Guest Post: King Cenwulf by Annie Whitehead

Today it is a pleasure to welcome author Annie Whitehead to the blog. Annie’s book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom was released by Amberley on 15th September and traces the fortunes of the Anglo-Saxon Midlands kingdom of Mercia, from its origins in the 6th century to its absorption into Norman England in the 11th century. The book is a fabulous, enjoyable read and I can highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Anglo-Saxon England.

A huge thank you to Annie for this fabulous article.

King Who?

King Cenwulf, that’s who. He may not be all that well known, but he was one of the most successful Anglo-Saxon kings and was king for twenty-five years (796-821) during a period when most kings were lucky if they survived a year in the job.

So why don’t we know more about him? Probably because his reign was sandwiched between a lot of kings with odd names, and he was overshadowed by his more famous predecessor, Offa.

Cenwulf was supposedly descended from a brother of the infamous pagan king, Penda, but no one is entirely sure of the precise link (although my new book provides an intriguing theory…).

Statue/carving of King Cenwulf in St Peter’s Winchcomb

One thing is for sure, and that is that he had no direct connection with his immediate predecessor, Ecgfrith, who was Offa’s son. Offa had gone to great lengths to secure the succession of his son, even going so far as to have him anointed as his heir. But all his plans were for naught, because Ecgfrith survived only five months after being crowned.

Foul play? Maybe. There was no suggestion of it in the chronicles and many believed that he died for the sins of his father. It looks as if Cenwulf wasn’t around at court much during Offa’s reign, and may have been in exile. Perhaps he was the victim of the purges of which Offa had been accused, and for which the punishment was supposedly the untimely death of his son. No accusations of murder were ever levelled against Cenwulf.

Cenwulf’s reign was an impressive one of overlordship and conquest. We don’t know much about his marital history but it is possible that he was married twice, firstly to a lady named Cynegyth, although it’s by no means certain, as a charter naming her as queen has been declared unreliable. His – possibly second – wife was Ælfthryth.

Offa had controlled East Anglia (famously doing away with their king, whom he’d had beheaded) but after his death East Anglia seems to have regained its independence. That was short-lived, however, for while they had been minting their own coins, very soon after he came to power, the East Anglian moneyers were striking coins for Cenwulf.

Coffin believed by some to be that of Kenelm, Cwoenthryth’s murdered brother, but it actually dates from a later period.

East Saxon independence also appears to have been short-lived, with its last ever recorded king, Sigered, being reduced to the status of first sub-king, and then dux.

In 801, Cenwulf was attacked by King Eardwulf of the Northumbrians, ‘because of his harbouring of his enemies.’ A letter from Pope Leo III to Charlemagne in 808 mentions the nobleman, Wada, and seems to confirm the accusation that Cenwulf had indeed been harbouring Eardwulf’s enemies, because Wada was involved in a battle of 798 where he had fought against King Eardwulf. Eventually the two kings agreed to a truce.

Things were a little more violent when it came to Cenwulf’s dealings with Kent, however, and it was perhaps not Cenwulf’s finest hour.

In 798, the same year as the battle involving Wada, Cenwulf was busy ravaging Kent, and he captured the Kentish king, known as Eadberht Præn.

When Offa, who had been overlord of Kent, died, Kent had risen up in revolt against Mercia. Eadberht Præn had been in exile at the court of Charlemagne, and he returned after Offa’s death, forcing the archbishop of Canterbury – who was known to have Mercian sympathies – to flee.

Kenelm’s Well, supposedly where his funeral procession rested on its journey

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cenwulf ‘seized Præn and brought him in fetters into Mercia’ where his eyes were put out and his hands cut off. But while one later chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, refers to the capture, he makes no mention of the mutilations and another twelfth-century writer, William of Malmesbury, called Cenwulf a ‘truly great man’ who ‘surpassed his fame by his virtues, doing nothing that malice could justly find fault with.’ His praise seems motivated by the latter’s having restored Canterbury, and he goes on to say that Cenwulf released Eadberht Præn out of pity.

For a short while, Cenwulf put his brother into Kent to rule there as a puppet king, but after his brother died, he took direct control.

For all William of Malmesbury praised Cenwulf for restoring order at Canterbury (Offa had fought to have the archbishopric moved to London and when that failed, established one at Lichfield. Cenwulf reversed this decision), Cenwulf had a fractious relationship with the Church.

He became embroiled in an argument with the new archbishop of Canterbury, Wulfred. The dispute concerned the Kentish minsters and whether it was right that the state should have control over ecclesiastical lands. The argument raged from 816 and was not resolved when Cenwulf died in 821.

Drawing of Coenwulf Coin

The kings who followed him make up a list which looks a little like a cat has walked over the keyboard and show that the kingdom was troubled by a series of dynastic disputes between rival families. In amongst this, Cenwulf reigned successfully for a quarter of a century, and it seems as though he was on campaign against the Welsh when he died, but his reign is overshadowed by what (allegedly) happened to his children.

His daughter, Cwoenthryth, inherited not only her father’s lands but his dispute with the Church. Wulfred was accused of forging documents to support his case, but the Church Council found in his favour and whilst Cwoenthryth was allowed to keep the possession of Winchcombe she was forced to hand over the rights to the Kentish minsters. Winchcombe, where her father was buried and where she was abbess, became the centre of a scandal when she was accused of arranging for her little brother, Kenelm, to be murdered. Some of the stories say that her eyeballs dropped out as divine punishment, some that she was struck down dead. Reality was probably somewhat different, since it’s hard to prove that the young brother in question was even a small boy at the time of the alleged murder, and Cwoenthryth lived on as abbess of Winchcombe; some historians think she survived until the 840s.

Photo of the Cenwulf coin is a replica from my own collection

When the history of this period includes Offa the Great, a murder of a little boy, and dynastic struggle which also ended in murder, it’s hardly surprising that poor Cenwulf gets forgotten. But as one historian pointed out, his achievement was ‘scarcely less impressive’ than Offa’s.

He controlled the whole of the south east, and while his influence was not felt over Wessex, he at least kept the Northumbrians at bay, and he increased pressure on the Welsh, to the extent that his eventual successor, his brother, was able virtually to overrun Powys. Old-fashioned warlord he may have been, but he was the only English king before the tenth century to be styled ‘emperor’. If only he’d lived at another time, or gone up against more famous adversaries, perhaps he’d be better remembered today.

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Picture credits: ©Annie Whitehead except drawing of Cenwulf (public domain).

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About the Author:

Annie Whitehead graduated in history having specialised in the ‘Dark Ages’ and is a member of the Royal Historical Society. She’s written three books about early medieval Mercia, the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the Midlands. The first, To Be a Queen, tells the story of Alfred the Great’s daughter, and was long-listed for the Historical Novelist Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and was an IAN (Independent Author Network) Finalist in 2017, while the second, Alvar the Kingmaker, is the story of Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia in the 10th century. The third, Cometh the Hour, is the first of two volumes set in seventh-century Mercia. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down, a collection of alternative short stories. She writes magazine articles and has had pieces printed in diverse publications, including Cumbria Magazine and This England. She has twice been a prize winner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing Competition, and won First Prize in the 2012 New Writer Magazine’s Prose and Poetry Competition. She was a finalist in the 2015 Tom Howard Prize for nonfiction, and is also a contributor and editor for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, as well as blogging for her own site – Casting Light upon the Shadow. In 2017 she won the inaugural HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Prize.

Her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley and available from Amazon UK.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Annie Whitehead

 

Book Corner: Mercia, the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead

Many people know about Wessex, the ‘Last Kingdom’ of the Anglo-Saxons to fall to the Northmen, but another kingdom, Mercia, once enjoyed supremacy over not only Wessex, but all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. At its zenith Mercia controlled what is now Birmingham and London ‒ and the political, commercial paramountcy of the two today finds echoes in the past.

