Book Corner: The Northern Throne by Steven A. McKay

Bellicus the Druid and his friend Duro, a former Roman centurion, have already suffered a great deal in recent years but, for them, things are about to get even worse.
Britain is changing. The Romans have gone and warriors from many different places seek to fill the void the legions left behind. In the south, the Saxons’ expansion seems unstoppable despite the efforts of the warlord Arthur, while north of Hadrian’s Wall various kings and chieftains are always looking to extend their borders.

In Dun Breatann, Bellicus believes the disparate northern tribes must put aside their differences, become allies, and face the Saxon threat together, under one High King.

Or High Queen…

Small-minded men don’t always look at the bigger picture though, and, when Bellicus and Duro seek to form a pact with an old enemy, events take a shocking and terrible turn that will leave the companions changed forever.

This third volume in the Warrior Druid of Britain Chronicles is packed with adventure, battles, triumph, and tears, and at the end of it a new course will be set for Bellicus.

But at what cost?

One of the highlights of my reading year is when Steven A. McKay publishes a book, This year I have had the pleasure to read two! Steven has a book, Lucia: A Roman Slave’s Tale, coming out in October, which is incredibly thought-provoking – but more of that one nearer the time…

This summer the 3rd book in the Warrior Druid of Britain series was finally published. It seems like it has been a long wait since book 2, Song of the Centurion came out, but it has been well worth it! Steven A. McKay takes us on another, suspense-filled adventure with Bellicus the Druid and his Roman friend, Duro.

Bellicus’ story started with The Druid and a rescue mission into the heart of Anglo-Saxon England to recover young princess Catia. It continued in Song of the Centurion where Bellicus and his friend Duro, the former Roman centurion, fought to save Alt Clota from the machinations of its enemies and the growing paranoia of its king, Coroticus. Each story has led us to The Northern Throne, an adventure that proves more perilous and personal for Bellicus and Duro.

Set in the time of King Arthur and the Saxon invasion of Britain, the story takes us north of Hadrian’s Wall and into the lands of the Scots and Picts. As with the previous novels, Arthur is a supporting character, making a handful of cameo appearances, though I suspect his time will come, when he and Bellicus team up to fight the Saxon threat.

“Nicely done, lads,” Gerallt said approvingly. “With the Votadini taken care of, and the Dalriadans in disarray, all we have left to deal with are the Picts.”

Bellicus bodded. If they could defeat Drest it would put Narina in a very strong position. Ultimately, the druid would like to see her crowned High Queen of all the northern lands, and it seemed that day might be close. A Damnonii High Queen would nullify the growing threat the Christians’ posed to the old ways, while allowing the united tribes to face the Saxon threat at the side of Arthur and Merlin. The druid just had to find a way to steer events towards such a favourable outcome.

“How long have we got before Drest arrives in Alt Clota?” Gerallt asked the messenger, disturbing Bellicus from his reverie.

“At the speed they were marching when I observed them,” the messenger reported, “I’d say about 3 or 4 days, my lord.”
“That should be more than enough,” Duro said, resting his left hand on the pommel of his spatha. “If we leave here tomorrow at sun-up, we’ll be able to head them off on the road before they get anywhere hear Dun Breatann.”

“And we’re thirty men stronger now, too,” Gerallt said, smiling grimly. “We’ll be able top ambush the Pictish bastards just like we did the Votadini.”

“Hopefully you’re right, and we do surprise them,” Bellicus muttered, gazing hopefully into his half-empty cup. “Because if Cefin’s numbers are accurate, Drest’s army still outnumbers us.”

The triumph of these books is in Steven A. McKay’s portrayal of Bellicus the Druid. An author could easily fall into the realm of fantasy and explain the druidic rituals as magic. That is not the case with the Warrior Druid of Britain books. Bellicus is a clever, educated man who has studied the nature of humanity. Insightful and intelligent, he knows how to read people, their actions and expressions, and how to interpret their intentions.

His years of training have made him a well-respected, authoritative character and he uses his skills to great advantage. There is an air of mystery about him, but he is also portrayed as a man who is all-too-human, and whose flaws and pride can sometimes lead him into trouble of his own making.

And that is what makes these books so special!

The characters in The Northern Throne are wonderful creations, each one vivid and individual, from the heroes such as Duro and Bellicus, to the villains such as Drest and down to little Catia, the princess who is growing up and trying to find her role in the world, who is learning to fight, to command and to judge people for herself.

Steven A. McKay skillfully recreates the landscape, people and legends of 5th century Scotland. His knowledge of the area, and its traditions, shines through on every page, transporting the reader to the stark fortresses, wooded valleys and fast-flowing rivers; taking you on an astonishing adventure without leaving your seat. He brings all this together in a rich tapestry that forms the backdrop of these incredible stories.

The tension is high throughout The Northern Throne. One crisis leads to another, loyalties and friendships pushed are to the limits; and love and betrayal are two very fine lines. This combination makes for a thoroughly absorbing tale which entwines history, legend and myth and takes the reader along on Bellicus’ heroic journey.

In short, The Northern Throne is a wonderful, engaging adventure that, once again, leaves the reader desperate for the next instalment.

The Northern Throne is available now from Amazon UK.

About the Author:

Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.

He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

You can check out his website here. Steven also has an Amazon Author page and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Britannia: World’s End by Derek Birks

454 AD.
Even after years of Roman rule, Britannia is a conflicted and largely untamed land.
Disgraced Imperial Officer, Dux Ambrosius Aurelianus, flees to its shores seeking sanctuary in the land of his deceased mother. His years of loyal service to the emperor count for nothing now. He must carve out a new life beyond the empire.
Accompanying Ambrosius is a disparate group of fellow refugees: Inga, a freed Saxon slave, his bucellarii – warriors sworn to him – and the surviving members of his estranged family.
The burden of command weighs heavy on his shoulders, for when he lands in the country, winter is fast approaching.
But the weather is not the only thing inhospitable towards the newcomers.
Plagued by troubles, Ambrosius faces opponents among both the native Britons and Saxon settlers. He discovers that no-one in Britannia – least of all, the High King, Vortigern – still fears the soldiers of the decaying empire.
When those he loves are savagely abducted and betrayal divides his company, Ambrosius is left with only a handful of his bucellarii. Though heavily outnumbered and unfamiliar with the land, Ambrosius remains undaunted.
Pitted against powerful opponents, the Roman will need new allies if he is to free the hostages and make Britannia his home.
There will be blood.

Derek Birks has fast become one of my favourite authors. His first novel, Feud, is still one of my personal favourites. He has a knack for fast-paced action woven into a wonderful story that keeps the reader hooked from the first page to the last. This latest offering is no different. Trouble arrives almost at the very first page and leaves the reader on the edge of their seat to the very end. Survival is far from certain and each character has their own battle to fight – and their own demons to face – within the larger story.

Britannia: World’s End is the second book in Derek Birks’ new series based in the twilight of the Roman era, which follows the exploits of Ambrosius Aurelianus and his small band of loyal warriors, and a disparate group of waifs and strays that he has picked up since being chased out of the Roman Empire. Ambrosius leads his people to the island of Britain, in the hope of finding a new home, but only finds more problems and more enemies to fight.

