Category Archives: Pilgrimages

Creating Fact from Fiction – More Adventures in Field Research

Two years ago, in November 2013, I wrote an epilogue to my research trip in France and Belgium, entitled “The Challenges of Field Research” in which I lamented the things that can thwart the best-laid schemes of mice and moles digging for information. I am a great believer in field research, particularly when it comes to checking out the basic lay of the land where the novel is set, which, unlike most things, doesn’t change that much over the centuries. This kind of research can save an author from many embarrassing mistakes such as sending one’s hero on a trek that is supposed to last only three days, but in the 12th century would have taken at least three weeks (due to forests, rivers, mountains etc., not to mention the fact that the journey had to be made on foot!). Of course, a good topographical map can save the day, but not always. And there is no faster way to lose one’s credibility as an author than misrepresenting the land or seascape, or describing a topographical detail that doesn’t and probably never did exist – occasionally a “local” may actually read your book! And so, mindful of the value of such research, a few weeks ago I headed for Sardinia.

La Cathedrale, Sardinia

I was originally scheduled to be in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and Antalya, Turkey, both of which play a far greater role than Sardinia in my second novel, Holy the Sword, set in the time of the Second, Third & Fourth Crusades, 1146-1204. However, as of the summer of 2016, discretion seemed to be the better part of valor as far as visiting Istanbul was concerned, and so I abandoned my plans for Turkey in favor of Sardinia. Apart from the fact that I had never visited that island before, there was a fairly good reason in terms of the novel.

My hero Rohan de Brancion, a young crusader on the way to the Holy Land in 1148, is caught up Continue reading Creating Fact from Fiction – More Adventures in Field Research

Last Days in Paris

Paris offered us one more fierce lashing yesterday, rain gushing through gutters and gargoyles before settling down into something approximating April weather (it is in fact mid-June). Romantic songs notwithstanding, one does not go to Paris for the weather certainly not this summer anyway. Since our last few days were more or less on our own (barring a wonderful morning service at the American Cathedral – a beautiful welcoming place thanks to Dean Laird and her terrific staff and superb choir), I had time to follow my own quirky passions.

This began (the day before) with my usual Paris pilgrimage to the Cluny Museum – the best collection of medieval artifacts in Paris.  Among the things I love about the Cluny (so called because it was the Paris home of the Commendatory Abbots of Cluny – who would in my opinion have been better employed tending to matters back at their Abbey in Burgundy) is that it was built to be lived in and so the exhibits seem to belong in a way they often do not in regular museums.  Back in the mists of time, before Christ, there were Roman baths in this place, and very impressive ones too which one can still see. Over the centuries the building has undergone many changes. Today, standing close to the Sorbonne, it remains a superb example of blended Gothic and Renaissance domestic architecture.

Most visitors to the Cluny Continue reading Last Days in Paris


Eternally beautiful but ever-changing, when I first saw Chartres Cathedral in the mid 1960s it was almost black. Today one might, with no disrespect intended, call it “shades of gray” with some startlingly white and black patches. The latter according to some being the remaining filth of ages, 800 years of it: others might call it the patina that gave this sacred place deep mystery. Someone once described the interior of the Cathedral as “the womb of God” – the church is after all dedicated to Mary, the Holy Mother.  I have always thought of it that way – a safe, dark (though not always warm!) place to hang out and just be. When I offered a mild complaint about the recent clean up, an understanding friend commented “as if your beloved grandmother had just got a face lift!”  Yes, that’s it exactly! So let’s get the complaints over with before moving on. Disappointed again to find the sublime labyrinth was covered for the second year in a row and surrounded by scaffolding – which admittedly they are in the process of pulling down with resounding sound effects!

But we are on pilgrimage and our ever-creative leader urged us to enter into the new spirit of the place by asking these questions of ourselves with the invitation to pray about whatever came up for us as we sat and pondered the mystery of it all – the still beautiful, the ugly, the eternal and the impermanent:

What is it in your life that is being renewed?

Is there something that needs to be repaired or restored?

Adding this quote from Isaiah as further encouragement:

Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

“Not yet,” I answered!

The nave of Chartres “under restoration”, Continue reading Chartres

The Bayeux Tapestry

Another missing thread of our pilgrimage – in fact several million threads. This woven tapestry, a miracle of survival from the mid-11th century, once girded the magnificent nave of Bayeux Cathedral (consecrated in 1077) and tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 (a date known to every English schoolchild). Since it was commissioned by the half brother of Duke William of Normandy – the Conquerer himself – who was then Bishop of Bayeux, it is hardly surprising that the perspective favors the Normans. Also somewhat galling is the fact that the Cathedral was largely paid for by English money exacted by the said Bishop from his new fiefdom of Kent, and that this 230 ft work of art was sewn by English women (presumably nuns). If you look closely at the tapestry they did manage to get a few digs in at the Normans and the English King Harold himself, although killed in the battle, is shown in a surprisingly favorable light (for example rescuing Norman Knights who were about to drown in the quicksands around Mont Saint Michel). This naturally was before he and Duke William fell out over who should be King of England but says something about Harold’s character.
Duke William lands Continue reading The Bayeux Tapestry

The Abbaye de Jumièges

Just picking up a few missing threads from our pilgrimage as we leave the ancient but extremely wet duchy of Normandy.  Of the great Benedictine Abbey of Jumièges only ruins remain, but splendid ruins nevertheless.  It is hard to imagine what evil spirit caused the vandalism that tore these ancients stones apart less than two and half centuries ago. Something to ponder as we gasp in horror at the destruction visited by Isis today against even more ancient treasures.


First Glimpse of Mont Saint Michel

Over a hundred years ago Henry Adams wrote of Mont Saint Michel “one looks back on it all as a picture: a symbol of unity; an assertion of God and Man, in a bolder, stronger, closer union than ever was expressed.” So much has been written about this place, so many photographs taken, paintings painted, postcards sent that it is almost embarrassing to offer one’s own humble contribution – which I guarantee will not make anyone’s collection. But here it is, our first glimpse of Mont Saint Michel on a gray stormy June afternoon – still stunning for all that. From afar:
Then you get closer and see just what a marvel of construction is this ancient Abbey Continue reading First Glimpse of Mont Saint Michel

Labyrinths . . . of many shapes and sizes

Today in Bayeux we visited one of the least known labyrinths in France, the faded brick labyrinth in the old Chapter House in Bayeux Cathedral. Last week we visited one of the most unusual – the stunning black and white octagonal labyrinth in Amiens Cathedral. And in a few days we will be visiting the “Grandmother” of them all, the sublime 11 circuit labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral.  We are holding our collective breath that the labyrinth in Chartres will finally have re-opened after several years during which the surrounding nave has been under restoration – if it is, that would indeed be a miracle! In the meantime a few words about these other marvels of medieval ingenuity.

The Amiens labyrinth is of course well known for its distinctive design and apparently miraculous state of preservation.  It is however a 19th century copy of the original which makes in none the less impressive, as is the entire cathedral – another miracle of preservation given the destruction wrought on Amiens particularly by the wars of the last century.  There is a particular harmony about Amiens Cathedral, a unity of design which is sometimes lacking in other cathedrals in France (there are 84 of them still – a greater number than in the whole world combined, or so we were told – I haven’t counted!). This is explained by the fact that Amiens Cathedral, like Chartres and Rheims, was built over a relatively short period of time, little more than 50 years, which is quite amazing when you consider the magnitude of these projects and the basic nature of 12th century technology (actually not so basic when one considers the mathematics, engineering, stone masonry and sheer brilliance of the design and execution involved).img_0289.jpg Another great marvel of Amiens Continue reading Labyrinths . . . of many shapes and sizes

A Sacred Portal

When we were planning this pilgrimage through Normandy last year there was some debate about whether or not we should bring our pilgrims to the Normandy beaches where the liberation of Europe began on June 6th, 1944.  After visiting the American Memorial Cemetery at Omaha Beach, the final resting place of over 10,000 American soldiers and auxiliary workers who gave their lives on that day and those that followed, there was no doubt in any of our minds that this place is truly a portal to the sacred. Today, beneath gray overcast skies as we walked through this peaceful sanctuary it was hard to imagine the carnage and horror of those world-changing days.  The story is told movingly through images and videos in the Memorial Visitors Center through the lives of those who fought and died so that Europe might be free from Nazi oppression.  And then outside afterwards we walked among the thousands of white crosses and Stars of David rising from the green earth in solemn row after row. There is little doubt that we owe the freedom we enjoy today to these exceptional, yet ordinary men and women – farmers from Nebraska, storekeepers from New York, doctors, nurses, artists, carpenters, people like us. img_0291.jpg
As someone who almost always lines up with those who protest against war and violence, I struggled to find some way to express how differently I feel about this Second World War and the sacrifices made at that time on our behalf (and to think they called the First World War “the War to end all Wars”). As I was leaving the Memorial building I came across these words written by General Mark Clark  which so well expressed what I want to say. Continue reading A Sacred Portal

Joan of Arc in Rouen

Nothing  of Joan of Arc remains in Rouen today – no tomb, no reliquary, not a scrap of clothing or even a contemporary likeness. Only her shaky signature “Jehanne” on the document this 19 year old illiterate peasant girl was forced to sign under threat of immediate execution denying that she had been sent by God to liberate France – a denial she almost immediately withdrew. “Everything I said” (in that document) “I said for fear of the fire,” she told her judges. They burned her anyway then ordered that her charred body be re-burned and her ashes scattered in the Seine so that no vestige of her remained to inspire contemporary and future generations. In this her enemies failed miserably. Joan’s spirit is everywhere in Rouen today and has become a symbol of courage, integrity and commitment to God and cause in the face of unimaginable odds way beyond the shores of her beloved France.

In the lovely contemporary Church dedicated to Joan stands one of the most moving statues of her at the stake – on one side the flames, on the other what appears to be angel wings carrying her to heaven. Twenty years after her execution Joan was totally exonerated by the Church of the crimes of which she was accused – heresy, witchcraft, idolatry and the list goes on.  In 1920, she was declared a saint by the Catholic Church.