Lament for a Siege Town

The original inspiration for a novel is often difficult to identify exactly. In the case of Lament for a Siege Town, however, it was the suggestion by an eminent local historian, Andrew Phillips, that set me going. He told me that no one had ever written a novel about the infamous siege of Colchester, which occurred in the so called Second Civil War. These terrible true events had all the elements of a gutsy tale: violent battles, tensions between the townsfolk and soldiers, bombardments, starvation, sickness, riots and uprisings, then the ignominy and aftermath of surrender and defeat. I was surprised that no other writer had been similarly struck with its potential for treatment as fiction. (I did find, however, a play by Roger Howard The Siege commissioned by the Mercury Theatre in 1981.)

I have a particular liking for the broad period 1500 - 1800, which I believe is classified as 'Early Modern'. My other preference is for social history and the lives of ordinary people. The undocumented experiences of 'insignificant' people hold more fascination for me than the lives of the privileged, the rich and the powerful. I like to imagine and create as my characters these 'little' people, mentioned as passing references in large sweeping historical accounts of events. Their lives, we can assume, would have contained as much psychological richness, joy and tragedy and almost certainly more hardship than the well-documented kings, queens, princesses, lords and ladies of the time.

Thus inspired, I started reading about the general background, about which I knew shamefully little. The English Civil War by Diane Purkiss, offered a very human dimension and an excellent overview of the conflicts. This led to Charles Carlton's Going to the Wars. Both books are full of 'triggers' for potential novels: stories of outstanding bravery, heroism and cowardice, unimaginable suffering, great victories and appalling defeats. After reading a few more general secondary sources (see bibliography), I started narrowing my research to focus on the circumstances leading up to the Colchester siege.

Thanks to the excellent work of local historians, whose informative secondary sources and analyses of primary sources are readily available, I started acquainting myself with the background to the siege and the sequence of events as well as the main 'players' in it. At this stage it was important to begin selecting which real characters might feature in the novel and which events would work well as elements in the plot. It is very easy to become so overwhelmed with information that it is difficult to know how to proceed. A bolder more skilful writer might have been able to encompass the worlds of the enemy powers: the Parliamentarian besiegers, the Lord General Fairfax and his forces, set against the besieged Royalists inside the town and the unfortunate townsfolk themselves, the full social, economic and political context. However, my approach had to involve the ruthless selection of material, as well as narrowing and simplification in order for me to create a story that I could handle. This stage of narrowing ran alongside thinking about viewpoints and also the emergence of characters, notably the number of key characters through whose gaze the action would be viewed.

During this reading stage, one man stood out from the rest as a potential hero, in the novelist's sense of the word. Sir Charles Lucas, is variously portrayed in the sources as a loyal, courageous, honourable gentleman, a skilled professional cavalry commander and a virtuous martyr, or as a brutal, irascible, ruthless and uncultivated soldier. As with many primary sources relating to the Civil War, the views presented are highly biased and partisan. But here was a compelling, contradictory and controversial character. One of the best known portraits of him shows a rather stiff and 'po-faced' individual, but betrays a certain vulnerability in his gaze. So, I created a fictionalised version of Sir Charles Lucas, using some verifiable details about him as the basis of his character and imagining the rest, to suit the purposes of my story.

Next I needed a heroine and who better than the mysterious, unnamed Colchester 'alderman's wife' referred to in one source as having informed the Royalists of a plot against them? Who was this alderman's wife? Why did she want to save the Royalists? Here was the core of the conflict and tension and a romantic relationship, suitable for a novel of this genre. The story was beginning to take shape but I needed more characters to drive the narrative, create the horror and privations of the townspeople and the soldiers, so I invented a weaver's family, the Sayers, impoverished neighbours of the more prosperous Wades (Alderman Wade and his abused wife Katherine, the informer). I decided also, to have five main points of view: Charles Lucas, Katherine Wade, Tobias Waterman (a Parliamentarian soldier), Beth Sayer and Jack Sayer, which some might think too many. However, given that the setting was very confined and the time frame too, I felt that readers could cope and that I could show more effectively how different people, on opposing sides and of different social classes were affected by the siege. I was also determined not to take sides.

By now I had filled at least one notebook with character descriptions, relationships, plot drivers and consequences, along with key points and incidents with dramatic potential. For example, there was the failed storming of the town by the Parliamentarian Colonel Barkstead's regiment, resulting in the entrapment and slaughter of a troop of Parliamentarian soldiers by the Royalists in the town. There were many other striking incidents: the turd fired back over the wall by defiant Royalist soldiers, the desperate break out of women and children, the consumption of horses, dogs, cats and rats by the starving people. These were all potential elements in the plotting of the story.

The style and tone of the narrative were also considerations, once I had started the first draft and I experimented with past and present tense for the main narrative. I settled on the present, with the aim of making it more 'immediate', using past tenses for backstory and flashbacks. There was the risk too that the whole novel would become an unremitting tale of misery and suffering, so I attempted to include a few light-hearted elements in the form of the Sayer twins' escapades during the siege and some exchanges of dialogue between of the soldiers. The ending too contains a note of hope in the aftermath of tragedy and loss.

My key motivation in writing historical novels is to produce engaging stories that readers will enjoy and to create, as far as possible, an authentic and believable past. These fictional explorations of the past, however, can be uncomfortable too as reminders of the continuity of human suffering and strife. Material and social conditions and attitudes may have developed in many areas of the world, but the gulf between the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the poor remains as great today as in earlier times. Political systems and social structures built upon oppression still abound, as they did in the 17th century.

This is a work of fiction and makes no claim to add to the historical interpretation of the events upon which it is based. I therefore apologise to historians and other well-informed people, for the liberties taken with the known 'facts' and details and for any inaccuracies, which I may have inadvertently included. My hope is that readers will not be offended by the 'manipulation' of history and will enjoy the story. Perhaps it might even encourage readers to explore the accounts of the siege and the many excellent histories of this shocking period of British history, as well as exciting an interest in the town of Colchester with its rich and varied past, still present and visible today.

Historical Novel Society - Review

Editors Choice and long listed for the HNS 2016 Indie Award.

Historical Novel Society

Lament for a Siege Town

by Clare Hawkins