Set in the age of King Arthur, there are suggestions of the famous Arthurian legends, and the links to Ambrosius Aurelianus, though the story is firmly set in the history and reality of Britain at the waning of the Roman Empire, where land and people were open to exploitation and manipulation.

With a final scowl at Remigius, Ambrosius leapt from the boat onto the stony shore where dog-tired men were cheering and clapping each other on the back. They deserved to celebrate, he thought, for though they were some yards east of the camp now, at least they had salvaged the boat. By the time he heard the hooves, it was too late and he could only stare, helpless, as a dozen horsemen cantered through his camp.

By the time he roared: “To arms!”, women were already scattering in fear. Obliged to retrieve their scattered weapons from all along the beach, Ambrosius and his bucellarii were slow to return to the camp. Ambrosius was still trying to disentangle his spatha from his belt when he heard Inga’s voice, heaping Saxon abuse at her assailants.

“I’m here, Inga!” he cried, as he watched her trying to fend off one of the riders with her knife. “Run – this way! Run to us!”

Defiant as ever, she retorted: “I have Ferox with me!”

Thank God for Ferox, thought Ambrosius, as he stumbled towards her. Of course, the damned dog had not been warning him about the boat at all, for how would a dog know the boat was drifting out to sea? No, Ferox had caught the scent of strangers and their horses, but Ambrosius, like some green recruit, had ignored the animal’s alert and allowed himself to be drawn away from camp.

Though he had told Inga to run, of course, she had not. Armed only with her long blade, she stood her ground, flailing at her mounted assailants. Ambrosius cursed under his breath as he ran, for had he not told her how brave she was – as brave as any one of his bucellarii? And because he encouraged her, she fought, when she should have run. One moment Ambrosius glimpsed her, slashing out in vain, the next she was grappling with her captor. Racing to her side, spatha in hand and ready to dispense death to the villains who had dared to assault his camp, he was relieved to see that she had broken free.

“Stay behind me!” he ordered, but Inga’s blood was up and she took a snarling pace towards one of the horsemen. Thrusting out an arm to pull her back, Ambrosius’ fingertips scarcely brushed hers, as she was lifted clean off her feet and borne away.

Derek Birks has several great strengths as a writer. He is a natural storyteller and has a knack for knowing how to draw a reader in and holding their attention, so that you’re always promising yourself ‘just one more page’ or ‘just one more chapter’. His actions scenes are second-to-none and help to keep the tension high throughout the book.

His greatest skill, however, is in his characters. Despite a large number of supporting characters, Derek Birks has the ability to make each and everyone of them an individual. Not just in their appearance, but in their actions and in their individual stories. Each character has a legend that is his or her own; this means that each character has their own motivations and their own set of rules.

The author is also known for creating strong, independent female characters, such as the great Eleanor Elder in his two series set in the Wars of the Roses. In The Last of the Romans, it is Inga, a former sex slave, who steals the show with her strength and quiet determination. And then there is the dog, Ferox, a ferocious war dog with a soft spot for Inga, and a scene stealer in every chapter in which he appears. He is such a unique character!

There is one other thing Derek Birks has become renowned for in his books;; no character is so precious that he cannot be killed off, if the story asks for it. Not even the hero of the book is safe. And this brings an added tension to the book; the reader does not know who will make it out alive!

These 3 great strengths in the author are a fantastic combination that leads to another amazing novel. I have never had any qualms about recommending Derek Birks’ books to any fan of action-packed historical fiction, and Britannia: World’s End is no exception.

It is an awesome book!

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About the author:

Derek was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. 

On his return to England, he read history at Reading University and for many years he taught history in a secondary school. Whilst he enjoyed his teaching career and it paid the bills, he found a creative outlet in theatrical activities, stage-managing many plays and outdoor Shakespeare performances.

Derek always wanted to write and began, aged 17, writing stories, songs and poetry – in fact virtually anything. Inevitably, work and family life took precedence for a long period of time but in 2010 Derek took early retirement to indulge his passion for history and concentrate on his writing. He is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period. 

Derek writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history. He also produces podcasts on the Wars of the Roses for those interested in the real historical background to his books. Check them out on his website at: https://www.derekbirks.com/history-podcasts/

His historical fiction works include: 
Rebels & Brothers – a 4-book series set during the fifteenth century, which follows a fictional family, the Elders, through their struggle to survive the Wars of the Roses up to 1471.  The Craft of Kings – a sequel series which finds the Elder family ten years later in 1481. The latest book in this series is book 3, Echoes of Treason, which is set during the short and turbulent reign of Richard III.

He has recently embarked upon a new Post-Roman series and the first book is out now: The Last of the Romans

Apart from his writing, he enjoys travelling – sometimes, but not always, to carry out research for his books. He also spends his time walking, swimming and taking part in archaeological digs.

He was a regular presence at the Harrogate History Festival, is an active member of the Historical Novel Society and you will also find him each summer signing books – and selling them – at the Chalke Valley History Festival outside Salisbury in Wiltshire.

His books are available on Amazon in the UK and US.
You can find Derek at: Amazon; Blog; Facebook; Twitter 

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My Books

Out Now!

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England by Annie Whitehead

Many Anglo-Saxon kings are familiar. Æthelred the Unready is one, yet less is written of his wife, who was consort of two kings and championed one of her sons over the others, or his mother who was an anointed queen and powerful regent, but was also accused of witchcraft and regicide. A royal abbess educated five bishops and was instrumental in deciding the date of Easter; another took on the might of Canterbury and Rome and was accused by the monks of fratricide.

Anglo-Saxon women were prized for their bloodlines – one had such rich blood that it sparked a war – and one was appointed regent of a foreign country. Royal mothers wielded power; Eadgifu, wife of Edward the Elder, maintained a position of authority during the reigns of both her sons.

Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, was a queen in all but name, while few have heard of Queen Seaxburh, who ruled Wessex, or Queen Cynethryth, who issued her own coinage. She, too, was accused of murder, but was also, like many of the royal women, literate and highly-educated.

From seventh-century Northumbria to eleventh-century Wessex and making extensive use of primary sources, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England examines the lives of individual women in a way that has often been done for the Anglo-Saxon men but not for their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. It tells their stories: those who ruled and schemed, the peace-weavers and the warrior women, the saints and the sinners. It explores, and restores, their reputations.

I was very lucky to receive an advance copy of Annie Whitehead’s wonderful new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, this book brings to life the women on England from before the Norman Conquest.

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is a wonderful study of the influential royal and noble women of pre-Conquest England, whether they were queens, princesses, abbesses or countesses. Annie Whitehead tells their stories in wonderful, vivid detail, beautifully weaving the historical implications off their lives with their larger-than-life stories.

Though they have been dead a thousand years and more, and while written evidence on these women may be scarce, the author has managed to squeeze every bit of information from the available chronicles, charters and saints’ lives. She has given the reader every possible snippet of information on their lives, presenting and analysing the sources in an accessible, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

The stories of these women is told with a passion and eloquence which makes every chapter a pleasure to read. The more familiar stories of Æthelflæd, Lady Godiva and St Hilda of Whitby are given excellent new interpretations, while the reader may be meeting the less familiar women, such as Æthelfrith of Bernicia, Eadburh and Alfred the Great’s sister, Æthelswith, for the first time.