Those interested in the period will surely have heard of Penda, Offa, and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ‒ but remarkably there is no single book that tells their story in its entirety, the story of the great kingdom of the midlands.

Historically, the records are in two halves, pre- and post-Viking, in the way they have been preserved. Pre-Viking, virtually all the source material was written by the victims, or perceived victims, of Mercian aggression and expansion. Post-Viking, the surviving documents tend to hail from places which were not sacked or burned by the Northmen, particularly from Wessex, the traditional enemy of Mercia. The inclusion of those records here allows for the exploration of Mercia post-924.

Mercia ceased to be a kingdom when Alfred the Great came to power, but its history did not end there. Examining the roles of the great ealdormen in the anti-monastic reaction of the tenth century, through the treachery of Eadric Streona in the eleventh, and the last, brave young earls who made a stand against William the Conqueror, this book shows the important role the Mercians played in the forging of the English nation.

 

I have been waiting eagerly for Annie Whitehead’s Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom ever since I knew she was writing it. Luckily, I got an advanced copy from the publisher – but it was well worth the wait! In her introduction Annie Whitehead promises:

This is the story of the Mercians, the kings, the queens, saints, sinners, earls and warrior women who governed the kingdom and shaped its history.

 

And she does not disappoint!

Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom covers the story of the English midlands kingdom from its pagan origins, in the 7th century, to its absorption into the kingdom of England; a process started in the reign of King Alfred but not completed until after the Norman Conquest. Annie Whitehead traced the fortunes of Mercia from Penda, a king we know little enough about – and that from his enemies. As the author tells us, the problems with knowing anything about early Mercian history spring from the fact Mercia was a pagan land; they therefore had no monastic tradition of writing everything down. In which case, their history is taken from such as the Venerable Bede, who lived in the land of Mercia’s enemies, Northumbria.

As a result, Annie Whitehead’s first task was to assess the bias of her sources, all of whom had their own hostile vision of Mercia. She uses sources from varied fields, including charter and archaeological evidence, in order to reconstruct early Mercian society and tell the story of the land itself, and its relations to its neighbours, such as Northumbria, Wessex and East Anglia. Using primary sources wherever possible, Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom brings the people of this ancient kingdom to vivid life. The author also uses alliterative analysis, to suggest familial links between such rulers as Coenred and Ceolred, for example. Although this is not an exact science, it does help to give the reader some perspective on the personal and familial relationships between the major players in the region.

Throughout the book, Annie Whitehead retells the story from the available sources, taking great care to avoid filling in the gaps with invention and clearly offering theories and analysis to explain the direction in which the narrative proceeded. She provides an ongoing assessment of sources, discussing their validity, honesty and integrity; clearly stating where charters are thought to be spurious or of dubious provenance.

The story portrayed is one of conflict, from within and without the region, marriage alliances, murder and betrayal and the shifting political tensions of the various kingdoms within England. The history, inevitably, draws on the history of Wessex, Northumbria, Kent and Wales. However, Annie Whitehead constantly retains the focus firmly on Mercia, while clearly demonstrating the shifting political alliances and the internal and external forces which decided the direction in which Mercian – and English history as a whole – would eventual be drawn.

It is difficult to piece together the circumstances of Æthelbald’s exile. It doesn’t appear that Ceolred was a strong enough king to stave off contenders, particularly ones of the calibre Æthelbald would prove to be. Perhaps, then, he had been in exile since the time of Æthelred, yet he did not emerge until after Ceolred’s death. Were there other contenders to the throne? Had he been chased out of Mercia because the kings there were strong, or because he was, and thus he was  a threat? Dynastic disputes would become a feature of Mercian politics, particularly in the next century.

There is, in fact, a hint that the takeover was not so peaceful, provided by a reference in one source to a Ceolwald reigning between Ceolred and Æthelbald. This man, briefly mentioned in Chapter Three, could, if he existed at all, have been the brother of Ceolred. If so, and if he became king, he did not reign for long, for Æthelbald became king in the same year in which Coelred died. Perhaps there was a coup? If only we knew; but as we have seen, particularly when it comes to Mercian history, absence of evidence is most assuredly not evidence of absence, and we can only speculate when we come across these tantalising nuggets of information.

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

Annie Whitehead provides a thorough and in-depth analysis of Mercia, its history and its people. Where there is uncertainty or conflicting evidence , she carefully sets out the opposing theories, providing her own thoughts and analysis, while making it clear what alternative reasoning there is available. The text is supplemented by some wonderful illustrations, colourful photographs of locations and buildings closely associated with Mercia’s history, from the well-known statue of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great and Lady of Mercia, to Repton in Derbyshire, burial site of a number of Mercian kings.

On a personal level, it is fascinating to read another author’s interpretation of subjects I have researched myself. Annie Whitehead dedicates (and rightfully so) an entire chapter to the Lady Æthelflæd and her husband Æthelred. And it is good to know that her version of Æthelflæd does not contradict the lady I found when researching Heroines of the Medieval World. The same also happened with her depiction of Lady Godiva. Godiva appears in my next book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest; she was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and grandmother of the last Anglo-Saxon Earl of Mercia, Edwin, who was killed in 1071 after fighting against the Normans.

Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom  is written in an engaging and conversational manner, leaving the reader both entertained and informed. It is impossible to read this book without being made aware of the depth of research that has gone into producing such an authoritative depiction of Mercia. the

Rich in detail, this is a must-have book for anyone interested in the English midlands, and Anglo-Saxon history. Annie Whitehead delves into all the corners of Mercia, her history and conflicts and relates the story of not just the land, but of the generations of people who occupied it.

About the author:

Annie Whitehead graduated in history having specialised in the ‘Dark Ages’ and is a member of the Royal Historical Society. She’s written three books about early medieval Mercia, the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the Midlands. The first, To Be a Queen, tells the story of Alfred the Great’s daughter, and was long-listed for the Historical Novelist Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and was an IAN (Independent Author Network) Finalist in 2017, while the second, Alvar the Kingmaker, is the story of Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia in the 10th century. The third, Cometh the Hour, is the first of two volumes set in seventh-century Mercia. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down, a collection of alternative short stories. She writes magazine articles and has had pieces printed in diverse publications, including Cumbria Magazine and This England. She has twice been a prize winner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing Competition, and won First Prize in the 2012 New Writer Magazine’s Prose and Poetry Competition. She was a finalist in the 2015 Tom Howard Prize for nonfiction, and is also a contributor and editor for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, as well as blogging for her own site – Casting Light upon the Shadow. In 2017 she won the inaugural HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Prize. Her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley and available from Amazon UK.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman

As she helps to nurse the dying Queen Elizabeth, Frances Gorges longs for the fields and ancient woods of her parents’ Hampshire estate, where she has learned to use the flowers and herbs to become a much-loved healer.

Frances is happy to stay in her beloved countryside when the new King arrives from Scotland, bringing change, fear and suspicion. His court may be shockingly decadent, but James’s religion is Puritan, intolerant of all the old ways; he has already put to death many men for treason and women for witchcraft.

So when her ambitious uncle forcibly brings Frances to court, she is trapped in a claustrophobic world of intrigue and betrayal – and a ready target for the twisted scheming of Lord Cecil, the King’s first minister. Surrounded by mortal dangers, Frances finds happiness only with the precocious young Princess Elizabeth, and Tom Wintour, the one courtier she can trust.

Or can she?

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Tracy Borman’s first novel, The King’s Witch through NetGalley.

