I’ve come to Seville in search of a man who doesn’t exist. Not yet.
His name is Jack Wynter and he’s the fictional protagonist of my new series, set at the end of the 15th century. My last three novels were based on the life of Robert Bruce and, despite the gaps in our knowledge of the period and the challenges in filling them, the path of my narrative was essentially laid for me by the tracks Robert himself made seven hundred years earlier. My debut trilogy had a fictional main character, but I had a long apprenticeship – seven years – to find his voice, before finding a publisher. I’ve assured my editor he will have the first book of the new series, Sons of the Blood, by the autumn. I don’t have time to wait for Jack to come to me. I have to find him now.
Although much of the narrative of this novel takes place in England and Brittany in the last years of the conflict that would become known as the Wars of the Roses, my vision for the series is to explore the great web of dynastic marriages, trade agreements, alliances and enmities that connected Europe at this time, where the actions of one person or faction often shook the entire structure. This is a continent still feeling the economic aftershocks of the Black Death and still reeling from the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, with the threat of further invasions from the Islamic world growing on the borders of Christendom. It is a continent on the verge of discovering new worlds, both physical and metaphysical, at the dawn of an age of exploration and exploitation and an era of enlightenment birthed by the Renaissance and the invention of the printing press. It is a time when old views and beliefs are challenged, when the Church of Rome begins to crack under the weight of its own corruption, when ancient philosophies are reborn in the palazzi of Florence and when the Inquisition rises to power in Spain. It is a time of thriving commerce and of crippling war, of discovery and suppression, sorcery and science. In many ways it is the foundation of our modern age – where history starts to feel more familiar, less alien.
Seville, in the late 15th century, serves to highlight many of these changes. Isabella and Ferdinand, the Catholic Monarchs, have united Spain and declared war on the Kingdom of Granada, the last stronghold of the Moors following the Reconquista. They have established the headquarters of the Inquisition in the city and placed harsh restrictions on Jews. At the same time, Seville, served by the River Guadalquivir that flows into the Gulf of Cádiz, is a prosperous commercial hub and a melting pot of races and religions, as it has been for over two thousand years since the Phoenicians first settled here. This is visible, to this day, in the stunningly beautiful marriages of Christian, Jewish and Islamic architecture. In the next decade, Seville will become the heart of trade and travel with the New World, coloured and shaped by all the glory and horror that heralded its discovery. The city embodies both the light and the shade of the period that I hope to explore through the series, which is why I’m here, at the top of the Giralda – the bell tower of the awe-inspiring cathedral – trying to get my bearings.
The tower, which is climbed by a ramp that marches seemingly endlessly up inside it – and feels a bit like you’re in one of Escher’s drawings – was the minaret of the original mosque built, like so much else in Andalusia, by the Almohad Caliphate. From its height I can see the whole of Seville, from the high-rise flats and the weird honeycomb structure of the Metropol Parasol to the palm-shaded gardens of the Real Alcázar and the 18th century bullring of the Maestranza.
Writing historical fiction you learn to look at landscapes and cityscapes in a different way, stripping away the layers, seeking out those things that remain, whether royal palace, a grid of streets or a mountain range. Research is obviously a key part of this process. Were there orange trees in medieval Seville? Which of the countless buildings I can see existed then and, of those that did, how much have they changed after reconstruction following earthquakes, floods, fires and wars? Where were the city walls? Was there a bridge that connected Seville to Triana, its lively neighbour across the river – birthplace of Flamenco dancers and matadors?
But it isn’t just a question of looking. All the senses can come into play when you’re in a location you’re planning to write about. The feeling, for instance, of stepping from narrow slices of shade in the labyrinthine alleys of Santa Cruz – the old Jewish quarter where even locals claim to get lost – into the searing Andalusian sun. It’s late February now and already warm, turning my Celtic skin pink. What will the Spanish sun do to Jack, son of a Welshman, in June?
Many of the sounds and, thankfully, smells of medieval Seville have disappeared along with the people, but the dung of the horses that pull the carriages of tourists around the old quarter reminds me that this was a time when animals and people lived in close proximity. In fact, the first thing I notice from the top of the Giralda is the echoing clatter of hooves on cobbles. Other smells I can imagine based on the history. Seville was a city of soap-makers, who used oil from the olive groves that grew in abundance on the fertile plain of the Guadalquivir. It was a city of potters, already famous for the ceramics made in Triana, whose kilns would fire clay from the riverbanks. Many of the original tiles still decorate houses and palaces. I get closer to Jack as I run my finger over their cool smoothness outside a tapas bar in the heart of the barrio.
Every spring the thousands of orange trees, known to us for their marmalade, go into blossom and their perfume sweetens the air, as it would have done in centuries past. As a trading city, Seville’s docks and markets would have witnessed a flow of produce from around the known world – spices from the Orient, wool from England, cheese from Italy. It was a city of blood in the bullring – a sport initially reserved for nobles – and a city of fire in the auto-da-fé.
I walk the streets, lost in twists and turns, for two days, my iPhone telling me I’ve covered 16 miles. Notes scribbled on street corners will help me remember this place when I’m home, as will hundreds of photos. I draw maps, based on 16th century prints of the city, found in the underground remains of the Castillo de San Jorge – the former headquarters of the Inquisition. Here, in the museum, I’m relieved, for the sake of my plot, to discover that there was a bridge connecting Triana and Seville. The Puente de Barcas was a pontoon bridge of boats, built in the 12th century and only replaced by one of stone and iron in the 19th. I can sense the deep religiosity that remains a part of Seville in the countless churches I pass, many of which were former mosques or synagogues. I drop in and out at sunset, witness a wedding, a christening, an evening service.
After two days of searching I’ve found him. Jack is starting to speak, his voice rising from the dust of the streets. Now, home, to awaken him on the page.
[Book 1 of the New Worlds Rising Series, Sons of the Blood, is due out in the UK summer 2016 with Hodder & Stoughton].