Ælfgifu appears not to have been married for long. Her son Eadwig was probably born around 940, and his younger brother Edgar around 943. King Edmund himself died in 946 – the victim of a brawl, or perhaps a political assassination – having married again, so his first marriage must have ended not long after Edgar’s birth. The younger of the royal orphans, Edgar, was fostered by a noblewoman, the wife of the ealdorman of East Anglia, whom we shall meet in Part VI.

Ælfgifu is known as Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, and William of Malmesbury in particular had a lot to say about her. He said that it was she who built the nunnery there and that her bodily remains were placed there. She was ‘so pious and loving that she would even secretly release criminals who had been openly condemned by the gloomy verdict of a jury.’ She would also give away her expensive clothes to the needy and she was a beautiful woman who was remembered for the miracles associated with her; the blind, the deaf and the lame were cured after visiting Shaftesbury.

It would be easy to assume that she retired to Shaftesbury in the manner of a number of previous queens, but the short-lived nature of her marriage and the young age of her children suggest another scenario. It is plausible that she died in childbirth, either in labour with Edgar or with a subsequent pregnancy in which both mother and child died. If she did indeed die in childbirth then she cannot have been a nun at Shaftesbury, but merely its benefactress.

Æthelflæd with her nephew Æthelstan

of these women were not easy to find, and the detective work involved in researching Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is both entertaining and fascinating. In recreating and retelling the lives of these remarkable women, Annie Whitehead has given us a window into a distant past. We have the chance to observe the lives, loves, hopes and dreams of these remarkable women; women who helped shape their present and futures, and thus the world in which we now live.

The author also helps to dispel some of the myths that have arisen about these women, whether by historical fiction writers or the over-active imaginations of the chroniclers of the past. The true stories of Æthelflæd and Godiva, and others, are revealed, the myths surrounding them examined and explained. This is a wonderful book, filled with stories of love, intrigue and murder, of the power struggles and betrayals of Anglo-Saxon England, of strong and influential women who made an impression, not only on their own times, but on the generations who came after.

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England brings to life the women of the Anglo-Saxon period with vivid clarity. It is a remarkable study of the lives of women of the period – known and unknown – and their impact on history. Saints, princesses and queens; wives, daughters and mothers, Annie Whitehead demonstrates the strengths, weaknesses and challenges these incredible women faced in order to exert their influence on their corner of the world. The author’s meticulous research, beautiful writing and natural storytelling ability make this book a pleasure to read from beginning to end.

To Buy the Book:

Bookhttp://mybook.to/WomeninPower Amazonhttp://viewauthor.at/Annie-Whitehead

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. Her latest nonfiction, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, is published by Pen & Sword Books.

Social Media links: Blog; Twitter; Website; Facebook

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My Books

Out Now!

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Guest Post: David and Goliath

Today it is a pleasure to welcome Alistair Forrest to History…the Interesting Bits, with an article about the history behind the biblical story of David and Goliath.

David and Goliath by Caravaggio

David & Goliath

Making the facts fit the story!

ALISTAIR FORREST draws on an upbringing in the Middle East and a love of ancient history to explore fact and fiction surrounding a famous Bible story

I’m an author of fiction, not a historian. So I can assure you that some historians reading Line in the Sand, my account of the David & Goliath story, might get very hot under their academic collars.

I hope lovers of historical fiction will take a different view and accept that I have filled in some gaps that the ancient scribes left in their telling. We know there are inconsistencies and contradictions across the several Biblical books that report the story of King David, leaving many questions unanswered.

So, following my journalist’s mantra, ‘Never let the facts get in the way of a good story’, I have drawn on my studies of the ancient Near East and Old Testament history – let’s call these ‘the facts’ – and unleashed my imagination and love of ‘a good yarn’.

In reality, there are very few facts. The only archaeological reference to King David would appear to be a reference to the House of David on a ninth century stela found at Tel Dan in northern Israel in 1993. Most of the Biblical texts were written down long after the events surrounding David’s rise to power, with the two books of Samuel the earliest account.

Tel Dan Stela House of David

Fair game, then? I decided that this bullied young shepherd should become a spy, find himself betrayed in the Philistine city where giants lived, be tortured and face branding as a slave, fight a giant called Golyat (Goliath) in a gladiatorial arena, rescue a Philistine princess and ultimately escape to warn the Israelites of pending doom.

You might think you know what happens next. I couldn’t possibly comment. But then, I have tried to anchor the story in certain Biblical facts, such as the tensions between the agricultural kingdom of Judah and the five Philistine city states, and the settling of scores in single combat (and who wouldn’t nominate a nine-foot warrior as champion?).

David and Goliath, Andrea Vaccaro

Which brings us to Goliath, or more accurately, ‘Golyat’.

At the outset of writing Line in the Sand, I listened to a very convincing lecture by Professor Jeffrey R. Zorn of Cornell University, entitled Who Was Goliath?, in which he suggests that the Philistine giant was an elite chariot warrior. Most modern depictions of Goliath are as a very large foot-soldier, but Zorn points out his armour and weapons as detailed in 1 Samuel 17: 4-7 would indicate an Aegean/Levantine chariot warrior who was probably transported to the ideal position in a battle to wreak the most havoc.

While researching for the book, I was in touch with Professor Aren Maier, director of the Tel es-Safi excavations that have uncovered so much about ancient Gath, whence the giant came, including an inscription thought to include his name or at least something similar.

Excavating Goliath’s Gath

I am also indebted to the British Egyptologist and author David Rohl, not least for succinct explanations of his New Chronology theories, specifically his interpretation of the Amarna letters and probable references to King Saul.

Books that have helped me include the Bible of course, The King David Report by Stefan Heym; The Source by James A. Michener; David’s Secret Demons by Baruch Halpern, and various books published by Osprey about warfare in the ancient Middle East.

I have read many books about ancient Israel both on-line and in my studies, too numerous to mention, all influential in their way. But somehow I still feel as though I know nothing when compared with the likes of Maier, Zorn and Rohl. I hope these knowledgeable historians will forgive my diversion from ‘what is known’ to ‘what might have been’.

What next? I count myself lucky to have spent my childhood and early teens in three Middle Eastern countries and subsequently to have travelled widely as a journalist, always delving into the history that made each place what it is today. A burning passion to write historical fiction fuelled by two years studying theology straddled by my early years as a newspaper reporter.

Although currently focusing on post-Republic Roman themes at the behest of my publisher Sharpe Books, especially the upheaval following the assassination of Julius Caesar (Libertas, Nest of Vipers), I hope one day to return to my formative years in the Middle East and extensive studies of ancient Mesopotamia, including the amazing stories waiting to be reimagined of Assyrians, Israelites, Phoenicians and Philistines.

An Iron Age skeleton is discovered beneath a Roman floor at Longis, Alderney. Photo: David Nash

And while there’s ink my pen, I must surely make the most of the archaeological dig just a few yards from my home in Alderney (Channel Islands) where archaeologists Jason Monaghan and Phil de Jersey have uncovered well-preserved remains of Roman and Iron Age settlements. The historian Dan Snow is keenly interested in the site. But that’s yet another story…

I would like say a huge thank you to Alistair for such a fascinating article and wish him all the best with his latest book.

