, aligned with others in technology, have had a bearing on the ways in which we physically read academic books and the devices we use to access them, from tablets to laptops, pcs to e-readers, and of course not forgetting the humble hard-copy or print-out.

book of futureImage credit: Electronic Book by Tim Noko (Flickr, CC BY-SA)


Consequently, our acts of academic reading have changed. As Andrew Prescott highlights: we can now download academic biographies of long-dead monarchs whilst ‘trundling through the West Wales countryside’ on a bus. Not only this, but with an increasingly urgent and complex set of demands on academics’ time, including admin, research, writing, teaching, and putting together funding bids, the style and level of academic reading itself may have also changed. Geoff Crossick suggests, in his recent HEFCE Monographs and Open Access Project report:

It is felt by many that today’s scholars lack the time to read books thoroughly, and it is feared that the academic skill of ‘deep reading’ may become, or have already become, devalued or lost. The emergence of new technologies for information production and retrieval, the ability readily to download book chapters and journal articles, and changing societal expectations around information being readily and instantaneously available, might be compounding these fears that the monograph, and the academic practices that surround it, are becoming an unloved relic of a bygone age. (p. 22)

The transition into the digital age has also brought with it some pressing questions about the traditional shape, size, and format of academic books. With more and more research taking an interdisciplinary, digitised, and innovative approach, new outputs are being produced by researchers which increasingly trouble the traditional the boundaries and definitions of the traditional arts and humanities monograph. Where, for instance, do blogs fit in? – and more importantly, how are they credited and recognised by the academy – if at all? Michael Piotrowski considers books vs blogs in terms of academic prestige in a previous post on this blog, and in doing so also touches upon some other topical issues with a huge bearing on the academic book in modern academia, namely impact and recognition. In a post-REF world where impact is king, and where departments and researchers are measured by the amount of research they can publish, how are non-traditional outputs weighed and measured in the Arts and Humanities? And what about non-traditional publication methods, such as open access?

It should be obvious from this incredibly brief introduction alone that academic books and their contexts have changed, and are still changing, dramatically. We are barely scratching the surface here. How are libraries and publishers working in these changing modern contexts? What’s happening with academic books in the global south? What about non-English academic books? The Academic Book of the Future Project aims to bring researchers, publishers, librarians, booksellers, and everyone with a stake in the academic book into dialogue with each other in order to get to grips with some of these issues, and to help inform forward steps (including REF 2026). The Project is, at its core, an investigative conversation that uses a wide range of mini-projects and events to prompt meaningful discussion.

The pinnacle of the Project’s activity for 2015 is Academic Book Week (9-16 November 2015). #AcBookWeek is a week-long series of events taking place across the UK and internationally to celebrate the diversity, innovation and influence of academic books, culminating in an Awards Ceremony at the British Library. If you are in any way involved with academic books – whether it is writing them, producing them, selling them, or reading them – we invite you to get involved with this week, and with the wider Project, too. Join in the conversation, and help us to identify – and even shape – the academic book of the future.

Email the Project:
Tweet the Project: @AcBookFuture
Follow the Project blog:
Project website:

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

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Filed under The Academic Book of the Future

Interview: Arthurian Literature and Legend, Postgraduate Studies, Career Advice

When Georgie Norgate, one of my lovely undergraduate students, approached me to ask if she could interview me for a new student radio show she was starting up, I was flattered. 

Actually I experienced a whole range of involuntary reactions in quick succession, from horror (I HATE my voice); to curiosity (what’s it like being on the radio?); to fear (what if I say something stupid and it’s out there FOREVER?), to egotistical smugness (she thinks I’m interesting, how lovely!).

In the spirit of harvesting as many experiences as possible in life, I agreed.

And as it turns out, I DID say something stupid – I had an incredibly scatty moment about Geoffrey of Monmouth and obliterated Guinevere’s presence from his Historia Regum Britanniae entirely! Oops.

But apart from that blunder, and a bit of nervous giggling, the interview was actually a lot of fun! It was a great learning experience – better to make these mistakes now, than with Melvyn Bragg in a few years, eh? (There’s the egotism again!) It’s not the most polished or sophisticated of pieces (Georgie was fantastic – it was her guest who kept wandering off topic!), but I’m really glad I said yes.

We discussed Arthurian literature and legend – from the idea of a historical Arthur to later romance – and considered the enduring popularity of the legend into modern film and television adaptations. Georgie was also very interested in my unorthodox route to a PhD alongside a career in publishing and web editing, and asked about careers for English graduates. I was only too happy to share my story and impart some advice and encouragement to the next generation of undergraduates.

So, here’s my interview in all its glory on the University of York Radio website:

What’s that Topic? – with Rebecca Lyons:

Each interview in the ‘What’s That Topic?’ series will be with a different subject area specialist. Do keep an ear out for the next one!

And if you have any tips for speaking on the radio – please do share in the comments below!

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Filed under King Arthur, PhD, The Arthurian Legend, The Arthurian Tradition

Suffolk: A Medievalist’s Paradise

The end of last year was a whirligig of activity, with teaching, freelance web-editing, and thesisising all featuring heavily on the agenda. Plus a pinch of socialising, of course. Thankfully this year has already started to bear the fruits of my endeavours – including an exciting new job! But more on that another time. So whilst I’m wrapping up my freelance work and preparing for a new role, I have a moment to reminisce and finally write a post about a holiday I took with my mum last September (I really have been that busy!). Join us on a tour of medieval Suffolk via some of its key monuments and locations – it is a fantastic place to visit if you’re interested in the Middle Ages, and here are just a few reasons why…

map of Suffolk


Suffolk has an undeniably rich and impressive history. Its location on the south-east of England and the continental connections that this location afforded – first for Anglo-Saxon settlement and later for wool trading – as well as its proximity to London, ensured the continued importance of this area throughout the Middle Ages. Its extensive and prestigious history can still be seen in the monuments and coastline of this picturesque county.

Orford Castle

Orford Castle

Orford castle’s dramatic keep

A striking figure bounded by sea, gentle green countryside, the quaint village of Orford, and shimmering Orford Ness – all that remains of twelfth-century Orford Castle is its impressive keep. Built in the 1160s-70s by King Henry II of England, the castle served as a reminder to the rich and occasionally troublesome nobles of Suffolk and Norfolk of royal power and authority – particularly those pesky Bigods. According to English Heritage the castle cost £1,413 to build, and as the entire royal revenues were less than £10,000 a year, this is a testament to the importance of the project. The keep is visible for miles around. Big Brother was definitely watching the Bigods.

View from the top of the keep over Orford Ness

View from the top of the keep over Orford Ness

The round keep comprises several levels – a lower hall and upper hall encircled by several rooms and private chambers, as well as a cellar and a roof. It was a multi-purpose building – defensive and governmental, along with serving the requirements of an itinerant king and court.

Orford castle keep floor plan

Orford castle floor plan – From English Heritage’s Orford Castle Teacher’s Kit. Copyright © 2000 English Heritage. Revised 2002, 2008. Image © English Heritage Photo Library

If the outside of the keep and its now lost castle were intended as a display of royal power and authority, the inside echoes and recreates the hierarchical ideals of twelfth-century England on an architectural scale. Each level served a different purpose, and was intended to be used and accessed by a different set of guest or resident – the lower hall was probably a court or council room, and stone seating runs around the circumference of the room. The upper hall was intended for grander use, including the king’s visits, and has its own small side kitchen for preparing food and keeping it warm.

Lower hall fireplace of Orford castle's keep

Lower hall fireplace of Orford castle’s keep

The fireplace on one side of the round entrance hall provided heat to all the chambers behind and above it, running along its length up that side of the building – these would have been occupied by important figures such as the king, queen, and constable, and are incredibly cosy, with small windows and thick walls to protect inhabitants from weather, and any attacks. There is also a small chapel where Anglo-Norman decorative stone-carving is still visible, complete with a listening hole for people outside in the hall to also hear services. The roof houses a bakery – the ovens with their original medieval tiling are still extant – whilst the cellar has a well and space for food storage. Everything has been considered for comfort and convenience – the constable’s room even has a personal urinal in the wall just outside his door!

The constable’s urinal - Orford castle keep

The constable’s urinal – Orford castle keep

It really is a wonderful, characterful building, and with its extraordinarily clever and compact design and gorgeous surviving original features, it makes for a wonderful afternoon of exploration. Every time I visit I like to imagine Henry sitting in court, with his notoriously terrible wine and ordinary clothes, and Eleanor his queen beside him, in all her Aquitanian finery, enjoying this remarkable space.

See the English Heritage website for details on how to visit Orford Castle:

Framlingham Castle

Approaching Framlingham castle’s front gate

Approaching Framlingham castle’s front gate

Travel inland from the coast, head north-west towards the Suffolk-Norfolk border, and you’ll reach Framlingham castle. Built by the Bigod earls that Henry II was so concerned with keeping under control, the castle passed back and forth between Bigods and Crown in the wake of revolts against the king, and subsequent changes in monarch. Framlingham is a very different structure to Orford in the sense of what was originally constructed, as well as what has been left behind.

Internal view of Framlingham castle

Internal view of Framlingham castle – note the Tudor chimneys on each turret!

The castle had no keep, but a thick curtain wall protected the inner courtyard and its buildings, including a hall and chapel. The castle was surrounded by the Great Park – used for hunting and recreation – and lakes, which were added in the later Middle Ages. In 1476 the castle passed to the Howards. It remained an actively used building through the Tudor period, and it was the Howards who modernised parts of the castle and added the highly ornate chimneys that were so fashionable during the sixteenth century, and which characterise the castle so dramatically today. When Mary Tudor seized power in 1553, she did so from Framlingham Castle.

One of the Tudor chimneys at Framlingham

One of the Tudor chimneys at Framlingham

In the seventeenth century the castle was left to Pembroke College, Cambridge, and a poorhouse was built within its walls (below). The best way to see Framlingham Castle is by walking around the top of these curtain walls, and English Heritage provide an excellent audio guide which even highlights holes in the stones of the crenelated battlements where shutters could be lifted to fire arrows.

View of the poorhouse from Framlingham castle walls

View of the poorhouse from Framlingham castle walls

See the English Heritage website for details on how to visit Framlingham Castle:

St. Michael’s Church, Framlingham

St Michael’s Church, Framlingham

St Michael’s Church, Framlingham

Framlingham’s church is also worth paying a visit. It has undergone several phases of development and redevelopment, from the twelfth century (the capitals of the chancel arch date from this point), to the late nineteenth-century renovations that uncovered fifteenth-century murals on the walls.

The interior of St Michael’s Church

The interior of St Michael’s Church

The ceiling is particularly impressive, dating from about 1521, with intricate fan tracery, concealing hammer beams. It feels like standing in the hull of a vast ship.

The church ceiling

The church ceiling

The church also has an interesting collection of tombs. They include those of the Earl of Surrey and his wife, Frances de Vere, as well as two of the wives of Thomas, 4th Duke of Norfolk. But my favourite is that of Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset , the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, and his mistress Elizabeth Blount – one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting. By all accounts, Fitzroy was a fine young man of whom Henry was inordinately proud – especially as he was his only son except Edward to survive infancy. However, he died of consumption when he was only 17.

The tomb of Henry Fitzroy – Henry VIII’s illegitimate son

The tomb of Henry Fitzroy – Henry VIII’s illegitimate son

For information on the church’s history and how to visit, see the website:

Leiston Abbey

Leiston Abbey

Leiston Abbey

Easily missed, tucked away down little lanes in the Suffolk countryside, are the ruins of Leiston Abbey. An abbey of Premonstratensian canons, it was moved, stone by stone, from its initial swampy location elsewhere in Suffolk in the fourteenth century to its current location – meaning that the newer fourteenth-century structure also contained elements of the original Anglo-Norman structure.

Colourful stones in the walls of Leiston Abbey

Colourful stones in the walls of Leiston Abbey

The ruins make for a pleasant hour or so of exploration. Its remote location means that, despite the pleasant day, we were the only visitors. Having a whole abbey to yourself is a peaceful experience, and many of the original structures remain, including a refectory, abbey church, and cloister.

Rambling around the ruins

Rambling around the ruins

See the English Heritage website for details on how to visit Leiston Abbey (entry free):

Aldeburgh Moot Hall

Aldeburgh Moot Hall

Aldeburgh Moot Hall

My mum and I stayed in Aldeburgh during our visit to Suffolk, using it as a base for our medieval explorations. It really is a wonderful little place – great pubs and restaurants, quaint boutique shops, an extensive seafront, and a sixteenth-century hall. The Moot Hall – which wasn’t called this until much later – was a central building used for several purposes – prison, town hall, council chamber, market centre. It now houses the Aldeburgh Museum, which tells the story of the hall, the town, and the local region. Amongst the tales are those of seven unfortunate ‘witches’ imprisoned in the hall. The Museum’s website offers a chilling glimpse of the witchfinding hysteria that swept through East Anglia during the seventeenth century:

“Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witch Finder General, and widow Phillips, his search woman, were employed by the Burgesses to find out witches in Aldeburgh. Seven women were incarcerated in the Moot Hall’s prison in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record. They were prevented from sleeping and watched for proof of their guilt – that is for the coming of their familiar spirits. Eventually, cold, hungry and exhausted, they must have confessed. They were all hanged in February 1646.”

The walls of the Moot Hall

The walls of the Moot Hall

The hall now stands in fairly close proximity to the beach, with no buildings between it and the sea. This wasn’t always the case. The map below shows the hall – the red-coloured structure – in 1594 in the centre of the town, with two sets of buildings quite securely wedged between it and the sea.

The Moot Hall in 1594 – Credit:

The Moot Hall in 1594 – Credit:

The Moot Hall houses Aldeburgh Museum, which is open to the public. See the website for details:

Lost places and the sea

The Moot Hall’s perilous position by the ever-encroaching sea is emblematic of the story that has been playing out along the Suffolk coastline for centuries. Harbours silt up and move – such as the one at Orford Ness – and villages and towns change, and even disappear.