I have often read and enjoyed Tracy Borman’s non-fiction works. Indeed, her book on Matilda of Flanders, queen of William the Conqueror, was very helpful in my research for my own books, Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest. However, there is a great difference in writing non-fiction and fiction and not every author can make the jump. As a result I was unsure what tot expect from The King’s Witch  but discovered that Tracy Borman has managed to create a masterpiece of literary fiction at the first attempt.

Set in the court of James VI and I shortly after his arrival in England, The King’s Witch weaves a wonderful tale of love, intrigue, betrayal and suspense, set against the backdrop of the king’s obsession with eradicating witchcraft within his realm and the persecution of catholics. The officers of the old regime of Elizabeth I are trying to curry favour with the new king by taking on his obsessions and making them their own, so that those out of favour are hunted on every side.

As curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, Tracy Borman uses the wealth of inside  knowledge and information she has acquired to vividly recreate the world of early Stuart Britain in vibrant detail. She breathes life into her characters, both historical and invented, so that it is impossible to tell where the fact ends and the fiction begins. Her expertise is demonstrated not only in court etiquette, dress and manners, but also in the seedier side of Stuart Britain, in the treatment and punishment of prisoners, the oppression of catholic families and priests. The extent of research the author pursued in the writing of the book is demonstrated in the knowledge of herbs and their healing qualities, and how a girl may gain and use the knowledge to help others, if not always successfully.

There was silence for a few moments, then Helena bade her daughter sit with her again, and clasped both of Frances’s hands in her own.

‘My daughter.’ She pronounced the word as ‘dotter’, a rare hint of her native tongue. ‘You are my precious jewel. If only I could keep you as safe as these trifles -‘ she gestured to the coffers surrounding them, each secured with a brightly polished lock, the keys to which were only entrusted to her highest-ranking attendant.

Frances looked up into her mother’s dark brown eyes. She had long since seen her fiftieth year, but with her pale skin, high cheekbones, and small rosebud mouth, she was still beautiful.

‘Lady Mother?’

‘Frances, you must know that the court – the kingdom – is greatly changed,’ Helena began, her voice low. ‘King James has no patience with the traditions upheld by the late queen. Already the court is beset with scandal and vice. It will bring shame upon the kingdom.’ A scornful look crossed her face.  ‘Yet neither does he respect our former mistress’s moderation in matters of religion, but insists upon the strict observance of the Protestant faith. He seems determined to bend his subjects to his will.

Helena looked down at her hands for a moment, and when she raised her eyes to Frances again they were clouded with anxiety.

‘He has declared a war on witches, Frances. He says that they are a canker in our midst, and that God has appointed him to destroy them all. He will not leave a stone unturned in his search for the “whores of Satan”, as he calls them. Already Cecil is drafting a new Act against witchcraft. Any practice that is deemed to be sorcery will be punishable by death.’ She paused, eyeing Frances closely. ‘Even the arts of healing are under suspicion. There is to be no mercy.’

Frances looked doubtful. ‘Surely the king does not mean to hunt down the wise women and cunning folk? His officials would have to scour every village in the kingdom, and to what purpose? Their skills have always been used for good, not evil.’

 

The heroine of the story, Frances Gorges, as lady-in-waiting to King James’ pampered daughter, Elizabeth, has to navigate the Stuart court, despite being suspected as a witch by the king’s chief adviser, Robert Cecil. A skilled healer, Frances’ kind and trusting nature is tested to the extremes. While her skill with herbs and healing leads her into a dark place, her love for one of the men of the court leads her into the heart of a dangerous conspiracy and she doesn’t know who to trust. As the story unfolds, the reader is taken on a journey into the heart of a plot could change the course of history….

Tracy Borman has succeeded wonderfully in attaining that often difficult balance with historical fiction, of keeping to the historical fact while weaving an enchanting story which will keep the reader gripped to the very last page. Her obvious expertise in the era means that she is able to get into the heads of the characters she is depicting, thus relating their thoughts feelings and motivations with an uncanny accuracy which serves to transport the reader back in time, to the court and country of James VI and I. The author accurately depicts the sense of unease and apprehension at the change in regime from Elizabethan to Jacobean, demonstrating the distrust and unfamiliarity that accompanies the Scottish king to his new court; and conflict between those who find favour with the new king and those who hanker after the times and tolerance of the old queen, Elizabeth I.

Tracy Borman’s heroine, Frances Gorges, must traverse this difficult terrain of shifting allegiances and changing favourites, searching for a way to survive the plots and machinations of those who would see her fall. The King’s Witch is an exquisitely crafted novel, recreating the essence of Stuart Britain in wonderful detail.

The King’s Witch is available from Amazon.

About the author

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Tracy Borman is joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust. She studied and taught history at the University of Hull and was awarded a PhD in 1997.

Tracy is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books, including Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, First Queen of England, Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen and Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction. Tracy is also a regular broadcaster and public speaker, giving talks on her books across the UK and abroad. She lives in Surrey with her daughter.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: A Missed Murder by Michael Jecks

When Jack Blackjack disobeys the orders of his spymaster, he enters dangerous waters in this lively Tudor mystery.

London, 1555. Queen Mary is newly married to Philip II of Spain – and not everyone is happy about the alliance. The kingdom is divided between those loyal to Catholic Mary and those who support her half-sister, Lady Elizabeth.

Former cutpurse turned paid assassin Jack Blackjack has more immediate matters to worry about. Having been ordered to kill a man, he determines to save him instead. But Jack defies his spymaster at his peril … and even the best-laid plans can sometimes go awry. When it appears that Jack has killed the wrong man, he reluctantly finds himself drawn into affairs of state, making new enemies wherever he turns. Can he survive long enough to put matters right?

I have long been a fan of Michael Jecks. I have been an avid reader of his books ever since The Last Templar, the first of his Knights Templar Mysteries series came out many, many moons ago! Michael Jecks has a knack of transporting the reader back in time and subjecting them to a jolly good murder mystery, unhampered by any modern-day crime solving techniques. I also thoroughly enjoyed his Vintener Trilogy, set during the Hundred Years’ War. However, the Bloody Mary Mysteries,following the adventures of Jack Blackjack, are a new departure for him, in a way.

Michael Jecks has moved away from the 14th century into the heart of Tudor London and the reign of Mary I. However, the intrigue and suspense is still present – in abundance. With this series Michael Jecks proves that he is the consummate story-teller in whatever era he writes. His expertise at writing mysteries shines through on every page, keeping the reader guessing to the very last page.

The author has recreated Tudor London’s sordid underworld in fine detail, taking the reader through the backstreets and wharves, to the brothels of Southwark and the alehouses of the city, leaving the reader with a lasting (and not always pleasant) impression of the sights, sounds and smells of an overcrowded and tense London, uneasy at the marriage of their queen to a Spaniard and eager for the impending birth of a prince and Tudor heir.

‘Mistress,’ i said, and bowed elaborately. ‘I am your most devoted servant. I saw you enter, and …’

‘I must speak with Jack Blackjack, Master. Do you know where I might find him?’

The man from the bar sniggered and walked away as I smiled lecherously. ‘I am he. You were looking for me? What is your name, pretty maiden?’

She looked doubtful. ‘I was told to look for a man who had a square face, brown eyes and a little scar on his left cheek.’

i smiled at her. My face has always been my fortune. Women look at me and see a bold yeoman they want to coddle. God would never have given such looks to a black-hearted devil, they think.

Turning my head, I indicated my scar. I always think it gives me a devil-may-care appearance, a proof that I am a bold, adventurous type – although I won it from falling while fleeing a furious miller who wanted to exact vengeance for my deflowering of his daughter. Deflowering, indeed! That little hussy had been more practised than half the women in Piers’s brothel.

‘Who told you to seek me?’ I asked.

‘Master Blount.’