Line in the Sand

(Sharpe Books 2020)

1000 BC 

His mother is reviled as a whore and his half-brothers despise him. 

The best Dhavit of Beth Lechem can do is escape. But just as life couldn’t get much lower for the youth they call Leper, he is recruited as a spy. His mission – to find out about the superior weapons and invasion plans of the warlike Philistines. 

When he is betrayed, Dhavit is thrown into an arena with two other misfortunates to fight a pair seemingly invincible warriors. Only speed and quick wits can save him. 

Dhavit believes he is chosen by the gods and finds himself revered in the Philistine court, whose rulers want to declare war on his people. 

At the head of the Philistine forces is the famed Golyat, a man bred for war and destruction. 

A vicious conflict for supremacy is sure to follow.

Two armies will go to war. But also two soldiers – Dhavit and Golyat.

A king and country will rise.

To buy the book:

Amazon UK Amazon US

About the author:

Alistair Forrest is a journalist, editor and author of historical fiction. He has worked for several UK newspapers, edited magazines in the travel, photographic and natural products sectors, and owned a PR company.

He lives in the Channel Islands with his wife Lynda. They have five children, two Maremma dogs and a Spanish cat, Achilles. His books are published by Sharpe Books of London. Alistair loves to hear from readers.

Alistair Forrest is the author of Libertas and Nest of Vipers.

You can find Alistair Forrest:

Twitter Handle: @alistairforrest

Website: https://www.alistairforrest.com

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly  and Alistair Forrest

Book Corner: Camelot by Giles Kristian

Britain is a land riven by anarchy, slaughter, famine, filth and darkness. Its armies are destroyed, its heroes dead, or missing. Arthur and Lancelot fell in the last great battle and Merlin has not been seen these past ten years. Now, the Saxons are gathering again, their warbands stalk the land, their king seeks dominion. As for the lords and kings of Britain, they look only to their own survival and will not unite as they once did under Arthur and his legendary sword Excalibur.

But in an isolated monastery in the marshes of Avalon, a novice of the order is preparing to take his vows when the life he has known is suddenly turned upside down in a welter of blood. Two strangers – the wild-spirited, Saxon-killing Iselle and the ageing warrior Gawain – will pluck the young man from the wreckage of his simple existence. Together, they will seek the last druid and the cauldron of a god. And the young man must come to terms with his legacy and fate as the son of the most celebrated yet most infamous of Arthur’s warriors: Lancelot.

For this is the story of Galahad, Lancelot’s son – the reluctant warrior who dared to keep the dream of Camelot alive . . .

A couple of years ago, I read Lancelot by Giles Kristian, not really expecting to like it. After all, Lancelot was the villain of the King Arthur story and lover of Guinevere; he caused the downfall of Camelot. However, Kristian skillfully put a different spin on the story, presenting Lancelot as a flawed but talented knight, torn between the love for his lord, Arthur, and that for for his true love, Guinevere. Lancelot became a tragic hero and the cause of his own downfall. Lancelot was a story of complex loyalties, tested to the limit by war and circumstance beyond the control of the leading protagonists. In short, it was an incredible piece of storytelling that totally changed my view of Lancelot and the Arthurian legend.

This new book, Camelot, had a lot to live up to!

And, of course, it did not disappoint. In fact, I think Camelot surpasses Lancelot in so many ways. The story follows Galahad, Lancelot’s son in the attempts of the British tribes to form one last alliance that will see them fighting off the Saxon advance. The old heroes – Gawain, Arthur and, of course, Merlin – are there to help the new generation find their way. And the love interest is no defenceless little girl in need of saving – she’s a strong, independent character you will not fail to love, with a story all her own. There is humour, sadness, action and adventure. Giles Kristian cleverly weaves his own story into the existing legend, recreating a world lovers of all thing Arthurian cannot fail to appreciate.

‘You must leave this place and you must do it without delay,’ Gawain said, not looking up from his bowl. He fished out a scrap of meat and blew on it as it steamed between his finger and thumb. Then he thrust the scrap into his mouth and closed his eyes for a moment as if seeking to commit the taste and pleasure of the food to memory.

Father Brice and Father Judoc, standing across from Gawain on the other side of the hearth, looked at each other. ‘We cannot leave Ynys Wydryn,’ Father Brice said.

‘Why would we?’ Father Judoc asked. ‘We are safe here. Hidden.’

‘We found you,’ Gawain said, chewing, juices running into his beard.

‘The Saxons do not know we are here,’ Brice said. ‘The ones who attacked Galahad -‘

‘If they were Saxons,’ Judoc interrupted.

‘- They must have wandered in search of plunder, straying far from King Cerdic’s army,’ Brice went on, ‘which I believe is some miles east of Camelot and -‘

‘The Saxons are already here,’ Gawain cut him off, looking up now, holding Brice’s gaze. There were rumours and rumbles around the fire then.

‘We had to slip past them to get across the White Lake,’ Gediens said, thumbing at the east wall. He was the youngest of the four men, though he could not have been less than forty years old. ‘And not just a few scouts and foragers but war bands. Spearmen by the score. Saw their fires on Pennard Hill. Too many to count.’

Camelot by Giles Kristian is a wonderful crafted novel that leads the reader on a winding tale through Arthurian Britain. It takes you on a legendary quest, to the wondrous castles of Tintagel and Camelot, to the wilds of Anglesey and the Isle of Man and through various skirmishes, political intrigues, disappointments and love – with many twists and turns along the way. While you are desperate to read on through the next chapter, you simultaneously, never want the book to end.

I truly believe that the sign of a good book, is one that will take you through a range of emotions, from laughter to tears, and that will – when you get to the final page – leave you bereft that there is no more to read, and disappointed that you know will not read anything so good any time soon. Camelot fills all this criteria. It surprises you at every turn. It is probably the best book I will read this year – and its only April! This book is a keeper, and one I’ll be getting my dad for Father’s Day, that’s for sure!

Camelot is one of those rare books that will remain with you for days to come, musing over why Arthur acted the way he did, how Galahad managed to achieve what he did, how Gawain’s loyalty and perseverance saved the heroes on more than one occasion and how Merlin managed to weave his magic through the whole story, all the way to the final, climactic battle.

Camelot by Giles Kristian is due for release in the UK on 14 May 2020 and is available for pre-order from Amazon.

About the author:

Family history (he is half Norwegian) and a passion for the fiction of Bernard Cornwell inspired GILES KRISTIAN to write. Set in the Viking world, his bestselling ‘Raven’ and ‘The Rise of Sigurd’ trilogies have been acclaimed by his peers, reviewers and readers alike. In The Bleeding Land and Brothers’ Fury, he tells the story of a family torn apart by the English Civil War. He also co-wrote Wilbur Smith’s No.1 bestseller, Golden Lion. In his most recent novel, the SundaTimes bestseller Lancelot, Giles plunged into the rich waters of the Arthurian legend. For his next book, he continues his epic reimagining of our greatest island ‘history’.
Giles Kristian lives in Leicestershire.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Fortune’s Child by James Conroyd Martin

Theodora: actress, prostitute, mistress, feminist. And Byzantine Empress of the civilized world. Stephen: handsome Syrian boy, wizard’s apprentice, palace eunuch. And Secretary to the Empress. How does this unlikely pair become such allies that one day Empress Theodora asks Stephen to write her biography?

From a very young age, Theodora, daughter of a circus bearkeeper in Constantinople, sets her sights well above her station in life. Her exquisite beauty sets her apart on stages and in the eyes of men.

Stephen, a Syrian lad of striking good looks, is sold by his parents to a Persian wizard, who teaches him a skill in languages that will serve him well.
By the time Destiny brings them together in Antioch, Theodora has undergone heart-rending trials and a transformation, while Stephen has been sold again . . . and castrated.
Discover the enduring bond that, however imperfect, prompts Theodora—as Empress—to request palace eunuch Stephen to write her biography.

This is a true rags to riches story, of a girl from the lowers echelons of society who rose to be empress of Constantinople. Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora tells the story of Empress Theodora, born in 500, into a poor Greek family; her father a circus worker for the Greens, who rose to be Master of the Bears. Theodora’s future was to be an actress, a popular one, but little more than a prostitute in the eyes of many, and with no prospects to ever improve her situation, unless she forced matters.

Although a novel, Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora flawlessly blends history and story-telling to draw the reader into the exotic world of 6th century Constantinople and the East. Recreating the life of Theodora and the world in which she lived, James Conroyd Martin takes you on an adventure that explores every aspect of Theodora’s world, the challenges, grief and struggles that she had to face to climb out of the fate into which she was born and make her own fortune.

This is a novel that will take you through the full range of emotions. It is not all glamour and success, but neither is it all dull and gloom. The author imbues a humanity that invokes both sympathy and compassion for the title character, even when her actions are less than noble.

It is late at night when a soft knock, almost imperceptible, comes at the door. I open it to find Theodora standing there, a finger to her lips. She is dressed in a purple bedchamber robe. She wears no veil or headdress. Her hair falls about her face like an ebony frame about the portrait of a ghost. I stand aside and she enters, gliding like some visitant saint into a monk’s cell.

But she is no saint. And since I am no monk, I take the comfortable chair.

“You know the circumstances of my birth, Stephen, how my mother kept me from being … abandoned – exposed to the elements.”

I nod, taking up a kalamos.

“The story is legend by now. Of course, it may be quite accurate, but my mother would relate it as a way of upbraiding a thoughtless and unappreciative daughter who would drolly mimic the ways of the adults around her, as well as the pretentious airs of an older sister. I was two when the mid-wife was called again and mother gave birth to a third child – alas, another girl.” She pauses, appraising me, her biographer. “Take what I tell you, Stephen, and bring my life to parchment. Breathe life into my past.” The empress grimaces as she settles in without complaint against the hard back of the chair, bringing her hands together in her lap, the interlocking fingers pale as moonbeams against the purple of her robe. “I shall begin, Stephen, where my memory begins.”

For my pettiness in my choice of chair, I feel a tinge of guilt, but I dust away and begin taking the notes that will become her biography.

Sixth century Byzantium is a period that is not often featured in historical fiction, which is such a shame, if Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora is anything to go by. It is a thoroughly engaging read, immersing the reader in 6th century Byzantium, through the sights, sounds and smells of Constantinople; the challenges and prejudices faced by lower class women, however beautiful and alluring, and the rules and restrictions of the privileged classes and the imperial court.

It is, at times, a hard book to read, when the reality of a woman’s lot and the prejudices and attitudes Theodora had to face and overcome. And yet, she never seems to forget her roots. The author avoids melodrama to bring you a story that is, at once, the story of Theodora and of her biographer, and how their lives are intertwined with Theodora’s own rise through the ranks of society.

As you read the novel, you can understand why James Conroyd Martin chose to tell Theodora’s life, it is as mesmerising and engaging as Theodora herself must have been. From the first pages the reader is immediately and irrevocably invested in the story of this incredible woman. I cannot recommend it highly enough – it is a must-read. Many aspects of it will remain with you long after you have finished the last page.

Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora by James Conroyd Martin is available in hardback, paperback and ebook from Amazon UK.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Commodus by Simon Turney

Worshipped by Rome. Betrayed by love. Stalked by death. Rome is enjoying a period of stability and prosperity. The Empire’s borders are growing, and there are two sons in the imperial succession for the first time in Rome’s history. But all is not as it appears. Cracks are beginning to show. Two decades of war have taken their toll, and there are whispers of a sickness in the East. The Empire stands on the brink of true disaster, an age of gold giving way to one of iron and rust, a time of reason and strength sliding into hunger and pain. The decline may yet be halted, though. One man tries to hold the fracturing empire together. To Rome, he is their emperor, their Hercules, their Commodus. But Commodus is breaking up himself, and when the darkness grips, only one woman can hold him together. To Rome she was nothing. The plaything of the emperor. To Commodus, she was everything. She was Marcia.

Commodus by Simon Turney is the second in his The Damned Emperors series, exploring the lives of those emperors even Rome wanted to erase from history. The first in the series, Caligula was a fabulous and intelligent read that really made you think about the political intrigues of ancient Rome. Commodus is no less thought-provoking.

The thing that struck me after reading both Caligula and Commodus is why on earth would anyone want to be emperor – or even close to the emperor in ancient Rome. Yes, the job came with ‘phenomenal cosmic power’ (as the genie in Aladdin would put it) but you did not expect to die in your bed – unless it was from poison or an assassin in the night.

What makes The Damned Emperors series so unique is that Simon Turney uses the women close to the emperor to tell his story. In Caligula it was his own sister, Livilla, who witnessed her brother’s rise to ‘the purple’ and followed his story to an inevitable violent conclusion. In Commodus the tale is told through Marcia, a childhood friend who rose to be the emperor’s lover and consort, though not his wife and empress. Each woman is able to narrate the emperor’s life and the events which shape his personality and rule. Each book is a standalone.

‘I’m supposed to turn my other cheek to you, ignore your violence and forgive you. And because I want to be a good Christian, I’ll do that. I’ll forgive you but only this once.’

He made .to push me again, but perhaps something in my expression stopped him. Certainly, he stepped back. I was a freedwoman of the emperor Lucius Verus, and he was a slave. I had allowed him to get away with pushing me over in anger, but I had warned him not to do so again. For my part, I meant every word. I would punch him in the eye if he tried again. For his part, I suspect he thought I meant I would report his behaviour to the major-domo, which would have seen him beaten at the very least. Whatever the case, he walked away. As he reached the door, he paused and turned.

‘In the old days, they used to burn your sort.’

And then he was gone. I seethed, shaking, promising myself that one day I would settle that score. I received my second shock in a short space as Commodus emerged from the shadows near another door, confusion creasing his young, innocent face.

‘What’s a Criss-chen?’ he asked, stumbling a little over the unfamiliar word.

Hmm. I thought lessons would be cancelled today, what with Fulvus bedridden, but it seemed I was to teach instead. I thought long and hard on the question as he watched me with those intelligent, searching eyes.

‘We believe in only one God. He is the creator of all things and the world is made according to His plan.’ I shrugged, trotting out the words I’d heard so many times. ‘There’s more to it, but that’s the main thing.’

‘Which god?’

Marcia’s own story is as fascinating as that of the emperor she adores, and serves as an example of how power corrupts not only the leaders, but those around them. Marcia is an interesting character who uses necessity and love to justify actions that many would find questionable, if not downright abhorrent. And yet you can’t help liking and sympathising with a woman who had little real power and influence over her own life, let alone anyone the emperor’s!

Simon Turney is a master of intrigue and has a remarkable ability to get inside the head of the women who lived alongside these emperors. And then into the heads of the emperors themselves. You cannot help but have sympathy for these great men, who rose to such heights that they practically ruled the world, but could trust no one. His knowledge of Roman history is second-to-none and he puts it to good use in depicting not only the Roman psyche, but also the Roman way of life.

Simon Turney vividly recreates the streets of Rome, the buildings, people and events to the extent that you can practically smell the markets, the blood in the arenas and the wondrous aromas of the lavish meals served to the imperial family. As a consequence, you can also feel the despair and despondency of the poor and unrepresented populace – the plebs and the slaves – who are ignored and left to suffer famine and plague by their indifferent rulers.

Commodus is not always an easy read, but it is fascinating. It draws you in from the very first pages, and leads you on a journey of discovery, not only of the emperor himself but of the life of the imperial family. It is eye-opening! Beautifully written and addictive, it is one of those books that you can’t wait to finish – and yet, desperately want it not to end.

To buy the book:

Commodus: The Damned Emperors Book 2 by Simon Turney is available from Amazon in the UK and US.

About the author:

Simon lives with his wife, children and dogs in rural North Yorkshire. Having spent much of his childhood visiting historic sites with his grandfather, a local photographer, Simon fell in love with the Roman heritage of the region, beginning with the world famous Hadrian’s Wall. His fascination with the ancient world snowballed from there with great interest in Egypt, Greece and Byzantium, though his focus has always been Rome. A born and bred Yorkshireman with a love of country, history and architecture, Simon spends most of his rare free time travelling the world visiting historic sites, writing, researching the ancient world and reading voraciously.

Simon’s early career meandered along an arcane and eclectic path of everything from the Ministry of Agriculture to computer network management before finally settling back into the ancient world. During those varied years, Simon returned to university study to complete an honours degree in classical history through the Open University. With what spare time he had available and a rekindled love of all things Roman, he set off on an epic journey to turn Caesar’s Gallic War diaries into a novel accessible to all. The first volume of Marius’ Mules was completed in 2003 and has garnered international success, bestseller status and rave reviews, spawning numerous sequels. Marius’ Mules is still one of Simon’s core series and although Roman fiction features highly he now has Byzantine, Fantasy and Medieval series, too, as well as several collaborations and short stories in other genres.

Now, with in excess of 25 novels available and 5 awaiting release, Simon is a prolific writer, spanning genres and eras and releasing novels both independently and through renowned publishers including Canelo and Orion. Simon writes full time and is represented by MMB Creative literary agents.

Look out for Roman military novels featuring Caesar’s Gallic Wars in the form of the bestselling Marius’ Mules series, Roman thrillers in the Praetorian series, set during the troubled reign of Commodus, adventures around the 15th century Mediterranean world in the Ottoman Cycle, and a series of Historical Fantasy novels with a Roman flavour called the Tales of the Empire.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

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.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Yorkshire: A Story of Invasion, Uprising and Conflict

This is a story about Yorkshire and its people, from the earliest period up to recent times. Foremost it is a story about invasion. Archaeological finds have shown that Yorkshire was occupied at a time when early hunters from continental Europe were not supposed to have ventured so far north. Growing populations on the European mainland made Yorkshire s fertile land and receding woodland a prime landscape for these first European farmers, and over time they would be followed by waves of invaders intent on pillage and land grabbing. From the north and west came the Picts and the Scots, while the Romans, Angles and Vikings arrived via the River Humber. The Normans would be the last to invade and seek to dominate everything they saw. Each invasion would leave its stamp on Yorkshire s culture and life, while battles would later be fought on Yorkshire soil during both the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil Wars. More than just a romp through the ages, this book reveals the key places where battles were fought and Yorkshire history was made.

Yorkshire: A Story of Invasion, Uprising and Conflict by Paul C. Levitt is a fabulous, fun and entertaining overview of the history of Yorkshire, from the earliest times to the 20th century. As a Yorkshire lass myself, it was a pleasure to sit back and soak up this history of this unique county. The author obviously enjoys his work, and writes about Yorkshire’s history with an enthusiasm that makes the book impossible to put down.

The beauty of Yorkshire: A Story of Invasion, Uprising and Conflict is that it tells Yorkshire’s story within the context of England’s wider history. So we see the Norman invasion of 1066 through the very harsh and dramatic effects it had on Yorkshire, with the Harrying of the North. We also Yorkshire’s part in the Anarchy, the almost-20 year civil war between Stephen and Matilda, and in such events as the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War of the seventeenth century.

Paul C. Levitt also brings to the fore events particular to Yorkshire, such as the dreadful massacre of the Jews in York, while also explaining the wider context of anti-semitism in England and the time. The author manages to portray Yorkshire’s unique personality and place in history, both of the county and its people and the relationship of the county with the country as a whole.

Throughout the first millennium, the tribes of Europe were taking part in unprecedented levels of migration. The collapse of the Roman Empire released unbridled waves of Huns, Goths and Vandals who moved across Europe displacing native tribes. On the edge of this disturbance was Scandinavia, from where people would come to British shores from the late eighth century until AD 1100 looking for richer land and more space to live. The question arises, when exactly does a ‘migration’ become and invasion? The Vikings were thought to have left their homelands in Scandinavia initially due to overcrowding and declining resources, but later on their mass migration was equally due to a weakness they perceived in the English. Although they shared similarities and kinship with the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings viewed them as being weak and cowardly…

Yorkshire: A Story of Invasion, Uprising and Conflict by Paul C. Levitt is a thoroughly enjoyable read that I’m definitely going to pass on to my dad – as a true Yorkshireman, he will love it! This book will be useful for anyone with an interest in Yorkshire and it history.

Fun and informative, it clearly demonstrates the reason we Yorkshire folk are said to have ‘grit’. I can highly recommend it!

To Buy the Book:

Yorkshire: A Story of Invasion, Uprising and Conflict by Paul C. Levitt is available from Pen & Sword and also from Amazon in the UK and US.

About the author:

Born into a military family in the historic market town of Beverley, East Yorkshire, Paul Levitt has always been intrigued by the past. He developed a keen awareness of Yorkshire’s rich heritage as a schoolboy and developed a particular interest in the medieval period. Yorkshire’s unique landscape and especially the North York Moors made a strong impression on him and to this day remains a magical place. He has written professionally on a wide range of subjects for the past 25 years.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

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.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part Two

Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire

I think after the wonderful insights of last week’s Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part One, we have all been eagerly awaiting Part Two of James Wright‘s brilliant article – I know I have!

So, without further ado. Here it is:

Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part Two

James Wright, Buildings Archaeologist, Triskele Heritage

In my last guest blog for History the Interesting Bits, we discussed five common myths about mediaeval buildings. These tall tales included stories of secret passages, yarns about the twist of spiral staircases relating to right-handed defenders and anecdotes that lepers were provided special windows in churches to watch the mass through.

As a buildings archaeologist I often meet folk who are eager to tell me all about their properties and their enthusiasm is genuinely infectious. I’m a great lover of historic architecture and believe that we can learn so much of value about a society by what it builds. However, romanticised and elaborated stories often grow up around certain mysterious features in mediaeval buildings – and it is surprising how often these get repeated all across the country in so many different structures.

In the second part of this series, I will discuss five more common misconceptions, attempt to explain how they come about and what the underlying truth behind each myth is. Hopefully this will help to give a broader and deeper understanding of historic buildings that will bring us that little bit closer to their former occupants.

  • Ship Timbers
Ship timbers, Tattershall

Perhaps the most tenacious and persistent mediaeval building myth is that lots of timber-framed buildings were constructed from salvaged ship timbers. There is even a house in Hertfordshire that is actually called Ships Timbers! Given that traditional British boozers have a reputation as hotbeds of rumour and intrigue, it will come as no shock that many pubs have the reused ship timbers story associated with them – often linked to a famous battle such as Trafalgar. Is there any truth in these tales?

On extremely rare occasions, it can be demonstrated that specific pieces of timber may have genuinely originated from a ship. I cannot stress just how rare this is and that documentary evidence is often lacking. My former colleague, Damian Goodburn, Historic Timber Specialist at MOLA, has pointed out that ship timbers rarely lend themselves to reuse in terrestrial buildings due to extreme weathering, their shaping designed for aquatic settings and the overall unworkability of seasoned oak. Instead, timbers from ship-breaking yards tend to be reused in marine or inter-tidal architecture, such as the Bermondsey foreshore of the River Thames in London. Alternatively, ship timbers may occasionally be found in the foundations of structures located very close to waterways, such as the three pieces recorded in the foundations of the Rose Playhouse, Bankside, London.

The vast majority of timber-framed buildings were constructed from newly felled trees and/or reused terrestrial structures such as barns, granaries and houses. The reuse of buildings is widely documented – for example the building accounts for Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire, refer to the removal of timber from nearby Revesby Abbey in 1434-5. Reused timber will often be placed in a different part of the new building to the original structure leaving rectangular holes, known as mortises, visible and it is probably this which gives us the origin of the romantic story of timbers salvaged from wrecked ships.

  • Arrow-sharpening Grooves
Arrow grooves, Lambley

Worn into the hard stonework of the interior of many a church porch can be found clusters of strange vertical grooves which visitors are commonly told were created by archers sharpening their arrows, such as those at Holy Trinity, Lambley, Nottinghamshire. Given Edward III’s law of 1363, that all able-bodied men aged between 16 and 60 must practice their archery on Sundays and holy days, plus the location of many archery butts close to the parish church, the arrow-sharpening story has become received wisdom wherever the grooves are found.

There is neither any documentary evidence to suggest that archers sharpened their arrows on the stones of church porches, neither would this be a practical solution to the problem of dulled arrowheads. As churchyards were consecrated ground, archery butts were located elsewhere in the manor, creating a laborious trek to the porch. Instead, the sixteenth century archery expert, Roger Ascham tells us that bowmen would sharpen their arrows using hand-held files and whetstones. Equally, the majority of the grooves are orientated vertically and are located relatively low-down in the porches which render them as impractical for drawing a metre long arrow shaft across. Finally, these grooves are often found on soft limestones entirely useless for honing an edge.

The swashbuckling tales of English victories at Crécy and Azincourt have led to nationalistic myths of an epic proportion. Not only have accounts of the battles become rather knotted, but the desire to connect local history to the heroic archers has led to a misreading of the evidence. Folk traditions from pre-modern Germany and France, collected in the nineteenth century by Charles Rau, refer to parishioners scraping powder from church stonework to use in rituals. The stone was seen as a powerful holy material which was ingested as cures for fever or impotence. It is likely that similar ritualistic practises associated with holy buildings were also once common in Britain and the grooves in church porches relates to this folk ritual.

  • Murder Holes
Murder holes, Berry Pomeroy, Devon

Look up whilst you are visiting castles and you will often see voids in the overhead masonry associated with the defence of the building. These can take the form of slots overhanging the walls, known as machicolations (for example at Berry Pomeroy, Devon), or holes in the gate passage, known as murder holes (such as those at Caernarfon, Gwynedd). The popular story is that they were built so that the defenders could pour boiling oil down upon attackers.

Although it is not a myth that these holes were created to potentially hurl items into the spaces below them, including projectiles, stones and caustic lime, their uses were even more complicated. They could act as safe observation points from which the wall foot or passageway could be seen. If fires were started, either accidentally or deliberately, during a siege the slots could also be used to douse the flames with cold water.

Boiling oil was rarely used – it was prohibitively expensive, not often available in large enough quantities to be effective, would have been difficult to heat (it has a boiling point at 2040C), problematic to transport around the parapets and could have been a fire risk in itself. There are a very small number of scattered references to the use of hot oil, including at the siege of Orléans in 1428. For the most part, castles were rarely laid siege to and murder holes were mostly left untested. In fact many of them were intended to be nothing more than symbols of architectural prestige: the machicolations at Tattershall would have directly overlooked the roofs of the castle’s Inner Ward – not the best place to drop offensive weapons or scalding materials!

  • Templar Graffiti
Templar graffiti, Worksop

Type “Templar graffiti” into a search engine and you will find a mind-boggling number of links to hundreds of castles and churches, from the dungeons of Warwick Castle to the porch of Worksop Priory, Nottinghamshire. The websites invariably refer to cross-shaped graffiti left behind by the enigmatic Order of the Knights Templar (founded 1199 and dissolved 1312) and their crusading brethren. The legend that he Templars harboured the Holy Grail is all-consuming and many believe that the location of the cup of Christ can be found by decoding intriguing symbols and carvings at sites such as Royston Cave, Hertfordshire.

One of the principle problems with these romanticised notions is that they have more akin to conspiracy theories and Dan Brown novels than to historical research. In particular, it can be demonstrated that the “dungeon” at Warwick Castle was actually the storage basement of Caesar’s Tower, built over 30 years after the Templars were dissolved. Similarly, the carvings at Royston Cave, have been identified, by archaeologist Matthew Champion, as dating to the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Again, this falls outside of the Templar period and the religious character of the carvings is entirely consistent with those in a wide variety of other sites of the period.

Ultimately, crosses are a very common discovery in mediaeval graffiti surveys. They may be related to devotional activities such as prayer, but, as large numbers – around 80% – are found in church porches (as at Worksop) it is also likely that they relate to more secular behaviour. In particular, there is good evidence for mediaeval porches being used as sheltered meeting rooms, places where manorial courts were held, locations for reading wills and a site for parish notices to be read or fixed. As such the graffiti crosses may have been left as contractual memorials akin to swearing on the Bible or signing a document.

  • Devil’s Door
Devil’s door, Warkworth

Many churches, such as St Lawrence, Warkworth, Northumberland, have their north aisle doors blocked up – a phenomena which has been increasingly referred to as the Devil’s Door. Tradition states that this door, nearest to the font, was left open during baptisms so that demons could escape from the new-born child upon command of the priest. The north side of the church was thought of as being connected with the devil and after the Reformation these doors were blocked up as they were considered to relate to superstitions incompatible with the Protestant faith.

Francis Young has written eloquently on the subject of baptismal folklore and suggests that the sacrament was never considered to be a true exorcism, thus we might not be expecting demons to come flying out of the north door. Furthermore, Nicholas Groves has pointed out that the part of the baptism when the devil was commanded to leave the body of the infant, actually took place outside of the south porch in the churchyard. Equally, the belief that the north side of the church was particularly feared also does not stand up. Many churches have their principle entrance to the north, including Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, they face the principle access route from the settlement. It is also the case that large numbers of churches retained both their north and south porches, as at Kelham, Nottinghamshire.

Although it is acknowledged that north aisle doors may have been left open during baptisms, this was never part of the established liturgy. However, a number of formal church processions, including that on Palm Sunday, required the north porch as an exit point prior to walking, clockwise, around the east end of the church and back in through the south porch. Following the Reformation, these processions no longer took place making the door and porch essentially redundant. Churchwardens eventually decommissioned many of them as an expensive maintenance liability.

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I hope that you enjoyed this blog and that it will prove useful in trying to fully understand mediaeval buildings on your own visits. Should you wish for more information on this subject, please feel free to tweet me on @jpwarchaeology or email on james@triskeleheritage.com

All images courtesy of James Wright.

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I would like to say a HUGE THANK YOU to James Wright for taking the time to write two incredibly fascinating post. I owe you one, James.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

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.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly and James Wright

Book Corner: Song of the Centurion by Steven A. McKay

Autumn, AD 430. After the Princess Catia’s disappearance, and Bellicus’s adventures trailing her Saxon abductors south to the fabled Hanging Stones, the giant warrior-druid is finally returning home. 

Battle-scarred, and mourning the loss of a loved one, Bellicus has learned from bitter experience that the gods rarely make things easy. Even if he can evade Horsa’s vengeful pursuit and get back to the North safely, his troubles may be far from over. In a land beset by the rivalries of petty warlords, Dun Breatann has stood solid and secure for untold generations. Trouble brews though as King Coroticus has cracked under the pressure of his daughter’s abduction. When the king’s rage finally boils over during a winter feast, Bellicus finds himself with two choices: accept exile, or complete another seemingly impossible undertaking. So much for the returning hero…

Accompanied by his massive war-dog, Cai, and the former centurion, Duro – who has his own painful issues to contend with – Bellicus must somehow survive a journey east into enemy-held lands. Folklore, superstition, the healing power of song, and even a wondrous white stag will all play a part in the companions’ continuing adventures, but armies are gathering and, when spring returns, the people of Dun Breatann will surely find themselves under siege once again. Will their legendary warrior-druid be there to help defend them this time, or will the new ways sweep away the old, once and for all? Find out in Song of the Centurion, the action-packed sequel to 2018’s The Druid!

Tracing the story of Bellicus’ mission to rescue the Princess Catia, The Druid was one of my Top 5 books of 2019 and so I have been eagerly awaiting the sequel with some trepidation; could author Steven A. McKay improve on this great story and the character who drives it?

But … Wow! What a book!

Song of the Centurion not only builds on the story started in The Druid, but takes it in a wholly unexpected direction. Sequels can often suffer by being ‘much of the same’. Not this time. Bellicus returns to his king as the hero rescuer of the princess, but comes home to petty jealousy and court intrigues which see the druid’s life take several unexpected turns.

Song of the Centurion works not only as a sequel, but as a standalone novel. Steven A. McKays’ skillful summary of the first book, interwoven into the story of Bellicus retracing his steps north with the rescued princess, serves to remind the reader of preceding events or act as a backstory if you haven’t read The Druid.

Set in a time of great turmoil in Britain, where the Romans have left and the Saxons are pushing further west and north, Bellicus’ ultimate task is to end the bitter infighting between the clans in Alt Clota and to unite them to fight against the Saxon invaders. Not an easy task.

“Duro isn’t to blame for what happened here today,” Bellicus said, voice low but powerful enough thanks to his years of specialist training that it penetrated even the grief-ravaged minds of the angry townsmen. “We all are.”

“What does that mean?” the blacksmith demanded, eyes fixed on the sobbing man in the centurion uniform. “It’s not my fault the Saxons came here looking for revenge.”

“Aye,” one of his companions agreed. “We just wanted to be left alone.”

“And that’s the problem,” the druid nodded, looking down at the ground sadly. “We all just want to be left alone.” He waited until there were murmurs of surprise agreement from the angry blacksmith and his friends then his head came up and his eyes blazed. “Left alone? That is why your town was targeted by the sea-wolves. They knew you people were an easy target after their last visit here, when only your fat baker was willing to stand against them.”

“Why would we stop them?” the blacksmith demanded. “That lass was nothing to us -“

“That lass was a Briton, and you knew that!” Bellicus roared, the rage in his voice making more than one of the men facing him step back warily as a crowd of soot-blackened locals began to form around them.” “If more of you were as brave as Duro there, the Saxons might have been cut down like the animals they have shown themselves to be here today. If you -” he pointed directly at the blacksmith whose eyes narrowed “- had used that hammer to help a little girl, well …” He trailed off shaking his head, looking around at the scattered bodies sorrowfully. “None of this would have happened.”

The men were either mollified by the druid’s words, or perhaps embarrassed. Shamed by his accusations maybe. Whatever it was, most of them just stood there, looking dumbly at the druid. One stepped forward threateningly, clealy hoping his companions would follow his lead, but none did and, when Cai bared his teeth and barked at him, he stopped instantly in his tracks.

As has come to be expected with books written by Steven A. McKay, from the earliest novels in his Forest Lord series, the story is fast-paced and energetic, leaving the reader little time to stop for breath. The frantic battle scenes contrast remarkably well with the political and personal actions of the characters, recreating the life-or-death existence of Britons in the post-Roman era.

The author has a knack of drawing the reader in, so that they are totally invested in Bellicus’s story and desperate for the druid to succeed. As Bellicus inspires loyalty in Song of the Centurion, so too does he inspire it in his readers! He is a wonderful, noble character, made wise for his years by his druidic training. That his training extended to the martial arts – his proficiency with both sword and staff a testament to this – make for a story that melds both war and diplomacy into the character of the hero.

Song of the Centurion is a unique story, melding the mystical world of the druids with the legends and history of post-Roman Britain. The story drives the hero, the book and the reader to a riveting climax. And the promise of more to come…

Song of the Centurion is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon UK.

About the author:

Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.

He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

You can check out his website here. Steven also has an Amazon Author page and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

All images are courtesy of Steven A. McKay.

My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

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.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly