Dr Catherine Hanley is a historian who started her career as an academic before deciding that there were better and more fun ways to engage with public interest in all things medieval. She now writes about the Middle Ages for a wider audience under her own name, historical fiction as CB Hanley, and more non-fiction history under another pseudonym.
How did your interest in history begin?
I was born in Australia, but moved to the UK while I was still at school; one of the things I remember most clearly about being here is being fascinated by just how old some buildings were, as I had never seen anything like it. At my new school I was given a free choice of reading, so I picked an encyclopaedia of history and read it from cover to cover. After that I buried myself in the children’s novels of Rosemary Sutcliff and Ronald Welch, and from then on I was hooked.
What is it about the medieval period that drew – and keeps – your interest?
To me that question is kind of the wrong way round. I can’t understand how anyone could not be fascinated by knights, castles, swords and so on!
Who was the subject of your first biography?
That would be Louis VIII, one of the less well-known kings of the Middle Ages, who came within a whisker of being the first man to be king of England and king of France.
As the heir to the French throne he was invited by the barons to come to England and take the crown from the hopeless King John.
He’s a fascinating character who is routinely overlooked, even in France, but it was his English exploits that really interested me. Seriously, hands up if you knew that a French prince had once been acclaimed king of England by cheering throngs in London.
Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior comes out in paperback on 11 February, 2020 – congratulations! Why did you choose to write about her?
Well, speaking of fascinating characters who have been overlooked by history… Matilda’s story is possibly even more exciting than Louis’s. She was the daughter of Henry I, his only surviving legitimate child and the heir to his throne, but she was overlooked and usurped purely and simply because she was female.
A lot of people would have given up in the face of the insuperable odds, but not Matilda: she started a war that lasted 20 years in order to claim her rights. As a biographical subject, you couldn’t get much better.
Did you make any surprising discoveries while researching Matilda?
One of the things that always surprises me, whatever I’m studying, is just how young some of the major historical protagonists were.
In Matilda’s case this was particularly shocking: when she was sent away from her family to Germany to marry the Holy Roman Emperor, she was only eight years old.
But even as a little girl she didn’t let circumstances get on top of her – by the time she was 16 she was ruling Italy as his regent.
What would you say is the biggest misconception that non-historians have about the medieval period?
That everybody died young. Average mortality rates might hover around the age of 30, but that includes the tragically high number of baby and child deaths – it doesn’t mean people dropped dead once they passed 29. Those who survived childhood would hope to make 50, and if they did, they were quite likely to make 60 or 70. Of course, the higher up the social scale you were, the better health you were likely to enjoy: Eleanor of Aquitaine was in her early 80s when she died, and several popes of the 12th and 13th century were already that age when they were elected.
You write historical fiction as well as biographies. What was it about fiction that attracted you? And do you find it challenging switching between writing fiction and non-fiction?
Mainly I think it was the chance to have a go at filling in some of the frustrating gaps. In non-fiction history, if there’s no evidence for something, all you can do is say “we don’t know”, or “we can only speculate…”, which is unsatisfying. Writing fiction gives you the chance to drop a fictional character into the middle of it all to explore the possibilities.
I rather like writing both, as each gives me a bit of a break from the other. Writing non-fiction history is great – the research, the piecing things together from different types of evidence, the attempt to express it all coherently – but after one gap in the record too many I long to be writing fiction so I can just write what I like without stopping for references every two minutes. But then, after I’ve been working on fiction for a while, I get twitchy about the extent to which I’m simply making stuff up, and I long to go back to ‘real’ history again. So this is why I currently alternate between the two, and will hopefully continue to do so.
Tell us a bit about Edwin Weaver.
Edwin is the main character in my series of medieval murder mysteries (set during the time that Louis was in England in the early 13th century).
He started off partly as my “fictional character to drop into the action”, but I also wanted to explore how a real person might have reacted to what were frightening times. So he’s not terribly ‘heroic’ – he’s young, he’s inexperienced, and he’s frankly a bit scared of all the dangerous things he keeps being ordered to do.
And it was also very important to me that my protagonist should not be noble. More than 99 per cent of people weren’t, but they certainly get less than 99 per cent of the attention.
I’ve read that you’ve been involved in historical re-enactment groups. Some people might think “that’s just cosplay”, but can re-enactment help with research?
Definitely. Re-enactment varies: undoubtedly some of it is more like cosplay, but at the other end of the scale it’s more akin to experimental archaeology. When I depict Edwin in his cottage, I can see it quite clearly because I’ve been there: I’ve swept the floor, I’ve lit the fire, I’ve cooked in the pot. The experience of handling and using accurate replica artefacts can’t be overstated: if you read a scene in which a character puts on a great helm and fights in it, you can tell straight away whether the author has ever worn one or not.
If you were to suggest one book that people should read to understand the medieval period better – apart from your own – what would it be?
Oh, so many to choose from! But if I’m only allowed one then it’s the Penguin Classics edition of David Carpenter’s Magna Carta, published in 2015 to mark the 800th anniversary of the charter. It takes a factual, even dry document and explains it fully, but then also uses it to illustrate wonderfully the whole era, the context, the people of the time and how they lived. It’s brilliantly written and strikes that golden balance between being completely accessible to anyone who is new to the period while also bringing something new to those who already have background knowledge.
If you could time travel for a day, what time and place would you go to? And what object would you bring back?
Hmm, ask me that on a different day and you’d get a different answer depending on what I was working on! But right now, I’d go back to the pivotal year of 1141: firstly, I’d want to witness Matilda’s moment of triumph, and secondly, when it then all went wrong for her (spoiler alert…) I’d want to offer encouragement and tell her that people are still reading about her and admiring her determination more than eight centuries after her death. And I’d bring back one of the silver pennies that were minted with her face on instead of Stephen’s.
And what are you working on now? Can you give Historia readers an exclusive preview?
In non-fiction I’m in the middle of a large-scale project to bring you a book tentatively entitled Two Dynasties, which examines the relationship between the ruling houses of England and France throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, told through the stories of the people involved. There will be births, marriages, deaths, war, peace, betrayal, murders and plenty more, coming your way in 2022.
Edwin Weaver’s latest medieval mystery, Cast the First Stone, is currently at proof stage and will be published in May this year. I do have an outline plan for the next one after that, but it will have to wait its turn!
Catherine has written more about Empress Matilda in her feature, Matilda: The greatest king England never had.
Louis, Catherine’s first biography, was published in April 2016.
See more about her Edwin Weaver murder mystery series.
Photo of Catherine Hanley: by Jeni Nott
Coronation of Louis VIII and Blanche of Castille at Reims in 1223 from the Grandes Chroniques de France: via Wikimedia
Wedding banquet of Emperor Henry V and Matilda of England from the Chronicle of Ekkehard of Aura: via Wikimedia
Cover of The Sins of the Father, the first Edwin Weaver murder mystery: courtesy of The History Press
Empress Matilda silver penny from the Oxford Mint: via Wikimedia