The retreating coastline of Dunwich – Credit

The retreating coastline of Dunwich – Credit

Aldeburgh owes its earlier affluence to this process. The harbour town of Dunwich, pictured above, was a wealthy, prestigious settlement – the capital of the kingdom of the East Angles in the Anglo-Saxon period, and in the High Middle Ages it was an international port. But repeated storms silted up its harbour, and opened one up near Aldeburgh. As you can see in the image above, the sea has attacked Dunwich aggressively since the Middle Ages – leaving little of the town uncovered by water. There is still a small town there, more like a village really, but very little remains of the medieval grandeur of this settlement.

Other places like Slaughden, a village just along the coast from Aldeburgh, have disappeared completely. The last resident was born there in 1922 and the sea swept it away completely in the 1950s. You can read an interview with this last resident here: There’s something very haunting about these sunken towns. There is a myth that in Dunwich, as in many other lost places in the British Isles, church bells can be heard ringing beneath the waves on stormy nights.

These are just some of the places that we managed to squeeze into one week – but there are so many other sites in Suffolk to entice medievalists, including Ipswich, Sutton Hoo, and a plethora of medieval churches and monuments. Visit this year – you won’t regret it!

The Lyonesses by Orford Ness

The Lyonesses by Orford Ness

Further Reading and Links

Mark Bailey. Medieval Suffolk: An Economic and Social History, 1200-1500. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007.

Orford Castle:

Framlingham Castle:

St. Michael’s Church, Framlingham:

Leiston Abbey:

Aldeburgh Moot Hall:

Note: Unless stated otherwise, all photos on this blog post are my own and should be credited Rebecca Lyons.

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Halfway There…

A year-and-a-half after upping sticks from London to York to start a PhD, I’m now halfway (at least theoretically!) through my three-year programme. This moment seems like a good time to take stock, look back over the past 18 months, and see what has changed since I last wrote about my experiences at the 6 month mark. (Spoiler: A LOT has changed.)

Where to begin…

Let’s start with the PhD. Firstly, it’s been so much more than the thesis. SO MUCH MORE. Doors have been opened to me as a PhD student that I could never have dreamed of. I had my first experience of teaching undergraduates at the university this spring term (Jan-April 2014) on a High Medieval Literature module, and whilst there was some Arthurian content (hooray!), there were also texts that I wasn’t hugely familiar with (Orkeyinga Saga, for example). So whilst preparation for classes took a long time, and I was quite terrified before my first lesson (on the Chanson de Roland) it was hugely rewarding. I COULD answer lots of their questions. I realised I actually know some stuff. Which, as other PhD students will agree, is a feeling that doesn’t happen too often. That old chestnut ‘the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know’ certainly applies. And teaching is so exhilarating! It’s fun to be challenged, and to view texts in new, fresh ways through the eyes of your students. I was very lucky and had an absolutely wonderful class of third years who made teaching a pleasure. I’ve just been allocated teaching for the next academic year, and this time it’s first years – bring it on!

There have also been conferences. I’ve been to two or three a year since I started my PhD, and I have concluded that attending conferences is a fantastic way to make friends in your area of study. Conferences are so much more than speakers and panels – lots of my best ‘networking’ (I hate that word) has been done in the evenings, over a relaxed pint of ale, chatting to some of the brightest minds and loveliest people in my field. Plus speaking at conferences yourself is wonderful. Like teaching, it can be terrifying, and exhilarating, and ultimately – if you’re fortunate – rewarding. Receiving good feedback from respected academics on your paper and topic is one of those lovely moments of validation that come every now and then during a PhD. Having colleagues become close friends is another, and for me it’s the ideal way to work – in a network, or community, of supportive like-minds. Conferences are also a good way to stamp your mark on a certain area of scholarship and say ‘This is mine. I am the person to contact on this specific area. Please associate this area of study with me from now on.’ Marking your academic territory, as it were.

My thesis itself is slowly but surely finding its way into being. It isn’t the same now as when I started. And this is completely normal. The scope of my thesis has naturally evolved and refined and focused, but the biggest change (on paper) is that I’m no longer doing an ‘officially’ interdisciplinary PhD in Medieval Studies, but have shifted over to the Department of English and Related Studies, so that my PhD is now technically just in literature. My thesis is still inherently interdisciplinary due to the very nature of its very subject (Arthurian literature owned by women in the fifteenth century), but for me literature – the department, the approach, the people – just makes for a better fit than history. This is where being self-funded came in handy. I was able to move across to the English department with no muss, no fuss. Not everyone has that freedom, and I’m lucky to have been able to follow my instinct in this case, and now am as happy as can be in York’s very welcoming English department.

Progress on a thesis is difficult to gauge, and I’m never quite sure what the honest answer is when people ask how it’s going. (As a side note, I’m not one of those people who resents being asked about their research, so feel free!). My thesis is structured into four chapters (plus an introduction and conclusion), and I’m currently finishing off the second chapter. So I guess I’m sort of on track at the halfway mark. However, having said that, I re-read my first chapter last week and realised it needs to be completely re-written. It’s awful! I can really see the development of my scholarly voice from one chapter to the next. But that in itself is progress, so I suppose it’s a good thing really.

Money. One of the things that kept me awake for the first time ever during the last eighteen months was money. I lay awake wondering how I’d get enough of it to pay for fees, rent, food, and still have enough left to do at least some of the other fun things I want to do. But it turns out there’s always money to be made if you’re enterprising and put yourself out there, and if you’re really lucky (or savvy!), you can combine money-making with academic CV-building.

My professional experience as a web editor has come in super handy. I was keen to start editing websites that spoke more to my personal interests, so when a voluntary position presented itself to work on the International Arthurian Society’s new website, I didn’t hesitate. And it’s been brilliant! I was already a member of the Society, and this has been a great way to get to know the other members, and for them to have an awareness of who I am, too. It has also led to lots of other opportunities in terms of paid web editing work for other interesting academic websites, and I’ve been working as the sort of ‘on call’ web editor for both the English department and Centre for Medieval Studies at the university, as well as working for the library on some of their online stuff. The great thing about this is that I can do it mostly in my own time, from my own laptop, wherever I am – ideal when you’re a student.

The crossing over of my professional and academic interests also inspired me to incorporate a Digital Humanities aspect to my thesis. This killed many birds with one stone  – enabling me to develop my web skills; get the most out of my thesis; keep myself interested (very important when you’re studying something for three years!); but it will also hopefully help in terms of employability at the end of it all. It never hurts to have more than one string to your bow!

With the help of the fantastic Tom Smith (Collaborative Software Specialist at the University of York) I set up create a crowdsourcing website to produce an online transcription and translation of the never-before-edited Chanson d’Ogier (the text discussed in my first chapter) from its original manuscript context in BL Royal MS 15 E VI. Medievalists from all over the world can contribute a translation and/or transcription, and it is my hope that eventually we’ll end up with a full online edition and translation, freely accessible to all, so that more people can become aware of (and hopefully study) this fascinating text. Here’s the link to the website:

Please do contribute to the site and share the link widely, because many hands make light work!

The one thing I have had to do is start saying no. I have been so incredibly lucky with the opportunities that have come along in the past year and a half. Besides teaching, web editing, and speaking at conferences, I’ve also been a bibliographer for Encomia: The Bibliographical Bulletin of the International Courtly Literature Society and had book reviews published in peer-reviewed journals. Luckily for me, lovely things like this have been part and parcel of my PhD experience. However, I’ve realised that at this point, halfway through, it’s important for me to focus on the thesis above all else, and difficult as it is, I’ve had to start saying no to some things.

Aside from PhD stuff, my personal life has seen more highs and lows than ever before. Last September my relationship of seven years came to an end. It was not mutual, and I was very sad and felt very lost for a long time afterwards. It affected my PhD. Try as I might, for about a month after it happened I just couldn’t read anything. I mean, I could read, but something happened to the words before they reached my brain, and I just couldn’t process them. This made research difficult. The other effect it had was to compound the huge voyage of self-discovery I was already on, to find out who this person is in her late twenties, suddenly single and with no stable career. Everything had changed, basically, and I had to try to make sense of it all. I won’t say it’s been easy, but a year on and I’m battle-scarred, but with a new-found empathy for other survivors of life’s unexpected twists and turns. Life can be brutal at times, but it can also be conquered – all you need is fortitude, just the right amount of your chosen vice (whiskey for me), country music, and a fantastic support network. One thing I’ve learned is that you need to be kind to yourself. If you can’t work, then don’t force it. Taking time out for your emotional and mental health is more important, always. The research will still be there when you’re ready.

I’ll skip over the occasionally hilarious, frequently cringeworthy, and often downright depressing aspects of dating in your late twenties – that’s another blog post entirely. Instead I’ll skip to the bit where I’ve met someone amazing (another survivor!), and we’re happy together. One effect of the events of last year is that I don’t feel I can state, with any certainty, what the future holds – but I do know that right now, in this moment, I’m happy. All is well (touch wood!), and I’m very surprised by, and grateful for that.

So. There you have it. That’s what being halfway through a PhD looks like – for me, at least. The past 18 months has been such a rollercoaster. There have been highs. There have been lows. There have been moments where I’m really not sure whether I’m coming or going, or who I really am anymore, but I’m sure of one thing: I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’m still so incredibly glad to be on this amazing adventure.

On holiday this week in Suffolk, enjoying the audio tour at Framlingham Castle

On holiday this week in Suffolk, enjoying the audio tour at Framlingham Castle


Filed under Personal, PhD

Interview with Lavinia Collins, author of The Warrior Queen

Lavinia Collins is the author of The Warrior Queen, part one of a new Arthurian trilogy. This post, an interview with Collins, is the second of two exploring this new work.

As a medievalist, Lavinia, you must have a keen awareness of not only the medieval stories of Arthur, but also of the countless modern adaptations in literature, art and film. So what motivated you to write your own take on these timeless tales? What does your trilogy do differently to everything that has come before, and which writers/tales would you say have inspired your version the most?

Hmmm, what a good question! There are several aspects to what motivated me to write. I really loved all the medieval versions, and I wanted to be able to share them, and a least a small part of some of the stories they contain, with a wider audience, but especially in a way that would make it immediate, and recuperate a point of view that I felt had been largely missed; that of Guinevere. A large part of it was also just to please myself. I really enjoyed getting lost in the Arthurian world as I understood it, and I really wanted to share that with other people.

I felt, also, that the way that we come into contact with it now is quite sanitised. Especially, actually, the relationships between the characters. I think we like to believe that people in legend didn’t get caught up with silly, worldly things like sexual desire, and I felt like there was room for something more raw, more immediate, and more personal from the point of view of Guinevere, something that didn’t try to excuse her of any responsibility by making her passive, or gloss over any of the problematic elements of her character which have resulted in so many versions polarising her into either a lusty shrew or a doe-eyed moron.

One of my great inspirations in terms of modern adaptations was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, which I love, but which I always felt was slightly wanting in its depiction of Guinevere. Bradley did great work in the recuperation of Morgan le Fay, but this was almost at the expense of Guinevere (which I will talk a bit more about later on), and that left me wondering if there wasn’t another story to be told there, that had been lost a little; in feminism’s desire to redeem the witch, we had forgotten the woman at the centre, who has been variously condemned and marginalised in different ways.

I felt like there were a lot of adaptations for children, and then Marion Zimmer Bradley (who I will talk quite a lot about, and my conflicted feelings about her adaptation, which I love, but which I feel didn’t do an awful lot of good for our idea of Guinevere) who did an incredible job of recuperating Morgan le Fay’s point of view, and quite a lot of film and TV which focussed heavily on the men and marginalised the women or stereotyped them. Mainly, it was that the fascinating, powerful Guinevere that I read in the medieval version didn’t seem to me to be represented in any satisfying way in any of the adaptations I had come across, and it was high time someone got on to it!


Guinevere, in all her capricious complexity, has always been one of my favourite characters of the Arthurian world. What made you choose her as your protagonist, and why did you depict her in this particular way?

A large part of it had to do with what a raw deal I thought Guinevere was getting in all the modern adaptations of Arthurian legend. It just seemed that this immense, powerful personality that is so clear in Malory’s book, and to an extent in Chrétien de Troyes was constantly being reduced to something more “tasteful” and therefore less individual, less interesting and ultimately less good. I suppose it’s partly to do with squeamish Victorian moralising (thank you for that, Tennyson) and the mistaken belief of film and tv executives that we can only like a woman that we think is “good”. I found the whole way she was dealt with in every adaptation rather disappointing compared to what I imagined when I read Malory. Even the Mists of Avalon (which I absolutely love) somehow cannot manage to present both Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar in a positive light, which is very frustrating, and ends with her making Gwenwhyfar into a hysterical, agoraphobic religious fundamentalist without charm or interest or power. I thought that this was such a shame.

I am sure so much of the paring down of Guinevere’s character in modern treatments comes from a kind of prudish, judgemental need to “justify” the affair with Lancelot. The most annoying manifestation of this is versions that suggest that she was already in love with Lancelot when she married Arthur. I’m not saying this isn’t valid, I suppose what I am saying is that it isn’t interesting. It’s just apologism. People feel the need to say “she did what she did because of x,y,z,” or they, like Bradley, make her passive and weak in the face of something or other.

But in Chrétien de Troyes and Malory she certainly doesn’t seem weak or passive — and besides, this isn’t interesting. It’s symptomatic of a need to put women into this box, or that box. A tragic heroine, an unfaithful wife. I was sick of reading and seeing her depicted as a victim, as passive. Certainly, as a woman that’s not very interesting to watch or read. I hated the idea that we can only like Guinevere if we feel sorry for her, and I felt like what I read and saw in modern adaptations never matched up to what I read in the medieval versions. I strongly felt that her story was one that had not be properly told, at least not in a way that I thought did any justice to the powerful character I read in Malory’s and Chretien’s texts.


In your take on the Arthurian legends, Guinevere is shown to have a close and deeply personal relationship with the Round Table, and both she and the physical object (as well as some of the other characters in the novel) possess a sort of Otherworldly, Celtic-inspired magic. Can you talk a little about your decision here?

People know the “Round Table” as one thing, and on a popular level most people only know that it was the table that Arthur’s knights sat around, and have no idea that it originally belonged to Guinevere. I wanted to reimagine this object which itself has come to be metonymic of a certain type of male comradeship from a different perspective, to imagine it meaning something personal to the woman to whom it originally belonged, and to suggest that both our idea and Arthur’s idea of the significance of the table isn’t its whole story. I also wanted to include some medieval-romance-style magical objects that weren’t just the typical ones dwelt on by other versions (Excalibur has some “Otherworldly” elements, but it’s certainly not given the same narrative weight in my version as in the movie Excalibur, for example). The table kind of became a symbol, a focal point that illustrated for me the idea that in the past we have perhaps approached these events from a kind of Christianised, male-centric position, and I wanted to show how how something as central to the Arthurian knights as the Round Table could have meant something so different to Guinevere.

In terms of my decision to emphasise the Celtic “Otherworldly” elements, really it’s just that these personally attracted me to the legends. I have never enjoyed versions which strip away the magic and try to get too historical, and I felt as though the Celtic versions have their own particular character and flavour. It’s simpler than magic too; it’s a connection to the land, to others like oneself, to the places of home. It also helped me to create the sense that I wanted of various conflicting worlds that can never quite match up with one another; the Breton culture that Guinevere grows up with, and British culture in Logrys; the desire to conquer and the longing for peace; safety and being trapped; loyalty and desire. It just became an integral part of that, the conflict between different ways of seeing and understanding the world.


Gender roles, and cultural differences between masculine- and feminine-appropriate dress and behaviour, serve to create an interesting tension within the book. Logrys (Britain) is shown to have a much more rigidly masculine/feminine divide, whereas the line between genders is more blurred in the Breton world of Carhais. Guinevere must negotiate the differences between these two worlds and their norms. Guinevere’s challenges in adapting to her new surroundings as a foreign princess (in other texts she’s variously depicted as being of Roman or Welsh descent) are rarely depicted, let alone in terms of gender differences. What were your reasons behind both the differences in cultural gender norms, and in showing Guinevere’s struggle to assimilate into her new culture?

There were several reasons for this. Firstly, I have to confess that my imagining of Breton culture is largely extrapolated from my study of early medieval Irish Celtic culture and the evidence that survives of a society in which women were able to (even if they did not usually) take on warrior-roles. This is part of the reason that I chose to link Guinevere with Medb (who I spelled in a more non-medievalist friendly way in the novel!) from the Tan Bo Cualinge, because I wanted to create a sense that Guinevere belonged to an culture that both had ancient roots and that was on its way our as Arthur’s new world was beginning to conquer the lands around it. I felt like the relationship between Arthur and Guinevere has typically been portrayed in very simple terms as a kind of political marriage that neither were very emotionally invested in. I didn’t think that this was very interesting, and I felt that the story of love across conflicting cultures, and a more complex relationship between them would be much more interesting, for me at least!

But aside from this is also part of a deeply personal interest in this element of the story. We know how common it was for queen to be married outside of their home countries into foreign courts where the language and customs were strange, and yet this is something which, as you say, is rarely discussed in Guinevere’s case at all. I thought to gloss over the experience of finding oneself almost alone in a foreign place and expect to marry a stranger was a part of the medieval female experience that I wanted to deal with.

Gender was also something that I wanted to deal with more generally in the book. I was tired of film and TV versions where Arthur is wet and weak. My decision to have Arthur as this incredible alpha male and Lancelot as more shy, more sensitive, less typically masculine is partly based on my own reading of Malory, but partly based in my own interest in the limits that this expectation of extreme masculinity places on the men of medieval society. I wanted to create something that asked interesting questions about the gender roles at play, and that also acknowledged that this was a question that people were asking themselves in the Middle Ages –there’s a general idea that they all just accepted the status quo, but if that were true, there would be no Wife of Bath’s Tale, would there?


As a fellow medievalist I’m interested in the world you’ve created in your retelling, which takes so much from the medieval corpus, but also nods to post-medieval Arthuriana in its depiction of a bow-wielding princess. Like all the best retellings (in my opinion!) of the Arthurian legends, the temporal setting is not a faithful rendering of any specific historical moment. Can you talk a little about the world of the Warrior Queen?

I certainly wanted to create something that wasn’t slavish to any particular time. I always feel let down by versions that as desperate to locate it in a particular time. That was why I found that King Arthur film so boring, and actually that was one of those things that annoyed me about my favourite modern version The Mists of Avalon; both laboured a historical moment, and if anything the stretch for historical credibility makes it less believable. It’s as though the more you try to explain, the more the gaps show.

What I wanted to create was something not that was like a historical time, but that was like a medieval text. Obviously, it’s in modern English, and there’s quite a lot of racy material that wouldn’t have made it past a monastic scriptorium, but I did want to create the sense of a mythical medieval past. There are some elements, like magic, which I took inspiration from the medieval romance tradition. (I’m afraid that there are also some nerdy medievalist jokes hidden in there, for anyone who can spot them…) That said, there are some elements that just don’t translate across time, and I really wanted to create a world, and a Guinevere with whom a modern audience could engage, and I hope that I have done so.


You do particularly interesting things with Kay. Worlds apart from the mean ginger clod of Disney’s Sword and the Stone, your Kay is a dark-haired, fay-like knight who, in keeping with his role as seneschal seems to see all. You dedicate your novel to your own Kay –what made you choose to present Kay in this way? Is there a real-life inspiration for your portrayal of this often awkward and maligned character?

Poor Kay! I am always upset by the treatment my all time favourite Athurian knight gets. Even in serious academic Arthurian criticism, I have come across unfounded Kay-bashing. One even suggested that, in the episode where Lancelot steals Kay’s armour after what can only be described as at the very least a homoerotic sleepover and rides about dressed as him being excellent at fighting, that this was done because Kay was ‘the weakest link’ in the chain of Arthurian knights and needed a reputation boost! Hardly fair on the knight who single-handedly kills two of the kings in the war with the five kings…!

Kay –and especially Malory’s Kay –seems to me like the only knight who knows how to have fun, and he is always unfairly sidelined in modern adaptations. It is almost as though adapters think that Arthur can only have one friend, and will get confused if he has any more buddies than Lancelot. Every single film and TV version I’ve seen make Kay a sort of meanie older brother who Arthur immediately forgets, when this is far from the case in the medieval versions. Arthur explicitly says that his desire to kill the Emperor Lucius is the result of Kay’s wounding in battle, and the moment that Arthur pulls the sword from the stone in Malory is followed by his intensely poignant question to Ector, “So you are not my father, and Kay is not my brother?” and yet Kay is erased from almost every adaptation, except in the episode at the beginning when he forgets his sword. I thought it presented an interesting relationship to explore, that of the foster brothers.

As a court-bound seneschal, it seemed to me that he was a fitting friend for Guinevere, who, as a woman, is also bound to stay within the castle while the other knights go journeying about. The decision to incorporate a kind of “Otherworldly” nature to Kay was based on the Welsh versions of Arthurian legend, where in ‘The Lady of the Fountain’, I think, that Kay has some supernatural skills, and I thought this combined well with how I wanted to use the Otherworldly elements.

But more than anything, the fact that Kay has been chronically ignored in adaptations gave me a lot of room to do what I liked with him, to explore elements that hadn’t been explored, which included the domestic life of Camelot, the relationship between the foster-brothers and the conflict of the old ways of the Otherworld and pagans with the new Christian world ruled from Camelot at its centre. I’ve been surprised, too, (and pleased, of course) to the widespread positive reaction to my depiction of Kay; it seems that people were as interested in Camelot’s untold stories as I am.

As for my own Kay, well that would really be telling, wouldn’t it? My own Kay is someone without whom I could never have written The Guinevere Trilogy, and who is a huge part of my life. Apart from that, I’m afraid I’m going to keep the rest to myself. A girl’s got to maintain a little mystery, eh?


Finally: why does the world still need Arthur, after an existence in nearly a thousand years of myth and legend? What purpose do you think these characters and their stories serve in our modern world?


Ah, that’s the million-pound question for all medievalists, isn’t it? I think Arthurian legend is part of the fabric of British identity, and we will always need it. Obviously, I wouldn’t be interested in medieval literature if I didn’t think this, but I do strongly believe that we can learn so much from the stories that we tell about ourselves (so perhaps you can learn a lot about me from what I have decided to tell!) and that it will always be important both to read what is old, and to remake it so that it fits within our own modern understanding.

I love all the medieval versions of Arthurian legend, and I could never hope to replicate some of the great works of the Middle Ages, but equally since they are in Middle English, or Old French or Latin, these are lost to the vast majority of people looking for a good read. But they are a good read, and I felt that it was really important to create a version that was entertaining, but that also communicated what I wanted to convey from my own understanding of these medieval texts in a way that would be immediate, accessible and engaging for a modern audience. It would be such a shame if these stories were lost, or if they only survived on a popular level in forms that really didn’t capture the powerful complexity of the wonderful characters. I hope that at least I have been able to add a small amount to that great task of passing on this wonderful literature and legend.


L. C.

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You can find out more about Lavinia Collins and her work here…

The Warrior Queen (Part I of the Guinevere Trilogy) is available at

A Champion’s Duty (Part II of the Guinevere Trilogy) is available at:

Twitter: @Lavinia_Collins



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