Battle Castle – Interview with Nicole Tomlinson

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 Another member of the team that has put Battle Castle together is Nicole Tomlinson – the in-house writer for the show, she wrote the scripts for three of the Battle Castle episodes, and was involved in post production writing and the research for all six. We spoke with Nicole about the show and about the impressive online resources they have created:

How did you get involved with Battle Castle? Did you always have an interest in medieval history?

I came to Battle Castle from a science journalism background. Unlike other shows that have tended to focus more on the romantic or palatial aspects of these fortifications, this series promised to shed light on the engineering of castles and siege technologies, so I was really excited to get involved.

Like most of us, I have always loved the medieval period – before I could even identify it as such. While some dream of a lofty, silken, crowned existence, I gravitated more towards the discovery, grit and humble camaraderie often associated with adventure and war. Disney’s “Robin Hood” and “The Sword and the Stone” were my two favorite movies growing up – though King Arthur still eludes me, I was thrilled to meet the non-cartoon lion version of “the phony king of England” in not one, but two Battle Castle episodes – Gaillard and Dover. Nice.

What can medieval enthusiasts expect to see on Battle Castle?

In a way, I think Battle Castle is the show that we’ve always wanted to see, but just didn’t quite know it. Prior to working the series, I had watched documentaries, read articles, and looked at pictures of these spellbinding structures. I had even visited one or two. I was so fascinated by the stories of the lives of the people and artifacts associated with these strongholds that I didn’t realize I actually wasn’t learning much about the castles themselves. The more I delved into researching the series, the more I wanted to see the technologies that built them (and sometimes brought them down) jump out of my imagination and into action.

Battle Castle offers just that. In addition to filming extensively at each castle location, host Dan Snow and the crew travelled to Guedelon, a castle in the making in France and Caerphilly Castle, the home of live siege engines in Wales to learn about medieval building techniques and weapons ops. We also decided to dedicate a significant portion of the show to the sieges our six castles faced. We dug up all the information we could about these epic battles and talked extensively with experts to get the most up-to-date and historically-accurate information possible. Our recon, CG and visual effects teams then pushed the limits of documentary filmmaking to bring these elements to life.

For me, the most compelling battle-related discovery was a ruthless bout of beheadings believed to have occurred in one of the sieges. Learning about this for the first time, and then integrating it into the show, deepened my understanding of, and connection to, the castle it occurred at (hint: it was one of the four that I travelled to). It was such a phenomenal moment – I hope our audience will feel it as well.

Of the 6 castles you visited, which was did you enjoy most and why?

I travelled to four out of the six locations featured in the series – Crac des Chevaliers, Malaga, Malbork and Conwy. They were all so wonderful – every stone (or brick) has its story. But if I have to pick one … it’s King Edward’s Welsh stronghold. While in Wales, we were lucky enough to visit Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech and Beaumaris and, thanks to the amazing guidebooks and castle staff, learn about their features in great detail. When you pay enough attention to the Iron Ring, you start to see not one man, but two. As a visionary king on a quest for domination, Edward commissioned the castles, but it was Master James of St. George and his brilliant engineering decisions that turned them into legends. With some 3,500 men at his command, a powerful ruler to honour, and hostile locals to contend with, this master builder had to get Conwy and the other castles right … and he had to do it fast. From innovative construction techniques to the plethora of defensive features integrated into the castles, he considered every detail. With Edward largely absent during construction, it was Master James of St. George who would make or break the king’s castle-building legacy.

What has been your favourite moment filming this show?

While we were at Malbork, the woman who runs the castle had a birthday. We all went out for dinner to celebrate with her. We ended up chatting in great detail about the castle and a lot of other things (including her conviction that life is too short to not eat cake)! As it neared 10 p.m., I realized that the Malbork Castle light and sound show – which tells the story of the Teutonic Knights who once lived there and the siege they faced in 1410 – was about to begin. I had read about this event and was really hoping to see it. I knew that this was my chance to catch the show, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I brought it up casually with her … and she was keen to come with me! We grabbed a heavy white cape used during the castle’s annual reenactment event and hustled to the High Castle. Sharing the cape, we took in the show. It was in Polish, but the sound effects – from dish clattering at dinner to emotionally-pitched dialogue to horse hooves clattering closer and closer – were so good that I could kind of tell what was going on (ish). She didn’t speak a lot of English, and know almost no Polish, but it didn’t matter. That night, we shared an unforgettable moment in history – both the castle’s and our own.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned making this series?

Honestly? That builders constructed parts of castles out of wood. I knew of the early motte and bailey types, and was obviously vaguely aware that things like doors and bars were made out of wood … but hoardings, floors, even whole palisades? That caught me totally off-guard. From a visual perspective, it was challenging for the team to produce CG and visual effects elements as close as possible to what we believe they would have looked like with no surviving structures to base them on. From an idealist perspective, it’s disappointing to think that castle-builders couldn’t construct everything out of a more durable material. I know they had their reasons – financially, temporally, structurally. Logically it makes perfect sense. But I can’t help but think I would have been really satisfying to build an entire castle out of stone or brick, all in. Though it wouldn’t be nearly as fun for us, hundreds of years later, to spot where wooden structures would have likely been based on stone or brick configurations that remain, that’s a sacrifice I’d be willing to make.

How did you come up with the idea of a medieval cooking and the daily life sections for Battle Castle?

We wanted a way to offer anyone and everyone a “taste” of castle life – both what it may have been like in medieval times and what it is today. Malbork’s in-castle chef Bogdan Galazka presented the perfect opportunity. He gave the crew cookbooks full of recipes he minted after exploring Malbork’s archives to see what the Teutonic Knights and the Polish Kings ate in the Middle Ages then marrying the historical ingredient lists he discovered with modern flair he picked up while cooking in New York City for an uber-cosmopolitan crowd, including Michael Bloomberg. Galazka spoke so passionately about the warrior monks who prompted him to create these dishes that I had to have a slice … or a bowl, as it were.

As soon as the chills of fall descended on the West Coast, the Battle Castle soup adventure lit up. My family and I cooked three soups from Galazka’s first book, altering ingredients as needed based on what we could find. Then we sat down to an amazing meal. My mom, who is not a historian but is always keen for a new experience, ripped the bread to make it more “medieval” and sliced the cheese jaggedly. Her partner put ham hock and smoking salt in the lentil soup to up its authenticity. My grandpa came along for the ride. I’ve never felt closer to the Teutonic Knights than when I tasted my first spoonful of cherry soup, and I was thrilled to share our versions of Galazka’s recipes with Battle Castle fans.

In these times there’s little room for castle-builders, or besiegers, or kings. Most of us will never fire a trebuchet, undermine a wall, or wield a sword. But we must all eat. In the company of inspired food, we can close our eyes and imagine the rest.

Can you tell us a bit about the Battle Castle strategy micro-game and how people can get involved?

The Battle Castle strategy micro-game is a modest foray into the basics of besieging a castle. It’s available on the Battle Castle website and free to play. The user can either take direction from a messenger, or delve straight into the action (I prefer to start right away!). Its clean, stylized design features an array of siege tactics that the player, or attacker, can use to attempt to take a castle. As the levels advance, the strongholds get more complex. The object of the game is to conquer all the castles. It’s a fun little way to get to know the basics of siege warfare and learn a few interesting facts as you play.

When can we expect the first instalment of Battle Castle to hit the airwaves?

Battle Castle is slated to air towards the end of February on History Television in Canada. We expect Discovery UK to premiere the show sometime in the spring. But if you don’t live in Canada or the UK, all is not lost – BBC Worldwide holds distribution rights to the series. The Battle Castle crew will be sure to announce further details on all air dates as soon as they’re available – the best way to keep up-to-date is to Like us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/battlecastle) or follow us on Twitter (www.twitter.com/battlecastle). Bonus: because we also clearly love castles (and battles), we roll out exclusive online content all the time. I know I’m bias … but really, it’s pretty great. Hope to see you there.

Please click here to visit the Battle Castle Website

See also our Interview with Ian Herring

See also our post ‘See Castles in 3D’

SharanNewman