Jack Blackjack is not your traditional, gung-ho, hero. He is worldly-wise, in many ways, though sometimes a little too trusting. He is cautious where heroes may just jump in and he has landed himself a job as a paid assassin, despite his dislike of the sight of blood. However, as a character he has a charm all of his own. He is a likable fellow, who seems to have a tendency to get himself into trouble without even trying. His adventurous take you on a journey through the seedier parts of Tudor London, introducing some of the most colourful characters you are ever likely to meet, including Mal the Loaf (so-called because of the bread knife he carries) and Ramon, a Spanish soldier with a sharp rapier and a desire to use it!)

Before you know it, the reader is drawn into Jack’s adventures, willing him to unravel the mysteries surrounding the death of a Spaniard, the disappearance of several purses of money and the confusion caused by a change orders sent by his employer, Master Blount.

Written in the first person, the writing style of A Missed Murder takes a little getting used to, but creates a more personal relationship between the reader and the book’s hero. Thoroughly researched, the author has managed to reanimate Tudor London, down to the finest detail. As I have come to expect from Michael Jecks, A Missed Murder is well written and thoroughly absorbing, taking the reader on an adventure through Tudor London which will not easily be forgotten.

To buy the book.

About the author:

Michael Jecks is the author of more than thirty novels in the Knights Templar medieval mystery series. A former Chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, he lives with his wife, children and dogs in northern Dartmoor.

For more on Michael Jecks, check out writerlywitterings.com, look him up at writerlywitterings on YouTube, check his pictures on Flickr.com/photos/Michael_Jecks, like his page on FaceBook, or check for him on Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and all other social media!

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: After the Conquest by Teresa Cole

On his deathbed William the Conqueror divided his property between his three sons, Robert, William and Henry. One of them got England, one got Normandy and one £5,000 of silver. None of them was satisfied with what he received. It took much violence, treachery, sudden death and twenty years before one of them reigned supreme over all the Conqueror’s lands.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his ‘Prophecies of Merlin’, depicted them as two dragons and a lion with a mighty roar, but which would end up the winner, and what was the fate of the losers?

After the Conquest tells the story of the turbulent lives of the sons of the Conqueror.

Having read and enjoyed Teresa Cole’s book, The Norman Conquest, I was expecting a great deal from this book, and was not disappointed. After the Conquest takes up the story where the first book left off, giving an overview of the Conquest and the years which followed with the reign of William the Conqueror, before coming into its own with the stories of the Conqueror’s 3 surviving sons; Robert Curthose, William Rufus and Henry I. Taking the story from teh Conquest itself, to the death of Henry I and the succession squabble which followed, Teresa Cole provides and in-depth view of the post-Conquest years in England and Normandy.

Robert II Curthose, Duke of Normandy

After the Conquest provides a complete and detailed study of each of the 3 sons of William and Matilda; their family life and military and political careers. She is thorough and analytical in her approach, using primary sources to support her arguments and theories. The book provides a new and refreshing insight into the story of the struggles between the brothers is told in a balanced, thoughtful style, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each with equal vigour. She dissects the abilities and failings of each brother separately, and compares their successes and failures, providing a complete image of their changing relationships throughout the years.

There is a tendency to see Henry, especially at this time, as the innocent younger brother, tossed about and beset by the whims of hos elders. Clearly, though, there was a strong streak of his father’s ruthlessness in the young man’s make-up, and also a strong conviction as to what was due to people of his class and upbringing.

William II Rufus, King of England

 

Rather than an example of brotherly love, After the Conquest tells the story of one of the most significant examples of sibling rivalry in English royal history, rivalling that of King Richard the Lionheart and King John in its viciousness. However, although this theme runs throughout the book, the author also provides an in-depth study of the regimes of each of the brothers, separately, highlighting the successes and failures of their rule as kings of England and dukes of Normandy. While Henry I, the youngest brother, invariably comes out on top, it is fascinating to read of Henry’s abilities, as the baby of the family, to exploit his brothers’ weaknesses for his own benefit.

Teresa Cole not only analyses the relationship of the brothers, with each other, but also with those around them, including their siblings,  officials, servants and the church. She provides a wonderful overview of the period and the main actors involved the affairs of England and Normandy in the years immediately following the Conquest.

If Henry had thought his support for his brother might have secured his affection, or at least his approval, he was soon disillusioned. Instead, it appeared that Robert grudged him his success, particularly in view of his own perceived failure…

Teresa Cole’s writing style  is a pleasure to read. While authoritative and thorough, the book is an enjoyable, accessible read for all those interested in history in general, and the Norman Conquest in particular. She also provides a brief, comprehensive analysis of each of the primary sources used in her work. My only criticism, however, would be the lack of footnotes hampers the reader’s ability to investigate some of her arguments further.

Henry I, King of England and Duke of Normandy

After spending a year researching the women of the period for my new book, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest, I was worried that, having read so much on the period recently, I would be too jaded with the 11th century to truly enjoy the book. However, in After the Conquest, Teresa Cole has taken a new approach, in focusing on the 3 sons of William the Conqueror, and has produced a thoroughly engaging book, providing a view of the Conquest and its aftermath from a new and intriguing angle. It would be a wonderful complement to anyone’s library of 11th century works.

After the Conquest by Teresa Cole is available from both Amazon and Amberley Publishing.

About the Author

Teresa Cole has been a teacher for thirty years. She has written several law books and a historical biography by Amberley, ‘Henry V: The Life of the Warrior King & the Battle of Agincourt 1415’ (‘Cole understands the importance of drama… a thorough account of Henry’s life’ HISTORY OF WAR MAGAZINE). She lives just outside Bath.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Guest Post: The Quest for The Holy Grail by Mary Anne Yarde.

Today it is a pleasure to welcome back Arthurian novelist Mary Anne Yarde to the blog. Mary Anne’s latest book, The Du Lac Prophecy, book 4 of The Du Lac Chronicles, is released today. Mary Anne has joined us to share some of the research behind the book, with an article about that most elusive of historical relics, the Holy Grail.

 

The Quest for The Holy Grail

The Holy Grail, by Évrard d’Espinques c. 1475

By Mary Anne Yarde.

King Arthur’s Britain is a utopian world filled with chivalry, glory, and just a touch of glamour. Imagine Camelot as she rises out of the Fata Morgana — the mist. Picture the Knights as they mount their beautiful horses and ride through the portcullis as they embark on another noble quest. Is there anything more romantic?

The most famous quest of all was, of course, the quest for The Holy Grail. It is this quest that I am going to take a closer look at today. I am going to talk about where the idea came from, and how it became associated with King Arthur and his Knights.

To start with, we need to look at a passage from the Bible.

Chrétien de Troyes

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Matthew 26:17-30 New International Version (NIV)

This was to be the last supper before Jesus’ arrest and horrific crucifixion. It is said that the cup that Jesus used on that fateful night was also used to catch his blood as he hung on the cross. So, because of this, The Holy Grail was / is a very precious Christian artefact.

Joseph of Arimathea and The Holy Grail.

The Chalice Well Gardens, Glastonbury

But then a miracle happened, and Jesus rose from the dead. The tomb was again empty, but Joseph’s heart was full of wonder. Joseph spent the rest of his life wandering the world and passing on the teachings of Jesus.

It came to pass that Joseph and a group of friends sailed to a distant land called Albion. They followed the River Severn as they travelled inland and finally they found themselves in The Summer Lands. Joseph brought with him the sacred Chalice of Christ, for it was his to protect.

Joseph settled in a place known locally as The Island of Glass (Glastonbury), and it is said that it was here that Joseph hid the Holy Grail down a sacred well. The water of the well, so the story goes, instantly turned red and tasted of blood.

The Grail’s hiding place remained a secret for many years, and over time it became the stuff of legends. The stuff of folklore.

So how did Arthur and his Knights become associated with this story?

The Last Supper, ca. 1520, Andrea Solari, after Leonardo da Vinci

Well, to answer that question we need to look at one man — Chrétien de Troyes. At the end of the 12th Century, Chrétien de Troyes, a French poet, took up the story of the Grail. He wove the story of the Grail into the story of King Arthur and his Knights. It was an instant hit.

The importance of de Troyes influence on Arthurian Legend cannot be overlooked. It is de Troyes that introduced us to Lancelot and the love triangle. It is de Troyes that first introduced the idea of the Knights Quest for the Holy Grail. He also introduced us to the knight that would discover the Grail’s hiding place — Sir Percival.

If nothing else, de Troyes certainly sparked the imagination of the populace, for what could be more romantic than these chivalrous, heroic knights, searching for the sacred cup of their religion?

The Chalice Well

Robert de Boron (a late 12th Century French Poet) went into even more detail when he took up the story. But it was the Vulgate Cycle (Lancelot-Grail), which was written in the 13th Century by an unknown author that really cemented the Grail Quest with Arthur and his Knights.

The central character of the story is Lancelot. However, instead of Percival being the ultimate Grail hunting knight, it is Lancelot’s son, Galahad.

What did the Church think of this story? It is, after all, about a sacred relic.

The idea of a magic cup – cauldron – was a prevalent theme in Celtic myths, not so much the Bible. It was, in short, a pagan tale that was rewritten by a French poet with a socially acceptable Christian theme.

As with almost all things King Arthur, excavating the truth is near on impossible. Arthur resides in the shadowy world of folklore, and that is where the Grail can be found as well. However, the story of the Knights and the Holy Grail captured the imagination of the country and it has been associated with Arthurian Legends ever since.

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Picture courtesy of Wikipedia, except the Chalice Well and Gardens, which are courtesy of Mary Anne Yarde.

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The Du Lac Prophecy (Book 4 of The Du Lac Chronicles) by Mary Anne Yarde

Two Prophesies. Two Noble Households. One Throne.

Distrust and greed threaten to destroy the House of du Lac. Mordred Pendragon strengthens his hold on Brittany and the surrounding kingdoms while Alan, Mordred’s cousin, embarks on a desperate quest to find Arthur’s lost knights. Without the knights and the relics they hold in trust, they cannot defeat Arthur’s only son – but finding the knights is only half of the battle. Convincing them to fight on the side of the Du Lac’s, their sworn enemy, will not be easy.

If Alden, King of Cerniw, cannot bring unity there will be no need for Arthur’s knights. With Budic threatening to invade Alden’s Kingdom, Merton putting love before duty, and Garren disappearing to goodness knows where, what hope does Alden have? If Alden cannot get his House in order, Mordred will destroy them all.

About the Author

Mary Anne Yarde is the multi award-winning author of the International Bestselling series — The Du Lac Chronicles.

Yarde grew up in the southwest of England, surrounded and influenced by centuries of history and mythology. Glastonbury — the fabled Isle of Avalon — was a mere fifteen-minute drive from her home, and tales of King Arthur and his knights were a part of her childhood.

To buy the latest book in Mary Anne’s fabulous Du Lac Chronicles: Amazon US; Amazon UK; Amazon CA.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Mary Anne Yarde

Book Corner: The Rebel Killer by Paul Fraser Collard

Paul Fraser Collard’s roguish hero Jack Lark – dubbed ‘Sharpe meets the Talented Mr Ripley’ – returns once more, switching sides to join the ranks of the Confederate Army. This latest adventure will see Jack journey through the Southern states as the American Civil War continues in earnest, and is a must-read for fans of Bernard Cornwell and Simon Scarrow.

‘Enthralling’ The Times on the Jack Lark series

Fighting for the Union gave Jack Lark purpose. But America is tearing itself apart and no one will be left in peace.

Virginia, 1861. With his comrades defeated, Jack turns his back on the battlefield. At heart he’s still a soldier, but this wholly uncivil war has left him wanting something – and someone – more. Lost in the woods with the Confederate army closing in, Jack will stop at nothing to protect Rose and the future they might share.

Then one bullet changes everything and Jack wakes up in a military hospital – alone. Broken but determined, he sets out on an epic journey across the Confederacy disguised in the grey coat of his one-time enemy. He will find the man who destroyed his life. Jack Lark is out for revenge.

 

Paul Fraser Collard has done it again!

The Rebel Killer is a stunning adventure which is impossible to put down. It is one of those books every reader hopes to find, which don’t come along too often; you are desperate to finish it, but want it never to end, and feel bereft as soon as you have read the last word, knowing that you were not quite ready to say goodbye to such a wonderful story.

I have followed Jack Lark’s story from the very beginning, The Scarlet Thief was a refreshingly different and new innovative style. There is no shadow of the inimitable Sharpe from Bernard Cornwell, which many stories of 19th century soldiering are trying to recreate. Though their starts in life may have been similar, their attitude to soldiering are polar opposites. Where Sharpe seeks honour within the ranks of the army, and the regiment is his family, Jack feels no such connection to a particular regiment, nor a particular army, for that matter. And yet, both have that unique quality, they are natural soldiers and leaders, bound by their own personal interpretation of honour to do the decent thing. In battle they are invincible, natural leaders, soldiers follow them without question.

That is where the comparisons end, however. Jack Lark is very much his own man. He has the ability to change his coat and his allegiance wherever and whenever he has to, whilst still holding on to a set of values which make him an admirable leading man. He is no mercenary, rather a soldier fighting for his own reasons and always where the battle is fiercest. He is a lovable rogue in every way.

Jack looked deep into the other man’s eyes. He saw the fear there, yet he felt not even a shred of compassion. The moment the brothers had spotted the pair of fugitives, they had become a  risk to Rose and to the future he might share with her. It was time to end it. He lashed out with the sabre, bludgeoning the steel into the side of Seth’s head and knocking him to the ground. The Confederate fell without a sound.

Jack turned away, searching the undergrowth for Rose. She had not moved during the short, bitter struggle. Now she rose to her feet and stalked forward.

‘Are they dead?’ She asked the question in a voice quite without emotion.

‘One is. One soon will be.’ He gave the cold answer, then began to wipe the worst of the gore from his sword on the jacket of the man he had slain. He could not return it to its scabbard until it was clean, lest it stick to the insides.

Rose came to his side. There was no hint of horror on her face; only sadness. She had seen Jack fight before. She knew what he was. She had accepted him.

She looked down at the second man, the one she had heard called Seth. He was still alive, yet it was clear that he would not last long. Already the flow of blood pulsing from his grotesque wounds was slowing, and his skin was the colour of week-old ash.

‘Give me your revolver.’ She made the demand of Jack in a voice wrapped in iron.

‘No.’ Jack saw what she intended. ‘Shoot him and you’ll draw more of them this way.’

‘You’d leave him to suffer?’

‘He’s as good as dead, love.’ Jack reached out and took a grip of Rose’s shoulder, turning her so that she faced him and no longer looked at the dying man.

‘He’s suffering.’ Rose shook off his hand. ‘His name is Seth and he is suffering.’

Paul Fraser Collard is a wonderful storyteller, he pulls you into the action from the first page and keeps you constantly wanting more, wanting to know what happens next, wanting to know if the bad guys get there’s, wanting to know if it will all be alright in the end. Jack Lark is a wonderful creation, an impostor, a man who can take on whatever guise, whatever uniform the situation requires. But there is one constant, he’s a soldier, a warrior and he will never give up the fight while there is breath – and blood – in his body.

In The Rebel Killer Jack’s character really comes to the fore. His need for introspection, to decipher his own motives and justify his actions offer a new perspective on the story and great insight into the hero. He grows in this book, as a human being and a soldier, realising where his talents lie and using them to the full.  In The Rebel Killer he is driven by thoughts of vengeance and the need to be alone, to not have to be responsible for others. However, that is not – and never has been – his way. He has a natural protective instinct and cannot leave others to fend for themselves, no matter how much easier it would make his life.

These relationships – with friend and enemy alike – are what brings Jack’s story to life. His talent is not just for killing, but for touching the lives of those around him., not that he always realises this.

In the midst of the American Civil War, Paul Fraser Collard has dropped this English chameleon and left him to fight for his vengeance and survival. And as such created a story which views the war from both sides and shows how men fought, not for the political ideals of their leaders, but for their families, their comrades and their own survival. The action is frenetic and vividly, colourfully described. The reader is not merely an observer, but thrust into the heart and heat of battle, fighting for their next breath, alongside Jack Lark. You can feel the heat and dust of battle, hear the cannons roar and the screams of the wounded and dying.

The Rebel Killer is a wonderful story, not to be missed, and probably the best Jack Lark tale yet. I cannot wait for the next instalment and to see where Jack goes next!

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About the author

Paul’s love of military history started at an early age. A childhood spent watching films like Waterloo and Zulu whilst reading Sharpe, Flashman and the occasional Commando comic, gave him a desire to know more of the men who fought in the great wars of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. This fascination led to a desire to write and his series of novels featuring the brutally courageous Victorian rogue and imposter Jack Lark burst into life in 2013. Since then Paul has continued to write, developing the Jack Lark series to great acclaim. To find out more about Paul and his novels visit www.paulfrasercollard.com or find him on twitter @pfcollard.

Paul Fraser Collard‘s Jack Lark series of books are available now from Amazon.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Legionary: The Blood Road by Gordon Doherty

381 AD: The Gothic War draws to a brutal climax, and the victor’s name will be written in blood…

The great struggle between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Gothic Horde rumbles into its fifth year. It seems that there can be no end to the conflict, for although the Goths are masters of the land, they cannot topple the last of the imperial cities. But heralds bring news that might change it all: Emperor Gratian readies to lead his Western legions into the fray, to turn matters on their head, to crush the horde and save the East!

The men of the XI Claudia legion long for their homeland’s salvation, but Tribunus Pavo knows these hopes drip with danger. For he and his soldiers are Gratian’s quarry as much as any Goth. The road ahead will be fraught with broken oaths, enemy blades… and tides of blood.

Gordon Doherty‘s Legionary: The Blood Road is the 7th book in his acclaimed Legionary series and is a masterpiece of Roman fiction. I don’t often read Roman historical fiction, but whenever I do stray from medieval history into the realms of the legions, I find myself asking ‘why don’t I do this more often?’ Legionary: The Blood Road again made me realise how much I love a good book about Rome!.

Legionary: The Blood Road  is a fast-paced, enjoyable novel of the Roman legions which grips you from the very first page. The action and intrigue never lets up, from the opening lines to the last, taking the reader on a journey through the Eastern Empire of Theodosius and its struggles against the Goths. The battles are so vividly portrayed, they feel real; the tactics of the Roman legions and of the Gothic horde, have obviously been extensively researched. The author transports you back to the events and leaves you feeling that you were a spectator to the actual battles. The suspense is tangible, the end of the book cleverly disguised so that, to the very last pages, you are fearful that the hero may not prevail.

‘For the Claudia,’ panted one voice, thick with emotion.

He turned to the rise, seeing the men of the First Century slacken in relief. Seven legionaries lay still on reddened earth; another dozen groaned and clutched wounds. Pavo betrayed not a chink of emotion, the ‘soldier’s skin’ like a layer of old boot leather around his heart. He quietly stooped to pack a little frost around the stinging gash on the back of his hand. Primus Pilus Sura, his most trusted man in the legions and out, wrenched his spear clear of the shoulder of another Hun corpse, his blonde hair shuddering and his boyish features ruined by a snarl. ‘We weren’t sent here to fight Huns,’ he seethed at the toppling body.

‘Thank Mithras we were here though,’ said Pavo, peeling his helm from his head and scruffing a hand through his short, dark hair. He offered a nod to the onager crew – fifty strides back – who had measured the range and unleashed the rock that had destroyed the ice-bridge. ‘Imagine we were not. These bastards would have poured across, then sent back word to others. The nightmare on the far banks would have spilled over here in its entirety.’

‘Still a bit of a nightmare on this side too, Tribunus,’ said Centurion Libo, throwing his helmet to the ground and scratching behind his ear like a dog, flakes of dry skin spraying from his wild matter hair. His painted, wooden eye remained fixed and staring while the good eye swivelled to look south, he like the many others thinking of the turmoil still ongoing many miles away.

 

And what a hero! Pavo is a fabulous character, who is vividly portrayed. It’s almost like you know him personally. Human, flawed, ruthless; but a beloved leader whose men will follow him, no matter what. He has earned their loyalty by giving them his loyalty and it is this mutual strength and trust which provides the backbone to the story. You find yourself rooting for him through is many trials and tribulations, while at the same time wondering how anyone could get  out of the predicaments in which he finds himself!

Pavo, however, has made some powerful enemies, and it is his relationship with these enemies – the Emperor Gratian, no less – that leads Pavo into the greatest danger. Gratian doesn’t want Pavo dead – he wants him to suffer. Pavo has to balance his need to stay away from Gratian – and his personal band of assassins – against his duties to protect and defend the empire against the invading horde and an ever-elusive dream of peace. The suspense is almost too much to take and will keep you reading long into the dark hours of the night.

In Legionary: The Blood Road Gordon Doherty expertly transports you back to the great days of the Roman Empire, using his extensive knowledge of the era and incredible story-telling skills to give the reader the impression of being there, in the midst of battle and court politics. The sights, sounds and smells of the eastern empire can be vividly imagined as you get absorbed into the story and atmosphere of Imperial Rome.

I have read a couple of the earlier Legionary books, but have missed a few. However, with Legionary: The Blood Road you could easily read this book if it was your first introduction to author Gordon Doherty. This is a self-contained novel that introduces past events when they need explanation, but tells a complete story in the author’s own, inimitable style.

Gordon Doherty is one of the must-read authors of Roman history, a wonderful story-teller who vividly recreates the era, through the landscape, people and the politics. The battles and intrigues are masterfully recreated to entertain and engage the reader; I cannot recommend it highly enough. Legionary: The Blood Road is a fabulous read!

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You can find out about the rest of the series here (linked pics below)

To buy Legionary: The Blood Road.

About the author: 

Gordon Doherty is a Scottish writer, addicted to reading and writing historical fiction.

His love of history was first kindled by the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, and travelling around the ancient world has kept the fire burning brightly ever since. The later Roman Empire and Byzantium hold a particular fascination for him. There is something quite special about the metamorphosis from late antiquity into the ‘dark ages’ and the medieval period.

While historical fiction is his passion, he alsoenjoy writing comedy and sci-fi too. Perhaps one day he’ll find a way to combine all three!

Gordon Doherty on social media: websiteFacebook; Twitter.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Guest Post: A Gap in History by Gordon Doherty

Today it is with great pleasure that I welcome novelist Gordon Doherty to the blog. Gordon’s latest instalment in his Legionary series, Legionary: The Blood Road, has just been released and is a cracking read (look out for my review later this week). Gordon joins us to talk about the background behind this magnificent Legionary series, set in ancient Rome.

So, without further ado, it is over to Gordon….

A Gap in History

A gap in history – an impossible void?

Writing historical fiction is, for me, like climbing into a time machine and going there, being in the moment. In penning the Legionary series, I feel like I have marched with the legions of the Roman Empire, across the green hills of Thracia, through the sweltering Persian desert, and over the snowy Balkan Mountains. I have fought in countless battles, sliced across the turquoise waters of the Aegean in an imperial galley, climbed the Great Aqueduct in Constantinople with cutthroats in close pursuit. It’s the ultimate escapism. This time machine of mine needs just a little fuel – a solid account of the history to spark the imagination, factual bones to which I can add the fictional flesh. But what if there is no fuel? When a gap appears in the history? Well here’s my experience…

The Gothic War: so turbulent it blew a hole in history!

The 4th century AD Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus serves as, as Edward Gibbon said, “an accurate and faithful guide” thanks to his famous work Res Gestae (literally ‘things done’), in which he charts the events of the empire from the accession of Emperor Nerva in 96 AD all the way through to 378 AD. It was the tail end of this chronicle – the Gothic War – that really intrigued me, and Res Getae served as a perfect historical spine for the Legionary series and a constant supply of fuel for the time machine.

The Roman Empire during the Gothic War.

The late 4th Century AD was a tumultuous time for the Roman Empire. The ground shook and a distant thunder sounded as a new threat poured across the eastern horizon. The Huns swept towards Europe from the Eurasian steppe in an event we call the Great Migration. These skilled and fearsome horsemen trampled over every tribe they found – none of whom had an answer to the Hunnic mode of fighting – roving in packs, whirling lassos and loosing clouds of arrows on their stunned quarry. Tribe after tribe fell – butchered or subjugated. Next in the Huns’ line of sight were the Goths, a Germanic people who inhabited the land north of the River Danube (roughly modern Romania).

The war-torn Diocese of Thracia.

The Goths were hardy and fierce warriors, but even with the many warriors they could muster, they too simply could not resist the Huns. So they turned and fled south, and in 376 AD they begged to be allowed to cross the Danube and take sanctuary in the Eastern Roman Empire (the empire had existed in two halves for some time by this point). Eastern Emperor Valens permitted their entry, hoping the alliance could be mutually beneficial – the Goths gaining a safer new home and the empire acquiring many thousands of new recruits for the legions. The Romans settled the Goths in a temporary camp somewhere in northern Thracia (modern Bulgaria)… then proceeded to make an absolute mess of matters. The odious Count Lupicinus oversaw severe maltreatment of the refugee population. His soldiers offered the starving Goths only rotting dog meat in exchange for their children to sell as slaves. Inevitably, the refugees broke out in revolt, and the Gothic War began. All Thracia became a war zone, and even the mighty city of Constantinople – the Eastern capital – came under threat.

The last stand at the Battle of Adrianople – one of the Roman Empire’s darkest days.

Ammianus Marcellinus described the bitter struggle wonderfully (see my timeline here), right up to and including the day that would go down in history as one of the empire’s darkest: when the forces of Emperor Valens lined up to face the Gothic horde a short way north of the city of Adrianople on a sweltering August afternoon with the best regiments the empire had – the crack cavalry and palace legions. That day, in the baking heat, they were routed by the Goths. Two-thirds of the eastern legions were slaughtered. Valens was killed amongst his men, and the Eastern Empire was left staring into oblivion as the Goths roared in triumph, masters of Thracia.

“What happened next?” I hear you cry. Well, Ammianus signs off with the infuriatingly calm and valedictory line:

Zosimus’ Historia Nova – a muddled but still useful account.

Thus have I, a Greek by birth, and formerly a soldier, related all the events from the accession of Nerva to the death of Valens, to the best of my abilities; professing above all things to tell the truth, which, as I believe, I have never knowingly perverted, either by silence or by falsehood. Let better men in the flower of their age, and of eminent accomplishments, relate the subsequent events.

 

His parting call for a successor to take up the mantle was never adequately answered. The years after 378 AD are something of a historical void. Not surprising, given that the people of the Roman Empire had at that time more pressing matters to attend to than recording events.

 

Like the empire itself, I too found myself staring into oblivion. Legionary: Gods & Emperors ended after the Battle of Adrianople, but the story of Pavo and the XI Claudia legion was far from over. Yet how could I write about the aftermath of the Battle of Adrianople when my faithful guide had no more to say?

Another guide, perhaps? Well, there was Zosimus, the 6th century AD writer who composed the Historia Nova (the ‘New History’), a work charting affairs after 378 AD and all the way up to 410. Perfect! Well, not quite. Zosimus relied heavily on secondary research, basing his history directly on the earlier histories of Dexippus, Eunapius and Olympiodorus. This, presumably, is why the Historia Nova is riddled with contradictions and inaccuracies. In some places where he has leveraged Eunapius, he speaks negatively about the Roman-Vandal general Stilicho, and later when he has clearly used Olympiodorus, he speaks glowingly of the same man. Likewise, he describes the post-Adrianople movements of the Goths in a way that demonstrate that he clearly didn’t understand the lay of the land at the time – more than once telling how, after raiding imperial territory, they went back across the Danube  (the Goths were firmly planted in fallen Thracia by this point – they never again returned to their old, Hun-ridden home north of the river). Still, Zosimus’ account was by no means a dead loss. Even his muddled version of events served as a starting point, and I attempted to detangle the descriptions and put a plausible timeline to it all.

Legionary: The Blood Road

To add a little more structure to this still-nebulous picture, I charted the attestations of the whereabouts of the Eastern and Western Emperors. Accounts of Theodosius I (Valens’ eastern successor) indicate that he made the city of Thessalonica his base of operations as he set about rejuvenating the Eastern Army. From there he roved north to tackle the Gothic horde… only to suffer defeat somewhere near Scupi in modern Macedonia. After that, it seems he remained in Constantinople for many years. Likewise, it seems Gratian, Emperor of the West, travelled to the war-torn eastern lands at least once per year during the period 378-382 AD. This ties in with the efforts of his Western Army to strike back the Gothic horde, so I could confidently assume that he was directly involved in this initiative.

Then I came to the bombastic orations of Themistius, the rhetorician and philosopher who served as a spokesperson and something of a spin doctor for Emperor Valens’ successor, Theodosius I. Now even the most prosaic of histories are subjective to a degree, but Themistius’ speeches are anything but prosaic and certainly not objective, in they are almost burlesque in their predispositions. Crucially, however, the orations he delivered in the years between 378 AD and 382 AD serve as key indicators of how the Gothic War developed after the disaster at Adrianople, and make it clear that there was a drastic shift in imperial stance. In 379 AD, not long after Theodosius’ coronation, Themistius booms:

The Goths will quake. Our mighty soldier-emperor will draw every able man together, our miners will bring iron for them and we will slaughter the barbarian!

Fighting talk! So although the Eastern Empire was grievously wounded, it is clear they did not intend to lie down and die. Yet just a few years later, Themistius proclaimed, with respect to the Gothic War:

It is an emperor’s job to govern, not to fight. And he has such a love of mankind…

This was clearly a case of managing expectations and an indicator that the aggressive earlier announcement had not played out as predicted. Sure enough, peace was agreed with the Goths the very next year, in 382 AD. The Gothic War ended not with bloody victory and vengeance, but after a series of brutal and inconclusive battles, leaving two exhausted sides realising neither could win.

So it was from this jigsaw of patchy chronicles, minor mentions of the emperors’ movements and blustery monologues from the era’s most famous orator, that I managed to piece together a picture of the post-Adrianople Roman Empire. There are places where I had to speculate and employ the imagination at full thrust – and I can’t describe how much fun that was. Most importantly, the ‘time machine’ was up and running again, and Legionary: The Blood Road was born!

