Cassandra Clark tells Sarah Freeman how growing up in East Yorkshire inspired her acclaimed series of medieval mysteries.
Cassandra Clark is on something of a mission. While Britain of the medieval age is often painted as a pretty lawless, disease-ridden place to live, the author of the popular Hildegard series is hoping that along with selling a few copies of her books, she will also bust a few myths.
“Generally when you read anything about that period it is always about the depressing domestic squalor and disease,” says Cassandra, whose third book in the series, The Law of Angels is out later this month. “However, the truth is rather different, they were actually a pretty civilised bunch. They listened to music, often wore wonderful clothes and the towns were very orderly places. Dare I say it, but it wasn’t that much different to today.”
Cassandra, who grew up in Cottingham, was inspired to write the first book in the series, Hangman Blind, after a long period of looking after her elderly parents. Previously, she’d written plays and the libretti for several chamber operas, but looking around for a new project she kept coming back to the places she knew as a child.
“You really can’t escape the connections to the medieval period and I’d grown up hearing stories about Meaux Abbey just a few miles down the road near Beverley. Nothing of the structure survives, but when it was founded in the 12th century it rivalled the likes of Rievaulx.
“Just when I had nearly finished the first book, in a tiny dusty Victorian library I discovered the Chronicles of Meaux which had been written in 1395 and I keep finding out new little snippets of information about it all the time.
“There is something about these places and what went on inside them that really fascinates me, although I never actually intended to write a series. In fact, if I had known the first book was going to lead to more, I would probably have toned down the jocular elements.
“The books have definitely got darker as they have gone along and the sense of intrigue, I hope, has got deeper.” The series centres around Hildegard of Meaux, who is part abbess of the Cistercian order, part sleuth, and its historical backdrop has invited comparisons with CJ Sansom’s Shardlake novels.“The other thing about the Medieval age is that people tend to think women were these subservient creatures, when in fact in many spheres they were seen as equals to men.
“Although CJ Sansom is writing a few hundred years after Hildegard, I can see why people link the two. I have to say he was pretty hard on northerners in Sovereign, but don’t worry I’m already plotting a medieval revenge in the fourth book of the series which moves to London and the Houses of Parliament.”
New instalment in the series
Cassandra Clark studied at the University of East Anglia and taught for the Open University before becoming a full-time writer.The third installment in the Hildegard series, The Law of Angels, will be published on September 26. To launch the book, she will be returning to Yorkshire for a signing at Waterstones in York on September 17 at 12.30pm.