You can find out about the rest of the series here (linked pics below)

Read my review of Legionary: The Blood Road . To buy Legionary: The Blood Road just click on the link.

From the author: 

I’m a Scottish writer, addicted to reading and writing historical fiction.

Gordon Doherty

My love of history was first kindled by the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, and travelling around the ancient world has kept the fire burning brightly ever since. The later Roman Empire and Byzantium hold a particular fascination for me. There is something quite special about the metamorphosis from late antiquity into the ‘dark ages’ and the medieval period.

While historical fiction is my passion, I enjoy writing comedy and sci-fi too. Perhaps one day I’ll find a way to combine all three!

Gordon’s website: www.gordondoherty.co.uk

Gordon on Twitter: @GordonDoherty

Gordon on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/GordonDohertyAuthor

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.


From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Interview with novelist Prue Batten

It is with great pleasure that I welcome Prue Batten to the blog today, on the very day of the release of her latest novel, Michael. Hi Prue, thanks so much for agreeing to an interview on History… the Interesting Bits. Welcome.

Thanks so much Sharon for inviting me.

What made you become a writer?

I don’t think I have ever really consciously thought about ‘being’ a writer. Writing has been an art-form I have loved from Grade Three, rather like painting or sketching. I used to write little prose pieces to describe scenes or events, be they imaginary or real. Even from such a young age, the use of words would make me contented and it was something at which I excelled at school. As I grew older, nothing changed. I learned other art-forms of course, but writing stayed with me. The chance to place novels before readers was mere serendipity but that’s a whole other story…

Where do you find the inspiration for your stories?

In the case of my fantasies, inanimate things like embroideries, paperweights, a Japanese cloth made of paper and silk called shifu. And most lately, as I begin another fantasy – maps and cabinets of curiosity.

Tell us a little about the book you have written so far.

The book I have just finished writing and which will be released this July, is the final in an historical fiction trilogy entitled The Triptych Chronicle. The book is called Michael. The trilogy is about the insidious rivalries of trade in the twelfth century and essentially, each novel is a standalone, but they fit together like fingers in gloves to make a series. Tobias, Book One, is about the theft of the infamous Tyrian purple dye from the Byzantine empire and is set in Constantinople. The second, Guillaume, involves the same trading house, but a different location, Lyon, and is about the discovery of the Waldensian Bible. Michael is set back in Constantinople where byssus, an enigmatic silk woven from mollusc tendrils, arouses jealousies. The underlying thread in the three books is revenge and each of the three men are good friends and employees of the trading house, Gisborne-ben Simon…

Please, tell me about your new book, Michael.

The blurb reads thus but like all blurbs, seems to change on a daily basis as one tries to tweak it!

Michael Sarapion, merchant and thief, returns to Byzantine Constantinople from which he fled the year before in fear of his life. In his company is Tobias, the dwarf brother of an icon thief and Ahmed, an Arab galleymaster with secrets.

Michael is filled with grief and fury, intending vengeance for a treasure lost to him twelve years before. He must trust in priests, defy the empire and guard those dearest to him as he searches, because he understands that to restore what is rightfully his, he must kill… or be killed.

In this final standalone to The Triptych Chronicle trilogy, Michael, Tobias and the stalwarts of the House of Gisborne-ben Simon will slice a swathe through the Byzantine city, with those who challenge them hard on their heels.

How do you organise you writing day – do you write every day?

I try with minimal success. Some days, I’m lucky if I write 150 words. Some days I’ve written up to 2000. But if I have a ‘writing day’, I begin with business. I clear my emails and social media and then I sit and read the previous chapter to the point where I must continue. I write with a pen and A4 paper, so the pages are filled with cross-hatching and bold black lines. When I have about 10-12 pages written, and having edited it (many times), I will then transcribe to the computer which is another edit in itself.

What is your favourite thing about being a writer?

Seclusion, placing myself elsewhere, concentration of the mind, being mindful. Also, I am one of the few writers that seems to love working with the editor. It’s akin to working with a swimming coach. Writing is so solitary and once the editor steps in, there’s a chance to lay out ideas and styles. I always visualise my editor striding up and down the pool beside me, shouting out instructions as I swim laps. I have a good relationship with my editor!

What is your least favourite thing about being a writer?

Finishing the first draft! And once the book is as polished as it can be, and is published, watching my dashboards to see if anybody buys it.

How do you see social media (such as Facebook and Twitter), is it a blessing, a hindrance, or a necessary evil?

A blessing. I love social media for two reasons. One is that solitude issue. Social media enables one to break out of the bubble and communicate with kindred spirits everywhere – be they writers or readers. The other is that living as far south of the globe as one can go without falling off the end of the world, I get to meet and make friends with people I might never meet otherwise. I think to take those friendships through the years, even if I cease being a writer, is the most wonderful gift.

What is your favourite period in history, and why?

It’s the late Medieval period. In my case, the late twelfth century. To me, it’s as close as one can get to the Renaissance without being surrounded by the flamboyance of that timeframe. There was so much beautiful religious art in the period, the strengthening of trade with the east, religious excitement (as with the Waldensians – almost a Reformation!) and exploration. As spices and other exotic goods moved into Europe from the east, food styles changed, clothing styles changed. And I still haven’t mentioned politics… 

What story would you really like to tell, but haven’t written yet?

A fictional version of my ancestor’s story. I am descended from a convict who was tried and sentenced to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land from England in the 1800’s. His sentence for stealing two sheep was fourteen years, essentially a death sentence, and yet he took his carpentry skills with him and managed to survive to become a free man. And here I am…

Who is your favourite historical character and why?

Prue Batten

Nicholas de Fleury from the House of Niccolo series by Dorothy Dunnett. He is a brilliantly Macchiavellian character who Dorothy set in the Renaissance, and it was his merchant intrigue that set me researching what trade may have been like three hundred years earlier. Effectively my medieval merchants laid the groundwork for Renaissance merchants like Niccolo. How I would love to converse with DD about that…

Who are your favourite authors who inspire you?

So many, through the years, beginning with Rosemary Sutcliffe as a teenager.

Others are Dorothy Dunnett, Mary Stewart, Simon Turney, Matthew Harffy, Michael Jecks, and Christian Cameron, Kathryn Gauci and Elisabeth Storrs in the hist.fict genre.  In fantasy? Tolkein, Juliet Marillier and Cecilia Dart Thornton. In contemporary fiction? Jan Ruth,  GS Johnston, Jilly Cooper. And they are all just a few of many exceptional names.

What is your favourite all-time book , the one that you cannot do without?

May I have two?

Niccolo Rising. Who cannot fail to be drawn in by three drunk men sailing downriver in the Duke of Burgundy’s bath tub!

Anne of Green Gables by LM. Montgomery because there’s always ‘scope for the imagination’.

What is the one piece of advice that you would give an aspiring writer?

Write because you love words. Read more words. And take your time. It’s worth the wait…

Thanks you so much, Sharon, for taking an interest in my work and my life. My books may be purchased by following this link: http://author.to/pruebatten

Thank you Prue, for taking the time to respond with such in-depth, thoughtful answers. I can’t wait to read Michael!

About Prue Batten:

Prue Batten has been an indie writer since 2008 when her first novel, a fantasy entitled The Stumpwork Robe, was published in a POD exercise funded by the UK Arts Council.

Since then, she has indie published three further books of the fantasy quartet which won awards, six historical fiction novels, some of which have also won awards, and an illustrated childrens’ book, through her own imprint, Darlington Press. She has also worked with writers of excellence to publish anthologies to raise money for cancer research and has a long-term collaboration with an American miniature press for whom she writes short stories.

For more information, go to:  http://www.pruebatten.com

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/Prue.Batten.writer
Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/pruebatten

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly